Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Was Peter Fishing Naked?


“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.” (John 21:4-8)

When we preach on this, the last of the Resurrection appearances in St. John’s Gospel, we rarely stop to ask the question, why was Peter fishing in the nude? After all, the story from which this short excerpt is taken contains so many wonderful images on which we might otherwise preach: the multitudinous catch of fish, the Beloved Disciple recognizing the Lord, the command of Jesus to Peter to feed his sheep, and the prediction of Peter’s own martyrdom. It is really no wonder that we pay scant attention to this obscure little detail.

However, when the Gospel is proclaimed in the midst of the people and this section of the passage is read, there are usually more than a few eyebrows raised, and one occasionally hears a chuckle or two. This past Sunday this led me to offer the throwaway comment at the outset of my homily, “I know you will all be greatly disappointed today, but I am not going to preach on why Peter was fishing in the nude.” I did promise, though, that I would supply a blog entry on the subject in the not-to-distant future.

So, why was Peter fishing naked? And why on earth would the Evangelist have included this little detail in the story? One of the things we often tell people in Bible study is to check out other English translations of the Bible when a passage seems obscure or confusing. I figured I should practice what I preach and turned to a few random versions of the Bible found on my own bookshelf.

The passage quoted above is from the New Revised Standard Version, the version that we read in public worship in the Anglican Church of Canada. Here is the line in question, once again:

“he put on some clothes, for he was naked” (NRSV).

I then turned to the precursor to the NRSV, the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

“he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work,” (RSV)

Next I checked the New International Version (NIV)

“he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off)” (NIV)

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) reads:

he put on his outer garment (for he was stripped for work)” (NASB)

Finally, I also consulted the old King James Version

"he girt his fishers coat unto him, (for he was naked)," (KJV)

What are we to make of all of this? The translations vary widely. Did he put on “clothes”, his “outer garment” or his “fisher’s coat”? Was he “naked” or “stripped for work?” Clearly there must be some ambiguity about how to translate the Greek text. Or is there some significant textual variant in the existing manuscript tradition that causes translators to opt for a different rendering?

The next order of business was to check the Greek text.

I consulted the NA27 (Nestle-Aland 27th edition), the critical edition of the Greek New Testament (a modern scholarly reconstruction of the Greek text based on all extant manuscript evidence) and there appears to be no significant manuscript variance. This means that there are no “competing versions” or “competing readings” of this passage. Fine, so how does the passage actually read in the Greek text? Here it is from NA27:

Ton ependytēn diezōsato, ēn gar gymnos

To deal with the second half of the sentence first, “ēn gar gymnos” is literally translated “for (gar) he was (ēn) naked (gymnos).” Both the KJV and the NRSV have opted for the most literal translation of the phrase. The NIV’s “for he had taken it off” interprets the phrase as referring back to the status of the garment in the first part of the passage, rather than a parenthetical comment on Peter’s status. Thus, it is a much looser, more periphrastic translation. It describes what has happened but is not a strict translation. The RSV and NASB’s “for he was stripped for work,” looks like an explanatory gloss on “naked” intended to provide a less offensive reading for more prudish eyes. Nevertheless, I considered it probably worth consulting a lexicon to determine the spectrum of meaning for the work “gymnos”.

The BAGD (Baur-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker) lexicon provides the primary definition of gymnos as “naked, stripped, bare.” However, a secondary definition attests a usage that could mean “without an outer garment.” A further definition is “poorly dressed”. So, it could have been that Peter was either naked, or simply wearing his “underclothing.” Given that ancient outer clothing might have been a bit more “billowy” that the outer clothing we wear today (no pants or button down shirts) it would be conceivable that those who engaged in various forms of manual labour might abandon their outer clothing for ease of movement. There is some evidence amongst ancient authors that this is precisely what sailors did. Perhaps this was the situation with Peter. Therefore, any translation that reads “naked,” or “stripped down,” or “without an outer garment” could be considered a plausible reading. That the RSV and NASB versions add the gloss “for work” is a helpful and probably an accurate explanation of why Peter was without clothing, but we should be aware that it is a gloss and not strictly part of the Greek text.

Now, returning to the first part of the sentence, the above translations don’t seem to be all that clear on what the garment was that Peter put on. Furthermore, there is some question as to how the garment is donned.

