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John 21:7 reads

SBL GNT

λέγει οὖν ὁ μαθητὴς ἐκεῖνος ὃν ἠγάπα ὁ Ἰησοῦς τῷ Πέτρῳ· Ὁ κύριός ἐστιν. Σίμων οὖν Πέτρος, ἀκούσας ὅτι ὁ κύριός ἐστιν, τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο, ἦν γὰρ γυμνός, καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν·

KJV

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.

Donning a coat is an odd way to prepare for a swim (even (especially!) in hasty preparation). Working in the nude also seems to defy Jewish sensibilities.

BDAG is clear that γυμνός does not necessarily mean completely naked (and this is variously reflected in more recent translations), excerpted from the second and third entries1 (the first is "naked")

2 pert. to being inadequately clothed, poorly dressed.... 3 pert. to being lightly clad, without an outer garment, without which a decent person did not appear in public....[John 21:7 is mentioned as a likely example here.]

It makes sense to me that he might be working in his undergarments and feel inadequately clad to meet the Lord. However, swimming in a coat just seems like a bad idea.

The NET bible has an interesting take on it, quoting the footnote2 on v. 7, italics original:

The Greek verb used (διαζώννυμι,diazwnnumi) does not necessarily mean putting clothing on, but rather tying the clothing around oneself (the same verb is used in 13:4-5 of Jesus tying the towel around himself). The statement that Peter was “naked” could just as well mean that he was naked underneath the outer garment, and thus could not take it off before jumping into the water. But he did pause to tuck it up and tie it with the girdle before jumping in, to allow himself more freedom of movement. Thus the clause that states Peter was naked is explanatory (note the use of for), explaining why Peter girded up his outer garment rather than taking it off – he had nothing on underneath it and so could not remove it.

However, I don't know if there's any precedent for γυμνός to mean "missing the undergarments." It's also not clear to me why he would be working with an outer garment only. (Normally, wouldn't one expect to strip the outer and leave the inner, which are presumably less cumbersome to work in?)

Are there insights from historical background, further explanation of the words here, or other information in the text that might help us understand:

  • How was he likely dressed (or undressed)?
  • What did he do before diving onto the water?
  • Why?

1. Bauer, Danker. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.)

2. Footnote 19 by their numbering. It mentions that the idea is R.E. Brown's, but I don't have the complete citation.

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It is an excellent question which shows good, rational thinking and a search for the correct understanding.

I wrote an article about this 32 years ago in a Bible translation publication. It can be read here: https://www.academia.edu/749504/Did_Peter_enter_the_boat_John_21_11_

Let me give a "short" recap of the main points. (As short as I can in order to cover the essential points). We need to look at the whole passage 21:1-11 to get the context.

“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. (21:3 NIV)

Peter was frustrated and disillusioned. Jesus had not been the kind of Messiah they had expected and he himself had denied his master 3 times. He is now leaving his calling as a disciple of Jesus and going back to fishing. But what happened? They caught nothing at all. That was a miracle, staged by Jesus for what follows. It was the same stage as in Luke 5 where Peter received his calling as a follower of Jesus.

He [Jesus] said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. (21:6 NIV)

The scene from Luke 5 is repeated although with different fishing tools. Here they use a cast net. 7 strong fishermen were unable to haul the net up into the boat. We are later told that there were 153 large fish in the net. It might have weighed about 300 kilos. So, what did they do to the net? They tied it to the rear end of the boat so that it was being dragged along in the water as the boat moved to shore.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher's coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. (21:7 KJV)

Here the translations start to go astray, so let me go to the Greek:

Σίμων οὖν Πέτρος ἀκούσας ὅτι ὁ κύριός ἐστιν τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο, ἦν γὰρ γυμνός, καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν

So, when Simon Peter heard that it is (was) the Lord he girded himself with the outer garment, for he was gymnos, and threw himself into the lake. The word for gird oneself is a very specific word that cannot be translated "put on". It can only be understood by appreciating the clothing used at the time. The common clothing was a long inner garment without sleeves reaching almost to the ankles, sometimes called a tunic. Then there was an outer garment: ἐπενδύτης - a garment put on over another garment, outer garment (BDAG). The outer garment was even longer than the inner garment and usually had long sleeves. It was made of more heavy and warmer material. People usually wore a belt which was used to gird oneself. This means pulling up one's long clothes and tying the belt around the waist to hold the clothes up in place. In this way, the legs would be free to run, if needed.

The text tells us that Peter had taken off his outer garment, which was lying in the boat. It is not practical to work with a cast net and pull a net up from the water, if you wear a heavy coat with long sleeves. So, the gymnos here does not mean "naked", but wearing only the undergarment, his work clothes. Because the outer garment had long sleeves, he could use those sleeves instead of a belt to pull up the inner garment and tie the waist with those sleeves. I sometimes tie my sweater around the waist using the long sleeves.

