December 13, 2020

The Pragmatic Sense of Ancient Dominions

In my research today I happened back to this gem from Steve Mason's "What is History? Using Josephus for the Judean-Roman War" (page 210), which I offer here as a springboard for some thoughts about Jesus and "kingdom," which appear further below.

The structural relationship between Syria and Judaea [is] a complicated matter. Suffice it to say here that in the War where the story of Cestius' expedition reposes, Josephus usually writes as though Judaea were a distinct province from 6 C.E., with an independent equestrian governor based in Caesarea (2.118, 220). In the Antiquities, by contrast (17.355; 18.1-2), he claims that Judaea was annexed to Syria after Archelaus' incompetent rule. Tacitus is under the impression that Judaea became a province only under Claudius, after Agrippa I (Hist. 5.9). The language of "province" (provincia, ἐπαρχεία) allows a fair bit of slippage, and it is increasingly clear that Roman administrative arrangements were messier than textbooks would prefer.

Although Mason goes on to tentatively settle the matter for his interpretation of Cestius' expedition in Josephus's War, this beautifully offered nuance reminds me of several things. That last bit in particular, "that Roman administrative arrangements were messier than textbooks would prefer," could be applied helpfully in revising our mental conceptions about any number of ancient kingdoms or territories.

For starters, our concept of national boundaries doesn't always apply to ancient thinking about large territories; certainly not as it has since the invention of modern cartographic techniques. Although the city of Rome had its official pomerium, and most proper cities obviously had walls, kingoms (and other dominions such as independent tetrarchies) were not so well defined, geographically. The complexities of the Roman concept of the limes is instructive, an especially helpful illustration of how pragmatism ruled over any attempt at formality whenever one ancient group attempted to rule over others. 

Another helpful clue is the Roman pattern of building frontier highways. When the Republic first routed the via Egnatia--along a more or less straight-ish line from Dyrrachium to Philippi--that pathway signified not the absolute limit of Rome's legal reach but the practical facilitation of their physical enforcement activity. The hypothetical extent of Provincia Macedonia (as a formal claim, if not per se) would have been far further inland, but there was no court injunction that could keep the Dalmatians or Moesians from gardening a bit too far over the non-existent line. In a broader sense, the military history of that region--from before Alexander until long past Vespatian--was a perennial morass of ambiguous jurisdictions. Which, of course, is why Philip had planned in the 4th century BCE that he would eventually push Macedonia's domain all the way to the Danube.

Likewise, the via Sebaste encircled the wild Pisidian lands of the Homanadensian tribes precisely so that Sulpicius Quirinius could lead his legions efficiently towards full subjugation of those peoples. Let me repeat that; Quirinius did not subjugate those lands. He subjugated those peoples. Much like the current "red state, blue state" paradigm in America becomes a geographical illusion when you examine actual population density ("land doesn't vote, people do"), any rational accounting of dominion in ancient times must focus on the logistical mitigations of practical governance.

Similarly, you will find no informed mapmaker of ancient Palestine/Israel, today, who would ever draw a solid line in between Trachonitis and Nabatea. On the other hand, if you asked anyone in the New Testament era who lived anywhere from Damascus to Petra... in any given year... they could each tell you individually whether or not they answered to Herodian overlords. 

For a final brief set of illustrations, consider these excerpts from Appendix 1 of Swan's commentary on Dio 55, "How Dio Visualized Trans-Rhenane Germany under Augustus" (361-3), which excerpts follow Swan's detailing of extensive geographic vaguaries and ambiguities evident in Dio's writing:

What were the origins of Dio's mental map? Not autopsy, of which I detect no signs such as surface elsewhere in the History (e.g., 50,12.2-8n on the topography of Actium). Certainly reading. Caesar's Bellum Gallicum, which was one of his sources ([cit.]), offered a rich vein of geographic and ethnographic information.* [*Footnote: "Dio cannot be shown to have read Strabo's synopsis of German geography (7.290-295) or Tacitus' Germania."] Dio could of course take advantage of contemporary oral information that a senator was well placed to acquire. That he learned something from maps cannot be shown or ruled out.

