Prior to the coming of Christ’s spirit upon God-fearing gentiles, and before the penetration of Paul’s gospel into greater pagan society, Jesus’ mission was directed exclusively towards the people of Israel (cf. Matthew 10:5-6, 15:24, Romans 15:8, Hebrews 2:16, cf. Galatians 2:7): “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” the Matthean Jesus assures. And yet, in Jesus’ mind even this modest assignment would prove impossible given his truncated apocalyptic timeframe: the disciples, let alone Jesus himself, would not reach “all the towns of Israel” with their gospel before the day of the Lord and the establishment of God’s kingdom over the nations (Matthew 10:23, 16:27-28).
Furthermore, though compliant gentiles might stand to benefit from Israel’s Davidic kingdom when it arrived in the not-so-distant future, no gentile mission would be necessary or, for that matter, desired. For, in accordance with Israel’s ancestral promises, the kingdom belonged to God’s people, the pious descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to gentiles, no matter how righteous. Israel alone would shatter recalcitrant idolaters and rule over the pagans-turned-God-fearers when a son of David sat upon the Lord’s throne once more (cf. Isaiah 60:12-16).
With this original and limited scope of the Christian message in view, a few texts suggest that Jesus made room for noble pagans in God’s kingdom not just as subjects, but as honored guests—when the kingdom arrived and brought to an end the idolatry of the nations, that is. Such pagans, sometimes characterized merely by their kindness toward Christians, would, for instance, dine with Israel’s Patriarchs at the end of the age (Matthew 8:11).
Christ’s pagan sheep
The idea that a kind of salvation might be extended to pagans on the day of judgement is most readily visible in the parable of the sheep and the goats, according to which the apocalyptic Christ will separate righteous “nations” from wicked “nations” (Matthew 25:32) based upon their treatment of his “weakest brothers” (25:40).1 Being that these “nations” (or “gentiles”) are distinguished from Christ’s brothers (i.e. his followers), they likely represent those (Greco-Roman) pagans and God-fearers2 who came into contact with Christians3 but never adopted their theological program. As in the oracle of judgement ascribed to an earlier Israelite prophet—the passage upon which this parable is inspired4—God administers justice “on account of” his people’s sufferings (Joel 3:2). The exalted son of man of Matthew 25:31-46 comes to curse those who curse his people and bless those who bless his people (cf. Genesis 12:3, Numbers 24:9).
These “weakest brothers” of Christ, moreover, plagued by hunger, thirst, neglect, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment, represent those Christians most vulnerable to persecution and its effects (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:16-29)—not Christians in a timeless or general sense. Their work as Christ’s reviled servants and prophets will, according to the parable, be vindicated on the day of the Lord. They, along with those unbelieving sheep who aided their cause, will inherit authority in the kingdom: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…” (Matthew 25:34-35). Such just pagans will attain honor not by a faith in or an allegiance to God’s son, but by the kindness they unwittingly showed him. When this unknown lord arrives from heaven and is installed as emperor in place of the pagan god-man, such pagans will then realize the recipient of their beneficence towards the churches.
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?…’ ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my bothers, you did it to me.’Matthew 25:37-40
The purpose of judgement
This dispensation shown towards noble pagans calls into question the purpose and nature of “final” judgement in early Christian thought. What we have here and in other eschatological parables5 is not a general appraisal of every individual’s moral constitution. For apocalyptically-minded Christians, rather, the impending judgement was intended to rectify two primary problems: On the one hand, beleaguered Christians and their faithful churches must be publicly vindicated, exalted, and rewarded. On the other hand, those individuals, authorities, and gods that persecuted the saints must be publicly shamed, deposed, and punished. Paul and others encapsulate these two themes in their apocalyptic visions: “It is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, cf. Revelation 16:5-6). We therefore have here less a universal reckoning and more a reversal of specific wrongs borne by a specific people.6 Indeed, these particular sufferings, those endured by God’s people at the hands of pagan (and Jewish) socio-political groups on the heels of the last day, bring into being the biblical vision of apocalyptic justice.
