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Basileia: Kingdom of God or Empire of God?

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

The Greek word, "basileia" on a blue background

Where, What, When?

Can one saying answer all three questions about the kingdom (or empire) of God?

The dialogue in Luke 17:20-21 between the Pharisees and Jesus concerns the coming of kingdom of God:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you (KJV).

This dialogue is an apothegm, a technique taught in the rhetorical handbooks at the heart of Greek education. Young Greek men learned how to write by creating apothegms. The process is simple. A student takes a saying and creates a situation, context, or introduction for the saying. Therefore, the saying is primary, and context is secondary. In the case of Luke 17:20-21, the Pharisees’ question is the creation of the author, while the saying came from the oral tradition.

The saying has three parts: topic, wrong answer (antithesis), right answer (thesis).

Topic: Kingdom or Empire?

The topic is basileia tou theou which William Tyndale translated as “kingdom of God” in his 1526 edition of the New Testament, the first English translation. The King James Version followed suit, so kingdom became the traditional translation. This was facilitated because King James, who authorized the translation, had a kingdom. The translators aligned his kingdom with God’s kingdom. (See God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible.)

Augustus had a basileia, which we translate as “empire,” the Roman empire. While both kingdom and empire are correct translations of basileia, they have different semantic overtones. Kingdom conjures up an ethereal or other-worldly atmosphere, as in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Disney’s Magic Empire would have a very different meaning. Instead of Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader would rule. Empire often has a more negative, even brutal sense. Basileia has a similar sense in the ancient world. Pax Romana (Roman peace) is pax (peace) if you are Romanus (Roman). Otherwise, it is called oppression. Empire is the better term because it makes evident the primary opposition is between God and Caesar, Caesar’s empire and God’s empire.

Therefore, the topic of the saying is the empire of God.

Gospel of Thomas

Another version of this apothegm occurs in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 113.

His disciples said to him, “When will the (Father’s) empire come?” “It won’t come by watching for it. It won’t be said, ‘Look, here!’ Or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

The Thomas apothegm has the same structure as Luke’s. Instead of a dialogue with the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples question him. This difference in context is expected. Context is secondary, while the saying is primary. In the oral tradition, the saying would be remembered, while the one who uses the saying creates a new context for each usage. We are concerned with the saying, not the apothegm, which is the envelope containing the saying.

The actual sayings in Luke and Thomas, while similar, are not identical. This also is expected. The ancients did not memorize a saying word for word but the gist. Verbatim agreement normally indicates copying from a written manuscript. The saying found both in Luke and Thomas is from the oral tradition.

The Wrong Answer

The wrong answer indicates that God’s empire is not something that can be seen or pointed to. This is in sharp contrast with Rome’s empire, whose presence is seen in inscriptions, statues, monumental buildings, aqueducts, and of course roads. But it also indicates that it is not an apocalyptic empire. It is not something that can be predicted. This saying is critical in the debate as to whether Jesus belongs to the wisdom or apocalyptic tradition. The rejection of prediction in this saying indicates that Jesus belongs to the wisdom tradition.

The Correct Answer

The right answer is set in contrast with the wrong answer. With the right answer, things get interesting.

Luke 17:21

“The empire of God is among you.”

Thomas 113

“… the Father’s empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

The strong difference in wording points to a problem with the right answer.

A close parallel to the correct answer is Thomas 3: “The <Father’s> empire is inside you and outside you.” The various performances of the right answer suggest the oral tradition had a hard time finding the gist for the correct answer. These three different performances suggest that there is no single original form of the right answer.

In Luke’s version the problem revolves around the preposition entos, which means “inside,” “within,” or “on this side.” “You” is plural, an important point. The sense could be inside you, i.e., internal, or within your (plural) midst, i.e., a corporate sense. This latter sense would parallel Isaiah 45:14, God is in you, the “you” being the people of Israel, not the individual.

In the late Middle Ages and the reformation, the saying was interpreted in an internal, spiritual sense. The King James moves in this direction: “the kingdom of God is within you.” Most modern English translations have followed the parallel in Isaiah 45:14 and understood the saying as “among you” (NRSV) or “in your midst.” (NIV).

How do we decide between the internal/spiritual meaning and the corporate meaning? Both the Isaiah quote and the two Thomas parallels point in this direction, as well as the plural “you,” a point lost in English translations.

A spiritual or internal sense would be foreign to Jesus and his Aramaic Jewish culture. Spirituality in the modern sense is much more a product of Neoplatonism and Augustine, than it is of Hebrew culture. Jesus’ culture was dyadic, in which one’s sense of worth or value is derived from the outside, not the inside.

Jesus’ sayings (his beatitudes, aphorisms, and parables) are distinctive in that they are counter-intuitive and metaphorical. (See my book, Reimagine the World, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus.) The right answer of this saying functions in a parable-like way. Instead of providing a definite answer, it provokes the one who hears it to explore the possibilities, to reimagine what is possible.

Unlike the Roman empire whose presence is everywhere oppressive, beating down on the audience, God’s empire is in our midst. It is among us, within our grasp, inside and outside, spread across the earth, but can’t be seen. It is not imperial domination, following a god’s command, but an invitation to explore possibilities.

The contrast between expectation (what an empire is like) and the correct answer (in your midst, spread out on the earth and people do not see it) creates a parable-like experience.

  • Where is the empire of God? All around but cannot be seen or pointed to.
  • What is the empire of God? An experience beyond everyday language and counter-intuitive: inside, outside, in your midst, spread out on the earth
  • When is the empire God? It’s already here.