Thursday, February 18, 2021

Paul and the Kingdom of God

There are striking differences between the synoptic gospel narratives about Jesus and the undisputed Pauline letters. One of the most curious is between Jesus and Paul on the Kingdom of God. Mark, the earliest gospel, summarizes the quintessential message of Jesus as follows: He proclaimed the gospel of God saying, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom (Basileia) of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Matt 4:17). While Paul, on the other hand, mentions the kingdom of God only seven times in the seven undisputed letters attributed to him (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9-10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12). To judge from his letters Paul does not rely much on the teachings of Jesus, and it is questionable whether he even knew much about what Jesus taught. There are three explicit references by Paul to traditions and sayings of Jesus that have parallels in the synoptic gospels, and two references that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels. It has also been argued that some of Paul’s statements echo sayings of Jesus or the risen Lord, but what is or is not an echo is debatable. What is more surprising is that the authority of the risen Lord (Christ) seems to have carried more weight with Paul than sayings of the historical man (Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16).1

            For Paul the kingdom of God appears to have been a certain kind of experience (with an aspect of futurity, 1 Cor 15:24) into which one is called (1Thess 2:12). It is characterized by righteousness, peace, joy, and divine power (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20), rather than physical sensations like eating and drinking, and talking, for people who revel in fleshly sensations do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:21).2

            In Rom 14:17 Paul takes advantage of the issues in a squabble between factions in the gathering of Jesus followers at Rome (Rom 14:1-23) to specify what does not characterize the kingdom. What does not characterize the kingdom of God is precisely the two issues he names as the cause of their squabble: eating and drinking (Rom 14:2-3, 6, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23):

For the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking but by righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17, my translation).3

But saying that the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking contradicts a statement attributed to Jesus at the final Passover meal with his disciples:

Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25, RSV).

Paul’s statement contradicts with the ancient theme of the eschatological banquet to be celebrated by the people of God at the end of time:

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined… (Isa 25:6-8, RSV).

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11, my translation)

Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15; 16-24, RSV).

Blessed is the one who will eat with me in the kingdom of the heavens (Gos. Sav. 1:3, my translation).4

In our day this kind of language is generally regarded as figurative for the obvious reason that eating and drinking are physical delights, but who knows what expectations the authors of these texts, or their ancient readers, had with respect to the eschatological banquet. How should one regard this disagreement between Paul and the ancient traditions? Was it simply carelessness or an oversight on Paul’s part, and hence inadvertent? Or did Paul deliberately contradict the earlier traditions? If he did it deliberately, perhaps it was because he regarded the end-time experience of the people of God as spiritual and not physical, as he insists in 1 Cor 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” How do you regard the contradiction?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 27-29. For the difference between the resurrected Lord and Jesus the historical man, see pages 25-26.

2Divine power is the power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of Christ—that is to say spiritual power: for example, Rom 15:13, 19; I Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; Phil 3:10.

3He makes a similar statement in 1 Cor 4:20, also related to something going on in the Corinthian gathering of saints (1 Cor 4:19-20).

4Hedrick and P. A. Mirecki, eds. Gospel of the Savior. A New Ancient Gospel (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1999). The manuscript dates from the fourth to the seventh centuries (p. 15), but the original composition is likely the latter half of the second century CE (p. 23). This date has recently been challenged and others argue that the manuscript dates from the 5th/6th century. See my defense of the original dating, which gives all the pertinent bibliography: “Dating The Gospel of the Savior: Response to Peter Nagel and Pierluigi Piovanelli,” Apocrypha. Revue international des littératures apocryphes: International Journal of Apocryphal Literature, 24 (2013), 223-36.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for this neat little summary. As chance would have it, I'd begun research comparing the vocabularies of Jesus and Paul, with special interest in the choices for Jesus' authenticity by the Jesus Seminar. I've been re-reading your Wisdom of Jesus, chapter 2: Jesus and the language of the gospel.

The whole process, of course, is slanted by the Jesus one selects. None of the futurist eating and drinking scenes were selected as authentic to Jesus vocab by the JS. The scenes were certainly thought to be authentic by the gospel writers and the communities which they represented.

Here's an example of how Paul and the JS Jesus differ in using "love" and "serve/slave." Paul talks generally about how to hold the Jesus community together, and Jesus talks about how to hold the world together with a specific issue.

Galatians 5:13
NRSV - "but through love(agape) become slaves(douleuo) to one another."
JS - "but out of love serve one another."

Matthew 6:24
NRSV - "No one can serve two masters for a slave will either hate/love or be devoted/despise. You cannot serve God and wealth."
JS - "No one can be a slave to two masters. That slave will either hate/love or be devoted to/ disdain. You can't be enslaved to both God and Mammon."

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Charlie, hope you are staying warm and haven't had any rolling blackouts.

1) "What is more surprising is that the authority of the risen Lord (Christ) seems to have carried more weight with Paul than sayings of the historical man (Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16)." Do other NT writers mention the authority of the risen Lord or the kingdom of God? Have you ever compared the non-Pauline mentions of authority and kingdom of God to Paul's? The only non-Pauline NT writers who knew Jesus were Peter and James and John. It doesn't seem that they were familiar with Jesus's teachings either, but maybe I'm wrong.

2) Are there any NT writers who demonstrate familiarity with the teachings of the historical Jesus that you can think of?

