The Problem with King Imagery for Jesus

The Problem with King Imagery for Jesus

Glynn Cardy

Sun 30 Dec

Christmas music is full of regal imagery for Jesus – “King of kings, Lord of lords”, “Glory to the new-born King”, “born the King of Angels”, and the like.  Such imagery shouldn’t surprise us.  The gospels are full of words and phrases that point to kingship – “Son of God” is a kingly title, as is “the Anointed” (which we usually translated as ‘the Christ’).  

We know, and the Hebrew Scriptures don’t disguise it, that there are a lot of downsides to kings and kingship.  There is war and its costs, there is injustice and its costs, and there are overlords and a class-based economy where riches flow disproportionally upwards.  Read 1 Samuel 8:11-17 for a refresher! 

But we also know that human social hopes have long been vested in the desire for good order from a good king – like that ‘wonderful counsellor, mighty God, prince of peace’ dream of Isaiah 9:1-7.  Such hopes can also be found in the New Testament where Jesus is portrayed as a new David, and a new Solomon, and a new Melchizedek.[i]

Mark’s Gospel, written during or shortly after the huge upheaval of the Roman-Jewish 66-70 CE war which culminated in the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, has numerous references to Jesus as the new David.  From the very first verse Jesus is referred to with the Davidic title “Son of God”.  When the high priest asks Jesus in chapter 14:61-62, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” he is using Davidic language.  And Mark’s Jesus replies, “I am.”  David unified the Kingdom of Israel, expanded it greatly, and centralized governance and worship.  Mark’s imagination saw Jesus-the-king as the unifier and bringer of hope for a house-church movement 40 years after the death of the historical Jesus.

Maybe I should pause here for a moment and try to succinctly describe what we know from minimal data about the early post-Easter Jesus movement.  Well, it began of course with the Jew, Jesus, who was a teller of parables and sayings in the late 20s in Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.  He started a house-connecting movement centred in the proclamation of YHWH’s shalom: shared meals, lodging, and healing/encouragement.  Jesus’ mouth, and his rule-breaking inclusive table practice, got him into trouble both with the local religious establishment and then Roman leaders, which led eventually to him being executed by the Romans on the charge of subversion.  But his death did not end the movement.  Indeed within two decades it had spread out to points East, to Egypt, and all across Asia Minor and into Europe.  This happened because there quickly evolved a clear organizational pattern of community creating and connecting, encouraging both local and pan-local leadership. 

So when Mark is writing about Jesus as the new David, he is trying to address the needs of this post-Easter house-connecting movement.  Luke too, as we know from the shepherds, Bethlehem, and other references in his Christmas story, also alludes to David.  Matthew also picks up the new David theme, though he has a primary emphasis upon Jesus as the new Moses.

John’s Gospel, written last, reconfigures Jesus as the new Solomon, the new bringer – nay the embodiment – of God’s wisdom.  The mythology around Solomon was that he built a nation in God’s own wisdom, a wisdom that attracted monarchs the world over to seek Solomon out.  Jesus recited parables and sayings about a counter-cultural vision of God’s domain rooted in peace, justice, mercy and care.  In John’s Gospel though Jesus doesn’t tell parables about God’s domain he is the parable.  He embodies the wisdom.  So instead of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, John’s Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Instead of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, John’s Jesus says “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

The gospel writers were trying to encourage the members of the dispersed house movement that later would be called Christianity by using mythical kingly heroes of Hebrew lore to allude to their founder [Jesus] and his ongoing spirit in their midst.  The problem of course in using a kingly hero in this mythical way is that some might see it as encouragement to take the sword [like the warrior David] or heavily tax the populace [like the builder Solomon], or endorse the patriarchal status quo [as monarchical hierarchy usually does].  Or some, like my critics in the NZHerald this week, might take this mythic language literally and believe that Jesus will come again in the flesh to establish, by power and might and punishment, a worldwide theocracy.  God preserve us from theocracy!

The third, and to me more interesting, allusion to kingship in the New Testament is from the 2nd century pseudo-Pauline Letter to the Hebrews, namely Melchizedek. 

Unlike in first century Rome where the emperor was also the high priest of all religions, the combination of the role of monarch and high priest didn’t feature in Israel.  By tradition Aaron was the original high priest, and all responsibilities for religious matters devolved to him and the tribe of Levi.  Kings David and Solomon were from the tribe of Judah.  Zadok, from Levi, served as the high priest in Solomon’s temple.  One could say there was a division of powers in Israelite society, but not what we might say between ‘church’ and ‘state’ for both the Monarchy and the Temple were both political and religious institutions.

The Temple, as it had evolved by the 1st century, for example had many functions.  In modern language it was the national library, the supreme court, the national university, and the national treasury.  It was the nexus of Israelite civilization.  It’s no wonder in Roman times that Caesar wanted to approve who got the job of High Priest!

