DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
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 the sense 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 governance.

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 from him.

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 -150ad 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 Greek Chrestus 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 Jesus.

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.

2. The second was a political meaning. Why should Jews have desired the end of Roman rule and the coming of God's right ways?

Many don't 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 countryside.

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.

Another consequence 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 oppressor. 

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.

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