Essays on the Historical Jesus

Evan Powell
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The Missing Ending of Mark

 

The abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark is among the most startling oddities in the New Testament. One expects it to end on a note of triumph, with the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples as he does in the other three gospels. It does not. Instead, Mary Magdalene and two other women go to the tomb early on that first Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. When they arrive they find the tomb open, Jesus’ body gone, and a young man sitting there. The final three verses read:

And [the young man] said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8) 

In the two earliest and best ancient manuscripts of Mark, the gospel ends here at 16:8. The women do not see the resurrected Jesus. They flee in fear and do not tell anyone what they saw. In the Greek, the language is more harsh than it is commonly rendered in English translations—it says the women were terrified. They do not deliver the message of the angel to Peter or the other disciples. The disciples do not hear of the empty tomb. The risen Jesus appears to nobody. The story is simply left hanging.

In the original Greek the sudden truncation is even more glaring, for the text ends in mid-sentence with the conjunction gar, normally translated for. It is often used to introduce an explanation for a statement just previously rendered. A literal English sense of the last phrase might be, "they said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified because ...."  Bruce Metzger comments on this unexpected ending:

. . . from a stylistic point of view, to terminate a Greek sentence with the word gar is most unusual and exceedingly rare—only a relatively few examples have been found throughout all the vast range of Greek literary works, and no instance has been found where gar stands at the end of a book.[1]  

The Longer Ending of Mark

Of course, in all modern Bibles there are twelve more verses that follow 16:8. This material, vv. 9-20, known as the "longer ending," or simply "LE," is an appendix that appears to have been added by an unknown editor in the early to mid-second century, in time for the church father Irenaeus to have been aware of it in 180 CE. These verses do not appear in the earliest surviving Greek manuscripts. However, those manuscripts date to the mid-fourth century. The church historian Eusebius, also a fourth century witness, made it clear that most of the manuscripts of Mark that he was aware of did not contain the LE. Nevertheless, over time, the LE was incorporated into most of the manuscripts produced in subsequent centuries, and it has been regarded as authorized text by the Church for most of the last 1500 years. 

In some Bible translations today, the questionable authenticity of 16:9-20 is footnoted, and the text is either separated with a gap between it and the preceding text, or isolated in brackets. Conversely, the King James Version editions typically render the LE as a continuous integral part of the Gospel with no attempt to draw the reader's attention to its controversial history. As one might imagine, the degree to which vv. 9-20 should be regarded as authoritative, inspired text is a matter of debate among NT scholars. Though most scholars do not believe it was part of the original composition, a few continue to argue that it either was part of the original (Maurice Robinson, Nicholas Lunn), or it was an appendix added soon afterward by the author of the Gospel (David Allan Black), making it equally viable as scripture.

Lunn in particular has recently published “The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20.”  This spirited 360-page argument for authenticity establishes that, at the present state of scholarship, the LE is not universally regarded as a later appendix.  Thus, before inquiring as to what may have happened to the original ending, we should review the data that lead most scholars to believe the LE is not original material. These data are as follows:

      1. Jesus’ prophecy unfulfilled. In Mark 14:28, Jesus tells the disciples to anticipate a post-resurrection reunion with him in Galilee. In 16:7, the angel references Jesus statement in 14:28 and specifically declares that the disciples are to see him in Galilee. He instructs Mary to alert the disciples that they must go to Galilee to see him. However, the LE reveals no awareness of these declarations. Jesus appears first to Mary, then to two unknown persons, then finally the eleven, all evidently in the vicinity of Jerusalem—there is no mention that they have all relocated to Galilee. The appearances in Jerusalem make it appear that Jesus and the angel did not know whereof they spoke.  This is uncharacteristic of the author of Mark, who routinely portrays Jesus’ prescient anticipation of events, and makes a point of explicitly describing each of those events coming to pass.

      2. The Galilee / Jerusalem counterpoint is destroyed. The author of Mark developed Galilee and Jerusalem as two countervailing metaphoric locations. In Mark, Jesus comes from Galilee, is baptized, and then goes back into Galilee preaching the kingdom of God. His fame spreads throughout Galilee (1:28) and he goes throughout all Galilee preaching and casting out demons (1:39). Galilee is the place where he is well received, and it is where the kingdom of God is unveiled--the place where the redemptive work is done. Conversely, Jerusalem is the source of hostility--the scribes who challenge him come from Jerusalem (3:22, 7:1). There is a sense of forboding as they approach Jerusalem, and Jesus predicts specifically that he will meet his end there (10:32-33). It is obviously the place where he is arrested, condemned, and put to death.

      Seen in this light, the prediction that the first resurrection appearance to the disciples would occur in Galilee fulfills the literary metaphor as the place where the kingdom of God is not only revealed, but becomes victorious. It is difficult to imagine the author would construct this counterpoint between Galilee and Jerusalem, include two explicit predictions of the story's fulfillment in Galilee, then ignore the entire theme as is done in vv. 9-20.  

     3. Jesus' derisive condemnation of the eleven in his first appearance to them does not fit the Gospel. In verse 16:14 an evidently angry and frustrated Jesus upbraids the eleven for not believing the testimony of Mary and two unknown persons. This is not foreshadowed at all in the Gospel, and it contradicts the expectations that Jesus himself had set by telling the disciples that he will see them in Galilee. The negative portrayal of Jesus is not in keeping with the victorious reunion that was foreshadowed by the author.

      4. Mary and the seven demons. In 16:9, Mary Magdalene is identified as one from whom seven demons had been exorcized. There is no mention of this anywhere in Mark. Moreover, Mary has already appeared twice previously in Mark, once at the cross (15:40-47), and once at the tomb (16:1). In neither instance does the author identify her in this manner.    

Attempts to Explain the Mystery

Why do the earliest manuscripts of Mark end without resurrection appearances of Jesus? Why would the early Church have published a gospel in unfinished condition, especially on a note of fear and trepidation? This has provoked endless speculation among scholars. Four logical possibilities have been proposed:

1. Unintended disruption during composition. Some have wondered whether the author died, was arrested, or was in some other way incapacitated prior to finishing the work.

2. Accidental corruption. It is conceivable that the autograph manuscript was accidentally damaged and the ending lost as a result. The Church ended up copying and distributing the text they had up to the point of the loss.

3. Intentional suppression. It is possible that the gospel originally included a more conventional ending, but that the text was deleted to eliminate material deemed objectionable by the Church.

4. Intended literary design. Many contemporary scholars believe that each of the three alternatives above are unlikely, and therefore conclude that there is no missing ending. They argue that the author intended to end the gospel abruptly at 16:8 for theological reasons.

Though it seems the truth must be found in one of these four alternatives, all four are difficult to accept for various reasons. To suppose that the author died or was otherwise prevented from completing the work seems unlikely. If this were the case, would not close associates or other leaders of the movement have finished it prior to publication? Why would they have published a gospel that did not contain resurrection appearances, but instead ended on a note of fear and uncertainty, simply because the author had been unable to finish it? Since this does not seem plausible, scholars generally dismiss the notion that Mark ends at 16:8 due to the author’s untimely death or incapacitation.

