Anointing Jesus as a king ready to take his place in the coming transformation of the world was among the most obvious cultural options for an emergent Jewish social movement in Palestine without access to established channels of authority.
The early Jesus movement envisaged a regime change coming down from the heavens: authority of the kingdoms of Herod and Rome would be handed over by God to the Jesus movement.
The central phrase the early Jesus movement used to describe this coming revolution was the ‘kingdom of God’. The meaning of the phrase was that the God of Israel had always technically ruled the universe but would dramatically intervene in world history to restore Israel to a place of ongoing pre-eminence.
Justice for the workers
Palestine in the first century was directly or indirectly under control of the Roman Empire, the most expansive political entity that had existed to date. Social and material pressures would eventually boil over into full scale Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE. This upheaval was ultimately crushed by Roman legions in 70 CE with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Seditious actions of these militiamen which led to the revolt against Rome in 66 CE were not exceptional for those living under Rome’s thumb. Social and material conditions in the region were incredibly tense, and popular movements would occasionally flare up over the course of the century. These social and religious movements demanded justice for ordinary workers and an end to their suffering under what they perceived as an oppressive regime.
Dissident Jewish groups regularly interpreted social discontent and class antagonism through the lens of millenarianism. This involved the expectation of impending destruction and violence, transformation of the social, economic, and political order, and leading into a Golden Age in which the world would be made right by God. This transition could involve dramatic supernatural intervention and divinely appointed human agents, with prophetic figures claiming access to the truth of divine revelation along the way.
Such ideas were enthusiastically taken up by many among the semi-elite scribal class in Judea who —with their local aristocratic superiors being effectively lackeys to Roman power — dreamed up fantastic end-time scenarios involving the God of Israel intervening in human affairs to smite their foreign oppressors.
Such ideas could also filter down to the lower classes. Popular millennial movements, such as the one led by the religious organizer Theudas or the violent prophet and revolutionary ‘the Egyptian’, could draw on themes of apocalyptic hope and illusions of grandeur in the face of vexed and soulless conditions in the present.
The early Jesus movement best fits this picture among rabble-rousing Jewish social and religious movements.
The first are first against the wall
For the early Jesus movement, the anticipated overthrow of the existing world order was imminent and backed by divine power. It would be accompanied by a great purge — the first would be first against the wall and the last would inherit their rightful place at the top of this new hierarchy.
This transition to a new world order would also involve the installation of a superior theo-political entity, ruled in the interests of the peasantry. The Jesus movement referred to this incoming administration as the ‘kingdom of God’, and prominent members of the movement’s vanguard, such as Lord Jesus, were expected to be crowned its rulers.
Mural in La Piedrita, Caracas, Venezuela
After two thousand years of Christian domestication, it can be difficult to hear the properly political content of this anticipated coup d’état. Every translation is already an interpretation. ‘Kingdom of God’ may have worked in the medieval period when the monarch’s power on earth was widely understood as a tangible manifestation of their divinely backed authority.
Yet, the word ‘kingdom’, from the Greek basileia, had a clear meaning in the ancient Mediterranean: it was the same word used to refer to the ‘empire’ of Rome.
Indeed, the English translation ‘kingdom’ may not encapsulate the enormity of what the early Jesus movement and other millenarians had in mind or were expecting. Some scholars have even argued ‘empire of God’ may better reflect the early Jesus movement’s expectations of a new empire to replace the old.
The Dictatorship of God
Another possibility is ‘Dictatorship of God’ or, to de-mystify the term, ‘Dictatorship of the Peasantry’. These translations communicate both the sense of whose interests this new hierarchy would serve (the peasantry) but also the sense of the theocratic system of governance which lay behind it.
Directives of what life in this new kingdom would be like are found across the Gospel tradition, and here we follow a dominant strand of critical scholarship in acknowledging the imminence of this coming kingdom is among the material most likely to go back to the earliest Jesus movement.
As a popular movement for and of the peasantry, the Dictatorship of God was both a rallying cry but also a promise to share in the power and spoils of the age to come. If the present world order was ruled in the interests of a wealthy and exploitative urban elite whose authority was ultimately grounded in the power of Rome, then the expected Dictatorship of God would require greater power still.
The early Jesus movement likely knew that their great leap forward could not be achieved without supernatural intervention. While this hope was fantastical, it was simultaneously realistic and understandable in its ancient cultural context as there was no other way the world could be changed so quickly or dramatically.
The language of empire was the only language of power that the early Jesus movement knew to carry out such a momentous challenge. When imagining the end, they appropriated the familiar language of empires or kingdoms ruled by a benevolent yet autocratic lord or king in the name of the common good.
Their radical ideology encompassed a peasant utopia on earth but with all the trappings of the old world: a new officialdom of divinely appointed lords to replace the old hierarchy that would be thrown into the dustbin of history.
James Crossley and Robert J. Myles are the authors of Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict published by Zer0 Books and available here.