The Double Ending Aporia: John 20:30-31 vs. John 21

As the twentieth chapter of the book of John comes to a close, John, as some argue, seems to conclude his Gospel with the reason he wrote the book and a plea to his readers to believe. However, there is still another chapter remaining; and this final chapter recounts an amazing fishing incident, a conversation between Jesus and Peter, and then it actually concludes the entirety of the book. What are students of John to think of this apparent double ending? Is it evidence of John’s growing senility as Renan suggests?1 Was John clumsy as offered by Meyer, or really just an unskilled author as argued by Bauer?2 Might Brown or Cullmann be right in that the book of John is actually a reworking or redaction of John’s original or oral Gospel?3 This difficult passage, or aporia as the technical term identifies it, has been treated differently by a variety of scholars through the centuries. And with so many different ideas, how is a student of John to know the answer to this complexity? If Burge is correct, there should be no reason for alarm. “Discerning readers,” encourages Burge, “can usually come to the apostle John’s defense, urging that aporias usually can be explained.”4 In an attempt to understand the double ending aporia, this post will first address the general nature of aporias in John’s Gospel. Once an overview of aporias has been provided—to include a summary of the specific aporia in question—three commentaries will be consulted and compared. Through this examination, this post will hopefully provide some answers to the many questions raised by the double ending aporia of John 20:30-31 and John 21.

An aporia—as it is used in this post—is a technical term credited to E. Schwartz’s 1907 and 1908 series of articles titled “Aporien im vierten Evangelium,” which translates as “Aporias in the Forth Gospel.”5 Still, Schwartz obviously pulled the term from the Greek word, aporia which appears in Luke 21:25 and is most often translated into English as perplexity. Strong defines this Greek word as “perplexity” or “consternation.”6 Perschbacher adds “uncertainty” to his definition.7 John’s Gospel uses a similar word, aporeō, in 13:21, which is generally translated as uncertain or at a loss. This similar word, according to Strong, means, “to be puzzled, at a loss, in wonder.”8 Whereas, Perschbacher defines it as, “to be without means, to hesitate, be at a stand, be in doubt and perplexity.”9 Given this word choice, it is clear that Schwartz was getting at the perplexities of the Fourth Gospel, but not the perplexity that disciples faced when Jesus said one of them would betray him. In fact, Schwartz was not getting at the perplexities of John’s message at all; instead, he went after the presentation of that message.

The technical term, aporia, is essentially referring to what Burge has titled a “literary seam” in the text. “In these instances,” writes Burge, “the chronological, topical, or dramatic flow of the narrative appears disjointed.”10 These seams or disjointed texts are found in other locations of the Bible, but according to Burge, “John’s Gospel abounds with these in a way that is completely different from the Synoptics.”11 An example is found in John 3:22 (depending on the translation), where the text reads, “Jesus came into land of Judea,” even though 2:23 informs the reader that Jesus was already in Judea.12 Another example is the lack of transitions showing Jesus’ movement between Samaria, Galilee, Jerusalem, and back again to Galilee. Burge compares this to a friend who writes a letter describing his salmon fishing vacation in Scotland only to write on the next page, “‘and after this, we crossed to the other side of Chicago.’”13Obviously, something has been left out.

As suggested above, aporias give cause for some scholars to think that John may have had issues with his writing ability, or maybe he was growing senile.14 Although highly unlikely, others have argued that John used folio leaves that were somehow shuffled around and accepted in the incorrect order as the final version.15 There is the possibility that John’s Gospel was originally two separate documents that were poorly edited together to form the single book.16 Still others believe that John’s Gospel was edited or redacted, even if by John himself. Potentially, this single redactor or a group of redactors may have preformed this edit job after John’s death, or so the argument goes.17 If indeed there were multiple hands involved in the final production of the book of John, Köstenberger’s argument holds some validity. He writes, “What immediately raises cautions against any such proposals, however, is the fact that John’s narrative is remarkably uniform, as several detailed studies preformed by the scholar E. Ruckstuhl (1951, 1991) have shown. This means, moreover, that any later redactor must have done his work rather clumsily, so that we today are able to identify ‘seams’ that he (unsuccessfully, it appears) attempted to patch up.”18 In any case, both Köstenberger and Burge demonstrate that most, if not all of the aporias contained in the Forth Gospel can be explained without demanding a stretch away from the idea that John intended to write exactly what he wrote and that each aporia is not much of a literary seam at all.

Narrowing the focus to the conclusion(s) of the Forth Gospel, the double ending aporia has received extensive treatment by many scholars and New Testament commentators. For the purpose of this examination however, three scholars—picked for no other reason then the availability of their commentaries—will be summarized below to examine how each approaches this aporia. But before these commentators are introduced, an introduction of the double ending aporia will be offered.

Jesus is resurrected. His disciples have seen him and depending on the interpretation of John 20:22, the Holy Spirit has been introduced to them. Assuming chapter 20 is the end of the book, Jesus has said his last words, specifically to Thomas the Twin: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”19 These final words seem to serve as an appropriate instruction to the entire world that will be called upon to believe without seeing. And then (if chapter 20 were the end of the book) John makes his final purpose statement and closing plea for his readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”20 On first glance, this appears to be the end of the book; yet, there is still one remaining chapter.

