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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat



Chapter 8


(First publication in October 1997; Minor revision in March 2005) 

The belief in the return of Jesus is an extremely early belief, since it is found not only in many different sources such as Paul (1 Thess 1:10, 1 Cor 16:22 etc), Mark (14:25, 62 etc), Q (Matt. 23:37-39=Luke 13:34-35) and John (14:1-3, 16:16 etc) but also found frequently and in many different forms. This chapter is concerned with the question: How did the belief in Jesus' return start so early? In addition, the chapter also outlines the main ways in which the function and manner of Jesus’ return was seen by his followers after his departure.




Explaining the Belief in the Return


The belief is difficult to explain if we assume Jesus' execution. One explanation runs as follows: Jesus emphatically taught that the End will follow his death almost immediately with the coming of the Son of Man, whom Jesus did not identify with himself. The primitive community, however, came to identify Jesus with the Son of Man and therefore imminent coming of the Son of Man after the death of Jesus became imminent return of Jesus. (Cf. C. K. Barrett, Jesus and the Gospel Tradition, 68ff.) Another somewhat similar explanation is that Jesus talked not of the Son of Man but of the kingdom of God or the day of the Lord. He taught that he would die but the disciples will see the day of the Lord. After his death his disciples identified Jesus with the Son of Man and the day of the Lord became the day of Jesus. (Cf. W. G. Kummel, Promise and Fulfilment, 64ff and G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Future, London, 1954, 183ff.). But such explanations leave some basic questions unanswered. Thus they do not answer the question: how did the disciples come to identify their dead master with the Son of Man? One may try to answer the question by assuming that the disciples believed Jesus to have risen and therefore no longer dead. But this would only replace one difficulty by another, since starting with the execution of Jesus the explanation of the belief in his resurrection has been found as difficult as that of the belief in his return.  


The belief in Jesus' return finds immediate and natural explanation, if we start with his disappearance and not with his known execution. As a natural explanation of his disappearance, Jesus was believed by some to be living somewhere, either on earth or in heaven. This naturally led them to believe that at a suitable time he will return to participate in or bring about the kingdom that he talked so much about during his ministry.


The same explanation, of course, applies if we start with Jesus' ascension after his resurrection from the dead instead of starting with his disappearance. But there are two problems with an explanation on the basis of the ascension after death and resurrection. First, resurrection itself requires explanation, which, as already noted, is at least as difficult as the explanation of the belief in Jesus' return. Second, the sequence death-resurrection-ascension-return is never mentioned in the earliest tradition and is the result of a development. In Mark Jesus three times predicts that he will be killed and then rise after three days (which in Mark may refer to resurrection and ascension as a composite event). But the sequence is never completed with any mention of the return, as one should expect if the death, resurrection/ascension and return were part of the Christian tradition from the beginning. As for Q, it does not even mention the death and resurrection much less bring them together with the return. Among the gospels only Luke presents properly the sequence death-resurrection-ascension-return and that too when we read his gospel together with the Acts. As for Paul, he does make a reference in 1 Cor 15 to the parousia or return of Jesus (v. 23) after first referring to his death and resurrection (vv. 3-7). But while the reference to the death and resurrection is part of what Paul received from tradition ("I handed over to you, among the first things, that which I also received" (v. 3)), his reference to the parousia is not part of the same received tradition but a separate one and the two traditions are here coming together because of the particular concerns that Paul is addressing. Likewise in 1 Thess 1:9-10 (where Paul tells his Gentile converts in Thessalonica "how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son whom he raised from the dead") and other similar passages, Paul is not quoting earlier tradition but formulating his own summary of earlier traditions that could originally be independent.


But while the earlier Christian tradition does not connect Jesus' return with his death and resurrection, it often connects the return with his disappearance or ascension:


            You shall not see me henceforth, till you shall say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Q: Matt. 23:37-39=Luke 13:34-35).


            Verily I say unto you, I will no more drink of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25=Matt. 26:29=Luke 22:18).


            In my Father's house there are many abodes; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you [or, if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?]. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, you may be also (John 14:2-3).


            It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch (Mark 13:34; see also Matt 24:45-51=Luke 12:42-46 (Q), Luke 12:36-38).


            A little while, and you see me no more; and again a little while, and you shall see me (John 16:16).


            [Two angels say at Jesus' ascension:] This Jesus who was received up from you into the heaven will come thus in the same manner as you have beheld him going into the heaven (Acts 1:11).


In all the above passages, the return of Jesus is mentioned together with his departure without any reference to the death and resurrection. It is also significant that the belief in the return of Jesus was probably first professed by some Palestinian community, one which spoke Aramaic and not the Greek-speaking Hellenists of Jerusalem and that it is precisely the Aramaic-speaking Jesus followers who rejected or had reservations about the death of Jesus (see Chapters 2, 3, 5).


In view of Jesus' disappearance it would have been easy enough for the disciples to come up with the belief in Jesus' return. But in all probability they did not even had to make that easy connection themselves. Some of the above sayings have as much claim to authenticity as any in the gospels and therefore it is highly probable that Jesus himself made the connection by telling his companions just before his disappearance that he would soon return to participate in the kingdom of God.


Thus the belief in the return of Jesus originally assumed the disappearance and not the death of Jesus. The belief in the death of Jesus was an alternative explanation of the disappearance. The final form of tradition is the result of a combination of the two beliefs. When Jesus mysteriously disappeared under threat to his life, some believed that he had gone into hiding or into heaven, from where he would return at a suitable time. Others assumed that his enemies succeeded in putting him to death. The two beliefs combined to produce a third belief, which was to prove very enduring: Jesus indeed died but he is now alive because he was raised from the dead and will return at some time in the future. This final form then finds expression in the Apostles’ Creed, which in its present form is dated to c. 700, but probably existed in the second century. In its most primitive form the Creed included the following:  


I believe in Jesus Christ … who … was crucified, died, and was buried ….  On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again ….


Starting with the disappearance of Jesus we can not only better understand the belief in his return but also the belief that this return must take place within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians (Mark 9:1 etc) as well as the difficulty faced in the early church in coming to terms with the death of some of its members (1 Thess 4:13-18). The return of a leader who is in hiding or in exile is naturally expected to take place in his lifetime and therefore in the lifetime of some of his contemporaries. This together with the fact that the pious Jews often hoped to see the kingdom of God come during their lifetime (see below) adequately explains why the early Jesus followers expected his return to take place within their lifetime. Also, since the belief in Jesus' return started with the understanding that he was alive, many of his followers naturally thought that, like him, they too will not die and expected themselves to be alive when his kingdom will be established. This attitude continued in most churches that accepted the belief in Jesus' return, so that when some of their members began to die, the living needed to be taught, or reminded of, the belief in the eschatological resurrection of the dead. Had the belief in Jesus' return and messiahship been founded from the very beginning on the assumption of his death and resurrection the believers would have also from the beginning thought in terms of the possibility of their own death and the certainty of their subsequent resurrection and Paul would have had no need to remind them of that possibility.





The explanation of the belief in Jesus' return in terms of his disappearance is not only inherently plausible but is also supported by the beliefs in the return of some other figures. Usually such beliefs develop in case of figures who are believed not to have died but to be living somewhere either on earth or in heaven.


In Judaism the figure that is most often believed to return is that of Elijah and he is also the figure who is believed not to have ever died. Moses is also sometimes believed to return. But this belief is relatively late and not well established, being nowhere found in the Old Testament. Outside the Old Testament the belief seems to be created by the fact that the grave of Moses was not known, leading to speculations about his assumption into heaven, which in turn led to a belief about his return. The example of Moses may suggest that the belief in the return of a figure can arise even when his death is taken for granted. But considering that the belief in Moses’ return could not get established like that of Elijah one can with equal justification argue that when the death of a figure is taken for granted the belief in his return has difficulty getting established.  


We do not have much certain knowledge about the history of the earliest tradition about Elijah and Moses. But we have examples of two other figures whose return has been expected and who are more in the light of history: The Roman emperor Nero and the twelfth Shi‘i Imam, Muhammad bin Hasan al-Askari.


