The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 3)

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A couple of days ago Sam asked about the reason we would look at Jewish messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period as background for understanding the Kingdom of God. His point was that the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely, so “…why would we look to their understanding of what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be about? Wouldn’t it be likely that they missed on that, too? Jesus’ life and mission turned on its head everything they were looking for in Messiah. Why would it be different with ‘the Kingdom of God’”?

I found this an intriguing question especially since reading N. T. Wright one might get the impression that the Jewish leaders had a great many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century. Like modern Christianity, there were less things that “all Jews agree on” that might be expected, and hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom were quite varied. I often hear people say things like, “all Jews thought that the messiah would be a military leader who would attack Rome.” I suppose that is true for some Jews, but not all. At Qumran the Essenes appear to have expected a “military messiah,” but also a priestly messiah who would be like Aaron. This view was not “normative” for all Jews, but probably a minority position.

Pharisees seem to have expected a Messiah, certainly they are the most interested in Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalm 17 serves as an indication of messianic expectations which were current only shortly before the time of Jesus. Rome is viewed as a foreign invader who will be removed when the messiah comes. If these sorts of messianic expectations were popular in Galilee in the 20’s A.D. then we have good reason to read Jesus’ teaching as intentionally messianic and we are able to understand some of the confusion and disappointment among the Jews who heard him teach.

I might even speculate that the ideas in PsSol. 17 are the motive behind Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. If Judas was thinking something like what we read in PsSol. 17 then it is possible he was trying to “force Messiah’s hand” into striking out against Rome and the Temple establishment. Jesus seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to be the davidic messiah expected in Psalm 17.

On the other end of the scale would be the Sadducees, a group that (as far as we know) had no messianic expectations. The fact that they limited their canon to the Torah also limited their expectations of a future restoration of the Davidic kingdom. What would a Sadducee think when Jesus announced “the kingdom of God is near”? Perhaps that was enough to identify him as Pharisee or an Essene, and therefore not very interesting.  (I would guess that the Herodians were even less interested in a coming kingdom, since any Jewish messiah would probably start their judgment with a thorough smiting of Herod and his family.)

This is all to say that there was a wide range of belief about Messiah, Kingdom, restoration of David’s rule, or a future reign of God in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Sam is right to wonder about the use of this material, but I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies.

I really am not sure he fits very neatly into contemporary theological categories either.