Gospel of John – Multiple Edition Theory

Is it possible John wrote his gospel and then revised it many years later?

In most multiple edition theories there was a single base document which underwent several revisions, possibly at the hand of the original author, over a number of years.  Analogies for this sort of work abound in modern scholarly writing where an author revisits his book 20 or 30 years later and revises the book to reflect additional learning or thinking, possibly to bring it up to date.  Brown himself is an example of this as he was in the process of revising his commentary on John after 30 years when he died.

Like multiple-source theories, these sorts of theories can become rather complex. W. Wilkins, for example, saw four stages for the gospel of John.  First, a Book of Signs, 4 in Galilee and 3 in Jerusalem.  Seven Discourses were later added to the signs and then another  writer added 3 Passover stories (2:13-22, 6:51-58, 12:1-7).  A final redactor added chapter 21, completing the book as we have it today. While this accounts for the whole Gospel of John, it is nearly impossible to know if any of these revisions of the book actually happened – there is no documentary evidence for this sort of a theory. Urban C. Von Wahlde has an even more complex explanation of the various voices in the Gospel of John in his three-volume commentary on the Gospel and letters of John (Eerdmans, 2010).

Raymond BrownRaymond Brown suggested a more plausible multiple edition theory. The natural first stage was the actual public ministry of Jesus and his disciples.  After the resurrection, the twelve apostles publicly preached the resurrection of Jesus. The synoptic gospels reflect this apostolic preaching.  The tradition that Mark preserve the preaching of Peter may indicate that the outline and content of the book as the content to of the apostolic “trust.”  Matthew and Luke make use of Mark, and possible Q (or Matthew has the Q material, either way, Matthew and Luke reflect the Galilean disciples of Jesus).

According to Brown, John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. This accounts for the different sorts of information that was remembered and passed along, for difference sin tone and language, for the emphasis on Jerusalem and the Jewish festivals, and possible (so says Brown), the Light / Dark theme that is parallel to what we read in the Qumran materials.

It is possible the Johannine Community included Samaritans, based on John 4 and 8:48 (Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan). Jews and Samaritans sharing fellowship in a single religious community would have been scandalous, especially in pre-70 Judea. Brown suggests that Jews that accepted Jesus as the Messiah convinced in synagogues.

There were debates within the synagogues which generated a number of “homilies” preserving Jesus’ teaching that were attempts to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.  It is possible that some time before 70 these Christians were expelled from the synagogue, ostracized and persecuted. (See 1:11, 10:28-29; 15:18, 16:2 and the“not of this world” theme in 15:18, 16:3, 16:33). John therefore could be aimed at Jewish Christians that are still in the synagogue (“crypto-Christians” in Brown) who are not fully “Christian” in the opinion of the author. They need to come out and be separate from the Synagogue.

A second goal of the Gospel would therefore be to convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah. This fits well with the purpose of the Gospel as stated in John 20:30-31:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

If Brown is on the right track, then it is possible to read John as a reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the mid-90’s A.D. This theory accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology.

22 thoughts on “Gospel of John – Multiple Edition Theory

  1. These are some interesting theories. I guess it would make sense to think that the gospels went through some revisions and editing marks. I wonder through that theory though if we are highlighting too much of the human nature of the writing. The gospels are God’s inspired Word. This may seem to be self-defeating for anyone who is reviewing the Bible through a secular humanistic world view, but does that make that claim less true? I would hesitate to give the gospels editing marks and revisions when it could have been plainly spoken by God through the writers on that spot.

    The other theory by Brown has me a bit confused. I do not really understand where Brown is going. Is he trying to say that the reason that John is written that way is because John is trying to get the Jews to realize that Christianity is the real way? In other words, like you said, the parting of Judaism and Christianity? How does that differ from what we have traditionally viewed John as? This does not seem to clash with my thinking because Brown is saying that the gospel of John has a purpose and written to a particular audience. That makes sense because the writers of the Bible did have a reason when they wrote and we are taught to understand that meaning to the original audience to fully understand what God is saying through the book.

