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Origen, Jesus, and the kingdoms of the world (in narrative-historical perspective)

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.

Image of A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337

On Amazon (US):

Baker Academic (2013), Paperback, 490 pages, $45.00
Image of Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Theopolitical Visions)

On Amazon (US):

Peter J. Leithart
Wipf & Stock Pub (2012), Paperback, 214 pages, $24.00

Comments

If I’m reading you correctly, you’re suggesting that even as the story was being fulfilled (Jesus coming to reign over the nations) that the story was being misunderstood and distorted, and that each successive generation of Christians misread it a little more; so that by the time of Constantine’s conversion, there would have been widespread misunderstanding of its significance in the original Jewish story of Jesus.

This, I think, puts you on the same side of the fence as the anabaptists, and anabaptist-leaning people like me.

I read the story the way you do, I see the same aim as you do, but I see a loss of understanding that caused the victory of Christianity over the pagan world to never be fully embraced. Instead, Christians took their victory, and then lost faith in and abandoned the mechanism of that victory for the mechanisms of the system they had just defeated.

No, Micah,  that’s not really how I see it.

I think that the Jewish story about kingdom, which runs from the Old Testament through the New Testament to the book of Revelation, was fulfilled when the nations of the empire abandoned the old gods and worshipped the God of Israel because of what Jesus had done. In other words, the proper outcome was God’s righteous empire—rather than Caesar’s unrighteous empire—through the cross. That’s where Anabaptists will disagree with me.

However, as the church settled in the Greek-Roman world it progressively forgot the story that it was living out through its witness and suffering and turned its mind to address essentially Greek philosophical questions, mostly about how and why the Word became flesh. It stopped thinking historically or eschatologically and started thinking theologically.

So I don’t think that the church in the fourth century had misunderstood the original Jewish story, substituting instead a new and misguided imperialism. I think it was implicitly and inevitably living that story out, but had become distracted by a foreign set of concerns.

If we approach the issue with a historical rather than an ethical or theological imagination, I think this makes good biblical sense. God is a God of history, and it is a matter of enormous historical significance that YHWH is acknowledged as the one true God by the nations. But that also means that the fulfilment of the kingdom narrative was always going to be flawed—in the same way and for the same reasons that national Israel had been a flawed political-religious embodiment of the reality of the creator in the world.

So Christendom was corrupt just as every form of Christianity is corrupt—only, fortunately, it was corrupt in Christ rather than under the Law. Anabaptism, as I see it, was a powerful prophetic response to the corruption of Christendom and still has much of that power today. But I don’t think that means that the church took the wrong turn under Constantine.

I thought that’s what I said. :)

You are saying the story was being lived out, but that by and large, it came to be forgotten. They stopped thinking eschatologically, and started thinking theologically.

This is what I am saying as well. I agree that the proper outcome of the cross was God’s righteous empire. I agree that the fall of classic paganism was the victory of Christianity.

Perhaps this is similar to the Israelites marching into Canaan. They defeated the Canaanites and began to possess the land. Except that they kept forgetting their identity, their story, and their mission. And so, instead of fully possessing the land, they engaged in all sorts of ongoing identity struggles and compromises with the Canaanites. The victory was theirs, but according to the Jewish narrative, their forgetfulness (and consequent lack of trust in God’s mechanisms) meant that they never fully possessed it.

Similarly, Christians followed Jesus’ path to the defeat of paganism. But somewhere along the way, they forgot what they were doing, and how they were doing it. Perhaps even as they achieved their eschatological victory, they lost sight of its eschatological significance, and so failed to fully appropriate it in eschatological ways.

Yes, though the significance of Israel’s possession of the land probably remained much clearer in the collective consciousness than the significance of the church’s possession of the empire, probably because of a tendency to spiritualize matters, not helped by the alliance with Platonism.

Andrew,

This was a very good post, even though I still take the victory of Christ over Rome to be covenantal in AD70 (per my understanding of Daniel 2, 7, 9 and 12), but that is beside the point; my question to you is, in what way would that annoy the Anabaptists? I’ve read Leithart’s book, and generally agree with his approach, and I’ve read up on Anabaptist theology, so I’m trying to see where the rub is. Like Micah, it seems like it would be more in line with their thinkning (though not with their eschatology).

Thoughts?

Does my reply to Micah above shed any light?

Andrew,

Yes that does help a lot. Thanks. I agree that the Anabaptists would disagree with your kingdom view, but wouldn’t practically all of evangelical Christianity? I mean, I don’t know of any groups that would go along with your perspective other than Eastern Orthodox, some Churches of Christ, and Roman Catholic to a certain extent. I think though as I’ve read up on Anabaptist theology that even though their theology and eschatology is disconnected, their theology of no original sin is very similar to eastern orthodox, and that along with their peaceful withdrawal from the State would put them in a better position of seeing Christ as king over an already exisiting kingdom. The problem I have with the American Vision types like Leithart is there is a confusion between the reign of Christ in his spiritual kingdom in heaven and earth, with a political dominion-type of kingdom on earth (one I pick up on with your writtings and your emphasis on Constantine rather than AD70 where I think Christ took his kingdom in its fullest since as described in the OT and the Gospels).

BTW I don’t know if you’ve seen it or read it but a really great recent book by a Mennonite theologian is “The Story of Original Sin” by John E. Toews. Granted it is only about soteriology and not eschatology but as you know those two topics are intertwinned, and I strongly believe that wrong theology on soteriology will blind modern evangelicals to seeing the historical-narrative approach that unlocks all the theological garbage. Anyway, that’s a bit of a side-discussion but I still think it a very good read that you will enjoy.

Jerel

I agree that the Anabaptists would disagree with your kingdom view, but wouldn’t practically all of evangelical Christianity?

Of course, but part of the argument is precisely that modern evangelical Christianity does not have the sort of historical mindset that shaped New Testament beleif and hope. My argument would be that the political narrative gradually lost relevance (ironically) as the church achieved religious hegemony in the Greek-Roman world. It is only in the last couple of hundred years that the West has developed a consistently critical approach to history, and only in the last few decades that scholarship has begun to develop a constructive historical reading of the New Testament. So it is all very new.

The problem I have with the American Vision types like Leithart is there is a confusion between the reign of Christ in his spiritual kingdom in heaven and earth, with a political dominion-type of kingdom on earth…

But isn’t the distinction between a spiritual kingdom and a political kingdom the legacy of western theology since Constantine? I don’t think it’s a distinction that the first century Jews Jesus and Paul would have understood. I would argue that Jesus’ kingdom was “spiritual”—if we must use that word—only in the sense that he reigned as king in heaven, at the right hand of God, as a consequence of his faithfulness unto death. It is nevertheless a reign with very worldly implications.

Thanks for the book recommendation.