“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the post-Christian blog which is peering through the fog at a flickering image of Jesus and wondering what it all means. If one can glean anything useful in this quest from the gospels (all of them, not just the 4 in the canon) it is that Jesus was obsessed with the “Kingdom of God”. Whatever that is. Matthew’s gospel called it the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Same thing. Modern scholars, probably republicans, call it “God’s reign” or things like that, just to confuse us. When I wrote a long Post on the Kingdom last year I didn’t think I’d need to return to it again. I now see there are two areas that require clarification, at least in my own mind. And, although this site has had almost 24,000 ‘hits’ to date, I am not deliberately writing with an audience in mind but for my own benefit. That’s why this site scores zero points out of ten for Search Engine Optimisation, and why I don’t advertise.
One area that needs sharpening up is the whole business, the completely mistaken notion, that ‘Kingdom’ means the second coming, apocalypse with trumpets, angels and all that codswallop. This will take some research and therefore some time on my part. For this I shall be relying heavily on Miller’s book published by Polebridge press.
The second area for clarification, which I tackle in this Post, is what Jesus’ listeners, and indeed, first century Jews in general, understood by the term Kingdom of God.
I hope you find this quest as interesting as I do,
Professor Richard A. Horsley of the University of Massachusetts-Boston covers the topic of Jesus, the Roman Empire and the Jewish understanding of the term ‘Kingdom of God’ beautifully in his book “In the shadow of Empire” (2008). I am grateful to him for facilitating my grasp of this important topic. He’s the only person I’m quoting here in this post today. Of course other scholars may have different expositions of this theme. I could be completely unjustified in the conclusions I draw from Horsley; but I have read a lot of stuff by him, and I have so far found him useful and reliable.
(p. 87) The K. of G. was a highly political concept, central to the Israelite tradition (as can be found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.) Twentieth century scholars like Schweitzer and Bultmann neglected to notice this. In early Israel, prior to the monarchy, when the Jews existed in a form of regulated anarchism, Yahweh (Jehovah) was understood literally as the king of Israel. In Horsley’s words “The formulation of the Mosaic covenant made this explicit. God was the sole king as well as the only God of Israel.” The people had been subject to the Egyptian pharaohs who expropriated their produce and exacted forced labour. After the exodus, with Yahweh as sole king of Israel, Gideon had to reject the request that he become king (Judges 8: 22-23) and when Samuel was asked to make them a king like other peoples have, Yahweh told Samuel, “They have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Sam. 8:7) In the resulting compromise, precisely as a check against heavy taxation and forced labour, human kingship was limited and conditional, under the continuing divine kingship of Yahweh (1 Sam. 8:17-27).
Eventually Yahweh was understood as the universal God in control of history, yet still the God and transcendent king of Israel. The implications for the life of the people subject to imperial kings is articulated in visionary texts such as Daniel 7, in which the successive empires are represented as vicious destructive beasts that “devour much flesh.” The main message is that God is about to execute judgement on the oppressive imperial rulers and restore “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (symbolized by “the one like a son of man”) to sovereignty, presumably under the direct rule of their God.
The scribal Psalms of Solomon, written in the first century BCE, insisted that “the kingdom of God is forever over the nations in judgment” and psalm 17 appeals to God finally to end the imperial domination of Rome, that had “laid waste the land and massacred both young and old,” so that the people could live again on the land in justice. Thus “the Lord himself is (would be) our king forever more.” These Judean scribal texts looked to God to assert his kingship over history specifically in order to terminate Hellenistic or Roman imperial domination and to restore the people on their land in independence and just social-economic relations.
The conviction that, since God was its exclusive king, the people should be living directly under God’s rule (not foreign rule) was so strong that it resulted in organised active resistance. The writer Josephus describes how the teacher Judas of Gamala and the pharisee Saddok organised resistance to the Roman tribute. They had a passion for political freedom and said the Roman tribute amounted to servitude and urged the people to assert their freedom since “God alone was their leader and master.” In Judean and Galilean society at the time of Jesus, Israelite faith in the kingdom of God came to the fore precisely in opposition to Roman imperial rule.