On mental maps see R.K. Sherk... on how geographical discoveries were fed back to Rome through dispatches or memoirs of generals and works by authors in their entourage... R. Syme... (Roman historians generally took more literary than scientific interest in geography; generals may have relied less on maps than on experienced officers); A.C. Bertrand... (a network of lines, especially as formed by routes and rivers, characterized Caesar's mental map; "strategically valuable maps were unavailable to Roman commanders, who gathered information about geography and topography while on campaign"[120]).

Basically, if there wasn't a powerful river or a nearly impassable mountain range, there wasn't a firm boundary between territories. More pragmatically, we are generally closer to the mark when we think in terms of actual populations and enforceable allegiance. Dio's emphasis on military activity explains his lack of need for precision, which reflects the military's own geographic requirements.

For another example, the Persian satraps would visit each city in Asia Minor, annually, provided they could expect to collect the annual tribute in that particular year. By the same standard, Alexander's "conquest" of Turkey didn't so much change the color on the map as it merely served notice to those satraps, who suddenly recognized it would be most wise to refrain from return visits in the near future.

Got the gist yet? Okay. Now, getting around to the Gospels...


A similar nuance (or lack thereof) explains the confusion regarding βασιλεύει in Matthew 2:22, where the scholarly opinions deem that word to be "accurate" if and only if Archelaus could have been officially described as a king. In contrast, my argument (in progress) involves a conception of kingship that places more weight on governing de facto than holding position ex officio

Sorry, but that's only a tiny bit from my thesis, just by the by.

For the purposes of today's blog post, more directly, I have said all of the above merely to say this: We should hereby apply similar nuance in our thinking about any Gospel passage in which Jesus refers to the "kingdom" of God.

Although I am certain many people who listened to Jesus were taking "kingdom of God" as a euphamism for Jesus establishing an earthly seat of power at Jersualem, that is not the strict sense of the words which the Gospels ascribe to Jesus himself. Taken most literally, the "kingdom of God" is the dominion of God, the actual extent of God's active rule.

I pause here to note that it is one thing for interpreters of the Gospels to suppose (or perhaps even argue!) that the writers and early believers took this phrase euphamistically... and it is entirely another thing for us to consider and discuss as historians what sense or meanings Jesus had in his mind on whatever occasions he actually used the same phrase. Academically, it is possible to hold one opinion as an interpreter of meaning in literature that contravenes one's opinion as a historian about what Jesus actually meant. Alternatively, it may be a fact that the Gospel writers themselves were as swooft as I'd like to suppose, even though almost every reception since then has been less so. But that debate can happen anon. This post today is just to lay down the sense of what I am suggesting.

In my humble opinion, given the context of what makes a "kingdom" as I laid out above, here is what I think about Jesus and that phrase.

To me, it makes the most sense to believe that Jesus himself had in mind a "kingdom of God" that literally meant what the phrase itself says. That is, I believe young Jesus in Nazareth would most naturally have conceived of God's kingdom as literally God's kingship. I mean, I am fully supposing that Jesus in Nazareth was experiencing the kingdom of God as an individual, and I also suppose that to some extent he would often have perceived God to be actively ruling the hearts and minds of other Jewish believers at his local synagogue. As a christian, I suppose Jesus held himself to a higher standard as regarding actual obedience to divine will, while holding more modest expectations of others. Humility and mercy, after all, being key aspects of God's most devout subjects.

In principle, if there were moments when, say, a 29 year old Jesus may have felt that perhaps he alone and no one else currently was engaging in God's divine kingship, then I would suggest that in such times Jesus would still have recognized that God's kingdom was presently active in his life, in his town, on the earth.

All in all, I am only trying to say that thinking about "kingdom" in the Gospels should be just like thinking about any other ancient kingdom. The extent of any royal domain was properly recognized as the extent of the royal's effective dominion. If "kingdom of God" was a euphamism for rule by Jesus himself, then we'd have a different discussion, but if "kingdom of God" means literally what it says, then we should recognize that God already sits on his own seat of power. God does not need a person to sit on a physical throne in some city of earth... in order for God to exercise his power and reach and administrative ability.

There are other aspects, of course, to all that Jesus meant to imply when he spoke about God's kingdom.

But this anti-geographical aspect is the one I feel has been the most overlooked.

Anon, then...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton