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On Hollowed Ground? The Ambivalent Territoriality of Saint Justin’s Interpretation of the Kingdom of God and Its Implications for Contemporary Christian Theological Reflection

One of the trends to emerge in recent theological discourse is a renewed focus on Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God. In particular, leading scholars have argued that Jesus’s kingdom vision was steeped within the first-century Jewish hope for Israel’s national restoration.[1] At the same time, however, several scholars have also argued that Jesus deterritorialized kingdom. More specifically, Jesus is said to have uncoupled the kingdom from Israel’s territorial borders and transformed Jewish national existence from a geographic state into a universal religioethical praxis.

John Howard Yoder, for instance, has argued that Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom is “a visible socio-political, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God.” Nevertheless, he also suggests that “the universality of God’s kingdom contradicts rather than confirms all particular solidarities and can be reached only by first forsaking the old aeon.”[2] Accordingly, Jesus’s kingdom proclamation confirms that statelessness is the normative sociopolitical posture for Christians.[3]

These arguments are striking not only for their internal tensions—the discomfiture between a political yet landless kingdom—but also because they are juxtaposed against a burgeoning discourse on the theological importance of place and placedness.[4] There is tension, then, between those who emphasize the placedness of the kingdom and those who obscure or ignore Israel’s landedness. Where does this ambivalence about the kingdom’s territorial placement arise? Is it simply consistent with newer trends of post-territorial and post-national politics? Or is it more pervasive and enduring, a sensibility intrinsic to the pilgrimage that is Christian existence?

A good place to begin answering these questions is Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100–165 CE) and his interpretation of the kingdom of God. Before delving into the specifics of his interpretation, it is important to first highlight the theological crucible from which it emerged. Particularly pertinent are Justin’s chiliastic eschatology and the theological error with which he was most consistently and passionately consumed: the heresy of Gnosticism.

The term chiliasm, from the Greek word khilioi meaning “one thousand,” refers to the future thousand-year, global kingdom established by Christ at his second coming, which is described in Revelation 20:1–6. Yet as Robert L. Wilken observes, for early theologians like Justin, chiliasm emphasized less “the idea of [Christ’s] thousand-year reign” and more “the belief that Christian hope is centered on a glorified Jerusalem that will come down from the heavens.”[5] It is this attention to the kingdom’s territorial placement that puts Justin at odds with the gnostics. It would be reductionistic to claim that Gnosticism is summed up by its denial of embodiment, but its ontological quest to be liberated from corporeal existence certainly makes it incompatible with orthodox Christianity and, more distantly, Justin’s view of the land.

Thus, whereas a gnostic soteriology presupposes disembodiment, an orthodox account of salvation asserts the exact opposite, inasmuch as Jesus’s incarnation testifies to the reality that “there is no accessing of the supramaterial apart from its revelation, and thus mediation, in the materiality of creation and the flesh.” Christ’s incarnation, in other words, not only refutes the gnostic impugnation of corporeality, but it also reaffirms that “Christ’s flesh as Jewish, covenantal flesh” is a “social-political reality displayed across time and space into which the Gentiles are received in praise of the God of Israel.”[6]

Having reviewed Justin’s critiques of Gnosticism, we can better understand his interpretation of the kingdom. Indeed this interpretation incorporates the countergnostic principles described above—that is, it generally affirms material existence and, more specifically, the concrete, historical continuity of Christianity and Judaism. Consider, for example, Justin’s description of the kingdom in Dialogue with Trypho.[7] When asked by his Jewish interlocutor whether he, a Christian, “really believe[s] that this place Jerusalem shall be rebuilt, and do you actually expect that you Christians will one day congregate there to live joyfully with Christ, together with the patriarchs, the prophets, the saints of our race, or even those who become proselytes before your Christ arrived?” Justin responds as follows:

If you have ever encountered any nominal Christians who do not admit of this doctrine, but dare to blaspheme the God of Jacob by asserting that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death, do not consider them to be real Christians. . . . Whereas I, and all other wholeheartedly orthodox Christians, feel certain that there will be a resurrection of the flesh, followed by a thousand years in the rebuilt, embellished, and enlarged city of Jerusalem, as was announced by the prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and others.[8]

This response is remarkable for its depth and complexity; nevertheless, three aspects stand out. Firstly, Justin rather begrudgingly concedes that there is a group of “nominal Christians” who reject the coincidence of the kingdom’s full eschatological consummation with a physically restored Jerusalem. Of course, it would be overly speculative to presume these “nominal Christians” were, in fact, gnostics given that Justin offers no further clue about their identity. Nonetheless, even if not gnostic by name, the spirit (if not the letter) of their beliefs comport with a gnostic penchant for rejecting the body.

