I’ve recently enjoyed reading a thoroughly absorbing book about Jesus, Joshua, the Man They Called Jesus, by Australian film producer/director and historian Ian Jones.
Jones vividly portrays the first-century Jewish world under Roman occupation in which Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua) lived, and explains more clearly than any scholarly works I’ve read what the New Testament means when it describes people who were ‘waiting for the Kingdom of God’. People at the time were longing for Israel to be restored to its glory days, the days of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon. Most people believed that this would come about through a new great leader, anointed by God for the job—the now-familiar title Messiah means ‘anointed’. The Kingdom of God meant the end of Roman rule, and while some believed they only had to observe their religion faithfully and God would bring it to pass miraculously in his own time, others took it into their own hands and led semi-military rebellions, that were quashed time and again—both before and after Jesus.
Scholars differ as to quite where on this scale Jesus was—were his intentions entirely peaceful, or did he allow that there might need to be some violence in the end? It is difficult to establish the real motives of Jesus from the records that we have. If you choose to accept the four Gospels as reliable history and reject other documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, you still have to work very hard to explain away the apparent contradictions between the four, not just in a few details, but in how they portray the overall shape of Jesus’s mission. If you take a more sceptical, historical-critical approach, you have to decide which elements of the Gospels represent the earliest historical layer and which are later developments of ideas within the early churches. Neither approach is easy.
What almost all scholars do agree on is that Jesus believed the Kingdom of God would come about through his own career. Whether he intended it or not, this claim was an inherently political claim. That’s why the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, whose interests were best served by keeping the peace, were able to have him executed by the Roman governor, when his growing following presented a threat to the status quo.
According to Jones’s reconstruction of events, Jesus started out unwilling to be a Messiah figure, but changed his mind as his following grew. When he headed into Jerusalem on that fateful last week of his life, he accepted that he and his followers were risking execution—hence talk of ‘taking up the cross’—but he truly believed God would intervene, sending his ‘legions of angels’ to protect them and destroy the occupying power. Jesus would then rule the Kingdom, with the twelve disciples acting as his royal court, ‘judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ as he had promised them. Not directly stated, but implied, is that this would also involve the present Temple authorities being removed. When this mission ended instead in his death, the belief emerged among his followers that, rather than failing, Jesus had in fact been raised to heaven, from where he would soon return to complete his mission. (The origin of the belief in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is perhaps the hardest part of the whole story to piece together—a topic for another time.)
In those early weeks and months following the crucifixion (and I’m adding my own observations now), the vision of the coming of the Kingdom of God remained implicitly political. It would be the end of Roman occupation, and the promotion of Israel to be the centre of a world-wide theocracy—now with God’s rejection of the Temple authorities being openly proclaimed because of their rejection of Jesus, and with Jesus and his followers taking their place. This was not a new religion, just a new interpretation of Judaism with Jesus as its (temporarily absent) Messiah. As the years went by, however, and the expected return from heaven did not take place, there was plenty of room for other people to re-interpret the message, which might have otherwise died out.
Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, whose letters form a large part of the New Testament, was the most notable of these opportunists. Despite having not been a follower during Jesus’s lifetime, and despite avoiding any contact with the Jerusalem leaders of the Jesus movement for the first three years after his conversion, he went about preaching his own version of Jesus’s message, in which the coming Kingdom of God would not be a Jewish-centred theocracy, but a cosmic transformation—a new world era in which Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) would be equals under the spiritual rule of Jesus. In this way, he crafted a version of the Jewish Kingdom hope that was acceptable to people across the whole Empire, with no implied threat against Rome. Despite some early opposition from Rome, this new belief was eventually adopted by Constantine as the Empire’s official religion. Instead of being the enemy of God’s people, Rome could itself become the agent of God’s rule on earth. And so Christianity as we know it was born. The Kingdom of God became an apolitical, spiritual concept. Jesus’s teaching, originally linked inseparably with the impending transition to God’s rule that he was announcing, was turned into abstract moral teaching for all time by a Church that was by now ignorant of its original Jewish context. Christianity today is very different from the original Jewish hope that Jesus tried to realise—a very physical, political Kingdom of God on Earth, centred on Jerusalem.
But the idea of a Middle-Eastern theocracy didn’t die out completely with Paul and the rise of Roman Christianity. Around 300 years after Constantine, a new variant of monotheism appeared in Arabia, spreading rapidly through military conquest and aiming to reach Jerusalem. From the start, Islam believed in God’s rule being implemented through a succession of Caliphs who rule according to God’s laws, and spread God’s rule through conquest. This is exactly the aim of ISIS today, to secure and expand the current Caliph’s rule over an Islamic state. Their long-term aim is for this state to expand to cover the whole world. Anyone who opposes this is an enemy of God, just as Rome was seen as the enemy of God in first-century Judaism. According to ISIS’s version of Islam, violence is a legitimate means to defeat God’s enemies, just as it was seen as legitimate to many Jews to use violence against Rome in Jesus’s day. The Islamic goal of a worldwide Caliphate is not so different from the old Jewish hope of the Kingdom of God, from which Christianity developed.
If we are to successfully defeat ISIS, not just temporarily hold it back, we will need to defeat its ideas. And to do this it may be necessary to realise that its beliefs are actually very similar to those that lie behind the origins of the founding religion of our own society.