“A warm welcome to Zingcreed: the totally unique Christian/Atheist manifesto. Thinking aloud about religion, this is my personal polemic; I hope you get something from it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.
Post title taken from Crossan (ii)
“The most certain historical datum about Jesus’ life is that the concept which dominated his preaching, the reality which gave meaning and fulness to all his acts was the Kingdom of God.” (Jon Sobrino, Liberation Theologian)
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
It is with some trepidation that I breach this topic, but it’s what Jesus spoke about more than anything else; and I happen to believe that what he said matters, even though I am an atheist. It is also one of the main reasons why I started an exploratory blog like Zingcreed in November 2012. I am on a sort of pilgrimage, except that word has religious connotations and I don’t much like religion. I have no prejudices about this topic – I plan to simply follow where others have been and see what synthesis I can construct out of the 15 or so modern scholars whose books I have had time to peep into.
Politics is very relevant to understanding the K of G – not just in my mind but in the opinion of many writers. I hope to clarify this.
One thing I will concede about my political attitudes in advance: I don’t much like the way things are in the world.
In my own small way I make a fuss about things from time to time. I go on demonstrations, write letters, go on vigils, sign petitions, sell papers in the street, put posters up, distribute ‘bust cards’, support friends in trouble with the law, argue, befriend the homeless, give to ‘worthy causes’, attend rallies and dull committee meetings, make banners, support my trade union, and write this blog…..
(All the time aware of how incredibly ignorant I am about current affairs, philosophy and theology; how ineffectual my/our plaintive bleats are, and how often I and my mates get stuff wrong!)
To save time I shall write K. of G. for Kingdom of God, and K. for Kingdom.
The significance of the Kingdom of God:
“There can be no doubt that the central theme and unifying message of Jesus’s brief three-year ministry was the promise of the K. of G. Practically every thing Jesus said or did in the gospels served the function of publicly proclaiming the K.’s coming. It was the very first thing he preached about after separating from John the Baptist: “Repent, the K. of G. is near.” (Mk 1:15) It was the core of the Lord’s prayer, which John taught to Jesus and Jesus in turn taught to his disciples: “Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name. May your kingdom come…” (Matt 6:9-13). It was what Jesus’s followers were told to strive for above all else- “Seek first the K. of G., and God’s justice, then all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33) – for only by forsaking everything and everyone for the K. of G. would they have any hope of entering it. (Matt 10:37-39)
“Jesus spoke so often, and so abstractly, about the K. of G. that it is difficult to know whether he himself had a unified conception of it.” (vi)
I want to start by referring back to the original Zingcreed manifesto which I penned one sunny afternoon in November 2012 sitting in the grounds of Kenwood House in North London :-
Line 3 “We believe his (i.e. Jesus’) teachings are still relevant today and that when we apply them in our daily lives we bring the ‘Kingdom of God ‘ into being, however fleetingly;”
Line 4 “We believe this ‘Kingdom of God’ on earth is open to all, whether believers or not, and that it may resemble a utopian democratic republic where where no-one has power over anyone else.”
Next, just to show this isn’t some way out leftie plot, I’d like to quote the World Council of Churches:
(“Dictionary of the ecumenical movement” WCC Geneva (2002) p.644)
“In ecumenical circles the concept of the K. of G., although undefined, played a major role in several contexts. Generalizing, one can say that the notion of the K. as an ideal society, characterized by equality, justice and freedom has gradually been accepted. Socio-ethical implications and conclusions critical of church structure and its life and worship are often drawn.”
The WCC article looks at what the founding fathers of the church thought about the K. of G. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere, so I’ll leave out the first 1900 years and start in 1910 with William Sloane Coffin. He was in the Social Gospel tradition, and caused controversy when he opined that “Christianity’s ethical ideal is the K. of G.- a redeemed social order under the reign of the Christ-like God in which every relationship is Christ-like and each individual and social group – family, trade organisation, state…is perfect and the whole of human society incarnates the love of God once embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.”
“The eucharist is the paradigm of the Kingdom” – WCC (This is too deep for me)
At the 1980 WCC Melbourne World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, “special emphasis was attached to a vision of the K. in which the gospel is meant for the poor, and Christians and the church must be involved in all the struggles of history, resisting the oppressive realities and oppressive forces of the anti-kingdom.”
“Human beings are liberated to participate actively in establishing at least signs of the K.”
Sometimes, writers just hint at the K., e.g. in the ‘Declaration of the Eighty’ (Chilean Marxist priests in April 1971):
“At this present moment loving one’s neighbour basically means struggling to make this world resemble as closely as possible the future world that we hope for and that we are already in the process of constructing.”
Others, not surprisingly link the K. of G. to the way the apostles organised themselves communistically in Acts chapters 2 and 4. (from Alistair Kee, “Marx and the failure of Liberation theology” SCM Press (1990) p.208)
“‘And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.’
“This is one of the first decisions which the apostles took when they had to start taking initiatives after the ascension of Jesus. It clearly corresponds both to their experience of living in community with Jesus during his ministry, and to his teaching on the K. of G.. Possessed by the Spirit of God, ‘no-one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common’.”
There’s a reference to the K. of G. in the Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon 10:10)
“When the righteous fled from his brother’s wrath She guided him in right paths, showed him the K. of G. and gave him knowledge of holy things, made him rich in his travels, and multiplied the fruit of his labour.”
The later creeds don’t mention the K. of G. at all.
Matthew’s gospel calls the K. of G. ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. It’s the same thing, he was probably just trying to avoid mentioning the sacred name of God. It was a common circumlocution and in no way implies that the K. is in the next world. (i)
One of the first great theologians of the 20th century was that great missionary-cum-organist Albert Schweitzer (“The Quest of the Historical Jesus”, Dover, 2005 ) He reckoned that Jesus thought the ‘End was Nigh’, i.e. the Kingdom was about to arrive in apocalyptic splendour (c.f. Matt. 10:23; 1 Enoch). When nothing happened, Jesus resolved suicidally to go up to Jerusalem, knowing he would be executed, and by his death hoping to precipitate the K.’s arrival “by taking upon himself the messianic tribulations that had to precede the K. of G.” Today’s scholars are no longer influenced by this viewpoint.
