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I read an article by Denny Burk in JETS a few years ago which was a decent summary of anti-Imperial readings of Paul, although I think that he has lumped N. T. Wright along with Richard Horsely and Hal Taussig. To me, Wright is not doing the same sort of work as Horsely, even though there are some similarities.  Both make the same sorts of observations concerning Paul’s alleged use of imperial language, but Horsely and Taussig take the issue much further than Wright by applying Paul’s anti-Imperialism to the imperialism of the United States.

SpartacusFirst I will lay out the basics of anti-Imperial readings of Paul and then I will make a few observations about why this is an important issue for reading Ephesians.

The increased interest in the impact of the Imperial cult in Asia Minor in the first century has driven anti-imperial readings of Paul.  In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord (κύριος) and god in art and coinage.  Since he was the one who brought peace (εἰρήνη) into the world, the emperor should be thought of as the savior (σωτήρ)  of the world.  News of the Emperor was announced as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον).  This imperial propaganda was pervasive and could not be avoided, although most people in the first century would have simply accepted the equation of “Caesar as God” and moved on with life.

Paul preached the good news that Jesus was the Lord and savior of the world, the one who brings peace.  For those of us with Christian ears, these words are all quite familiar .  But to anyone who heard them in the first century Roman world they were just as familiar, but applied to Caesar, not Jesus!  By calling Jesus Lord, it is argued, Paul is setting up an implicit anti-Roman narrative.  Once words like gospel, Lord, savior, and peace are taken as anti-imperial, then other less common Pauline concepts are seen through this lens, such as the language used for the return of Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-18.

For the most part, the implications of these anti-Imperial readings of Paul for reading Ephesians is to confirm the non-Pauline nature of the book.  It is thought that Ephesians lacks the anti-Imperialism of Romans or other certain Pauline letters, This is evidence of a later, more pro-imperial writer.  This is a major factor for Crossan and Reed in their In Search of Paul.  Ephesians is not considered to be Pauline because of the reversal of the egalitarianism evident in Romans and Galatians.

But as Wright says early on in his Paul: A Fresh Perspective, “The argument recently advanced (in North America particularly) that Ephesians and Colossians are secondary because they move away from confrontation with the Empire to collaboration with it is frankly absurd.”  The reason for this “absurdity” is that Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text.  In fact, if there is actually an anti-empire subtext in the choice of terms Paul uses to describe Jesus and his mission, the Ephesians ought to be considered right at the heart of Pauline anti-Imperialism.   I suspect the section on submission of wives drives Ephesians out of the Pauline corpus for most of the anti-Imperialist scholars.

What elements of Ephesians might be considered “anti-imperialist”?   What benefit is there in reading Ephesians 1-2 in this way?

Bibliography:  

Burk, Denny.  “Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology,” JETS 51 (2009): 309-338.

After spending some time reading in the so-called anti-Imperial texts in Paul, I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire.  But Paul does not encourage the sorts of anti-government protests and social actions people in the West would recognize.  The reason Paul is anti-Empire is because in reality Rome has already fallen and God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus.

I do not think that Paul is coded his letters with subtle anti-imperial language.  He is in fact drawing upon the well-known (and not particularly subtle) language drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially as it was translated in the Septuagint. Jesus is Lord, but not because Paul is encoding an anti-imperial message by using words with subversive meanings The Greek word κύριος was already used in the LXX to refer to the Lord, God of Israel.  By calling Jesus “our Lord” in Ephesians 1:2 Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Hebrew Bible.

As such, he evokes the image of Jesus as the God of the Bible, but especially in apocalyptic literature. In most apocalyptic literature, the people of God are an oppressed minority looking forward to the time when God will break into history with some sort of decisive victory of his enemies. The people of God can have confidence that their oppression is going to be reversed in the near future. God will vindicate them, reward them for their suffering and punish the oppressors.  For most of apocalyptic, the evil empire can be safely ignored since the time of its final judgment is near.

