Tuesday 5 June 2018

The mystery of 'Feed my lambs/ sheep/ sheep' in the Fourth Gospel

The twenty-first and last (and I believe, later added) Chapter of the Fourth Gospel is intensely mysterious and difficult (relevant passages are reproduced below). It focuses on the disciple Simon Peter, and also the author of the Fourth Gospel himself (the disciple 'whom Jesus loved' - and who I believe to be the raised Lazarus).

It begins with the episode of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples when they are fishing. This is clearly freighted with what we regard as symbolism, but what was then a kind of depth and multiple-applicability of language, that was due to a different form of consciousness, a different way of thinking and being in the world - and which is sometimes possible for us to intuit or express poetically, but which cannot be explained in prose. But the episode seems to be about the disciples gathering of what we would term 'converts', as well as about 'feeding'.

The matter of feeding is very difficult to grasp in the Fourth Gospel - there are many passages about eating, feeding, bread, meat, flesh... and at present I find it hard to grasp and impossible to express what they mean altogether; but the feeding of the five thousand is probably the main key to it - with the idea of food being God-given, and the Food of Jesus potentially giving of eternal life (in contrast to the manna of Moses).

After the disciples had gathered fish and dined; Jesus asks Simon Peter three times whether he loves him (three times in an echo of Simon Peter's earlier three denials of Jesus).

But the first time Jesus asks 'Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?'- these presumably being the other disciples. After Simon Peter says yes, then Jesus tells him to feed his lambs.

Lambs imply sacrifice, and I think this refers to Simon Peter's role in leading the other disciples. Simon Peter is told, prophetically, the manner of his own sacrificial death. So, Simon Peter, and most of theother disciples, are sacrificial lambs. 

The next twice, Jesus repeats the same phrase: 'Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? This time Jesus leaves-out 'Peter', which is his disciple name, given him by Jesus. So, presumably what follows relates to Simon Peter not as leader of the disciples, but in a different, more general role - perhaps as future 'bishop'?

And then his instruction is to 'feed my sheep' - not lambs. The symbolism of sheep is very different from lambs. Lambs are disciples, but sheep are the followers of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

So, Simon has to feed the lamb/ disciples and the sheep/ people... but wait a minute! People don't feed lambs or sheep. Lambs are fed by their mothers (by female sheep), while grown-up sheep feed themselves.

So this passage is Not about Simon Peter becoming a Shepherd, or Pastor; because the Shepherd's job was to protect and lead the flock - not to feed them...

And anyway, Jesus is The (Good) Shepherd - and this symbol is close to being his essence - Jesus, and only Jesus, will lead us through death to to life everlasting.

So, whatever 'feed' means in the Fourth Gospel, Simon Peter is being asked (for his love of Jesus) to do this both for the disciples, and for the people in General...

But not for the beloved disciple, author of the fourth Gospel, who has a different task and role. Jesus asks Simon Peter to 'follow me' - meaning, through death to eternal life. Simon Peter is himself one of the sheep/ followers, as well as a lamb/ sacrifice.

But a different identity and fate apply to the beloved disciple, who is not one of the sheep who follow the Good Shepherd through death (because, being Lazarus, he has already died); but instead he is to 'tarry' until Jesus 'comes' again... 


Fourth Gospel ('John') Chapter 21: 11 Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. 12 Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord. 13 Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise. 14 This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead. 

15 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. 16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. 

18 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. 19 This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me. 20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? 

21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? 22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me. 23 Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? 

24 This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. 25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Jesus doesn't call him Peter the first time. With punctuation, it would be: Jesus saith to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?"

Chip said...

Very interesting discussion. I can see why this gospel stands out and has such appeal. I don't have a definite opinion on the identity of the writer and/or beloved disciple. If he tarried until the return of Jesus, it would seem odd, though possible, if Lazarus, to still be around today. But it would seem much more sensible in the context of an earlier post of yours about the significance of 70 AD. If he was the raised or resurrected Lazarus, perhaps he was "translated" or "raptured"? I think the importance of the 66-73 events is very underappreciated. The end of an age, end of sacrificial system, a literal holocaust, the strange sights and sounds recorded by Josephus, and not least, the possible beginning of an explanation for the rather long delayed return of Christ that troubled CS Lewis, Schweitzer, and Bertrand Russell, though the latter may have used it as a rationale for disbelief.

FSL said...

