Who Wrote John?
Unnecessary movie remakes give me a headache. Why mess with a classic? Often times, this is simply Hollywood’s attempt at a cash-grab—better to make a film based on a tried-and-true story you know the audience has embraced than gamble on something they might not. Sometimes the film adds little—outside of snazzy new special effects, like 2010’s Clash of the Titans. Thankfully, a few films have capitalized on their chance to retell a particular story, such as Tim Burton’s reimagining of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in his 2005 version, which deepened Wonka’s character by adding elements not even in Dahl’s book. Reverting the title to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory honors this change (as the 70s version suggests that the film is more about Wonka than Charlie). Likewise, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo pays closer respect to the source material, by focusing more on Lisbeth Salander, than the 2009 Swedish version, which focuses more on the crime Mikhail and Lisbeth investigate.
We can do it better, Fincher seemed to be saying.
But not everyone who reinterpret previous work does a good job. The assessment, however, depends on who is judging.
So Helms at last handles John, and he has a lot to say about this final Gospel—and so doing, he echoes his recurring refrain that John saw fit to improve upon the material he had at his disposal.
But before he gets to this point, Helms first dates the work around 90-95 AD, and notes that it was written in Alexandria. He wants to emphasize that John’s author was not an eye-witness to Jesus’ life. This seems to be his strongest point–why else would you start here; however, he moves on to more significant details. He wll, however, return to the significance of this date.
The first point that differentiates John from the other three: Jesus’ moment of total triumph is not some future second coming. Why? According to Helms, this already happened at crucifixion (135): “I shall draw all men to myself when I am lifted up from the earth” (John 12:32). According to Helms, John 3:14-15 makes clear that those who believe in Jesus earn eternal life, which negates the need for Jesus’s return. For Helms, this explains the change in Jesus’ dying words on the cross from a wonder as to why God has forsaken him to: “It is accomplished!” (John 19:30).
So Mark missed the mark with the date by which Jesus would return. This partly explains why Matthew and Luke merely extended the time period in order to allow for Jesus to resurface. John, however, treats Mark’s problem differently: the Parousia is redundant because there was no need for it (136). Therefore, the changes apparently reflect John’s concerted effort “to cure Christianity of the religious illusion known technically as future eschatology” (136). Why this change? In theory, this allows for people to focus on the present, not future. This is known as “realized” eschatology (136).
Basically: Jesus doesn’t need to return in order to finish his work.
Aside from this major fundamental issue, why else did John craft his Gospel the way he did? According to Helms, when Synoptic Christianity arrived in Alexandria around 80 AD, he saw a threat, as represented by the Gospel of Mark. These ideas places too much emphasis on Peter, thus giving his ideas authority (137). So how did John counter this influence? He introduces the nameless “Beloved Disciple,” and, according to Helms, in so doing, John moves Peter from first to second, in terms of importance. This finally explains why his date of authorship was important in the beginning.
For example, at the Last Supper (13:1, 18:8). Peter is shown to be less intimate with Jesus. Helms discusses much more evidence that functions the same way (138-141).
Helms also makes much of John’s lack of naming Jesus’ mother. For example, at the foot of Jesus’ cross, the group of women (three, perhaps four) does not include mention of her name (141). This anonymity functions purposefully, much in the way the nameless beloved disciple: it can stand in for groups of people. The idea seems to allow for more inclusivity among believers.
The last point he makes in this first of two chapters on John is perhaps most interesting: John’s original author was later edited by a more “conservative editor” (145). What’s his evidence here? His first point handles the Eucharist. John 6:63 states that “The spirit alone gives life; the flesh is of no avail”; however, John 6:54 states: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life.” Seems like a contradiction, right? This just shows how some people at the time were uncomfortable with John’s stance in places and sought to include some material to represent the more “traditional futuristic eschatology” (145). This is the other main reason the time of authorship proves significant.
Why would the original author have eschewed the flesh? According to Helms, John’s community did not see the eating of flesh as a way to eternal life: the spirit was enough (146). These and other reasons, for Helms, demonstrate why the Gnostics “welcomed John’s Gospel, and no wonder it had been re-written [in order] to be acceptable to the developing mainstream” (146).
So he ends this chapter by focusing on the efforts of the first John author to emphasize the importance of the spirit of Jesus—nothing else was needed. Helms’ John 2 is the one who added the importance of “ritual and final judgment” (147).
Helms makes an interesting case of the dual-authorship here, and it impacts how I think about this Gospel. And with any reimagining of a text, I can’t help wonder which is “more accurate.”