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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (3)


Chapter Five of How God Became King, "The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel's God," is N. T. Wright's approach to Christology. His basic idea is that the gospels, in different ways, express Jesus' divinity through "the Story of Israel's God. Thus, Mark is about God "becoming king."  Matthew and Luke are about God "returning to save his people from exile"--and according to Wright "exile" includes "not least" (one of Wright's very favorite expressions) "the plight of being overrun and ruled by pagan nations." For John, "All the functions of the Temple ... have devolved onto Jesus." As we will see, Wright has some valuable observations to offer, but in the end he doesn't begin to do justice to the radical newness of Jesus, and of the complexity of the gospels themselves.

Wright begins by essentially reprising Chapter Four.  Adopting a straw man approach, he presents a caricature of what "Christians" believe and then decries it, setting himself up as the voice of reason:


For far too long now Christians have told the story of Jesus as if it hooked up not with the story of Israel, but simply with the story of human sin as in Genesis 3, skipping over the story of Israel altogether. From that point of view, the story of Israel looks like a failed first attempt on God's part to sort out his world. “Here,” he says, “you can be my people. I'll rescue you from slavery and give you my law!” But then the people find they can't keep the law and the story goes from bad to worse.  Eventually, God gives up the attempt to make people (specifically, Israel) “better” by having them keep his law and decides on a different strategy, a “Plan B.” This involves sending his son to die and declaring that now the only thing people need to do is to believe in him and his saving death; they won't have to keep that silly law after all. This is a gross caricature of the actual biblical story, but it is certainly not a gross caricature of what many Christians have been taught, either explicitly or by implication. (84-85)

I have no idea who these Christians are who "skip[] over the story of Israel altogether." Truth be told, Wright's version of this caricatured "story of Israel" actually sounds rather like some of Jesus' parables, such as the parable of the vineyard or of the wedding feast. For that matter it also calls to mind Paul's narrative of human history in Romans--including the inability of Israel to keep the Law. But there are three points that get us closer to the main issue.


First, throughout the book Wright repeatedly refers to the "story of Israel" and to reading the "Bible" through, cover to cover. If this makes any sense at all, it must mean that he is adopting the Bible narrative as it is presented in the final "edition" of the collected Israelite scriptures that we know as the Old Testament. In that case, Wright should be offering us some explanation for why the first half of Genesis--with its patently universalist, non Israel-centric narrative--opens the whole Bible. The compilers of the Bible were clearly presenting the story of Israel as, in some significant sense, a subset of the story of human sinfulness in general. They were locating the context of the "story of Israel" within the overall "story of Man." Certainly the author of Jonah is making a similar point, one which crops up from time to time in other books of the Israelite scriptures. Indeed, Wright himself tries to have his cake and to eat it, too, when he seeks to read an anachronistic universalist meaning into the Abraham story and Deutero-Isaiah (see our preceding post). 

Second, and most important, Wright offers no real evidence that Jesus himself saw Israel as central to his mission in Wright's sense, beyond the obvious point that Jesus appropriated central Israelite symbols to his ministry (we will discuss those as Wright brings them up, in so far as they are relevant). To the contrary, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that status as an Israelite is of no particular importance in the eyes of God. We have already discussed the way in which Matthew and Luke use the Baptist to relativize Abrahamic ancestry (God can raise up children to Abraham from stones), but Jesus does the same in his own teaching. For example, Luke's description of the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry is striking. Jesus returns to Nazareth and conducts the reading in the local synagogue. The people in Jesus' hometown appear to take offense when Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, breaks off his reading in mid-sentence and omits the description of Israel's "day of vindication" against the Gentiles. Jesus' response to their anger is telling. He taunts them: there were plenty of Israelite widows in the time of Elijah, and plenty of Israelite lepers in the time of Elisha, but God only had these prophets help a pair of Gentiles!

Nor is this an isolated example. The same theme arises repeatedly in the gospels. The wedding feast to which a motley human assemblage is gathered from the hedgerows and footpaths; the vineyard that is taken from its tenants and given to "others;" the banquet into which "people from the east and west, north and south" enter; there is no mistaking Jesus' relativization of Israel and the universalism of his vision.

