Monday, 22 November 2010

Kingdom and Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

John Dickson, director of the Centre for Public Christianity, is at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He posted the following summary of an exciting paper by German NT scholar Jorg Frey, in which, John says, "with one simple insight, he resolved a major 'problem' concerning the differences between John and the three other Gospels." He kindly let me re-post it:

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Scholars have long pointed out that the central theme of Jesus' preaching, according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, was 'the kingdom of God'. It is everywhere in those Gospels. John virtually ignores that theme, preferring to speak of a nebulous 'eternal life' instead. This was seen as one serious against John's reliability. It does look like a serious problem.

Prof Frey, after outlining the problem, pointed out that in John 3 in the Nicodemus story we find the first and only references (two of them) to 'kingdom of God' AND the first references to 'eternal life'. In fact, if you read carefully - especially in Greek - they are parallel expressions. After this point, John drops 'kingdom of God' and has Jesus speaking consistently of 'eternal life' instead.

So, what's going on? Simple, said Frey. John has flagged for readers that 'eternal life' will now be the synonym for 'kingdom of God' in the rest of his Gospel. Frey explained that the sensitive context of John's social situation may have made 'kingdom' language sound subversive against the Roman empire, and so he dropped it, not in a wholesale way, but by giving us a more acceptable equivalent expression.

Moreover, if we ask: But how could John have felt permission to do this? The answer is provided by Daniel 7 and 12, Old Testament texts which were very influential in early Christianity. There we discover a huge reference to 'kingdom of God'. But we also find references to God's people reigning 'forever and ever; yes, forever and ever', expressions very suggestive of 'eternal life'. In fact, in Dan 12 we find the exact expression 'eternal life'.

In other words, John hasn't perverted Jesus' 'kingdom of God' preaching'. He has transposed it into biblically appropriate and sociologically acceptable language.

That's the gist.

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