Thursday, May 1, 2008

Commentary Search Project: John 21

For my class on the book of John I had to write a paper on one of the 15 sections of the book of John that has underwent heavy criticism in recent scholarship (called aporias). I decided to write my paper on whether or not John 21 was originally part of John 1-20. This paper is quite thick. If you find yourself having difficulty understanding it, don't worry about it--go do something else. I think it is important for Christians to defend the historicity and reliability of the Scriptures, but not to get so side-tracked by it that the Gospel takes a small place in our preaching, teaching, and writing ministries. This is my little two cents on John 21. If it is helpful--Praise the Lord--if it is not--I'm not losing any sleep over it. Enjoy!


The Gospel of John contains a significant number of controversial texts in which the “chronological, topical, or dramatic flow of the narrative appears disjointed.”[1] One such text is John 21. For certain reasons (which will be discussed below), many scholars question whether John 21 was originally a part of the Fourth Gospel. This article will consist of four parts: (1) a description of the controversy regarding John 21, (2) a survey of three different commentators (D. A. Carson, Herman N. Ridderbos, and W. Hall Harris III) and how they deal with the controversy, (3) an evaluation of the approach and conclusion of the three different commentators from the vantage point of the author, and (4) a conclusion.

Description of Controversy

Many Johannine scholars question whether or not John 21 was originally a part of the Fourth Gospel. Because of this, the authorship of John 21 has also been under scrutiny in recent scholarship. Even the most conservative Johannine scholars concede that there is definite cause to at least question whether John 21 was originally part of the Fourth Gospel. The reasons for questioning the authorship and placement of John 21 are many, but the skepticism centers on three main observations: (1) John 20:30-31 is written as if it were the conclusion to the book; (2) John 21 contains many words (twenty-eight to be exact) that are not found in the rest of the book; (3) John 21:24 contains the pronoun “we” which suggests that John 21 was written by more than one person.

Survey of 3 Commentaries

1. D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, approaches the controversy surrounding John 21 with conservative presuppositions. Carson argues that “ch. 21 was composed with the rest of the Gospel and was designed to be a kind of Epilogue that balances the Prologue (1:1-18) by tying up some loose ends and pointing the way forward.”[2] Rather than offensively attacking the opposing view, Carson begins his discourse by first answering the questions raised by those skeptical of the view that John 21 was originally a part of the Fourth Gospel.

The first matter of controversy addressed by Carson is Bultmann’s striking observation that there are twenty-eight words within John that are unique to John 21. Although he concedes this to be a reality, he responds by calling attention to the fact that a great majority of the words unique to John 21 “are so tied to the subject matter that they cannot be viewed as particularly significant.”[3] Furthermore, Carson strongly suggests that although there are many words in John 21 unique to the rest of the book, there are also many similarities between John 1-20 and John 21. For example, he points to John’s use of “Truly, Truly,” and then states there to be twenty-five other words and constructions which point to literary unity between the two bodies of the Fourth Gospel. By way of conclusion, Carson, quoting and expounding upon C. K. Barrett, says “As a result, even those scholars who are most thoroughly convinced that John 21 came from a different hand usually admit that these ‘linguistic and stylistic considerations… are not in themselves sufficient to establish the belief that ch. 21 was written by a different author.”[4]

Secondly, Carson attacks the argument which states that John 21 must have been added later because 20:30-31 most smoothly reads as the conclusion to the Gospel. Generally, scholars who hold to this position take things a step further by adding the observation that John 21 really does not do much to add to the content of John 1-20. They argue, “Jesus has risen, he has appeared, his ascension has been dealt with, the Spirit he promised has been bequeathed and his great commission solemnly uttered. What more is there to say?”[5] Carson does not argue that 20:31-33 is a conclusion of sorts, but he adds,

there remains certain authorial discretion: the book may end abruptly with the act of disclosure, the solution to the mystery, or it may wind down through a postscript that tells what happens to the characters, especially if what happens to them sheds a certain light backward into the principal plot of the work.[6]