Bruce J. Malina (“The social gospel of Jesus. The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean perspective” Fortress Press (2001)) champs at the bit – he wants some flesh on the bones of this vague waffly K. of G. concept.
- “K. of G. means theocracy ‘a political science term referring to the political system of societies claiming to be ruled by God’ e.g. contemporary Iran.
- What did K. of G. mean to a first century Israelite audience?
- To what sort of social problems was the K. of G. a solution?
- It must mean that the God of Israel is taking over the country soon.
- Its proclamation was political, not metaphorical/’spiritual’.
- No one in the gospels asks for an explanation of the term.
- None of the parables ever explained (a) the structure of the K. (b) who the personnel are, (c) how the bureaucracy functions, (d) who the CEO is.
- Is there any reason why there is not more discussion of its structure and functions, about how it might work in everyday life?”
As we shall see later, some scholars think they have the answers to these questions. For example José Porfirio Miranda, in “Marx and the Bible” Orbis Books (1971) p.212 answers some of Malina’s points
“…the K. is described innumerable times in the O.T.. This is why neither Jesus nor the Evangelists think it necessary to explain to us what is understood by the term, even though all of Jesus’ preaching is a proclamation of its arrival. Everybody understood. There is no new message to accompany the dawn of the K. What will be proclaimed has been known from the time of deutero-Isaiah.”
In Mark chapter 2 we meet 4 men who believe the K. has arrived. They carry a paralyzed man on a stretcher to Jesus for healing. They believe in the K. as described in the O.T., a K. which will succour all those who suffer and help all the needy of the earth. Their faith saved the sick man. (p. 213)
Richard Horsley in “Jesus and the spiral of violence. Popular Jewish resistance in Roman Palestine”, Harper and Row (1987) quotes Lk11:20; Lk 17:21; and Mk 1:15 to make the case for the ‘here and now’ K. of G. hypothesis. He goes on to point out the role of commensalism or table fellowship in the K.
In Mk 2:19 and Acts 2:46, for instance, celebration is shown to be the only appropriate response to the K., and we see Jesus and his companions celebrating the K.’s presence with feasting. (p. 178)
The K. is likewise present in the feeding parables “which show God feeding the people with miraculous abundance despite the appearances of poverty.” (p. 179)
The healing and exorcism stories show the K. is present, not merely on its way. Horsley claims these are mainly medical cases with psychosomatic roots and therefore Jesus could possibly have been an agent of healing. (p.181)
He sees the K. as a community in the process of being formed, or as he calls it, a ‘kingdom-society’ of some sort. (p.192) “Jesus had in mind some fairly definite and distinctive patterns of social relationships…The disposition necessary for entry and continuing participation was childlike trust and humility: ‘whoever does not receive the K. of G. like a child shall not enter it’ (Mk 10:15). Entry and enjoyment of the K. required rigorous observance of the will of God and/or the teachings of Jesus: ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord”, shall enter the K. of God, but he who does the will of my Father’ (Matt. 7:21); and ‘Enter by the narrow gate,…for the gate is narrow and the way hard, that leads to life’ (Matt. 7:13-14). The K. would also require egalitarian, nonexploitative, and nonauthoritarian social relations: ‘How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the K. of G.’ (Mk 10:23).
Two sayings suggest that the K. began with John the baptist (Lk 7:28; Lk 16:16). These sayings suggest that the K. as society replaces that governed by the ‘law and prophets’, and yet is somehow the proper fulfilment of the law and prophets as well. Although I find Horsley confusingly abstract at times, I understand him to say that there’s a difference between social and political revolutionary change. “Jesus believed that God had already begun to implement the political revolution, even though it was hardly very far along.” Jesus used the K. of G. as a tool to begin the transformation of social relations in anticipation of the completion of the political revolution. (p.324)
“Response to the K. required utter dedication… ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the K. of G.’ (Lk 9:26). ‘Leave the dead to bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the K. of G.’ (Lk 9:60). Of course, if such sayings are understood merely as radical ethics addressed to a few wandering charismatics, then they can be dismissed as irrelevant for the vast majority of people and do not express a revolutionary ethos at all. But many of these “hard sayings” are clearly addressed to the people generally; and the charismatics were catalysts of a broader movement based in the villages of Galilee.” (p. 326)
Lloyd Geering takes a very positive view of how matters have progressed since the first century.
( “Christianity without God” Bridget Williams books, NZ (2002))
“Jesus did not say much about God; rather, he talked about the kingdom of God. When we read the parables of the kingdom, we find they are pointing to, and sometimes describing, human attitudes to life, the nature of human relationships, and the kind of society which we should be striving to build.” (p. 126)
“Evidence of the coming of the K. in Jesus’ day “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear” (Lk 7:22).
And now? there is a long way to go but we can rejoice to see positive changes taking place-
- an increase in personal freedom to think and speak
- slaves are being freed
- patriarchy is crumbling
- gays are free to ‘come out’
- WMDs are widely condemned
- racist attitudes are being overcome
- equality of the sexes is being achieved
- the disadvantaged are no longer being ignored
- human worth and human values are increasingly being honoured.” (p.146)
I’d add to this list 2 phenomena Don Cupitt says would have been inconceivable in the past, namely donation of blood and of organs to total strangers whom you never even get to meet. These are considered to be signs of the K. all around us.
Rosemary Ruether, in “To Change the World. Christology and Cultural Criticism” SCM Press(1981) brings in Liberation Theology, as it “restores the K. of G. to the centre of the Christian message.
