The World of St. John: the Gospel and the Epistles

Written by E. Earle Ellis Reviewed By William G. Morrice

This short but penetrating study is substantially a reprint of a book first published in 1965 by Lutterworth and Abingdon Presses. The author, who is research professor of New Testament Literature at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, not only upholds common authorship of the fourth gospel and the three letters but argues for the identity of John the evangelist, apostle and elder. He seems to retract partially from this view by saying that the Gospel has been given its present form by another hand.

Professor Ellis recognizes that the greatest factor in the background to these writings is Palestinian Judaism. Though John did not use the other evangelists, they all went to the same ‘Sunday School’. They used the same primitive Christian documents, perhaps sermons of Jesus in Jewish synagogues. Or perhaps John simply wrote to give the mind of Jesus rather than his exact words, since history and interpretation are woven together to produce a dynamic presentation of Jesus’ mission and person.

A simple exposition of John’s gospel is followed by an equally simple account of the ever-widening spiral in which the teaching of first John develops. The second letter stresses the reality of the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ. Yet only those who speak the truth in love can help fellow Christians led astray by false teachings. The third letter is one of appreciation to Gaius for hospitality to missionaries in the past and a request for similar help to the bearer of the letter.

But what is the meaning of these writings for today? Here, Professor Ellis is particularly helpful. John’s relevance lies in the fact that he spoke to life-problems that have changed very little. He witnessed to a unique person and to a unique event. He offers assurance to people living today in an uncertain age and gives guidance concerning Christian unity and its expression. Even though the world of St John is far removed from that in which we live today, the message he proclaimed is the abiding message of Jesus Christ.


William G. Morrice

St. John’s College, Durham