The idea that the ending was accidentally destroyed meets skepticism for similar reasons. If the gospel had been finished, copied, and distributed, it is impossible to imagine that the ending was accidentally lost from all existing copies. If a particular copy was damaged it would have been restored using another copy. On the other hand, if the original autograph was damaged prior to publication, would the author have published it without bothering to reconstruct his original finale? Surely this seems highly unlikely. For these reasons, scholars reject the notion that the gospel ends at 16:8 due to accidental loss of the original text.

The third possibility is that the original ending was suppressed for ideological or political reasons. Could Mark have presented material that was incompatible with the interests of the movement? Scholars typically reject this as well. From the fact that this influential gospel survived, we may suppose that the author was a well-respected figure in the Jesus movement at the time of its publication in the late 60s CE. Tradition holds that he was a close associate of the apostle Peter. The notion that he could have written a final chapter so offensive to the movement as to warrant deletion is viewed as highly improbable. Scholars tend to reject it out of hand without giving it much discussion. James Brooks sets it aside with one brief comment in his commentary on Mark:

If Mark did not intend to end with v. 8, additional questions arise…  Did Mark write an ending that was deliberately suppressed? This is most improbable. This … would have had to have occurred at a very early stage. It is unlikely in the extreme that there would have been anything objectionable in the ending.[3]

Brooks is surely correct on one point—if the original ending was deleted, this must have occurred at a very early stage, within a few years of its publication. The authors of Luke and Matthew both used Mark as a source document for their own gospels, and it is evident that at least one of them used a manuscript that ended at 16:8.[4]  Moreover, if there was something about the ending that was ideologically problematic, it is not surprising that it would have been rectified soon after publication. Yet scholars are unwilling to entertain this possibility. R.L. Fox gives a short, dismissive appraisal similar to that of Brooks that reflects the prevailing attitude:

The sinister view, that the original ending was cut out because it said something awkward, is not compelling: the rest of Mark’s Gospel is too straightforward.[5] 

If it is impossible to imagine that the gospel’s final chapter is missing due to the death or incapacitation of the author, or accidental loss, or the intentional suppression of offensive material, the only apparent option remaining is that the author intended to end the gospel just as we find it, unresolved. As peculiar as it may seem, this has been a leading theory among scholars in recent decades:

C.S. Mann: Mark’s gospel was, in our view, specifically designed to elicit the response, “But surely there were resurrection appearances?” The message of Mark was that there were indeed resurrection appearances, but first the community must share with the trembling women all the feelings of fear, know those feelings to be in the final analysis groundless, and only then can they hear the voice the women heard—just as he told you.[6]

James Brooks: …Mark had a definite purpose in his ending. He apparently wanted an open ending to indicate that the story was not complete but was continuing beyond the time he wrote. He wanted readers/hearers to continue the story in their own lives…[7]

Lamar Williamson, Jr.: The crucifixion had seemed to end the story but it did not. The resurrection really does not do so either. Resurrection-with-appearances would bring closure to the narrative, a closure which characterizes the other three gospels. Mark’s ending is no end; only the reader can bring closure. In one sense, this puts the ball in the reader’s court. It puts us to work; we must decide how the story should come out. In a deeper sense, however, Jesus remains in control of the ball. No ending proposed by our decisions can contain him, any more than the tomb with its great stone could…[8] 

These commentators have placed pastoral interpretations on the unresolved ending in an attempt to imbue it with meaning—the stark ending was allegedly intended to encourage readers to meditate on the meaning of the gospel for the purpose of transforming it into active response. Mann postulates that the community for which the gospel was written was terrorized by impending persecution and ready to flee. He believes the termination of the gospel on the note of the women’s fear was intended to force the community to consider an appropriate response in the face of fear. Williamson adds that the truncated ending is a theological reflection on the story of Jesus still in the making. While intriguing, these speculations attempt to rationalize the incompleteness of the text by cloaking it with theological meaning. In the end, one can speculate endlessly about what the author might have had in mind in leaving the story unfinished, but it has no bearing on how the text was originally composed. For if there was a real ending that was subsequently suppressed, scholars are simply inventing theological stories that the author never intended.

Though many scholars are comfortable with the abrupt ending of Mark, the early Church clearly was not. The subsequent appendix 16:9-20, despite its absurd reference to venomous snakes and poison, contains material that resolves the gospel with a resurrection appearance in a more conventional manner. In addition to 16:9-20, there is another much shorter ending that appears in some later manuscripts:

But [the women] reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

One early manuscript that does not contain 16:9-20 concludes with this shorter ending. Some manuscripts include this verse, then follow with vv. 9-20. Most do not include it at all, so it does not appear even as a footnote in some modern translations. But the fact that numerous manuscripts contain the shorter ending, the longer ending, or both, indicates a desire on the part of the Church to negate the gospel’s claim that the women fled in fear and said nothing to anyone. If the early Church had believed Mark intended to conclude at 16:8 for theological reasons, the text would not have been tampered with to the degree that it was.

Since no rational explanation for the missing ending of Mark is ultimately satisfactory, some scholars simply throw up their hands in frustration and write it all off as incomprehensible. Ben Witherington writes:

Between 15:40 and 16:8 Mark has carefully built the case for the women to be valid witnesses to the death, burial, empty tomb, and Easter message. He cannot have wished to undermine this case by finishing with “they fled in terror, saying nothing to anyone.” The latter remark is not the gospel, nor apparently a faithful response to the heavenly vision. More would be required for Mark to end with the gospel and with the means by which it was carried forward to other audiences. Thus we have an authentic verse in 16:8 which is likely not Mark’s true ending. This reminds us that any religion founded on historical events and carried forward by means of historical processes is subject to the accidents of history. The final portion of Mark’s Gospel has been subject to such an accident, unfortunately.[9] 

Witherington’s appeal to an undefined “accident of history” is interesting. In his view since all attempts to explain the ending at 16:8 are unsatisfactory there is no choice but to write it off as a mystery. One cannot help but sympathize with Witherington’s assessment. To say that we simply do not know what happened to Mark’s ending has more credibility than the rationalizations many have embraced. Yet to write it all off as unknowable discourages further inquiry, when in fact, as we shall see, further inquiry leads to a momentous discovery.

Reconstructing the Missing Ending of Mark

The Gospel of Mark is a carefully composed work of literature with remarkably complex structure. It builds toward a deliberate conclusion that is missing in the surviving text. So it is possible to examine the gospel’s literary structure and foreshadowing, and from these clues sketch the elements that the author would have included in his ending, had he written it. Though one might object that the sketching of a hypothetical ending is merely an academic exercise, I would beg the reader’s indulgence for it bears significant fruit.

