New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen said, “I think that it’s impossible to look at the New Testament evidence and read it as a non-apocalyptic text. Most Christians, or most Christians I hang around with who are academics, have no problem looking at the New Testament and seeing it as the language of authenticity, nice ethics, doing good and being good. But in fact if you look at the idea of the Kingdom of God as it functions in the first century, and the Kingdom of God as the phrase is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament text, the way the Kingdom of God is used in the letters of Paul who stands closer to Jesus than the authors of the gospels do, that idea is an apocalyptic idea…I think that when Jesus says, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he means something. For him to have been understood by his own Jewish contemporaries he must have meant what they meant by that phrase. And when we look at the broad range of evidence we have, the Kingdom of God means the end of normal time, and the beginning of a reign of goodness and peace. Yes, I think Jesus was apocalyptic…”
And I think she’s absolutely correct, but what sort of apocalyptic event first-century Jews had in mind is unclear…
In the Old Testament, we see it prophesied that when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile, Yahweh would make them a great nation–the envy of all other nations. They would enslave their former enemies and live in peace under the reign of a descendant of David (e.g., Ps. 86:9; Is. 2:2-3, 14:1-2; Zech. 8:22-23, 14:16-19).
But that didn’t happen.
In 538/9 bce, the Persian king Cyrus allowed Jews to return to their homeland but they remained a part of the Persian Empire, a semi-autonomous administrative province ruled by a priestly elite.
Then, in 332 bce, Jerusalem became part of Alexander the Great’s empire. After Alexander’s death in 323, Jerusalem was ruled by the Diadochi–Macedonian generals who fought for control over the empire.
In 167 bce, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, attempted to regain their freedom. They likely believed Yahweh would not only make them victorious but would establish his kingdom as Daniel prophesied (Daniel 7); however, the rebellion was quickly put down.
Then, in 63 bce, the Romans took Jerusalem.
Throughout this period, some Jews began to give up on the idea they would rule over their neighbors and instead began to embrace apocalyptic texts that were written throughout this period, which suggested God would destroy all the unrighteous and God’s elect would live in peace upon this earth. (Other Jews hoped for the Messiah, but doubted God would send him because of Israel’s unfaithfulness.)
Unfortunately, most Bibles do not include the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha from the intertestamental period, so 400 years of tumultuous Jewish history, the writings it produced, and the effect they had on the Jewish people is by and large ignored. But if we ignore what happened between Malachi and Matthew, we cannot understand the various mindsets of first-century Jews.
So when we discuss what Jesus and the apostles meant when they talked about the kingdom of God, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Were they expecting the nation of Israel to return to the glory days of King Solomon, where they would be the greatest power in the region and the envy of their neighbors (as seen in the writings of many of the prophets)?
- Were they expecting all of the unrighteous to be destroyed leaving an earth populated only by the righteous (as seen in parts of the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and Daniel)?
While we cannot know for sure if they expected the former or latter, we can be certain they expected the return of Jesus while some of them were still living, and they would have been shocked to know that 2000 years would go by with no return.
Other Resources: Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus by Dr. Matthias Henze