“Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” in Matthew

By: Garrett Best

I have been persuaded by the consensus of scholarship on the Gospels that Mark was the first Gospel to be written (commonly referred to as “Marcan priority”). The prevailing consensus is that Mark wrote first, then Matthew and Luke independently used Mark and another source (commonly called “Q”) to construct their Gospels. This is referred to as the Two Source Hypothesis. This is an interesting launching point to study the Synoptic Gospels. Because Matthew used Mark (nearly 90% of Mark in fact), we can examine the ways in which Matthew has edited Mark to reflect his own emphases.

Mark (and subsequently Luke) record Jesus preaching about the “kingdom of God” (henceforth KOG). Matthew uniquely records Jesus preaching about the “kingdom of heaven” (henceforth KOH). I am a curious guy and I want to know, “Well, which was it? Did Jesus use the phrase KOH or KOG? Or, did he use both?” If the man Jesus did used KOH in his teaching, why is the phrase totally absent from both Mark and Luke? Although the Gospel of John probably has no literary relationship to the Synoptics, it is interesting that Jesus only utters KOG in John (John 3:3,5). Paul, nor any other author in the New Testament besides Matthew uses the phrase KOH. A brief examination of the evidence reveals that Matthew is the only New Testament writer who records KOH on the lips of Jesus or who even uses the phrase KOH.

We can say more. There are twelve instances where Matthew uses KOH where Mark and/or Luke has KOG (4:17; 5:3; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11; 11:12; 13:11; 13:31; 13:33; 19:14; 19:23; 22:2). As Matthew was writing his Gospel with a copy of Mark sitting in front of him, he seems to almost systematically change Mark’s KOG to the phrase KOH (cf. 4:17; 13:11; 13:31; 19:14; 19:23). Take Matthew 19:14 and Mark 10:14 for example. Mark has Jesus saying, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” Matthew records almost the exact same quotation with one major difference. He uses KOH instead of KOG.

We can say more still. Matthew uses KOH in 20 instances where neither Mark nor Luke have a parallel (3:2; 5:10; 5:19a; 5:20; 7:21b; 13:24; 13:44; 13:45; 13:47; 13:52; 16:19a; 18:1; 18:3; 18:4; 18:23; 19:12; 20:1; 23:13; 25:1). Judging by the number of uses, Matthew clearly likes the phrase KOH. This means that Matthew has a total of 32 occurrences of the phrase KOH (12 which he has changed from Mark or Q and 20 which are uniquely Matthean).

Why does Matthew prefer the phrase KOH while neither Mark nor Luke (or even John) preserves a single instance of it? Until recently, scholars believed they knew the answer. The ancient Jews sometimes avoided using God’s divine name out of respect and awe. They wouldn’t write or utter the divine name (YHWH). There are even examples in the Old Testament where Jewish writers used words to describe God while not using his name. For example, in Daniel 4:26, the writer uses “Heaven” as a substitute for God. In the ESV translation, “Heaven” is capitalized indicating they believe this word “Heaven” is a way of referring to God. This example is particularly important because “heaven” is used here as a substitute for “God.” Thus, scholars believed Matthew, writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, is doing something similar to Daniel 4:26. He’s substituting “heaven” for “God”. Matthew actually does this very thing in his Gospel as well (cf. 21:25). The big word for this is called “metonymy”. For example, someone might say, “lend me your ear.” “Ear” is being used to indicate “give me your attention”. Thus, scholars believed that Mathew avoided KOG out of reverence for God’s name. Matthew thus avoided using the Greek word “theos” which means “God” out of respect. Scholars believed KOH was a phrase that allowed Matthew to convey the same meaning as KOG while avoiding disrespecting God’s name by writing it. I can’t overstate that this has been the dominant (almost unanimous) consensus among biblical scholars to explain this phenomenon.

In 2007, Jonathan Pennington wrote a book called¬†Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew and in my opinion successfully challenged and debunked the then consensus view. Pennington makes some important observations. First and foremost, if Matthew was trying to avoid using “theos” (God) out of reverence, he did a terrible job. Matthew uses “theos” (God) 51 times. Matthew uses “theos” more than Mark (50 times)! If he is trying to edit “theos” (God) out of Mark, he did a poor editing job. Pennington makes the important point that Matthew doesn’t seem to be interested in removing the term “theos” (God) from his Gospel. I can’t even conceive how one could disagree with that.

Second, Pennington observed that Matthew retains four instances of KOG (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43). Many scholars who believed Matthew was avoiding the phrase KOG had difficulty explaining these four exceptions. In fact, some even attributed it to Matthew’s sloppy editing. They said that maybe Matthew was just experiencing “editorial fatigue” when he arrived at those four passages. They opine that when Matthew got to those four passages, he accidentally copied KOG. Had he been more awake and alert, he would’ve caught his mistake and inserted KOH for KOG. This view fails for two main reasons. First, Matthew proves himself to be a highly skilled literary artist which has been demonstrated amply in scholarship. Any view which posits him as a lazy or sloppy editor simply won’t hold. Second, 19:23-24 presents the biggest challenge to this view. Within two verses Matthew uses both KOH and KOG. Why would he edit one and accidentally leave the other? The retention of KOG in these four instances seems intentional rather than accidental.

Why does Matthew use KOH while Mark and Luke (and John) only use KOG? Why does he seem to systematically change his sources to reflect KOH? Finally, why did he leave those four instances of KOG? Stay tuned for the next post.

If you want to read Pennington in his own words, you can check him out here.

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2 comments

  1. Given the number of other instances of Matthean fatigue (eg: Herod going from tetrarch to king, etc), it is no insult at all to Matthew to assume the four KoG references were unintentional. As the term KoH is unique to Matthew throughout the New Testament, editorial fatigue seems (at least to me) a far simpler explanation of the four uses of KoG. Not only is Matthean fatigue obviously demonstrable against Mark and Q, but it also offers circumstantial evidence for the existence of M.

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