The first step is to isolate the predictions in Mark that relate to the post-resurrection period. Three of these are obvious, and they form a foundation upon which to continue the inquiry:  

1. Mark says Jesus’ first resurrection appearance will be in Galilee. Sean Freyne draws attention to the fact that one of the great symbols of the Gospel of Mark is that of Galilee as an antithetical location to Jerusalem.[10] Throughout the gospel, Galilee is the stage upon which Jesus conducts his ministry. From the outset, Mark methodically develops Galilee as the place where the kingdom of God is revealed on earth:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee (1:9).

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God (1:14).

And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” (1:16-17)

And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee. (1:28)

And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. (1:39)

As Galilee is the symbolic center of the new kingdom of God, Mark develops Jerusalem as the geographical symbol of Jesus’ opposition. While Jesus conducts his ministry in Galilee, his adversaries come from Jerusalem to challenge him:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.” (3:22)

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come down from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled (7:1-2) 

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the first time, he identifies it as the place where he will be executed: 

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.” (10:32-34)

On the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. Jesus predicts his resurrection. However, he makes it clear he will not appear to them in Jerusalem, but rather in Galilee:

You will all fall away; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee. (14:27-28) 

To reappear in Galilee closes the loop and reaffirms the symbolic import of Galilee as the place where the kingdom of God is manifested on Earth. This prediction is confirmed by the young man at the tomb, just prior to the end of the gospel. When the women discover the empty tomb, the young man announces Jesus’ resurrection, then says:

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you. (16:7) 

Therefore, Mark uses Galilee as the symbolic antithesis to Jerusalem, where until now God has dwelt. Jesus promotes the kingdom of God on the periphery of Jewish society in Galilee to supersede the authority of the temple cult in Jerusalem. Hence, if there was an original ending to Mark, it is certain that it would have depicted the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples in Galilee. No other scenario would fit either the symbolic relevance of Galilee in Mark, or the young man’s literal prediction that he is “going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

2. Mark says that Peter and Jesus will be reconciled during the first appearance of Jesus.  A second element foreshadowed in Mark is that the first resurrection appearance of Jesus will include Peter. The young man's instructions to the women at the tomb are specific—“tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee” (16:7). With this unusual detail, the author alerts the reader to anticipate an encounter between Jesus and Peter. We might suppose that the intent of this meeting would be either to condemn Peter for his three denials or to forgive him. But either way Jesus and Peter will be reunited. The author wants the reader to expect this meeting since it is anticipated twice. The words of the young man at the tomb constitute the second of the two foreshadowings. The first foreshadowing of a post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and Peter in Galilee is this:

And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away; for it is written 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” (Mark 14:27-30)

Note that the prediction of the Galilean appearance and the three denials of Peter are placed together in the same context. According to the author, Jesus is clearly aware of both impending events. Though Peter is to deny Jesus, Peter is expected to be one of those present in Galilee. So from the admonition to the women at the tomb tell the disciples and Peter we may infer that Jesus intends to address the conflict created by Peter's denials in some manner.

Furthermore, Mark leads us to believe that the reunion of Jesus and Peter will produce a sympathetic outcome for Peter. He is represented as the leading disciple throughout the gospel, and a final confrontation between Jesus and Peter in which Peter is condemned for his failings would not be in keeping with the character of either Jesus or Peter as their relationship is depicted in this gospel. Moreover, Mark includes the significant detail that all the sheep would scatter and abandon Jesus, signaling that Peter’s denial was not something for which he alone should be condemned. Mark further indicates that the collective failure of all of the disciples was foreordained by God (“You will all fall away, for it is written….”). The author is hereby minimizing the moral responsibility of the disciples for their failure, for it is part of God’s larger plan. The fact that all of the disciples abandon Jesus is underscored again in the arrest scene, wherein the author writes, “and they all forsook him, and fled” (14:50). In addition to the fact that all of the disciples scatter according to a preordained plan, the author of Mark pointedly calls attention to Peter’s remorse once he realizes that he has denied Jesus three times:

And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times. And he broke down and wept. (14:70b-72) 

This sign of contrition foreshadows forgiveness rather than condemnation. Thus, Mark clearly leads the reader to expect a resolution of the gospel beyond 16:8 would show an encounter of reconciliation between Jesus and Peter during the first resurrection appearance in Galilee.

3. When Jesus appears in Galilee, he will appear to disciples who are as yet unaware of the empty tomb. The last verse in the earliest manuscripts states explicitly that the women fled from the tomb and “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This contradicts reports in the other three gospels as well as the two supplemental endings added to Mark after the fact. For this reason, this clue to the missing final chapter of Mark is often overlooked. But in the next scene beyond 16:8, had it been written, we would expect to find that the disciples are unaware that the resurrection has occurred; they do not know of the empty tomb because the women said nothing to anyone.  

The silence of the women is unique in Mark among the gospel traditions. In John, Mary runs to tell the disciples once she discovers the empty tomb (John 20:2). Matthew and Luke both indicate the women returned from the tomb and immediately told the disciples (Matt 28:8; Luke 24:9). Based upon these traditions, it is natural to assume that the women would have told the disciples of their experience had Mark’s story continued. However, the language in 16:8 prevents this material from being used to predict Mark’s original ending. It is unlikely that the author would have written this line, and then depicted the women reporting what they had discovered to the disciples in the next scene. Given the silence and fear of the women, the most logical continuation of the storyline would depict the disciples as being unaware of the women’s discovery.

In summary, Mark has foreshadowed a conclusion to his gospel that depicts a first resurrection appearance in Galilee that will feature a reconciliation with Peter after his three denials. When Jesus appears for the first time in Galilee the disciples will not be expecting to see him, as they are as yet unaware of the empty tomb.

What is the point of this conjecture?  There would be none, were it not for the fact that all of these Markan predictions appear in the appendix of the Fourth Gospel—John 21.

Another Peculiar Ending: John 21  

The Gospels of John and Mark share a common trait: Both have appendices added under unknown circumstances by persons other than the original authors. In Mark’s case, as we shall discover, the original ending was indeed suppressed during or soon after its publication, and was eventually replaced by two much later appendices. In the case of John’s Gospel, the author’s original ending is still intact—the gospel comes to its intended literary conclusion at 20:31:

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

If nothing appeared beyond these verses, readers would have no doubt that the gospel was intended to end at this point. But following this natural conclusion is another chapter—the appendix John 21. Unlike the early manuscripts of Mark which contain no evidence of the subsequent appendices, the earliest full manuscripts of John all include ch. 21. However, these manuscripts date to the third century or later. The most ancient partial manuscript that contains most of the Gospel of John, including the first nine verses of ch. 21, is Papyrus Bodmer II (P66), circa 200 CE. From the existence of this manuscript one can infer nothing other than ch. 21 had been incorporated into John by the late second century. It reveals nothing about the gospel’s early compositional history.

