At our recent annual conference, someone sent in this question, which we did not have time to answer at the time:
John wrote, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 20:31). Is this hyperbole? Literal?
On the one hand, it seems clear that this is hyperbole. John is exaggerating for effect. According to an article I found online at theatlantic.com, there are over 129 million hard copy books in the world today. But we could build libraries in all the deserts and both poles and store billions more books. Surely the earth could store billions of books.
On the other hand, it is at least conceivable that billions of books might have been written about all that Jesus did and said. Eta Linnemann suggested that for 3.5 years, Jesus taught about 4 hours a day, two hours publicly and two hours privately with His disciples. Just recording what He said would have taken up hundreds of books the size of the four Gospels.
Then there is everything that Jesus did. We only have a record of a fraction of all His miracles. Many more books could be added.
But that is just telling us what He said and did. Now, how about all the books that could comment on all that He said and did. There could be thousands of books commenting on every book written about Jesus.
There have been entire books written to discuss just one verse in the Gospels.
I have read many commentaries and many journal articles. Scholars never seem to lack something to write about. Doctoral students have to do original research. Yet every year worldwide thousands of students write dissertations about Jesus and His Body, the Church.
The bottom line. John was making a point that what he has written is but the tip of the iceberg of what could have been written. Whether he was exaggerating a little or a lot is disputed by the commentators.
Here is what three commentators say about John 21:25:
Ed Blum does not see this statement as extreme hyperbole: “The final verse—with its statement about the world not having room for all the books that could be written about Jesus’ deeds—may seem at first glance to be an exorbitant overstatement…Yet the Gospels record only a small sample of Jesus’ words and works. Someone has estimated that a person can read aloud Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels in only about three hours. But if all that the infinite Son of God said and did in His Incarnation were pondered, the resulting commentary would be endless (“John” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, vol. 2, p. 346).
Raymond Brown sees John (or a redactor) using “flamboyant hyperbole,” but says that was an acceptable practice in that day: “it is widely recognized that such flamboyant hyperbole was a well-accepted literary convention of the times, both in Gentile and Jewish literature” (John XIII-XXI, p. 1130).
D. A. Carson agrees with Blum: “Doubtless this may be taken as a pardonable exaggeration, but the stylistic and theological care of the Evangelist throughout the work argue decisively against the suggestion. If in v. 24 the Evangelist has already alluded to the Prologue (cf. notes above), it is best to think he is doing so again. The Jesus to whom he bears witness is not only the obedient Son and the risen Lord, he is the incarnate Word, the one through whom the universe was created. If all his deeds were described, the world would be a very small and inadequate library indeed” (John, p. 686).