According to Suetonius, when it became clear to Nero that he could no longer hold on to power, he considered three options: suicide, fleeing to Parthia and throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba or appealing to the Roman people, beseeching them for the prefecture of Egypt. He finally opted for suicide. But he killed himself outside the city of Rome and the circumstances of his death were not widely known at the time (Nero, 47-49). As a result the belief developed that he was alive and would soon return in an attempt to regain power. In the Book of Revelation the beast mentioned in 17:8 is probably the emperor Nero who is expected to return as the anti-Christ. The description of the beast as one who "was, is not and is to come" suggests a return from the dead but this is not how the belief in the return of Nero arose. Commenting on the expectation in Revelation, Yarbro Collins says:


“The earlier Greek and Latin authors did not suggest that Nero would return from the dead; rather, they believed that he had not died at all but was in hiding somewhere, preparing to return to Rome and seize power again; from Dio Chrisostom (Discourses 21:10) we learn that this belief was still held even as late as the time of Trajan. If we are to rely on extra-Biblical evidence and not read ideas into the Apocalypse, it would appear that the view that Nero would actually return from the dead is of later origin, from the period following the death of Trajan, when Nero would have been close to 80 years old and could no longer easily be believed to be still alive.” (Yarbro Collins, Combat Myth, p. 176).


The twelfth Imam in Shi‘i Islam is said to be concealed from childhood by his father Hasan al-Askari and after the latter's death in 874 C.E. remained in concealment. Some other people called safirs spoke on his behalf and guided the community until 941 C.E. when no further direct contact with him was claimed. At that point he was believed to have gone into occultation (ghayba); some believed that he was hiding somewhere on earth while others believed that he had gone to heaven. At the same time he was believed to return to establish truth and justice on earth, a belief that still defines the largest Shi‘i sect in Islam, the ithna 'ashari sect (Jassim M. Hussain, The Occultation of the Twelfth Imam, pp. 156-157). Although in many ways the twelfth Shi‘i Imam is shrouded in mystery, there is enough reliable information about him to make it clear that the belief in his return is closely connected with the belief that he did not die at all, this latter belief probably developing because the circumstances of his death were hidden from all but a few who chose to be his spokesmen.


From the above examples it is clear that the belief in the return of a figure originates with his disappearance under ambiguous circumstances which lead some to believe that he is alive. Once the belief is created it is capable of surviving any subsequent reports of the death of the figure. The beliefs in the death and the return may then either exist side by side with some people preferring one over the other, or they may be reconciled by the belief in the figure's resurrection, as in case of Nero and Jesus.




The Kingdom of God and the Salvation it Brings



Belief in the return of Jesus naturally gave rise to extensive traditions dealing with questions such as: What function will he perform upon his return? When and how will he return? Traditions give different answers to such questions, especially the first one. These answers depend mainly on the view assumed of the kingdom of God and the salvation it brings.


Our primary sources, Q, Thomas, James, Paul and Mark, assume two different types of views of kingdom of God and salvation: gnostic and futuristic, which are sometimes combined as in some later letters of Paul. The futuristic view, found in Q, James, Paul, and Mark, sees salvation in the future. It is expressed in terms of two ages, the present age, often viewed as evil and full of suffering and a future age of salvation. Also, in this view the salvation is primarily a national or collective event which is brought about either by God directly or by some figure empowered by him. The futuristic view has strong roots in Jewish nationalism and often uses apocalyptic ideas borrowed from the Persian religious tradition.


The gnostic view, found in Thomas and Paul, and later in a much more developed form in John, sees salvation as a present possibility and as something that happens primarily to the individual. It is expressed in terms of two modes of existence, one of darkness and the other of light. The two modes are associated with two worlds -- this world which is covered in darkness and another world of light. Also, salvation is brought by a revealer who descends from the heavenly world of light, awakens some chosen ones from sleep or "death", and then ascends to where he came from. (See the next chapter for more details about the two systems.)


Which of the two types of views of salvation is the earlier? What was Jesus' own view? Since most of our primary sources contain the futuristic view, one may conclude, as many scholars have concluded since the appearance of Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, that this view represents the earliest view and comes from Jesus himself. But an approach better than simply counting the number of sources or traditions containing a view is to compare sources and see what common material lies behind them. This should allow us to reach the earliest traditions and Jesus’ own view with greater confidence. Such a comparison proves to be particularly interesting in case of Q and Thomas.


More than a quarter of the 114 sayings in Thomas (sayings 6b, 16, 21b, 26, 33a, 33b, 34, 36, 39a, 44, 45, 46, 47a, 54, 55, 64, 68, 69b, 73, 76b, 78, 86, 89, 91(?), 92a, 94, 95(?), 96, 101, 103, 106b(?), 107) have parallels in Q. This common part consists mostly of wisdom sayings. It does not identify Jesus as an eschatological figure and does not contain any reference to futuristic kingdom of God. It includes references to the kingdom of God, e.g., Thomas, logion 54 = Q, Matt 5:3 = Luke 6:20 (blessing for the poor who have the kingdom of heaven) and Thomas, logion 96 = Q, Matt 13:33 = Luke 13:20-21 (the parable of the leavened bread) but the kingdom of God in these references is not necessarily futuristic.


If Thomas and Q are independent, as appears from the fact that some sayings are preserved in a more primitive form in Thomas while others appear more primitive in Q, then the material common to them would be earlier than both and therefore very early, since most of Q may be dated to about 50 C.E.Some of Paul’s letters were written around the same time, but Paul is not a reliable witness of the early Palestinian tradition (see Ch. 11). One may conclude that very early Palestinian tradition did not have any apocalyptic or some other type of futuristic eschatology and presented Jesus primarily as a teacher of wisdom; moreover, in doing so, it was true to the historical Jesus, as has been concluded, for example, by Koester ("Gnomai Diaphoroi") and Mack ("Lord of the Logia: Savior or Sage?" and The Lost Gospel, pp. 37-38). Mack further suggests that Jesus' wisdom was akin not so much to the Jewish type found in the Book of Proverbs as to the Greek type found in the Cynic tradition of philosophy. This latter type of wisdom did not recommend principles needed for "well-being either in a conventional society or in a well-defined subcultural group." It did not "intend an elucidation of the way the world works in order to recommend fitting attitudes and behavior." Rather, it was "decidedly aphoristic, delighting in extreme cases, and in imagery that was more pungent and evocative than observational and instructive." Cynic tradition experimented with counterculture rather than created subculture. It called for the individual to live against the stream, for unconventional behavior which included "disentanglement from one's family, voluntary homelessness, eschewing normal standards of cleanliness, simple attire, and unashamed begging." The Cynic believed himself to be living "according to nature" as opposed to the prevailing social order. He practised parresia, a bold, outspoken manner of social critique, which expressed what was embarrassing and often covered by pretensions. (The Lost Gospel, pp. 45-46).


The view that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom is supported not only by the material common to Thomas and Q but also by two other observations:


a)         Q explicitly presents Jesus as a messenger of Wisdom. In one saying preserved in Luke in a more original form, Jesus, referring to John and himself, says: "Yet Wisdom is justified by all her children" (Luke 7:35 = Matt 11:19), meaning that he and the Baptist were children of Wisdom and as such its servants or messengers. In another Q passage, again preserved by Luke more faithfully, the Wisdom of God is actually quoted (Luke 11:49-51=Matt 23:34-36).


b)         Kloppenborg has identified in Q three layers: Q1, Q2, and Q3. The earliest layer, Q1, consists of wisdom sayings.


The above evidence is impressive but for the following reasons it is not sufficient to lead to the conclusions that scholars like Mack, Koester, and Kloppenborg have drawn from it:


First, the material common to Thomas and Q may not be limited only to the material common to all of the three gospels, Matthew, Luke and Thomas. [Here we think of Q as a document used by Matthew and Luke and not simply the material common to the two gospels.] It is possible that some of the Q material in Thomas was not reproduced by one or both of the two canonical evangelists, Matthew and Luke. Thus logion 57 which talks of the future judgement has a parallel in Matthew (13:24-30) but not in Luke. It is possible that for some reason Luke failed to include it in his gospel. Similarly, logion 113, which talks of the kingdom of God being already spread on earth has a parallel in Luke (17:20) but not in Matthew. Again, it is possible that the saying may have been in Q but Matthew failed to reproduce it. Thus both sayings may have been in Q, in which case the material common to Thomas and Q talked about both a future kingdom of God and a present one. It is also a distinct possibility that some of the Q sayings known to Thomas were not included in the final form of that gospel. Thus logion 6 rejects the necessity of prayer and this may be a reason that Thomas did not include the Lord's prayer (Matt 6:9-13=Luke 11:2-4), which clearly expects a kingdom of God in the future. Moreover, in some cases the Q version assumes a futuristic eschatology while the Thomas version assumes a gnostic-type soteriology and it is not certain which, if any of the two is the original (cf. sayings 46, 78 with Luke 7:24-28 = Matt 11:7-11).


