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 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.