Sunday, April 25, 2021

Fascinating fish and intriguing repetitions in John 21

No, this post is not a further post in a recent series looking at the resurrection narratives plural and raising questions concerning their differences (here and here).

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?

Fascinating fish

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).

Intriguing repetitions

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:

Verse 7:

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

Verse 12

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.


Unknown said...

Peter, I find *authority* ambiguous in this context.

"John's Gospel, therefore, is the Gospel of insight in which the writer speaks the words of Jesus... With the authority of the risen Lord."

Are you saying here that the evangelist's Jesus is speaking throughout in his post-resurrection style or voice? And that C1 audiences heard the difference between the collected sayings of the Synoptics and the discourses of St John as a difference in Jesus himself, before and after the Resurrection?

"Why would John so dare to assume such authority?"

If one feels invaded by the risen Lord, as in St Paul's communities, then one knows the Lord in the ethos of prophecy. Modern notions of personhood driving modern notions of authenticity could make this hard for us to imagine, but in the C1 this might not have been so surprising. That said, we could wonder whether all the communities that have left us documents experienced Jesus's post-Resurrection presence in the same way.


Unknown said...


Moderns fretted about the gap between the mind's notions of the world outside it and the world that is the case. So no reasonable person doubts that Jesus's disciples experienced him after his death. But fidgets do quibble about what precisely correlated to that experience in matter. Saying that a materiality not known precisely is not known at all is anachronistic, but it is the best that eliminative materialists can do.

Postmoderns are wary of the modern confidence that the boundaries of persons coincide with their skins. The wariness is helpful in reading the NT because the apostles were aware of demons and the Lord transgressing the skins of those they knew.

That is, there are places in their documents where we do not easily take their meanings because those could not figure in the modern imaginary we publicly take as granted. It is interesting, at least to me, that even say Campbell and Macaskill digress into notions of personhood to explain the first senses of their texts.

What a preacher is to do in this situation remains to be discovered.


Father Ron said...

All this info, surely, should have been included in 'The Book of Numbers' (Numerology was never one of my strongpoints).

Peter Carrell said...

Yes, Ron! :)

Hi Bowman
Great questions exposing my somewhat not thought through position re authority/post-resurrection Jesus ...

A few thoughts:
1. Yes, the earliest Christian communities experienced the risen Jesus in different ways, with different outcomes (e.g. in writings, some of which became the NT).
2. Yes, tricky if we impose 20th and 21st categories and expectations on 1st century.
3. In respect of John's Gospel, I am recalling (hopefully correctly) John Ashton's thesis - in Understanding the Fourth Gospel - that the gospel writer identifies himself with Jesus [which is not quite what I am saying above, but gives a sense of the Johannine Gospel's distinctive character emerging from a different relationship between writer and Jesus than Matthew/Mark/Luke have; and, of course,
4. I am trying to make sense of the differences between John's Gospel and the Synoptics - which are not in my view easily harmonised away: does the presence of the risen Jesus within the writing process (which likely included considerable telling before committing to writing) authorise John to compose a gospel which he knows is different yet believes it reflects the true voice of the genuine Jesus?

There is some mystery here - and I feel my words do little justice to it!

Unknown said...

What I like about your take on the Fourth Gospel, Peter, is that it suggests (a) why it may have been accepted later than the synoptics, (b) the shape of its fuzzy overlap with the Pauline writings, and (c) a literary feature that has appealed to Christian mystics of nearly every time and place.


Father Ron said...

Begging your indulgence, Bishop Peter, in order to demonstrate the simplicity of the Faith of the Bishop of Rome in today's note of encouragement:


“Being Christian is not first of all a doctrine or a moral ideal; it is a living relationship with Him, with the Risen Lord: we look at Him, we touch Him, we are nourished by Him and, transformed by His Love, we look at, touch and nourish others as brothers and sisters...."

Pope Francis

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron: It sounds like Pope Francis has been drinking, once again, from Johannine wells!

Dear Bowman:Thanks for the encouragement. Any theory of composition, of course, needs to account for the three factors you adduce!

Unknown said...

"Begging your indulgence..."

I rather doubt that + Peter releases many from time in Purgatory, but Father Ron's excerpts from his devotions are not without merit. I look forward to them.


Father Ron said...

John, the 'Beloved disciple', knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the great Love of God as revealed in the Son. He personally experienced the love of God in Christ that Pope Frasncis speaks of in today's little homily:


“Christ’s love is not selective; it embraces everyone… He is everyone’s shepherd. Jesus wants everyone to be able to receive the Father’s love and encounter God. And the Church is called to carry on this mission of Christ. Beyond those who participate in our communities, there is the majority, many people, who do so only at particular moments or never. But this does not mean they are not God’s children: the Father entrusts everyone to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and He gave His life for everyone. Brothers and sisters, Jesus defends, knows and loves us, everyone.”

Pope Francis

We Christians are NOT the sole 'beloved of God'. However, we each, having experienced that love, are called by Christ to share it with everyone, regardless. I don't really measure up, yet, in this regard. But I am trying! (Some say I am VERY trying at times).

Christos Anesti, Alleluia!