Why does Peter put on his tunic to swim to shore?

Q. What does it mean when Jesus comes to the boat and finds Peter naked? I don’t understand why we need to know that, but it’s in the Bible so I expect Jesus had reason to tell us.

I believe the passage you’re referring to is the one at the end of the gospel of John in which the disciples go fishing after Jesus’ resurrection. They fish all night and catch nothing, but in the morning Jesus appears on the shore and tells them where to throw their net. The gospel then says:

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!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

For many of us, when we read this passage and hear that Peter was naked in the boat, our reaction is, “TMI.” (Too much information. We don’t need to know that.)

But the first thing I’d say in response to your question is that Peter was almost certainly not completely naked. The Greek word that’s used here is gymnos. While it often means “naked,” its general meaning is “lacking clothes,” so we have to determine its specific meaning from the context.

For example, James asks in his epistle, “If a brother or sister is gymnos and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” While some English versions translate the term gymnos as “naked” there, James’ meaning seems to be instead that the brother or sister has not enough clothing and not enough food, and that genuine faith with express itself by providing for such a person. And so various other versions translate the term as “poorly clad,” “needing clothes,” “lacking adequate clothing,” etc.

In the same way, the context in the gospel of John suggests that Peter was not literally naked, as that is not how a fishermen would dress (or not dress) for work. Rather, as other English versions suggest, he was “stripped to the waist” or “stripped for work” or “lightly clad” or “had taken off some clothes to work.” The Voice Bible says, “He threw on his shirt (which he would take off while he was working).”

But this still doesn’t answer your question of why the Bible would give us these details about how Peter was dressed for work, and tell us that he put his outer tunic back on before he swam to shore to see Jesus. John is very careful about what details he includes in his gospel and there is usually some thematic or theological significance behind each one. (One of my favorites is when John says that the woman at the well left behind her water jar when she went to tell the other people of her village about Jesus. This detail has symbolic significance: She didn’t need the jar any more because she’d found living water!)

I haven’t found other interpreters discussing the particular detail of Peter’s tunic, but let me offer some reflections of my own about it. I do think it’s significant that three other scenes of taking a garment off or putting one on lead up to this scene at the end of the gospel. Even though different words for the specific “garment” in view are sometimes used in the earlier scenes, I think there’s still significant thematic continuity.

– At the Last Supper, Jesus lays aside his outer garment in order to dress as a servant would as he washes the disciples’ feet.

– When Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the soldiers put a purple robe on him, mocking his claim to be the “King of the Jews.”

– At the cross, as the soldiers are dividing up Jesus’ clothing, they don’t want to rip his tunic into pieces, so they cast lots for it. (In this case, the term for the garment is the same as in the fishing scene.)

Each of these details reveals something about Jesus’ identity. He has come to earth in the role of a servant; nevertheless, he really is a king—the soldiers’ mocking gesture is truer than they know; his death fulfills what Scripture says about God’s redemptive plans, so it’s actually a defeat for his enemies and a victory for God.

I’d argue that Peter putting his tunic back on also reveals something about his identity at that point. I think it symbolizes how he isn’t yet ready to lay aside his “garments” (symbolizing his role and authority) and become a servant as Jesus did. But as Peter speaks with Jesus on the seashore, and Jesus offers him the opportunity to affirm his love for him three times, undoing his threefold denial, Jesus also offers him the role of a servant who will “tend his sheep” and ultimately give his life for them, too. And Peter actually did this: John says that Jesus was showing Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God.

Particularly since Jesus’ act of laying aside his garments stands out as something we wouldn’t expect at a banquet, and Peter’s act of putting on his tunic stands out as something we wouldn’t expect of someone who was just about to dive into the sea and swim, I think we are supposed to associate the two scenes and understand that Peter was just about to learn something necessary about servanthood and embrace that role.

I hope these reflections on your question are helpful.

One person responded to this post by observing that Jesus says to Peter on the shore, “When you were young, you put on your own clothes and went about wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” This suggests that Peter putting on his tunic is indeed being contrasted symbolically with the way of suffering and sacrifice that Jesus invites him to follow.

“The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish,” Duccio, 14th Century. Note that the artist identifies Peter symbolically by having him walk on the water, even though that actually happened in an earlier episode in the gospels. He has already put his tunic back on.

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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