What Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God” has been a source of debate among scholars across the academic and religious spectrum. For the past century or so, many scholars and historians have claimed that Jesus of Nazareth never intended to launch a movement or found a community at all, that he was an “apocalyptic prophet” who believed that the end of the world was coming in his own lifetime.
For these scholars, the “kingdom of God” that Jesus had in mind was a fiery cataclysm when God would kill all of the Romans, and anyone else opposed to Jesus, and establish Jesus as the ruler of all the earth. A recent example of this general approach was the international bestseller Zealot, written by a Muslim professor of creative writing, Reza Aslan, in 2013, which portrayed Jesus as a Jewish nationalist who at least sympathized with those elements of his society arguing for a holy war against Rome.
The idea that Jesus was an “apocalyptic prophet,” first popularized in 1906 by the medical missionary and scholar Albert Schweitzer, is still widely taught in many seminaries and Near Eastern Studies departments to this day. The most famous scholars upholding this increasingly challenged theory are Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison, a Christian professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. As proof that Jesus believed the world was coming to an end soon, scholars such as Ehrman point to sayings of Jesus such as Mark 8:38: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” This means, Ehrman says, that Jesus was a false prophet and clearly wrong about what God intended: the world did not come to an end, after all, and Jesus died on the cross a shocked and disillusioned failure.
But in recent years, even many secular New Testament scholars have rejected the idea that Jesus was an “end times” prophet proclaiming the imminent apocalypse.
Oldest Parts of New Testament Don’t Mention the End of the World at All
For one thing, many of the proof texts often cited, such as the one above, don’t actually mention the end of the world at all. The earlier scholars assumed, rather than proved, that for Jesus the “kingdom of God” and the Final Judgement were one and the same… when in fact they are clearly distinct.
The gospels do show that Jesus, like many Jews, believed in a Final Judgement at the end of time but he seems to have envisioned a lengthy period of time before the Final Judgement when the kingdom of God would “arrive in power.” Scholars such as Ehrman speculate that the gospel writers, such as Luke and John, altered Jesus’ sayings to reflect the fact that the promised apocalypse never arrived. They “de-apocalypticized” Jesus’ message.
Yet in the gospel of Mark, likely the earliest gospel to be written, Jesus insists that before the Final Judgment will occur “the gospel must first be preached to all nations (13: 10, emphasis added). In addition, in that part of the gospels many experts believe may be the very oldest of all – the sayings of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, which scholars call Q – there is not a single mention of an imminent end of the world. Not one.
And so what was Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God?
According to the records we have, when Jesus spoke about the kingdom he said it was “good news” (Luke 4:43), “like treasure hidden in a field” (Matt 13:44), not bad news. He compared it to a wedding feast, not a cosmic artillery barrage (Matthew 22:2-14). Even more to the point, Jesus said that the kingdom he is proclaiming is already “in the midst of you (Luke 17:21)” and is “not coming in ways that can be observed (Luke 17:20).” He added the kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed that when planted, grows into an enormous tree that shelters all the birds of the air (Luke 13:19), or like yeast that when mixed with flour leavens all the dough (Luke 13:21). It is “like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind (Matt 13:47).”
Thus, in recent years many New Testament scholars – even very skeptical scholars at secular universities – have come to reject the century-old idea that Jesus thought the world was coming to an end in his lifetime. These scholars range from Christian experts such as the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright to more skeptical, secular scholars such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, founders of the Jesus Seminar, and Richard Horsley at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Instead, these scholars now believe that Jesus was actually someone far more dangerous than a deluded millenarian prophet.
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