Can you figure this out?

Can you figure this out?

I was really intending to begin work on a condensed treatment of the Kingdom (more fully explored in my 1993 volume, Citizens of the Kingdom), when I noticed something that I had missed previously, and have not seen treated anywhere.
It is well known that only Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of heaven” where Mark and Luke use “Kingdom of God.”  But upon closer observation, I noted that in all of Matthew’s 31 references to the “kingdom of heaven”, the word ouranos, “heaven”, appears in the plural – ton ouranon. (Those “o’s” in the endings are omegas.)  This does not show up in any translations of which I am aware, probably because a plural would sound awkward in English.  I have not found any credible explanation.

The lexicons are no help.  Liddell/Scott (Oxford) does not treat the question at all.  It simply lists the primary meaning as “sky”, and secondary “the abode of the gods above the visible sky”.  They note that philosophically, the term referred to the physical universe, and later to anything shaped like a dome or vault – even the roof of one’s mouth! – or a tent, dome, or lid for a container.  Bauer’s NT lexicon comments that the choice of singular or plural seems random.  (Maybe it is!)  Thayer gets very theological about it,  but does not offer consistent evidence.

Matthew’s other uses of “heaven” are nearly evenly divided between singulars (21) and plurals (20).  The phrase “Father in heaven” uses predominantly the plural, but when it is expressed with a participle, it is singular in form.  References to “treasure in heaven” appear with both singular and plural, as do the two conversations regarding “binding and loosing.”  The source of “voices,” “signs,” and “angels/messengers” also uses both.  I have been unable to discern any coherent pattern.

The other gospel writers aren’t much help either.  All of them consistently use “Kingdom of God” rather than “of heaven”, and their other uses of “heaven” are fewer, but no more consistent.  Mark has 12 singulars and 6 plurals (with “angels/messengers” in both).  Luke has 24 singulars and only 4 plurals, some of which reverse Mark’s choices.  In Acts, he uses no plurals at all.  Neither does John, in gospel, letters, or the Revelation.

The epistles offer a grand mix.  At first it seemed like Paul’s earlier writings used singular forms of “heaven”, and later ones the plural, but I Thess. uses one plural, and Col.4:1 a singular  (in the same context where Eph.6:9 uses a plural!), so one cannot make a pattern there.  Hebrews has 2 singulars and 3 plurals (one a footnoted inclusion).  James has 2 singulars, as does Peter who also throws in a plural.

I’ll be grateful if some of you will dig out your Young’s Concordances and weigh in with any insight you may have.  You will need to find the singulars and plurals by the use of a Greek text – if you do not read Greek easily, you can do it with an interlinear, which will allow you to locate the word.  For the forms of a noun, please see the appendix to my Translation Notes.  They are easy to recognize, if you know what to look for.

Please don’t use this invitation as a dumping ground for Dante-esque fantasies of multiple layers and such, or for fanciful diagrams that have their basis in doctrinal speculations rather than the Scripture text.
The word “heaven” may also deserve deeper study; but here, the question is simply the implication – if any (there may not be one!) – of the shift between singular and plural.

Remember that Word Study deals with the Biblical usage of a word, contextually, grammatically, and lexically.  The only “commentary” that is relevant is the text itself.  Within these parameters, all suggestions are fair game.

Thanks for your participation!

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3 Responses to Can you figure this out?

  1. Michael says:

    I just checked the Psalms in the Septuagint, and something similar occurs there; Psalm 18:1 reads, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” but v. 6 begins, “His departure is from the edge of heaven.” In some cases, a stock phrase is consistent (in Matthew, it’s always “kingdom of the heavens,” not “of heaven,” and “birds of heaven,” not “of the heavens”) but otherwise it seems to be nothing more than a stylistic variation, like Christ Jesus versus Jesus Christ.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Thanks. I suspect that may be true — we will see what anyone else comes up with.

  3. Dan Martin says:

    Mom, it might be interesting to ask a rabbi or two about this, as (I’m guessing) Jewish cosmology and/or astrology may have had a bearing on the use of the words. Not–do not misunderstand me–that Matthew or Jesus himself was into astrology, but I understand anecdotally that there was an interesting mix of ideas in the culture of second-temple Judaism that may have led to the vocabulary you describe.

    Of course I don’t know any rabbis to ask. . .

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