LOY Excursus: The Kingdom of Heaven in the Life of Yeshua

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In this excursus to the Life of Yeshua commentary, David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton delve into the ancient Jewish concept of the Kingdom of Heaven and discuss the ways in which Jesus made use of this concept in his own unique style.

Revised: 29-June-2016


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A key concept in Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom of Heaven.[1] The Kingdom of Heaven is the subject of many of Jesus’ parables and is at the heart of his proclamation. The Kingdom of Heaven has, nevertheless, frequently been misunderstood and misconstrued by numerous scholars. The Kingdom of Heaven is neither a place we can visit nor a time for which we must wait.[2] According to Jesus’ teachings, the Kingdom is not up in heaven, it is taking place here on earth. Likewise, for Jesus the Kingdom is not in the near or distant future, the Kingdom has already begun.[3]

The Kingdom of Heaven in Jewish Literature

“The Kingdom of Heaven” is not a phrase that is familiar from the Hebrew Bible, because it does not appear in the Jewish Scriptures.[4] Neither can the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven” be found in the writings of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha[5] or in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[6] “The Kingdom of Heaven” is not known from the writings of Hellenistic Judaism. The phrase is common only to the New Testament and rabbinic literature.[7] This fact is one example of Jesus’ familiarity with and sympathy for the teachings of the Jewish sages.

In rabbinic literature מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם (malchūt shāmayim, “the Kingdom of Heaven”) refers to the reign of Israel’s God over his people and over his creation. “Heaven” in the rabbinic phrase does not refer to a place (i.e., heaven) but stands as a substitute for the divine name (i.e., the Tetragrammaton).[8] It should also be noted that in Hebrew the word for “kingdom” in the phrase מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם is a verbal noun,[9] which suggests that the focus of the term is on divine activity (God’s reign) rather than a sphere of influence.[10]

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  • [1] For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [2] Pace Schweitzer, who regarded the Kingdom of God as a purely eschatological concept. Cf. Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion (trans. Walter Lowrie; New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1914). For a critique of Schweitzer’s hypothesis, see Young, JHJP, 191-194. On the temporal aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven in Jesus’ teaching, see the subsection entitled “The Kingdom of Heaven in the Teachings of Jesus: Temporal Aspect” below.
  • [3] Pope and Buth stress that “the Kingdom of Heaven” is not a concept that pertains to the afterlife, i.e., going to heaven after you die. See Anthony Pope and Randall Buth, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” Notes On Translation 119 (1987): 1-31, esp. 7.
  • [4] Cf. Ephraim E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (trans. Israel Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975), 4; Pope and Buth, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” 3.
  • [5] Young notes, however, that there are phrases that come close to “the Kingdom of Heaven” in pseudepigraphical literature (Young, JHJP, 194). Note, for example, T. Benj. 9:1 (ἡ βασιλεία κυρίου; “the Kingdom of the Lord”); Sib. Or. 3:47-48 (βασιλεία μεγίστη ἀθανάτου βασιλῆος; “great Kingdom of the immortal king”); Pss. Sol. 17:4 (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν; “the Kingdom of our God”). Nevertheless, Young stresses that “The expression itself, ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ in early Jewish apocalyptic literature is unknown and variations of the term are quite rare even if the concept does surface from the background in a number of texts” (Young, JHJP, 196).
  • [6] See Pope and Buth, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” 6.
  • [7] This point was emphasized by Safrai. See Shmuel Safrai, “Sidebar,” in Robert L. Lindsey, “The Kingdom Of God: God’s Power Among Believers.”
  • [8] See Kaufmann Kohler, “Kingdom of God,” JE 7:502; Pope and Buth, “Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven,” 2. The use of “Heaven” as a substitute for “God,” “Lord” or the Tetragrammaton is attested already in 1 Maccabees. See Daniel R. Schwartz, Judeans and Jews: Four Faces of Dichotomy in Ancient Jewish History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 122 n. 26, 123 n. 32.
  • [9] The noun מַלְכוּת occurs 91xx in MT, 58xx in DSS and 20xx in the Mishnah. The most common translation of מַלְכוּת in LXX is βασιλεία (81xx). In several cases where βασιλεία is the translation of מַלְכוּת, the meaning of both terms is clearly “reign” as opposed to “kingdom.” Examples include:

    וּבְמַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּת מַלְכוּתוֹ כָּתְבוּ שִׂטְנָה עַל־יֹשְׁבֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם (Ezra 4:6)

    καὶ ἐν βασιλείᾳ Ασουηρου ἐν ἀρχῇ βασιλείας αὐτοῦ ἔγραψαν ἐπιστολὴν ἐπὶ οἰκοῦντας Ιουδα καὶ Ιερουσαλημ (2 Esdr. 4:6)

    And in the reign of Ahasuerus, at the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 4:6)

    וְאַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּמַלְכוּת אַרְתַּחְשַׁ֣סְתְּא מֶלֶךְ־פָּרָס עֶזְרָא בֶּן־שְׂרָיָה בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה בֶּן־חִלְקִיָּה (Ezra 7:1)