John 21 is widely recognized as an appendix for reasons other than the gospel’s evident conclusion at 20:31. The scene in ch. 21 depicts the disciples as having gone fishing in Galilee. This is startling for two reasons. First, there is no explicit indication in John’s Gospel that the disciples were fishermen by trade. Peter’s proclamation, “I am going fishing” and the other disciples’ response “We will go with you” (21:3) would have sounded quite peculiar to readers of John’s Gospel if they were not already familiar with the Synoptic tradition that the disciples had once made their livings as fishermen. Second, the decision to go fishing is by any measure a bizarre response to the events of ch. 20. Why would the disciples go fishing in Galilee after having just experienced the resurrected Lord in Jerusalem? The discontinuity of the story is disturbing.

Yet another oddity is that the “sons of Zebedee” are among the disciples present in 21:2. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are prominent in the Synoptic gospels. Along with Peter, they are portrayed as the three closest and most trusted associates of Jesus. However, they are never mentioned in the Gospel of John, other than in this one oblique reference in 21:2. How is it that two disciples who are key inner circle figures in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, get completely eliminated in John’s Gospel, but then suddenly appear in the appendix?

Thus we have a natural literary conclusion at the end of John 20, a disturbing discontinuity in the premise of the storyline in John 21, and the sudden appearance of two disciples who are prominent in the Synoptics, but who the author of John has avoided mention of thus far. These oddities cause many scholars to view John 21 as an appendix added after the original gospel was published, under conditions that are not clear.

So it is of particular note that John 21 contains the three elements that would be expected in Mark’s ideal literary climax: (1) the disciples have returned to Galilee, (2) there is a reconciliation between Jesus and Peter, and (3) it is the first appearance of Jesus to disciples who are as yet unaware of the empty tomb. The first two of these are self-evident: The location in John 21 is the Sea of Galilee, and Peter has an encounter with Jesus during which he is forgiven and restored to grace. The third point, however, requires clarification. Is the account in John 21 really a first appearance of Jesus? After all, the editor of John 21 makes a specific point of saying that this was Jesus’ third appear­ance (21:14).

There are several signs that the text of John 21 was originally composed as a first appearance, and v. 14 was inserted after the fact to characterize it as a third appearance so that it would follow more coherently as an appendix to John 20. The first clue is in the discontinuity of the story itself. In John 21, the disciples have left Jerusalem in order to go fishing in Galilee. Whoever composed this text expected readers to know that the disciples were returning to Galilee to take up their previous occupation. Yet readers of John do not know the disciples were formerly fishermen unless they know Mark’s account of Jesus calling them by the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-20). Whoever wrote John 21 assumed his readers’ awareness of the Markan tradition.

While the disciples’ decision to go fishing makes no sense as a response to the resurrection appearances in John 20, it makes perfect sense as a continuation of Mark’s Gospel beyond 16:8, where the women fled in fear and told no one what they had seen. If the disciples were not aware of the empty tomb, all they knew was that Jesus was dead and the movement was at an end. Why would they not return to Galilee to take up their prior occupations? What else would they have done? Thus, a key element foreshadowed in Mark, that the disciples will be unaware of the empty tomb, is present here. The story unfolds in John 21: 

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:4-6) 

Here Jesus appears on the beach, but the disciples do not recognize him at first. It does not even occur to them that it could be Jesus. Not until an unexpected catch of fish takes place do they identify the mysterious figure on the shore as Jesus. Therefore, the narrative to this point operates on the premise that the disciples do not expect to see Jesus alive. Upon recognizing Jesus, Peter leaps impetuously into the water and swims to shore; the others follow in the boat. They meet Jesus on the shore as he is preparing breakfast:

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. (21:12)

In this verse, the narrator’s comment “Now none of the disciples dared ask him ‘Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord” makes no sense if these same disciples had just seen the risen Lord twice in Jerusalem. Yet it is perfectly reasonable if they have not yet seen Jesus alive, and had not heard of the empty tomb. The author who composed this scene on the shore of the Sea of Galilee did so on the premise that this was the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus after the crucifixion, and that the encounter is a complete surprise. The story in John 21 continues:

13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:13-15a)

In this passage, v. 14 is an editorial insert intended to resolve the confusion that exists in the reader’s mind by this point. On the one hand, the disciples appear to be meeting the risen Jesus for the first time since they are confused and shocked to see him. On the other hand, this text has been appended to John 20 in which these same disciples have seen him twice before. The insert at v. 14 is an attempt by an editor to make it appear as though John 21 was written as an integral continuation of the gospel. Yet if it were originally composed for that purpose, it would not likely have been written with such confusion. Note that if the editorial insert of v. 14 is deleted, the story reads coherently as originally composed. Thus, the story in John 21 was originally written by an author whose intent was to depict the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples.

This is not a new observation. Many prominent Johannine scholars have recognized it:

Raymond Brown: Most commentators interpret the threefold question about Peter's love for Jesus in [21:]15-17 as a rehabilitation of Peter after his threefold denial, and such a rehabilitation would logically have taken place on the occasion of the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter, which is what we seem to have in 21:1-14.[11]

C.K. Barrett: Moreover, the present narrative looks more like a first than a third appearance . . . The impression is given that the present story does not belong to the carefully composed narrative of Ch. 20 but is a distinct incident drawn from another source . . .[12]

Rudolf Bultmann: It is apparent that the narrative of 21:1-14 was originally related as the first Easter story; the editorial v. 14 shows that the story was set only subsequently in the place that it now occupies.[13] 

Therefore, not only does the Gospel of Mark predict that the first resurrection appearance of Jesus would be in Galilee, but John 21 was originally composed as a first appearance in Galilee. Mark also foreshadows an encounter between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus will forgive Peter for his denials. The dialogue between Jesus and Peter in John 21 restores Peter to grace in threefold structure as a resolution of his three denials  (21:15-17).

Since this story portrays the rehabilitation of Peter in Galilee, it is more coherent as an ending of Mark than an appendix to John. Both gospels contain the account of Peter’s denials, but only Mark foreshadows a positive resolution. Conversely, John, at least through its original conclusion at ch. 20, leads the reader to believe that Peter’s denial of Jesus was a morally reprehensible failure of Peter alone. His behavior is not preordained in any manner. There is no hint that he grieves over his failure once he realizes what he has done. Reading the Fourth Gospel with attention to its characterization of Peter, he appears as a bumbling, impulsive, uncomprehending, and ultimately untrustworthy disciple. John through chapter 20 gives the reader no reason to anticipate Peter’s reversal of fortune in ch. 21.

John’s depiction of Peter as ineffective and confused has led many scholars to suspect that the author had an anti-Petrine bias. However, those who believe either that ch. 21 was an integral part of the original Gospel, or that it represents views consistent with the Johannine community’s assessment of Peter, do not agree. Since ch. 21 resolves Peter’s three denials and portrays Jesus appointing him as the new shepherd of the flock, it is alleged there is no reason to suppose the author intended any serious condemnation of Peter. Conversely, if ch. 21 was the work of subsequent editors, their objective must have been to neutralize John’s negative portrayal of Peter. So which was it?

