The Kingdom of God
The phrase "how God acts" or "how
God does things" which I have used in my translation of the Gospels is a
paraphrase of the Greek "the Kingdom of God" or "the Kingdom of Heaven."
An ongoing problem in the 21st century is how to convey
of the original language and concepts behind it - as far as we can
understand them, that is.
Most of us today have only a theoretical knowledge of
what it's like to live in a kingdom - perhaps gleaned from films or
historical novels. It's possible to get an in-depth feel and appreciation
of the concept Jesus used only by study of pre-democratic societies. We
can't easily imagine what it's like to assume, as an unquestioned
principle accepted by all as a matter of course, that rule by a monarch or
emperor is the only correct way of running a country.
The Jesus Seminar translates the phrase "the kingdom of
God" as "God's imperial rule" on the grounds that Jesus lived in
Palestine, which was a part of the Roman Empire. Thus the Emperor of Rome
(at the time, Tiberius) was in effect a king because he had very similar
powers and was accorded similar honour and respect. Control of the Emperor
and the Empire by the Roman Senate was more a formality than effective
Modern dictators often have powers rather like those of
kings. Looking at how they manage their fiefdoms can give us some idea of
the sweeping powers wielded by a Roman Emperor. But in democratic or
similar systems power has to be wielded in a very different way.
So I've chosen the broader phrase "getting things done"
to embrace all sorts and degrees of power in the many systems of
government we have today - from the more-or-less absolute kind wielded by
modern dictators to the more persuasion-based, balanced types of power
wielded by democracies.
So the literal translation
of the Greek as "the kingdom of God", "the kingdom of heaven" or "God's
imperial rule" are all rendered here as "the way God does things" or "how
God acts". I think this gives a better idea of what Jesus probably meant,
insofar as we can understand nuances of meaning at this distance in time
One of the great myths perpetuated in the
West is that of the Pax Romana or "Roman Peace." To put it bluntly,
the few periods of peace in the Roman Empire were obtained at the price of
brutal suppression by force of arms. One assumes that the early Jewish
Christians did not think that this was the way God was going to do things in
his kingdom or empire.
Traditional theology tends to
downplay the violent, exploitative nature of the Roman power base - perhaps
because of the close alliance formed by the Church with the Emperor
Constantine in the fourth century. Within some 300 years of it beginnings,
Christianity had changed from a little-known, persecuted minority into what
we would today call an international organisation. In so doing it became
absorbed into the Empire's machinery of control and suppression.
This was far cry from the kind of life which Jesus proposed to his
followers. The concept of the Kingdom of God in his time and place had two
main strands of meaning:
1. One was a religious meaning. For roughly 350 years from 200
many Jews expected that God would some day quite soon intervene in human
affairs to put things right. The existing social order would be restored
to its intended condition - which, for the Jews as God's chosen people,
meant that they would be in charge of everything.
Scholars have argued
for centuries about whether or not Jesus had similar expectations. If
one assumes that the bulk of the Gospels contain accurate historical
records of what Jesus said and did, then it's highly likely that he
did expect something of the sort.
Albert Schweitzer and others
consequently fashioned a Jesus who had expected God to bring in the
rule of an "Anointed One" (Messiah in Hebrew, Kristos in
in Latin, and Christ in English). They concluded that when this
didn't happen, Jesus went to the cross expecting that his death
would spur God to act.
A problem arises when one settles for a
minimal record of the historical Jesus such as is contained in this
website. When the Gospels are pared down to good history almost
nothing remains of the belief that the present order will end soon,
that God will rule again, and that this rule will be under the
benevolent guidance of the Hebrew Messiah.
An almost inescapable
conclusion from this vantage point is that the millennial expectation
was in the minds of early Hebrew Christians - not in the mind of
Some think that in the process of coming to terms with a dead
Messiah, Hebrew Christians emphasised the Kingdom of God aspect of
their perspective on life. Jesus would return from the dead to do
things God's way, rather than the Roman way (God's Empire instead of a
Roman Empire). If so, it's hardly surprising that the authors of the
Gospels should incorporate this idea into their material.
second was a political meaning. Why should Jews have desired
the end of Roman rule and the coming of God's right ways?
realise that if Jesus had been born only a decade or two later, his
ministry would have been difficult or impossible.
