First, with all due respect, this important statement is from an inspired apostle. It should not be characterized as bordering on the ridiculous.
If we have proper regard for the divine origin of the Scriptures (based upon adequate evidence), we must assume that there is a reasonable explanation for the statement.
There are several approaches that have been taken with reference to this passage.
A few misguided souls allege that the passage constitutes an unwarranted addition to the original text and should be expunged from the Gospel record.
Others, with a more reverent approach, believe there is a sense in which the text may be viewed as literally true.
However, many contend that the statement reflects a common and legitimate figure of speech, known as hyperbole — a purposeful, easily-identifiable exaggeration for the sake of emphasis.
Let us consider each of these ideas.
Is John’s Statement an Uninspired Addition?
There is absolutely no evidence that this text is an addition to the original Gospel narrative.
Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament addresses textual variations among the manuscript witnesses. No mention is made of any controversy about the authenticity of John 21:25.
This view, therefore, is dismissed without further notice.
Is a Literal Interpretation Possible?
William Hendrikson believed that it is unnecessary to resort to hyperbole in considering John’s characterization of the “things which Jesus did.” He explains the passage in the following way.
“Many, very many facts pertaining to the sojourn of Christ on earth had been recorded in this book. All of them served to strengthen the faith of the Church in the deity and all-sufficiency of Jesus. But, now that the book is finished, no one must begin to think that the story is complete in the sense that everything that Jesus did has been recorded. How could it ever be possible for anyone to deposit in writing the full significance of all that Jesus did, enumerating the facts one by one, and bringing out the significance of each word and deed in which his love (and all the other divine virtues) was so gloriously displayed? It is literally true that were one to attempt this he would discover that ‘the world itself could not contain the written volumes,’ and this for the simple reason that no finite number can ever record the deeds performed by Infinite Love” (494).
This view, of course, depends upon two things.
First, that John’s reference to the things that Jesus did was broader than a discussion of the miraculous signs for which the book is noted.
Second, it was not just the things themselves, but also the significance of those things that the apostle had in mind.
If this was the thrust of John’s comment, then perhaps Hendrikson had a point.
This is not the view, however, that most scholars entertain with reference to this matter.
A Hyperbolic Figure of Speech?
The explicit purpose of John’s Gospel had been set forth just prior to the statement under consideration.
Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name (Jn. 20:30-31).
It would seem to appear, therefore, that the apostle focused principally upon the sign-works that Christ did. John purposely was very selective in the materials he introduced relative to the life of Christ and the miracles performed by the Lord.
J. W. McGarvey once observed that all of the incidents of the Savior’s earthly ministry that are recorded in John’s Gospel occupy only twenty-five days, plus the final week (35). That’s about thirty days out of 1,260!
This is selectivity at its finest — and from the disciple who was closest to the Lord.
Furthermore, of the many signs that Christ performed during his three and one-half year ministry, only nine are narrated in the Fourth Gospel. And this includes the Lord’s resurrection, in which Jesus personally was involved (Jn. 2:19, 21).
If the “many other things” phrase of John 21:25 refers strictly to the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, it would appear that common sense would require that the passage be interpreted as a hyperbole.
This seems to be the case for the following reason.
Jesus was not constantly performing miracles every hour of the day during his ministry. There were times when he abstained from performing signs (cf. Mt. 13:58). There were periods he spent in solitude (e.g., the forty days in the wilderness).
His miracles were many, but not constant.
But let us hypothesize, just for the sake of illustration, that Christ performed one miracle each hour — day and night — for the 1,260 days of his ministry. That would total 30,240 miracles.
Even this number could have been recorded in the books that were housed in the world’s libraries at that time. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, the library at Alexandria in Egypt contained 700,000 volumes.
The most reasonable view of this dramatic passage, therefore, seems to be that it is characterized by hyperbole.
And the obvious design of the figure was to emphasize the fact that the Gospel records were intentionally selective. The material embraced was limited and considerably more could have been said regarding the phenomenal signs that Jesus performed.
Hyperbole Used by Ancient Writers
This type of expression was well known in the antique world.
For instance, in Jewish circles, there was a prominent rabbi named Eliezer. To this illustrious teacher, the following tribute was paid.
“If the heavens were parchment, and all the sons of men writers, and all the trees of the forest pens, they would not be sufficient for writing all the wisdom of which he was possessed” (cited in: McClintock and Strong, 447).
There are similar examples from the Greek classics.
Those who object to the literary use of hyperbole do so at the peril of compromising their own educational credibility.
In conclusion, we cannot resist asking this question.
Why is it that even the critics seem able to understand that Herod Antipas was not a “fox” (Lk. 13:32) and that the Pharisees did not literally “swallow” camels (Mt. 23:24), and yet they choke over a symbolic text of the nature of John’s statement?
Apparently gnat-strainers did not become extinct with the passing of the Pharisees!