Second, Kloppenborg's reconstruction of the earliest layer behind Q is subject to the usual doubts. Certain parts of Q do seem to be late, as for example, the saying which refers to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the sanctuary (Luke 11:4). But the same cannot be said with equal confidence for many other parts that Kloppenborg excludes from the earliest layer. Kloppenborg's reconstruction assumes a degree of coherence for the original layer which is not fully justified. If Q originated as a collection of sayings of Jesus and/or of leaders in a Jesus group, it must have consisted of sayings spoken at different times, in which case there is no reason why it could not have seams of the type that Kloppenborg uses for separating different layers of tradition. Also, Q is a Galilean production and it is very plausible that Galileans did not adopt a "pure" form of Cynic tradition but one combined with some Jewish traditions, such as the apocalyptic tradition. It is quite understandable why apocalyptic tradition and the Cynic tradition would attract each other. Apocalyptic tradition rejected the present world order and Cynic tradition provided a life style that expressed this rejection in the period between the present time and the future end of the world. Thus it is quite possible that Q arose out of a way of thinking in which wisdom teaching of the Cynic type and apocalyptic tradition had already been combined, and not, as Mack suggests, that one tradition entered Q before the other. This is supported by the fact that a combination of wisdom teaching and a futuristic eschatology is also found in James, another very early Christian document (see Ch. 2). This epistle essentially belongs to wisdom literature (John Reumann, Variety and Unity in New Testament Thought, 195-198). But it also contains the expectation of a future but imminent coming of God and his judgement (James 5:8-9). Like Thomas, James also has contact with the Q tradition. There are several parallels between the ideas or statements in James and the sayings of Jesus in the gospels. Most of these parallels are found in Q (compare, e.g., James 1:4, 5, 17, 22-25, 2:5, 10, 4:12, 5:1-3, 10-11 with Matt 5:48, 7:7, 11, 24-27, 5:18-19, 7:1, 6:19, 5:12=Luke 6:36, 11:9, 13, 6:47-49, 16:17, 6:37, 12:33, 6:23). Thomas tradition also has some remote contact with the James tradition, as is shown by logion 12 where Jesus tells the disciples that after he is gone they are to go to James for whose sake the heavens and earth were created. The expectation of a future coming of (the kingdom of) God and teaching of wisdom, common to Q, James and, to a lesser degree, Thomas are held together by the idea that the righteousness and/or knowledge needed to enter the kingdom of God is partly or entirely obtained through some special wisdom which is imparted by Jesus or a teacher in his movement. That wisdom mythology and apocalyptic tradition had been combined independently of Q seems to be admitted by Mack when he says: "Wisdom mythology also occurs in apocalyptic texts. In this literature, wisdom did once reside in Jerusalem, but then she fled from the evil and violence that destroyed its glory. Now she waits in heaven for the judgments that must fall, ready to return as the water of life for a parched earth in need of regeneration." (The Lost Gospel, p. 151). It is also significant to note that even Q1 may contain references to the future kingdom of God. Thus in Luke 10:9, which is included by Kloppenborg in Q1, the missionary is instructed: "cure the sick who are there and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'." Also, in Lord's prayer, which has the closest parallels to Jewish prayers and not to Cynic tradition and which is also part of Q1, there is expectation of the future kingdom of God of a Jewish type. Mack's attempt to explain these references in terms of Cynic tradition (The Lost Gospel, pp. 125-127) is hardly convincing.


Third, it needs to be noted that we cannot base our conclusions about Jesus entirely on the material common to Thomas and Q or on our reconstruction of the earliest layer of tradition in Q, since we do not know enough about how such sets of material arose and how much of Jesus' teaching they represented. The material common to Thomas and Q and the reconstructed set of traditions Q1 are no doubt very early. But in the Jesus tradition "very early" does not mean "faithful to history". At the very least even the earliest traditions can represent only one aspect of Jesus' teaching, since there were very few people who heard all what Jesus said. Indeed, had Jesus talked only in terms of the present kingdom of God and only as a teacher of wisdom, the widespread and very early presence of the expectation of a future age of salvation would be difficult to understand.




An alternative explanation of the data is that Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God was such that it had the potential, if not elements, for the development of both the futuristic and gnostic interpretations. But what was such a teaching?


It seems Jesus thought in terms of two kingdoms: the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God. At present the two kingdoms coexist but soon Satan will be destroyed and the kingdom of God will be all in all (Matt 13:24-30=Thomas 57; Q: Matt 12:28 = Luke 11:20; Q: Matt 12:27-28 = Luke 11:19-20; Mark 3:20-30, cf. 3:27 with Thomas 35, 98; Luke 10:18-19). The apocalyptic tradition can also talk of the kingdom of God and of the Satan, as in the following passage from the Assumption of Moses (first or second century C.E.):


            Then shall his kingdom appear throughout all his creation,

            And then Satan shall be no more,

And sorrow shall depart with him (The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Vol 2, pp. 407-424).


But, in apocalyptic tradition "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of Satan" are not typical expressions and to the extent that the two kingdoms are implicit in that tradition, they are viewed as following one another in a strict temporal sequence, so that the focus is on two ages and not on two kingdoms. "The Most High has made not one age but two" (4 Ezra 7:50).


Jesus, however, does not seem to think in terms of two ages. The concept of two ages is not attributed to him in Q. It is found in Mark 10:30 only in secondary additions to an earlier saying (see next chapter). Elsewhere in Mark we have only the expression "unto the age" which is used for "never" without an eschatological context. Thus Mark 3:29 says that there will be no forgiveness to those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit "unto the age," that is, "never."  Likewise, when in Mark 11:14 Jesus curses the fig tree, saying that it may not bear fruit "unto the age," the meaning is again "never" without any apocalyptic context. The two ages are assumed in Matt 13:39-30, 49 and in Luke 16:8 but they are clearly mentioned only in Luke 20:34-35 which is evidently a Lukan version of what is formulated without reference to the two ages in Mark 12:25 (no marriages after the resurrection because the resurrected will be like angels). Of course, Jesus' teaching is not inconsistent with the concept of two ages, since the future manifestation of the kingdom of God brings an essentially new age (Mark 12:25). However, there is an important difference between Jesus and the Jewish apocalyptic idea of two ages: for Jesus the distinction between the two ages is not as sharp as in the apocalyptic eschatology. Jesus is not pessimistic about this age. He may talk of this evil and adulterous generation but not of this evil and adulterous age. It is in this age that he performs exorcisms showing that it is worthwhile to inflict defeats on Satan even in this age.


Some further clarification of Jesus' view of the kingdom of God may be obtained by comparing the kingdom of God in the sayings of Jesus and in the Book of Daniel, the single most influential apocalyptic work in Judaism. In Daniel God is viewed as the King of heaven who completely controls the kingdoms on earth (4:37). God's kingdom is ever present and manifests itself in God's power to replace one ruler by another as he wishes and in signs and wonders such as rescuing Daniel from the lions:


            His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his sovereignty is from generation to generation (4:3).


            ... the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings (4:17).


            He delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth; for he has saved Daniel from the power of lions (6:27).


In these passages the kingdom of God is a present, transcendental reality. Daniel also talks of a future, everlasting kingdom but not of God:


            And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever (2:44).


This future, everlasting, kingdom is talked about again in the famous vision of 7:13-14:


            I saw one like a son of man ... To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.


This future kingdom is none other than the everlasting Jewish kingdom ruling the world which is expected in different forms in the Old Testament and elsewhere in Jewish writings. To the extent that this kingdom is everlasting it is a reflection of the eternal kingdom of God but in Daniel it is not identified with the kingdom of God. Indeed, at one level it stands in the same relation to God's kingdom as the mortal kingdoms: it is God who establishes it, for, it is God who gives one like a son of man dominion and kingdom just as he gives mortal kingdoms to whom he wishes. The establishment of the everlasting Jewish kingdom is another manifestation of the power that God exercises as King of heaven over the kingdoms on earth.


The view of the kingdom of God in the sayings of Jesus differs from Daniel's view in two important ways.


1)         In Daniel the kingdom of God is manifested at the present time primarily in what happens to the mortal kingdoms -- their destruction and replacement by other equally mortal kingdoms. Even when the Book of Daniel talks of the deliverance of Daniel as an individual (6:27), it presents this deliverance as a sign for the nations and their kingdoms to recognize the sovereignty of the God of Daniel (6:25-26). In Jesus' sayings, the kingdom of God is manifested at present primarily in what happens to individuals, especially the downtrodden -- the sick, the poor and the alienated sinners -- and not in what happens to nations and kingdoms. Thus the kingdom of God is manifested when a demon is cast out of a sick individual. Also, the kingdom is something that belongs to the poor (Matt 12:27-28= Luke 11:19-20; Thomas 54, Matt 5:3= Luke 6:20). The judgement is also seen in individual terms (Matt 24:40-41=Luke 17:34-35), although some sayings talk of destruction of cities. 