Carson has much to say about what he thinks this information added by John, that “sheds a certain light backward into the principle plot of the work,” is. In fact, he provides nine different things that John 21 helpfully adds to the book as a whole.[7] Carson, quoting Hoskyns, sums up the most major contribution of ch. 21 by stating that “‘a Christian gospel ends properly... with a confident statement that this mission to the world, undertaken at His command and under His authority, will be the means by which many are saved.’”[8]

Carson ends by calling attention to the fact that “There is no textual evidence that the book was ever published without John 21.”[9] Even if Carson’s arguments in the previous two sections were weak (and it is the author’s contention that they were not), the argument in this section is highly effective to prove his thesis. The fact is that the manuscript evidence is in the favor of Carson so much so that he can say, “even if ch. 21 were added later, it was added by the same Evangelist who composed the rest.”[10] After stating this, he embraces ignorance in regard to the author’s use of “we” in 21:24. In essence he states that whoever the “we” refers to (an amanuensis or an informed group of John’s disciples), it “does not alter these basic realities.”[11]

2. Herman N. Ridderbos

Like Carson, Herman N. Ridderbos approaches the controversy regarding John 21 as a conservative. Ridderbos’ central thesis regarding John 21 is that “The primary facts are that it is no where lacking in the text tradition, and that, if it was added later, what existed before was only the Evangelist’s original unpublished position.”[12] Although his thesis sounds much like Carson’s, there are some differences in how the two go about defending it. While Carson argues that the stylistic unity between John 1-20 and John 21 is strong enough to be considered proof, Ridderbos suggests that “Besides typically Johannine characteristics, ch. 21 also contains a number of words and expressions that do not occur elsewhere in the Gospel, that one cannot simply ascribe to the special nature of the material.”[13]

Ridderbos then goes on to assert, “Though, then, style can probably not settle the issue, the case is stronger if one looks at content.”[14] The content which Ridderbos is primarily referring to is that which brings Peter and the beloved disciple into sharper focus. He further identifies the content as that which both vindicates Peter and reveals the role which Peter and the beloved disciple were to have in the church.[15] Thus, it is appropriate for him to say that ch. 21 was “added to describe the passage from Jesus’ work on earth to its continuation through the disciples.”[16] Ridderbos concludes this argument by saying, “If, with many contemporary authors, one concludes that all of ch. 21 was added by a later author, then one must also say that ch. 21 is made up of material that is closely connected with all that goes before and that completes the earlier material.”[17]

Ridderbos goes much further than Carson in suggesting that the “we” definitely refers to more than one author.[18] However, like Carson, Ridderbos does not let his conviction about who the “we” refers to affect his view of the unity between John 21 and the rest of the book.

3. W. Hall Harris III

Although W. Hall Harris III, the third commentator in view, is conservative and asserts basically the same thesis as Carson and Ridderbos, he approaches the controversy in his own unique way. Harris’ thesis is as follows:

If chapter 21 was indeed a later addition to the Fourth Gospel by a different author, it must have been added very early, because no extant Greek manuscript lacks the last chapter, and there is no serious evidence in the manuscript tradition for later addition.[19]

In much the same way as Ridderbos, Harris does not consider stylistic similarities and differences between John 1-20 and John 21 to be telling either way (i.e., they neither prove nor disprove unified authorship from ch. 1 to ch. 21). However, Harris does point out that one of the prominent scholars, C. K. Barrett, who holds to disconnected authorship between chs. 1-20 and ch. 21 says, “These linguistic and stylistic considerations, when weighed against the undoubted resemblances between chs. 1-20 and ch. 21, are not in themselves sufficient to establish the belief that ch. 21 was written by a different author.”[20]

Like Ridderbos, Harris suggests that it is the content and thought-flow of ch. 21 that is most helpful in establishing unified authorship for the Fourth Gospel. He then summarizes the content of ch. 21 in a way that reveals its contribution to the book as a whole:

chapter 21 is not as much of an addendum as some believe, and… it does in fact provide a necessary conclusion to the Fourth Gospel, which does not merely end with Thomas’ confession, but has repeatedly emphasized that the disciples will continue Jesus witness to the world after he has departed (15:27) and will carry on his mission in the world.[21]

