“THE KINGS” OF “THE KINGS OF THE EARTH” (9)

PMW 2020-004 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

We have been through eight installments of a study on “the kings of the earth” as found in Revelation, particularly in Rev. 17:18, which is a stumbling block for some who are considering preterism. We are now ready to consider:

Not surprisingly, basileus is a common word in the NT occurring 115 times (thirty-eight of these apply to Christ). We discover eighteen of those appearances in Rev (1:5; 6:15; 9:11; 10:11; 15:3; 16:12, 14; 17:2, 9, 12, 14, 18; 18:3, 9; 19:16, 18, 19; 21:24). Within Rev it appears in the phrase “kings of the earth” ten times. In the NT our full phrase occurs only two times outside of Rev: Mt 17:25 and Ac 4:26. The word basileuō (“to reign”) occurs twenty-one times, with six of those in Rev (5:10; 11:15, 17; 19:6; 20:4, 6; 22:5).

The meaning of basileus

The word “king” (basileus and cognates) generally represents “one who rules as possessor of the highest office in a political realm” (BAGD 169). But it can apply to a political ruler who is not formally a basileus, such as Herod Antipas (Mt 14:9; Mk 6:14) who was technically a tetrarch (Mt 14:1; Ant. 17:8:1 [188]). Archelaus who was an ethnarch (Jos., Life 1 [5]; Ant. 17:11:4 [317]; 18:2:1 [116–19]; J.W. 2:9:1 [167]), though he is not called a basileus in the NT, is said to “reign” (basileuō) (Mt 2:22). But because of his high political power, Josephus calls him a “king” (basileus) (Ant 17:8:2 [194]; 17:11:2 [304]; etc.).


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Basileus can even apply to the Roman emperor (Jn 19:12, 15; J.W. 3:8:3 §35]; 4:10:3 §596; 5:13:6 §563), though he is formally a Princeps and not a king. In fact, Josephus notes that the self-appointed leaders of the Jewish revolutionaries in the Jewish War deemed themselves “kings” (J.W. 2:4:2-3 §57-65; 2:17:8-10 §278–84; 4:9:4 §510; cp. Ant. 17:10:6 §273–76; 17:10:7 §278–85; cp. Tacitus, Hist. 5:9). Carrington (277) points out that the word basileus can be applied even to wealthy persons, as in Horace. So the term can refer not only to the legal head of state but “by extension, a head or representative of a group, one who reigns or presides at an event” (TLNT 1:256).

Specific application of Basileus in Revelation

John appears to use the phrase “kings of the earth” (1:5) to represent Israel’s religious authorities. According to Josephus, Israel’s highest authorities include: “the high priests [archiereis], and the men of power [dunatoi], and those of the greatest eminence [gnōrimōtaton] in the city” (J.W. 2:14:8 §301). Elsewhere he associates with the high priests various men he calls “men of power [hoi dunatoi]” (J.W. 2:15:3 §318; 2:16:2 §337; 2:17:5 §422; 2:17:6 §428; 2:22:1 §648), “the sandherin [boulē, council]” (J.W. 2:15:6 §331), “the principal men [gnōrimōn]” (J.W. 2:17:2 §410), the “nobility [eugenōn]” (J.W. 6:2:2 §114). In fact, according to Neusner (DJBP 501) “the chief priests appear to have been, in effect, the ruling aristocracy of Judea … under Herod and the Roman governors.” After all, “the Jews were a nation dedicated to religion and ruled by priests. The essence of their nation lay in the Temple in Jerusalem” (Goodman 1987:30). McLaren (1991: 93) notes that “‘the chief priests’ are portrayed as being central to all Jewish [political and judicial] initiatives.”