2)         As noted earlier, in Daniel the everlasting future kingdom is not identified with the kingdom of God but with that of the Messiah or the Son of Man or the people of Israel. In Jesus' sayings, however, the ever present kingdom of God and the future kingdom are one and the same thing. The future kingdom is the present kingdom of God manifested in a new situation, a situation created by the defeat of Satan (Mark 3:27, Luke 10:18). In connection with this future manifestation of the kingdom of God, Jesus may not have talked about the Son of Man, although he used the expression "son of man" in the sense of "this one" in order to refer to himself in a modest way (see the next chapter)[1].


            Since Jesus makes no real distinction between the present kingdom of God and its future manifestation, he uses the same term to refer to both. This creates an apparent tension in his sayings, some suggesting that the kingdom is a present reality while others looking towards a future coming of the kingdom. Thus in one saying we read:


                        The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There it is!" For, in fact, the kingdom is among [or within] you [or, according to Thomas, "spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it"] (Luke 17:20=Thomas 113).


            Here Jesus is stressing the present reality of the kingdom of God. In other sayings he looks towards the kingdom of God as if it comes in the future. Thus he prays to God:


"Your kingdom come (in the near future)" (Q: Matt 6:10 = Luke 11:2)


            Or, he looks forward to drinking in the kingdom of God in the future:


            "I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25).


            There are also sayings such as the parables of the kingdom where it is not clear whether the reference is to the kingdom as a present reality or something future.


On the basis of the above discussion we may conclude that Jesus primarily thought in terms of two kingdoms rather than two ages or two worlds. One kingdom, that of God, is ever present while the other kingdom, that of Satan, is temporary because it is doomed to destruction. Jesus makes no real distinction between the kingdom of God as a present reality and the kingdom of God as it will be manifested in the future, even though this future manifestation brings something fundamentally new because of the defeat of Satan. Therefore, within his system of thought there is no tension at all between the sayings where the kingdom is a present reality and those in which it comes in the future. But for many of his early followers as well as for most modern readers there appears to be a tension between the two sets of sayings. This tension is then resolved in various ways, stressing either the present reality of the kingdom or its future coming. For those used to thinking in terms of futuristic kingdom of God it was enough to find in some of Jesus' sayings a reference to the kingdom as something future. Among them were some who thought of the future kingdom as the kingdom of the Messiah or some other eschatological figure such as the Son of Man. These could identify Jesus with one of these figures, not only because he seemed to them to be the most natural choice for such a role but also because he referred to himself as "son of man," albeit in a completely different sense. Similarly, those inclined towards a gnostic-type view of individual salvation as a present possibility could find support in sayings in which Jesus talked about the kingdom of God as a present reality and of salvation in individual terms. They could think of his wisdom teaching as gnostic revelation, through which one could pass from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God now (Thomas 3, 29, 35, 49, 50, 51, 98, 111, 113 etc). In other worlds, Jesus talked about two kingdoms in such a way that they could either become the two ages of the apocalyptic eschatology or the two worlds of the gnostic soteriology.


With the help of the letters of Paul we can further support and elaborate some of the above points and at the same time show a different type of development in early Jesus movement. In earlier letters of Paul a strong expectation of Jesus' return is combined with the belief in Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Thess 1:10, 1 Cor 15 etc). Paul also looks almost exclusively to the death and resurrection when he wants to find salvific and eschatological significance in the past events of Jesus' life. He understands Jesus' death and resurrection as the first blow to the kingdom of Satan which is manifested in sin and death (Rom 4:25, 5:21, 6:23, 8:2, Gal 3:13, Col 2:13-15 etc) and also as the first manifestation of the resurrection of the dead expected in apocalyptic eschatology (Rom 6:5, 1 Cor 15:16, 21). All this is in complete contrast to the teaching of Jesus himself, to James, Thomas and Q, where salvation and the kingdom of God are talked about without any reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The salvific and eschatological significance is seen in these sources either in Jesus' words or miracles or it is not at all seen in the events connected with Jesus' past life. Thus in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus brings salvation through his words, as is shown by the following introduction to that gospel:


            And he (i.e., Jesus) said, He who shall find the interpretation of these words shall not taste of death (i.e., shall have salvation) (logion 2).


In Q the salvific and eschatological significance is given to Jesus' healing miracles (Matt 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23). And in James no salvific and eschatological significance is given to any events of Jesus' life. The same is probably true of Jesus himself. Often the Q saying, "But if it is by the finger of God [power of God] that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you." (Matt 12:28 = Luke 11: 20),

is taken as evidence that Jesus saw in his exorcist activity some eschatological significance. But this saying is connected with the previous one, where Jesus talks about exorcisms performed by other exorcists as if they are comparable to those performed by him. If, therefore, Jesus saw an eschatological significance in his own exorcisms, then he also saw the same significance in those of other exorcists!


Paul combines the apocalyptic/futuristic eschatology with a more "realized" eschatology of the gnostic variety, although the salvific significance is never attached to the words spoken by Jesus but to the death and resurrection. In Philippians 2:6-11 he is obviously quoting a traditional Christological hymn which relates how Christ, a pre-existent divine being, left the celestial world and appeared on earth in the form of a servant, and after his death was exalted as Lord. This traditional hymn is clearly of gnostic origin. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of Christians as if they were gnostics who had passed from a worldly mode of existence to another, unworldly, invisible, mode of existence. "Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col 3:3). "So if any one is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new" (2 Cor 5:17; see comments by Bultmann, Primitive Christianity, pp. 196-208). The presence in Paul of a gnostic language and thought, sometimes in a traditional form, provides evidence that the gnostic interpretation of Jesus is quite early. This is also shown by the presence of such an interpretation in Thomas and John and, possibly, in a saying in Q (Matt 11:27 = Luke 10:22) in which Jesus seems to be talking like a gnostic revealer.




Early Traditions about the Character of Jesus’ Return


Having examined the general views of the kingdom of God and salvation, within which the  character of Jesus’ return was understood, we now turn to the extensive traditions about that character. We discuss these traditions under the following four headings:


            The function after the return

            The imminence and the suddenness of the return

            The manner of the return

            The problem of delay in the return




Jesus himself probably viewed his role upon his return to be that of just a participant in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25). There is some evidence that some Jesus people continued to hold the same view. Thus the letter of James expects the coming of the Lord understood as God and not as the Messiah Jesus. The Aramaic marana tha (Our Lord come) probably had the same sense originally, but even if marana meant Jesus, the prayer suggests that no messianic role was given to Jesus upon his return, since the Aramaic word has no messianic connotations. Had the expectation of Jesus' return been universally connected from the beginning with the expectation that he will return as a messianic figure, we should expect the community to pray, "Messiah come" or something like that.


But some of Jesus' followers soon began to assign specific messianic functions to him. Such specific functions were, of course, seen within one or the other of the general views of salvation examined above. Prior to Christianity, each of these views had developed its own details of how the final salvation would be wrought and Jesus people used these details to develop their picture of what Jesus would do upon his return. These detailed views can, therefore, be divided into two types:


1)         Nationalistic/apocalyptic view. In the more traditional nationalistic view of salvation, Jesus is believed to return as the Messiah who restores the Davidic kingdom which would last forever and which would rule the world. In Acts 1:6-11 Jesus is expected to return just as he went up, that is, in his original body which rose from the grave to ascend to heaven. After his return he will restore the kingdom to Israel presumably by a combination of his own actions and of God. Some traditions from Q and Mark fit with this picture. Thus in Q Jesus promises his followers that they will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, presumably in the restored kingdom of Israel under Jesus (Matt 19:28=Luke 22:28-30) while in Mark 10:30 he promises worldly rewards.


            In their more apocalyptic form these nationalistic expectations are expanded with apocalyptic beliefs and images such as the messianic woes preceding the end, the resurrection of the dead, the fire of judgement and the coming of the Son of Man with the clouds of heavens. In the earlier Jewish apocalyptic tradition such as is reflected in Daniel, the resurrection and the judgement are attributed to God (12:1-3). God is in control of judgement and it is part of that judgement that dominion is given to the one like a son of man who represents the people of God to be vindicated, presumably by the bestowal of an earthly kingdom of Israel ruling the world. But later the functions of raising from the dead and judging are transferred to the Messiah or the Son of Man. Certainly, the Christian tradition often transferred these functions to Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of Man:


                        And then they will see the Son of Man (understood by Mark as Jesus) coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13:26).