Two critiques (hopefully constructive) upon your post. First, "of these", Greek "touton" follows immediately after "me more" "me pleon" suggesting it should not refer to Saint Peter loving Jesus more than the disciples love Jesus, but Peter loving Jesus more than Peter loves the other disciples, or perhaps in a deeper layered sense, Peter loving Jesus more than anything in the created world. A similar grammatical instance utilizing "touton" "of these" is Matthew 6:32, woodenly: "Your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these", not "Your Heavenly Father of all these knows that you have need." (Also Luke 18:34, Luke 24:48 similar usages)

Second, you say that sheep feed themselves, "...the Shepherd's job was to protect and lead the flock - not feed them..." but this is not true to the Old Testament literature which speaks of a shepherd feeding his flock. cf. Isaiah 40:11 "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd." From what others have told me, sheep are extremely stupid animals and will often graze an area into the dirt and just die rather than seeking greener pastures. They need a shepherd to lead them and thereby in an extended sense feed them. Your applying the Shepherd title "only" to Jesus seems too narrow in light of his clear words to Peter commissioning him to act on his behalf as a shepherd.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Correct. The gospel was, of course, written by the beloved disciple, and I presume is not a word by word quotation from the utterance of Jesus - although (since its original recording and this translations are divinely inmspired) part of an overall correct representation of Jesus's meaning. Thus, I feel that the presence of 'Peter' here is probably significant.

@Chip - The idea of the Beloved Disciple being still alive is fairly common, I personally think it is very likely to be correct.

@FSL - As I've argued in earlier posts, I regarde the 'King James' Bible (specifically) as divinely inspired hence of equal authority to the original language, or the original manuscript.

Thanks for the Old Testament context, highly relevant.

But my point would simply extend to those usages as well. By feed they did not mean give-food-to. Or, if they did, it will have had some highly specific meaning. The Ancient Jews were nomadic herders, mostly; and their authors will have known about their agricultural system.

"Your applying the Shepherd title "only" to Jesus seems too narrow in light of his clear words to Peter commissioning him to act on his behalf as a shepherd. "

Well, I am saying that Jesus did Not do this; very specifcially Not. At least, according to the Fourth (and most authoritative) gospel.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I have no real experience with livestock, but wouldn't it be necessary to feed sheep hay or something in the winter, when grazing is not possible? I know that's how it works with cattle. Then again, perhaps grass is available year-round in subtropical Israel.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William, not 'necessary', in the sense that pastoralists don't grow crops; they drive their herds/ flocks where food is available.

And when there isn't much forage, they kill and eat (and store) the excess animals.

Except for the breeding stock, winter feeding of animals became possible/ normal in England only in the 18th century.

But perhaps there might be some analogy with the necessity for a shepherd to keep the 'breeding stock' (analogously among Men) alive, at all costs; if necessary by *feeding* them?...

Hrothgar said...

Sheep raising at that time and place would have taken place not on luxuriant grassy pastures, but on marginal territory - mostly rocky, rugged mountains and hillsides with relatively sparse seasonal vegetation. Better-watered, more fertile, and relatively level lands around major water sources and at the bottom of valleys would have been far too valued for horticulture (and sometimes for pasturing more prestigious grazing animals such as horses and cows which would not thrive on rocky hillsides) for sheep to be kept there. Sheep would only be moved there during the harshest part of winter, when not much was to be had elsewhere. Even then, with a limited amount of stored food in the form of hay available, and more individually valuable, less adaptable animals prioritized to receive it, I would think the hardy sheep would have had to forage for themselves much of the time - on the remnants of last year's harvested crop, for example.

An important part of the good shepherd's work in such an environment is to know where the most nourishing and plentiful forage is to be had at any particular time, and to take responsibility for leading his sheep there so that they may take advantage of it. The sheep indeed feed themselves and choose what to eat from the herbage available, but the shepherd still bears much responsibility for guiding them to the better pasture, and not allowing them to tarry in the worse, if he wishes his flock to thrive. He acts, however, far more as their guide than their keeper.

In the largely pre-Enclosure days of the KJV, and despite differences of climate etc, traditional sheep-raising practices would have been significantly similar in Britain; enough to be broadly familiar, besides the popularity of the (Mediterranean-inspired) pastoral poetry genre among the educated classes.

I suspect that most English-speakers would have intuited that something like this was meant by “Feed” rather than the more passive act of domesticated livestock receiving fodder from their keeper. (Psalm 23.2 also seems relevant here) I personally find it more appropriate as a metaphor for the conduct of a spiritual pastor with regard to his flock, too.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Shepherds do feed sheep.

They just don't need to do so.

But any person who cares for animals does occasionally feed them, even if only as a pastime. It's part of the process by which a positive association is built up (on both sides). It's true that this association can be built up in other ways, but feeding is one of the easiest and most natural.

Jesus also fed His sheep...but insisted that they not be dependent on Him to feed them.

The symbolism of what Jesus is asking of Peter here is far too deep to be fully explicated in a comment, or a post, or even a book. But feeding sheep is a thing that any real shepherd does, even though it isn't required for their nutrition. It's not about nutrition, but about being a shepherd.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hrothgar - Enjoyed that comment. The English county I live next to is Northumberland, which is mostly filled with sheep; especially in the hill regions.