Evans (2005: 433) points out that “after the collapse of the Davidic dynasty, the high priest was often the highest Jewish authority” (cf. 2Macc 5:5–7). He continues: “After the successful Maccabean revolt, the Hasmonean family not only serve as high priests, thus usurping the Zadokite succession, but even regarded themselves as kings” (cf. Jos. J.W. 1:3:1 §70; Ant. 13:11:1 §301; 14:12:1 §320; b. Sanh. 107b). Josephus observes that when Pompey conquered Jerusalem for Rome he “restored the high priesthood to Hyrcanus, and made him governor of the nation, but forbade him to wear a diadem” (Ant. 20:10:4 §244). We should also understand that there was a “large number of potential and former high priests” in first-century Israel which probably “explains the use of the term ‘chief priests’ in Josephus and the New Testament,” which we see in Mk 14–15; Mt 21:26–27; Lk 22–23; Jn 19; Ac 4–5; Ant. 2:1:1 §6, 20:8:8 §181; 20:9:2 §207; J.W. 2: 12:6 §243; 2:14:8 §301; 2:15:3–5 §318–36; 4:5:2 §315; 6:2:2 §114) (Wardle 2010: 41).

Obviously the designation “kings of the Land” could theoretically include the actual political rulers in Israel who were associated with the emperors of Rome (Ford 290): Antipater and Hyrcanus are associated with Julius (J.W. 1:9:3 §187–203); Herod the Great with Augustus (J.W. 1:20:1 §386–400). Caligula made Agrippa I king (J.W. 2:9:6 §181); Claudius extended Agrippa’s kingdom (J.W. 211:5 §214–16); and Nero extended the kingdom of Agrippa II (J.W. 2:13:2 §252). But given John’s abundant liturgical imagery, it probably focuses on the religious rulers, the “chief priests” including the high priest (several of whom were alive at any given time and involved in Christ’s trial and death), the captain of the temple and the other high-ranking priests (Jn 19:15, 21; Mt 20:18; cp. Mt 2:4; 16:21; 21:15, 23, 45), as well as the sanhedrin (Mt 26:59//; Lk 22:66; Ac 4:15, 21; 6:12-15; 22:5) which was headed up by the presidency of the high priest (Jeremias 1969: 151). I would argue this for the following reasons:

Josephus speaks of the high priests’ political function in the first century after Herod Archelaus’ rule: “the government became an aristocracy, and the high priests were intrusted with a dominion over the nation” (Ant. 20:10:1 §251). As Horsley (1986: 53) puts it elsewhere: “the government itself was dominated by, if not composed exclusively of, high priests, other notables, and leading Pharisees.” Aristeas (82) refers to the high priest as “the ruler of the land.” In the Assumption of Moses (6:3) the Hasmonean high priests were called “kings.”


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Josephus states “by my mother I am of the royal blood [tou basilikou genous]; the children of [the high priest] Asamoneus, from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of a king [ebasileusan, LCL: “were kings”], for a long time together” (Life 1 § 2). Elsewhere he observes that “the high priests were intrusted with a dominion over the nation” (Ant. 20:10:1 §251). He even speaks of “the royal authority [hē basileia proteron], which was a dignity formerly bestowed on those that were high priests [archiereusin], by the right of their family” geneology (Ant. 14:4:5 § 78). He cites Hecataeus (ca. 190 BC) as referring to the priests who “managed public affairs [ta koina dioikountes]” (Ag. Ap. 1:22 §188).

Hayward (1996: 21) notes that Diodorus Siculus 40:3:5 teaches “that priests rule the Jewish state.” Philo comments regarding the high priest that “the man who is consecrated to God, as his high priest, should, during the time of his exercising his office be superior to all men, not only to all private individuals, but even to all kings” (Moses 2:26 §131). Because of this, the high priest’s turban was a symbol of his authority. In the Greek version of Sir 45:12-13 we read: “a golden crown upon the mitre, / An engraving of a seal of holiness; / the glory of honour, work of might.” We read similarly in Wis 18:24: “Thy majesty was upon the diadem of his head.”