In the third place--Wright's objection to "the story of Israel look[ing] like a failed first attempt on God's part to sort out his world"--that view does appear to be what the Deuteronomistic ideology and its history of Israel is all about. It also reflects Wright's own narrative of the Jews experiencing their subjection to Rome as a continuing state of "exile"--of sin, futility and failure.

Interestingly, Wright's own narrative of Church history is strikingly similar to the "story of Israel" narrative that he ridicules. In his own narrative, God comes to his people in Jesus, the evangelists record these events—God becoming king—but then, if Jesus' disciples ever truly understood all this, they promptly forget the meaning of it all. By my reading (and we will go into this further), even Paul fails to understand the good news as Wright thinks we should. And there the church is for the better part of two millennia. It would seem that Plan B has also failed. Is the church waiting for Jesus to come again, a Plan C? Wright says no. What then--have we been waiting all this time for Wright himself to come, set us all straight, and finally jump start Plan B into action? Perhaps Plan B is a bit like Communism (according to the true believers)--it never failed because it was never really tried, until the prophet N. T. arrived.



The Biblical Story of God


Since "Christians" have "skipped over the story of Israel altogether," Wright will offer his own version of what he calls "The Biblical Story of God":


The story the Bible tells about Israel's God is quite different from the stories many, including many Christians, have told. In the biblical story, the creator God calls Abraham, … and bids him go wandering off as a nomad in the direction of what we now know as Israel/Palestine. This God makes a covenant with Abraham containing dramatic and grandiose promises. Through Abraham, God will cause all the families of the earth to be blessed; this follows the sorry tale of folly and wickedness in Genesis 3-11, which results in the scattering and division of the human race after the building of the tower of Babel (Babylon, …). The story of God and Abraham is the starting point for the whole of the rest of the biblical narrative, and it in turn gains its meaning from what has gone before. God is now, through Abraham, going to undo the plight of the human race and will thereby enable humans to pick up again the threads of the project that had been theirs from the start (looking after God's world, making it fruitful, and peopling it), but that had been aborted through human rebellion. (86-87)

Once again Wright is reprising the narrative he presented in the previous chapter, including his anachronistic, Christianizing version of the Abram story. Wright maintains here, without the qualifications (inadequate as they were) that he included in his previous account, that God will "bless all nations" through Abram. This, as Wright backhandedly admits in The New Testament and the People of God, is not what Genesis 12 is actually saying. God's promise is that Abram will be the father of a great nation. The fulfillment of that promise will cause all the nations to bless Abram's God in awe, because of the power he has shown in blessing Abram's descendants.  That is not a promise that God will bless all nations. Israel will be the nation that is blessed. There is no mention of the plight of the human race being undone, of Adam, of sin and forgiveness—only of Abram's descendants being blessed above all other peoples in, as far as we can tell, a purely worldly power. 

A further problem with Wright's recital of this Christianizing narrative is that it appears to be basically fundamentalist in accepting the Abram story as literal truth. If that is the case, Wright is faced with accounting for some pretty questionable divine behavior as the narrative proceeds. Of course, Wright faces up to nothing of the sort, because he fails to explain where he stands. But on the other hand, if Wright views Abram as an essentially mythical or metaphorical character--part of a "story" rather than history--he must then explain how this story controls divine intervention in the form of Jesus. Is Jesus simply fulfilling a "narrative," rather than a real promise by God? How does Wright know that this narrative is a true narrative in the sense of representing God's intentions, if that is what he means by all this? Is this merely a question of his personal preferences or does Wright have rational grounds for his belief? If Jesus doesn't explicitly tell us that he's fulfilling that narrative, what then? And, of course, it's even more problematic that the narrative that Wright would have Jesus fulfill is, in fact, a misreading of the original story. We don't know the answer to these fundamental questions because Wright declines to even acknowledge that these are legitimate issues. What is missing here is an overall theory of revelation, and I submit that the correct understanding of revelation is that it involves the discovery of God's identity and it's ultimate revelation in Jesus. But this is a conclusion that Wright wishes to avoid in favor of "kingdom inauguration."