Commentary Evaluation

The three commentaries in view were all very helpful in dealing with the issue of John 21 and its relationship to the rest of the book. All three of the commentators were correct in emphasizing the lack of manuscript evidence against the view which sees John 21 as being a later addition to chs. 1-20. The amazing thing about this discovery is that there is no need to provide proof for this thesis because the proof lay in the absence of proof to the contrary. Ultimately, this is the primary argument against those who postulate that John 21 was a later addition to the Fourth Gospel. Although it does not necessarily leave room for doubt, it successfully puts those who disagree on the defensive—at best, it relegates their position to unproven theory.

The only thing which could have been added is information regarding the earliest manuscript which shows John 21 connected to the rest of the book. This information could either solidify their observation or cause it to hold less weight. For example, if the earliest manuscript dates to the later part of the first century or the early part of the second century their position holds much more weight; however if the earliest manuscript dates to the last part of the second century or later their position is much weaker. Either way, the lack of manuscript evidence is not easy to dismiss as a staggering argument.

One difference which is evident between the three commentators is how they deal with the stylistic similarities and differences between chs. 1-20 and ch. 21. Carson puts much more weight in the stylistic similarities than does Ridderbos and Harris. Essentially, Ridderbos and Harris suggest that although there are stylistic similarities between the two bodies in the Fourth Gospel, they do not see them as being so striking as to be a solid argument for unified authorship. On the other hand, although Carson does not come out and specifically state that these stylistic similarities are enough to build a strong case for unified authorship, he does communicate that they add much weight to the overall argument. While Ridderbos and Harris are correct in suggesting that the stylistic similarities do not “slam home” an argument for unified authorship, Carson is correct in emphasizing these similarities as one proof among many. Surely, these similarities will not be sufficient in and of themselves, but, when considered alongside the rest of the evidence, they make more certain what is already convincing. Not only that, but they also provide a helpful framework for dealing with the differences in vocabulary and style between the two bodies of the Gospel.

Although Carson’s list of nine things that John 21 adds to the Gospel of John was enlightening, about three or four of the nine things were not helpful in establishing what Carson was trying to prove—i.e., that certain information in ch. 21 is so closely linked with the rest of the book that it proves that the two bodies of the Gospel are inseparably linked. For example, Carson mentions the fact that ch. 21 teaches that “Jesus is still ahead of the disciples, providing their needs and serving them.”[22] Although this observation is helpful, it does not prove anything regarding the unity of chs. 1-20 and ch. 21. Insightful teaching is not a proof of unity.

Nonetheless, about four or five of the things mentioned by Carson were helpful in understanding why John was so urgent to add ch. 21 to a document which seemed to come to a close in 20:31-33. Although these four or five insights were helpful, Ridderbos and Harris, by focusing on the overall teaching of John 21, seemed to be a bit more convincing. Surely, Carson did deal with the general teaching of John 21 (as seen previously in this article) and how it adds to the entire Gospel, however he put more emphasis on the specific details of John 21. The single most helpful statement regarding the addition that John 21 made to the Gospel was made by Ridderbos: “it was added to describe the passage from Jesus’ work on earth to its continuation through the disciples.”[23]

All three of the commentators were in agreement in regard to the use of “we” in 21:24. This verse is not evidence enough to establish a verifiable disunity between chs. 1-20 and ch. 21. John 21:24, rather than establishing proof that ch. 21 was written by someone other than the author of chs. 1-20, more like likely points to (as Carson suggests) a comment made by an amanuensis or an informed group of John’s disciples. Although it is possible to argue from this text that there was “minimal redactional activity” (emphasis mine) on the Fourth Gospel, there is no reason to suggest that the redactor added an entire chapter—namely, ch. 21.[24] There is simply too much evidence to suggest that, if there was a redactor, such an extensive addition would have been made to this Gospel.


