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Jesus Said, "the Skies" not "Heaven"
Understanding Jesus's view of the higher realm.
Nothing in Jesus’s words may be as misunderstood today as the Greek word translated as “heaven.” It meant something vastly different to those to whom Jesus spoke than our concept today. The Greek words translated as “heaven,” mean “the skies.” Nowhere does Jesus equate this term with the afterlife, though he does give it as the location of the Divine. Our idea of “heaven” is closer to Zoroastrianism than anything taught by Jesus. To make Jesus’s word appear as though the reference “heaven,” two major changes are made in translation. The frequently plural Greek word for “skies” is made into a singular word, “heaven.” The definite article used to introduce it is left out. Why? Because today’s preachers teach that there is only one heaven. Jesus’s use of both the singular, “the sky” and the plural, “the skies,” contradicts that idea.
The Greek word, ouranos,(οὐρανός) means "vault of the sky", "sky", "universe," and "climate." To the Greeks, it also meant the “home of the gods,” the sun, planets, and some stars being seen as gods. This word in the singular is the name of the father of the Greek gods, Ouranos, translated into the English, Uranus. Understanding this, we can see how Jesus’s idea of a sky Father, would resonate with the Greek speaking world that he lived in, especially outside of Judea.
Jesus’s Innovative Use of “the Skies”
Jesus uses this phrase more than anyone else in the Bible, Old or New Testament, in a hundred and eleven verses, only about six percent of his verses, but forty percent of the times this word is used in the New Testament, Jesus using it three times more frequently than those writing the Gospels and epistles. Since he used the term so much more often, “the skies” was much more important to his perspective than it was for later Biblical writers. My view of this word, and all other Greek words, is that if New Testament writers use them differently than Jesus did, it is their human, fallible side showing, since Jesus, and especially Jesus’s words, are more divine than anything else in the Bible.
Jesus describes “the skies” most often with the phrase, “the realm of the skies,” (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν), that gets translated as, “the kingdom of heaven.” This phrase is the topic for another article in the future, but it too is never connected to the afterlife. Jesus uses this phrase thirty-one times, making up about 30% of his verses referencing “the skies” or “heaven.” This concept of a sky realm did not exist in Judaism, at least in these terms, the phrase never occurring in the Greek Old Testament. It was Jesus’s major innovation to existing teaching.
We can see that “the skies” was not a meaningful part of traditional Judaism by looking at the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, where ouranos appears only 482 times, most frequently as the source of rain, seldom in the plural, never as the dwelling place of God. The closest the Septuagint comes to associating the sky with God is Isaiah 66:1, which describes the sky as God’s throne and the Earth as his footstool, a quote Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. However, the most relevant Septuagint verse using this term may be Isaiah 55:9 where “the sky” is used as a metaphor for how much higher the ways of the Divine are than our ways, but this too is misleading since the term for “sky” doesn’t appear in the original Hebrew, coming to us from its addition in the Greek.
Jesus never relates the phrase “realm of the skies” with the afterlife. The closest Jesus comes to describing the “heaven” and “hell” we imagine is in the Parable of Lazarus starting in Luke 16:20. This parable never references “the realm of the skies” or “the skies.” The term Jesus uses to describe the good place is translated biblically as “the bosom of Abraham,” but the meaning of the Greek is closer to “the belly of Abraham.” Despite the many parables describing “the realm of the skies,” none of them describe the afterlife, which Jesus describes in terms a “standing up,” (Matthew 22:30) translated as “resurrection.”
The Plural and Singular
Of course, Biblical translators always translate ouranos, as a singular “heaven’ because, theologically, there is only one heaven. For the same reason, there is no need for a definite article, “the” heaven to distinguish it from all the other heavens. However, the way Jesus used this word requires the plural and the definite article as well.
Jesus uses both singular and plural forms of ouranos, but the plural is much more common, accounting for over eighty percent of its references. For example, the phrase from the Lord's Prayer "which art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9) is really "the one in the skies" (ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς). This phrase too, “in the skies,” is common, but several different prepositions are translated as “in” so they may mean slightly different things. However, in one verse, Matthew 7:21, Jesus uses both singular, “sky,” and plural, “skies,” together, the singular from for the "kingdom of the sky" and the plural to describe the location of the Divine, "in the skies" (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς).
The Greek word for "sky" is also occasionally used in the form of an adjective. This is translated as "heavenly,” but its meaning is "sky" as in "sky blue." Jesus uses this adjective to define the Father as “the Sky Father” and the realm as “the Sky Realm,” terms which sound primitive to the modern Christian ear.
We must also remember that the use of the plural distinguishes “the skies” from the Greek god, Ouranos, quite literally, a “sky father” as well. This was important as the words of Jesus began to spread to the rest of the Greek-speaking world.
“The Skies” Likely Meaning
Avoiding debates on theology, ontology, and other -ologies, a strong possibility is that Jesus uses the singular to refer to the earthly sky and the plural to refer to the larger universe, the skies beyond the sky, specifically the model of the universe that divides the sky into several higher “spheres.” The evidence for this is that, when referring to the vault of the sky, the singular, "sky", is most often used. For example, when Jesus refers to birds, he describes them as “the birds of the sky,” singular, (τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), disguised in translation as “birds of the air.” However, in Matthew 7:21, he uses the singular to refer to “the realm of the sky” so this is not a firm rule.
The astronomy of the era divided the sky into a series of spheres one inside another. There were several systems, the main ones in Greece and Babylonia. These systems were closely tied to the mathematics of the era, used for predicting events in the sky. So “skies” refers to the larger universe, the universe beyond earth, in an era that knew nothing of solar systems, stars, and galaxies. This is not to say that Jesus didn’t know about the nature of the universe, but he had to put his ideas in terms understood in his time, “the skies” containing everything unearthly.
This idea of the “unearthly” is more specific than it seems. The thinking was that hotter, purer things rise into the sky while the colder dross falls to earth. These purer things were not necessarily physical. The highest ideals, the highest values, abstract ideas, even mathematics were seen as divine, sky things, rather than earthly. This connects to the Judaic idea of purity, which associated “common” things in daily use with impurity, while sanctified things, things that had been purified, were reserved for the Divine. Hence, the words in the Lord’s Prayer, “our father, the one in the skies,” as a name of the Divine, needs to be purified, cleansed of our ordinary understanding of “father” and “skies.”
In this context, the concept of “our Father, the one in the skies” takes on the meaning of a universal Father, a conceptual one rather than a physical one. It is wrong to take this as the idea that the Divine is contained or limited by the extent of these skies. The Septuagint, in several verses like 1 Kings 8:27, makes it clear that the sky cannot contain the Divine, though the Greek (and English) translations adds much to this verse, including the word “skies” that is not in the original Hebrew. The point is that Jesus used the thinking of his era to communicate the idea of a higher realm.
So, if we read Jesus’s words and think he was ever referring to the “heaven” of modern Christianity with his frequent use of “the skies,” we are wrong. Jesus’s “the skies” does not describe the promised land of the afterlife. This will become clearer in a future article—or articles—when we discuss the phrase, “the realm of the skies.”
If someone wants to object to this purely linguistic analysis, please let me know, but first, check your Biblical evidence against the concept of a higher, universal realm of ideals and laws, to see if that definition does fit as well or better. Also check that the term “the skies” is used, since more modern Bibles add many phrases that are not in the Greek.