Does Paul think the Roman government can be safely ignored?  This seems to be the case since Rome has already been defeated!  God decreed long ago that the coming Son of Man would destroy the power of the kingdoms of men and establish the rule of the Ancient of Days. With the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the power of the empire has already been broken.

The “son of man” language comes from Daniel 7:14, but I would include the image of the statue from Daniel 2 as well.  The greatest of the kingdoms of men will be destroyed and turned to dust when God rises to defend his people.  The grand conclusion to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is that God will restore his people to Zion by dealing justly with the kingdoms of this world.  Paul says that this apocalyptic event in many ways happened when Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God.

If this is on target, Paul describes the death of Jesus as victory of apocalyptic proportions! Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?

Several times in Ephesians Paul mentions rulers and authorities, powers and dominions. Most commentators observe Paul has spiritual forces in view when he uses this kind of language. By the first century, Judaism had developed a complicated view of angelic and demonic forces which operated “behind the scenes.” Sometimes these dark forces were responsible for persecution or troubles for God’s people. In Daniel, for example, an angel tells Daniel he was delayed by the “prince of Persia” (10:21) and did not escape until Michael (the prince of Israel) came to assist him. 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) offers a detailed description of demonic activity before the flood.

PAradise LostTimothy Gombis develops this view of powers and dominions as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This book argues Paul is using imagery of spiritual warfare drawn form the Hebrew Bible to describe what Jesus has done on the cross.  Using Ephesians 1:20-23, for example, Gombis points out that Paul says that Jesus was vindicated by being raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.

This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority,  power and dominion.  These are spiritual forces at work in the world, the actors in the apocalyptic drama, as Gombis describes Ephesians.  Jesus has an authority which is so high above every spiritual thing in creation that it does not even make sense that human rulers should be considered as competitors to Jesus’ rule and authority!

Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much.  If the “rulers of this age” are the spiritual forces behind Rome, and if those spiritual forces have already been defeated, then the Empire itself is doomed to defeat.  This situation reminds me somewhat of the end of the Soviet Union.  The “union” dissolved so quickly that I imagine there were many people living in areas formerly controlled by the USSR that had no idea they were under a “new government.”  I always wondered if Gorbachev went to work one morning and found his offices “under new management,” although most of his staff just kept on working as if nothing had happened!

This is what happened when Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of the Universe, died and rose again.  The power of the spiritual forces of this dark age was broken – but it happened in such a way that the world did not really notice.  But for Paul, the victory has already been won and Rome has no real power anymore.

 

Image result for following jesus: biblical reflections on discipleship [book]Logos Bible Software is offering N. T. Wright’s Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Christian Discipleship for free in the month of March. This book was originally published by SPCK in 1994 and has been reprinted in North America by Eerdmans. Both books have been recently reprinted by Eerdmans with redesigned covers.

The book is a series of sermons on six books of the New Testament ( Hebrews, Colossians, Matthew, John, Mark, and Revelation) and six key themes (resurrection, rebirth, temptation, hell, heaven, and new life in a new world). Although he has developed these ideas further in more recent books, Following Jesus demonstrates something of Wright’s pastoral heart. These short chapters are intentionally devotional and challenge the reader to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

N. T. Wright For $1.99 more, you can also get Wright’s Who Was Jesus?  (SPCK 2005). This book is a response to three authors who have rather radical views on Jesus (Barbara Thiering, A. N. Wilson, and John Shelby Spong). For a Jesus scholar like Wright, responding to these three is a fairly easy task and Wright is perhaps at his snarkiest. For example, the Jesus described by A. N. Wilson a “moderately pale Galilean.”

Although this Free Book of the Month promotion will likely give Jim West an apoplectic fit, most will find this a great deal on two of Wright’s popular level books.

