Jesus taught his followers to seek first the kingdom. And what he taught, he did. (There’s a book opportunity right there: if Jesus operated with integrity, how does his life explain his teaching, and how does his teaching explain his life?)
If the kingdom of God was the core of Jesus’ life and message, why do we have so much confusion about what he meant? There are several reasons. One is that Jesus never defined what he meant by God’s kingdom. The gospels contain more than 100 references to Jesus using the word kingdom (aside from all the related words and concepts), yet in none of these does Jesus give a definition. He paints pictures with parables. He draws out implications. He promises the hope of the kingdom. But he never felt the need to define it.
Whatever Jesus meant by the kingdom of God, it did not need defining. He and the first-century Jews who heard him all knew what it was. Sure, they could argue about in what form or at what time the kingdom would come or by what process it would come to fulfilment, but they needed no definition what the kingdom was. It was the story they were living in, the story of their nation, the story of the people of God.
The reason we struggle to understand the kingdom is that it is not our story. Our culture is one of democratic self-determination, so naturally we don’t relate to stories of arcane kingdom-style government. If we are ever to understand what Jesus was talking about and how his hearers understood him, we will need to think from their point of view.
But how do we gain their perspective? It’s not like we can hop on a plane and fly back to the first century to experience their culture first hand. Is there a way for us to understand their worldview?
If you love reading, you know that a good book can transport you to another place and another time. Books can open your horizons beyond the way you currently think, so you experience a frame of reference beyond your own. So, are there any books from the world of Jesus that can take us back into the culture of first-century Jews so we can see the world through their eyes?
Yes! Bucketloads of them—whole collections of works from the period leading up to Jesus’ time. And yes, they do help you acquire the worldview of Jesus and his hearers. New Testament scholars use them for this very purpose. Here are the ones that have helped me:
- I started with the Apocrypha, the deutero-canonical books found in Roman Catholic Bible. The Jewish people did not consider them to be inspired revelation, but they were important enough to include when they translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek a couple of centuries before Jesus.
- Then I turned to the Pseudepigrapha, another large collection of works from the Second Temple period. There was so much diversity here that I began to grasp the varying points of view held by different groups within Jewish culture. Some were retellings of Bible books that provided fascinating clues about how Jewish people understood their story.
- Then we have some 900 Dead Sea Scrolls or fragments of scrolls. Among them were pesher—commentaries that explain how they applied passages of Scripture to their own time. Other scrolls expressed the views of the community that hid the scrolls at Qumran, a sect that despised the temple authorities and viewed themselves as the true people of God. They had their own expectations of how God would re-establish his kingdom through them.
- Then there was Josephus, a Jewish historian who acted as a bridge between the Jewish and Gentile worlds by writing for the Romans. Particularly in his Antiquities of the Jews I was fascinated to see what he included, what he left out, and what he invented. It is biased, of course: since the Romans were paying him, he was careful not to write anything that could promote a “kingdom” in conflict with the empire.
There are other works as well, such as Philo (though he had an Alexandrian perspective). You will often find New Testament scholars referring to this Second Temple literature, but these writings are useful for far more than the light they shine on particular Scriptures. They are a the nearest thing we have to a TARDIS, a time-machine to take us back to experience the worldview of the first century writers.
So, how do these writings help us to understand what Jesus and his hearers understood as God’s kingdom? Stay tuned.
What others are saying
John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds., The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), vi:
The field of Second Temple Judaism has emerged as a major area of study only in this generation. In large part, the flowering of the field has been due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which made available for the first time a wealth of primary sources for the period between the Bible and the Mishnah. There has also been a resurgence of interest in the Pseudepigrapha, the large and loosely defined corpus of literature transmitted by Christians that includes many works of Jewish origin. … At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the time is ripe to take stock of this burgeoning field.
Larry R. Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 17–18:
When one studies the NT against the backdrop of the Second Temple period, a new understanding emerges. Christianity now appears as a sister faith, alongside rabbinic Judaism, both of whom are greatly indebted to their mother, namely, Second Temple Judaism, itself a development of the ancestral faith rooted in the Hebrew Bible. Despite common roots, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism struck out in decidedly different directions. But the kinship is unmistakable. The heart of this study lies in demonstrating the indebtedness of Christianity to the Judaism of the Second Temple period. We think the reader will find the process of rediscovering the Jewish roots of Christianity an enriching experience.
Scot McKnight, On the term “Kingdom”, 2014:
When Jesus announced that the kingdom had drawn near (Matthew 4:17), that word “kingdom” only made sense if his contemporaries were looking forward to a kingdom. What kind of kingdom was that? The way to answer this question is first to take a good long look at the Old Testament use of the term, and I have included references to “kingdom” in the NIV 2011 as nothing more than an easy-to-use set of references, and there are 192 references and the overwhelming majority mean a “nation” or “geo-political reality” or — and this is the sharpest definition — a “people governed by a king.” Go ahead and scan the evidence and you will see that the expectation for anything using the word “kingdom” would be a people governed by a king — and what was the biggest hope was that this people would be ruled by God. (And Messiah gets attached over time to God’s end-time rule over his people.)
What would Jews have heard when Jesus said “kingdom”? That’s a question we must ask. (It would not have meant only God’s rule. It always involves a people ruled by a king.)
This set of evidence is at the core of my book Kingdom Conspiracy.