The Gospel of John and Christian Origins

By Bennema, Cornelis | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2015 | Go to article overview

The Gospel of John and Christian Origins


Bennema, Cornelis, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Gospel of John and Christian Origins. By John Ashton. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014, xii + 228 pp., $49.00 paper.

John Ashton, former Lecturer in NT Studies at Oxford University, is well known for his work on the Fourth Gospel, including his Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Studying John: Approaches to the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). The current book, based on a short series of lectures delivered at St Mary's University College, London in 2012, stands in the same excellent tradition. The book consists of nine chapters and four excursuses, framed by an introduction and conclusion.

In the introduction, Ashton reveals that his aim is to tease out how Christianity emerged from Judaism. He sees the stark incompatibility of the two religions reflected, for example, in the Johannine Prologue: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (1:17). His central argument is that "the Gospel represents a deliberate decision to supplant Moses and to replace him with Jesus, thereby substituting one revelation, and indeed one religion, for another" (p. 3). Ashton is a fervent critic of many contemporary developments in biblical scholarship such as (1) viewing the Gospels as ancient Greco-Roman biographies; (2) understanding the Gospels to address a general Christian audience; and (3) using narrative criticism to approach the Gospels. Instead, Ashton embraces historical criticism, especially the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel's historical situation by Louis Martyn (in its basic outline).

In chapter 1, Ashton briefly examines the various Johannine texts where "Moses" occurs to show that the opposition between Moses and Jesus was at the heart of the conflict between the Johannine Christians and the synagogue Jews. He discusses the Moses passages in "chronological order," by which he means the composition history of the text-an initial missionary document (i.e. the Signs Source), a second missionary document directed to the Samaritans, the first edition of the Gospel, and the second edition of the Gospel. According to Ashton, "in ousting Moses from his central place as God's representative in his dealings with his people, the fourth evangelist ... was effectively establishing a new religion" (p. 9). While agreeing with Ashton's main point that the fourth evangelist presents Jesus as superseding Moses, I see this more in terms of Jesus going beyond Moses rather than against Moses.

In excursus 1 on the genre of the Gospels, Ashton critiques the theory that the Gospels belong to the genre of ancient Greco-Roman biographies. He especially takes issue with the work of Richard Burridge, who has been influential in advocating this theory. Ashton contends that proponents of the Gospels as biographies have ignored the kerygmatic purpose of the Gospels, namely, to promote faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. While I doubt that Burridge has overlooked the bearing of the stated purpose of the Fourth Gospel on its genre, I also see little difference in Burridge's view of the Gospels being "Christology in narrative form, the story of Jesus" and their being a narrative of Jesus to promote faith (p. 28).

As an aside, chapter 2 is a literary inquiry on how the text of the Fourth Gospel presents itself, while the remainder of the book is a historical inquiry about the origins of the Fourth Gospel. So, in chapter 2, Ashton explores the tension inherent to the Gospel's genre, namely that the story of Jesus about his words and works before the resurrection was operative in the evangelist's own community. Ashton's position reflects his conviction concerning the basic correctness of Louis Martyn's two-level reading of the Fourth Gospel (which becomes explicit in the remaining chapters). In my view, we always engage in some sort of two-level reading of the Fourth Gospel, since the evangelist tells the pre-Easter story of Jesus from a postEaster perspective. …

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