Logos is also running a giveaway this month, you can enter to win The N.T. Wright Collection (52 vols.) for the Logos library. This includes his major works (New Testament and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; The Resurrection of the Son of God; Paul and the Faithfulness of God; Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul 1978–2013; Paul and His Recent Interpreters) as well as his more popular works and the “For Everyone” commentary series. Logos says this is a $700 value and gives you four ways to enter the contest.

The free and almost free book offer expires at the end of February, so head over to Logos and grab these books.

 

Several times in Ephesians Paul mentions rulers and authorities, powers and dominions. Most commentators observe Paul has spiritual forces in view when he uses this kind of language. By the first century, Judaism had developed a complicated view of angelic and demonic forces which operated “behind the scenes.” Sometimes these dark forces were responsible for persecution or troubles for God’s people. In Daniel, for example, an angel tells Daniel he was delayed by the “prince of Persia” (10:21) and did not escape until Michael (the prince of Israel) came to assist him. 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) offers a detailed description of demonic activity before the flood.

PAradise LostTimothy Gombis develops this view of powers and dominions as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This book argues Paul is using imagery of spiritual warfare drawn form the Hebrew Bible to describe what Jesus has done on the cross.  Using Ephesians 1:20-23, for example, Gombis points out that Paul says that Jesus was vindicated by being raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.

This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority,  power and dominion.  These are spiritual forces at work in the world, the actors in the apocalyptic drama, as Gombis describes Ephesians.  Jesus has an authority which is so high above every spiritual thing in creation that it does not even make sense that human rulers should be considered as competitors to Jesus’ rule and authority!

Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much.  If the “rulers of this age” are the spiritual forces behind Rome, and if those spiritual forces have already been defeated, then the Empire itself is doomed to defeat.  This situation reminds me somewhat of the end of the Soviet Union.  The “union” dissolved so quickly that I imagine there were many people living in areas formerly controlled by the USSR that had no idea they were under a “new government.”  I always wondered if Gorbachev went to work one morning and found his offices “under new management,” although most of his staff just kept on working as if nothing had happened!

This is what happened when Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of the Universe, died and rose again.  The power of the spiritual forces of this dark age was broken – but it happened in such a way that the world did not really notice.  But for Paul, the victory has already been won and Rome has no real power anymore.

 

After spending some time reading in the so-called anti-Imperial texts in Paul, I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman Empire.  But Paul does not encourage the sorts of anti-government protests and social actions people in the West would recognize.  The reason Paul is anti-Empire is because in reality Rome has already fallen and God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus.

I do not think that Paul is coded his letters with subtle anti-imperial language.  He is in fact drawing upon the well-known (and not particularly subtle) language drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially as it was translated in the Septuagint. Jesus is Lord, but not because Paul is encoding an anti-imperial message by using words with subversive meanings The Greek word κύριος was already used in the LXX to refer to the Lord, God of Israel.  By calling Jesus “our Lord” in Ephesians 1:2 Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Hebrew Bible.

As such, he evokes the image of Jesus as the God of the Bible, but especially in apocalyptic literature. In most apocalyptic literature, the people of God are an oppressed minority looking forward to the time when God will break into history with some sort of decisive victory of his enemies. The people of God can have confidence that their oppression is going to be reversed in the near future. God will vindicate them, reward them for their suffering and punish the oppressors.  For most of apocalyptic, the evil empire can be safely ignored since the time of its final judgment is near.

Does Paul think the Roman government can be safely ignored?  This seems to be the case since Rome has already been defeated!  God decreed long ago that the coming Son of Man would destroy the power of the kingdoms of men and establish the rule of the Ancient of Days. With the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the power of the empire has already been broken.

The “son of man” language comes from Daniel 7:14, but I would include the image of the statue from Daniel 2 as well.  The greatest of the kingdoms of men will be destroyed and turned to dust when God rises to defend his people.  The grand conclusion to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is that God will restore his people to Zion by dealing justly with the kingdoms of this world.  Paul says that this apocalyptic event in many ways happened when Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God.

