In order to understand how a first century Jewish audience might have understood the phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” is to examine messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period. This background should shed some light on the phrase “kingdom of God.”

A former student of mine once asked something like, “If the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely why would we care about their understanding of what the “kingdom of God” was supposed to be about?” If Jesus’ life and mission turned everything on its head, perhaps Jewish expectations are the opposite of what Jesus means by the kingdom. I find this an intriguing question, especially since N. T. Wright gives the impression that the Jewish leaders had many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

Not the Messiah

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century.  Like modern Christianity, the list of items “all Jews agree on” is fairly short. Hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom varied greatly among the various sub-groups within Judaism. I heard students say things like, “all Jews believed 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 reform the Temple.

Pharisees seem to have expected a messiah and they were certainly the most interested in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalms of Solomon 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 early first century, 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.

Consider the motives Judas may have had when he betrayed Jesus. If he believed things similar to Ps.Sol 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 Ps.Sol 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. 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. But are there additional benefits to understanding the “Kingdom of God” in the light of the Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period? Perhaps there are other elements of Jesus’ life and teaching that would benefit from this contextual approach.