To answer this question we must recognize the severity with which the Gospel of John, through its first conclusion at 20:31, denigrates the character of Peter. On the surface he appears ineffective, confused, and morally weak to be sure. Yet these are common human foibles with which readers can identify. Why would the Church feel compelled to alter the gospel in order to neutralize an unfavorable portrait of such modest consequence? The remedy appears out of proportion to the offense.

John’s Claim: Peter was the Second Betrayer of Jesus

To reconcile this dilemma, we must recognize that the author of John did not limit his criticism of Peter to issues of confusion and moral weakness. His rendering of the triple denial story has decidedly sinister undertones that do not exist in any of the Synoptic gospels. The Gospel of John (through the end of ch. 20) is deliberately constructed to portray Peter as a second betrayer of Jesus. The author accomplishes this by repeatedly associating Peter with the betrayer Judas Iscariot in order to paint him with the same brush. This may sound hyperbolic at first—even those who acknowledge the Gospel’s unattractive portrayal of Peter might balk at the notion that the author intended to cast him as a betrayer of the movement. But the early Church’s alarm is understandable once we see the full extent of John’s subtle but virulent anti-Petrine rhetoric.

Peter does not have a speaking role in the Fourth Gospel until ch. 6. In this passage, Jesus has just delivered a disturbing teaching that repels not only his larger audience, but many of his own followers as well:

63 [Jesus said,] “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” 66 After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. 67 Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”  68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him. (John 6:63-71)

This episode, Peter’s Confession of Faith, is attested in all four gospels (Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21; Matt. 16:13-20). It is universally interpreted as consistent with Peter’s special leadership role in the primitive Jesus movement. However, the rendering of the story in John is different from the corresponding Synoptic accounts. The first element to note is that Peter’s appearance is sandwiched between two reflections on Jesus’ imminent betrayed. This sequence of themes is not accidental. The technique the author uses here is a subtle form of intercalation, which is the bracketing of one idea or story with two parts of another. The author’s purpose in juxtaposing the two stories or themes is to allow one to interpret the other. Intercalation was a common technique among first-century writers, and it appears frequently in John and Mark.[14] The author of John makes repeated use of it in his portrayal of Peter.

Note also that the author draws attention to the fact that Judas Iscariot’s father’s name was Simon. This is not an irrelevant detail in light of the author’s repeated referral to Peter as Simon Peter. Nor is it accidental. The same ironic juxtaposing of Simon Iscariot and Simon Peter occurs twice more in this gospel.

Another singular element in this passage is Jesus' caustic response—it does not follow logically from Peter's glowing recognition of him. C.K. Barrett attempts to explain it:

 . . . Peter's confession of faith, which is true so far as it goes  . . . must not be allowed to suggest that the maker of it is in any sense conferring a benefit upon Jesus. The Twelve have not chosen him; he has chosen them.[15]

According to Barrett, then, Jesus' response negates the import of Peter's statement of faith as an individual revelation. Any one of the twelve disciples was capable of making the confession of faith. The faith of the twelve is expected since Jesus has chosen them. This is a reasonable interpretation if the passage is authentic and original. As an aside, we will consider evidence in the next chapter that the italicized text in 6:68b-69 is a later editorial gloss that creates the jarring discontinuity. If it is lifted out, the passage is more coherent within the context of John’s Gospel. However, whether Peter’s declaration is a gloss or not, the observation regarding the structure of the passage is not affected.

John’s telling of this event is radically different than the Synoptic accounts, especially that of Matthew. Matthew says Peter’s confession of faith came from a unique revelation that he alone has been privileged to receive, and that Peter will be the rock upon which the Church will be built.  Conversely, John trivializes the importance of the confession. There is no hint in John’s account that Peter will have any leadership role in the movement as a result of his insight.

Peter’s second speaking role in the Fourth Gospel occurs in ch. 13:

Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciple’s feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”(John 13:1-11)

In this second episode, the same pattern appears. Peter’s appearance is once again sandwiched between two reflections on Jesus’ imminent betrayal. We also find the second reference in John that Judas is the son of Simon. By framing the appearances of Peter with the betrayal theme, the author appears to deliberately associate Peter with Judas. Further, by repeating the inconsequential detail that Simon is the father of the betrayer and that Simon is Peter’s given name, the connection is reinforced. In this scene, Peter is portrayed as exuberant and well-intentioned, but ignorant of the meaning of Jesus’ symbolic act. Peter’s in­compre­hension of Jesus’ purpose will appear several more times

The third dialogue involving Peter occurs inch. 13. Here we find that the author uses the familiar pattern once again:

When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”  Jesus answered him, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. (John 13:21-27)

Since the third dialogue of Peter is again sandwiched between two references to betrayal, it is evident the author is doing it intentionally. And for the third time, the author (quite unnecessarily at this point) reminds us again that Judas was the son of Simon. This is not an accident. There are only three references to Judas as son of Simon in the New Testament, and they appear in these three “betrayal/Peter/betrayal” sequences in John. Note that in another passage, The Anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-8), Judas is present while Peter is not. In this case the author does not bother to identify Judas as son of Simon, since there is no opportunity to associate him with Simon Peter. Rather, he refers to him simply as Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him). John’s three references to Simon Iscariot are striking deviations from the New Testament norm. The author put them where he did deliberately. The question is, why did he do so?

In theory, two objectives are possible. The first is that the author wishes to create a contrast between Peter as an example of faith with Judas as a symbol of failure. The second possibility is that the author wishes to associate Peter with Judas, in order to color Peter as a betrayer of Jesus. The problem with the first alternative is that the character of Peter as developed in John is not an inspiring model of faith. He has spoken only three times. In the first dialogue, his confession of faith is dismissed as expected due to the fact that Jesus has chosen the twelve. In the second, Peter does not comprehend the meaning of Jesus’ act. In the third, Peter is befuddled, and is asking the Beloved Disciple to intervene and discover from Jesus who the betrayer is. These are not complimentary images of Peter. Furthermore, Peter’s performance gets less attractive as the Gospel proceeds. Eventually, he resorts to violence against Jesus’ wishes by using his sword in Gethsemene. He ultimately denies Jesus three times and abandons him. It is difficult to imagine that the author created in Peter a model of faith to be interpreted as a positive contrast to Judas.

The second interpretation is that the author associates Peter and Judas so the reader will infer that each of them in his unique way has betrayed the cause of Jesus. Judas stands against Jesus through a sinister act of the will; Peter unintentionally stands against Jesus in his dangerous misunderstanding of Jesus’ will and purpose. Though Peter does not mean to, his thorough misapprehension of Jesus’ mission is just as devastating as if he had intended to betray the cause.

