But it is still the Season of Easter and John 21 is a wonderful chapter of the New Testament to dig into at any time of the year but especially at Eastertide.
No doubt nothing I am about to write is original in its insights but a few things have fascinated and intrigued me, especially working on the Greek text, and why not share them with you?
In 21:11 the tally of fish caught is one hundred and fifty-three (hekaton pentekonta trion). It is well-known that 153 is a triangular number, the sum of the first 17 integers, i.e. 153 = 1+2+3+ ... +15+16+17. Augustine argued that 17 equates to grace (seven gifts of the Spirit) and law (ten commandments). See further on such interpretations and other fascinating features of the number 153 (e.g. it also equals 1 cubed plus 5 cubed plus 3 cubed) in a Wikipedia article.
Here is another theory, and it is a bit closer to John's Gospel itself.
In John 6 we have another story of feeding (and, as it happens, succeeded by a story of happenings at sea), taking place in the same location as John 21 (the Sea of Galilee which is the Sea of Tiberias).
In the feeding story, 5000 (pentakiskilioi) men (and likely an unknown number of women and children) are fed, with five (pente) barley loaves and two fishes. Afterwards twelve baskets of fragments from the five barley loaves are collected.
Obviously in this story the bread does the heavy lifting in the feeding of the crowd and the fish play an incidental role.
By contrast, in John 21 the story there focuses on the fish and the bread mentioned plays an incidental role (except that, see further below, in the feeding of the disciples at breakfast time, they are given bread and then fish).
In both John 6 and John 21 the physical feeding of the crowd and of the disciples respectively leads into Jesus making a point about feeding the spiritual life of God's people.
In John 6 the point is a long discourse about (most of us think) the eucharist, about Jesus himself feeding us with his body and his blood: I am the bread of life.
In John 21 the point is a sharp exchange between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus asks three times whether Peter loves him and when Peter each time answers affirmatively, Jesus instructs him to feed God's people (imaged as lambs/sheep).
Now, numberswise the two stories have a "pente" or "five" connection: 5000, 5, 153.
And, as we saw above, 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers. What does 17 equal? It equals 12 plus 5.
In John 6 there are 12 baskets of fragments collected from the 5 barley loaves. Of course there is a lot more bread than that in the John 6 story because the great crowd is fed from the bread (and from the fish) but numberswise, the bread in John 6 generates two numbers, 5 and 12 and the fish in John 21 generates the number 153.
Is John making subtle reference back to the John 6 feeding story when he gives us the tally of the fish in John 21? In both stories there is a miracle in the way a large amount of food is provided unexpectedly and the food generates teaching about spiritual feeding of God's people. But the bread emphasis in John 6 is connected to Jesus himself feeding his disciples and the fish emphasis in John 21 is connected to the disciples feeding other disciples. Only Jesus is the Bread of Life.
(To calculate thus is NOT to rule out other considerations re "153", for instance that 17 also = 10 + 7 and 10 and 7 can be considered numbers of completion, and thus 153 represents the completion of the harvest of people for the kingdom. And so forth.)
In fact we have a further reason to think that John does want us to connect the two bread/fish stories closely.
In John 6:11 we read,
"Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated, so also the fish, as much as they wanted."
In John 21:13 we read,
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish.
Using bold I have highlighted words which in the Greek are the same root word (1. took, distributed = gave, 2. bread (singular) versus bread (plural)), and the same words but slightly different in order (3. so also the fish = the same with the fish).
In John 21 there are three moments of recognition that the person on the shore engaging with them in the boat is the risen Lord Jesus, but English translation don't quite bring out the precise, thrice repeated phrase we find in the Greek (though e.g. the REB comes closer than e.g. the NRSV).
So, taking four popular translations (NRSV, REB, NIV, GNB), we have two of the moments in verse 7 and one in verse 12:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, ... NRSV
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," ... REB = NIV
The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, ... GNB
Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. NRSV
None of the disciples dared to ask "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. REB
None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. NIV
None of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew it was the Lord. GNB
On the face of it, in English the two verses do not reveal three exactly the same recognitions. We need the Greek for that: three times, twice in verse 7 and once in verse 12 we read: ho kurios estin = It is the Lord.
John composes his narrative so that a core significance of the story, that the risen Lord Jesus is recognisably, physically present with the disciples, is underscored and underlined by a threefold repetition of "It is the Lord."
In doing this in chapter 21, John is mirroring a narrative device in John 20 where three times there is reference to "seeing the Lord" (though in this instance, in John 20, the Greek is not a neat set of repetitions as in John 21: heoraka ton kurion, hidontes ton kurion, heorakamen ton kurion).
"I have seen the Lord" (Mary Magdalene to the disciples, 20:18)
"they saw the Lord" (In full, "the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord," 20:20).
"We have seen the Lord" (The disciples report to Thomas, 20:25).
John seems to place significance on the value of three repeats because he describes the encounter on the Tiberias beach as "the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead" (21:14).
Strictly speaking this is true (the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples plural) but also strictly speaking this is Jesus' fourth appearance according to John's resurrection narratives since his first recorded appearance is to Mary Magdalene and occurs before the three appearances to the disciples.
There is likely a lot more to be made about these repetitions than I am making here. Comments?
A final reflection from me. In my view the key to understanding the difference in style/substance between John's Gospel and the Synoptics Gospels is the identification between John who writes the Gospel and the risen Jesus. There may also be factors such as John who writes is the Beloved Disciple who was "Jerusalem-based" rather than "Galilee-based" and so forth, but none of those factors themselves explain the significant difference between the first three Gospels and the fourth Gospel.
John's Gospel, therefore, is the Gospel of insight in which the writer of the Gospel speaks the words of Jesus and the interpretation of the words of Jesus with the authority of the risen Lord.
Why would John so dare to assume such authority?
John 21 is a clue: the risen Jesus can be present in ordinary moments of life, taking ordinary but familiar things (such as the bread of the eucharist) and continuing to teach his disciples.