Some time ago, I made a surprising discovery in the Greek text of John's Gospel.

In its final chapter, Jesus says to Peter:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” 

(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me” [John 21:18-19].  

The surprising thing is in the parenthetical remark by John: "This he [Jesus] said to show by what death he [Peter] was to glorify God."

Standard English translations render the final verbal phrase in the past tense ("was to glorify," RSV, ESV) or with the subjunctive mood ("should/would glorify," KJV, Douay).

But the Greek doesn't have either a past tense or the subjunctive mood. Instead, the Greek verb is doksasei, which is in the future tense and the indicative mood.

You could translate the remark, "This he said to show by what death he will glorify God."

I've done some checking on this translation--including checking with one of the best-known scholars of New Testament Greek today--and it's legitimate. While you could translate the phrase the way it is normally rendered in English versions, the straightforward, future tense translation is also legitimate.

As far as I have been able to tell, the standard translation is motivated by the common belief that John's Gospel was written late--e.g., in the A.D. 90s--long after Peter's death in the A.D. 60s.

However, if you go with the straightforward, future tense translation then it suggests the opposite--that John's Gospel was written early, before Peter's death (likely in A.D. 67). The same is suggested by other things in the Gospel, which contains clues that it was written before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

My ears perked up, therefore, when the readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent caused something to click for me that hadn't before.

They contained this passage, also from John:

"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 

He said this to show by what death he was to die [John 12:32-33]. 

Notice how similar this is to the passage in which Jesus' predicts the manner of Peter's death. The two passages are so close that it would be hard not to see them as deliberate parallels on the part of the Evangelist: First he shows Jesus signifying the means of his own death, then he shows Jesus signifying the means of Peter's death, and he makes strikingly similar parenthetical remarks to point out the significance of the two statements to the reader.

The two aren't just similar in English. They are also close in Greek. But what I immediately wanted to know was: What was the Greek tense of the final verbal phrase in John 12:33?

If it was in the future tense then, since the Gospel was obviously written after Jesus' death (which it records) then that would count as evidence that the later passage was also written after Peter's death.

But if it wasn't future tense then it could indicate that there was a difference about the relationship between when the Gospel was written and when the two deaths occurred.

As it turns out, the Greek phrase is ēmellen apothnēskein ("was/was about to die"), and the verb ēmellen ("he was about to") is in the imperfect tense, which deals with past time (apothnēskein is an infinitive; "to die").

This does not prove that the passage regarding Peter's death was written before that event occurred, but it is another data point that is consistent with the idea that John was written before Peter's death.

 

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