Although there are many viable reasons to question whether John 21 was actually a part of the original book of John, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that chs. 1-20 and ch. 21 were ever disjointed from one another. It is not as if there are some manuscripts which reveal that they were together and others which reveal that they were separate. Rather, there are only manuscripts which reveal that they are to be taken together. However, additional research on the earliest document which contains John 1-21 as a unified whole would be telling. On another note, there is no reason to suggest that the stylistic differences between chs. 1-20 and ch. 21 are so great that the same author could not have possibly written both bodies as one unified whole. Rather, the differences are easily dealt with by first understanding that many of them are the result of unique content in ch. 21, and then also by calling attention to the many parallels between the two bodies within the Fourth Gospel. Furthermore, it is not as if John were merely adding information disconnected from the rest of his Gospel.

The message contained within ch. 21 successfully brings the Gospel to a close with an eye on Jesus’ continued work through his disciples. Thus, although 20:31-33 reads as the conclusion to the book, John saw it necessary to end the Gospel in such a way as to show that Jesus’ work was not over upon his resurrection, but that it was to continue through his disciples with just as much emphasis as it did before. Although some may suggest that the author’s use of the first person plural personal pronoun “we” in 21:24 provides proof that ch. 21 was written by someone other than the author of chs. 1-20, because of all the information stated above, and because of the all-too-common use of an amanuensis, there is no reason to suspect that ch. 21 was written by someone other than the author of chs. 1-20. In conclusion, John 21 is best considered to be the Epilogue to the Gospel of John in the same way that John 1:1-18 is considered to be the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

[1] Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), 62. Burge labels these passages as “aporias” and “seams.”

[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 665.


Ibid., 666.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 666-67.

[8] Ibid., 666.

[9] Ibid., 667.

[10] Ibid., 668.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 655.

Ibid., 655-56.

[14] Ibid., 656.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 658.

[17] Ibid., 656.

[18] Ibid.

W. Hall Harris III, Commentary on the Gospel of John, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006).


[21] Ibid.

Carson, The Gospel According to John, 667.

[23] Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, 658.

[24] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997), 173. Blomberg actually does support the idea of a redactor, however he suggests that the redactor did very little. Here is the full quote: “The closing two verses of the Gospel (21:24-25) support at least some minimal redactional activity, as they distinguish the beloved disciple who wrote down the events of the Gospel from a group of people (‘we’) who ‘know that his testimony is true’ and an ‘I’ who supposes that the whole world couldn’t contain the books that could be written about Jesus.”


Luke Snowden said...


I know I am probably one of the few that will have read the whole of this, but I will say that I very much appreciated your posting this. I would like you to post all your papers!

A couple of observations/questions:

1. Did you read C.K Barret's primary sources? If so, how did you personally respond? If not, why not...other than time?!

2. I was glad to see you be objective in this and not simply parroting Carson's words. Scholarship requires the ability to challenge even our most prized theologians...though you didn't much challenge him.

3. I think it would be helpful in your next post to write, very specifically, how papers and debates like you've introduced here are so vital for the church today to engage with joy and sobriety! What is at stake in all this?

Luke Snowden said...


Just for giggles...did you come across any of the crazies in the Jesus Seminar and what they had to say about this? If so, what was their conclusions after they rolled the dice?

bk said...

You spent so much time citing the opinions of men in non-Bible sources (try the Ps. 118:8 method instead) that you end up writing "it is not as if John were merely adding information disconnected from the rest of his Gospel" when the Biblical evidence proves that whoever this anonymous author was he most certainly wasn't John.

"Prove all things" One can choose to ignore the facts stated in the plain text of scripture if they prefer to quote the words of men who quote other men who quote other men but the one thing that none these non-Bible sources can do is cite even a single verse that would justify the idea that John was "the other disciple, whom Jesus loved" (and that includes the non-Bible sources you cited that promote this unbiblical man-made tradition).

Jimmy Snowden said...


I do not doubt that there is heavy disagreement regarding the "disciple whom Jesus loved." I honor your view. But we all must remember that there is a lot of evidence which needs to be weighed. Christian's must expect other Christians to disagree on stuff like this.