Gospel of John – Multiple Edition Theories

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.

Raymond 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 that 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 aim would therefore be to continue to try and convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah.

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.

9 thoughts on “Gospel of John – Multiple Edition Theories

  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.


  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!


  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.


  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.


  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?


    • 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)


      • 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.


    • 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.


  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 .


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