- βασιλεύς (basileus) = king
- βασιλεία (basileia) = kingdom
Basileus = King
The Greek word βασιλεύς is found in English derivatives such as basil (“royal herb”) and basilic (“royal building”). The feminine form, βασίλισσα (basilissa, “queen”) occurs four times in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament culture, it was almost a given that a city state or nation had a king. In the New Testament, it is more complicated. In the Roman context, rex “king” was almost a dirty word. The Romans were proud to have liberated themselves from the oppression of kings and established a republic. Even though their emperors were in practice very much like kings, they carefully avoided this term. In the Roman mindset, only barbarians had a king.
When Jesus is accused of “making himself basileus” (John 19:12), governor Pilate cannot ignore it. Any self-appointed basileus would be in competition with the emperor but culturally inferior, and therefore endanger all of civilization. The Jewish leaders were looking for the King, the Son of David, but condemn Jesus because he offends them; the Roman officials approve of this condemnation, because a Jewish king would be the apex of uncivilized barbarianism. And Pontius Pilate has his sweet revenge on the Jewish leaders by writing on Jesus’ cross: Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαῖων (Iêsous ho Nazôraios, ho Basileus tôn Ioudaiôn). This, says Pilate, is what a Jewish king looks like to any civilized person. When the Jews protest, the unflappable governor responds, with efficient use of the perfect tense: ὃ γέγραφα γέγραφα (ho gegrafa, gegrafa): “What I have written, I have written”; it says what is says.
BASILEIA = KINGDOM
The Greek ending -ια makes words into abstract nouns. It can be added to roots of verbs, adjectives, and nouns. In the case of βασιλεύς “king”, the root is βασιλεϝ- (basilew-); combined with the ending -ια we obtain βασιλεία (basileia), kingdom.
The primary meaning of βασιλεία is “kingship”, the state of being king, but it is often used in a more concrete sense of “reign” or “realm”. (On a side note, both of these English words derive from the Latin rex, “king”.)
BASILEIA tou theou = KINGDOM of God
In the New Testament, we especially encounter the expressions
- βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (basileia tou theou) = “kingdom of God”
- βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (basileia tôn ouranôn) = “kingdom of heaven”
In each of these noun phrases, the noun βασιλεία is followed by an attributive genitive; that is, a group of words in the genitive case that gives further information about the “kingdom”. Thus, τοῦ θεοῦ (tou theou) is the genitive case of ὁ θεός (ho theos); and like most attributive genitives, we efficiently translate with “of”: “the kingdom of God”. Likewise, τῶν οὐρανῶν (tôn ouranôn) is the genitive case of the plural of οὐρανός (ouranos) “heaven”; and so the literal translation is “kingdom of the heavens”.
The expression basileia tôn ouranôn “kingdom of heaven” is only used in the gospel of Matthew, and has the same meaning as basileia tou theou “kingdom of God”. A possible explanation is that Matthew followed the Jewish custom of referring to God obliquely rather than directly. (Compare Luke 15:18, “I have sinned against heaven” instead of against God.)
Hê basileia tou theou, “the kingdom of God”, is the central theme of Jesus’ preaching. See e.g. Mark 1:15: ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (êngiken hê basileia tou theou), “The kingdom of God has come near.” According to Acts 1:3, after his resurrection Jesus discussed with his disciples τὰ περὶ τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ (ta peri tês basileias tou theou), “the matters concerning the Kingdom of God”. The very last thing we hear about the Apostle Paul, in Acts 28:31, is that he was boldly proclaiming τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ (tên basileia tou theou) by teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.
For the Jews, and those who had been frequenting the Jewish synagogues, the idea of the basileia tou theou was nothing new. It was at the heart of their Messianic expectation. When Jesus and apostles tell them that the Kingdom has come, they understand the claim. Jesus’ teaching especially focused on the nature of that kingdom, which was less political and more spiritual, less earthly and more heavenly, less about power and more about loving care.