In an early Jesus movement hymn which Paul inserted into his letter to the house church at Philippi,[ii] there are the words “that at his name [Jesus] every knee shall bow and every tongue confess”.  This is an affirmation of Jesus as the lord of religion; as Jesus being both king and high priest [as the Matthean Magis’ gifts of gold and frankincense point to].

The problem with this though, as I inferred, was that the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple was known to be a sycophant of Rome.  Associating Jesus with that line of authority just wouldn’t do, so they cast around for a different role model. 

The author of Hebrews turned to a story from Genesis 14 where a Canaanite called King Melchizedek (his name literally means ‘righteous king’), ruler of a little city-kingdom called Salem (later called Jerusalem), after a victorious battle that Abram had unwillingly engaged in (thanks to his nephew Lot), came out to offer bread and wine to celebrate the peace and safe return of Abram’s kin.  The author of Hebrews saw how linking Jesus to Melchizedek ticked all the boxes: king, celebrator of peace, break-and-wine Eucharist, etcetera.  Jesus was a new Melchizedek.

So we have three kings (two well-known, and one largely unknown) used as mythical robes to drape over the historical Jesus in order to encourage the dispersed Jesus house-connected movement across the Empire.  They were saying in a small voice (because we are talking about sedition!) that the Jesus movement, has its own king and own kingdom, and it’s not Caesar and Rome; and you Jesus-followers owe your allegiance primarily to that king [the newly configured David-Solomon-Melchizedek].  You Jesus-followers belong to another kingdom, not Caesar’s.

Now in writing like this, the authors and their hearers were very aware that the language was deeply ironic and counter-cultural.  Jesus’ kingdom, as the reading from Matthew 6 illustrates, was not about acquiring land, possessions, and security.  Rather, as we know from other texts, it was about developing friendship bonds, caring and sharing, surviving in the midst of oppression, and offering hope.  Jesus was not militarily minded, or into building grand palaces, or having hundreds of wives and concubines.  No, he was the founder of something quite antithetical: an egalitarian movement of men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor.  It is founded on a different type of wisdom than that of Solomon’s or of Caesar’s.

Jesus also didn’t leave an heir, a new ‘king’ to lead after his death (though Vatican theology has at times tried to rectify that).  Jesus ongoing leadership, his spirit if you like, was manifested in a great variety of people, with a great variety of leadership styles and skills.  That spirit is not known in ‘power and might and punishment’, but in vulnerability and mutuality and kindness. 

Let’s remember that there are two things about the historical Jesus which undermined his status in the eyes of those who mattered.  Firstly, he ate with undesirables.  He ate with the impure.  And this mattered a lot.  What food you ate, who you touched or were in close proximity with, who you spoke to, affected not just your health and social standing but also your relationship with God.  By eating with the impure, he became impure.  By eating with the vulnerable he made himself vulnerable.  And by continuing to and encouraging others to eat with the impure and vulnerable, he was challenging the boundaries of his religion and culture.

And secondly, he moved around too much.  Normally a religious leader would establish a base of operations and be the patron to those who sought assistance from him.  The disciples would be the brokers of such assistance.  As a king is located in a palace and have a number of minions whom normal people have to go through in order to have an audience, so it was with a first century patron.  This system made sure the patron’s power and influence, and the minions’ power and influence, would grow and the clientele would always be dependent.  A nice little patriarchal hierarchy!

Instead Jesus was deliberately itinerant.  He kept moving so his power and others’ dependency did not grow.  His vision was that people did not need a brokered relationship in order to relate to God or to each other.  He had no desire to accumulate power to himself, and would have been aghast that later followers not only elevated him to regal status but believed they should pray to him.  Instead Jesus practiced and encouraged mutuality among his followers. 

The problem for those who want to drape robes of kingly power over the historical Jesus is that those robes tend to refashion him to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and male heads.  It was after his death that the late first century movement made twelve men his chosen disciples, and in the process endorsed the emerging male hierarchy of ecclesial power.  Women and children, who had been valued as co-equals in the early days, were relegated to subservient status.

Christians understand Jesus as reflective of God.  For me Jesus was a commoner, immersed in the lives of those on the bottom of the pyramidal structure of his time.  It was a vulnerable place to be.  And as he taught and touched and loved he acquired influence.  Yet he was very wary of the power of that influence and the way influence creates power-over relationships; so he tried to shed power. 

I think the New Testament authors would have had a hard job finding a king from history who successfully shed power, promoted egalitarianism and mutuality, made himself vulnerable, and died a criminal’s death.  Maybe they should have left the whole king metaphor alone?

[i] I have drawn on the work by Gordon W. G. Raynal in The Fourth R, Volume 31, numbers 5 & 6.

[ii] Philippians 2:5-11