The Greek reads: ton ependytēn diezōsato. The garment in question is an “ependytēs”, and BAGD supplies the definition, an “outer garment,” or “outer coat.” That is clear enough. Peter was not wearing his “outer clothing.” The RSV and NRSV’s, “he put on some clothes” is perhaps lacking in precision as they fail to define what sort of clothing Peter “put on.” Therefore, in this case, the NIV (and NASB)’s “outer garment” is more precise and likely the most accurate. The KJV’s “fisher’s coat” is unfounded.

But by what means did Peter don this “outer garment?” The Greek verb is a form (aorist middle) of diazōnnymi, which means “to tie around,” or in the form here, to tie around oneself. Thus, the NIV’s “he wrapped his outer garment around him” most closely reflects the Greek in this case (the more antiquated KJV’s “girt himself” also illustrates the mode of dressing more clearly than other translations that simply imply that he “put on clothes). The significant thing is that he had to fasten his clothes about himself, perhaps by tying the garment itself, or fastening it with some kind of cincture.

Each of the translations cited above has something to commend them, but we note that none of them precisely translate the Greek text on their own. None of them are strictly wrong, as they all catch the sense of what was happening in the moment, namely, that Peter, stripped down because he was fishing, clothed himself and jumped into the water. However, if we were to seek a more precise reading out of a desire to get beyond merely the sense of the passage, we should probably translate the passage thus:

“He wrapped (or girded) his outer garment around himself, for he was naked (or stripped down).”

The above translation (or alternate translations provided in brackets) would be a very close translation to the Greek text. Of course, none of this answers the question as to why Peter needed to get dressed to jump into the water and go to the shore to meet Jesus. The most likely explanation is that while it was just fine to be “stripped down” or “semi-naked” to work, it would be inappropriate to engage in social relations in such a state. Thus, it is most likely that Peter got dressed simply because he was changing roles. He was leaving his work to meet and converse with another person, namely Jesus.

If you have followed me this far, and I congratulate you for persevering through the lesson in Bible translating, then we may still be wondering why the Evangelist would even bother to include this detail at all. Why does it matter? Would it not have been enough to have simply had Peter jump from the boat and come to meet Jesus? Why tell us that he was naked (or seriously stripped down) and got dressed? Why include this little detail that seems so unnecessary to the advancement of the story?

But is it unnecessary? I would suggest that there is something in this little detail of this final Resurrection story in the Gospel of John that makes it a very important part of the narrative. Let us recount some highlights of the narrative for a moment.

From the seashore, Jesus calls to his disciples, who are having a bad go of their fishing expedition, and tells them where to fish. The Beloved Disciple (that unnamed follower of Jesus, a crucial character in the Gospel of John), ever the astute observer, recognizes that the man on the seashore is the Risen Jesus. At this point, Simon Peter, who is naked (as are presumably the rest of the fishermen), girds his outer garment around himself and jumps into the sea and proceeds to the shore to meet Jesus. Note that none of the other disciples do this; rather, they remain attentive to their tasks and come in with their boats and the load of fish. After Jesus cooks them up a nice fish and bread breakfast over a charcoal fire, Jesus and Peter have a little chat. Thrice Jesus asks Peter to “feed his sheep.” This three-fold command and trust in Peter is clearly meant to parallel (and absolve) Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord before the crucifixion. Peter is hurt by Jesus’ pressing upon him in this way. He professed his faithfulness before his betrayal of Jesus, and now he professes it again. Perhaps, though, Jesus needs to help him understand a little more clearly what it will mean to shepherd his people, and tell him a little story, which goes something like this (according to the NRSV): “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18) Then the Evangelist has a little aside with the readers and reminds them that this was Jesus’ way of telling Peter how he would be martyred.

Interestingly enough, the verb used twice in 21:18 for “fasten” is zōnnymi (or zōnnyō), which shares the root of the verb diazōnnymi (from John 21:7, above). This leads me to wonder if Peter’s clothing of himself in 21:7 is an enactment of at least the first action of Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s passion and death in 21:18. If I am correct, the Jesus’ words to Peter are an object lesson on his impetuosity and his all-too-readiness to go down a road he doesn’t quite understand. If I am indeed correct, the story reads something a little like this:

When Peter realizes that it is Jesus on the shore, with his usual impetuosity, he fastens his outer garment around himself and jumps into the water and heads to shore, leaving the other disciples to take up the slack by bringing in the boats and fish. Peter is right and ready to get back to following Jesus, and yet still he doesn’t understand what that means. When Jesus begins to explain Peter what leadership in about, he illustrates the contrast by way of Peter’s immediately prior behaviour. “Oh, Peter,” Jesus might have said, “you are so quick to gird yourself and plunge headlong into the task. That’s what we are like when we’re young, is it not? But the time will come when another will gird you and take you where you do not want to go. You won’t be wrapping your mantle about yourself so quickly then!” Or perhaps this is core of the message, “You rush to meet me now, but you do recall, don’t you, that following me is the way of the cross?”

