Understanding the Fourth Gospel (New Edition). By John Ashton


Pp. xx, 585 , Oxford , Oxford University Press , 2007 , £65.00 .

Sixteen years on from the first edition, John Ashton brings forth a substantially revised version of his magnum opus on John's gospel. Gone almost completely is the original first section, some 120 pages on the history of scholarship which hinged around the work of Bultmann. Here, Ashton says that that was all ground-clearing and did not really contribute to answering his main questions. Maybe true, though it is a little sad to see the survey go, and does mean, along with the new material here, that neither edition captures all Ashton has to say, which will be frustrating. The main questions in view both come from Bultmann: where does the gospel fit within Judaism, and what is it basically about? To the first Ashton offers his particular take on the proposal that the gospel addresses ‘Johannine community’ issues on its way out of Judaism, in dialogue with various attempts in recent years to roll back this theory. Basic to this view is an original signs source, the addition of a passion source as well as synoptic-type traditions, an expulsion of the Johannine community from the synagogue, the subsequent reworking of the material to include sections now clearly indicative of internal and external tension in the community, and then the work of a final redactor. Bultmann's second question leads to Ashton's expansion of Bultmann's own answer: the gospel is about revelation, and the fact that Jesus is the revealer, and the book ends, as did his first edition, with the summary: ‘the medium is the message’. This section contains a brief new chapter on ‘the story of wisdom’, which is a reading of the ‘plot’ of the gospel as an account of how Jesus, come as wisdom to Israel, is rejected by his own. This is the fate of revelation, says Ashton, and it is ‘relatively straightforward’, a variation on comparable meditations concerning the home of wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.

This new edition is to be welcomed for its eloquent defence against various counter-readings of recent years (whether literary, or in the mould of, for example, Richard Bauckham's ‘Gospels for all Christians’ project). Ashton is patient with all-comers and always in control of where the burden of an argument lies. His new introduction includes a delightful interview with a first-time reader of the gospel, helping the scholar to see the text through fresh though thoughtful eyes. Several new excursuses deal with specific exegetical issues in helpful detail. Otherwise, the substantial merits of the first edition remain, and the only irritation will be the requirement to own two editions of the one book.