A single shepherd may look after hundreds of sheep (nowadays, with quad bikes) and they are fed mostly by that transhumance method.

One interesting aspect is that the hill grass does not get growing until late spring, and in that time the sheep live on heather shoots, which requires that the heather be burned in strips, in rotation; so there is always some with tender growth. This makes the ground into a patchwork, like this:


That picture is of the Cairngorms in Scotland - but it looks pretty similar in Northumberland (although our hills are only about half the height).

a_probst said...

The above link takes us to the Temperance Seven clip of your other entry.

You probably meant something more like this:


And regarding the tarrying apostle, when you mentioned him a few years back I immediately pictured him spending his days in prayer at a monastery where only the Father Abbot and the older monks know who he really is.

Bruce Charlton said...

Probst - sorry, and I can't re-find the picture I linked to...

The same rotation strip burning of heather is also done for breeding grouse.

Andrew said...

@Bruce Charlton
I differ with you on a few points. I also love the KJV for the poetic aesthetic. For translational accuracy, I reference the NRSV. Based on your comments, it looks like you're straining on a few points that you would not be if you were looking at the nuances that are there in the Greek. For example, we are not well served when the KJV English does not distinguish between the variations behind the word "love." There are different kinds of relationships that exist in phileo vs. agape.

I believe this chapter is John recording Peter's complete and permanent re-commitment to the Lord. Read carefully, we see John continuously referring to Peter as Simon Peter, and Jesus questioning him as Simon bar Jonah - it is a question to prompt Peter to challenge his self identity. 'Simon, I have given you a task and a new name. You are back here fishing where I found you when I called you to follow me. Simon - are you the son of Jonah, the prophet who ran away, or are you my disciple?'
Two times the Lord asks Peter if he loves (agape) Him. The third time, the Lord asks Peter if he love (phileo) him. There is the love of veneration and honor, then the love of companionship and friendship. Also, the Lord gives Peter three different roles, and specifically give Peter the role of shepherd.

Simon of Jonah - do you agape me more than these?
Yes Lord, you see I philo you.
Boske [feed] my arnia [lambs].

Simon of Jonah - do you agape me?
Yes Lord, you see I philo you.
Poimaine [shepherd] my probata [sheep].

Simon of Jonah - do you philo me?
Lord, you perceive all things and experientially know I philo you.
Boske [feed] my probata [sheep]

I think Peter's grief turns into unbreakable resolve here.

Also of symbolic interest in this chapter, I think John is paying respect and deference to Peter. Peter is not the first to recognize the Lord, but he is the quickest to go to him. Also, though the other disciples take up the full net of fish, it is Peter who brings them in to land. In the full, but unbreaking net he gathers them in. There are 153 fish, which in gematria can point to Bene Elohim - the "sons of God." This foreshadows Peter's role as head of the Church on earth as he follows the revelation of Christ in heaven (the Church is built on the rock of revelation).


Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew - I regard the KJB as divinely inspired, while the NRSV was revised by worldly and decietful persons. I do not believe that we English can suppose we understand the Ancient Greek Gospel better than we understand the KJB, unless we also happen to be divinely inspired as were the authors of the KJB.

In sum, I would regard your procedure as wrong, a secular 'historical' procedure inappropriate to scripture; so I do not trust its conclusions!


Andrew said...

@Bruce, I also regard the KJV as divinely inspired. Also, I have a partiality to King James, as my Stewart ancestors were cousins to James during his reign.

On the other hand, even though the KJV is divinely inspired, I do not believe it is inerrant. As the Prophet Joseph Smith said: "we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly..."
And some of it is not translated correctly, so if I can get a clearer understanding by looking at the Greek, I will use that expansion when I read the KJV.

I love John and Peter and all the apostles. I do believe that they were set apart as special witnesses to Christ in the world, with Peter as the leader in the absence of Christ. There are quite a few bits of evidence that Peter was the head apostle. For instance, when the apostles names are mentioned together, it is always Peter mentioned first. When John and Peter ran to see the empty tomb, John ran faster but waited to allow Peter to enter first.

If you elevate one apostle and one Gospel to the exclusion of the rest, are you not concerned that you might slide into the kind of solipsarchy Paul rebuked in 1st Corinthians 3?

Bruce Charlton said...

Note added July 24 2022 - It is worth noting that I later - e.g. in my Lazarus Writes book https://lazaruswrites.blogspot.com/ - decided that Chapter 21 of the Fourth Gospel in which this passage occurs, was a later addition - quite likely by a different hand.

The proper Fourth Gospel runs from Chapters 1-20, when it ends with a mirroring summary/ rephrase of the Gospel's core message - "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" - as at its beginning.