What is the best translation for Jesus’ question to Peter in John 21:15? Ilaria Ramelli demonstrates that the emphasis in the question should fall on “me.” As a result, the verse reads, “Therefore, when they ate breakfast, Jesus says to Simon Peter, ‘Simon [son of] John, do you love me more than these [other disciples? Things?]” (my translation).
There is no case to made for an emphasis on “you” in the question. In fact, the pronoun for “you” does not appear in the verse. This absence of an emphatic subject “makes it strongly implausible that Jesus is contrasting Peter, the subject of the phrase, to the other disciples as the one who loves Jesus more than the others do” (page 333). In his response, Peter asserts his love for Jesus without the comparison and thus ignores the real kernel of the question.
Ramelli shows that the contrast Jesus proposes is between loving him and loving someone or something else more. Thus, the second issue is the phrase the NRSV translates as “these.” These what? Some translations and interpretations assume that “these” refers to the other disciples. But, as Ramelli notes, the word for “these” can just as easily be neuter in gender as masculine here. That is, the translation “these things” is readily permissible in grammatical terms.
“Peter should love Jesus more than anything else,” Ramelli continues. “This is why Jesus predicts his martyrdom soon after” (page 334). The translation of “these things” is necessary, according to Ramelli, in grammatical terms beyond the ambiguity of gender in the construction. Ramelli disagrees with Raymond Brown in this regard. Brown argues that a choice for Peter between the material things of this world and the risen Jesus would be “ridiculous, but it is precisely the choice between Jesus and all the rest of the world,” Ramelli responds, “including his own life, that leads Peter to total service and martyrdom” (page 334).
Ramelli reminds us that some scholars argue against a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus felt or expressed by the other disciples. Such a comparison would indicate a rivalry among the disciples which runs quite counter to the nature of the discipleship community in the Johannine account. In addition, Ramelli notes that in the Johannine account it is the Beloved Disciple who is pre-eminent in love for Jesus, if any comparison is to be made (page 335).
The one possible translation that makes sense of the comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus on the part of the others is a translation with an ironic sense. “So, Peter, do you think you love me more than these other characters do? I’m not sure your track record stands up to that scrutiny, if in fact that’s what you think of yourself.” While Ramelli merely mentions this translation possibility in passing, I’m not sure we should dispense with that possibility quite so easily – especially given the frequency of irony and double entendre in the Johannine account.
If, on the other hand, the translation really needs to be “these things” rather than “these other characters,” then the ironic translation is either inaccurate or has a different twist to it. Ramelli launches into a dauntingly detailed grammatical and philological analysis of the Greek phrase. The analysis covers several pages, several languages, several genres, and several centuries. If that sort of thing is your interest, then be sure to read the article (probably several times to get it all).
Ramelli concludes that the grammar, syntax, and textual analysis demand the translation, “Do you love me more than these things?” In particular, the phrasing of the question in other contexts and documents connects love for Jesus to martyrdom, especially in first-century, New Testament contexts. Thus, this is likely the best translation of the question.
Commentators note the connection between John 21 and the call of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. In the Lukan account, the disciples leave “everything” and follow Jesus in response to the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of the event. He falls to his knees before Jesus and confesses that he is a sinful man. Karoline Lewis suggests that the placement of the large catch of fish at the end of the Johannine account “will necessitate a reevaluation of what discipleship means” (page 254).
Lewis argues that abundance is a consistent theme within the Johannine account, and that this theme is central to our text for this week. “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance,” she writes, “The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace” (page 255). The ascended Christ is certainly known at this moment as the disciples experience abundant fish. For just a moment, at least, I have to wonder if these “these things” refers to the fish.
That may seem to be an odd and trivial connection, but I’m not so sure about that. Peter, do you love me for me? Or are you grateful that I can provide you with such an abundance of stuff? If the fish went away, would you still feel the same need to connect to me? Are you committed to me for me, Peter, or for you?
This is an ongoing question in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I think about the Satan’s question to God regarding Job. “Does Job love God for nothing?” Some translations render this question along the lines of “for no reason,” but I don’t think that’s right. Job is swimming in abundance – of stuff, of honor, of family, of well-being. What’s not to like? But the Accuser focuses on the ambiguity of such abundance. Can we sort out our love for God from our love for satisfaction and security?
There is nothing more attractive to us than the realization that someone else loves us. In fact, too often we can mistake our love for being loved as being our love for another. Jesus lifts this up in the Lukan sermon on the level spot in chapter 6. If I love those who love me, how can I sort that out? If I do good as part of a mutuality pact, how can I discern my real motives? If I lend at interest, how can I call that altruism? Instead, love with no expectation of return. That’s what makes us “children of the Most High.” That’s the way to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
Peter, do you love me more than these fish? I don’t know if that’s actually the question. But I think it may actually be the question. Peter, do you love me for me or for the benefits? When the benefits went away, for example during Jesus’ trial, Peter’s love seemed a fleeting thing at best. “In John, Peter does not deny Jesus or knowing Jesus,” Lewis reminds us, “but he denies his discipleship. Jesus will now reveal to Peter what discipleship demands” (page 256).
Lewis argues that the threefold question in John 21 is not only about Peter’s forgiveness, reinstatement, and/or rehabilitation. “None of these summaries adequately recognizes the significance of Jesus’ request of Peter,” she continues. “Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple, but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (page 256). So will we.
Jesus puts the question to me. “Do you love me more than these things?” These things, in my case, are probably not a netful of large fish (although I have not been above praying for a large catch on particularly slow fishing days). These things might be some other sort of material stuff. These things might be my privilege, power, position, or property – these things that might be at risk if I really followed Jesus fully. Do I love Jesus more than I love these things?
Well, now we’ve gone from preaching to meddling, as they say.
It strikes me that my response to this question is more about giving myself to Jesus than it is giving myself for Jesus. Loving Jesus means placing myself in his loving care, come what may. That’s far more frightening than making heroic sacrifices for Jesus — acts for which I could perhaps take credit now or later. This love is most clearly expressed as trust regardless of the circumstances. I can’t think of any greater “demand” on me (except that it’s an invitation, rather than a demand).
“Trust is our gift back to God,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “and [God] finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). This is the real conversion for believers, Manning suggests. “The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God,” Manning notes, “than a practical trust in [God’s] loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). Peter, will you love me even when the fish are scarce, and the fears are plentiful? More important, will you trust me to love you to the end?
That’s a question with some real bite (pardon the fishing pun) – both for me as an individual disciple and for us as disciple communities. The answer can set us free to become the fully human persons God has created us to be. “The heart converted from mistrust to trust in the irreversible forgiveness of Jesus Christ is redeemed from the corrosive power of fear,” Manning writes. This conversion, he continues, “is the moment of sovereign deliverance from the warehouse of worry” (page 7).
The fish are going to disappear, Peter. Troubles are going to multiply in their place. You can trust me, Jesus says, in either case. Will you? If so, then you can be freed to love as I love.
References and Resources
Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.
SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.
Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.
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