Scholars are agreed that the central metaphor in Jesus' proclamation was the kingdom of God. But what did that phrase mean in the first-century Palestinian world of Jesus? Since it is a political metaphor, what did Jesus envision as the political import of his message? Since this is tied to the political economy, how was that structured in Jesus' day? How is the violence of Jesus' Mediterranean world addressed in the kingdom? And how does "self-denial" fit into Jesus' agenda?
Malina tackles these questions in a very accessible way, providing a social-scientific analysis, meaning that he brings to bear explicit models and a comparative approach toward an exciting interpretation of what Jesus was up to, and how his first-century audience would have heard him.
Author Bio: Bruce J. Malina is Professor of Theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, and the author (or co-author) of fourteen books including his recent Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Fortress Press, 2000).
I think even the most skeptical historian will agree that if Jesus spoke about anything, he spoke about the kingdom of Heaven (see Willis 1987; Chilton 1994; Fuellenbach 1995). The burden of Jesus' proclamation was the kingdom of Heaven, a politically correct, Israelite way of saying "kingdom of God." The question I wish to address in this book is the following: To what sort of social problem was Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of Heaven meant to be a solution? The word "kingdom" by any estimation is a word describing a society's political institution. It is, in origin, a political term, even if a number of Bible readers, professional and non-professional, have appropriated the term metaphorically. What did a phrase like "kingdom of Heaven" mean to Jesus' Israelite audience in the first century? The proclamation of the kingdom of Heaven meant at least that the God of Israel would be taking over control of the country soon. The phrase, "kingdom of Heaven," is a descriptive and more concrete way of saying "theocracy." Theocracy is a political science term referring to the political system of societies claiming to be ruled by God. Iran is a contemporary example.
The outcome of Jesus' career makes it rather certain that his proclamation of the kingdom of God was political, not metaphorical, much less "spiritual," whatever that nineteenth-century word might mean. In what sort of first-century Mediterranean social context would the proclamation of theocracy make sense? In all gospel accounts about Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom, no one asks for an explanation of what exactly was it that he spoke about. WhileJesus was reported to have offered a range of descriptions of what God's rule is like (kingdom parables), he never for a moment explained what the structure of this kingdom of God might be, who would constitute its personnel, its bureaucracy, its chief executive? Why was there not more discussion about the structure and functions of the theocracy that Jesus proclaimed? About how such a theocracy might work in everyday life? Why did people seem to know exactly what Jesus was referring to when he spoke about theocracy? It would seem that "kingdom of Heaven" was another of the many high-context terms mentioned in the New Testament. For the prevailing language "context" generally in vogue in the ancient Mediterranean was that of a high context society, as opposed to a low context society (see Hall 1976:91-101; 1983:59-77; Malina 1991a).
Low context societies produce detailed verbal documents that spell out as much as conceivably possible, leaving little to the imagination. For example, most U.S. citizens know about the annual ritual of paying income taxes. Yet most do not know that the U.S. tax code contains some six thousand pages explaining the income tax. This points up the general norm of low context societies, namely that most things must be clearly set out, hence information must be continually added if meaning is to be constant. Such societies are fine-print societies, societies "of law" where every dimension of life must be described by legislators to make things "lawful," even including, for example, twenty pages of detailed legal directions about how much fat is allowed in commercially sold sausage. The Congressional Record, a document produced by the U.S. government, offers hours of low context reading for whoever might wish to be entertained in this way. Hall considers the U.S. and northern European countries as typically low context societies.
High context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic documents, leaving much to the reader's or hearer's imagination and common knowledge. Since people believe few things have to be spelled out, few things are in fact spelled out. This is so because people have been socialized into widely shared ways of perceiving and acting. Hence, much can be assumed. People presume, for example, that helping out a person in dire need makes that person obligated for the rest of his or her life to the helper. There simply is no need to spell out all these obligations, as we would when we sign for a car loan. In high context societies, little new information is necessary for meaning to be constant. Hall lists the Mediterranean, among other areas, populated with high context societies. Clearly the Bible along with other writings from ancient Mediterranean peoples fit this high context profile.
How different, then, it is for low context, U.S. and northern European readers to read some high context document. To allay the difference, low context readers presume the high context documents are in fact other instances of the low context documents they are used to. The New Testament, for example, is believed to have sufficient information to serve as norm for Christian living in any society! Attuned to detail, they simply do not know what is assumed in a high context society. It is the purpose of historical biblical interpretation to fill in the assumptions of the high context documents that form the New Testament, assumptions which the authors of those documents shared with high context readers of their Mediterranean world.
It will help us understand Hall's observations about high and low context societies if we attend to their respective communication problems. The typical communication problem in low context societies such as the U.S., for example, is giving people information they do not need, hence "talking down" to them by spelling out absolutely everything. Consider the endless amount of information printed by the US Government Printing Office alone, or the useless knowledge no one needs to know that passes as "news" in the media. In contrast, the typical communication problem in high context societies is not giving people enough information, hence "mystifying" them. Consider the broad range of mystifications and hidden meanings derived from the Mediterranean, high context Bible in the hands of sincere and honest low context U.S. and northern European readers, from fundamentalist TV preachers to learned literary critics.