But why gird himself if he was intending to swim to the shore? You could suggest that it was to give freedom to move the legs. But if he had tied the sleeves of his long garment around the waist, the rest of the garment would drag behind him. It would be pretty impossible to swim like that, but it would be possible to walk on the bottom of the lake. And the text says nothing at all about swimming nor reaching the shore nor him wanting to see Jesus. Why? Because he had no intention of swimming to shore. He was in no hurry to meet the master he had betrayed. He was utterly ashamed of himself, mainly because of his denial, but also because he had been "caught" by Jesus resigning as a disciple. No, he wanted to busy himself with another task that was important to him: Trying to get the net full of fish safely to shore without it being torn. So, he jumped into the water in order to help the net not to be torn against the bottom of the lake as they were now dragging the net along after the boat. This incident took place near Bethsaida at the Northern end of Lake Galilee where the Jordan River had made a huge flat delta area. It would be the only place in the lake where one could walk far out into the lake. John does tell us that they were not far from the shore. Why does he tell us that? Probably to show that Peter could actually stand on the bottom of the lake at that point. If not, he could hold on to the rail of the boat until he could reach the bottom. Let us compare with next verse:

οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι μαθηταὶ τῷ πλοιαρίῳ ἦλθον, οὐ γὰρ ἦσαν μακρὰν ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἀλλὰ ὡς ἀπὸ πηχῶν διακοσίων, σύροντες τὸ δίκτυον τῶν ἰχθύων

But THE OTHER DISCIPLES by the boat came, (you see, they were not far from the land but about 200 cubits,) dragging the net of fish.

They were all united in coming to the shore while dragging the net. The contrast shown by the Greek fronting of "the other disciples by the boat" is between Peter coming in the water and the other disciples coming in the boat.

Now we need to move to verse 11:

ἀνέβη οὖν Σίμων Πέτρος καὶ εἵλκυσεν τὸ δίκτυον εἰς τὴν γῆν

So, Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to (the) land (KJV).

This is where almost all versions go astray, because they have made the wrong assumption that Peter swam to shore, so that he would already be on the shore. Therefore, they do not know what to do with the Greek word that means "going up". It is used when a person goes from water up on land or moving up a hill, but not used for entering a boat (that would be embainō rather than anabainō). In desperation, the translations add a word that is not in the text. ESV says: "So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore." NIV: "Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore." CEV: "Simon Peter got back into the boat and dragged the net to shore." The LIving Bible realized the problem of going up in a boat at this point, so it says: "So Simon Peter went out and dragged the net ashore." The problem here is that it is the opposite of the text. The verb is not "go out (into the lake)", but "go up (from the lake)".

Entering the boat is not only wrong, but makes no sense. Since the net would be tied to the rear end of the boat and therefore still hanging in the water, why would he enter the boat to haul the net ashore? He could certainly not pull it up into the boat as it was too heavy. And if he wanted to pull it further up on the shore, why enter the boat?

No, Peter is still busy with the fish, because he is ashamed to face his master. He could pull it up a bit, since part of the weight was still carried by the water and it was a very gradual slope. At least long enough to get one of the fish and secure the net. It is only later in the chapter that Peter is restored 3 times by Jesus and given a second chance to be a follower of Jesus.

So, when read in the original context of the clothing used, the situation at the lake, the miracles of no catch and then a huge catch, the link to the first calling of Peter, and his apparent disillusionment (going back to fishing) until he was restored, it all makes perfect sense.

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  • Many thanks for your contribution and insights; I hope you stick around on Biblical Hermeneutics!
    – Susan
    Dec 25 '20 at 14:47
  • Thank you, Susan. I recently discovered this forum, and I enjoy looking at challenging verses, especially in the NT. I have seen some of your comments which I seem to always agree with. English is not my language, but I try. I don¨t use fancy words that I do not know. Dec 25 '20 at 15:38
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Since the ancient Mid-east world used loose clothing, a loosely bound "fisherman's coat" would have been sufficient for outerwear in the boat, while allowing the fisherman to remove it, and dive 'naked' into the water to retrieve his drag net. Whether or not the fisherman would have a 'loin cloth' is a matter of speculation; what one must remember is that it is unlawful to uncover any near of kin,

None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the LORD.(Lev. 18:6)

Since to be 'exposed' to be seen, or to look at one who is exposed(remember Ham) is to uncover their nakedness. And since Peter and Andrew were brothers, as well as James and John, with Zebedee their father, there would have to have been some remedy for this. Of course, when one is in the water, one is 'covered', if one does not go too close.

On the customs of fishing, I ran across this, which gives the methods and customs of fishing during the biblical times.