There are three more scenes in the Gospel of John in which the statements or actions of Peter continue to develop this more sinister theme. The next passage in which Peter speaks is in this dialogue at the Last Supper:

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38)

Here Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the evening is over. It now becomes clear that the author has foreshadowed the three denials of Peter with the three betrayal/Peter/betrayal sequences. The author has constructed the Gospel to lead to this momentous moral failure of Peter. In this passage there is a repetition of established themes. Peter is represented once again as having good intentions, but he appears not to know what he is saying. Jesus’ rebuke exposes Peter’s promise of allegiance as frivolous.

Peter and Judas appear together one last time in the Gospel of John, in the scene where Jesus is betrayed and arrested in John 18:3-12. This carefully crafted scene is presented below in sequential indentations to illustrate its deliberate structure. The passage begins and ends with the reference to the band of soldiers and officers of the Jews. These two references constitute the outer bracketing of the scene, operating as a set of parentheses. Within this outer bracket there is a secondary bracket that reflects on the inevitability of the betrayal, both by Judas and by Peter. Then two identical mini-scenes are presented, the first highlighting the presence of Judas as the betrayer, and the second highlighting the presence of Peter as one who acts against Jesus’ will and purpose. The notations A, B, C, and D are inserted to illustrate the deliberate duplication of structure that serves to associate Peter and Judas:

So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said,

(1.A)  “Whom do you seek?”

(1.B)   They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

(1.C)   Jesus answered, “I am he.”

(1.D)  Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

Again he asked them,

(2.A)  “Whom do you seek?”

(2.B)  And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

(2.C)  Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he; so, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word which he had spoken, “Of those whom thou gavest me I lost not one.”

(2.D)  Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath;

shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” 

So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. (John 18:3-12) 

The passage above opens with a reference to Judas as the one who procured the soldiers and led them to Jesus. The reader knows Judas is present and is also acutely aware by now that Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus. So the second reference to Judas and his status as the betrayer in 1.D (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them) is superfluous from a storytelling perspective. The author inserts this redundancy to establish a structural literary parallel between Judas and Peter at 1.D and 2.D.

Prior to this point in the Gospel the betrayal has been predicted three times, and both Judas and Peter have appeared together in each prediction. Here the betrayal is no longer an imminent event; it is actualized in this scene. Judas acts deliberately to turn Jesus over to the authorities. Similarly, Peter commits a violent act, contrary to Jesus’ will, even as Jesus is pleading for the soldiers to let his disciples go free. Peter’s ignorant impetuosity is at odds with Jesus’ purpose. Jesus wishes to fulfill his destiny, and Peter resorts to violence in order to prevent it.

Only John among the four gospels tells of Jesus’ request of the soldiers to let his disciples go free, and only John depicts the sword-wielding Peter as being at cross purposes with this objective. Mark, Matthew, and Luke report the incident of the sword attack, but in these gospels the disciple involved is unnamed. Not so in John; the author wants readers to know that the violent out-of-control disciple was Simon Peter.

The Denials of Peter

The final sequence of events in which Peter speaks consists of the three denials of Peter and the interrogation of Jesus by the high priest. This passage, John 18:15-27, is longer than the previous texts we have seen. However, the author has structured it as a final indictment of Peter. The bold and italicized type draws attention to the literary devices the author has used to condemn Peter:

Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in. The maid who kept the door said to Peter, “Are you not also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves; Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teachings. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.”  When he had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus an­swered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas, the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said to him, “Are you not one of his disciples?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a kinsman of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him.” Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed. (John 18:15-27)

Several points may be made here. First, Peter is accompanied by another disciple, who is usually assumed to be the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The text implies that this disciple is known to be a follower of Jesus by the high priest and by the maid. This interpretation is made necessary by the fact that this other disciple enters the court with Jesus, making no apparent attempt to hide his association with him. Further, he has just spoken with the maid, and the maid then asks Peter, “Are you not also one of this man’s disciples?” So the author illustrates that Peter’s denial stands in contrast to the faithfulness of this other disciple who does not hide his allegiance to Jesus.

Notice further how the author has double bracketed the event of Jesus’ interrogation with the activities of Peter. The passage takes the following form:

A. Peter denies Jesus

     B. Peter warms himself by the fire

    C. Jesus requests testimony of witnesses

     D. Peter warms himself by the fire.

E. Peter denies Jesus

During the interrogation Jesus appeals to the high priest to “ask those who have heard me, what I said to them; they know what I said.” This appeal appears only in John. That Jesus’ plea is bracketed by Peter’s denial is irony in the extreme. Jesus can only rely on those who heard him to testify on his behalf, while Peter stands warming himself by the fire and denies his association with him. Through the double brack­eting of the hostile interrogation of Jesus between reflections on the activities of Peter, the author has leveled a final indictment of Peter:  Peter seeks his own comfort and warmth by the fire while Jesus is being mistreated; Peter denies knowing Jesus while Jesus is in need of his testimony.

At the end of the passage, as a final coup de grace, the author reminds the reader once again of Peter’s act of violence in the garden. His third opportunity to deny Jesus is occasioned by a relative of the man whose ear Peter had severed. After this, the cock crows, and Peter disappears from the scene without further comment. There is no indication in John that Peter recognizes his failure. The cock crows, and Peter simply disappears. By contrast, the three Synoptic gospels report that upon realizing what he had done, Peter was overcome with grief:

Then [Peter] began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. (Matt. 26:74-75; see also Mark 14:72; Luke 22:61-62). By presenting Peter as a remorseful and grieving soul, the Synoptic authors encourage the reader to interpret Peter’s failure with sympathy. John does not.

This completes the review of the dialogues that feature Peter in the Gospel of John through the end of John 20. There is one last reference to Peter—after Jesus’ death he is seen running to the empty tomb with the other figure known as the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter arrives first, but it is the Beloved Disciple who enters the tomb and understands what has happened and believes. By the author’s silence regarding Peter, the gospel implies that Peter is still befuddled (John 20:1-10).

In light of the foregoing, it is not surprising that the author omits Peter from the resurrection scenes. John 20 recounts three resurrection appearances of Jesus, and Peter is not mentioned in any of them. This is a striking omission in light of the fact that Christian tradition otherwise gives Peter prominent recognition. Mark 16:7 anticipates a meeting between Peter and Jesus; Luke 24:34 reports a prompt appearance of Jesus to Peter; and Paul writes that Jesus was raised on the third day and appeared first to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve (1 Cor. 15:5). Acts 1 names Peter first among the disciples and portrays him in a leading role. Thus, John 20’s silence on the presence of Peter in the resurrection accounts is unique in the New Testament.

Revisiting John 21

Once we appreciate the lengths to which the author of John has gone to cast Peter as a sinister, untrustworthy disciple, the appendix John 21 stands out as all the more discontinuous. Not only does the storyline not follow from John 20 (why would the disciples go fishing after seeing the resurrected Lord?), but John 21 radically reverses the Fourth Gospel’s relentless condemnation of Peter. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, in John 21 we encounter the Galilean scene foreshadowed in Mark in which Peter is absolved. Furthermore, Jesus designates Peter as the new shepherd—the authorized leader of the movement going forward. This reversal of fortune is not foreshadowed in any way through John 20.

