I was writing something else for my next post when I came across an article by Scot McKnight. I like Scott and frequently lurk at his Jesus Creed blog (see my blogroll). My views also sometimes diverge from his. Here he is claiming that the word “kingdom” is the most misused biblical word today.
The word “kingdom” comes from Jesus, and so to Him and His Jewish world we must go. It was impossible in Jesus’ world to say “kingdom” and not think “king.” Either the word “king” referred to Caesar, the empire-building, worship-me-or-die emperor of Rome, or it referred to Israel’s hoped-for King, the Messiah. When Jesus said Kingdom, He meant the Messiah is the one true King and Caesar is not.
This gives me a chance to say something I have wanted to say about the idea of “Empire” in recent theological and biblical studies. There have been studies on the New Testament attitude toward empire. The subtext has been kind of Anti-American–that America today stands for empire, something Jesus was against.
But that is too simple. There were empires and there were empires. Certainly Israel had problems with the Assyrian empire, as came out in the posts on the Psalms of Asaph. And because the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and brought about the great exile, Babylon was remembered as horrible. But the Persian empire proved helpful the Israel.
At the beginning of Israel’s history the Egyptian empire was first helpful in the time of Joseph, and then oppressive in the time of Moses. During the intertestamental period (between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament) the Greek empire was at first useful to Israel and then horrible in the period of Daniel’s composition and the Maccabees revolt.
It seems to me that in the New Testament Paul, Luke and the author of 1st Peter still hoped for Rome to be Persia. By the time of the book of Revelation, Rome had clearly become Babylon the Great.
The “worship-me-or-die emperor” does not really apply to Tiberius, the emperor in Jesus lifetime. The imperial cult existed, but Tiberius was a reluctant god at best. He permitted one small temple to be built in his honor, but he downplayed his divinity. At his death the Senate declined to officially deify him. So nobody was put to death for not worshiping Tiberius. This is a case where the experience of the later church colors our view of the pre-Easter Jesus.
Jesus was king of the Jews in contrast to Herod, more than in contrast to Caesar. Jesus was at the beginning of the trajectory that led to thinking that Rome was Babylon. The attitude of the historical Jesus to Rome was more that Rome was the sword, the instrument by which God’s judgement would fall on Israel.
Jesus was more neutral toward empire than modern interpreters with an agenda would like. That neutrality is the basis for the claim that they executed Jesus wrongly and that he was actually no political threat to Rome.