The final chapter opens with another appearance of Jesus to his disciples. John states that Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other entirely unnamed disciples went fishing. Jesus appeared to them from the shore but they were unable to recognize him. After a brief exchange, they disciples recast their nets on the other side of the boat as Jesus instructed and to their surprise, they caught 157 fish and could not even pull in the nets. Peter, recognizing the man on the shore is Jesus, jumped from his boat and swam to shore. Once everybody was on shore, Jesus and the disciples eat breakfast and Jesus restores Peter. To conclude the chapter, Jesus and Peter have a brief discussion that involves the Beloved Disciple, presumably John. The author is revealed, there is an awkward “we” statement, and then the final verse reads, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”21

It seems that John 20:30 and 21:25 are rather similar. And the conclusion of chapter 21 almost seems to introduce the editors or Johannine School. Was chapter 21 a later addition? If so, Carson points out that “There is no textual evidence that the book was every published without John 21.”22 How then should this be explained?

John Marsh, Saint John. Of the three selected commentaries, Marsh is the commentator most ready to argue that chapter 21 was never intended to be part of the original work. “Ch. 21 is an addition,” writes Marsh, “and its addition was made without that careful attention to the integration of the material with the rest of the gospel which would have been necessary had it been more than an appendix.”23 Had the book ended with chapter 20, argues Marsh, even the creative person would have had no reason to think there was any more to the narrative.24 That being said, Marsh still accepts that there are theological contributions found in chapter 21, even if he holds that chapter 21 is of little historical consideration.25

Marsh lists a number of reasons why chapter 21 could not have been original to the first manuscript (but he also contends that the addition must have been very early in the life of the book). First, Marsh points out that from the 25 verses of the last chapter, 28 words are found in chapter 21 that are not found anywhere in chapters 1-20. However, he also concedes that many of these words are related to fishing and no fishing narrative is found elsewhere in John.26 Second, Marsh points to what he sees as a different literary style, specifically by word choices and sentence construction. Yet again, Marsh concedes that there are also a number of features of chapter 21 that are distinct to John, even suggesting that John could have been the one to add the epilogue.27 Next, Marsh deals with the numbering of the appearances in John, claiming an inconsistency unless Jesus’ appearance to Mary is not considered an appearance to the disciples. Even overlooking the numbering, Marsh also takes issue with the reaction of the disciples to the resurrected Jesus if indeed this is the third appearance.

Regardless of when the final chapter was added, regardless of who its author may have been, Marsh still holds that because of its theological contributions, chapter 21 is more than an appendix, “it is not less than epilogue and crown.”28 Chapter 21 gives the Body of Christ a view of the expectations of the Church. Marsh points out that after the crucifixion, the disciples returned to secular life. They were back to where they started—fishing. Nevertheless, Jesus finds them in this state, breaks bread and communes with them, and charges them to be fishers of men, tenders of his flock. This, as Marsh’s argument goes, is John’s way to communicate what comes next to those who have accepted that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, despite Marsh’s view of the historicity of the 21st chapter, he still believes that chapter 21 is theologically necessary to the book as a whole. It would seem then, that Marsh holds that there are two endings. He sees a literary seam but embraces it as part of the Word of God.

F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John. Bruce spends substantially less time on this aporia than does Marsh. This is likely because Bruce has no need to spend so much time arguing for or against the authorship and date of the addition. First he reminds his readers, “[. . .] there is no evidence that the work ever circulated without [chapter 21].”29 Then, without much support or apology he simply writes, “The actual circumstances of the composition of the Gospel, are concealed from us, but we may picture the Evangelist entrusting his magnum opus to his associates (the ‘we’ of verse 42), who, before publishing it, added this epilogue which they had heard from his own lips, in the form which he had narrated it.”30 While he gives nothing but another source as indicated by a footnote for his idea that John’s closest students wrote down John’s verbal epilogue, Bruce makes no argument why John did not simply include the epilogue in the first place. He does, however, demonstrate that only John or someone close to John could have written the last chapter of the book due to its obvious Johannine style and features, specifically drawing attention to the double use of “Amen,” the construction of verse 19, and his calling the lake the sea of Tiberias.31 Bruce clearly sees the first 18 verses of the book of John the prologue and the last chapter the epilogue. They fit together in properly opening and closing the book, and that is enough for Bruce. He sees not further need to deal with the ‘literary seam’ that gives some reason to call the last two verses of chapter 20 and the final chapter of John an aporia. For Bruce, there is no aporia other than who might have added John’s last words to the book before its first publication.