Secondly, Justin notes an interdependence between the bodily resurrection of the dead and the territorial restoration of the kingdom. The two are inextricably linked, as a human soul cannot be fully resurrected apart from a human body any more than a resurrected body can fully dwell in the kingdom of God apart from its being replaced in a territorially restored Jerusalem. In Justin’s mind, both are predicated upon the fully restored materiality of the other.

Finally, there is Justin’s insistence that a denial of a territorially restored kingdom is blasphemous because such a kingdom is foretold by the prophets. Thus, not only does Justin reiterate the canonicity of the Hebrew Scriptures but he also reaffirms Christianity’s unbreakable continuity with Judaism. This does not mean, however, that Justin views Jesus simply as another Jewish prophet. Nor does he think Jesus is wholly disinterested in the kingdom’s territorial restoration. Instead, Justin views Jesus, in some sense, as repeating, yet also bringing into fuller completion, the prophetic promises of the kingdom’s eschatological restoration. Hence, he also writes in Dialogue with Trypho,

And just as [Joshua], not Moses, conducted the people into the Holy Land and distributed it by lot among those who entered, so also will Jesus the Christ gather together the dispersed people and distribute the good land to each, though not in the same manner. For Joshua gave them an inheritance for a time only, since he was not Christ our God, nor the Son of God; but Jesus, after the holy resurrection, will give us an inheritance for eternity. . . . After his coming the Father will, through [Jesus], renew heaven and earth. This is he who is to shine in Jerusalem as an eternal light.[9]

In juxtaposing Christ’s allocation of the land with Joshua’s, it is not the physical quality of the land that is being compared but the permanence of its distribution. Christ’s allocation is final and eternal whereas Joshua’s is considered temporary. Nevertheless, Justin is still convinced that Christ’s restoration of the kingdom entails nothing less than a physical return to Israel’s land.

Thus, Justin is sure that the future consummation of Christ’s eschatological kingdom will be firmly entrenched within a Palestinian territorial locale. Furthermore, his emphasis on the materiality of the kingdom directly coincides with his commitments to preserve the materiality of creation and the concrete connection between Christianity and Judaism. Yet Justin also undermines the concrete realities of Israel, the body, and the land.

Consider, for example, the relationship he sees between Gentile Christians and the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. His first move is to once again affirm the continued legitimacy of those covenants and their complementarity with Christianity. “But,” he continues with a caveat that portends significant departure, “our hope is not through Moses or through the Law, otherwise our customs would be the same as yours.” On the contrary, he concludes that not only is the “law promulgated at Horeb . . . already obsolete,” but it is also nullified since “a later law in opposition to an older law abrogates the older.” That being the case, Gentile Christians “have been led to God through this crucified Christ, and we are the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.”[10]

In one fell swoop Justin has gone from resolutely affirming Christianity’s dependency on Israel to not only calling that dependency into question but, in fact, declaring it defunct. The previous carnal and historical dependence on Israel has thus suddenly given way to spiritual independence.

This independence takes on an even sharper edge when Justin considers the Jews’ denial of Jesus’s lordship, an intransigence that according to Justin ultimately causes Yahweh to replace carnal Israel with the church. As he writes:

Since God blesses and calls this people [Gentile Christians] Israel, and announces aloud that it is his inheritance, why do you not feel compunction both for fooling yourselves by imagining that you alone are the people of Israel, and for cursing the people whom God has blessed? Indeed when he spoke to Jerusalem and its surrounding communities, he said, “And I will beget men upon you, my people Israel, and they shall inherit you, and you shall be their inheritance, and you shall no more be bereaved by them of children.”[11]

Absent here is any sense of the historical and material continuity that previously permeated Justin’s discussions of the kingdom.

Of course such a provocative and defamatory claim elicits no small measure of incredulity and indignation from Trypho. “Do you mean to say,” he asks of Justin, “that you [i.e., Gentile Christians] are Israel and that God says all this about you?”[12] Lest Justin’s previous statement let any doubt linger, he doubles down with emphatic boldness:

If you have ears to hear it, in Isaiah, God, speaking of Christ in parable, calls him Jacob and Israel. This is what he says: “Jacob is my servant, I will uphold him; Israel is my elect. I will put my spirit upon him and he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall neither strive nor cry, nor shall any one hear his voice in the streets. The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench, but he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall shine, and shall not be broken, till he set judgment in the earth; and in his name shall the Gentile trust.” Therefore, as your whole people was called after that one Jacob, surnamed Israel, so we who obey the precepts of Christ are, through Christ who begot us to God, both called and in reality are, Jacob and Israel and Judah and Joseph and David and true children of God.[13]

Hence, a deep-seated ambivalence marks Justin’s interpretations of the kingdom as well as his understanding of Judaism.