                        This (your suffering) is evidence of the righteous judgement of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord ... (2 Thess 1:5-9).


                        [Jesus] is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; see also 17:31, 24:25).


            In sayings of Jesus in Q such as Luke 10:13, 11:32, 12:8-9 (= Matt 11:21. 12:41, 10:32-33), however, we have the older idea which assumes God as the judge. Thus in the last of these sayings we read:


            And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God (Luke 12:8-9=Matt 10:32-33).


            This is Luke's version. Matthew's version differs from this in two important ways: Matthew has "I" in place of the "Son of Man" and "the Father in heaven" in place of "angels of God". The presence of the Son of Man and angels in the original version is, however, confirmed by the independent version in Mark 8:38. Now the above saying in its original understanding not only does not identify Jesus with the Son of Man but also does not present the role of the Son of Man as that of judge but as that of an intercessor who stands before God the judge. The picture here is closer to that in Daniel 7:9-14, which describes God seated on his throne in his court with millions (of angels) standing in attendance before him. Judgement is passed and the power and dominion is taken away from the beasts and given to the one like a son of man who does not sit on the right hand of God but is presented before him, presumably in standing position. In Mark the Son of Man not only sits on the right hand but also the angels accompany the Christ, as they do in Paul, and not God. Perhaps the more original scene is preserved in Acts 7:56 where the Son of Man does not sit as the judge but stands on the right hand of God, presumably in the court of God as an intercessor of the righteous and a prosecutor of the wicked.


            The earlier view according to which it is God who raises the dead and passes judgement and later view which transferred these roles to Jesus the Messiah or the Son of Man created a tension which is resolved in two different ways: Paul attempts to resolve it by giving almost the entire work of judgement and redemption to the Son who then subjugates himself to God: "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). The Book of Revelation attempts to resolve the tension in another way: Before the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God and the final judgement, there will be a "first resurrection,"  a first judgement and a temporary kingdom of the Messiah which will last for a thousand years (20:1-22:8).


            In the Jewish apocalyptic eschatology the judgement is often symbolized by a river of fire (Isa 30:27f.; Dan 7:10, 1 Enoch 14:19, 17:5, 67:7, 13, 7:12, 2 Enoch 10:2, Sib. Or. III. 3, 4 Ezra 13:10ff., 1QH 3:29ff.). John the Baptist probably used this symbol when he talked about baptism with fire (Q: Luke 3:16 = Matt 3:11). Fire is used by Jesus as a symbol of the judgement according to Mark 9:43, 48, Matt 5:22, 7:19, 13:40, 42, 50, 25:41. Paul (if 2 Thess is from his pen) also talks of judgement in terms of fire (2 Thess 5:8). 2 Peter talks of the destruction of the present heavens and earth by fire and the coming of new heavens and earth (3:10-13). Very firmly rooted in the tradition is also the expectation of the messianic woes preceding the end. This expectation is attributed to Jesus in Mark 13:7-8, 14-20. It may also be present in Lord's prayer in Q (Luke 11:4=Matt 6:13), where Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, among other things, "And do not bring us to the time of trial [or, literally, into temptation]." (Matthew adds: "but rescue us from the evil one".) But most of the traditions about the messianic woes go back to the church rather than to Jesus. As in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, messianic woes consist both of earthly disasters such as famines, wars, divisions among families and friends, etc (Mark 13:,12, Luke 12:51-53=Matt 10:34-36(Q); 1 Enoch 100:2, 4 Ezra 5:9) and of cosmic disturbances such as darkening of the sun and the moon and falling of the stars etc (Mark 13:24-27; Assumption of Moses 10:5, 4 Ezra 5:4-12).


            As in the Jewish tradition, so also in the early Christian tradition the hopes were centered mostly on the salvation of the Jews. Also, as we saw earlier, there was a political and nationalistic conception in the thinking of Jesus followers. It was only in the Gentile churches that the eschatological thought became non-political. In these churches the thought also became universal to the extent that the Christian Gentiles were promised completely equal status in the age of salvation with the Christian Jews. This is reflected in Paul who certainly does not think in terms of a restored kingdom of Israel. He does not think even in terms of an earthly kingdom. The living and the resurrected Christians, are caught up in the clouds to be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17) after necessary transformation into immortal form (1 Cor 15:50-53). This type of universal and otherworldly view of the kingdom of God is later reflected in the gospel traditions. In Mark 11:17=Isa 56:7 Jesus is reported to talk of the temple as the house of God for all nations and in Q (Luke 13:28-29= Matt 8:11-12) he speaks of many coming from east and west to eat with Abraham etc. The first passage is not a very early tradition, since John has a different version. The second may not talk of Gentiles but of the Jews in the diaspora. In Acts 3:21 Peter talks during his preaching of the "universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets". But this is a correction of an earlier view of the disciples that focuses on the restoration of an Israeli kingdom (Acts 1:6).


2)         Gnostic-type view. As might be expected, in the gnostic view, the detailed function of Jesus' return is different from that in the nationalistic/apocalyptic view. In gnosticism, the return of Jesus either played no part or it was reinterpreted in spiritual terms. Thus Thomas does not talk about the return of Jesus while in John it is interpreted as a return to lead the souls of the disciples to heaven after their death or a kind of second, fuller, revelation of Jesus, probably taking place at the time of his resurrection and/or ascension. The resurrection of the believers and the judgement of the non-believers are also interpreted differently. The resurrection is passing from darkness to light while the judgement is the abandonment of the world and its ruler in darkness as the revealer ascends to heaven. Thus in John we hear Jesus say:


                        “In my Father's house are many dwelling places ...I go to prepare a place for you ... I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. ... In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live ... those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:2-3, 19, 21). “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and every one who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (3:19). “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (12:31). (See Bultmann, John, pp. 157, 259, 598-603, 617-622, and the notes there for evidence of gnostic nature of such sayings.)




Jesus in all probability preached a new manifestation of the kingdom of God in the very near future. Mark includes in his summary of Jesus' preaching the statement: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand" (1:15). A similar statement is attributed to Jesus in Q (Matt 10:7 = Luke 10:9, 11). In some sayings of Jesus the imminence of the kingdom of God is not explicit but an underlying assumption, as in the following passage:


            [Jesus said:] When you see a cloud rise out of the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain"; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat"; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:54-56)


The signs of the time spoken of here are probably the appearance of John the Baptist, of Jesus himself and other expressions of the expectation of the end such as the withdrawal of the Essenes in the wilderness in anticipation of an imminent final consummation as well as the emergence of some more political movements of a militant nature. This does not mean that Jesus agreed with all these expressions of the expectation of the end but only that he saw in this general air of expectation a sign that the end was near.


After the departure of Jesus some of his followers continued to preach the coming of the kingdom in the near future, at least for some time:


            Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord (=God) is at hand. Brothers, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! (James 5:8-9).


In regarding the kingdom of God as near Jesus and his early followers were doing the expected. For in the first-century Palestine a religious preacher is expected to make the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom an important part of his teaching only if he believed that the kingdom will come soon. Neither he nor his followers are expected to be especially concerned with a kingdom that lies in an indefinitely distant future. This is supported by the fact that apocalyptic texts also regarded the end to be near. Thus in one text we read:


            For the youth of the world is past, and the strength of the creation is already long ago at an end, and the advance of ages is almost here and even past. For the pitcher is nearly to the fountain, the ship to the harbor, the caravan to the city, and life to its conclusion (2 Bar 85:10; see also 4 Ezra 4:33-50, 8:61, 11:44).


When Jesus says in Mark that the time is fulfilled he is expressing a similar idea. Later Paul voices the same idea using a language similar to the above passage:


            I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown short ... For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31).


How near did the earliest Christians believe the coming of the kingdom of God or the return of Jesus to be? The fact that in the fifties, James and Paul were describing the nearness of the judgement using a language similar to the one used earlier by Jesus shows that the meaning of nearness was somewhat flexible. But for each believer the nearness of the kingdom of God or the return of Jesus probably meant that it would take place at least in his/her lifetime.


To see the day when the kingdom of God would be established was naturally a desire of the pious Jews, as we see in the following passages:


            May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time. (From the synagogue prayer, "Kaddish" in Authorized Daily Prayer Book, 4th edition, translation by S. Singer).


            Blessed be they that shall be in those days (Psalms of Solomon 17:50, 18:7).