I suppose this is all to say that the message Jesus speaks across the ages to us is that leadership in the Church is less about what we want (which is signified by Peter’s enthusiastic girding of himself with his outer garment and jumping forward to meet Jesus) and more about where the way of the Cross takes us (signified Peter being girded by others and being taken down a road that he would not otherwise traverse on his own). Indeed, Jesus reiterates to Peter (and the others, John 21:19, 22) after all is said and done, the same call he uttered first in John 1:43 at the outset of his ministry, “Follow me.” These words take us to a cross, but that cross is the glory of God. Christian leadership is fully realized in the glory of the cross. It is not a mantle that we tie about ourselves lightly.

If I am correct about these things, this is the reason that John tells us the story of why Peter was fishing naked (or at least in his underwear).

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

10 comments:

Laurel Massé said...

Thank you, Rev. Daniel. You have given me an insight to a passage I have often puzzled over.
Blessings,
Laurel

Patrick Tilson said...

Thanks for a clear exegetical analysis of a confusing passage. Thank you more for applying it in the way which you have clearly shown that Holy Spirit intended. Christ demands that we take up our cross and follow Him. Faith and submission are both required for salvation.

Anonymous said...

I am quite difficult to please, but that was a fantastic article... even if you are an Anglican. Very well done.

Ruby said...

I think Peter was depressed. He had denied Jesus 3 times. Jesus was no longer with them physically day in and day out. After spending 3 years with Jesus, it would have to be difficult to adjust. The disciples had lost their Leader in the physical sense. On top of all that, they hadn't caught any fish. I think that's why Peter was so happy to see Jesus on the shore that he couldn't wait for the boat to get there. He dove into the sea. We have every indication to believe that the disciples weren't having a good day until Jesus appeared unto them.

Great blog post.
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Anonymous said...

Thanks Daniel...

I think it is right to actually question this detail, often glossed over. Could it be a chiasm at work here?

Firstly, to be naked (gymnos) is a possible allusion to shame (given the denial). He dresses and fastens his own belt (diazonnyma).

Secondly, dressed to meet Jesus, there is the three questions (leaving aside the agape/philos dialogue) and the command to tend the sheep.

Third: we return to the theme of fastening (zonnmi): consequences of his obedience is that others will do that, and it will result in his physical death (known historically).

He moves from the state of shame through forgiveness (and repentance) and to a state of grace (martyrdom).

Coupled with the names of the others in the boat: early legend has them as some of the most prolific evangelists (e.g. Thomas the Inquirer to India) makes this an interesting epilogue to the Gospel.

Lots of thoughts-thanks for the stimulation.
Where to now? Well, if Luke 5 is an inspiration for this, duc in altum! (into the deep!)

Daniel Graves said...

Thank you for the comment. I think there is a good case to be made for the extensive use of Chiasm in John. I believe it was Ellis that suggested in this in a book called "The Genius of John," but it must be at least 20 years since I looked at it. It is probably worth a glance. Your reading is a nice allegory of Peter's theological journey. Thank you for sharing it.
Dan Graves+

Anonymous said...

Last year I taught an online class in preaching. If I'm invited to do that again, I'll use this is a premier example of detailed exegesis that involves painstaking word study in a vital and illuminating way.
-- CMJ

Daniel Graves said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the article helpful. If it will help with your teaching, even better!
DFG+

Vaughn Ohlman said...

One practical note: remember that in that day clothes were incredibly expensive. Poor people might have only one set of clothing. And, as anyone who has been fishing knows, fishing is incredibly messy/stinky.

Thus in a less prudish culture it would not be unthinkable to strip down, even all the way, for a very messy job.

Vaughn Ohlman said...

(For the 'one garment' issue, see the various OT laws on using a cloak as surety for a loan... the cloak needed to be returned every night, so the poor person could sleep)