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The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come” (Jn. 21:23; see also Mt. 16:27-28) – Guest Article by Jerald Davis

John 21:23 – A Textual and Explanatory Note

In the last chapter of the gospel of John we have the interaction between Jesus and Peter, where Jesus allows Peter to confess his love for him three times, just as Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times.  Then Jesus reveals that Peter would fulfill that love for Jesus in going to his death for Jesus.  Peter then turns the discussion to John who was following them.  John 21:21-23 RSV  When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”  (22)  Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”  (23)  The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”  This RSV translation demonstrates the text as most translations have it.

In verse 23 the Nestle-Aland and UBS Greek texts enclose the words ti pros se (“what is that to you”) in brackets, indicating that the words enclosed are of doubtful authenticity with regard to the original text.  In the first edition of A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger the reasons are given as to why the UBS included the text with a {D} rating (the most doubtful):

Several witnesses, including  א* C2 f1 565 syrs ita,e arm, lack the words ti pros se. Although Tischendorf (8th ed.) and von Soden regarded the shorter text as original (the evangelist often varies the wording in a repeated phrase), it is also possible that copyists omitted the clause in order to draw attention to what was taken as the primary element in Jesus’ reply (codex Bezae accomplishes the same effect by omitting ti).  In view of the close balance of probabilities a majority of the Committee preferred to retain the clause, but to enclose it within square brackets to indicate doubt that it belongs in the text. (Page 257)

In the second edition of the Commentary the notes are the same but the rating was changed to {C} because in the fourth revised edition of the text the committee decided to use the {D} rating very sparingly.

The internal canons of textual criticism would weigh heavily against the words being original to the text.  Generally speaking, the shorter reading is to be preferred.  It was more likely that the scribes would add words to the text, whether it would be from a gloss, or on the principle that where you have a shorter and longer text, it would be better to have an extraneous word in scripture than to leave one out.  Another important canon is: the original text is the text that explains how the other came to be.  Now with John 21:23 we can see that it was much more likely that a scribe would repeat the complete saying of Jesus in verse 22(“what is that to you”) than it would be for him to omit it in verse 23.  If the original text read, The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come”, then the meaning is different and more difficult for the scribes to understand what the meaning of the text is.  Admittedly, the shorter text is the more difficult text to understand (which is another reason it is to be preferred). There really is no good reason for a scribe to omit the phrase and every reason for him to add it.  What is interesting is the short text did circulate, and obviously it meant something to the readers.

How has the text been understood?  Generally the emphasis has been on the last phrase, meaning that it was none of Peter’s business.  Jesus was not saying that John would remain till he came back, but that it was not any concern of Peter’s what Jesus had in store for John; Peter’s business was to follow Jesus wherever it might lead.  Albert Barnes is typical for this understanding:

John 21:22

That he tarry – That he live. The same word is used to express life in Phi1:24-25; 1Co_15:6.

Till I come – Some have supposed this to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem; others to the day of judgment; others to signify that he would not die a violent death; but the plain meaning is, “If I will that he should not die at all, it is nothing to thee.” In this way the apostles evidently understood it, and hence raised a report that he would not die. It is remarkable that John was the last of the apostles; that he lived to nearly the close of the first century, and then died a peaceful death at Ephesus, being the only one, as is supposed, of the apostles who did not suffer martyrdom. The testimony of antiquity is clear on this point; and though there have been many idle conjectures about this passage and about the fate of John, yet no fact of history is better attested than that John died and was buried at Ephesus.

What is that to thee? – From this passage we learn:

  1. that our main business is to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. that there are many subjects of religion on which a vain and impertinent curiosity is exercised. All such curiosity Jesus here reproves.
  3. that Jesus will take care of all his true disciples, and that we should not be unduly solicitous about them.
  4. that we should go forward to whatever he calls us to persecution or death – not envying the lot of any other man, and anxious only to do the will of God.

This interpretation has Jesus presenting a strong contrary to fact hypothetical.  “If I wanted him to remain until I come back (which I don’t), what business is it of yours?”  The question arises, why would Jesus do such a thing, especially when it could so easily be misunderstood?  Was Jesus one who would pose such a false premise?  The form of the sentence is what is called a third class conditional sentence in the Greek.  As J. W. Roberts in his Greek grammar states, “The anticipatory is the condition undetermined but with prospect of fulfillment.   It states what is likely to happen based on a condition yet to be determined or known to be true.” (A Grammar of New Testament Greek for Beginners, p. 143.)  Frank Pack in his commentary on John admits such but says, “If it is my will introduces a third class conditional sentence, which could point to something that might happen in the future, but verse 23 corrects that misunderstanding.  It is to be considered merely a hypothetical statement and not a prophecy concerning the future.”(The Gospel of John: Part II, p.173)  But this understanding is necessarily based upon the long text.

There have been those who have seen in the text as generally accepted (the long text) that Jesus was foretelling that John would remain till Jesus came back in the judgment on Jerusalem.  Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) opined:

if I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? meaning, that if it was his pleasure that he should live, not till his second coming to judge the quick and dead at the last day, but till he should come in his power and take vengeance on the Jewish nation, in the destruction of their city and temple by the Romans, and in dispersing them through the nations of the world; till which time John did live, and many years after; and was the only one of the disciples that lived till that time, and who did not die a violent death; what was that to Peter? it was no concern of his. The question was too curious, improper, and impertinent; it became him to attend only to what concerned himself, and he was bid to do:

 Likewise John Wesley in his comments on the verse: “If I will that he tarry – Without dying, till I come – To judgment. Certainly he did tarry, till Christ came to destroy Jerusalem. And who can tell, when or how he died? What is that to thee? – Who art to follow me long before.”

But these commentators were working from the long text.  If the short text is original, and I hold that it is, the meaning is very strong.  The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come.” The emphasis on the saying of Jesus was not on the last phrase, “what is that to you?” but on the first, “If it is my will that he remain until I come.”  This would practically force an interpretation that John would remain till Jesus came again, but Jesus’ coming would not end physical life on earth, and John would eventually die.  This indeed points to the return of Jesus in A.D. 70.

 

 

  1. A. Davis

jeralddavis@sbcglobal.net

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