John Ashton's new book, The Gospel of John and Christian Origins (Fortress Press)

John Ashton's book The Gospel of John and Christian Origins was published this spring by Fortress Press. I did have the opportunity to read earlier versions of about half the chapters, and it has been enjoyable to read through the finished book.

Ashton has continued themes from his previous book on John, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (1st ed. 1991; 2nd ed. 2007). Ashton made significant changes between the two editions of Understanding, but the third section on "Revelation" (pp. 303-528 in the 2nd ed.) was largely left unchanged.
(See my comments on that volume here.) Ashton acknowledges he is revising that section in Gospel of John and Christian Origins, but he is also making more explicit his arguments for the history behind the Gospel, its writing, and Johannine Christianity.

The primary interlocutors and support for Ashton throughout the book are Wayne Meeks, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, and J. Louis Martyn. Coupled with the title, it is clear that that he is concerned with the historical situation of the evangelist and his Gospel. Ashton is not a fan of methods that avoid the historical dimension, such as narrative criticism, and in "Excursus 1: The Gospel Genre," he strongly disagrees with Richard Burridge and Richard Bauckham that genre determines how texts are read.

Ashton judges rightly, in my opinion, that the focus on Hellenistic origins argued by Wetter, Bultmann, and Dodd is not correct and that the Gospel has a home in the Judaism(s) of the Second Temple, which Brown was quick to highlight in the years following the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ashton has an intriguing and important chapter on "The Essenes" in which he contends that Qumran exegesis and its emphasis on mystery and revelation reflects a "veering away from the insistence on the definitive nature of the revelation to Moses that already characterized the dominant party in Israel" (74). 

To take a step back, Ashton opens the book by indicating what he sees as the displacement of Moses by Jesus in the Gospel of John. This view is what drives his understanding of the origins of Christianity as portrayed in the Fourth Gospel. Ashton assumes the two-level reading of Martyn, that the Gospel itself tells us about the Johannine community as much as, if not more than, the events of Jesus' life. The displacement of Moses by Jesus ("we are his disciples" 5:31-47; "the law came through Moses" 1:17; etc.) reflects the power struggle or change of belief by those synagogue-goers who have come to believe in Jesus.What becomes evident throughout is that Ashton, like Christopher Rowland, sees any reinterpretation of the law and prophets as a negation of what was previously prophesied. It may be worth considering if this view is necessarily the case. One could argue that Moses may not be cast aside and replaced, since the Johannine Jesus does say that Moses wrote about Jesus (5:45-47). If Moses did write about Jesus, then we may not have displacement. However, regardless of the manner in which we take this, one's interpretation comes down to one's understanding of Second Temple handlings of prophecy and revelation. [On this see, Bockmuehl, Revelation and Mystery in Ancient Judaism and Pauline Christianity (WUNT II/36; Mohr Siebeck, 1990) and Jassen, Mediating the Divine: Prophecy and Revelation in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Second Temple Judaism (STDJ 68; Brill, 2007); Reynolds, "Apocalypticism in the Gospel of John's Written Revelation of Heavenly Things," EC 4.1 (2013), esp. 88-94.]

The "Mosaic-Prophet" of Martyn's argument (cf. also Meeks) is found wanting by Ashton, and in the later chapters, Ashton argues for "three strong streams of Jewish tradition that flow into the Christology of the Fourth Gospel" (133). These streams are "the mission of the prophet," "the Incarnation of Wisdom," and "the Son of Man." Chapters 7 and 8 focus on these three themes. Ultimately, Ashton returns to the theme of revelation and understands this as important for the Christology of the Fourth Gospel. 

"From the first page of this book I have argued that resonating through the Gospel, and most emphatically in the Prologue, is the insistence that the truth, the real revelation of God, is not the law but the self-revelation of Jesus, who represents in his own person God's plan for his people, and indeed for all humankind. For he now replaces both the law and the great figure of Moses through whom the law was given." (190-191).

Ashton rejects Meeks' and Martyn's views on the reason for this replacement (Samaritan traditions and synagogue disputes). Instead, he picks up a suggestion of Christopher Rowland and contends that the followers of Jesus took this view of Jesus because they saw him as more than the Messiah and more than the prophet-like-Moses. As a result, they speculated on who Jesus was, and this speculation led to the portrayal of Jesus' humanity being "eclipsed" by a portrayal of the glorious, descended one.

Much more could be said about The Gospel of John and Christian Origins, especially because Ashton touches on many topics, but I will leave that for you to read.

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