If this is on target, Paul describes the death of Jesus as victory of apocalyptic proportions! Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?

Bandy Alan S. and Benjamin L. Merkle. Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2015. 264 pp. Pb; $21.99. Link to Kregel

There have been several introductory handbooks for the Prophets have appeared recently. Most of these recent textbooks focus on the background and theology of each individual book. Rather than survey the Old Testament prophetic books, Bandy and Merkle present a study on how prophecy works in the whole canon of Scripture, including the New Testament.  In fact, the main theme of the book is not the prophetic books themselves, but how messianic prophecy functions.

4271 cvr final CC.inddWhat makes this book different is the diversity of views represented by the authors. Bandy identifies himself as a Historic premillennialist, while Merkel calls himself an amillennialist. Both are committed evangelicals who believe the Bible is God’s word and is a divinely inspired message from God. In addition, both agree the Bible has a unified message that centers on Jesus, his death and resurrection. This means that all prophecy is to be read Christologically.

In part one of the book, Bandy and Merkle offer three chapters on how to interpret prophecy. Everything in the prophets concerned with Jesus’s death and resurrection as the climax of redemptive history. While it is true the prophets do look forward to a messiah and the eschatological age, there are whole sections of the prophets which have very little to do with the coming Messiah. For example, Amos and Hosea are more concerned with social ethics and the unavoidable exile of Israel. It is hard to make Ezekiel 16 into a messianic prophecy! In fact, it is possible to argue much of prophetic literature refers to the immediate context of the prophet and the coming judgment on either Samaria or Jerusalem, the exile or the future return from exile. This prophetic “forth-telling” is overlooked in this book, although in practice the authors do often recognize prophecies which do not refer to a future messianic age (conditional and fulfilled prophecies in chapter 4, for example).

The focus of part two is on Old Testament prophecy. First, the authors examine unconditional prophecies (such as the Abrahamic Covenant), conditional prophecies (such as Jonah’s announcement of the destruction of Nineveh), and fulfilled prophecies (such as the prophetic condemnation on Babylon in Isaiah 13). Here is the recognition that some Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the Old Testament itself, but that is not the focus of the book.

There are many Old Testament texts which predict a restoration of Israel in the future. These “restoration prophecies” are problematic since they seem to be unfulfilled with the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 5 therefore discusses the possibility these prophecies were fulfilled in the church in a literal future (Jewish) kingdom. They conclude the prophecies of a restoration of Israel were never meant to be interpreted in a literalistic way, therefore any interpretation that expects a literal Israel to rebuild a literal Temple in the future simply minimizes the finished work of Christ on the cross (123).

Possibly, but did not the Jewish followers of Jesus continue to worship at the Temple well into the present age? Even Paul worshiped in the Temple as late as Acts 21 and James leads a church in Jerusalem which is still “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). Presumably these zealous Jewish Christians worshiped in the Temple, perhaps without making sin offerings. There are many ways to worship at the Temple besides making atonement for sin.

In chapter 6 Bandy and Merkle survey various Messianic prophecies. After a short discussion of what “counts” as a messianic prophecy, they conclude some of these prophecies have a direct fulfillment in the life of Jesus, others are partially or typlogically fulfilled (149). That the messiah was to be a prophet, priest and king are examples of typological fulfillments (since Jesus was not actually a king). But this chapter also includes passages such as Micah 5:2, predicting that messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Zech 9:9, fulfilled when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday.” Unfortunately there is no method offered for sorting out what prophecies are “direct predictions” and which are typological.

In the third part of the book, Bandy and Merkle focus on two aspects of New Testament messianic prophecy. First, they discuss prophecies of the coming of the Messiah (chapter 7). This includes examples like Zechariah’s prophecy of the birth of Jesus as well as elements of Jesus’ message such as the kingdom of God. The point of this section is to show that “Jesus did not come unannounced” (170).

