Considering the Epilogue, Chapter 21 -- The great haul of fish, the supremacy of St Peter, and the death of St. John.
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Catholic Commentary on the Gospel of St John
Session 12 – Epilogue and Review
I. The Epilogue of St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 21
Many other signs also did Jesus in the sight of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 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)
A. As the Gospel began with a prologue, so St John concludes with an epilogue.
B. There is no reason to doubt that St John wrote this passage – for he often speaks of himself in the third person.
II. Why 153 Fish? - Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not broken. (John 21:11)
A. St. Augustine says: The catch of fish tells us of the salvation of men, but man cannot be saved without keeping the 10 commandments. But, on account of the fall, man cannot even keep the commandments without the help of grace and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the number 7 signifies holiness, since God blessed the 7th day and made it holy (Gen 2:3). But 10 plus 7 equals 17, and if all the numbers from 1 to 17 are added together (1+2+3…+17), they equal 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify that all the elect are to be saved by the gift of grace (7) and the following of the commandments (10).
B. Or rather: St. Augustine notes that there were 7 disciples in the boat (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, and two other disciples), who had all been filled with the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 7 times 7 equals 49. 49 plus 1 makes the perfection of 50. Now, 3 is the number of the Trinity and also of our faith (which is founded on the Trinity); but 50 times 3 (for our faith) is 150, plus 3 (for the Trinity) is 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify the fullness of the Church (7), filled with the Holy Spirit (7), perfected (50) in her faith (3) in the most holy Trinity (3).
C. St. Gregory the Great says: 10 and 7 are perfect numbers, which added together make 17. This, times 3, for the perfection of faith in the Trinity, makes 51. This, times 3 again, makes 153.
D. St. Cyril breaks 153 into 100 (the great number of gentiles to be saved), plus 50 (the smaller number of Jews to be saved), plus 3 (the Trinity who saves all). Others follow St. Cyril, but modify this as follows: 100 (the multitude of married lay faithful in the Church), plus 50 (the many faithful who commit themselves later in life to continence either living as widows or living with their spouse in a brother-sister relationship), plus 3 (the precious few who commit their whole lives to celibacy as virgins) equals 153 (the whole Church taken together as a single body).
E. Perhaps most convincing of all is the theory of St. Jerome: It was thought at that time that there were only 153 species of fish in all the world. Hence, the disciples caught 153 fish, signifying that men of every class and time would be saved through the Gospel.
III. St Peter and St John - Jesus saith to him: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? Follow thou me. This saying therefore went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die. And Jesus did not say to him: He should not die; but: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? (John 21:22-23)
A. Dante’s Divine Comedy
From Canto XXV of the Paradiso: When Dante has finished speaking with St. James, he receives the vision of St. John the Evangelist. Beatrice introduces the Beloved, then the Disciple speaks for himself.
“This is the one who lay upon the breast
Of him our Pelican; and this is he
To the great office from the cross elected.”
My Lady thus; but therefore none the more
Did move her sight from its attentive gaze
Before or afterward these words of hers.
Even as a man who gazes, and endeavours
To see the eclipsing of the sun a little,
And who, by seeing, sightless doth become,
So I became before that latest fire,
While it was said, “Why dost thou daze thyself
To see a thing which here hath no existence?
Earth in the earth my body is, and shall be
With all the others there, until our number
With the eternal position tallies.
With the two garments in the blessed cloister
Are the two lights alone that have ascended:
And this shalt thou take back into your world.”
While Dante seeks to see the matter of John’s body passing in front of the glory of his soul – after the fashion of the moon eclipsing the sun – the Evangelist explains that his body is “earth in the earth” and that only his soul is in heaven. In other words, St. John is truly dead, his soul separated from his body – his body awaits the general resurrection. Moreover, St. John tells Dante that only two bodies are now in heaven, “the two lights alone that have ascended” – these, of course, are the bodies of Jesus and Mary.
B. St. Augustine corrects the legend
In the 124th Tractate of his Commentary on John, St. Augustine discusses a similar legend about the Beloved Disciple. It seems that a myth had grown up according to which John was not really dead and had never really died, but was only asleep in his tomb – hence the Lord said, “So I will have him remain till I come.” There was even a rumor, supported by what St. Augustine calls “not unreliable witnesses,” that the ground in Ephesus where St. John was buried would rise and fall as though someone were breathing, or even snoring.
In this final homily on John’s Gospel, St. Augustine insists that the Beloved Disciple has indeed died and that his body lies dead in the ground. What is also most interesting, St. Augustine discusses the question of Moses’ death as well – since many in his time, and not a few today even, held that Moses’ body was not dead in the ground but had been re-united to his soul. The principle text regarding the state of Moses body is the Transfiguration, since Moses seems to appear in his proper body to witness to the Christ. St. Augustine maintains Moses’ body was temporarily re-united to his soul, for the time of the apparition, but that it was separated again immediately afterward and returned to the dust (hence, Moses rose and died again). It is good to note, none have been so bold as to claim that either Moses’ body or Elijah’s have yet been glorified – I have written on this question here.
Tractate 124 is quite simply the greatest homily ever given on St. John’s Gospel – in it, St. Augustine contrasts the active and contemplative lives by comparing John and Peter.
C. The Active and Contemplative Lives -- Why did Jesus say that John would remain?
Jesus said this not as speaking of John in his proper person, but of the life which John symbolized – the contemplative life. The contemplative life (as opposed to the active life) will remain, for it is already a participation in the life of heaven. The active life, on the other hand, is of this world and will pass away together with this world. When we die, the active life ceases completely; but the contemplative life is brought to perfection in heaven. This is the interpretation given by St. Augustine, it was highly influential on St. Thomas’ discussion of the active and contemplative lives in ST II-II, qq.179-182.
1. Peter loves more -- When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. (John 21:15)
2. John is more beloved -- Peter turning about, saw that disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned on his breast at supper and said: Lord, who is he that shall betray thee? Him therefore when Peter had seen, he saith to Jesus: Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith to him: So I will have him to remain till I come, what is it to thee? Follow thou me. (John 21:20-22)