Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Wright View: A Review of N. T.Wright's View of the End of Exile (Part 1)

by Michael Barber © 2006

The “restoration” of Israel has long been recognized as part of second Temple Jewish expectations and therefore important to historical Jesus studies.[1] 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.[2]

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).[3] 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.[4]

To be continued...
[1] 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.
[2] 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.”
[3] 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.”
[4] Cf. Isaiah 13:9-11.


Michael F. Bird said...

Michael, you should have made reference to your St. Paul colleague Brad Pitre and his book which I've only just got. I think he takes an optimistic view of Wright's view of exile (albeit with a few modifications).

Unknown said...

I'm looking forward to more on this subject, Michael.

Anonymous said...

How 'bout that critique? :)


Steven Carr said...

2 Peter 3 says

4They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

If the author of 2 Peter thought that the death of Jesus marked the end of an age, why didn't he denounce the people who claimed 'everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation'.?

The author doesn't argue that those people were wrong.

Instead, the author claims that things will change a long time in the future.

Didn't the author know that the death of Jesus marked a radical change in how things had gone on since the beginning of creation?

Hadn't he read his Wright?

Hebrews 1 says
10He also says,
"In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
11They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
12You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.

This is a paraphrase of Psalm 102 , which says
'26 They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.'

Isn't it very obvious that the writers of the NT expected the world to end. The old world would be literally destroyed and a new world created.

Just like we change clothes by getting rid of the old ones and destroying them, and then getting brand new clothes.

Steven Carr said...

1 Thessalonians 4 says

16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Didn't Paul expect that not all his hearers would die? (Are there echoes here of the Jehovah's Witnesses book 'Millions now living will never die.'?

How steeped in Jewish thought were the readers of Paul's letters to the Thessalonians?