You probably do not know his name, or even that he existed, but Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) impacts your work every time you teach the Scriptures. Wellhausen was a Protestant German biblical scholar who is best known for the Documentary Hypothesis. Still puzzled? Simply put, Wellhausen addressed the centuries old doubts about whether Moses himself actually composed the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch. He proposed that at least four authors—more likely, schools of authors—composed the Pentateuch, and probably the entire Old Testament, coming from different centuries and theological/historical outlooks. This theory, known as (literary) “form criticism”, is generally accepted today in all mainstream Christian scholarship, including that of Roman Catholicism. So, if you took an Old Testament course and did not learn about the J, Y, P and D traditions—get your money back!
The same systematic study has been applied to the Gospels, in a somewhat different fashion, after World War II. Scholars today compare the four Gospels to each other to see how each evangelist reworked the original Apostolic preaching. Remember, there is a 35 year gap between the death of Jesus and the first written Gospel, our B-Cycle hero St. Mark’s. This kind of study is called Redaction Criticism or editorial Criticism, which examines the literary style and theological outlook of each writer for the heart of the Revealed message.
One of the first major outcomes of this new scriptural message was a much greater appreciation of the term “kingdom of God” (or reign of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, depending upon the evangelist.) As you read St. Mark this year and hear him proclaimed in our current liturgical season, the mention of the Kingdom of God is frequent, and its signs abundant. Next Sunday's Gospel, for example, highlights how the power of God’s new kingdom extends into the world of demons. All of the Gospels speak of the Kingdom—St. John depicts Jesus as telling Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The Our Father texts pray for the “coming of the Kingdom.”
And yet, the Kingdom remains elusive. Mark’s Gospel depicts the signs and wonders of Jesus as indicators that in some sense the Kingdom of God is already here, and yet Mark is the most forceful of the Gospels in predicting the awesomeness of its arrival in the future. Scripture scholar John Meier observes that the concept of “the kingdom of God” is unparalleled in Old Testament writing and in the contemporary thinking of Jesus’ time, giving us reasonable confidence that the term did originate from the lips of the historical Jesus.
Study and teaching of the Kingdom of God as the term is used in the Gospels is critical to faith formation in a number of respects. In the first instance, the very idea of a coming fulfillment, a visitation by God the Almighty (probably synonymous with the “Second Coming”} is the “wild card” of Christian existence, just as it was in Jesus’ contemporary Jewish milieu and the reason that Jewish leaders sought to kill him. The judgmental mysterious shadow of the Kingdom is an authoritative power to be reckoned with; or, as Mark put it, Jesus “taught with authority.”
The ever present reality of God’s coming Kingdom prevents Christianity from settling into a routine apathy of observance and mediocrity. The coming Kingdom will divide us into sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. We are accustomed to pushing thoughts of the end times into an indefinite (read: ineffectual) future. John’s Gospel, written some years after Mark’s, raises the ante: Jesus declares in John that a man’s decision to accept Jesus in the present moment is his “judgment.” Put another way, John’s point is that the Kingdom of God arrives at the moment we are confronted by the Word of God, and we make our choice at the moment of hearing. I believe it was the famous Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann who defined successful preaching as rousing in the hearer the desire to be baptized or born again. Mark and John, in different ways, are both clear that the future Kingdom is also now.