As a somewhat amusing aside, Wright is so keen that we should focus on Abraham that he writes:


There is an exciting, and often ignored, inner core to the story of God and Abraham that points all the way forward to the gospels themselves. … The original creation story envisaged a God who was making a dwelling place for himself.  The six “days,” or “stages,” of creation indicate, to those who understand the world of the ancient Near East, that creation itself, heaven and earth together, is a kind of temple, a dwelling place for God.  And, as in all ancient temples (except the one in Jerusalem, for reasons that will become apparent), there was an “image” or statue of the god in question, so the creator God places into the “temple” of his heaven-and-earth creation his own “image,” human beings made to reflect him, to bring his creativity to birth in his world, and to reflect the praises of the world back to the creator.  That, of course, is the heart of the story, which is then spoiled by the rebellion of God's image bearing creatures. (87)

Of course, this appears to be the inner core of the Adam story, not the Abraham story. In any event, while I am in general sympathy with what I take to be Wright's sentiments regarding human stewardship of God's creation, I think there is little warrant in the gospels for the sort of "cosmic Christianity" he attributes to them. The overwhelming emphasis in the early Christian writings is on doing God's will. Giving thanks and praise, recognizing the goodness of creation, is certainly part of that, but Wright seems to be leading up to something more than that when he ties this theme in to kingdom inauguration--something "as much political as theological."

But there is a further problem with Wright's version of Genesis and the Garden. If the Garden is creation seen as a temple, Man as created makes a poor image of God: Adam and Eve are portrayed as innocents, unable to distinguish good and evil, and forbidden to acquire such knowledge. How, then, are they to reflect God's glory? By simply parading around the Garden in their nakedness and innocence? Surely Wright's interpretation requires Genesis 2 to bear more exegetical weight than it is able to. Moreover, the presence of the Tree of Life in the center of the sacred grove (for that is what the Garden appears to be) should give pause for thought. This tree, which provides knowledge of good and evil to those who eat its fruit, calls to mind the tree iconography that graced Solomon's temple, drawn from the ancient symbol of the Tree of Life that represents the goddess (Asherah, in the Israelite scriptures; the tree iconography represents the "pubic triangle"). This symbol is almost certainly preserved in Judaism as the menorah, but perhaps more to the point is the prominence of this tree symbol in the Wisdom literature.  For example, in Proverbs we read of "wisdom" that "she shall be a tree of life to all who lay hold on her." (3:18). It is that tree that God has placed at the center of his Garden. Obviously there is more to the Garden narrative than Wright is willing to discuss, but by this point we are accustomed to treating Wright's interpretations with great caution.

At any rate, Wright plunges onward with his "narrative":


But then the story takes a nosedive into chaos. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt ... Israel's long servitude in Egypt ... God remembers the covenant with Abraham, passes judgment on the enslaving Egyptians, and rescues Israel from Egypt through the amazing events of Passover under the leadership of Moses. God then gives Israel the law, to be the way of life for this rescued people. (87-88)

This is a perfect illustration of the difficulties Wright's approach to “revelation” involves. The “enslaving Egyptians” upon whom divine judgment is passed include all Egyptians, not just Pharaoh. The “amazing events of Passover” include the slaying by God of all firstborn male infants as part of God's "judgment." Does Wright wish us to understand this literally, and if so will he offer some justification for this egregious example of God behaving badly? Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Wright doesn't tell us whether this story is to be taken literally nor, if it is not to be taken literally, what else is to be dispensed with as mere "narrative."


