WHAT IS AN APORIA?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
** Photo was taken by Flickr user Greencolander and is used with permission.