So, when Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God was he talking about a Jewish world free of the Roman rulers? Horsley asserts “In Q and Mark, the earliest gospel sources, Jesus’ proclamation of the the k. of G. means not just the renewal of Israel, but also the renewal of Israel in opposition to the rulers.” In other words “YES!”
Let’s look at this more closely (Horsley is quoting Q and Mark):
- the promise of the kingdom to the poor can only mean ‘to the Jews’ and not to the Romans
- the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the kingdom, which focuses on the people’s economic needs of sufficient food and a (mutual) cancellation of debts (Q 11: 2-4), the 2 principal dangers that constantly threaten peasant life because of demands for taxes, tithes and tribute
- the future banquet of the kingdom will exclude the the aristocratic rulers of Jerusalem who kill the prophets God sends (like John and Jesus)
- 12 representatives of Israel will sit on 12 stools bringing justice for the 12 tribes of Israel (“judging” is a later Christian misunderstanding)
- Jesus’ exorcisms are part of a programme against Roman imperial domination. He says “If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The k. of G. is defeating demon possession, which includes Roman military domination. In his healings and exorcisms he frees the people from possession by alien spirits. Two women who represent Israel being bled dry and almost dead, are healed.
- In keeping with the Mosaic covenant, Jesus insists on egalitarian economic relations and declares that it is impossible for the wealthy to enter the k. of G.
- Jesus reassures those who may be arrested and executed because of their commitment to him and his mission that “the k. of G. is coming with power,” clearly implying a judgement of the current holders of power
- Another symbolic action is the sharing of a Passover meal (celebrating deliverance) with the twelve, in anticipation of eating again in the k. of G., no longer subject to the rulers about to kill him.
- Was it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar? While couched in clever circumlocution, Jesus’ answer was a blunt declaration of the people’s independence of Roman imperial rule, since they belonged directly under the kingdom of God.
I think that paints a pretty clear picture. Jesus was anti Rome but he acted symbolically and spoke in parables so that they didn’t make his life even shorter than it was. In an earlier work Horsley points out that Jews of Jesus’ day recited a daily prayer called the Kaddish.
“Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world that he has created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time.” (Source: Perrin “Jesus and the language of the Kingdom” p. 28-29, 47). Horsley asserts that the Lord’s Prayer is a modified version of this. Both the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer are seen by him as ” a prayer spoken by whole communities for the establishment of the kingdom.”
Mc Govern (ref. below) makes the point that Isaiah 65:17 says “Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.” Jesus shared that prophetic vision and understood his task of proclaiming the kingdom in that context.
I plan to devote 3 posts to Jesus’ stand against the 3 main interlocking authorities that ruled his people: the Romans (expect some overlap with today’s piece), the Pharisees and the Saduccees. The Roman one will draw on Horsley, and will cover the topics of how the Romans ruled the Jews, exorcism, proclamation of the kingdom, tribute, temple, covenant renewal, Jesus’ birth and death.
Hope to see you there.
Horsley, R. (ed.) “In the shadow of empire. Reclaiming the bible as a history of faithful resistance” John Knox press (2008)
Horsley, R. “Jesus and the spiral of violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine” Harper and Row (1987) p.167–208
McGovern, A.F. “The bible in Latin American liberation theology” p.74-85 in Gottwald, N.K. & Horsley, R.A. “The bible and liberation. Poklitical and social hermeneutics” Orbis/SPCK (1993)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
161: The kingdom of God: a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies
524: Don’s dream: Cupitt and the kingdom
376: Temporary Autonomous Zones and the kingdom of God
285: Jesus’ 15 authentic statements on the kingdom
657: Christianity is 2 totally different religions