The contributions of Scandinavian scholarship on Israelite notions of sacral kingship (i.e., the belief that the king is a divine or semi-divine figure who stands at the center of the people’s religious and political life) are widely known to OT scholarship through the names of Sigmund Mowinckel, Geo Widengren, Ivan Engnell, and others. Less work has been done, however, to examine the influence of sacral kingship on depictions of Christ in the NT and the church fathers. The signal contribution (also standing in the same strand of Scandinavian scholarship on sacral kingship) remedying this lack is Beskow’s monograph which presents “an account of the way in which the New Testament representation of Christ in royal categories lived on during the pre-Constantinian period; how it became enriched by its confrontation with Hellenistic culture; and how this development, in the course of doctrinal disputes of the 4th century, gave rise to that conception of Christ as King which dominated the theology of the Byzantine period and the Middle Ages in the West” (p. 9).
Beskow’s treatment of Christ’s kingship moves through three periods: the NT and post-Apostolic age, the pre-Constantinian period, and the period of the Arian conflict. His discussion of the NT’s depiction of Christ’s kingship is largely oriented to messianic titles (Christ, son of God, son of Man), and he demonstrates that almost all of them have a royal character. The NT authors typically associate Christ’s royal functions, including ruling, judging, and conquering, with his ascension (seen as a royal enthronement) and his eschatological return. Beskow also provides a helpful discussion of the royal connotations of κύριος in the NT and its wider religious context, showing how the application of this title, among other titles, made its way into early Christian discourse through scriptural exegesis, particularly exegesis of Israel’s Psalter. This insight segues naturally into his discussion of the so-called “testimonia tradition” and particularly Justin’s and Irenaeus’s defense of Jesus’s Messiahship through a messianic reading of the OT, a reading that makes effective use of those texts where another figure alongside Yahweh is named as “Lord” or “God” (e.g., Pss 24:7–10; 45:7–8; 110:1). These OT texts are used polemically to show that no other Israelite king can be seen as truly embodying the royal-messianic prophecies. Beskow helpfully provides a window into the reception history of the messianic interpretation and use of OT texts that played a foundational role in the construction of early Christian dogma (e.g., Gen 49; Num 24; Pss 2, 109; Isa 9, 11).
Beskow notes, however, that the Alexandrian fathers (primarily Clement and Origen) are not as dependent upon a messianic application of OT texts to Christ as they are to Hellenistic kingship discourse as mediated through Philo. Thus, Clement and Origen depict Christ as the Logos who is a shepherd, charioteer, and pilot – all standard titles for a Hellenistic king. They apply these royal titles to Christ in order to say something about his cosmic role in creating, upholding, and sustaining creation and the church. But they also employ Hellenistic notions of the ideal king as the supremely wise and just lawgiver to speak of Christ as the incarnated Logos who as “shepherd-king is the one who gives mankind the divine law and leads mean along the path of the royal wisdom” (p. 218).
When one reaches the period of the 4th century, one finds that both the Jewish messianic tradition and Hellenistic kingship ideology have been fused, for example, in the writings of Eusebius, the Arians, and the Nicene theologians. The Arians, Beskow argues, take Pss 2, 45, and 110 as indicators that Christ’s kingship begins at his birth whereas Athanasius considered Christ to have a double kingship: “as God he is King by nature; as man he has become King through his work of salvation” (p. 277). Christ is exalted to kingship (e.g., Phil 2:9) not for his own sake but so that humanity’s flesh may participate in his divine kingship—“he thereby make the Ascension into an enthronement of the human nature of Christ” (p. 279).
For whatever reason, Christ’s sacral kingship in the NT and the following centuries of the early church has not, I think it fair to say, had the same amount of attention devoted to it as has the sacral kingship of the kings of Israel (including the Ancient Near East and the Hellenistic and Roman periods). Beskow’s work, however, despite being dated now by some fifty years as well as perpetuating some outdated scholarly trends (e.g., positing a dichotomy between “the Alexandrians” and “the Antiochenes,” focusing on NT Christology through the use of titles, etc.), provides an incredible wealth of primary sources that demonstrate that Christ’s kingship was a theme that permeates the NT writings, the pre-Constantinian writers of the early church, and especially the portrait of Christ in the Byzantine period. Thus, those engaged in either the study of NT Christology or the patristic doctrinal formulations of the Trinity or the nature and identity of Christ cannot afford to ignore the depiction of him as a royal figure. There has been, as of late, a surge of interest in recovering the royal and messianic texture of Paul’s discourse – both with respect to Jewish messianism (see, for example, Matthew V. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012], reviewed in Them 37.3 ) and the perspective of Hellenistic kingship discourse (see now Julien Smith, Christ the Ideal King: Cultural Context, Rhetorical Strategy, and the Power of Divine Monarchy in Ephesians, WUNT 313 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012], reviewed in Them 37.2 ). The reprint of Beskow’s Rex Gloriae now makes this important work accessible to those pursuing similar research interests.