I am currently reading New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s newest book, Jesus Before the Gospels. It is very interesting, to say the least. Below is an excerpt that I find particularly fascinating…and shocking…as a former Christian:
Ehrman: “It is striking that in the last of the New Testament Gospels to be written, the Gospel of John, Jesus no longer preaches about the imminent end of the world, the coming of the Son of Man, and the arrival of the Kingdom of God (the dominant theme of the Synoptic Gospels). He no longer preaches about what will happen to people when they die. For John’s Gospel, Jesus’ message is no longer that the Kingdom of God is soon to arrive here on earth. It is that people can have eternal life above, up in heaven with God (John 14:2). Jesus now does not warn of the coming apocalypse. He teaches about having eternal life. It is a life that has come from heaven, in the person of Jesus himself, a divine man who has come down from above so that he can lead others back to the realm whence he came (John 3:13-16). Those who believe in him will have eternal life (John 3:16, 36). No longer is the point about an apocalyptic break in the history of earth; it is instead about living with God forever in the world above. And that comes only by “believing in ” Jesus (John 3:15-16, 14:6).
That is why, in the Gospel of John, Jesus takes a completely different tack toward speaking about himself from the earlier Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke (as well as in their sources, such as Q), Jesus says almost nothing about who he is. He does call himself the Son of Man, he does say that he must be rejected and killed and raised, and he does by implication say a few other things about his identity (see, e.g., Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-33; Matt. 11:27). But his identity is by no stretch of the imagination the focal point of his teaching. Quite the contrary; in the Synoptics, the focal point is God, his coming kingdom, and the need to live in ways that will prepare one to enter it. Not so in John, where the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God is absent. In John, Jesus principally preaches about himself. He is the one who has come down from heaven to bring eternal life.
And so it is in John, and only in John that Jesus makes bold and astounding claims about himself as a divine being, “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life.” I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.”… pages 209-210
Gary: So why the change in theme from the Synoptics to the Gospel of John, the last Gospel written, a text written approximately at the end of the first century?
Ehrman: Jesus almost certainly proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This is the core element of Jesus’ teaching in our earliest Gospels. It is at the heart of what he proclaims throughout the Gospel of Mark, starting with the very first words off his lips in 1:15: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”
…This message continues throughout Mark until the climactic chapter of Jesus’ s teaching, his famous apocalyptic discourse of chapter 13, where he spells out in graphic detail what will happen very soon when a massive cataclysmic end to history arrives and the Son of Man appears from heaven to reward the elect.
Apocalyptic proclamations of the coming kingdom can be found in the sayings of Q, as well as in sayings found just in Matthew and just in Luke. The earliest sources we have for the teachings of Jesus thus have him proclaiming that the end of this age will occur soon, within the lifetime of his apostles (see Mark 9:1; 13:30).
The earliest Christians, after Jesus’ day, also expected the imminent end of the world as they knew it. Paul thought that Jesus would return in his own lifetime (e.g., see I Thess. 4:14-18 and I Cor. 15:5-53). So too, almost certainly, did the other apostles, including Jesus’ own disciples. But with the passing of time, that apocalyptic expectation began to fade. Jesus did not return; the Son of Man did not arrive; the end did not come.
…Other Christians began to think that Jesus must never have said that the end was coming soon, since, in fact, it had not come. As Christians (continued to tell) traditions about Jesus’s teachings, they changed them accordingly. Pages 208-209
Gary: And that is why the theme of the Gospel of John is so very different from the theme of the Synoptics. It was nearing the end of the first century. JESUS HADN’T COME BACK! Christians had given up hope that the Kingdom would soon arrive on earth, in their lifetimes. The Christians of the late first century had begun to see the “kingdom” as something to attain in the afterlife, not in this life, as Jesus had promised in the earlier Gospels.