    Like

    • You have some interesting thoughts. I would not necessarily thing that the edits and revisions would be self-defeating for those who are reviewing the Bible from a secular world view. I would say that the Gospels and even all the books in the Bible were edited to make more sense to the world in more modern times because some of the things that may have been said back in biblical times are most definitely not what we would say today. Of course I may be wrong in that line of thinking. On the other hand, we talk about how some translations of the Bible might have been translated so much that the original context of the Gospels may have been lost. I believe that God must have been with the original authors in some way or another and he continues to be with those who translate the Bible with each and every edition that comes out. The biggest thing is how readers interpret the teachings of the Bible. For example, in the Ten Commandments God ordered that no one should murder, but there was a Christian in Germany during World War II who conformed to the Nazi’s belief that it was okay to kill all the Jews. Somehow he interpreted something in the Bible that basically gave him permission to accept the murders of millions of Jewish people.

      Like

  2. I have never realized just how hard it is to figure out who wrote what. I thought that it was clear all along that John wrote the entire book. One thing I learned that probably wasn’t part of the first copy of John is chapter 21. When reading the book really does seem like it should end in chapter 20. However after Jesus appears with Thomas, the book concludes with one of Jesus’ miracles. W. Wilkins theory probably cannot be proved wrong but in my opinion it seems like it is a little far-fetched. Like I said earlier, I do however agree that the fourth part of Wilkins theory may be correct.
    I am not sure really how to react to all the theories out there. My first reaction was to start doubting scripture all together. It seemed like God may have called to one Godly person every now and then to write a book but to think that any yahoo could have revised or even added scripture seems a bit scary to me. I agree that the author may have come back and corrected things to explain things. Although I had some reason to doubt, Brent B. had some good things to say about the inerrancy of scripture in his post. Blomberg also says, “historical trustworthiness in the ancient world was not defined by the degrees of scientific precision or exact quotation that our modern society relishes” (180). Even if changes were made I should have faith that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). That verse seems to pop up a million times now in this class but it is a very important to believe that no matter what God is speaking through the author!

    Like

  3. This is all a very confusing topic to me. Like Greg, I never really realized how hard it was to figure out who wrote what. Im my opinion, I don’t think it really matters who wrote what, just as long as someone wrote down things that Jesus said and did. The Bible is God-breathed and I feel thats all that matters. I do believe that the Bible had to go through editing and revisions but I don’t feel that during these revisions anything was taken out that Jesus did because the Bible again is God-breathed and that’s all thats really important.
    I don’t really understand where Brown is going either like what Brent said. It really confuses me. Like what Brent said, Brown said it was written to a particular audience and has a purpose which is true so that doesn’t really make a difference. All scritpure has a purpose or else it wouldn’t be in the Bible.

    Like

  4. We can never know if these revisions actually happened, or if more than one person wrote any book of the Bible. That being said, I don’t think this topic is all that important apologetically. If more than one person wrote the Bible or made revisions, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s contents are true, timeless, and important. This does however bring up an interesting thought. What if someone revised all of the Bible and it’s not how it was originally intended? I know this is a stretch, and I think that God would have intervened in some way if this were the case, but it is an interesting thought. 2 Timothy 3:16 keeps sticking out in my mind with this topic for some reason. I think this verse is always used as the ‘trump card’ for proving Scripture as all true, all God-inspired, but what is Scripture actually referring to in this verse? I’m not actually sure what the answer to that question is. The books of the Bible were selected by men. How did they choose what was God-inspired, and should be in the Bible. Is the Apocrypha not God-inspired? Why are other books in biblical times considered not God-inspired? I don’t know all the answers to these questions, I am posing them to start conversation, but also with hopes of them being answered.

    Like

  5. I would have to say that I lean towards the idea that John is written with the “parting of ways” of the Jews and Christ followers in mind. Ben Witherington has a nifty idea of why the gospel of John was written the way it was. He concluded that John was focused on the task to help Christians “be more effective in evangelizing non-christian friends and relatives with a special focus on the Jews” (Blomberg p196). Another researcher calls it “an evangelistic tract to the unsaved Jews” (Blomber p.196).
    It is important to remember that there is “no documentary evidence” for the ideas researchers call “multiple edition theories” if I am not mistaken?

