Saturday, August 20, 2005

Lk 17:20-21 and the Apocalypse

I want to applaud Brandon Wason, whose recent post on Novum Testamentum defends a translation for the kingdom of God being “among” the Pharisees rather than “within” them. Following other interpreters, Brandon points to lexical evidence which supports a meaning of “among” (or, as I prefer, “in the midst of”) for entos. For Jesus to have said that the kingdom of God was within the hearts of his own rivals would have made no sense. Besides which:

“No matter what stage of the New Testament tradition is being considered, the idea of the kingdom of God as a purely interior, invisible, present spiritual state of individual hearts is a foreign intrusion. It is at home in 2nd-century Christian Gnosticism (so the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 3, 51, and 113), 19th-century German liberal Protestantism, and some 20th-century American quests for the historical Jesus, but not in the canonical Gospels in general or Luke in particular.” (John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp 426-427)

Lk 17:20-21 has not only played a significant role in turing Jesus into a Western Protestant or quasi-gnostic thinker (the “within” translation), but also in undermining the idea that he preached a future apocalypse at all (however entos is translated). But that’s hardly warranted by a cumulative assessment of the evidence, and it’s not even implied by the Lukan narrative. Here’s what happens. When pressed by the Pharisees for the apocalypse’s timetable, Jesus redirects their attention to the kingdom’s present dimension:

“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 of God is in the midst of you.”

Of course, that’s evasive and doesn’t answer the question. In fact, it insultingly implies that it was the wrong question to ask. Instead of worrying about apocalyptic signs, these fools should be taking advantage of the sacred prologue all around them (or among them, or in the midst of them). This is how Jesus dealt with rivals who challenged him in public. Rather than allow himself to be shamed or put on the defensive, he blew them off by changing the subject. But on other occasions he promised red rain, saying the apocalypse would be coming within a lifespan or generation (Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27;Mk 13:29-33/Mt 24:33-36,42/Lk 21:31-33,36).

Jesus was like many millenarian prophets, keeping his cards close to his vest and refusing to commit on specific dates. He would sidestep the issue (Lk 17:20-21) or offer vague timetables (Mk 9:1; Mk 13), but no more. Some things never change, do they?


Blogger Brandon Wason said...

Thanks! I added a link to your post from mine.

Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I also linked to your post, Loren. And I would have pinged your trackback if you had it installed--Click here for my step-by-step installation instructions.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for these instructions, Wayne. I'll probably get trackback installed sometime this week.

Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Hi Loren,

I completely agree that Gnosticism has entered the fabric of thinking of many modern Christians. It's an issue we're not wrestling with, and should be.

And I think there is another issue here--rabid individualism. I really think a major part of the problem with understanding ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν (hH BASILEIA TOU QEOU ENTOS hUMWN ESTIN) is with the fact that hUMWN is plural. English 'you' doesn't convey "plural", at least, not in today's world. If the interpreter combines 'within' with a singular 'you', he or she gets the wrong understanding.

To be open, I don't think 'among' quite cuts it either. The idea with ENTOS involves location. The phrase "in your presence" comes quite close. It appears to me to be a somewhat oblique statement by Jesus that God's reign is right here in their presence. Note the followig parallel: Luke then makes sure the reader knows there is a change in audience (to the disciples) and Jesus more directly answers the question. This time, however, he refers to the Son of Man and not God's reign.

Also, rather interestingly, with the Pharisees, it was a 'when' question. Jesus answers it with a 'where' answer, which is somewhat of a riddle. He then turns to the disciples and answers the 'when' question. And they respond with a 'where' question (see vs 37) which he answers in somewhat of a riddle. There's a rhetorical thing going on here, too.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


What a thoughtful reply. I can’t say I object much to a translation of “in your presence”, though I do think “among you” or (even better) “in your midst” captures the “where” of it all just the same.

You’re right on the money about Jesus’ “where” answer to a “when” question. That’s what I was getting at with his rhetorical strategy. Whenever publicly challenged by opponents (Pharisees, scribes, Herodians, etc) Jesus never answered questions directly. In the ancient Mediterranean (honor-shame cultures), men who did this were perceived as weak and shameful. The honorable man sidesteps questions, fires back counterquestions, or just resorts to plain insults. And this of course is what Jesus did all the time.

Thanks again for your thoughts.


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