The K. means the overcoming of every evil, the wiping away of every tear. One cannot divorce social and physical evils, such as poverty, nakedness, homelessness, lameness, blindness, and diseases, from spiritual evils such as rejection of God, as though the social and material level was inferior and unimportant.”
“Jesus manifests his liberating work in the realm of people’s physical afflictions first of all. To see these afflictions being overcome is to know that the redeeming finger of God has come upon us. It is in this sense that the K. is already ‘in our midst’. It is not ‘within us’ in the sense of an inward spiritual kingdom as distinct from an outward and social one (Lk 17:21)” (p. 21ff.) (See Kaylor, below)
“The K. comes about through liberation, through the freeing of people from bondage to sin and evil and so is experienced as an inbreaking of grace. It cannot be incarnated completely in any particular social system. It transcends the limits of social systems, even revolutionary ones, and judges their inadequacy, pointing to the further hopes that are still unrealised. Yet this does not reduce all social systems and situations to the same level. There are some situations which are closer to the K. than others, not in an evolutionary progressive way, but in the sense of signs and mediations which better disclose what God’s intention is for humanity.” (What is she talking about? What signs and mediations?)
Ruether goes on to contrast the Latin American oligarchies and their suppression of the peasantry as “far from the K.” (No shit, Sherlock!) and the “vast majority rising up…. beginning to create a new society” as “close to the K.” Bearing in mind that one of the stimuli for the birth of Latin American liberation theology was the successful Communist revolution in Cuba in 1958 (the other being the internal disputes of the Catholic church) it is fascinating to see how Ruether cautiously handles this political hot potato. Read between the lines!
“Liberation theologians would say that …some social systems are closer to the kingdom than others.” Does she mean capitalism or socialism or even Vatican third way economics? And if it is socialism, does she mean communism, anarchism or democratic socialism? Here she retreats into a footnote (p. 74)
“The belief that a socialist alternative is necessary for liberation from poverty and oppression in Latin America and that this means that socialism is also closer to the K. of G. ‘as a system’ (my emphasis) may be said to be shared by most proponents of liberation theology, as well as other similar groups in Europe and North America, such as ‘Christians for Socialism’.” (see Zingcreed Post “Red Christians # 3: Christians for Socialism (Chile 1972)”)
A true academic, sitting on the fence, just writing what she has observed. She won’t commit herself: socialism is just something others may accept. She has a reputation for neutrality to uphold!
She then warns about systems close to the K. later degenerating, and about false claims. “Closeness is a matter of concrete reality….It is possible, in the midst of the limits and transitoriness of human existence of human existence, to make societies which are more liberating and less oppressive, and hence closer to the K. …The task of the followers of Christ is to move human society a little farther from the K. of alienation and oppression, and closer to God’s K., a society of peace, justice and mutuality.” She finishes by claiming that the K. was at times present and at times absent in Jesus’ lifetime. (p.23)
A bit like the smile on the Cheshire cat, I suppose. Or like Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ). Of which more anon…
Back to my favourite Liberation Theologian José Porfirio Miranda. In “Communism in the Bible” (i) p.13. He makes the case that The Kingdom is on Earth, just in case you were one of those misguided ‘escapists’ who thought it was at some future date or in some far distant place e.g. heaven.
He rattles off some Bible quotes to make his point.
- In the parable of the weeds, which is a parable about the K., Matthew says expressly that “the field is the world”. (Matt. 13:38)
- Escapists use ‘entering into glory’ in the psalms as referring to the realization of the K. in the other world, but the Psalms explicitly teach “Salvation surrounds those who fear him, so that the glory will dwell in our land.” (Ps. 85:10)
- God’s rule consists in saving “the poor and needy”, “making salvation real in the midst of the earth.” (Ps. 74:12) ( and c.f. Ps 10 and Isaiah 32.)
- The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t say “Take us to your K.” but “Thy K. come” (Matt. 6:10) “Where is it to come if not to the earth, which is where we are when we say ‘come’?”
- Jesus proclaimed that “the K. has come” (Mk 1:15). Where can it have come if not to earth?
- Likewise, Jesus says “the K. of G. has come to you” (Lk 11:20, Matt. 12:28); the only possible meaning is that it has come to the earth on which those to whom Jesus is speaking are standing.
Miranda attacks ‘escapist’ theologians and preachers with great scorn:
“To speak of a K. of G. in the other world is not only to found a new religion without any relationship with the teaching of Christ (for none of the texts wielded by escapist theology mentions the K.); it is to assert exactly the contrary of what Christ teaches: “The K. has come to you,” and “Thy K. come.” The fact that tradition has taught for centuries that the K. is in the other world only demonstrates that that tradition betrayed Jesus and founded another religion completely different.”
Now that’s a man who doesn’t pull his punches – you know exactly where you are with him; no mealy mouthed beating about the bush with José!
The Brazilian trotskyist Michael Löwy, in “The war of Gods. Religion and politics in Latin America” Verso (1996) goes along with the Liberation Theologians’ view that the K. of G. implies socialism. He notes their reluctance to go into specifics.General ethics and social values are one thing but tactical and strategic issues are best left to the political movements. However a reluctance has long been expressed in Latin America to merely copy other countries’ ways. A home-grown version of socialism would be much better – a “heroic creation.”
Löwy comments “It goes without saying that, for liberation theologians, socialism, or any form of human emancipation, is only a preparation for or anticipation of total salvation, of the coming of the K. of G. on earth.”
John Dominic Crossan, in “Jesus ; a revolutionary biography” (ii) raises many valid new points, which are worth considering and returning to. He is a leading light in the Jesus Seminar (upon whom be peace).
