Judith Kovacs wrote a must-read article on John 12.20-36, “Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle” in Journal of Biblical Literature 114/2 (1995), 227-247. In this article, Kovacs argues against Bultmann, Kasemann, and others who taught that John downplayed Jesus’ death in his Gospel. Not only does Kovacs show that Jesus’ death is central to John’s Gospel, she also approaches it in light of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic texts. The apocalyptic texts are all about cosmic battle, judgment, and victory; in John’s Gospel, all these happen on the cross, Jesus’ “hour” of glory.
Kovacs asks, “Might the theme of cosmic conflict and the view that Jesus’ death is the decisive victory of God over the forces of evil be more important in John’s theology than is usually recognized?” (p. 229). I believe her article (coupled with other scholars) answers that question in the positive.
“Taken together, the sayings in 12:31-32, 14:30-31, and 16:8-11 suggest that the Fourth Evangelist sees the death, resurrection, and ascent of Jesus as the turning point in the conflict between God and the forces of evil. It remains to be shown that these texts are not isolated sayings but signal a theme that has importance for the Gospel as a whole” (p. 231). All of the contrasts in John’s Gospel (darkness/light, below/above, this world/the world to come, death/life, wolf/shepherd, etc.) reveal the conflict: “The story this Gospel has to tell concerns the battle between God and Satan – a battle acted out in the sphere of human history” (p. 233).
Kovacs also utilizes F.M. Cross’ Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic as she highlights the conflict. First, the divine warrior goes to battle. Second, nature convulses at the manifestation of the warrior’s wrath. Third, after victory, the warrior returns to his throne on his mountain; finally, the warrior speaks from his temple and fertility results (p. 236). This is right: these themes are highlighted in John’s Gospel, even down to the fertility point (cf. 12.24). The OT pagan myths are deconstructed and reconstructed, so to speak, by the epic story of the Son of God fulfilling all the warrior passages of the OT.
One more helpful area Kovacs mentions is John’s legal aspect: she says that “the Gospel combines forensic imagery with images of battle” (p. 238). Here she is building on the works of A. E. Harvey, J. Neyrey, and J. L. Martyn, who also noted the legal motif in John. Note: she wrote before A. T. Lincoln did much of his work on John’s gospel, so throw his stuff into the legal/trial mix as well (see also previous posts on this blog under “Lincoln”). Indeed, John also combines the legal and cosmic motifs in Revelation (cf. p. 239).
Let me end with a concluding paragraph by Kovacs. “When the evangelist refers to the cross as ‘glorification,’ he is not simply engaging in clever wordplay, attempting, as it were, to gloss over an embarrassing part of the early Christian tradition. Instead, he is drawing on an ancient mythic pattern in order to make sense of his community’s experience – the terrible jolt of Jesus’ violent departure, followed by the miraculous evidence…of Jesus’ vindication and of the greater power he now exercises as enthroned king” (p. 246).