This was because
by the year 74, Jerusalem, the Temple, and Palestine as a whole lay in
ruins as result of Roman retaliation when the people revolted. The
first century was one of the most violent in the history of the area.
The Roman era began in earnest when Herod the Great was appointed
"King of the Jews" (under the Emperor and accountable to Rome, of
course) in 40bc. He
proceeded to transform Palestine: first, by building Caesarea Maritima
on the coast as a trading and import-export city, and second, by
creating a commercial infrastructure of roads, agriculture, and
taxation. He built forts from which his troops could control the
The upshot was the rapid development and enrichment of
Judea and, to a lesser extent, Galilee. A number of Graeco-Roman
cities were established and built - Sepphoris and Tiberias, for
example. When he died in 4bc,
his sons took over his mini-empire.
But who was enriched? Herod, of
course, the Roman authorities, landowners and the Jewish high
priesthood. With the respect to the latter, the degree to which they
relied on collaboration with the Roman authorities and how wealthy
they became as a result, is seldom recognised.
of Herod's commercialisation and relative urbanization of Palestine
was the dislocation of traditional Jewish society. Jesus would have
lived and moved around in a time when small farmers were being
dispossessed by the rich, when villages tended to break up as people
moved to towns, when traditional family ties were being loosened, and
when traditional religion was in ferment.
Not unnaturally in such a
negative situation, another meaning of "God's kingdom" or "the way God
does things" referred to the desired dislodgement of the hated Roman
If any one of us needs to sharpen our understanding of what this must
have meant for the average person to whom Jesus talked, try to imagine
grinding poverty, punitive taxation and a ruthless police force who would
kill without trial whenever necessary - and sometimes when it wasn't
necessary. What would our reaction be? My guess is that a significant
number of us would quickly become freedom fighters.
In other words there
were many who sought to get rid of the Romans and the ruling Jewish
collaborators - to establish God's kingdom in a political sense. Some of
these would have been
groups of bandits made up of men who had been driven from their
land and occupations;
religious fanatics who sought power by stirring up passions
around messianic expectations;
assassins known as the sicarii (a name derived from the
curved dagger they used) who, according to Josephus in his
Antiquities, killed their opponents in broad daylight. One of their
first victims was a High Priest named Jonathan. They were what we would
today call "urban terrorists";
the Zealot party was formed in 67ad,
some of its members having fought the Roman Procurator Florus in 64-66ad.
In the years between then and 74ad
(when the Masada fort fell to the Romans) few escaped the toils of
war. The Jewish elite was split between those who supported the Romans
(like Josephus himself, who eventually retired gracefully to Rome), and
those who joined the rebels.
I for one am convinced that Jesus entered fully into a struggle for
justice and righteousness. A good slice of the theological establishment
think that he was familiar, for example, with the Essenes, a radical
Jewish anti-Temple group who withdrew entirely from Jewish society because
of what they saw was the corruption of pure religion.
But Jesus did not join forces with any anti-establishment groups or
revolutionaries. It seems that he recognised that the way God does things
cannot be promoted by violence, since God does not use violence to
establish his Kingdom - yet another radical repositioning of the God of
the Old Testament.
Instead he chose to focus on how we can better perceive God's
priorities - the way, to put it in more contemporary terms, God does
things in this world. "Man proposes, but God disposes," said Thomas a
Kempis. Jesus, it seems, chose to live out the way God does things, rather
than the way mankind often does things. In contrast to the religious
leaders and so-called prophets of his time, he sought to identify and live
out a distinctively different approach.
I think it's significant that neither evidence derived from the
historical parts of the Gospels, nor evidence from early Christian
communities indicate that Jesus took either of the usual approaches to
inaugurating the "Kingdom of God". He didn't go the religious guru
route; nor did he take the revolutionary route - the route which
eventually saw the destruction of Palestine.
To sum up: the kingdom of God or "the way God does things" was, in
terms of current religious and political priorities of his day, turned on
its head by the way Jesus lived.