“I am not particularly happy with the word kingdom as a translation of the Greek word basileia, but it is so traditional that any alternative might be confusing. It is not only that king- is chauvinistic but that –dom sounds primarily local, as if we were talking about some specific site or some geographically delineated location on earth. But what we are actually talking about is power and rule, a process much more than a place, a way of life much more than a location on earth. The basic question is this: How does human power exercise its rule, and how, in contrast, does divine power exercise its rule? The K. of G. is people under divine rule – and that, as ideal, transcends and judges all human rule. The focus is not on Kings but on rulers, not on kingdom but on power, not on place but on process. The K. of G. is what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge.” (p. 66)
Crossan goes onto look at examples of what the here-and-now K.of G. meant for Jesus:
(a) Tearing the family apart (4 examples are given, e.g. Mk 3:31-35 [p.66]) This he sees as an attack on “the Mediterranean family’s axis of power, which sets father and mother (the older generation) over son, daughter, and daughter-in-law (the younger generation). (It) is society in miniature; since it involves power, it invites abuse of power. Jesus’ ideal group is, contrary to Mediterranean and indeed most human familial reality, an open one equally accessible to all under G. It is the K. of G., and it negates that terrible abuse of power that is power’s dark spectre and lethal shadow.”
(b) Blessing the merely poor or the really destitute? (in Greek the penes or the ptochos).
In the 4 verses quoted (Thomas 54, Lk 6:20, Matt. 5:3, James 2:5) lies the evidence that “Jesus did not declare blessed the poor, a class that included, for all practical purposes the entire peasantry; rather he declared blessed the destitute – for example the beggars.” (p.69) (See Zingcreed Post “Jesus was a lower class power-broker” )
And what’s all this “Poor in spirit” stuff in the Sermon on the Mount? It’s always been used by the church as a cop out, a way of avoiding facing up to responsibility for the lumpenproletariat. Crossan bites the bullet in an admirably unacademic Christian way – unlike Ruether. I shall quote him with respect and in full. (p. 69)
“Now, what on earth does that mean, especially if one does not spiritualize it away, as Matthew immediately did, into “poor [or destitute] in spirit” – that is, the spiritually humble or religiously obedient? Did Jesus really think that bums and beggars were actually blessed by God, as if all the destitute were nice people and all the aristocrats correspondingly evil? Is this some sort of naive or romantic delusion about the charms of destitution? If, however, we think not just of personal or individual evil but of social, structural or systemic injustice – that is , of precisely the imperial situation in which Jesus and his fellow peasants found themselves – then the saying becomes literally, terribly and permanently true. In the situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations. A contemporary equivalent: only the homeless are innocent; that is a terrifying aphorism against society because, like the aphorisms against the family, it focuses not just on personal or individual abuse of power but on such abuse in its systemic or structural possibilities – and there, in contrast to the former level, none of our hands are innocent or our consciences particularly clear.”
(See Zingcreed Post “Jesus and Wealthy People“)
(c) From zeroes to heroes (and heroines) – the kids’ turn.
“Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the K. of G. as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:13-16)
“To be like an infant child is interpreted by Matthew 18:1-4 as meaning to have appropriate humility, by the gospel of Thomas 22 as meaning to practice sexual asceticism, and by John 3:1-10 as meaning to have recently received baptism. Those 3 readings avoid the horrifying meaning of a child as a nothing, a nobody, a nonperson in the Mediterranean paternal power, absolute in its acceptance or rejection of the newly born infant.”
“It was quite literally a nobody unless its father accepted it as a member of the family rather than exposing it in the gutter or rubbish dump to die of abandonment or to be taken up by another and reared as a slave.” (p.71)
Jesus’ acceptance of kids is indicated by Mark’s use of the terms: touch, took in his arms, blessed, laid hands on .
A K. of kids: a K. of nobodies.
(d) The K. of G. is a like a noxious rampant weed!
The proverbially small mustard seed grows into a 4 ft shrub that gets out of control in the cultivated fields and attracts unwanted birds. So, Jesus is saying that the K. is “like a pungent weed with dangerous takeover properties.” A startling metaphor.
In his radical egalitarianism, we have seen how Jesus welcomes the marginalized and disenfranchised. No more so than at the table, where you were welcome irrespective of rank, sex, or class. In the parable of Lk 14:21b-23, “we see a situation where anyone could be reclining next to anyone: female next to male, free next to slave, socially high next to socially low, and ritually pure next to ritually impure.” Crossan imaginatively spells out the ‘nightmare’ possibilities if it happened today! It was indiscriminate, inclusive, open commensality (from the latin mensa for table – it means eating together.) When Jesus lived out his own parable he was accused of gluttony, drunkenness, and dining with tax-collectors and sinners. Such behaviour clashed with the ‘Honour and Shame’ moral codes of his society. (p.78)
Jesus not only discussed the K. of G.; he enacted it, and said others could do so as well. “You cannot ignore the healings and exorcisms, especially in their socially subversive function. You cannot ignore the overtly political overtones of the very term K. of G. itself. To remove that which is radically subversive, socially revolutionary, and politically dangerous from Jesus’ actions (like some pastors and scholars do) is to leave his life meaningless and his death inexplicable.” (p. 104-5)
Entering the K. of G. implied a new way of life, a change in life-style, and apparently following an ascetic code. (p. 127-8) When going out to bring the message of the K. to others , Luke 10:4 tells us that the disciples were told “Do not carry money, or bag, or sandals, [or staff]; and do not greet anyone on the road.”
Crossan’s mate Marcus Borg (they’ve produced a DVD together in the Holy Land) has quite a bit to say about the K. of G. too. Writing in “Meeting Jesus again for the first time” in 1994, he ties his flag unhesitatingly to the non-eschatological flag pole. (p. 92, footnote 34). This means he sides with the increasingly prevalent school of thought that says that Jesus didn’t expect the supernatural coming of the K. of G. as a world-ending event in his own lifetime. (p.29) Borg points out that in the mustard seed parable we saw above, the K., something very great, is compared to something very tiny. Such “language of impossible and unexpected combinations” is also found in the parable where the K. is compared to something impure: it is like a woman (associated with impurity) putting leaven (which was impure) into flour,
“Moreover, the K. is not somewhere else; rather it is among you, inside you, and outside you. Neither is it some time in the future, for it is here, spread out on the earth; people just do not see it.”