    Like

    • I like what Tuttle is saying in his post. He makes a good point when he points out that in Blomberg it says that John’s purpose for being written is to help the readers ““be more effective in evangelizing non-christian friends and relatives with a special focus on the Jews” (Blomberg p196).” The fact that there may have been many different authors or revisers of the book of John seems bleak, at best, considering the continual values that are set throughout the book. I am not sure more than one author could possibly keep the same train of thought throughout an entire book. I know for me it is even hard to start a paper, leave it for a day, and then finish it with the same goals for the paper from start to finish. If someone were to take one of my started papers and try to finish it with the same concepts and goals would be even more difficult. So in my opinion I like to think that there was one particular author to the book of John. I am still open to the idea that the same author may have edited it though….is there any problem with that idea??? (just throwing it out there)

      Like

      • That John wrote, then edited his gospel is possible. I think Brown’s point was that John wrote a gospel, then died and his disciples edited and finished it.

        Like

    • That is the problem with any theory of development for a written document (Like John). There almost never is certainty as to the proposed sources. I think that it is entirely possible John had a “book of signs” from which he drew, but it is also just as likely he wrote from his own experience.

      Like

  6. While John s content may be unique he presents a different side of Jesus that is complimentary to the other three Gospels and helps provide its readers with a clearer understanding of his divinity and pre-existence. of Caesarea quotes as saying that the disciple John who reclined on his bosom wrote a Gospel in . There is no direct evidence that this John is the son of Zebedee and some scholars have suggested an alternative John the Elder .

    Like

  7. I would like to think it is possible for him to have written the Gospel and then revised/corrected it later. The reason I think that is because it ties right into John 20:30-31. We know that throughout the Gospels Jesus had an account of the many miracles that he performed, yet according to John 20 we find that John only included some of the “signs” that Jesus had done. Being a close disciple, part of the inner circle, I have to assume that John must’ve been around a great many miracles/signs during his lifetime. The question I ponder about is, what if John had previously written many of the miracles before, and then revised it later because he realized maybe they were of little importance? Kostenberger shows us just how different John is from the Synoptics, and even tells us the direction John chose to go with his gospel. I feel as if John knew he needed to take a different route, and emphasize the main points of Jesus’ teachings. As readers of the Gospels we know that John does not talk about the birth of Christ, or even the early stages of his life, so why not? I feel as if John wanted future readers to learn less about the historical side of Jesus, and more about the importance of the “life” he brought to the world. John decides to take his own turn on his gospel, by taking us back to creation (John 1:1), and bringing us to finding new life in Christ (John 1:4). John uses his words to paint a vivid picture for future readers of the important life Jesus had on the earth, and just how powerful his miracles were. I think John could have very well corrected his own gospel, just to show future readers what they really needed to hear.

    Like

  8. The book of John seems to have different theories on whether it was written throughout multiple times or even revised later. But, it does seem plausible to me that this multiple edition theory makes the most sense based off of the writings of John. A man named Kostenberger seems to represent this idea as he has the book broken up into three parts. The first part is the book of signs where John chooses certain signs that prove Jesus is the Messiah. The second part is labeled the book of exaltation where John focuses on the new covenant and the Passion. Finally, he adds a little epilogue at the end. (Kostenberger, 16-17). The point of this theory fits well with the point of why John is writing to the Jews. He uses different characters and people that confess truths about Jesus throughout his past with Jesus to prove his point that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God,” (John 20:31, NIV). He most likely would have had to written at different times to gather all the signs and the testimonies of people to prove his point. I believe John is a smart man using the methods he has to show the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, who is also human, but who can perform miracles and died for them.

    Köstenberger Andreas J. Encountering John: the Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Baker Academic, 2013.

    Like

  9. While reading this article it really made me think about how the gospel of John really came to be. Whether it was written early and revised to meet the needs the other synoptic gospels have or if it was just written later and had different events and stories that were after or during the life of Jesus. In the book “Encountering John” by Kostenberger he talks about how John is written differently and has different aspects than the other gospels have in them. As stated in the article it has written, “A second goal of the Gospel would therefore be to convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah. This fits well with the purpose of the Gospel as stated in John 20:30-31:” (Long, para. 6). I like this idea because it is trying to show the truth of the gospel and try to convert Jews and gentiles to Christianity. In john’s gospel he writes about the signs that Jesus was and is God and he came to earth to redeem us from our sins. John is called the book of signs because of the 7 different signs he did while in his ministry. But the problem with that is how can john know about all these signs if the book wasn’t in progress of writing or was written. So, my guess would be John was there and present and was able to suppress those memories of what he was a part of, or he heard about the stories and what people told him and he wrote from there. The book of John is very complex in trying to understand how it came to be. But with that it is very helpful to better understand the time Jesus was here on earth.

