Monday, April 19, 2021

Did Jesus claim to be King of Israel?

The short answer is that there is no saying attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels in which Jesus claims to be the King of Israel. The theory and practice of religion, however, is not an exact "science"; hence, the answer to this question, like all things in religion, depends on whom you ask. So, I will put the question to the author of the Gospel of Mark. All references to Jesus as king in Mark appear in chapter fifteen in connection with a hearing before Pilate and the crucifixion. At that hearing the first question Pilate asks Jesus is: "Are you the King of the Judeans?" (15:2, Ioudai┼Źn). Jesus responds evasively: "so you (sing.) say" (15:2). Pilate chides him for failing to give a direct answer to the question in view of the numerous charges brought against him (15:3-4). But Jesus remains silent (15:5). Pilate is astonished at his refusal to answer the question directly.

            Pilate appears to attribute the information that Jesus claimed to be a king to the Judean people themselves (15:9, 12). The soldiers ironically mocked him as King of the Judeans (15:18) and the inscription of the charge against him read simply "The King of the Judeans" (15:2). That the kingship of Jesus in Mark is an idea that came from the Judean people is confirmed by Mark 15:36, when the chief priests and scribes mock him saying, "Let Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross" (15:32). By this mocking statement the religious leaders expanded the area of his kingship to include the whole of the traditional borders of Israel.

During the career of Jesus, Idumea, Judea, and Samaria constituted an Imperial province, governed by a Roman procurator (Pontius Pilate). The son of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas) governed at Rome's behest as tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and another of Herod's sons (Philip) governed at Rome's behest as tetrarch of the area east of the upper Jordan from Mt. Hermon to the Yarmuk River.1 The only actual king over the area was Caesar. Therefore, if Jesus were a claimant to the throne of Israel, he would have been in competition with Caesar Augustus for the status of king (as noted in John 19:12).

Mark reports no sayings in chapters 1-14 where Jesus overtly claims to be king and there are no sayings with a political edge to them. "King" Herod Antipas did not fear Jesus as a rival (6:14-29), and apparently not even the Judean people were thinking of him as a king (8:27-30). At the entry into Jerusalem the exulting crowd did not refer to him as a king (11:9-10). There are only two sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark that have political content. One is a factual statement about the power of rulers (10:42) and in the other Jesus supports the paying of taxes to the Roman government (12:13-17). Where then in Mark 1-14 does the idea that Jesus claimed to be King originate in order to account for that specific charge in the hearing before Pilate in chapter 15?

Likely it originated with the early Christian belief that Jesus was descended from David and is frequently referred to in the canonical gospels as the "son of David," who was the divinely anointed King of Israel (2 Sam 22:51; Ps 18:50). Hence, they gave him the title Christ, that is, "the Anointed One." It is the general view of the New Testament that Jesus was the son of David; that is, he was a descendant of David, the King of Israel (Matt 1:1, 6, 16; 9:7; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 14; 22:42; Luke 1:31-33; 18:37-38; Mark 10:47-48; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16). There was apparently a political component to this belief—the disciples are reputed to have believed that he would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6; Luke 24:21). The author of the Gospel of John described Jesus as the King of Israel (1:49; 12:13) who was descended from David (7:42) and provides a specific prophecy to that effect (12:12-15).

Oddly, in Mark Jesus is referred to as son of David only twice (10:47-48). That raises the question: would those two appellations be enough to evoke for the general reader the early Christian expectation that Jesus, the Anointed (i.e., the Christ) is the king of Israel in order to account for the heavy emphasis on his kingship in chapter 15? Or is something else going on in Mark? Has Mark, perhaps, deliberately downplayed for political reasons this general early Christian belief in the first fourteen chapters of Mark so as not to raise the ire of Rome?2 The two instances that he is called son of David (10:47-48) would not necessarily raise the ire of Rome, however, for others are also described as a "son of" David, that is, a descendent of David with no inevitable regal expectations (Joseph, for example: Luke 2:4). The two references to Jesus as the son of David might, however, be enough to evoke the early Christian belief in a clandestine way for the knowledgeable reader (cf. Mark 13:14). How do you as a reader of Mark account for Mark's failure to provide in the first fourteen chapters an occasion for this specific charge in chapter 15?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, eds., The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), Plate XIV and p. 92. A tetrarch was a ruler over a fourth part of a region.

