The Gospel of John and Christian Origins

John Ashton’s new work  on the Gospel of John is out from Fortress:

One of the most interesting questions facing New Testament scholars—How did Christianity emerge from Judaism?—is often addressed in general and indirect terms. John Ashton argues that in the case of the Fourth Gospel, an answer is to be found in the religious experience of the Evangelist himself, who turned from being a practicing Jew to professing a new revelation centered on Christ as the intermediary between God and humanity.

Fortress sent a copy for review back in April and I appreciate it.  I appreciate it because it is a fine book rising above the flood of books on Paul that have virtually overwhelmed the discipline in the last couple of years.  Indeed, if one were making an effort to stay abreast of new claims in Pauline scholarship, one would need many extra hours in each day to read the books and journal articles coming out.  More has been said about Paul than has been said about any other topic including Jesus.

John, in the meanwhile, is left in the shadows, still suffering the misprision that he is somehow less historically reliable or less theologically interesting than either Paul or even Peter.  To be sure, a few have risen to the task of investigating the writings of the Johannine School, but they are not Legion as are those who pant for Paul.

Welcome, then, to John Ashton’s marvelous tome.  Fortress allows interested persons to read these portions online:

Chapter 1

I urge you to do so.  You’ll discover in those pages a thoughtful and sustained argument describing the religious experience of the Gospel’s author and his move from practicing Jew to believer in Jesus as the mediator of a new relationship between God and human-kind.

The core argument of the book is supplemented by a series of excurses which serve to support that argument. Let me cite Ashton’s own words at this juncture-

So I have set out to prove in three excursuses that (1) the Gospels are not to be thought of simply as Lives of Christ; (2) that the Gospel of John was not written as a continuous composition over a short stretch of time but went through at least two editions; and (3) that it was composed by a member of a particular community for the benefit of his fellow members. … Finally, I have added a fourth excursus to defend the proposition that the main theme of the Prologue is not creation (as is generally assumed), but God’s plan for humankind (p. 3).

The argument of the book could well stand on its own without these excurses, but with them, the argument is further bolstered and even proven.  And what does the book prove?   That John was less theologian (at least as that word is used today) who sat in his study and reflected on the meaning of faith and more mystic, driven by a religious experience which he then sought to communicate to his community.

Ashton remarks

The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that of the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ, constantly present to him and to his community, that has all but obliterated the memory of a human Jesus subject to the weaknesses of ordinary mortals – so that, above all else, his uncertainty about his own fate and, in his dying moments, his failure of faith, were completely forgotten (pp. 201-202).

Of course this immediately raises a question concerning the Synoptic authors: did they not have religious experiences as well, which, like John’s, influenced their work?  Perhaps the answer to that question is best left aside for now, since the function of the present useful book is to draw our attention to John’s work in particular.

Potential readers ought to know that this book does raise questions which may force them to reconsider long held assumptions.  Which, of course, is precisely why it should be read.  It provokes thought.  It forces reflection.  It broadens horizons.  it functions as all academic tomes should function- to force readers to reconsider their views.  Unfortunately, too many books these days seem to require nothing from their readers but assent and to gain assent, they sensationalize.  This book seeks, instead, thoughtful reconsideration.

In short, then, this book will not appeal to those who are satisfied with simple-minded pat answers or wordy fluff filling hundreds of pages but saying nothing over and over again. Ashton has the gift, instead, of saying what needs to be said in a compact and provocative manner and this book is a parade example of that gift.

Consider it highly recommended.

Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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3 Responses to The Gospel of John and Christian Origins

  1. whitefrozen says:

    Sounds really cool. I’ve never heard the two-editions bit before.


  2. Shaun Tabatt says:


    Thanks for weighing in on Ashton’s new book. It’s greatly appreciated.

    Shaun Tabatt
    Community Development Manager
    Fortress Press


Comments are closed.