New College, University of Edinburgh

Idealized Language and the Kingdom of God: Challenging An Interpretive Tendency

“The language we use is a convention, and it makes no difference what exactly the nature of the agreed sign is.”-Ferdinand de Saussure[1]


Reflecting on this insight of Ferdinand de Saussure, Matthew Novenson states that, as far as linguistic theory goes, “no necessary connection exists between a concept and the sound pattern used to point to that concept in a language.”[2] Novenson elaborates on Saussure in order to advocate a social-linguistic approach to the study of messiah language in ancient Judaism. According to Novenson, in the study of ancient messianism, scholars debate whether or not, and to what extent, there exists a correspondence between various messianic ideas and the word “messiah”.[3] But for Novenson, this approach is problematic. Rather than disputing the presence or absence of an idealized concept in different messiah texts, he suggests a more profitable alternative: “If we set aside this problematic linguistic theory, however, and instead think of messiah texts as uses of language by competent members of a linguistic community then solutions to long-standing historical problems may begin to emerge.”[4]


Novenson’s insight is instructive. When it comes to determining the significance of language it impedes interpretation to insist that the terms used in any given context maintain an essential link to a rarified “idea”. If idealized concepts are required to maintain a necessary connection to specific terms then the meaningfulness of a language, much less ancient messiah language, will remain an enigma. What Novenson argues in regards to messiah language is true of any other type of language in antiquity, or for that matter, is true of any other type of language in any other period of human history. In practice, the only way to determine the import of any term is to consider how it is used in the context of its linguistic community.


The tendency to read texts under the rubric of idealized language that Novenson identifies in the field of messianism is the same tendency that I have observed in my research of kingdom of God language in early Christian texts. Indeed, rather than explaining how the expression βασιλεία θεοῦ serves as a linguistic resource in the early Jesus movement, there is an inclination among scholars to argue that the expression functions as a cipher for abstract concepts that are not always germane to the particularities of texts.


As the history of research demonstrates, “kingdom of God” is taken to denote a vast array of concepts and ideas. Scholars have argued that the expression signifies things such as a new moral society,[5] the ideal state of man,[6] the unity of the Bible,[7] the legitimacy of the Christian message,[8] an impetus for biblical theology,[9] or a re-appropriation of Israel’s history.[10] It is my contention that these sorts of proposals, although beneficial in their own right, do not provide a satisfactory description of the expression βασιλεία θεοῦ in the early Jesus movement. Rather than provide an account for the use of the phrase within this ancient linguistic community, an idealized approach to language enables these types of interpretations and leaves the phrase unexplained.


There must be a better way to describe ancient kingdom of God language. It must have served a function for these early Jesus followers. Otherwise it would lack the necessary linguistic currency to provide resonance. Without exploring what this function might be the meaningfulness of this idiom will continue to vex historians of early Christianity. Indeed, I suggest that a better approach is to follow the function of the expression and see where it leads.



Written by Brian Bunnell



[1] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally et al, trans. Roy Harris, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Open Court, 1986), 10.

[2] Matthew V. Novenson, Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford, 2012), 45.

[3] For the history of this debate see Novenson, Christ Among the Messiahs, 34-47.

[4] Ibid., 46-47.

[5] Albrecht Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung: Zweiter Band: Der biblische Stoff der Lehre (Bonn: Adolph Marcus, 1874), 26-33.

[6] James S. Candlish, The Kingdom of God Biblically and Historically Considered (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1884), 10, 341-343.

[7] John Bright, The Kingdom of God in Bible and Church (London: Lutterworth, 1955), 9-11, 17-19.

[8] Rudolf Schnackenburg, God’s Rule and Kingdom, transl. John Murray (London: Nelson, 1963), 86, 94, 197, 318, 350.

[9] Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (London: SCM, 1992), 624-629.

[10] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 198-243.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 24th October 2016


Add comment