3) "If he did it deliberately, perhaps it was because he regarded the end-time experience of the people of God as spiritual and not physical, as he insists in 1 Cor 15:50: 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.' "
I think the reason for this contradiction is Paul's obsession with crucifying the flesh. (Gal. 5:24, Rom. 8:13-14) He despised his fleshly appetites and physical needs. In my opinion he promoted asceticism, including celibacy. Who was a bigger ascetic- Jesus or Paul, in your estimation? Many thanks, Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

I think you answered your own question in the next to last sentence. It seems to me a “physical” resurrection would demand eating & drinking whereas a “spiritual” resurrection (1 Cor. 15.42- 54) would be “incorruptible,” not needing food or drink. I found some years ago a quotation (Bentley, The Gnostic Scriptures, Valentinus Fragment E) a quote from a letter to Agathopous that might be pertinent to the thought (or the aforementioned 1 Cor., maybe not: “He was continent, enduring all things. Jesus digested divinity: he ate and drank in a special way, without excreting his solids. He had such a great capacity for continence that the nourishment within him was not corrupted, for he did not experience corruption.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

“Bentley,” of course, should have been “Bentley Layton.”

Charles Hedrick said...

Good afternoon Elizabeth,
Here are some short answers to your questions.
Paragraph one: The risen Lord and Jesus who died on the cross are one and the same in the minds of the early followers of Jesus. Modern critical scholarship makes the distinction between the two. See Wisdom of Jesus, 25-29.

Peter, James, and John are not the authors of the books bearing those names in the NT.

Paragraph two: The answer to your question depends on who you talk to and on whether you are asking about a familiarity with traditional sayings of Jesus as reflected in early gospel literature or are asking about certain themes found in the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels.

Paragraph three. I don't think either Jesus or Paul were ascetics according to what I understand asceticism to be.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

To reinforce your point about Romans 14:17 “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

(1) In Galatians 5:19ff. (NRSV) Paul provides a list of "works of the flesh" which are "subject to the law": e.g. "fornication, idolatry, sorcery, etc...," and continues that "those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." He does not say what will inherit (who knows why?), but in the immediate verses 16-18, 22-23 he says, "what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh, not subject to the law...the fruit of the Spirit is love, patience, generosity, self-control, etc...There is no law against such things."

But for some reason Paul won't provide the positive kingdom corollary: those who do such things WILL inherit the kingdom of God.

(2) We find something similar at 1 Cor 6:9-10: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived...adulterers, thieves, drunkards, etc...None of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul does not in this passage go on to mention (we know not why) fruits of the spirit that, we might assume, WILL inherit the kingdom of God.

(3) Paul acknowledges that he actually is talking about the kingdom of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:23-26, " his coming those who belong to Christ will be made alive. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler, authority, and power, all of his enemies, and last of all death."

(4) This brings us full circle back to kingdom ownership when Jesus is not called Christ and meal fellowship rules, found in the earliest written source: Luke 22:29-30/Matt (Q source).
"I confer on you (the 12), just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

May we assume that the eating and drinking kingdom has its origins among Jewish rather than Gentile (Pauline) followers?

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie, Here's some more 'kingdom' stuff.

Kingdom (Basilea): Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas:

The following material does not include the many duplications between the gospels. Readers may want to make comparisons with Paul’s abstract personal qualities “spirit” and “flesh” behavior lists.

Where is the kingdom? (Mk) near; (Lk) among-within us; (Jn) not from this world; (Th) inside you and outside you; spread out unseen upon the earth.

What is the kingdom? (Mk) a secret, a place of exorcisms (Mt) a violent place (defiance of law), training ground for scribes, a place of healing.

What is the kingdom like? (Mk) sowed seed (twice), a mustard seed (Mt) yeast, hidden treasure, a priceless pearl, a net full of fish, a king settling accounts, a landowner hiring laborers, a rich man dealing with rejected banquet invitations, bridesmaids who preserve lamp oil, a gathering of nations for the Son of Man’s judgment; (Th) an unknown spill of seed, an assassin, a shepherd searching for one sheep.

When is the kingdom? (Mk) has come, before the death of Jesus’ or the writer’s generation, “supposed” immediately.

Who is in the kingdom? (Mk) the self-maimed, little children (Mt) the poor in spirit, those persecuted for righteousness sake, those collected across the earth by the Son of Man, self-made eunuchs, possibly prostitutes and tax collectors (Lk) the poor; (Jn) those who are born from above, those born of water and spirit (Th) those who are like nursing babies, whoever becomes a child.

Who is not in the kingdom? (Mk) most wealthy folks (Mt) some who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ the original heirs.

Who is close to getting in? (Mk) those loving God and neighbor as self; (Th) those fasting from the world, the solitary-the chosen ones.

What does the kingdom require? (Lk) family comes second, there’s no looking back. (Th) doing what the Father wants.

Here's a place for the lay person to start to find "kingdom" in the gospel verses:

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Even more kingdom stuff! Who "owns" the kingdom? Traditions develop differently among communities.

“Kingdom” (Basileia) Sayings: NRSV (Scholars Version for Thomas):

At least 45 times (mostly Mark and Luke, also Matt and John) the kingdom is God's and three times God co-owns it with “little children” (Mk, Mt, Lk).

At least 29 times (mostly Matthew, also Thomas) the kingdom of Heaven is named.

In Thomas the kingdom belongs to "the Father" 14 times with 3 more in Luke and Matt.

Jesus (3 times) Son of Man (1), Son of the Most High God (1) also gets credit for kingdom ownership.

Quite a few times kingdom is mentioned without attribution of ownership.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, it's interesting that in the (meager) eight uses of basileia in what are called the authentic Paulines, most are negative statements, who can't inherit or what it is not. Three are used in "exclusionary lists" of behaviors.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.