Accordingly, some Christians found it appropriate to reward helpful pagans with a promised eschatological repayment. The parable of the sheep and the goats remains a witness to this short-lived arrangement. There, in exchange for mitigating the church’s ignominy, exemplary pagans are given a lasting inheritance in the Christian eschatological story: “Come… inherit the kingdom prepared for you” (Matthew 25:34). Though they have not yet renounced their worship of the decrepit gods, they unintentionally betray such deities by assisting Christ and his eschatological community. In Paul’s word, the “conflicting thoughts” of these “doers of the law” may “perhaps excuse” pagans on the day of the Lord’s wrath against “the Greek” (i.e. the idolatrous world) (Romans 2:12-16).7
While later Christians such as Dante may not have been so generous to the souls of noble pagans, barring them from eternal life in the fullest sense, they gave glorious life to their memory and reputation among the now-Christian nations. Medieval Christendom, now safely on the other side of the eschaton, recognized that pagan figures like Socrates, Aristotle, and Virgil had liberally aided the church in the construction of its own ethical, political, and philosophical frameworks.8
1—NRSV helpfully translates τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων this as “least of these who are members of my family.”
2—As the parable is told in order to assure weathered Christians of their eventual vindication vis-à-vis the peoples of Rome, the judgement of believers (and barbarians) is probably not in view here. Other parables address Christ’s judgement of the Christian community (Talents, Bridesmaids, Doorman, etc.). Believers who failed to love fellow members of the collēgium would face retribution from heaven.
3—The parable as it stands in Matthew assumes some kind of ministry outside the bounds of Israel. Yet this need not be a ministry to gentiles. Even Paul made it his first priority to convert diaspora Jews, always travelling from synagogue to synagogue and rarely among pagan centers.
4—Joel 3 provides the formula with which the Matthean Jesus concocts his vision of international judgement. Close parallels include the gathering of all the nations (Joel 3:2; 11-12, cf. Matthew 25:32) and the basis for God’s punishment and restitution: “[The Lord] will enter into judgment with [all the nations] there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down… You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border…. [Egypt and Edom shall lie desolate] because of the violence done to the people of Judah… I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty” (Joel 3:2-3; 6; 19; 21, cf. Matthew 25:40). The specific peoples responsible for Judah’s suffering are repaid in kind; only Tyre, Sidon, Philistia, Egypt, and Edom receive mention.
5—As in the parable of the sheep and goats, so in the parable of the weeds. Two groups are depicted: the “children of the kingdom” sown by the son of man and the “children of the evil one” sown by the Devil (Matthew 13:36-43). The former community, (Jewish) believers, are, as is common to early Christian polemic, hampered and persecuted not by strictly human agents but by the children of Satan (cf. Matthew 13:18-23, 25:41-43). Through the use of imperial authority and social pressures, Satan and his pagan coworkers attempted to spread moral compromise and apostasy (Matthew 13:41, cf. Revelation 2:9-10).
6—John’s final judgement by which all deeds are accounted for succeeds the reign of Christ’s kingdom over the earth (Revelation 20:11-13). This particular judgement should therefore be distinguished from most New Testament apocalyptic rhetoric which is decidedly historical and political in its aims (cf. Luke 1:46-55; 67-79).
7—Luke presents the Roman officials who rescue Paul from mobs, give him fair hearings, and aid him in his imprisonment as virtuous pagans (Acts 18:12-17, 21:30-36, 22:22-29, 23:26-30, 24:22-23, cf. Luke 23:47).
8—With pagan marginalization and persecution now behind the church—and thus apocalypticism along with it—the virtue of ancient pagans manifested not in good deeds rendered to Christians—as in the parable—but in the intellectual and literary legacy they bestowed upon Christendom.