Readers of the King James Version will be familiar with the saying, “the kingdom of God is within you,” a literal rendering of the words ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν spoken by Christ in Luke 17:21. Several modern versions have instead “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” for theological reasons.
The new rendering is used only because the translators think it is theologically impossible that Jesus would say that the Kingdom of God is “within” people. But there is no clear attestation for such a meaning as “among” or “in the midst” for the adverb ἐντὸς in any ancient Greek source. It is indisputable that “within” is the ordinary meaning, and the immediate context here also seems to favor this meaning. Here Christ is obviously contrasting the outward appearance (μετὰ παρατηρήσεως “with observation,” v. 20) with the inner spiritual reality of God’s rule. It was understood thus by the translators of all the ancient versions, and by all the Church fathers. Moreover, as S.C. Carpenter explains, “For ‘among’ S. Luke would have said ἐν μέσῳ, which occurs seven times in his Gospel (see especially xxii. 27) and four times in Acts.” (Christianity according to S. Luke [London: S.P.C.K., 1919], p. 103.) See also the more recent discussion in Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights into the New Testament (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1965), pp. 61-3. A thorough review of the linguistic evidence is given in an article published online: Ilaria Ramelli, “Luke 17:21: ‘The Kingdom of God is inside you.’ The Ancient Syriac Versions in Support of the Correct Translation,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 12/2 (Summer 2009), pp. 259-286. The circumstance that in Luke’s narrative these words are addressed to unbelieving Jews does not make any difference, because as Olshausen says, “The expression ἐντὸς ὑμῶν does not make the Pharisees members of the kingdom of God, but only sets before them the possibility of their being received into it, inasmuch as an internal and spiritual manifestation is made its universal criterion.”
After reviewing all the linguistic evidence presented by Ramelli, and weighing the arguments of commentators, I must agree with the translators of the KJV and with Olshausen, whose comments I reproduce below. The “in the midst” rendering does not accurately represent what Luke wrote here; it represents an interpretation of the phrase, which belongs not in the text but in the margin. If Luke had meant to convey this interpretation of the dominical saying, he would not have used the word ἐντὸς.
Olshausen on Luke 17:20-21.
Excerpt from Biblical Commentary on the New Testament by Dr. Hermann Olshausen … Translated from the German for Clark’s Foreign and Theological Library. First American Edition. Revised after the Fourth German Edition, by A.C. Kendrick. Vol. 2 (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1860), pp. 88-9.
Ver. 20, 21.—Without particularly explaining the occasion, the Evangelist opens his narrative with a remark that the Pharisees had enquired of Jesus as to the time (πότε, when), of the coming of the kingdom. (Whether it was in the village itself, ver. 12, or in what other place, is not said.) The Saviour first deals with the curious and proud enquirers, and then subjoins (at ver. 22) instructions addressed to the disciples. Hence the brevity of Christ’s remark (as Schleiermacher rightly says, loc. cit.) has here its genuine significancy. For the question “When cometh the kingdom of God?” (πότε ἔρχεται ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ), obviously expresses not merely the superficial views of the Pharisees, but their self-complacent ignorance (xviii. 9). Themselves they regarded as sufficiently, by birth and theocratic position, constituted the legitimate subjects of the expected kingdom. And it therefore merely concerned them to ascertain the opinion of Jesus as to the time of its appearance. In opposition therefore to these materialistic views and hopes of the Pharisees, was to be brought forward the spiritual aspect of the kingdom of God. This our Lord does by annihilating, in the first place, their expectations of a splendid manifestation. All of outward glory which the Pharisees had conceived as combined in the rearing of an earthly Messianic kingdom, is comprehensively expressed by the term παρατήρησις, observation. (The expression is in the New Testament found only here; it denotes literally the act of perceiving, of observing; and then, secondarily, every thing that excites observation. At Exod. xii. 42, Aquila has rendered שמרים by παρατηρήσεις.) In the second place, the Saviour withdraws the kingdom of God wholly from the local and phenomenal world,—οὐδὲ ἐροῦσιν, ἰδοὺ ὧδε, ἰδοὺ ἐκεῖ, nor shall they say, lo here, lo there, and transfers it, finally, to the world of spirit (ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν, is within you.) The expression ἐντὸς ὑμῶν does not make the Pharisees members of the kingdom of God, but only sets before them the possibility of their being received into it, inasmuch as an internal and spiritual manifestation is made its universal criterion. The explanation of ἐντὸς ὑμῶν by “among you,” which has been adopted not only by [Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob] Paulus, [Ferdinand Florens] Fleck, [Friedrich Wilhelm Bernhard] Bornemann, but also by [Wilhelm Martin Leberecht] De Wette, must be utterly rejected for this reason, that the clause so understood forms no contrast to the antecedent “lo here.” The ἐστι, is, is no farther significant, than as indicating that the kingdom was at that moment existing in some of them. It may seem, however, that this ideal view of the kingdom of God is in contradiction to the following discourse (addressed to the disciples), in which the “day of the Son of Man,” is referred to in such terms as represent it as an outward fact producing outward effects. These effects, it is true, in so far as they wear an aspect of terror, form a counterpart to the “observation” anticipated by the Pharisees, and the coming of the Son of Man is represented as an instantaneous and overwhelming phenomenon, in contrast to the ὧδε, here, and ἐκεῖ, there (ver. 21). Still, however, it remains true that the kingdom is here represented as external, while at ver. 21 it is styled within you. (Still more definitely do Matth. xxiv. and Luke xxi. represent the appearance of the kingdom as an external one.) Yet this twofold conception and portraiture of the manifested kingdom of God (see on Matth. iii. 2), present it under those two aspects which mutually complete each other. The kingdom of God shews itself as purely spiritual in its origin, and also external in its perfection. It appeared in its spiritual form, while Christ was present in his humiliation. And for this reason does the Saviour bring before the Pharisees that aspect of it, in regard to which they were wholly mistaken. In its external manifestation shall the kingdom of God reveal itself, when Christ comes in his glory, and in this form does the Saviour particularly set it forth at Matth. xxiv. and Luke xxi. Here he brings forward the future revelation of the kingdom only in connexion with the fact, that periods of suffering must precede it, and that the appearance of the Son of God himself will bring dismay upon a world entangled in the sensual pursuits of life. By this means would the disciples, on the one hand, be comforted amidst their approaching struggles, and aroused to watchfulness, that they might encounter them in faith; while, on the other side, the Pharisees would be impressed with the conviction that the manifestation of the kingdom did not necessarily carry with it any thing of a joyful nature to them; but, on the contrary, would bring upon them destruction (as happened to those living in the time of Noah and Lot), unless they were enabled to acknowledge and embrace the kingdom of God in its spiritual and internal revelation, as it presented itself in the appearance of the suffering Son of Man.