Borg gives us a sobering reminder that Jesus’ audience were not 21st century urban Gentiles like us. “There were a variety of understandings of K. of G. in first century Judaism, and we do not know whether some were more dominant than others: a this-worldly K. to be brought about by a war of revolt against Rome or by direct intervention, a completely supernatural kingdom beyond or replacing this world, perhaps even a mystical kingdom. But there was common agreement that the K. of G. was something ‘great’ and that it was primarily for ‘Israel,’ however that was defined. Israel’s visions of the glorious time coming did not necessarily exclude Gentiles, for some of those visions portray the Gentiles also streaming to Jerusalem. Even in those visions, however, the centrality of Israel remained, of course, for it is to Israel’s God and Israel’s capital that the world comes.” (p.92 fn 29)
My last quote from Borg (actually from his friend Crossan) links this topic to my recent Zingcreed Post on Jesus’ Wisdom teaching, “Jesus was a sage, not a priest, prophet or king “.
“Throughout much of the 20th century scholars have typically understood language about the K. of G. to refer to the eschatological or apocalyptic K., that future coming K. that was to bring an end to the world as we know it. But Crossan (iii) argues that, with the collapse of the apocalyptic understanding of the K., we should probably see the meaning of Jesus’ K. language in the context of the wisdom tradition. That tradition also spoke of a K., and the K. of which Jesus spoke may well be the Kingdom of Wisdom and not a K. coming with the fires of the final judgement….this is speculative.” (Borg p.103)
Nobody has heard of R. David Kaylor, nobody quotes from him . This may be because in the academic hierarchy Davidson College, North Carolina, where he is Professor of Religion, doesn’t rank very highly. I like him, not because I necessarily agree with all he says, but because he strikes me as a wise person with impressive intellectual integrity. I shall therefore be quoting at some length from Kaylor’s “Jesus the prophet: His vision of the Kingdom on Earth” Westminster/John Knox Press (1994)
He straightaway rejects the notions that Jesus was (a) a spiritual teacher with no interest in social and political issues or (b) concerned with the transformation of the individual heart. “An increasingly held scholarly view is that Jesus addressed concrete problems and issues of his day in a way that led to his death by crucifixion.” (p. 48)
“Jesus set out with a message about the K., its coming, its promises, its demands, its gift. Jesus’ whole ministry centred on the K. of G. If that ministry led to his death by execution, then the K. must have been a momentous matter with grave implications both for Jesus and for those who put him to death. For it to have resulted in his crucifixion, the K. of G. must have carried political connotations that the governing authorities in Jerusalem considered dangerous.”
“Astounding as it may seem, however, neither in the church nor in academic circles has the K. of G. been assigned the political significance its derivation and consequences demand. Scholarly debate has largely ignored any overt political dimensions of the K. One suspects that the reasons for neglecting the political element in church interpretation relate to the theological need to understand Jesus in universal terms. If he focused on social and political change in Israel, his appeal might diminish as the universal saviour the church understands him to be.”
“The reasons for academic neglect …derive from the fact that the academic study of the N.T. emerged within theological seminaries attached to the church.” Also…”the variety of K. materials in the Gospels and their lack of overt political meanings make a political interpretation a daunting task.” (pp. 70-71)
Kaylor then proceeds to give detailed accounts of all the interpretation of the K. of G. with which, remember, he has already said he doesn’t agree. An honest man indeed. As I don’t agree with these old-fashioned views, I won’t be explaining them either.
But here’s a list of them : (p.71 ff)
- The K. is an experience or condition within an individual person
- The K. is equivalent to heaven or life after death
- The K. comes after an apocalypse: as the world ends, God rewards the righteous
- The K. is a new order on earth as God’s will comes to fruition
- The K. means Jesus/God freeing Israel from Roman rule
As best I can tell, Kaylor himself appears to see it as follows (he quotes ‘modern’ scholars i.e. up to 1994, but they do not agree among themselves):
- Jesus did not connect the K. with absence of Roman rule
- The K. brings about a transformation of relationships in the structures of society, economics and politics
- Jesus announced the K. in the context of his ministry to the dispossessed
- The K. is personal and interpersonal
- Galilean peasants would be transformed by Jesus’ teaching and this would in turn lead to social transformation
- Jesus engaged in non-violent direct action to promote the changes he sought (p. 89)
- The K. is a symbol of a cluster of meanings that vary from time to time and place to place
- Jesus proclaims the K. as consolation, hope and salvation for Israel (p.99)
Lastly, Kaylor goes some way to answering Malina’s question above about the presence of the K. of G. in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). “Although ‘K. of G.’ does not directly occur in Hebrew scripture, the term derives from Hebrew concepts and symbols.”
Check out these excerpts (p. 80 ff.):-
- Psalm 72 (those with political power should protect the vulnerable)
- Psalms of Solomon 17
- Isaiah 61 (like the Beatitudes)
- Psalm 37 (like the meek in the Sermon on the Mount)
- also, from writers other than Kaylor, Ps. 82:3-4
- Ex. 1: 9-14
For a change of pace and style I want to look at Gustavo Gutierrez, the world’s first Liberation Theologian, who, like José Porfirio Miranda, above, expresses himself forcefully and with more power and conviction than the Professor from N. Carolina. The work I quote from is “A theology of liberation: History, politics and salvation” Orbis books (1973)
To find out what the K. of G. is you simply live it !