2Another likely possibility is that Mark was not a careful writer. See Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark," pages 177-97 in Ronald Hock, et al., eds, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), 186-97.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Pondering in Back Alleys

My daily walking route takes me through the back alleys of North Kansas City. When I am alone on my 45-minute stroll, I ponder (to weigh in the mind; to consider, quietly, soberly, and deeply). This essay is a result of one of those walks. It may strike you as the original Jerry Seinfeld show—a show about nothing, but at the time it seemed a serious ponder.

The prime directive of all living things is to survive and propagate.1 Just surviving, however, is not enough for a rational human being. We humans are thinkers and we ponder all things even life itself. We are social creatures and require meaning and purpose in our life and in the lives of those near us. To that end, in search of meaning and purpose in life I have pondered my way through life in both clerical and academic careers (and several others) aiming to understand the Bible and to assess what it offers as a guide for finding meaning and purpose in human life. Taken as a whole, however, one will find little in the Bible that addresses the meaning and purpose of the whole of human life. I hasten to add, however, that the Bible does address, in part, religious aspects of life from Israelite and incipient Christian perspectives. Unfortunately, Neither Jesus nor Paul seemed interested in the whole of human life. There is one voice in the Bible, however, to which we may turn for perspectives on the whole of human life, the book of Ecclesiastes. The question is does Koheleth (for so the author dubs the narrator) find anything positive about life? He has the reputation of being pessimistic and begins with this skeptical outburst:

Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything in meaningless! (NIV)2

Here is a sentence clarifying the character of the author that I found in a paragraph introducing the book of Ecclesiastes in the Revised Standard Version of the Protestant Bible.

Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than a testimony of belief. The author seeks to understand by the use of reason the meaning of human existence and the good which man can find in life.3

Thus, Koheleth is among the very earliest to ponder life without the safety net of organized religion.

            Koheleth believed in God (3:13, 24-25; 5:18; 8:15) but he did not value organized religion (5:1-7; 7:16). Life appeared meaningless to him because he believed that God had prepared human beings for the ages by putting eternity in the human mind (3:10-11) and yet ended our “threescore and ten” (Ps 90:10) years of living with the grave and Sheol (9:10). Everything that one accomplished with life passes into the hands of others when one dies (2:18-21). Being human is no advantage, for the same fate awaits both man and beast (3:18-21). Living righteously is no advantage to a man for the sinner fares better (7:15), and in the end the same fate awaits both (9:1-3).

            Nevertheless, Koheleth believed that happiness and good could be found in certain simple pleasures of living, such as work (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19), eating and drinking (2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7; 10:19), and human companionship (9:9). He counsels that one should enjoy life (8:15; 9:7), for in Sheol to which we are bound there is nothing but shade and shadow (9:10).4

            These are some of Koheleth’s thoughts as he wrestled with the reality of the human predicament and the clash of common human experience with faith in God. He believed that one could come closer to solving the riddle of life “by accepting harsh facts and pondering concrete human experience with its attendant pain than he could by accepting the pallid assertions of complacent orthodoxy.”5 It may seem strange that such a negative outlook is found in the Bible, but some readers are grateful for its refreshing honesty that correlates with the reality of the human situation.

When all is said and done here is what faces each of us: either to accept the practiced institutional assertions of religious orthodoxy or follow the example of Koheleth by pondering the matter for one’s self—a worthy project for the back alleys of any city. What brings meaning and purpose to your life?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I addressed this question once before; see Wry Thoughts about Religion: “What is the Meaning of Life,” Sunday, August 23, 2020:

2Eccl 1:2 as translated in the New International Version. It is an attitude expressed numerous times through the book, for example: 1:14, 17; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23, etc.

3Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, p. 805.

4See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, “The Land of Forgetfulness” Tuesday, October 22, 2019:

5J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 465.