The “restoration” of Israel has long been recognized as part of second Temple Jewish expectations and therefore important to historical Jesus studies. However, the work of N. T. Wright has brought “restoration eschatology” to the center of the discussion. In this review I will examine Wright’s proposal that Jesus’ message was steeped in these “restoration” hopes. I shall then offer some critical reflections on Wright’s view.
Getting the Story Straight
Wright wants to place Jesus’ message within a first century Jewish context. He argues that Jesus’ teaching regarding the “kingdom of God” was part of a larger Jewish matrix that would have been immediately familiar to first century Jews. The “kingdom” was an important part of a larger story of which Israel saw itself a part. At the climax of the story God would become King and establish his reign, restoring Israel from exile and including the Gentiles.
Nonetheless, the story itself was often subject to various re-tellings – the story was re-appropriated in different contexts. Josephus believed the story was fulfilled when God raised up Vespasian as ruler over the world. The Essenes believed God’s reign would be established when the Gentiles were defeated at the hands of the remnant of Israel. According to Wright, it was Jesus' unique telling of the story, which subverted its message, which resulted in the controversy that led to his crucifixion.
Recent studies that have looked at Jesus within his Jewish context seem to betray either one of two tendencies. The first sees Jesus as a typical first century Palestinian Jew who appears incapable of having any conflict with his contemporaries. It is virtually impossible to see how the Jesus that emerges from this picture could in any way be responsible for the subsequent Christian movement – let alone for founding a new religion. The second tendency paints a picture of a Cynic, proto-gnostic Jesus who looks more like a Greek philosopher than a Palestinian Jew (e,g., Mack). Wright believes the truth is more complicated. Jesus’ message was rooted in well-known second Temple Jewish expectations. Yet, Jesus had retold the story, reinterpreting the basic symbols of the narrative.
Jewish Eschatology: The Last Things Aren’t Really Last
When we speak of “eschatology” we generally think of “the end of the world.” However,
…there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe… They believed the present world order would come to an end – the world order in which pagans held power, and Jews, the covenant people of the creator god, did not.
The Schweitzerian understanding of Jesus’ message as an attempt to bring about the end of creation is therefore thoroughly anachronistic. The Jews (and Jesus) were not expecting the end of the world, but the end of the present world order. God was about to become king. Furthermore, his coming reign meant judgment on those who opposed him and his people.
Through its liturgical life Israel expressed this hope of the restoration (204). Despite the different ways the story was told, four basic elements of the narrative remained constant (cf. 204-206).
1. God had chosen to dwell in the temple built by Solomon. There the Yahweh was celebrated as God of the entire earth. From there he would hear his people’s prayers and come to their aid.
2. Temple and kingship were intrinsically united. Solomon had built the first temple. The “temple-builder was the true king, and vice-versa.”
3. The temple was the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth were united.
4. The destruction of the temple at the hands of the Babylonians had political and theological implications. God had apparently cast aside the Davidic monarchy. Heaven and earth were divided making worship impossible.
5. The restoration of Israel entailed the hope for the return of the Lord to Zion, the defeat of evil, the rebuilding of the Temple and the re-establishment of the reign of the Davidic king.
Although there were various forms of this story and, therefore, a good deal of diversity in expectations, the restoration belonged to the space time universe.
This scheme seems to best explain Jesus’ message. One the one hand, it makes sense of the “urgency and imminence” of Jesus’ teaching. At the same time, this view accounts for Jesus’ use of apocalyptic symbols. Jesus used apocalyptic imagery – cataclysmic events (the sun and moon being darkened, etc) - the same way Isaiah and other Israelites before him used them: to describe events within the space-time universe. This imagery was typically used to describe God’s judgment of the wicked world order and the manifestation of his kingdom.
To be continued...
 Cf. B. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: S.C.M. Press, 1979), 118, 125; cf. E. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 61ff.
 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 333; cf. Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1996), 207: “In particular, we must stress that those among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries who were looking for a great event to happen in the immediate future were not expecting the end of the space-time universe.”
 For example, Wright explains that the Sabbath at the end of the week was a symbol of the coming “rest” of the restoration. Likewise, the Passover, which celebrated the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in a foreign land served as a template for the hope of a “new exodus.”
 Cf. Isaiah 13:9-11.