    Like

    • Luke, I really appreciate your insight on this post and your perspective. I think you hit the nail on the head by reflecting on when and how you think the gospel of John was written. I do wish you would have expanded more on what you thought on the several editions theory but I understand you wanted to focus more on what Kostenberger had to say. It is very interesting that John recounted the events so differently then compared to the other gospels but I really think that points to the fact that each of the writers had different things that stuck out to them from the things they witnessed.

      Like

  10. In my opinion, whether or not John edited and revised his original writing of the Gospel, we are still left with one final version that has not been altered for centuries. And this refined version is enough to convince the unbeliever of the divinity of Jesus. While this is indeed a very utilitarian view of the controversy, I think we must acknowledge that all technical approaches to identify how the Gospel of John was compiled pales in comparison to the finished product–which is sufficient to report the means of salvation. Nevertheless, I do think that the multiple-edition theory of the book of John is very plausible, and in fact, I think it is more likely that some minor revisions and edits took place to some of the original manuscripts. Logically, in my experience, after I complete something and then return to it years later, I never fail to find that certain aspects of it can be updated and enhanced. Perhaps this is what the theory is implying: Granted that the Holy Spirit was guiding John to write the Gospel accurately, when he or his disciples returned to the book years later, considering the culture and other resources, perhaps some changes had to be made. However, I do find it hard to believe that the letter was composed over a long period of time in chunks or sections, as Brown suggests. I think, given the longevity and sequential nature of the book, that it was composed in one attempt, and then, over a period of time, revised and refined until the truth of the Gospel, which was present from the beginning, became utterly clear and understandable and unmistakable.

    Like

  11. I think that it is interesting that back in the olden days, it was looked down upon to be friends with another people group, but Jesus still desired for those people to be in relationship with one another to be united. “Jews and Samaritans sharing fellowship in a single religious community would have been scandalous, especially in pre-70 Judea. Brown suggests that Jews that accepted Jesus as the Messiah convinced in synagogues,”(Long, 2010). We see this today too and how there is still tension between different people groups. Whether that is language, color of skin, personalities, hobbies, gifts/talents, beliefs and so on.
    Thankfully, God does not want us to be divided. Jesus also saw unity with one another important for He said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,”(John 15:13, NIV). Also to add, in John 13:34 it says, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,”(John 13:34, NIV). We are to love one another, no matter what they look like, sound like and even smell like!
    Lastly, God is longs for us to be united as a body (1 Cor. 12:12) and to be one with the Father, just as He is one with the Father, (John 10:30). He is heart is for us to be in an intimate relationship with God. Köstenberger supports this thought by saying, “… Jesus is the Son underscores the intimacy of his relationship with God,”(Köstenberger, 38).

    I encourage you to spend time with God by reading His word, worshiping Him and other creative ways.
    Rather than spending time with Him (reading the Bible) to prove a point,
    let us spend time with the motivation of being one with Him.

    ~Blessings

    Like

  12. The idea that John might have had multiple additions to it, or revisions done to it seems to a strange thought. I would be interested to know if the multiple additions theory is something that is only questioned about the book of John, and why that is? Or, are there other book that some have questioned to have multiple additions to them? Brown’s theory is also interesting, and it is hard to imagine living in a time where the thought of two people groups worshiping together would have been unheard of. Whether or not that is the case, Brown’s theory is lacking evidence that this community even existed, which again begs the question, how we jumped to these conclusions. (Long, 17).
    In this time frame, there was lots of developing theology. In his book, John has developed a high Christology for the early Christian believes to follow (Long, 16). This development of theology was being developed because, as stated above, there was a split developing between Judaism and Christianity, and an understanding of what Jesus came to do. This is the part that I agreed with Brown’s theory, that a divide has been created, but anything further then that is just speculation due to the lack of evidence.