Consequently, early Christians are also expected to hope that the kingdom of God or the parousia of Jesus will take place in their lifetime. But it should be noted that the Jews’ hope to see the kingdom of God in their lifetime is not enough to explain the Christians’ belief that they will live to see the return of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God – we need the background of Jesus’ mysterious disappearance to understand it fully. For, there is a big difference between a generalized hope and faith. For many Christians it was not just a matter of hope but rather a matter of faith that they would live to see the kingdom of God or the parousia of Jesus, so much so that they found it problematic that some of them began to die, as we learn from the following passage from Paul:


“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For, since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thess 4:13-17)


This passage suggests that the belief in the general resurrection of the dead was not widely known to the Christians at least in Paul's churches. "Lord's word" that Paul invokes here may either refer to Jesus' teaching about the resurrection of the dead or it may be a revelation from the risen Lord received by Paul or some prophet in the church.  Apparently Jesus' word was not known to all or was not enough, since some Christians like some Jews (Mark 12:18-27) continued to deny the resurrection. In 1 Cor 15 Paul brings forward all the traditions he had ever heard about Jesus' resurrection appearances in order to convince those who denied the general resurrection of the dead. These deniers of the resurrection seem to have believed that only those who escaped death before the coming of the kingdom of God or the return of Jesus could participate in the eternal life of the kingdom. Quite understandably they held that the privilege of being alive at that time and thus participating in the eternal life of the kingdom was so great that even the greatest man among those who had died is inferior to the least among those who will have eternal life in the kingdom. This idea, existing independently of any other tradition, was quite naturally applied to Jesus' saying describing the Baptist as the greatest man who ever lived (see Ch. 1).


Thus the earliest concept of nearness was probably understood to be "within the lifetime of all believers". This was apparently modified later to "within the lifetime of some of the believers", as we see in the following passages in Mark:


            Truly I say to you, There are some of those standing here that will not taste death at all until first they see the kingdom of God already come in power (9:1).


            And then they will see the Son of Man coming in great power and glory.... Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass until all these things happen (13:26, 30).


Again when in Mark 14:62 Jesus tells the high priest: "you will see the Son of Man ... coming in the clouds of heaven" it is perhaps assumed that the return of Jesus will take place within the lifetime of his generation.


The imminence of the kingdom of God or the return of Jesus served a useful purpose in the early Christian mission: it attracted and kept people's attention. Perhaps it is to further infuse the missionaries with enthusiasm that a church came up with the idea that the only thing that remained between the present moment and the parousia is the completion of the mission. In a tradition unique to Matthew Jesus sends his disciples on missionary journeys and during his instructions tells them:


            Truly I say to you, You will by no means complete the tour of the cities of Israel until the Son of Man arrives (10:23).


There is something strange here about Jesus referring to his own arrival while he is himself sending the disciples on their mission, since in the context there is no talk of Jesus' death or disappearance. Consequently, this saying is either the creation of some early Christian prophet or Jesus does not here identify himself with the Son of Man. The saying cannot be the creation of Matthew himself, since no one would invent such a saying in the last two decades of the first century when most of the Christian preaching was taking place outside Palestine. The saying belongs to the time when Jesus mission was active in Palestine and the expectation of the imminence of the return of Jesus was strong.


The saying seems to have been modified later, with Israel replaced by all the nations. Thus in Mark 13:10 Jesus says that before the end comes "the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations" (cf. Matt 28:19, Acts 1:6-9). Paul also was motivated by the same idea in his tireless missionary journey from city to city. He tells his readers in Rome that there is no further place for him "in these regions" and that he is planning to visit Rome when he goes to Spain (Rom 15:22-26). It has been suggested that Paul wants to preach his gospel in as many regions as possible before the end comes.


Although the return of Jesus was widely believed in the early Jesus communities to be imminent, no attempt was made to fix its exact time. On the contrary, the return was expected to take place suddenly. This idea of the suddenness of the parousia corresponded to the general human experience of the unpredictability of the future but, like the idea of the imminence, it also served a useful purpose in the church: It kept the believers on their toes and made them listen to the church's exhortations. The idea finds many forms in Paul, Q, Thomas, and Mark. Thus Paul writes:


            For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief (1 Thess 5:2-4).


In a passage in Q Jesus likens the day of the Son of Man to the days of Noah and Lot, when the judgement came suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving no time to turn from a field or collect any belongings (Luke 17:26-31=Matt 24:37-39). Another passage in Q attributes the following saying to Jesus:


            But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (Luke 12:39-40=Matt 24:43-44, Thomas 21).


The metaphor of the thief at night used both by Paul and Q is also found in Rev 3:3, 16:15 and 2 Pet 3:10.


In Mark, Jesus tells the believers to be watchful because no one knows when the "hour" (of judgement) will come:


            But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. ... Keep awake." (Mark 13:32, 37; see also Matt 25:13, Luke 21:34-36).


The above statement has been considered authentic by some scholars on the grounds that the church will not attribute any ignorance to Jesus. But the way Jesus refers here to himself as "the Son" suggests a more developed view of Jesus than any we can confidently attribute to Jesus. Also, the statement is in some tension with the saying in Q (Luke 10:21-22=Matt 25:27), where Jesus, again referring to himself as “the Son”, says that the Father has given "all things" in his hands, which should include the knowledge of the time of the parousia. Perhaps in Mark 13:32 Jesus originally referred to "the son of man" (and not to “the Son”) either as a self-effacing reference to himself or in the sense of "human beings" generally. In that case the meaning will be either that:


the time of the hour is known neither to the angels in heaven nor to “this humble one” [Jesus];


or, that:


it is known neither to the angels in heaven nor to human beings on earth.


Unfortunately we have only Mark's version and therefore it is difficult to decide which interpretation is the original.


In addition to the suddenness of the return, there is the idea of apparent arbitrariness of the judgment:


Then two will be in the field, one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Matt 24:40-41, 28=Luke 36, 35, 37)


The meaning of the saying about vultures is difficult. Its probable meaning is: Just as the vultures can, from a very great height, spot the corpse, so also on the day of judgment those to be “taken” for punishment would be singled out. 




How was Jesus believed to return? The answer to this question was largely provided from Jewish eschatology under some influence from Jesus' own sayings about the kingdom of God.


Jesus' return from heaven was naturally seen by some in terms of the coming of the Son of Man, who had already begun to be identified with the Messiah by the time of Jesus, in the clouds of heaven mentioned in Daniel 7:13. Paul paints a somewhat different picture. He says that Jesus will descend from heaven with the cry of command, the archangel's call and the sound of God's trumpet (1 Thess 4:16). In the next verse Paul also mentions the clouds, although not in connection with the descent of Jesus but the ascent of the believers.


The descent of Jesus was expected to take place not in an obscure way but in a universally manifest manner. Paul's picture of the descent suggests that it will be heard (through cry, call and sound) by everyone. The following saying in Q suggests that it will be seen by everyone:


            [Jesus said:] They will say to you, "Look there!" or "Look here!" Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. (Luke 17:23-24= Matt 24;26-27).





Many of the early Jesus followers, as noted above, expected an imminent coming of God or his kingdom or the return of Jesus as an eschatological figure. The delay in the fulfilment of this expectation caused a problem for the Jesus followers. It is, however, not quite right to speak about a parousia-delay crisis. The church was able to survive the failure of Jesus to return with relative ease. There are several reasons for this survival:


a)         Some churches had already built a religious life around devotion to Jesus as cultic Lord, which did not absolutely require the return of Jesus for its continuation. After all, there were so many cults in the first century whose lords were not expected to return.


b)         In order to show that Jesus was the Messiah, some prophecy was said to have been already fulfilled by him. This resulted in the acknowledgement of salvific significance of the work Jesus had already accomplished. Also, Jesus had sometimes spoken of the kingdom of God as present. Finally, gnostic soteriology had already introduced the idea that the kingdom of God was something into which one could enter now. All this made it easy for the church to appeal to a realized eschatology when the return of Jesus seemed nowhere in sight.


c)      The standard of consistency and continuity with the earlier tradition were not very high in early Christianity so that the contradiction with the earlier expectations and the reality of a world that seemed to continue as before instead of coming to an end was not as bothersome to early Christians as it may seem to us. As a result, Christians could easily be satisfied with rationalizations that we would find as desperate (see below for some of these rationalizations in John and 2 Pet).


d)      The belief in the imminence of the return is useful in attracting attention of both Christians and non-Christians and thus forming new groups. This is why even after the passing of many generations over the past two thousand years there is no shortage of groups proclaiming that the return of Jesus is just around the corner.  


