Reflecting on today’s gospel (John 21:1-19), I’ve been fascinated by what looks to me like a game of avoidance by some of the translations.
The verse I’m drawing attention to is v7. This is the NRSV.
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 (τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο), for he was naked (ἦν γὰρ γυμνός), and jumped into the sea.
The NRSV has a word for word approach to the second phrase I’ve highlighted, although if it were to be consistent it would translate the first phrase something like “he belted up his cloak”. The same word for “belt up” is used later in Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s death as the evangelist narrates it.
I think the combination of these phrases leads many translators and certainly some older commentators (I’m afraid I don’t have a recent commentary on John to hand) astray. They end up sounding as though they’ve digested an anthropologist’s guide to the working clothes of a Galilean fisherman.
The supposedly “literal” ESV offers: “he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work”. The “conservative” NIV has “he wrapped his outer garment round him (for he had taken it off)”
But the “meaning for meaning” versions aren’t any better: “he put on the clothes that he had taken off while he was working” says the CEV. The Voice has “he threw on his shirt (which he would take off while he was working)”
There seems a common desire to avoid the word “naked”.
But I wonder if that’s a rather important word. The whole story is cast as a theophany. (if you talked about anyone other than God “showing himself” to people in any other context than a revelatory appearance, the language would more likely refer to a flasher.) Jesus after his resurrection initiates revelatory encounters with his disciples: they do not decide whether to see the risen Lord.
In that context, John, with his subtle and allusive use of language, may be inviting us to see another scriptural encounter behind the text, when a sinful Adam tries to hide his nakedness from the Lord.
Peter is not quite in the same position here: he both wants to hide himself from, and to be with the Lord. He covers up, and rushes forward. It is an ambivalence of response to God that many a subsequent disciple knows only too well.
The story begins as a clear theophany. It ends as a clear narrative of vocation. In the telling it passes through a story of challenge and forgiveness that is surely intended to call Peter’s threefold denial to mind.
In that context, it seems at least possible, and I would say probable, that we are meant to hear that echo of Adam in the garden. John is not particularly interested in exactly what Galilean fisherman wear or don’t wear to work. He is interested in telling the story of Peter, called in his ordinary working environment, called in his fallen humanity, and above all called by the one who has stayed faithful to his denier, and will lead Peter himself to become a faithful witness who will die rather than deny again.
If that is indeed part of what is going on in John’s story, then translating γυμνός by anything other than “naked” simply won’t do.