As Paula Friedreksen notes, from one side, Justin’s thought is thoroughly Jewish “to the degree that [he] insisted that Christ had had a fleshly body, that he had indeed descended from the house of David, and that the entirety of the Septuagint, understood correctly, actually referred to Christ and his church.” Furthermore, because Justin did not think creation “itself was evil,” he insisted it was just as essential to envision the kingdom’s eschatological restoration as “a thousand-year-long Sabbath in a renewed and resplendent Jerusalem” as it was to envision a bodily resurrection.[14]

At the same time, however, Justin continued to view Jewish obduracy toward Christ as symptomatic of a larger, congenital defect, namely a Jewish insistence to read both the Scriptures and the kingdom “in a carnal way,” such that both were “interpret[ed] literally rather than allegorically.”[15] Accordingly, while Justin’s millennialism reiterated a territorial interpretation of the kingdom, his quasi-gnostic reading of Yahweh’s covenants with Israel ultimately interjected a theological and material fissure between Christianity and Judaism, as well as between the kingdom and the land of Israel.

Recognizing this cleavage allows us to observe how Justin’s critique of Gnosticism fails to carry over and inform his chiliasm and eschatology. On the one hand, he believed that God’s kingdom had always been and would always remain landed. On the other hand, however, the territorial particularity of Israel no longer held any theological significance by virtue of Christ’s “greater” revelation. The kingdom had already been replaced, both theologically and geographically, by the catholic Christian community known as the church.

To conclude, I will now briefly address how Justin’s interpretation of the kingdom foregrounds contemporary theological discussions about land and place. Two lines in particular stand out. The first is the recognition that Jesus’s incarnation designates place and land not just as instrumental theological categories but as essential ones. Gary M. Burge makes this point persuasively:

The Gospels do not talk about the revelation of Christ without referring to the place where it happened. Location is valuable because history is important. In the New Testament the incarnation is a genuine embrace of human life with all of its particularities. And what emerges is the wedding of theology and history which together form the nexus of how Christians begin to think about their world and Christ.[16]

And the second contemporary theological perspective on land that seems to parallel the work of Justin is an increased awareness that Christian theology is so inescapably placed and landed that it cannot ignore or displace Israel. As Scott Bader-Saye argues, “The church looks to the Jews not just because they embody something that the church wants to imitate but more importantly because the church’s own life and story are unintelligible apart from this people and their God.”[17]

Therefore, both Burge and Bader-Saye echo Justin’s landed interpretation of the kingdom of God. Both possess a parallel commitment to preserve the historicity and materiality of Christian faith as well as its relationship with the ongoing reality of God’s covenant with Israel. And yet, even as they affirm the theological importance of Israel’s place in Christian theology, they also, like Justin, ultimately speak in ways that undermine the importance of a landed Israel in a manner mimicking Justin’s replacement logic.

For instance, when further exploring the implications Jesus’s incarnation has for Christian theology of the land, Burge contends, “For a Christian to return to a Jewish territoriality is to deny fundamentally what has transpired in the incarnation. It is to deflect appropriate devotion to the new place where God has appeared in residence, namely, in his Son. . . . He is the new spatiality, the new locale where God may be met.” Bader-Saye offers a comparable sentiment when he examines the role of the Eucharist. For although the eucharistic celebration “does not replace the land,” the body of Jesus nevertheless “becomes the material site of redemption.” Consequently, the “gift of eucharistic peace is a siteless participation in God’s coming redemption. . . . In this fleshly gift, this body that is the soil of God’s redemption, Christians taste peace and are made into peaceful citizens in God’s holy land.”[18]

Once again then, Burge and Bader-Saye’s interpretations bear a strong family resemblance to Justin’s conception of the kingdom. Positively, they all declare land, placement, and Israel to be essential for Christian theological reflection because of the materiality and historicity of Jesus’s incarnation. Negatively, however, all believe this same incarnation also replaces and, thus, removes the historicity and materiality of Israel’s territorial particularity.

What, then, are we to make of these negative theological assessments regarding Israel’s territoriality? More specifically, do they create a set of problems that not only undermine a proper theological interpretation of the kingdom, with respect to place and land in particular, but also Christian theology in toto?