The problem caused by the delay in parousia, whatever its gravity, was solved in different ways at different times and in different churches. These solutions are reflected in various books of the New Testament, which we now review.


Pauline letters. As noted earlier Paul combines the apocalyptic eschatology with gnostic conceptions. However, as time passes, the emphasis in his letters shifts more and more from apocalyptic to gnostic eschatology. This change in Paul seems to have been caused by the delay in Jesus' return.


The earliest belief or assumption in Pauline churches, probably inherited from the twelve was that every believer will be alive at the return of Jesus. This belief is modified in 1 Thess by the teaching that those who did die before the return will be raised at the time of the return:


            For ... we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself ... will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thess 4:13-17).


In a later letter Paul again refers to the resurrection of the dead Christians to participate in Jesus' kingdom, In a later letter Paul again refers to the resurrection of the dead that will allow Christians who had died to participate in Jesus’ kingdom. But now the dying of Christians is taken for granted. The need now seems to be to affirm that not all the Christians will die.


            Listen, I tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:51).


Perhaps even after the believers had accepted that many of them may die before Jesus' return, each of them felt that he himself will remain alive while some of the others may die. This in any case seems to be the case with Paul when he wrote 1 Cor 15, as is suggested by the way he contrasts "the dead" and "we" in 1 Cor 15:51. However, later in Philippians he is far more open to the possibility of his own death, although he is still confident that this will not happen:


            It is my eager expectation and hope that ... Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.... I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith ...(Phil 1:20-26).


In Philippians the hope for the return is still strong. It talks of the day of Jesus Christ (l 1:6, 10, 2:16), of the expectation of a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, from heaven (3:20) and says: "The Lord is near" (4:5). But Paul is also considering the possibility of his death. This is bringing subtle changes in his thought. Whereas in 1 Thess a dead believer has to be first raised and then join the Lord at his parousia in the air, in the above passage from Philippians death seems to bring a believer like Paul already in the company of Jesus. Similar change is observed as we compare Romans with Colossians. In Romans the resurrection is future:


            Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death ....For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. ... But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom 6:4-8).


But in Colossians the resurrection has already taken place:


            ... when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God ... So if you are raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Col 2:12, 3:1).


In Ephesians also the death and resurrection/ascension are already shared by the believers (2:4-6). Even though the next verse talks about the future riches in Jesus Christ in the ages to come, in Ephesians the future consummation is talked about either without any reference to the return of Jesus (1:14, 18, 4:4, 30) or with a very indirect and vague connection with that return (1:20-21, 5:5, 27). The "kingdom of Christ and of God" in 5:5 seems to be some present reality in which the evildoers have no inheritance, not something future which they will not inherit, as in 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:21. Believers are already raised from death to life, to heaven (2:1, 5-6) and light (5:8) and have already been saved (2:8). There is no talk of the coming of the Lord or waiting for him from heaven or his being near. Whereas in 1 Thess concern caused by some deaths is addressed, in Ephesians several generations are possible before the end. In 3:21 God is glorified "to all generations" and in 6:4 the children of the believers are asked to obey their parents so that they may have long life on earth.


In earlier letters the entry into the kingdom of God is still in the future. It is said that evil doers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal 5:21) or that the flesh and blood will not inherit it (1 Cor 15:50) or the converts are encouraged to become "worthy" of the kingdom of God (1 Thess 2:12, 2 Thess 1:5). But in Colossians the entry has already taken place:


            He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son ... (1:13)


Also compare 1 Cor 7:25-31 where human relations are seen in the light of the belief that this world is passing away with Col 3:18-4:1 and Ephes 5:21-6:4 where they are meant to build stable and harmonious social structure as if the world is going to last for some time.


Some of the letters referred to above, e.g. Colossians and Ephesians may have been partly or entirely written by someone other than Paul, in which case some of the above observations refer to changes in Pauline churches and not necessarily in Paul himself.


We may also mention here that Philemon has no reference to the return of Jesus or to the coming of God or of the judgement. This may be because it is a very short letter with a very limited objective.


In the Pastorals (1, 2 Timothy, Titus), which definitely do not come from the pen of Paul, we have once again references to "that day" (2 Tim 1:12, 18, 4:8), to "the appearing" (epiphany) of Christ (1 Tim 6:14, 2 Tim 4:1, Titus 2:13), to the "last days" (1 Tim 4:1, 2 Tim 3:1, 4:3) as well as other types of references to the age to come (1 Tim 4;8, 5:24, 6:7, 2 Tim 2:10-13, 4:18), generally to give strength to the author's exhortation. The fervency of the expectation may be somewhat toned down but resurrection, salvation etc are all in the future.


Other letters. From letters written by, or attributed to, Paul we now turn to other letters in the New Testament.


Second Peter talks of the future entry into the eternal kingdom of Christ (1:11), of the day of judgement (2:9, 17, 3:7), of the day of the Lord coming like a thief at night (3:10), of the last days (3:3), of heavens passing away with a loud voice, of fire which will melt the elements and dissolve all things and of waiting for new heavens and new earth (3:10-13). It also speaks of scoffers who dare to ask: "Where is the promise of his coming?" The answer it gives to the scoffers consists of three parts: 1) the word of God has predetermined the time of the end; 2) time as reckoned by God is different from time as reckoned by men; 3) the Lord wants to give more time for people to repent (3:5-9).


In Hebrews there is a vivid expectation of the imminent parousia (10:25, 37, cf. 1:2, 6:18-20, 9:27f.). But the Jewish eschatology with its two ages has been combined with the Platonic view of two worlds, the world of ideals/ideas which is the real world, and this world which only consists of copies/shadows of what is in the other world. The full participation in the real world comes in the age to come (4:13-16, 7:19, 10:19-22, 12:22-24). The readers are encouraged in their striving and suffering by impressing upon them the nearness of the invisible, real world and not the parousia.


In 1 John the writer imagines the believers living in the last hour and talks about the revelation (=return) of Jesus (2:18, 28, 3:2, 4:17). But in 2 and 3 John there are no such references. Those who do not abide in the teaching of Christ are not threatened with any punishment in the future but are said not to have God (2 John 9) or not to have seen God (3 John 11) while those who do abide in that teaching are not promised a future reward but are simply said to have both the Father and the Son (2 John) or to be from God (3 John).


Of the remaining letters, James shows no signs of any problem caused by delay in the parousia for the simple reason that this very early letter does not talk about the return of Jesus but only of the coming of God and his judgement (5:7-11). Jews had a long history of talking about the coming of God and/or his judgement, often in the near future without being disappointed by any "delay" in it and the letter of James follows in the same tradition. Jude has a possible reference to the return of Jesus in v. 21 but clearly expects the coming of God and of the great day of judgement (vv. 6, 14).


From the above review of the epistles it seems that there is no linear connection between the intensity of the hope for parousia and time. Some earlier epistles such as Ephesians contain almost no expectation of the parousia while much later pastorals and 2 Pet are still showing a high intensity of expectation. How do we explain this fact?


One may answer this question by a simple recourse to a general phenomenon: an idea suffers a setback and gets muted for a while only to be revived later with new vigor, provided the idea has some use. As noted earlier, the hope of the parousia can always be put to two uses:


            1) To attract converts

            2) To aid in ethical exhortation


After an initial setback these two uses of the expectation of the parousia asserted themselves and helped in the revival of the expectation. But there may be another more special factor at work here. It seems that the expectation of the parousia whose intensity had considerably reduced by the end of the apostolic age was given new vigor by the revolt of 66-70 CE. In the events connected with this revolt Jewish and Christian prophets alike saw signs for a massive hoped-for intervention of God in some form -- for Christians this intervention taking the form of Jesus' parousia. The first generation of Christians was almost all gone and messianic woes had started, so Jesus must be on his way.


The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Mark 13 is best understood in the light of the role played by the revolt in intensifying expectation of the parousia. Mark in essence affirms the hope but with a note of caution: the end is not far but it is also not immediate and its precise time cannot be determined. Thus Mark makes Jesus say: "end is not yet" (13:7), "the gospel must first be preached to all the nations" (13:10), "of that day or that hour no one knows .. but only the Father" (13:32). There are signs that must appear in the heavens which evidently have not yet appeared (13:24-27). False prophets and false christs mentioned in 13:21-22 may well be the people who are predicting or trying to bring about immediate arrival of the kingdom of God or of the Messiah. Perhaps Mark's description of the attribution to Jesus of the prophecy that Jesus will rebuild the temple in three days as false (14:57-58) also serves the purpose of dampening the hopes of immediate parousia among some Christians.


