Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God

Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God

Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God

Christian Origins and the Language of the Kingdom of God


Traditionally, scholars have traced the origin of Christianity to a single source -- the kingdom of God as represented in the message of the historical Jesus. Through a rhetorical critical analysis of one of the most important texts in early Christian literature (the Beelzebul controversy), Michael L. Humphries addresses the issue of Christian origins, demonstrating how the language of the kingdom of God is best understood according to its locative or taxonomic effect where the demarcation of social and cultural boundaries contributes to the emergence of this new social foundation.

Humphries focuses on the Beelzebul controversy because the text plays a significant role in the history of New Testament scholarship; it is one of the few texts frequently regarded as a key to the interpretation of Jesus's understanding of the kingdom of God and thus a point of significant contention in the scholarly debate.

The Beelzebul controversy exists in two versions -- Q and Mark -- and thereby allows the study to engage the import of the kingdom language at the point of juxtaposition between two distinct textual representations. This makes it possible to deal directly with the issue of the disparity of texts in the synoptic tradition. Humphries suggests that these two versions of the same controversy indicate two distinct social trajectories wherein the kingdom of God comes to mean something quite different in each case but that nevertheless they demonstrate a similarity in theoretical effect where the language contributes to the emergence of relatively distinct social formations.

Humphries establishes the Q and Markan versions of the Beelzebul controversy as relatively sophisticatedcompositions that are formally identified as elaborate chreiai (a literary form used in the teaching of rhetoric at the secondary and post-secondary level of Greco-Roman education) and that offer an excellent example of the rhetorical


This book makes an extremely important contribution to the scholarly reconstruction of Christian origins. That is because Michael L. Humphries has identified a critical unit of textual material lying at the otherwise uncertain overlap between the two earliest texts we have for the Jesus schools. These texts are the Gospel of Mark, the first narrative "life" of Jesus, and the nonnarrative collection of the "teachings of Jesus" known as Q. Since both texts contain variants of an anecdote about Jesus and "Beelzebul," one can be sure that a very early, shared snippet of Jesus lore is in hand. Thus this pericope is important as a documentation for two "memories" of Jesus in two branches of the Jesus movement at particular moments of the earliest histories for which we have any evidence.

The Beelzebul pericope is important for another reason, however. It contains the earliest saying on record about the "kingdom of God," the only concept that we know of used by the Jesus schools to register their ideology and self-designation. Humphries sees this conjunction of textual and conceptual traditions as a most fortunate circumstance for scholars interested in Christian origins. He is right. If one could find a way to control the analysis of these two texts, two or possibly three critical moments of social formation and mythmaking in the early Jesus schools will have been determined.

This is exactly what Humphries has been able to do. His study is a stunning demonstration of the knowledge to be gained by careful and competent text-critical historiography. He discovers that the two variants of the anecdote share a form of speech common to the culture of the time. Moreover, the Greeks had a name for this form of speech, calling it a chreia (meaning "useful") and using it for exercises in rhetorical education. Voila. There was even a standard exercise on the chreia called an "elaboration," and Humphries finds that . . .

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