As theologians James McClendon and Nancey Murphy have persuasively argued, while human embodiment is not, in and of itself, sufficient to the task of Christian ethical reflection, it is most undeniably necessary.[19] Furthermore, both McClendon and Murphy have acknowledged that a Christian moral agent exists as an embodied moral self, placed within a particular territorial locale. Indeed, if one grants the premise that Christian morality is always embodied, by virtue of the fact that both Christ and Christians are always embodied, then one must extend this logic further and admit that territoriality too is an essential Christian ethical modality insofar as both Christians and their embodied moral practices are always territorially placed.

Thus, to deny the territoriality of Israel deprives Christian theological reflection of the very historical and material sources required to be politically normative. Without access to such sources, not only does such an ethic run the risk of becoming something less than Christian, but it also loses its capacity to be political, as it fails to demonstrate to a watching and waiting world an alternative praxis for how places and land should be lived in and governed.

A dismissal of Israel’s territoriality also further compounds the theological error that Kendal Soulen describes as structural supersessionism. Structural supersessionism claims that the Old Testament is rendered “largely indecisive for shaping conclusions about how God’s purposes engage creation in universal and enduring ways.” In particular, it “drives an historical wedge between the gospel and the God of Israel by collapsing God’s covenant with Israel into the economy of redemption in its prefigurative form” and thus “misinterprets redemption in Christ as deliverance from God’s history with Israel and the nations.”[20]

Accordingly, I would contend that the replacement of Israel’s territoriality with the spatiality of Christ or the church is a corollary of structural supersessionism in two ways. First, such a hermeneutic is structurally closed off from not only the carnality of Israel’s people but also their territoriality. Second, it also implies that the land of Israel has no lasting theological import for public and political life. In short, it is to recapitulate the gnostic error of wanting to separate Christianity’s place in the economy of redemption to the placedness of Israel’s covenant.

I began this essay with John Howard Yoder’s observation that the radicality of Jesus’s kingdom proclamation consisted in its opening up of Israel’s covenant to make it more inclusive and universal. Yoder also articulated this sentiment in another way, by saying that the Gospel is good news “for the nations.”[21] However, in light of the theological importance of place in general and Israel’s land in particular, it is now necessary to recognize that the very reason Jesus’s kingdom vision was good news for the nations was because it was first good news for the nation of Israel.


[1] A representative but by no means exhaustive list of works advancing some variation of this thesis includes Marcus Borg’s Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York, NY: Continuum International, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas’s The Peaceable Kingdom (South Bend,IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991); Richard A. Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1993); Scot McKnight’s A New Vision For Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999); Halvor Moxnes’s Putting Jesus in His Place: A Radical Vision of Household and Kingdom (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003); E. P. Sanders’s Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985); Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003); N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1996); and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994).

[2] Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 32; and Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 58.

[3] See Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 51–78. See also The Jewish Christian Schism, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003).

[4] Such works that have received more critical attention and acclaim are Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011); Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 2002); Timothy Gorringe, A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment and Redemption (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Dorian Llywelyn, Toward a Catholic Theology of Nationality (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2010); and Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[5] Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 56.

[6] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 25 and 30.

[7] See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls, ed. Michael Slusser (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003).

[8] Dialogue with Trypho, 1.80.3–5.

[9] Ibid., 1.113.3–5.

[10] Ibid., 1.113.3–5, 11.2, and 11.5; emphasis added.

[11] Ibid., 123.4–5.

[12] Ibid., 123.7.

[13] Ibid., 123.8–9; emphasis added.

[14] Paula Friedreksen, “The Birth of Christianity and the Origins of Christian Anti-Judaism” Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust, eds. Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 25.

[15] Ibid., 26.

[16] Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,,2010), 126.

[17] Bader-Saye, Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock,, 1999), 25.

[18] Burge, 129–130; Bader-Saye, 144–145.

[19] McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002); Murphy, Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[20] Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1996), 16 and 110. Emphasis is the author’s.

[21] Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Public (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 3. As Yoder writes in this volume’s introduction, “Each of the following essays argues, though each in a somewhat different key, that the very shape of the people of God in the world is a public witness, or is ‘good news,’ for the world, rather than first of all rejection or withdrawal. Where the attitude to world needs to be rejection or retreat, that is determined contextually, because of the world’s recalcitrant response to that initial noncoercive, yea vulnerable affirmation. I call these essays ‘evangelical’ in the root sense of the term, having to do with being bearers of good news for the world” (6).

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Nicholas R. Brown :
Nicholas R. Brown is a PhD candidate in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and an adjunct faculty at Loyola Marymount University.