    Like

  13. As I read further into Encountering John, and the Scripture it is clear not anyone really knows what happened with the book of John. I guess you could say that there are many theories like, the revision, the following of Jesus, and why John’s stories isn’t like the ones in the other Gospels but at the end of the day that’s all they are, are theories and opinions. I do like what Brown had to say about John though; “According to Brown, John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. This accounts for the different sorts of information that was remembered and passed along, for difference sin tone and language, for the emphasis on Jerusalem and the Jewish festivals, and possible ” (Long para 4). It does make sense on why it would be so different then all the others, if there are logically two different groups of people and stories remembered and passed on, some where along the line it had to have been revised thus bringing W. Wilkins theory into play as well. But, besides all of the opinions, “evidence”, and beliefs we are left with one Gospel of John and personally that’s the one I feel as though, whatever happened to it, to get it to the place it is at now was all the works of God.

    Like

  14. Interesting idea that John could have written his gospel and then revised it many years later, which could have some legs, but would we ever truly know? Considering the way that we are able to date certain writings from the way it is written and what it is written on. He could have written it one way at first but then when he rewrote it, they were writing on a different type of stationary and they had developed a new way of writing. As you mentioned, there is no evidence to show the amount of revisions or any revisions actually happened to support this theory completely. It is pretty much based upon what ifs. However, part of it could make sense considering the detail in some portions of the gospel. Either the author has a very good memory, or he had written it originally closer to the date they occurred and not some 50-70 years after the fact. This information could have easily been passed along over time as much of the Bible for some time was passed along orally until they were written on scrolls and passed around, allowing for many people to hear the word. Because of this, it is very possible that ‘new Christianity’ contained Samaritans which would be very surprising for that time. Jews and Samaritans did not interact with one another and many times did not even speak to one another. The Jews would take another, longer route just to avoid Samaria. However, John’s community was changing the culture, allowing Samaritans to worship in the same space as Jews alongside one another.

    Like

  15. To think that the gospel of John was revised several times as before it was completed as Brown suggests I suppose could be a viable theory. I, however, do not think that was the case because God spoke to the writers of scripture and they wrote according to the spirit’s leading. The theory that there are multiple revisions in John over several years would lead to major contradictions within the book itself which would then lead to more revisions. The theory of multiple revisions seems complicated and hard to understand. The keyword is theory here because we have no real evidence for such a thing happening with John. Some would point out that the revisions would be similar to how we have different translations today, that is a possible theory but once again it is just a theory. I must point out that even if there were multiple revisions on the gospel of John that does not make me doubt the reliability of the text because God preserves his word. However, for me, it is hard to believe that there were several revisions of the original text over large portions of time. Critics will forever try to find ways to discredit scripture and there will always be different views on how scripture came to be but we know that God’s word is alive and active Hebrews 4:12.

    Like

  16. 9/4

    Multiple Edition Theory

    The idea that John could have been edited after it was written, I don’t quite think that

    It is an interesting concept that John could have been re-written as it is part of the “Gospel” category. Since everything that is written throughout scripture is God breathed, God inspired. I find it difficult to wrap my mind around this idea that it could have been re-written. However, the article strikes a sense of wanting to educate myself in this idea. Since John is written differently than other Gospels than I can see how this could be a concept or an idea of the book. Since John doesn’t write about certain topics that the previous 3 books wrote about, John wrote about his content with a purpose. In a way, I do wish there were second additions, or additional chapters that were written so that we can deeper understand scripture. Brown, the author of this possible theory writes, “John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem.” Since John is reflecting these, I just can’t agree with a revised version of John because these teachings are teachings are meant to be written about. If these were made up, or taken away, then I think we would have a different outlook upon Jesus’s ministry.

    Like

  17. Raymond Brown thought up the idea the book of John may have been written and then added to over a period of time. Rather than the idea that John wrote the book at one time. Sure, the idea that John could have wrote his book over time rather than at one time is believable. Here is what we know about the Gospel of John. John is written by the apostle John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Not to be confused with John the Baptist. John is believed to have been written between the time of AD 50 and AD 85. The main theme of John is to present Jesus as the true son of God. Now to me this is the important information we need to know about John’s gospel. Is it an interesting idea to think about how John wrote his book? I think it is something to think about, even though I don’t think it really matters or makes much of a difference. To me whether John wrote his book at one time or over the course of his doesn’t make a difference and that only what’s in his book really matters. Like I said this is my opinion of the subject and I could be wrong.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.