Unlike the Synoptics, the Gospel of John abandons the theme of the Impending Arrival of the Kingdom. Why?

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

GarySo 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.

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5 thoughts on “Unlike the Synoptics, the Gospel of John abandons the theme of the Impending Arrival of the Kingdom. Why?

  1. I am not sure if the conclusion that John's Gospel message changed because Jesus hadn't come back. A quick review early church fathers shows that they firmly believed Jesus was coming back and that he was coming soon. Hence, all those guys where “chiliasts.” I appreciate the question about why John's Gospel is different than the other three, but I don't think that would be a valid conclusion on the point of Earhman based on second century church fathers such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, Eusebius, etc. Just my thoughts, I am not a super scholar in this area, but wanted to add to the discussion.

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  2. Christians have always said that Jesus could come back at any moment and that Christians should be prepared for that event, but Paul was preaching that Jesus was going to come back while he, Paul, was still alive! If Paul believed this, it is very probable that this is what the other apostles also believed.

    Once Paul was dead, and Jesus had not come back, the interpretation of Jesus' prophecy had to change. If it didn't, Christianity was exposed as a fraud! So, in their re-interpretation of Jesus' teachings, they came to believe that Jesus didn't really mean that he would return within the lifetimes of his disciples, as the author of Mark had clearly stated. Jesus surely had been speaking metaphorically in these passages.

    Therefore, the central message of Christianity in the late first century changed. No longer were Christians expecting the establishment of an EARTHLY kingdom ruled by Jesus in this life, but of a heavenly kingdom ruled by Jesus, in the NEXT life,

    The author of the Gospel of John explicitly redirects his readers attention away from the previous expectation of great rewards and riches in an earthly kingdom NOW, towards great riches and rewards in the afterlife, as soon as they died.

    The definition of “the Kingdom” had dramatically changed between the writing of Mark and the writing of John. This change in definition was absolutely necessary. Without it, Christianity would have lost any credibility.

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  3. Gary, I think I am following your train of thought, yet the timelines that you and Earhman following don't match up. Mark was Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written during the time that Paul was executed under Nero. Most scholars believe Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written from 55-65 AD, while Paul was killed in 63 AD under Nero. If you follow these dates, I don't think the idea of changing the interpretation of Jesus' prophecy makes as much sense as it does at first.

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  4. Your dates for the writing of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are not in line with the dates as held by the overwhelming majority of scholars:

    Mark: 65-75 AD
    Matthew and Luke: 75-85 AD
    John: 85-95 AD

    You are using the dates of a fringe minority of scholars.

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