Thus, “since the Jerusalem temple exerted such a powerful influence on the Judaism of the Second Temple period, the priests who oversaw it became the religious and political power-brokers of the nation. . . . In the Second Temple period, however, the political role of the high priest began to increase in the absence of other forms of Jewish leadership” (Wardle 30). Wardle even cites Paul D. Hanson in a footnote to this statement, noting that “the decline of royal and prophetic influence in the post-exilic period may have been due in part to efforts by the Zadokite priesthood to consolidate power.” Thus, on p. 33 he states: “the high priest and priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem stepped in to fill the v oid left by the absence of king and prophet, a situation which led to Josephus’ assertion that the high priest was the de facto ruler of the country.” When Josephus speaks of Judea as a “theocracy” (Ag. Ap. 2:17 §164–65; cp. Ant. 11:4:8 §111) he means a hierocracy. Some call this a “priestly monarchy.”

In fact, the NT can even speak of the Pharisee Nicodemus as a “ruler [archōn] of the Jews” (Jn 3:1). Peter (Ac 4:8) and Paul (Ac 13:27) also speak of Israel’s religious leaders as “rulers.” Paul himself applies Ex 22:28 to the high priest after inadvertently rebuked him, apologizing by stating: “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Ac 23:5). Elsewhere the NT refers to other persons as “rulers” who are not technically “kings” (Lk 23:13, 35; Jn 7:26, 48; 12:42; Ac 4:5, 8; 13:27).

For our purposes we should note that “the Temple and high priesthood were the central and dominating political-economic institutions of ancient Judea, their religious dimension inseparable from their political-economic function” (Horsley 1995: 139). In fact, these are so concerned about Christ and his influence that they deliver him up to the Romans in order to protect “our place [authoritative position] and our nation” (Jn 11:48; cp. Mt 26:14–15, 47, 57-68; 27:1-2, 20-25, 41-43, 62-66). “The Temple hierarchy leading the Sanhedrin brings about Jesus’ death, in that they are the persons who hand him over to the Romans” (Witherington 1998: 200). Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was conducted in the high priest’s aulē (court yard), or palace (Mt 26:58, 69). They exercise their authority by pressuring the Roman procurator Pilate to condemn Christ even as they affirm their loyalty to Rome (Jn 19:6, 12, 15).

I would point out that several high priests can be alive at one time, in that “with the High Priests constantly changing, there was always a considerable number of them no longer in office. These too nevertheless occupied an important and influential position” (Schürer, History 2:232). This was because “the office conferred on its bearer an indelible stamp in virtue of which he retained, even in retirement, a large part of the rights and duties belonging to the officiating High Priests, including of course the title, archiereus” (Schürer, History 2:233). As the Mishnah (m. Hor. 3:4) notes: “a High Priest in office differs from a former High Priest only in regard to the bullock offered on the Day of Atonement and the Tenth of the Ephah….”

The opposition to Christ and his followers arose from the religious authorities in Israel. In fact, as Klink (2008:112) notes: “it is likely that the tension had existed from the very beginning of the Christian movement.” Alexander (in Dunn 1992, 19) observes that “opposition ranged from central authorities in Jerusalem (the High Priest and the Sanhedrin) to leaders of the local synagogues. It extended from Palestine (both Galilee and Jerusalem) to the Diaspora (e.g., Asia Minor and Achaea). It began in the time of Jesus himself and continued unabated in the period after the crucifixion.” Wenham (1997:149–78) and Robinson (1985:81–86) agree. We see this even in Scripture in the example of Paul (Ac 9:1–2; 22:5; 26:10).

Later on in the commentary (see 16:13; 19:20; 20:10; cp. 13:11) I will argue that the “false prophet,” aka the “beast coming up out of the Land,” highlights the high priestly office particularly. This differs slightly from the denotation of the “kings of the earth” which includes the high priest along with other members of the Sanhedrin and perhaps other prominent religious leaders.

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