If the likelihood of fishing with near of kin, he would have been proscribed by the law to wear some sort of loin cloth to prevent uncovering his nakedness to his near of kin; perhaps a pre-arranged signal before he got into the water was all that was necessary.

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  • 1
    'approach' and 'uncover the nakedness of' is a euphemism for having sexual intercourse with someone. Aug 12 '18 at 14:45
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The NIV translates this much differently as do several other translations:

"Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water."

Clark's commentary (also at the link above) points out that "naked" often means missing the outer garment only and gives several examples. It would have been very shameful to be publicly naked in that culture (if Aub Ghraib has taught us anything) and it is doubtful that Peter was.

You have keyed in on a very important point and the one the author was trying to make: Donning a coat IS an odd way to swim. Furthermore, the next verse, the author points out "The other disciples followed in the boat, ... they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards." So only Peter is so exuberant that he can't wait to land the boat which is almost at the shore anyway.

Peter has always been kind of an exuberant goober and it is passages like this that always make me laugh, shake my head, sigh and say "Oh, peter". He's the guy who chops off the ear in the garden, he's they guy who states Christ's deity when asked in Mark 8, Luke 9 and Matt 16, so the author is trying to tell us something about this character. In my opinion it is to contrast his youthful exuberance and devotion with his eventual betrayal.

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  • Thank you for this. I guess I'm still confused about why he added an extra garment before jumping in, regardless of whether he had any on before (I agree that he almost certainly did). Also with regard to the last sentence - note that this pericope is actually after said betrayal, in the presence of the risen Jesus. Your point about the contrast remains valid, though.
    – Susan
    Aug 16 '14 at 13:54
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    “An exuberant goober” is probably the best description of Peter that I've ever heard. It seems clear from context that whatever his literal state of dress, Peter was apparently OK with it around his friends (and, presumably, vice versa), but not around Jesus. But putting on clothes before swimming it still delightfully bizarre, and I think the intent is clear -- exuberance over thought. The others say “Yeah, we're just gonna take the boat, it’s not that far.”
    – TJ Luoma
    Apr 22 '15 at 13:48
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In order to address the assumption made in this conversation which refers to Peter "swimming", I would like to point out that the text doesn't state that he is swimming. In Matthew 14:25-31, Peter sees the Lord walking on water and joins him, however briefly until his faith is shaken. It is possible that Peter is putting on his outer garment to walk to Jesus, as his faith has been fully renewed.

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  • Hi Gretchen, welcome to Hermeneutics! I edited your Answer to help people understand your idea more clearly. The opening line isn't needed with our style here, though it would be responsible for an academic journal (we're just not that wordy here). Also, I put an explanation sentence that links your Mt 14 idea with your opening sentence and separated them. This makes it easier for people to understand your thought flow, specifically of how you're using one Bible passage to interpret another. It's a thoughtful Answer and I hope this helps! Jan 21 '19 at 23:47
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The focus of Jesus’ third appearance after his resurrection seems to be his relationship with Peter and of Peter’s betrayal (Jn 21:1-19). The setting itself recalls their first meeting. Peter had been fishing without success that night as well (Lk 5:1-11). And in both instances, the large catch of fish was the sign that enabled Peter and the others to recognize Jesus:

  • But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken (Lk 5:8-9).
  • 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!” (Jn 21:6-7).

Peter’s response at the first encounter was to fall down and say, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). His response at the latter encounter was to “put on some clothes, for he was naked” and to jump into the sea (Jn 21:7). On the surface, these responses seem totally unrelated. However, consider how nakedeness is associated with humiliation and shame in other passages in the text:

  • Isaiah (47:3) - Babylon is portrayed as a humiliated woman: “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen.”
  • Lamentations (1:8) - “Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away. “
  • Micah (1:11) - “Pass on your way, inhabitants of Shaphir in nakedness and shame.”

If Peter became aware of his own sinfulness at their first encounter, how much more so would he feel shame after having denied Jesus three times. Though never directly mentioned, his denials would be alluded to later in the passage in the dialogue between them (Jn 21:15-17). Perhaps at the moment Peter hears that it is Jesus, his sudden need to don and gird cloak or clothing had less to do with his physical nakedness than with his need to cover his shame.

The reason Peter then jumps into the water is unclear. But since his jump is described as happening at the same moment he “heard that it was the Lord” (Jn 21:7), the cause seems to directly related to his realization of Jesus’ presence. As others have suggested, perhaps he is eager to come to shore and reach Jesus before the others. But if he was feeling shameful and “exposed” at that moment, perhaps he jumped into the water to hide from Jesus’ view. Alternatively, we could posit that his jumping into the water was symbolic of his repentance. This interpretation is admittedly a stretch, but isn’t the path of repentance through water?

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