From the River to the ends of the earth: Jesus and empire

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I’m working my way through the first of the two volumes that make up N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So far it’s all fascinating background stuff about the eschatological narratives of the Pharisees, the philosophies of the Greeks, and the religion and politics of the Romans, all wrapped up in an elaborate ornithological metaphor.

There are a few points that I would like to highlight. One (for now) is a comment made somewhat in passing at the beginning of his assessment of the “reality” of the Roman empire in the first century, which stood out because it lends support to one of my main working theses:

By the time Paul was born, the empire of Augustus Caesar stretched from one sea to another—the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean to the English Channel—and from the river Euphrates to the ends of the known world, the far western outposts of Spain and France. There, of course, lay the problem for the devout Jew: that was more or less the extent of empire which the Psalmist had promised to the Messiah. (284)

Wright lists three particular texts in a footnote, which speak of the rule of Israel’s king, who is “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth”, one day stretching from sea to sea and from the River to the end of the earth, or words to that effect:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! … May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! (Ps. 72:1, 8)

I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. … I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Ps. 89:20–21, 25-27)

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:9–10)

We would normally suppose that such texts articulate a vision of global sovereignty—especially if they are to be interpreted messianically, but Wright has clearly taken them in a more restricted sense. If the rule of YHWH begins at the Euphrates, it naturally extends westwards towards the furthest reaches of Europe. This expresses a realistic historical-political prospect. YHWH is indeed sovereign over the whole earth, but the vision for his king is specifically that he will rule over those nations which had formerly opposed and oppressed Israel.

My argument, particularly in [amazon:978-1606087879:inline], is that the early church inherited this expectation. The God who raised Jesus from the dead was sovereign over the whole earth, but the immediate historical or eschatological conviction was that his king, whom he had raised to his right hand, would bring the realistic Old Testament hope to fulfilment. Jesus, who had asserted his claim to kingship by riding into Jerusalem on a “donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”, would judge the nations and rule “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth”.

Jesus commissions his disciples as witnesses to his resurrection from Jerusalem to the “end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Paul speaks of an impending judgment of the “empire” (Acts 17:31). His ambition is to proclaim the good news of God’s coming rule over the nations from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond, as far as Spain, in order to “bring the nations to obedience” (Rom. 15:18-19, 23-24). Revelation prophesies the eventual judgment of Rome and the rule of Christ over the nations, as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:15-16), which is cast as a fulfilment of Psalm 2:8-9, which also makes reference to the rule of YHWH’s king over the nations, reaching to the ends of the earth:

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Ps. 2:8–9)

So the expectation runs from the Old Testament into the New Testament that the God of Israel would make his king—his beloved Son—ruler over the nations from the Euphrates to the Atlantic. The New Testament does not universalize or spiritualize this expectation—it remains a realistic historical-political prospect. Where it disagreed with Judaism was over the claim that this hope would ultimately be realized because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Daniel Martin | Wed, 12/04/2013 - 23:17 | Permalink

Thanks for this; I’m initially intrigued and sympathetic to the view, though I admit it’s still somewhat challenging to get my head around.

I think you’re saying that Paul (and the prophets before him) conceived of the coming reign of God as essentially bound by the same geographical constraints as the Roman empire. But Israel had in fact been subjected to and interacted with cultures and kingdoms beyond “the ends of the earth” as defined here: I’m thinking of Ethiopia and Persia and “Sheba”, as well as the early traditions of St. Thomas venturing to India. Surely the early Christian missionaries did not confine themselves to these borders.

Does it have something to do with the location of Rome as antagonist of God, do you think? Or what is it that’s keeping the Messiah’s anticipated reign out of (say) Africa & Central Asia? It’s clearly not as simple as invoking “the known world”.

Forgive my half-baked and half-articulated thoughts.

Daniel, that’s a fair response, but it still appears that both for second temple Judaism and for Paul the focus was very much, first, on the Greek world and then on the Roman world—the assualt of Antiochus Epiphanes becomes a type for the later and more devastating assaults of Pompey, Claudius, Nero, and Vespasian. It doesn’t mean that other regions lay outside their purview entirely, but prophetic-apocalyptic tradition regards the European powers as the primary challenge to the sovereignty of Israel’s God insofar as that was expressed in terms of the authority of the king or the dominion of the people. The rest of the world barely features in the New Testament. One Ethiopian eunuch, perhaps the Persians as a threat to Rome?

Thanks for the reply, Andrew. That does make some sense. I think it’s just a challenge to comprehend a mindset that’s so far removed from my own—full as it is of Google Maps, Wikipedia, and cheap travel. Warring empires and constantly-shifting borders are a little outside my purview.