Matthew wrote his gospel a decade or so after Mark was written. But he seems to have no problem with the delay in the parousia. He has kept most of Mark's references to the parousia. This is because he regards Jesus as already present with the church as a spiritual and divine being. In the beginning of the gospel he gives Jesus the name "Emmanuel" which he translates as "God with us" (1:22-23) and he ends his gospel by the words attributed to Jesus: "I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:20). In this way the hope of the parousia and the new age can be affirmed and then pushed into the background by making the spiritual presence of Jesus as the main focus.


Luke in his two volumes has transformed the earlier tradition much more radically than Matthew and according to a definite and generally transparent design. He has completely detached the destruction of the temple from the hope of the parousia and put the latter into a more distant future. This is clear from the way he deliberately changes Mark 13. Thus in Mark 13:6 the false prophets say "I am he" while in Luke 21:8 they also say ""The time is at hand"  implying that to proclaim the imminence of the end is a false prophecy! Mark 13:8 speaks of the wars, famines and earthquakes as "the beginning of the travail (messianic woes)", but Luke 21:11 not only omits this but also adds "signs from heaven" which had not yet taken place so that the travail had not started. Mark 13:13 says that "he who endures to the end shall be saved". Luke 21:19 omits the reference to the end and says instead: "By your endurance you will gain your lives" thus removing the link in Mark between the suffering of the last days and the suffering caused during the great revolt. Luke further breaks the Markan connection between the fall of the temple and the messianic woes by giving it a different interpretation as "wrath of God on this people" (21:24). Jerusalem is not rebuilt by the returned Jesus but it "will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" (21:24). Mark 13:24 mentions the heavenly signs as a continuation of the earthly sings mentioned in 13:8 by saying "in those days, after that tribulation". Luke 21:25 omits these words.


In Acts as in his gospel Luke affirms the belief in Jesus' return (1:11) and speaks of the day of judgement (10:42, 17:31, 24:25). But again the time for these events is pushed further into an indefinite future. In Acts 1:6-8, the risen Jesus meets with the apostles one last time before his ascension. The apostles ask him: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" This question implies a nationalistic and political expectation of an imminent messianic restoration. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of Israel. Jesus' reply to the apostles modifies both the nature of the expectation and its fervency: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." The nationalist hope is thus universalized (cf. 3:21: "universal restoration that God announced long ago"). The immediate future in which the restoration is expected is replaced by indefinitely distant future which lies beyond the time when the task of preaching the gospels to the ends of the earth is completed. In the meantime, the kingdom of God is manifested in the power brought by the Spirit.


The earlier edition of John proposes a realized eschatology. It presents judgement as already taking place with the coming of the light through Jesus' incarnation in the world (3:19) or at the time of his departure (12:31). Likewise the resurrection also takes place during the ministry: those who hear and believe him have already passed "from death to life" (5:24). In 11:24-27 an expectation of the resurrection on the last day seems to be corrected to a resurrection that belief in Jesus effects immediately. The return of Jesus is mentioned (16:16 etc) but it seems to refer to the resurrection of Jesus. The rebuilding of the temple by Jesus which properly belongs to the parousia is interpreted as Jesus' resurrection. Also, in John the coming of the Spirit-Paraclete almost takes the place of the coming back of Jesus.


But later editions of John also contain references to a future resurrection and judgement (6:39, 41, 54, 5:28-29, 12:48). Some of these references (6:39, 41, and 54) are clearly secondary additions but the same is probably also true of the rest of the references: 5:28-29, 12:48.


In John 21, which is a later addition, the more traditional expectation of the return of Jesus within the lifetime of the first generation of Christians is clearly presupposed and corrected. In 21:22, in response to a question by Peter about the fate of the beloved disciple Jesus says:


            If it is my will for him to remain until I come, of what concern is that to you?


This question clearly assumes that Jesus would return within the lifetime of the beloved disciple. Unfortunately, the beloved disciple died without seeing the return of Jesus, forcing John to find this unconvincing rationalization:


            In consequence, this saying went out among the brothers, that disciple would not die. However, Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but: "If it is my will for him to remain until I come, of what concern is that to you?" (21:23).


That is, Jesus' statement was only hypothetical!




Before his disappearance, Jesus in all probability talked about his return, but he hoped only to participate in the kingdom of God upon his return, not to bring it as an eschatological figure. For Jesus the future manifestation of the kingdom of God was something that came by itself (Mark 4:26-29).


After his mysterious disappearance some of his disciples continued to believe in his return. They believed either that Jesus was in hiding or that he was raised to heaven alive and that he would return soon or, at least within the lifetime of their generation.


Some Jesus followers, however, explained Jesus’ mysterious disappearance by assuming that he was executed by some of the authorities hostile to him. These followers did not believe in the return. In due course of time the two explanations of the disappearance were combined to give rise first to the sequence: death – resurrection/ascension and finally to the sequence: death – resurrection – ascension – return.



Some of Jesus’ followers also continued to look towards the coming kingdom of God without postulating any special eschatological role for him in the kingdom, thus remaining more faithful to Jesus' own outlook. These followers included the Galilean followers such as James the brother of Jesus and his companions. The early Jerusalem Hellenists also probably did not think of Jesus in terms of any eschatological role. Because of their belief in the execution of Jesus it was probably difficult for them to assign any such role to him. They either thought only in terms of the coming of God without any eschatological figure or looked forward to a figure, e.g. the Son of Man, as someone other than Jesus. Some other followers, however, identified Jesus with one or the other of the eschatological figures found in the Jewish tradition. All these groups believed in an eschatology that was essentially futuristic, i.e. which saw salvation in the future, albeit a very near future. However, soon there emerged groups, either themselves gnostics or their forerunners, who saw salvation as already available through the revelation brought by Jesus.


The potential for these interpretations existed in Jesus' own teaching. Jesus talked about the future kingdom of God but did not separate the two ages in a sharp contrast. He rather talked about two kingdoms -- the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God -- which now exist side by side. In the near future, the kingdom of Satan would be defeated and the kingdom of God would be all in all. For Jesus the kingdom of God was an all-pervasive reality that was present in all ages and in all worlds, although in the future it will be manifested in a new situation when the kingdom of Satan would be destroyed. This enabled Jesus to sometimes talk about the kingdom of God as a present reality while at other times he referred to its future manifestation when it would defeat the kingdom of Satan. This in turn made it possible for different groups to interpret Jesus in the light of their prior conceptions about the kingdom of God.


Whether one believed in a future salvation or in its present possibility, a consequence of believing Jesus to be a bringer of salvation was that his past life was also given some salvific or eschatological significance. This was done differently by different groups. Some, like the gnostics, saw salvific or eschatological significance in his words. Others, like some Galilean disciples, saw this significance in his works or miracles. Still others, like Paul, saw the whole salvific and eschatological significance of Jesus' past life concentrated in his death and resurrection. At a later stage these more primitive views were combined in various ways.


Finally, the non-fulfillment of the promised imminence of the return created a problem that was solved by re-interpreting more and more of the expectations connected with the return of Jesus and transferring them to what Jesus did during his ministry and/or to his death and resurrection and/or to the risen Lord. The promise of imminence gradually came to be ignored, except that some leaders revive it in every generation in order to form new Christian groups or revive spirits in older groups. Those who re-affirm the belief in imminence naturally do so in reference to the time in which they live and not to the time in which the New Testament writers lived. This requires them to show how it is that the New Testament writers had in mind a time centuries after their own. This they show by subjecting the texts to very artificial interpretations. 


[1]           In Q the sayings which seem to be talking about the return of Jesus (Matt 23:37-39, 25:14-30=Luke 13:34-35, 19:11-27, cf. Matt 24:45-51=Luke 12:42-46) do not mention the Son of Man and those that talk of the Son of Man do not talk of Jesus' return or otherwise identify Jesus with the Son of Man. It is thus possible to isolate the material about the apocalyptic Son of Man without affecting the rest of the material in Q. Hence it is possible to regard the material about the apocalyptic Son of Man as a secondary addition, a suggestion which finds some further support from the fact that the only Son of Man saying in Q which is also found in Thomas is the one about foxes having their dens for rest (Matt 8:20=Luke 9:58 = Thomas, logion 86), which seems to have nothing to do with the apocalyptic eschatology. It seems that the apocalyptic Son of Man sayings first arose among the persecuted Stephenite Hellenists. They thought of the coming of the kingdom of God in terms of the coming of the Son of Man without identifying Jesus with him (Chapters 2, 9, 22).

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