“The hermeneutics of the K. of G. consists especially in making the world a better place. Only in this way will I be able to discover what the K. of G. means.” (Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx)
“Liberation Theology is a theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed. It is a theology which is open to the gift of the K. of G. – in the protest against trampled human dignity, in the struggle against the plunder of the vast majority of people, in liberating love, and in the building of a new just and fraternal society.” (p. 15)
“The elimination of misery and exploitation is a sign of the coming of the K. It will become a reality, according to Isaiah, when there is happiness and rejoicing among the people because “men shall build houses and live to inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit; they shall not build for others to inhabit nor plant for others to eat. My chosen shall enjoy the fruit of their labour.” (Ps. 65:21-22) The struggle for a just world in which there is no oppression, servitude, or alienated work will signify the coming of the K. The K. and social injustice are incompatible. (cf Isa. 29:18-19; of G. Matt 11:5; Lev.25:10 ff; Lk 4:16-21) Next time you eat some vine fruits, remember that!
“The struggle for justice is also the struggle for the K. ” (p.168)
“Man has not only been made in the image and likeness of God. He also the sacrament of God. To oppress the poor is to is to offend God himself; to know God is to work justice among men. We meet God in our encounter with men; what is done for others is done for the Lord. Poverty is an expression of a sin, i.e. a negation of love. It is therefore incompatible with the coming of the K. of G., a K. of love and justice.” (p. 295)
E P Sanders, by contrast, is something of a traditionalist in that he won’t reject any view of what the K. might be. For him the apocalypse interpretation is just as likely to be the right one as the ‘here and now ‘ interpretation favoured by the Americans Borg and Crossan (whom he has read). I recommend Sanders as the most thorough writer so far. He goes through the gospels with a fine tooth comb – nothing escapes his attention. If you only read one book, read his “The historical figure of Jesus” Penguin Books (1993) chapters 11-12.
He tells us that ‘kingdom’ appears 55 times in Matthew, 20 in Mark, 46 in Luke and 5 in John: 162 in the entire New Testament. He claims that there are 2 possible meanings of the term K. of G. that would have been self-evident to Jesus’ 1st century Jewish audience: (i) God reigns in heaven now and (ii) in future will rule the earth too. (p. 169)
“Scholars often propose that Jesus thought that the K. was in some way or other present and active in the world, especially” (or only, p.175, the difference is important) “in his ministry. People did not have to wait for it, they could participate in it.” (p. 170) Two passages support this.
“If it is by the Spirit of God [Luke: finger of God] that I cast out demons, then the K. of G. has come upon you.” (Matt. 12:28; Lk 11:20)
“When John heard in prison what the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him,’Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” Matt. 11:2-6)
Referring to Borg (iv) and Horsley (v), Sanders says “a few American scholars have decided that Jesus did not expect the K. to come in the future at all. Luke 17:20f – the K. of G. is among you – is the only passage that really counts when one defines the K. Jesus was actually a political, social and economic reformer, and he did not expect God to do anything dramatic or miraculous in the future.” (p.176)
“Now at one point the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, so he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Lk 17:20-21)
Sanders rips this view to shreds – it contradicts what Luke wrote next; Luke wrote this himself, not Jesus; it can’t cancel out the many other contradictory sayings. He also makes the point that if Jesus expected God to change history in a decisive way in the immediate future, it seems unlikely that he was a social reformer. “The only thing that Jesus asks people to do is to live right. In none of the material does he urge them to build an alternative society that will be the K. of G.” (p. 178) Believers may choose to live according to God’s will both in and alongside normal human society; simultaneously living in the temporal and the ecclesiastical realms. Perhaps like the leaven in the loaf (Matt 13:33). (p. 174)
“People who created a social structure that consisted of small cells in each town or city could of course say that they were the leaven in the dough; they were trying to make society better. But the people who heard these similes in Galilee would have looked around for clues to the invisible K. that would one day erupt as a full loaf or a large tree; the passages do not say ‘create small groups of reformers.’ …Jesus only said that by living right, people can enter the K. According to the evidence, he thought that there was nothing that anyone could do to bring the K., and even he himself could not assign places in it. It is drawing near and people await it but they cannot make it come. Like leaven it grows on its own. There is no evidence at all for the view that individuals can get together with others and create the K. by reforming social, religious and political institutions.”
Bummer! that’s one balloon pricked.
Over the last year I have come to the opinion that you can’t get a clear view of the Christian faith from Christians. They are not objective in their appraisal of the phenomenon that is Christianity, and they have an axe or two to grind. Like ‘Leave my beliefs alone – you’ll make me start doubting’ or ‘Get converted’. So it is with high expectations that I finish off this wordy Post with a Jew and a Moslem (I think). Both of them are trained in theology and know what they are talking about.
Geza Vermes in “The Authentic Gospel of Jesus” Penguin (2003) says that while Jesus is the person empowered to usher in the K. it is God who will be in charge after its inauguration. Jesus would only admit Jews to the K., later it was said that only gentiles would sit at the table in the K. (p. 342) Although Jesus regularly likened the K. to this-worldly reality, he never likened it to a political or military organisation. “The K. is always depicted by Jesus as the ultimate spiritual value. Its precise essence did not bother him; he was concerned with the ways and means which would secure admittance into it.” (p.406)
Unusually for a theology book, Reza Aslan’s “Zealot. The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Westbourne Press (2013) is on the NY Times bestseller list. I bought it on its release day and devoured it. It’s very well written, like a detective story, and quotes all the latest research on the topic. He does not succeed in making a case for Jesus being a Zealot, even though at the end he says he does. Much of what he says is not original, but as most of his readers probably haven’t read the scholars he quotes from, they will think it is all unbelievably novel. Every academic discipline needs a book like this every 5 years or so.
On p. 111 he sets Jesus’ message to John, mentioned in Sanders above, in context. That’s the passage “Go tell John..the blind see” etc.