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. If Bruce spends little time on the double ending aporia, Morris spends even less. Morris starts by dividing the opinions (as he calls the different views) into two groups. The first group is composed of those that see the 21st chapter as an “integral part of the Gospel from the very first.”32 The second group are those who feel the last chapter was a later addition; and of this group, Morris categorizes them into two sub groups—“[. . .] those who think that, apart from verses 24f., it was written by the author of chs. 1-20 and those who think of a different author.”33 And like Morris’ fellow commentators examined for this post, Morris reminds his readers, “If it was no part of the original Gospel it must nevertheless be very early as the manuscript tradition knows nothing of a twenty-chapter Gospel.”34

Morris outlines reasons to think the last chapter was a late addition, but in all of them, he seems to argue against them through his tone. First, he addresses the idea that John was growing old and might die. Given that some thought that Jesus’ return would come before John’s death, John (or someone else) felt the need to correct this matter.35 Regardless of who or when John 21:20-23 was written, Morris argues that this is not the main thrust of chapter 21.36 “It is more concerned with Peter’s reinstatement,” argues Morris.37 The standard of consistency is also brought into question by Morris. “Our ideas of what is proper,” writes Morris, “are not necessarily his.”38 1 John 5:13 is referenced in support of John’s use of verses 20:30-31 and neither of these statements end John’s Gospel or Epistle, respectively.39

By the way Morris argues, it is most likely that he is among the first group he identified, that is, holds that the last chapter is an intentional part of the original Gospel manuscript. He even confesses “[. . .] to being a little mystified by the certainty of those who regard it as self-evident that this last chapter is a late addition.”40 For Morris, chapter 21 is the proper conclusion to the book, giving a confident picture of the mission to the Church and the believer after one has come to accept the argument of the nature of Jesus. He cites Hoskyns in saying, “the first three Gospels all end this way,” implying that it should be no surprise that John does too.41 Morris sees no aporia, and therefore, little need to defend the passage against those who do.

All three commentators weigh in on the authorship of the last chapter; yet they all agree that both tradition and external evidence assumes the original inclusion of the final chapter. Despite their best efforts, none can definitively point to evidence to the contrary. This leaves only the internal evidence from which to draw support for two endings. Again, all three chosen commentators are in agreement and concede that the word choices and sentence construction contained in the 21st chapter of John lend support for and against its consistency with the rest of the book. On this matter alone, the jury is at a stalemate. 

In looking at the alleged inconsistencies and disjointedness (by our standards), it seems reasonable that there could be a number of portions of any book, even today, that seem different than other portions of that same book; but this should not automatically give us reason to conclude that a different author penned those portions or that there are two endings. The burden of proof lies with the one claiming multiple authors. Furthermore, even this post—with its various sections written over the course of a multiple days—could appear to have differences in each section if deeply dissected, but this should provide no reason to believe Bryan Catherman is not the author. Therefore, all that is remaining is the claim of two endings written by John.

The only evidence that suggests two endings by the same author are the two verses found in 20:30-31, and had these two verses been written at the end of chapter 21 (as Lagrange argues), there would be no hint of two separate endings; but alas, that is not where John placed them.42 Thus, this cause for the double ending aporia is not John 21, but John 20:30-31. This is where the answer in understanding the aporia is found.

Morris deals specifically with 20:30-31 and addresses the double ending aporia best. He, believing that John, son of Zebedee is the author of both the Forth Gospel and the epistle titled First John, looks to John’s usage of a similar sentence in both works. In First John 5:13, John writes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”43 Following this statement, John gives more practical instruction and only then offers his conclusion at the end of the epistle. Therefore, if Morris is correct (and this author believes he is), it seems that John did not intend verses 20:31-31 to be read as a concluding statement. And if John did not intend to conclude his Gospel with these lines, and if there is no other external evidence found in tradition, than there should be no reason what-so-ever to believe that an actual aporia is present at the conclusion of the book of John. There is but only one ending as the Evangelist intended and that is how it is presented in the Forth Gospel.

Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1994.
Burge, Gary M. Interpreting the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1992.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1991.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002.
Marsh, John. Saint John. Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster Press, 1978.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1971.
Perschbacher, Wesley J., and George V. Wigram. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990.
Strong, James, John R. Kohlenberger, and James A. Swanson. The Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001.

 Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1992), 66.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid, 67.
4 Ibid, 66.
Andreas J. Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2002), 259.
James Strong, John R. Kohlenberger, and James A. Swanson, The Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001), 1594.
7  Welsey J. Perschbacher and George V. Wigram, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990), 47.
8 Strong, 1944.
9 Perschbacher, 47.
10 Burge, 62.
11  Burge, 62.
12 Quoted from the KJV. Many other Bible translations shed light on this aporia by translating  as countryside rather than simply land.
13 Burge, 63.
14 Ibid, 66.
15 Ibid.
16  Ibid.
17   Köstenberger, 259.
18   Köstenberger, 259.
19 John 20:29, ESV.
20   John 20:30-31, ESV.
21 John 21:25, ESV.
22   D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1991), 667.
23 John Marsh, Saint John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 654.
24 Ibid, 653.
25 Marsh, 654.
26 Ibid, 653.
27 Ibid, 653-654.
28 Ibid, 660.
29 F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1994), 398.
30   Bruce, 398.
31 Ibid.
32 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1971), 858.
33   Morris, 858.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid, 859.
37 Ibid.
38 Morris, 859.
39 Ibid.
40 Ibid.
41 Ibid.
42   Morris, 859.
43 1 John 5:13, ESV.

* This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website. 
** Photo was taken by Flickr user Greencolander and is used with permission.