Chapters 8-10 focus on predictions of the return of the Messiah in the Gospels and Acts (chapter 8), the Epistles (chapter 9) and Revelation (chapter 10). Here is where the views of the two authors diverge the most, since it is possible the Olivet Discourse refers to the Second Coming of Jesus (premillennialism) or to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (amillennialism), or a balance between these two extremes (the already/not yet” view). Too much of this chapter is devoted to an attack of the “left behind” interpretation of Matthew 24:41. Many dispensationalism rejected this passage as referring to the rapture long ago and Merkle is entirely correct that the reference is to judgment not a rapture of the church. But not a single dispensationalist is cited in this section, making me wonder what the motive for attacking an outmoded and abandoned view might be. The book includes an appendix on the problematic phrase “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.

Conclusion. This is not a textbook on the prophetic books, and as such does not discuss the prophets as iconoclastic voices calling Israel and Judah back to covenant faithfulness nor is the book interested in the social ethics of the prophets. While the authors do state the prophets do address their own times, but emphasis in this book is on prophecies of the coming eschatological or messianic age.

There is a conscious effort in the book to interpret prophecy in a way that is as distant from dispensationalism as possible. Bandy makes this clear in the appendix where he indicates he does not want to be associated with the Left Behind style of millennialist. Earlier in the book he uses Tim LaHaye as an example of overly literal interpreters of prophecy (58). Even Charles Ryrie is used as an example of someone who warns against straying too far from a literal interpretation, although I do not recall Ryrie engaging in the sort of wild-eyed interpretations one finds in the Left Behind series.

Fair enough, some dispensationalist have engaged in overly-literal interpretations of prophecy (and looked foolish for doing so). But much of what this book argues resonates with the more rational, ecclesiological form of dispensationalism (Darrel Bock, Robert Saucy, Dale DeWitt). In fairness, the authors cite Kevin Vanhoozer’s distinction between the “literal sense” and literalism. The literal sense is what the author intended to mean when he originally used symbols for symbolic language. In my experience, few serious interpreters of prophecy attempt pure literalism when reading prophecy.

Despite my misgivings, this is a useful introduction to how OT messianic prophecies are interpreted in the New Testament, although the title implies the volume is more comprehensive than it actually is. Bandy and Merkle achieve what they have set out to accomplish, although not all readers will be happy with the results of this dialogue between millennial views.

This volume could be improved by the addition of a subject and Scripture indices.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Allen, Michael and Jonathan A. Linebaugh, eds. Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 280 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP

The so-called new perspective on Paul often complains that Luther read his own situation into the apostle Paul. It is often stated that Luther misunderstood Paul because he did not understand second temple. Judaism, and he was imposing his own struggle with the Roman Catholic Church on the text of Galatians and Romans. But how Luther or any of the reformers actually read Paul’s writings is never explored. This book attempts to fill this missing link in scholarship. This book is something of a supplement to the growing collection of reformation commentaries also published by IVP academic.

Reformation Readings of PaulIn his introduction, Jonathan A. Linebaugh suggests there is a disconnection between the “Lutheran Paul” and Martin Luther as a reader of Paul. Perhaps Luther’s reading of Paul was not a good one, but the only way to determine this is to actually read Luther’s exegesis of Paul’s writings. The goal of Reformation Readings of Paul is to “catch the reformers in action as exegetes” (15). The book is sort of a “there and back again” tale in which the reader passes through the reformers to the more distant Paul, but always with the goal of returning to the present to understand how these important texts still have meaning today.

In order to achieve this goal the editors have selected five reformation scholars for which the exam in one particular section of the Pauline writings. Each section has a pair of chapters, the first by a historian who describes how the particular reformer read Paul. The second chapter in each section is written by a Pauline scholar and attempts to fit the reformers reading of Paul into a larger Pauline theology. The second essay in each section is not a response but rather an interaction with the data collected by the historian. Perhaps the analogy of a dialogue is best, these chapters attempt to describe a dialogue between Paul and Calvin for example.

