Sunday, September 11, 2011

Behind closed doors

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you" (Jn 20:19, ESV).

It’s remarkable how much theology, eschatology, and metaphysics has been mined from this single elliptical verse. It’s been used to prop up esoteric theories of the eucharist. Likewise, some apologists and theologians infer from this verse that Christ’s body wasn’t subject to ordinary physical or spatial constraints. They extrapolate the nature of the glorified body from this solitary verse.

By contrast, here’s how a recent commentator understands the verse:

His coming, therefore, is unexpected, and possibly miraculous, although nothing is made of its miraculous character. Did he just appear suddenly behind the locked doors, or did he knock and gain admission (like Peter in Acts 12:13)? J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 1007.

Especially for readers conditioned by conventional translations and popular explanations, this interpretation may seem to be rationalistic or roundabout. However, Michaels has a footnote:

It is unclear whether the “locked doors” are literally locked or simply closed (see BDAG, 546-47). Ibid. 1007n3.

And when we turn to BDAG, this is the definition:

Kleio: to prevent passage at an opening, shut, lock, bar
Close, lock, shut

Another standard Greek lexicon gives the same range of meanings:

Shut, close; lock
Used literally kleio means close (a door, Mt 6:6; 25:10; Lk 11:7; Jn 20:19,26; Acts 21:30) or lock (a building, Acts 5:23). EDNT 2:296-97.

So the Greek word actually has a wider semantic range than “to lock.” It can also mean “to shut or close.”

In that event, Jn 20:9 can be rendered “locked doors,” but it could just as well be rendered “closed doors.”

If the latter, then the passage would emphasize the element of surprise and divine initiative. Jesus knew where they were hiding, and he came to them. He sought they out and manifested himself to them as the Risen Lord.

Many apologists and theologians have erected an elaborate superstructure over what is just an artifact of translation. One possible way of rendering the Greek.

Of course, we can still debate the best way to render the Greek in context, as well as the best overall interpretation of the verse. But this should caution us against raising a skyscraper on the foundation of one ambiguous, elliptical verse.


  1. First, I don't have any particular apologetic stake in this.

    With that said, I would suggest that the perfect participle is meant to emphasize that the door is closed or locked at the time that Jesus 'came and stood' among them. This is especially the case since "the doors" and the participle are genitives, forming a genitive absolute relative to the main action of Jesus arriving.

    The presence of the perfect has a certain prominence in the discourse (encoding the imperfective aspect), which may have jumped out at the original reader, presenting the closedness of the door immediately before them (thus it may well be a stative). Note that this is a structural rather than lexical point.

    Thus I would not be averse to a rendering to the effect, "the doors being closed (because ...) Jesus came and stood..." Also, since the participle still needs interpretation, it is entirely possible that it could mean, "While the doors were closed Jesus came and stood..." The phrase " ὅπου ἦσαν οἱ μαθηταὶ συνηγμένοι διὰ τὸν φόβον τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων" stands adverbially in the genitive absolute clause.

    My two cents.