Biblical mystifications and hidden meanings are contrived in a number of ways and for various reasons in our low context societies. A glance at the spate of "relevant" commentaries on Revelation is a case in point. So too, the fate of the term "kingdom of Heaven" in low context societies. The fact is, however, that "kingdom of Heaven" comes from high-context society and is a high-context term. High-context terms are words and phrases referring to social realities with wide ranging ramifications known to all persons in a given society. There is no need to spell out the details; everybody knows what is involved. Reference to the kingdom of Heaven simply indicates the tip of some proverbial iceberg, as is normal with high-context referents. What does that iceberg look like?
Foreword by William R. Herzog II
1. Why Proclaim the Kingdom of God?
2. Mediterranean Violence and the Kingdom
3. Hidden Social Dimensions of the Kingdom
4. The Kingdom and Political Economy
5. The Kingdom and Jesus' Self-Denying Followers
6. The Social Gospel of Jesus and Its Outcomes
Index of Ancient Sources
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: Four Basic Institutions of Human Society
Figure 2: Types of Society
Figure 3: Model of Vigilantism
Figure 4: Comparative Chart of Four Modes of Political Social Interaction
Figure 5: Embedded Economics and Embedded Religion with Modes of Political Interaction
Figure 6: Models of the Self
Figure 7: Group Formation
From Chapter One (pre-publication version):
Why Proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven?
Before the significant eighteenth-century Enlightenment transformations that set so many of the major ground rules of contemporary living, church and state as well as bank/market and state were quite consolidated. In the political sphere, along with governmental institutions, there was also political religion and political economy, but no separate religion and economy. And what of the matrix of the political, namely kinship? While families were structured in terms of prevailing kinship patterns, here too, there was also domestic economy and domestic religion, but no separate religion and economy (see Malina 1986a; 1994a). While we generally attend to kinship, politics, religion and economics (among other institutions), only kinship and politics were of explicit focal concern to the ancients.
This sort of societal perspective is crucial to understanding biblical documents, since it is a truism that meanings derive from social systems. Without knowledge of the social system of first-century Mediterraneans writing in Greek or Hebrew, modern students can only presume they are hearing or reading English in Greek or Hebrew wording. The same is true, of course, of the many U.S. high school students who can speak English in Spanish, German and French. Just as understanding social systems is crucial to learning the meanings of foreign languages, so too is it fundamental to cross-cultural communication. And studying the New Testament historically is at bottom an exercise in cross-cultural understanding in a historical register. If meaning in language and other forms of behavior derive fromsocial systems, what in fact are social systems?
Social systems consist of social institutions, value sets and person types. From the viewpoint of our own experience, all societies might be viewed as consisting of (at least) four major social institutions: kinship, politics, economics and religion (after Parsons 1960). Social institutions are fixed forms of phases of social life. They do not exist independently of each other, except in terms of the modes of perception and interpretation into which members of a group are socialized. Institutions are the ways or means that people use to realize meaningful, human social living within a given society. Briefly, kinship is about naturing and nurturing people; it is held together by commitment (also called: loyalty or solidarity) and forms a structure of human belonging. Economics is about provisioning a group of people; it is held together by inducement, i.e. the exchange of goods and services, and forms the adaptive structure of a society. Politics looks to effective collective action; it is held together by power and forms the vertical organizational structure of a society. Finally religion deals with the overarching order of existence, with meaning; it is held together by influence: i.e. it provides reasons for what exists and the models that generate those reasons. Hence, religion forms the meaning system of a society, and as such feeds back and forward into the kinship, economic and political systems, unifying the whole by means of some explicit or implicit ideology (see Figure 1, below).
Since the documents contained in the Bible surely antedate the Enlightenment, the authors of those documents simply did not deal with religion or economics as areas of consideration separable from kinship and politics. Rather it was kinship and political norms that determined how economic and religious perceptions and behaviors were conceived and articulated. In other words, the authors of biblical documents were enculturated in societies in which the social institutions of kinship and politics were the exclusive arenas of life. Biblical documents come from a world where there was domestic religion and political religion, as well as domestic economy and political economy. Biblical authors never spoke of economics purely and simply; their language was never used to express systems of meaning deriving from complexified and technologically oriented society. This was not because their language could not be used to speak of economics and religion, of technology and science. Modern Hebrew and Greek speakers do in fact speak of these matters. Rather, the reason for this absence is, by all evidence, that the social systems of the period simply did not focus on free-standing economic and religious institutional concerns. Technology was boring and low-status, best left to anonymous manual workers and slaves. Consequently, the vocabulary and system of distinctions in the various ideologies expressed in the Bible worked in kinship and politics. Conceptions of the henotheistic "God of Israel" are expressed in kinship and political terms. The language of covenant and law was and is derivative of politics, just as the language of worship and ritual was and is derivative of kinship and political forms of behavior. There is no developed biblical terminology descriptive of the pragmatics of adaptation (economics) and those abstract meanings rooted in it. Hence, biblical documents reveals a vocabulary and syntax employed to realize a range of meanings expressing belonging (the dimension rooted in kinship) and power (the dimension root