    καὶ μετὰ τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα ἐν βασιλείᾳ Αρθασασθα βασιλέως Περσῶν ἀνέβη Εσδρας υἱὸς Σαραιου υἱοῦ Αζαριου υἱοῦ Ελκια…. (2 Esdr. 7:1)

    And after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, Ezra son of Seria, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah…. (Ezra 7:1)

     וַתִּלָּקַח אֶסְתֵּר אֶל־הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אֶל־בֵּית מַלְכוּתוֹ בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָעֲשִׂירִי הוּא־חֹדֶשׁ טֵבֵת בִּשְׁנַת־שֶׁבַע לְמַלְכוּתוֹ

    καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Εσθηρ πρὸς Ἀρταξέρξην τὸν βασιλέα τῷ δωδεκάτῳ μηνί ὅς ἐστιν Αδαρ τῷ ἑβδόμῳ ἔτει τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ

    And Esther took herself to king Ahasuerus, to the royal house, in the tenth month, the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign. (Esther 2:16)

    וּבִשְׁנַת שְׁתַּיִם לְמַלְכוּת נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חָלַם נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר חֲלֹמוֹת

    καὶ ἐν τῷ ἔτει τῷ δευτέρῳ τῆς βασιλείας Ναβουχοδονοσορ συνέβη εἰς ὁράματα….

    And in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed dreams…. (Dan. 2:1)

    There are further examples in the MT and LXX where βασιλεία/מַלְכוּת could mean either “reign” or “kingdom.” There are also examples in DSS where מלכות likely means “reign” rather than “kingdom,” for instance:

    פשרו על מנשה לקץ האחרון אשר תשפל מלכותו ביש[ראל]‏

    Its interpretation concerns Manasseh in the final end when his reign will weaken in Is[rael.] (4QpNah [4Q169] 3-4 IV, 3)

  • [10] See Young, JHJP, 196; cf. Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 200 n.1.

Comments 9

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  7. Joshua McClintock

    Amazing article! Thank you.

    I had a question about Yeshua’s comment about ‘if your righteousness doesn’t exceed that of the Pharisees …’

    Could it be that this was Yeshua’s way of ‘putting a fence around torah’? In other words, he’s contrasting his halakah with that of the Pharisees’. Could he be saying that, ‘If you stop the yetzer ha’ra in the heart, you’ve gone one step further from the transgression of torah’?

    In effect, having circumscribed the Pharisees fence of halakah by his own, he’s managed to make his teaching more desirous. So by saying that ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees … you won’t enter my movement’. Is this some sort of rabbinic sophistication, maybe even a form of kal v’achomer which builds an argument that places the safeguard, which would prevent transgression, further from the safeguard his contemporaries proposed; thus undercutting their ruling and proving it is not as valuable?

    1. Joshua N. Tilton

      Dear Joshua,
      We’re so pleased to hear that you found our article to be helpful. A great deal of work went into it, so it is encouraging to hear that it is bearing fruit.

      With respect to your question about righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, I think your suggestion about kal va-homer might be on to something. I have a suspicion that Jesus’ statement about greater righteousness (Matt. 5:20) has to do with his exegetical approach in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus contrasts one a minimalist mode of interpretation with his own more rigorous approach. This is especially clear in his approach to the prohibition of murder (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus opposed an approach that attempted to limit the scope of the commandment and advocated an approach that took the ethical spirit of the commandment and applied it even to and even wider set of circumstances. In Jesus’ view the prohibition against murder should not merely be read to determine how to punish murderers, but should regarded as laying down an ethical principle, vis. “all human beings are created in God’s image,” and therefore people must not be treated with contempt. Jesus expresses a similar approach when he says, “You give a tenth of your spices: mint, dill, and cumin; but you neglect the weightier matters of the Torah. You should practice the latter without neglecting the former” (Matt. 23:23).

      A similar pattern to what is found in the Sermon on the Mount is attested in the early Christian work, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (or the Didache), which was based on a Jewish treatise which scholars refer to as the Two Ways. There we read, “Flee from all evil and everything that is like it. Do not be an angry person, for anger leads to murder. Nor should you be zealous or quarrelsome or hot-tempered, for from these murders arise” (Did. 3:2).

      In the Sermon on the Mount and in the Jewish Two Ways we find an exegetical pattern which assumes that a light transgression will ultimately lead to a major transgression, much like the form of a kal va-homer argument.

      For more on this topic, I recommend the following resources:

      Serge Ruzer, “Antitheses in Matthew 5: Midrashic Aspects of Exegetical Techniques,” in The Sermon on the Mount and its Jewish Setting (ed. Hans-Jürgen Becker and Serge Ruzer; Cahiers de la Revue Biblique: Paris, 2005), 89-116.

      Huub van de Sandt and David Flusser, The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its Place in Early Judaism and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 193-237.

      David Flusser, “‘It Is Said to the Elders’: On the Interpretation of the So-called Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount” (jerusalemperspective.com).

  8. Clifton Payne

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