In the previous note, I discussed the saying of Jesus in Matthew 19:28, with the parallel (or similar) saying in Luke 22:28-30, and the connection between the Twelve Disciples and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. There has been some question, among critical commentators, as to whether this particular association goes back to Jesus’ own words, reflecting something of his original purpose in designating the Twelve. On entirely objective grounds, there is reasonably strong evidence that it does. I would point to the following arguments:
- An emphasis on the twelve tribes of Israel does not appear to have been especially prominent in early Christianity, all the more so as the faith spread into the Greco-Roman (Gentile) world. The few references in the New Testament come clearly from an (early) Jewish Christian context (Acts 26:7; James 1:1; cf. also Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5) or draw upon Old Testament tradition (Rev 7:4-8). The parallel in Rev 21:12ff will be discussed in the next note.
- The very exclusiveness indicated by the association—Disciples/Israel—suggests a time-frame prior to the Gentile mission (i.e. prior to c. 45-50 A.D.). An early Christian formulation would likely reflect the inclusion of the Gentiles, taking it into account in some way.
- The tradition regarding the Twelve is extremely early, being attested in multiple strands of tradition. This indicates that it was already firmly established well before 50 A.D.
- The version of the saying in Matt 19:28 takes no account whatever of Judas’ betrayal, as the parallel in Luke clearly does (cf. also Jn 6:67-71). If the Lukan version of this saying has been modified in its context, eliminating the specific reference to twelve disciples (in light of Judas’ betrayal), then the earlier form would be reflected in Matthew’s version. Indeed, it is likely that Christians from a slightly later period would have qualified or explained the saying in some way, so as to factor in the situation regarding Judas.
Another sign of authenticity has to do with the emphasis on the coming Kingdom (of God). The concrete eschatological aspect of the Kingdom, so prominent in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, tends to disappear in early Christianity, being re-interpreted as a spiritual phenomenon (i.e. ‘realized’ eschatology)—the presence of God (and Christ) in and among believers, through the Holy Spirit. The imagery of Matt 19:28 par, on the other hand, preserves the idea of a real kingdom, with seats of rule—being specifically connected with the kingdom of Israel.
Commentators continue to debate the significance of Jesus’ preaching and teaching regarding the Kingdom (Mk 1:15 par, et al). On the one hand, many critical scholars hold that the historical Jesus believed that an end-time Messianic kingdom, in the socio-political (and religious) sense, was about to be ushered in by God, and that he would play the leading role in that process. According to this view, early Christians were forced to re-imagine and reinterpret Jesus’ words, as referring to the presence/work of the Spirit now, with the return of Jesus, establishing the Kingdom of God on earth in full, still reserved for a future moment. On the other side, traditional-conservative commentators would argue that Jesus intended this ‘Christian’ sense of the Kingdom from the first. The Gospel of Luke, along with the book of Acts, represents the only portion of the Gospel Tradition that deals with this question directly, in three passages: 17:20-21, 19:11ff, and Acts 1:6ff.
Luke 17:20-21 is part of a short collection of eschatological teaching (vv. 22-37ff) by Jesus, which the saying(s) of vv. 20-21 introduces, centered on the specific theme of the coming of the Kingdom of God. According to the narrative, certain Pharisees ask Jesus regarding “when the kingdom of God (would) come” (v. 20a). Jesus’ answer states that the Kingdom of God comes in a way that cannot be observed by human beings outwardly, at a particular moment or place (vv. 20b-21a). His response concludes with the famous declaration in v. 21b: “the kingdom of God is inside (of) you”. I have discussed this difficult statement at some length in an earlier note; commentators still debate the meaning, but at least three aspects may be emphasized: (1) the coming of the Kingdom will be hidden or invisible to people at large, (2) its coming/presence will be realized inwardly, and (3) it is to be understood as the presence of God/Christ among his people.
Luke 19:11 serves as the narrative setting of the parable by Jesus in vv. 12-27; it addresses the central question of the Kingdom even more precisely, stating that his reason for speaking the parable was:
“…through [i.e. because of] his being near Yerushalaim and their thinking that the kingdom of God was about (to come) along instantly to shine forth up(on them)”
At least some of Jesus’ followers thought that his arrival in Jerusalem (as the Anointed One) would usher in the Kingdom of God upon earth, in the socio-political and religious sense defined by the eschatological (and Messianic) expectation of the time. Certainly, people hailed Jesus as a Ruler from the line of David (i.e. a royal Messiah) during his entry into Jerusalem, according to the Gospel tradition (Mk 11:8-10 par). The Fourth Gospel even refers to the intent of some people to force Jesus into such a role and “make him king” (Jn 6:15). However, the parable in Lk 19:12ff makes clear that the well-born young noble (i.e. the Messiah), before he comes to exert his authority as ruler, will first go away into a “far-off country” for a time. This certainly reflects (or anticipates) the idea of Jesus’ death, resurrection and departure (to heaven) prior to his (subsequent) return. Note how, in the parable, the nobleman goes away for the purpose of “receiving a kingdom”—presumably this is to be understood in terms of Jesus’ receiving it (from the Father) upon his resurrection and exaltation to the “right hand” of God. When he returns, it will be as King and Judge.
Acts 1:6ff is the most important of the passages mentioned above, as in it Jesus answers a question from the disciples that is directly to the point:
“Then, the (disciple)s, (on) coming together, questioned him saying, ‘Lord, (is it) in this time that you (will) set down the kingdom to Yisrael from (where it was before)?'” (v. 6)
The disciples appear to understand the coming Kingdom according to the conventional/traditional Jewish eschatology of the time—as a socio-political (and religious) entity, like the Davidic kingdom of old, centered at Jerusalem. I have translated the verb a)pokaqi/sthmi here quite literally, i.e. to set/place down something from where, or in what condition, it was before. In simpler translation, we might say, “re-establish, restore”, etc; in other words, they are asking Jesus if he will restore the kingdom to Israel, like it was in the time of David. For more on the background of this aspect of the Kingdom, see Part 5 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the supplemental study on Acts 1:3. In the next note, I will be exploring in some detail the way the author (trad. Luke) develops the theme of verses 6ff through the remainder of chapters 1-2 and as a key motif for the book as a whole.