“Jesus’s words are a deliberate reference to the prophet Isaiah, who long ago foretold a day when Israel would be redeemed and Jerusalem renewed, a day when God’s Kingdom would be established on earth. ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the mute shall sing for joy.’ (Is. 35:5-6)
I wonder why Sanders didn’t mention this link. The NT extract doesn’t mention the K. so you need to know of this OT ref. to make any sense of it. Perhaps Sanders is being clever and trying to bias his readers against the ‘here and now’ school of thought.
By connecting his miracles with Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus is stating in no uncertain terms that the year of the Lord’s favour, the day of God’s vengeance, which the prophets predicted, has finally arrived. God’s reign has begun. (cf Matt. 12:28; Lk 11:20, quoted above). “Jesus’s miracles are thus the manifestation of the K. of G. on earth.”Aslan demolishes the unreliable verse that ‘escapists’ like to use against the ‘here and now’ group. (It’s inscribed on the inside wall of my local Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall): “My K. is not of this world.” (John 18:36) “Not only is this the sole passage in the gospels where Jesus makes such a claim, it is an imprecise translation of the original Greek. Even if one accepts the historicity of the passage and very few scholars do, Jesus was not claiming that the K. of G. is unearthly; he was saying that it is unlike any kingdom or government on earth.” (p.117)
“Neither did Jesus present the K. of G. as some distant future K. to be established at the end of time. When Jesus said “the K. of G. has drawn near” (Mk 1:15) or “the K. of G. is in your midst” (Lk 17:21), he was pointing to God’s saving action in this present age, at his present time. True, Jesus spoke of wars, and uprisings, earthquakes and famine, false messiahs and prophets who would presage the establishment of the the K. of G. on earth (Mk 13:5-37). But far from auguring some future apocalypse, Jesus’ words were in reality a perfectly apt description of the era in which he lived: an era of wars, famines, and false messiahs. In fact Jesus seemed to expect the K. to be established at any moment: “I tell you, there are those here who will not taste death until they have seen the K. of G. come with power.” (Mk 9:1) (p. 117)
I thought it was worth quoting this counterblast to Sanders (above) in full. The balloon is unpricked!
Of course, Aslan’s book, (entitled “Zealot”, remember), has to link Jesus with that extremist terrorist group where he can. (I call the Zealots that because they seem very similar to Al Quaeda to me). So, on p. 118 we read “Jesus was merely reiterating what the Zealots had been preaching for years. Simply put, the K. of G. was shorthand for the idea of God as the sole sovereign, the one and only king, not just over Israel, but over all the world. “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” the Bible states of God. “Yours is the K….You rule over everything” (1 Chronicles 29:11-12; see also Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5)
I’m going to go on quoting Aslan because none of the other writers quoted so far have made the links that he has:
“In fact the concept of the sole sovereignty of God lay behind the message of all the great prophets of old. Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah- these men vowed that God would deliver the Jews from bondage and liberate Israel from foreign rule if only they refused to serve any earthly master or bow to any king save the one and only king of the universe.”
The same belief is found in the Maccabees, the Sicarii, the Zealots, the bandits, the martyrs at Masada and other failed messiahs such as Simon son of Kochba whose rebellion in 132 C.E. invoked the exact phrase “K. of G.” as a call for freedom from foreign rule. Like the Zealots, Jesus called for a complete reversal of the present political, religious and economic system “the first shall be last” (Matt. 5:3) etc. In the K. of G. , wealth will be redistributed and debts cancelled – it will be “a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the the strong and the powerful.” (p.119)
“Saying ‘the K. of G. is at hand’ is akin to saying the end of the Roman empire is at hand. it means God is going to replace Caesar as ruler of the land. The Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, the Herodian elite, and the heathen usurper in distant Rome- all of these were about to feel the wrath of God.
The K. of G. is a call to revolution, plain and simple.”
A veritable call to arms. After all how can you bring it about other than by force and violence? So the common depiction of ‘Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” who urged turning the other cheek is a complete fabrication, then? “Yes” says Aslan, he had a far more complex attitude to violence (p. 120) “While there is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions, he was certainly no pacifist.” cf Matt. 10:34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace but the sword.” After the destruction of the temple in 60 C.E. the early church found it expedient to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that terrible war. As a result statements such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were deliberately cleansed of their Jewish context and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all people could abide by.
“Yet if one wants to uncover what Jesus himself truly believed, one must never lose sight of this fundamental fact: Jesus of Nazareth was first and foremost a Jew. As a Jew, Jesus was concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews. Israel was all that mattered to Jesus. He insisted that his mission was “solely to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He did not come to abolish the Law of Moses but to fulfil it (Matt.5:17) This law, Christians sometimes forget, distinguishes clearly between Jews and non-Jews; so the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” meant that Jews should love other Jews. To Jesus’ Jewish audience “neighbour” meant one’s fellow Jews. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) In fact God’s order to the Jews under Moses was to slaughter their Canaanite neighbours in a brutal act of bronze age genocide so that they could have their land. The Torah is quite clear about how to treat foreigners, immigrants, occupiers etc: “You shall drive them out before you…They shall not live in your land.” (Exodus 23:31-33)
When Jesus warned his disciples to expect punishment for sedition if they followed him: “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mk 8:34) i.e. crucifixion lies in store when we reconstitute the nation of Israel (with the 12 disciples leading the 12 tribes) and throw off the yoke of occupation. They knew perfectly clearly the fate that lay in store for groups who challenged the Temple and the Roman authorities in this way. They didn’t launch an insurgency, but they would have if it hadn’t been nipped in the bud.