The editors selected the following pairings: Galatians and Martin Luther, Romans and Philipp Melanchthon, Ephesians and Martin Bucer, 1 & 2 Corinthians and John Calvin, and finally Thomas Cranmer and the whole Pauline collection. This is not a book focuses solely on Luther, or even Luther and Calvin. The inclusion of sections on Melanchthon and Bucer make this a more diverse collection, and a section on the English reformer Thomas Cranmer is remarkable.

Gerald Bray’s conclusion to the collection reminds us that even though the reformers were “fully engaged in the Renaissance humanism of their time,” the heart of the Reformation was a theological crisis ignited by the Gospel (264). Late medieval theology was preoccupied with paying off the enormous the debt of sin owed to a righteous God. In that world Luther’s interpretation of “the just will live by faith” was both radical and liberating. For Bray, modern critics of the reformers miss the spiritual dimension that makes sense of Luther and Paul (272). Certainly we know more today about Second Temple Judaism that the Reformers, but they connected with Paul in their own time in order to bring the light of the Gospel to a very dark world.

 

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

When we study Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom” in the Gospels there are two competing themes. In some texts, Jesus seems to say that the Kingdom of God is present in his ministry. For example, Mark describes Jesus preaching that the Kingdom of God is “near” at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1). In Jesus says that if demons are cast out the hand of God, then the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20). Jesus also says that the reason he teachings in parables was to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to his disciples (Luke 8:10)

now laterYet in other texts he seems to say that the Kingdom is has not yet come and that his disciples ought to be prepared for a wait before the Kingdom finally comes. The parables in Matthew 25, for example, indicate that Jesus will go away for a long time before returning.  The Ten Virgins (25:1-12) indicates that the disciple will have to prepare for a long wait before the “wedding banquet” begins, and the parable of the talents (25:14-30) tells the disciples that they will have to give an account for how they use the time before the coming of the king. The parable in Luke 19 is told specifically to defuse the crowd’s expectation that Jesus was about to establish a kingdom in Jerusalem at that moment.

not-yet-gifHow do we account for this apparently conflicting data? One common way is to emphasize either one or the other aspect. C. H. Dodd famously stressed the presence of the kingdom, arguing that the kingdom was “fully realized” in Jesus’ ministry. This means that there is no real future kingdom, the present Church fulfills Jesus’ vision for a kingdom. This means that there is no future restoration of Israel, the promises of the Hebrew prophets are fulfilled in the Church. One potential problem with a fully realized eschatology is that the parables warning of a long delay must be taken as creations of the church to explain the non-return of Jesus.

On the other hand, it is possible to stress only the future aspect of the kingdom. Someone like Schweitzer, for example, thought Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected a messianic kingdom promised by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. While Schweitzer thought Jesus was wrong, other streams of theology (such as classic dispensationalism) understands Jesus as teaching a future kingdom, literally fulfilling the promises of the Hebrew Bible, including a restoration of the kingdom to the Jewish people. But a wholly future kingdom does not really do justice to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom is present in his ministry.

A third option is to see Jesus’s ministry as a present kingdom, but a kingdom which does not exhaust the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. This has the advantage of taking Jesus seriously when he says that his miracles are establishing some sort of kingdom, but also the warnings of a lengthy interim between the establishment of the kingdom and the consummation of the kingdom in the (now distant) future.

The catch-phrase “already / not yet” is perhaps so overused that it has lost all rhetorical value, but it remains a fairly good way of understanding the kingdom in the gospels. Some elements of the kingdom expected by the prophets is present in Jesus’ ministry, but others remain unfulfilled until a future time. The point is the present church lives “between the ages,” after the “already” but before the “not yet.” We look back to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also forward to the future consummation of the ages.

Are there other specific sayings or actions of Jesus where the “already / not yet” may help our understanding of the text?

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.

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