I’m preparing for tomorrow morning’s Gospel Mission class, and in our reading (chapter 4 of Darrell Guder’s Missional Church) I saw an interesting footnote (p. 94, n. 22). Guder observes that although the NRSV that he relies on uses “kingdom” to translate the Greek basileia, he uses “reign” “because it better captures. . . the dynamic meaning of basileia, which refers to the reigning itself and thus secondarily the realm incorporated under such reigning.”
I don’t have a beef with a permissive reading of that note — “sometimes ‘reign’ better captures the sense of basileia as an abstract noun for ‘kingship’ rather than a term for a geopolitical entity.” A less elastic reading of Guder’s note, though, suggests that basileia “really means” something dynamic and non-spatial, rather than something spatial and political.
I have several objections to that less elastic reading. First, I can cite a goodly number of cases in which basileia seems manifestly to refer to an earthly geopolitical regime, rather than to a disembodied activity of “reigning.” In many more cases, the sense could go either way. Since I attribute meaning more to usage than to etymology or association, I’m impressed with the likelihood that basileia — which could clearly be used to indicate a political unit — tends in colloquial writing to refer more to “where So-and-so is in charge” than to “So-and-so’s condition of majesty.” Neither is excluded, but I see many more uses for the former than the latter in the literary ambiance of the New Testament.
Guder himself devotes fair attention to the spatial aspect of the basileia, and discusses at length the relation of the two aspects of the term. Since he’s quoting texts that refer to the “kingdom,” I don’t quibble with his choice to use “reign” where he’s not quoting. Still, the better solution would identify cases in which basileia refers to a kingdom, and those in which basileia refers to “reign” or “kingship” or “majesty,” and translate each accordingly.