It reminds me of reports in the British media of the police breaking up a terrorist plot: bomb-making manuals are found, internet messages from known Jihadists have been intercepted, intelligence reports suggest that someone went abroad for military training. Hello, GCHQ and NSA; a lot of key words here, are you picking this up from your metadata stream? It’s a false alarm. Just trying to help – I am still wary travelling on the tube after the attacks of 7/7, and I always carry a small torch and a face mask and a bottle of water with me. I don’t want to be trapped in some dusty dark tunnel with wounded people screaming all round me. At least with my little precautions, I’ve got more of a chance and am more likely to be able to help others worse off than myself. Now to get back to the point.
Like an Islamist preaching in a ‘moderate’ mosque in Britain today, Jesus had to be very careful how he phrased things – he never knew when the Pharisees had their spies listening in on him.
So “he went to great lengths to hide the meaning of the K. of G. from all but his disciples. He recognized that the new world order he envisioned was so radical, so dangerous, so revolutionary, that Rome’s only conceivable response to it would be to arrest and execute them all for sedition. He therefore chose to veil the K. of G. in abstruse and enigmatic parables that are nearly impossible to understand. “The secret of the K. of G. has been given to you to know, but to outsiders, everything is said in parables so that they may see and not perceive, they may hear and not understand.” (Mk 4:11-12)
Sadly for this project of his, Jesus didn’t obfuscate well enough (p. 125) and the powers that be interpreted his description of the K. as a physical K. with a promised throne for each of his 12 disciples, and thus, surely, one for himself.
“Granted, he provided no specifics about the new world order he envisaged. There are no practical programmes, no detailed agendas, no specific political or economic recommendations. he seems to have had no interest at all in laying out how God’s reign on earth would actually function. That was for God alone to determine.” (p. 125)
“The presence of the K. of G. had empowered Jesus to heal the sick…but at the same time, it was Jesus’s healings that were bringing the K. of G. to fruition. it was in other words a symbiotic relationship.” (p. 126)
Aslan makes 2 further points I would like to mention.
(1) Since the K.of G. is built upon a complete reversal of the present order, wherein the poor become powerful…what better king to rule than a peasant king? Jesus. (p. 143)
(2) When Jesus failed to establish the K. of G., the early church replaced Jesus’s understanding of himself as king and messiah with a new, post-Jewish Revolt paradigm of the messiah as a pre-existent , predetermined, heavenly and divine Son of Man, one whose “kingdom was not of this world.”
I shall later insert my concluding thoughts on this topic right here.
- I was confused before I started reading what these 15 or so modern scholars had to say about the K. Now that I’ve considered all these wise peoples’ views I am still confused, but at a deeper level!
- Basically, the K. of G. is incomprehensible, or to use a euphemism much beloved of Christian clergy it is “beyond human understanding” (like God, or the Trinity). If this is supposed to make one gape in awe and wonder, well in my case it doesn’t work – I just feel let down. They built a whole religion on waffle?!
- Unlike the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ dying for our sins or even the divinity of Jesus which are all human inventions and nothing to do with what Jesus said or did; the K. of G. is central to the man’s preaching and healing mission.
- Even within the modern ‘here and now’ camp there is a cluster of possible different interpretations.
- What Jesus and his first century audience understood by ‘here and now’ is not likely to be the same as what people today understand by it:-
- (a) Jesus was talking about Jehovah’s reign expanding down from heaven above to Israel below, with the (implicit not explicit) removal of the Roman yoke at the same time. That would surely mean violence.
- (b) When Jesus said his 12 disciples would sit on thrones and rule over the 12 tribes of Israel (and, by the way, there were only 2 tribes in existence at this time!) he was surely implying that the main throne would go to himself.
- (c) Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms are seen to be a sign, indeed the main sign, of the presence of the K. in the gospels. Yet for many readers of the gospels, such as myself, this is enormously problematical. Miracles just cannot be believed by any honest modern person – they are just implausible fairy tales.
- Many believers today see the kingdom as an imminent state of affairs: a utopia where there is peace and justice, and where current roles are reversed so that the dispossessed rule and the rich and powerful are humbled. And, they hope, where gentiles are as welcome as Jesus’ own people the Jews, although I don’t know that Jesus made this very clear.
- This ‘new world order’ may well be an inspiring ideal for believers, a metaphor well worth keeping in mind as Christians strive to make the world a better place.
- Importantly, though, reformers can’t bring the K. into being by their own actions, only God can do that. Also, the K. may be glimpsed in the ‘here and now’ because it is here but not everyone can see it. How can you recognize something when you don’t know for certain what it is you are looking for?
- Approximately one third of Jesus’ 30 or so parables are about the K. Now if the ‘K. of G.’ is simply a meaningless phrase, then these parables will have no meaning either: they are just descriptions of yeast, mustard trees etc without any resonance.
It seems to me Christians have a choice between the divergent outlooks represented by the 2 quotes below, one a message of hope, one a message of despair:
(1) “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.” (Lk 12:32)
(2) ‘After he had been on the cross for a few hours, he despaired, and cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. We do not know what he thought as he hung in agony on the cross. After a relatively short period of suffering he died, and some of his followers and sympathizers hastily buried him.’ (E.P. Sanders p.274-5)
(i) Miranda, J.P. “Communism in the Bible.” Wipf and Stock (1982) p.13
(ii) Crossan, J.D. “Jesus: a revolutionary biography” Harper (1994)
(iii) Crossan, J. D. “The historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant” Harper (1991) pp. 287-92
(iv) Borg, M. “Jesus; a new vision” (1987)
(v) Horsley, R. “Jesus and the spiral of violence” (1987) (Lk 17:21 ref p. 167)
(vi) Aslan, Reza “Zealot. The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Westbourne press (2013)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus’s 15 authentic statements on the Kingdom
Temporary Autonomous Zones and the Kingdom of God
Zingcreed commentary on line 3″…kingdom…”
612 What does the Old Testament say about the Kingdom of God?
529: Don’s dream: Cupitt on the kingdom