The intrigue is compounded by the fact that Peter is not the only character to experience a reversal of fortune in John 21. The unnamed Beloved Disciple, who has been Jesus’ most intimate follower throughout John’s Gospel, is suddenly portrayed as irrelevant. He walks behind Jesus and Peter while they talk between themselves about him, a potent way to illustrate his subordinate status. He is not to die a martyr as Peter would. His eventual death is not worthy of concern. The editor’s final remarks are that this disciple has been responsible for the material in this Gospel, but that many other stories not found in John are worth telling as well. So the Beloved Disciple does not give the last word, or even the most important word. The decidedly cool treatment of the Beloved Disciple in John 21 reveals a thinly disguised contempt for this character on the part of the editors who appended this text.

John 21’s unflattering portrayal of the Beloved Disciple is diametrically opposed to that of the main body of the Gospel. The Fourth Gospel opens with an unnamed disciple becoming the first person, along with Andrew, to recognize Jesus as the Messiah (1:35-40). Though the identity of this person is not clear to us today, we may presume the audience for whom this text was composed knew who this unnamed first follower of Jesus was. In light of the subsequent prominence of the unidentified disciple whom Jesus loved throughout the Gospel, it is likely that this was his first appearance, and the author was introducing him with a wink and a nudge. After all, the Beloved Disciple is the one who assumes a position of intimacy with Jesus at the Last Supper, with Peter having to communicate with Jesus through him; he is presumed to be the unnamed disciple who is with Jesus during his interrogation; he is at the foot of the cross in Jesus’ dying moments; he is the one to whom Jesus entrusts the care of his mother; he is the one who runs past Peter, enters the empty tomb, and is the first to recognize that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He is the one who claims eyewitness authority and authorship of the Gospel. Accordingly, it is difficult to avoid the inference that he was also the first disciple to recognize Jesus as Messiah in 1:35-40. It is improbable that the author would have created several unnamed persons of distinction with the intent of leaving his audience in the dark as to who they were. The Johannine community for whom this Gospel was written must have recognized a single individual in all of these references. It is most probable that they regarded this well-known individual as their community leader.

John 21 as Political Correction

Since John 21 reverses the roles of both Peter and the Beloved Disciple, the obvious inference is that it was added by pro-Petrine editors who objected to the gospel’s denigration of Peter. There is no surprise here. The Fourth Gospel’s condemnation of Peter would have been viewed as outrageous to a Church coalescing around the tradition of Petrine leadership. There is little chance that the Church, holding Peter in high esteem, would have accepted the Gospel of John without its corrective appendix. John’s portrayal of Peter as a bumbling betrayer of Jesus needed to be nullified, and John 21 was appended for this purpose. Were it not for John 21’s rehabilitation of Peter, there is little chance that the Fourth Gospel would have survived as Christian scripture.

Is John 21 the Missing Ending of Mark?

Considered together, the missing ending of Mark and the extra ending of John constitute a most fascinating textual mystery. Many scholars have argued that Mark’s ending cannot be missing due to intentional suppression since it unlikely that Mark would have written anything objectionable enough to warrant deletion. But John did in fact write a gospel that was politically offensive enough to require a corrective appendix. And the fact that this appendix looks very much like the story foreshadowed in Mark seems beyond the bounds of mere coincidence. If John 21 was appended for political reasons, there is no reason to dismiss the possibility that Mark’s conclusion was suppressed for the same reasons and perhaps under the same circumstances. There is an intimate relationship between these two gospels that is not obvious on the surface.

When we append the story of John 21 to Mark following 16:8 where the earliest manuscripts end, it provides a natural and compelling literary resolution to the gospel. It fulfills the predictions and foreshadowing in Mark. The fact that the disciples returned to their fishing trade after the death of Jesus makes perfect sense since the women had not informed them of the empty tomb. They do not expect to see Jesus again, and at first they don’t recognize him on the shore.

To be sure, the text as written by Mark was edited for attachment to the Fourth Gospel. The editor’s gloss in v. 14 that this was the third time the disciples had seen Jesus makes that obvious. Furthermore, the list of disciples has been altered. Mark would have opened this scene with Peter, Andrew, James and John returning to their nets, just as Jesus had found them at the beginning. However, since these four disciples constitute a distinctive Markan signature, it was incumbent upon the editors to revise the list to include characters that are each in some way uniquely Johannine. Thus we find Simon Peter (using the dual name common in John), Thomas called the Twin (a prominent figure in John 20, and only known as “the Twin” in John, but a disciple who plays no role in the Synoptics), and Nathanael (a disciple known in John but who does not exist in the Synoptics). They are fishing by the Sea of Tiberias, a term that occurs only in John. Thus, the editors neatly erased the original Markan formula “Peter, Andrew, James and John by the Sea of Galilee,” and overwrote it with the odd spectacle of “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, and Nathanael fishing by the Sea of Tiberias.” When it came to altering this text for attachment to John, subtlety was not the editors’ strong suit.

Two more observations will serve to confirm that the story of John 21 was originally composed as the conclusion of Mark. First, note the peculiar number of fish caught by the disciples:

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. (John 21:10-11)

Numbers do not occur by accident in the NT. When a number is cited, the author usually expects readers to ponder its symbolic meaning. Mark in particular used numeric symbolism throughout his gospel, and the fact that that there were one hundred fifty-three fish is significant. Modern readers might assume that the disciples laid out their catch, counted them individually, and recorded the result for posterity. Not so. The author chooses the number “153” for a reason.

The precise meaning of 153 is not obvious. It has puzzled scholars through the ages. Contemplating its possible significance, some have suggested that there may have been 153 disciples following Jesus at the end of his ministry, and that it represented the totality of his movement at the time. Yet it is not likely that the number of Jesus’ followers had stabilized at 153 for a period of time sufficient to have that number become recognized as the totality of the community. Others have speculated that 153 species of fish were thought to exist in the known creation, and that the number thus implies totality. Nevertheless, more direct numero­logical solutions would seem to have greater promise.

Augustine attempted to solve the puzzle by observing that the sum of the numerical sequence 1 to 17 equals 153. While this is true, the theological significance of such a derivation is not apparent. Even if one could find theological meaning in 17, the sum of the numeric progression “1 through 17” is a long way around the barn to arrive at a symbolic number intended to represent the church. Augustine’s speculation in this regard illustrates the degree to which he was struggling with the ambiguity of the reference.

D. A. Carson notes, “If the Evangelist had some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well.”[16] Meanwhile, without speculating upon any specific origin of 153, Rudolf Schnackenburg concluded “the quantity of fish is justification for the supposition that the editors saw in it a symbol of universality.”[17] We may presume the author of John 21 and his intended audience recognized 153 fish as symbolic of the church at large—those who would be “caught” by the missionary activity of the disciples.

