I’ve been reading the Fathers, trying to get a better idea of the catastrophe that befell the Jewish story about Jesus, which is part of the story of Israel, as the church put down cultural and intellectual roots in the Greek-Roman world. Somewhat by-the-by, I came across this passage from Origen in J. Stevenson’s A New Eusebius (220-21). Origen is explaining why he doesn’t think everything in scripture is to be taken literally. He considers first the creation story: “what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars?” Well, John D. Morris, PhD, from the Institute for Creation Research, for one—the old man must be rolling his eyes in his grave. But then Origen moves swiftly on to the Gospels:
Even the gospels are full of passages of this kind, as when the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain in order to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world and the glory of them. For what man who does not read such passages carefully would fail to condemn those who believe that with the eye of the flesh, which requires a great height to enable us to perceive what is below and at our feet, the kingdoms of the Persians, Scythians, Indians and Parthians were seen, and the manner in which their rulers are glorified by men? (Origen, De Principiis 4.16)
It’s odd, in the first place, that the kingdoms he lists are all from the east. None of them is mentioned in the New Testament—perhaps there is some allusion to the Parthians as enemies of Rome in Revelation. Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus (Matt. 4:8) has “kingdoms of the world” (tas basileias tou kosmou), but Luke has kingdoms of the oikoumenē (Lk. 4:5). Matthew will later have Jesus say in his apocalyptic discourse that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt. 24:14)
For Luke the oikoumenē is the territory ruled by Caesar, the historically and geographically limited “world” of the pagan gods:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the oikoumenēn should be registered. (Lk. 2:1)
And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the oikoumenēn (this took place in the days of Claudius). (Acts 11:28)
“And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the oikoumenē worship.” (Acts 19:27)
For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the oikoumenēn and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. (Acts 24:5)
It is also the oikoumenē which will be judged by Jesus on the day of God’s wrath against the idols (Acts 17:29-31). In Revelation the “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” is said to be the “deceiver of the whole oikoumenēn”; and demonic spirits “go abroad to the kings of the whole oikoumenēs, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (Rev. 12:9; 16:14). When Rome is finally defeated and the nations subjugated, the “ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan”, is bound and cast into the abyss for a long time (20:2).
I would suggest, therefore, that if we read the narrative historically, the “nations” that are in view in the New Testament are not the Persians, Scythians, Indians and Parthians but the nations of the classical pagan world, subject to Rome, an idolatrous imperial power whose opposition to YHWH and his faithful people was inspired by the devil or Satan. It is the nations of the empire that the devil offers to Jesus. Ironically, Jesus did eventually become judge and ruler of these nations, but by way of the cross, not by prostrating himself before Satan.
I more or less agree with Peter Leithart here (Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, 39), though it will annoy the Anabaptists:
A counter-imperial message allied with an apocalyptic expectation that the oikoumenē would fall and be replaced by Jesus’ Abrahamic empire. That is the core not only of Paul’s political theology but very near the core of the gospel.