The key to the puzzle is most likely found in Revelation 7:4, where the symbolic “144,000 saved” is the square of twelve times one thousand. Evidently for first century readers the squaring of twelve could represent the sum total of those saved. Meanwhile, three is the biblical number for God, the divine, the heavenly realm. Once this is recognized, a simple derivation of 153 is at hand—it is the square of three plus the square of twelve. In the mind of the author, the catch of 153 fish symbolizes universal redemption—God (the square of three) in union with his elect (the square of twelve). Once it is clear that 153 fish symbolizes the totality of those saved, it becomes evident that the story in John 21 was composed as a fulfillment of the opening proclamation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16-17)

Recognizing this, if we now append the text of John 21 to Mark 16:8, a grand interpretive frame encompassing the entire mission of Jesus becomes visible. Mark’s opening clarion call is that the followers of Jesus are to become fishers of men. The miraculous catch in John 21 illustrates a fulfillment of the promise:  the disciples have become fishers of men. Mark uses brackets and frames throughout his gospel to define section boundaries, so it is not surprising to find that a grand frame defining the full ministry of Jesus becomes visible once the original ending is restored.

This was the literary design of Mark’s Gospel from the outset. When Mark introduced Jesus’ dramatic prediction “I will make you become fishers of men,” he had intended to portray this prediction fulfilled with the miraculous catch of fish at the end of his gospel. If there is any doubt that the miraculous catch of fish and the image of the disciples as fishers of men were two halves of an integrated story, it is made obvious in Luke wherein they are combined into a single literary unit:

And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!  But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them… When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” … And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” (from Luke 5:3-10)

The literary link between Mark 1:16-17 and John 21:10-11 is compelling evidence that Mark did in fact originally compose an ending beyond 16:8, and that his ending, for reasons to be examined in this book, now resides in John 21. Yet this is not the end of the story; there is one more essential literary link between Mark 1 and John 21: The first words spoken by Jesus to a disciple in the Gospel of Mark are “Follow me.” They are spoken to Peter in 1:17. The last words spoken by Jesus in John 21 are “Follow me!” They are also spoken to Peter. This was no accident of history. Mark intended for these two commands to stand at both ends of his gospel as the final interpretive frame, standing just outside the twin calls for the disciples to become fishers of men. The original structure of the gospel as envisioned by Mark was as follows:

1A. The opening command of Jesus to Peter, “Follow me!”

     2A. Disciples to be made “fishers of men”

      3.  The Mission, Death and Resurrection of Jesus

     2B. Miraculous catch; disciples are made “fishers of men”

1B. The closing command of Jesus to Peter, “Follow me!”

Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men is the defining theme of the Gospel of Mark. It is an urgent call to immediate action. Mark did not, as some theorists have postulated, finish abruptly on a note of fear to invite readers to consider how they might continue the story in their own lives. Mark’s Gospel, prior to its modification by the Church, demanded a concrete response. It said, “Look at Jesus; hear his message; understand the true cost of discipleship; then follow Jesus, and do it immediately.” The Gospel of Mark was a great deal more powerful as a work of literature and theology prior to the severing of its grand finale.

Once the numerous literary links between Mark and John 21 are brought to light, it becomes evident that the story in John 21 originated in Mark and was subsequently edited and transferred to its current position at the end of John. But this raises a host of difficult questions related to motive and opportunity. It is easy to see why the pro-Petrine Church would have appended John 21 to neutralize the Fourth Gospel’s denigration of Peter, but why would it have left the Gospel of Mark in such a severely compromised state the process? And where was the opportunity? If John was not composed until the end of the century, what possible motive could there have been to remove Mark’s ending (no later than the early 70’s) without having a Gospel of John to transfer it to?

These would seem to be insurmountable problems for the theory. At face value, these two gospels appear to have emerged out of two different ideological traditions—Mark appears relatively primitive and John contains evolved Christological meditations on the eternal nature of Jesus. They appear to have been written for communities that had far different concerns. They tell incompatible stories concerning Jesus’ itinerary and teaching style. From a theological perspective they are worlds apart. Assuming conventional dating is correct (Mark 65-69 CE and John 90-100 CE), they are offset in time by several decades. Thus skepticism is justified – how indeed could Mark’s ending become detached from the gospel soon after it was composed, yet be preserved and appended to a gospel that had no ideological affinity with Mark? Most scholars would understandably perceive this to be absurd.

And yet, there it is in black and white... the perfect literary finale of Mark, lost for reasons unknown, currently resides at the end of John where it does not fit at all. Somebody tampered with the documents. The question is not whether it was done, but how and under what circumstances it was done.

 


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 228

[2] Most readers will be happy to know that 16:9-20 is an inauthentic appendix, for these are the only verses in the New Testament that portray Jesus as encouraging believers to handle venomous snakes and drink poison to prove their faith. Jesus never said anything like this, and the original author of Mark never claimed that he did.

[3] James A. Brooks, The New American Commentary Series, Mark, Broadman Press, 1991, p. 273-4

[4] Matthew and Luke present passion accounts that follow Mark closely to 16:8, then radically diverge beyond this point.

[5] Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, Knopf, 1992, p. 144.

[6] C. S. Mann, Mark, Doubleday, 1986, p. 663

[7] Brooks, Ibid, p. 275

[8] Lamar Williamson, Jr., The Interpretation Commentary Series, Mark, John Knox Press, 1983, pp. 285-6

[9] Witherington III, Ben, The Gospel of Mark, a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans Publishin Co, 2001, pp. 418-419

[10] Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus, and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations, Fortress Press, 1988

[11]  Brown, Ibid., p. 1083

[12]  Barrett, Ibid., 582-3

[13] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press, English Edition, 1971, p. 701

[14] Intercalation is widely recognized as a literary technique found in Mark. It is less recognized in John. Prime examples of intercalation in Mark include the healing of the woman with the twelve years flow of blood, which is sandwiched by two halves of the story of the raising of Jairus’ twelve year-old daughter (Mark 5:21-43), and the Cleansing of the Temple which is bracketed between two elements of the Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-25).  In the first bracketed story, the healing of the woman’s hemorrhage is the consequence and result of her faith—it is not simply a magic act performed by Jesus. This is to inform the interpretation of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, an act which again is not to be interpreted as a random miracle of Jesus, but rather an event which transpires as a direct result of the faith of Jairus. In this intercalated sequence, the author has made a strong statement that faith precedes healing.  In the second set of stories, the fig tree is cursed, the temple is cleansed, then the fig tree is found withered. The author intends for the fig tree story to interpret the cleansing of the temple. The implication here is that the cleansing amounts to a cursing of the temple, an institution from which no further fruit will be derived.

[15]  C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, Second Edition, Westminster Press, 1978, p. 307

[16] Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 1991, p. 673

[17] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, Crossroad Publishing, 1990, Vol. 3, p. 358.