But the astonishing thing about the book of Exodus, … is that God himself accompanies the people on their journey and then gives instructions for the “tabernacle,” the holy tent or “tent of meeting,” where he will be present in their midst and where he will meet, more particularly, with Moses himself.  This then precipitates a near disaster … the people rebel. They persuade Aaron … to make an idol … This primal act of rebellion nearly ruins the whole plan, but … God answers Moses's urgent prayer for forgiveness and consents to go with his people … The book closes with a scene not only of pure grace, but of the completion of the long circle from Genesis 1: the tabernacle is constructed, and the glory of Israel's God comes to fill it, to live among his people as they journey to their promised land.  The people of Israel are, as it were, the new humanity, on their way to take possession of their new Eden. (88)

As usual, Wright takes the high road, fitting it willy nilly into his "narrative" framework, and makes no reference to disturbing elements. The “new humanity” of Israel behaves much as the old humanity, and with the sanction of YHWH: upon arrival at their “new Eden” they find it already occupied by members of the “old (or, perhaps, simply "other") humanity”: non-Israelites. At YHWH's command they kill them all, men, women and children—or, in any event, they make a damned good stab at it. This, presumably, was part of YHWH's way of undoing mankind's plight in Wright's narrative: genocide as forgiveness therapy. Or so we are left to presume.

The problem with Wright's approach is simply this. If we take these stories not as history but as "foundation myths," we can sidestep the moral issues. But the moment we begin to take the stories seriously from an historical standpoint, we encounter serious moral difficulties when we try to make any use of them. For example, if we take these foundation myths as serious historical statements of why the modern Jews are entitled to expel non-Jewish inhabitants from "their" land, we must deal with troubling questions of historicity. As for the questions that these stories raise about God's justice, those must be rated as frankly insoluble: God becomes a moral cipher who acts arbitrarily. 

On the other hand, if we take these stories to be metaphorical expressions of a belief in God's care for those who trust in him we are also required to explain why these stories should be considered to have more value than other similar stories from other cultures. If the stories are culturally relative, we must then explain how they relate to God's self revelation in Jesus. These are not insoluble problems, but they present serious challenges to traditional Christian "readings" of "the Bible." Only a comprehensive theory of revelation that addresses these issues in the light of modern scholarship will allow Christian faith to offer the modern world a true alternative to skeptical and secular currents of thought. Unfortunately, Wright steadfastly declines to address these issues, but in his summation of the story of Israel we can get a pretty shrewd idea of where he stands:


This pattern—God intending to live among his people, being unable to because of their rebellion, but coming back in grace to do so at last—is, in a measure, the story of the whole Old Testament.  Magnify that exodus story, project it onto the screen of hundreds of years of history, and you have the larger story. Solomon builds the Temple, succeeding generations either corrupt it or try to reform it, but eventually, faced with overwhelming rebellion and idolatry, God abandons the Temple at last, leaving it to its fate when the Babylonians close in. … The whole of what we call the Second Temple period, roughly 538 BC onward, is characterized by this sense of divine absence; ...That is the problem faced by the prophet Malachi; the priests are bored and slack in their liturgical duties because, though they've rebuilt the Temple, there's no sense of YHWH having returned, as Ezekiel had said he would. Ah, says Malachi, but the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple--”but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears” (3:1-2)? (87-88)


Here, then, is the great biblical theme that enables us to understand what the gospels are saying about God—not just any “god,” but Israel's God, the covenant God, the creator. That YHWH will come back was the underlying theological narrative of a great deal of Second Temple literature ... That he had not yet done so was the constant ache … 
The story the gospels are telling … is the story of how YHWH came back to his people at last. (88-89)

The first think we notice in this summation, as we have previously remarked, is that Wright's version of Israelite history looks suspiciously like the traditional Christian view that he disparaged earlier: “the story of Israel [that] looks like a failed first attempt on God's part to sort out his world.” Wright will have his cake and eat it, too. The second thing we notice is the essential arbitrariness of it all: at no point does Wright explain why these stories are revelatory, or in what sense. The priests are "bored and slack," there is "no sense of Yahweh having returned." No problem. Second Temple literature will manufacture an "underlying theological narrative" about Yahweh returning. But how does this fit into the big picture of God's self revelation in Jesus? Yes, Jesus appropriates some of the themes of Israelite religion, but his own self identification doesn't appear to rest upon any notion of fulfilling "underlying theological narratives"--his self understanding is far more assured and independent, his relationship with his Father far more direct, than that narrative allows. If that were all that Jesus did, what would be the point? But if Jesus did much more than that, what is the real point of those narratives? Exactly? My position is that those narratives have no real point unless they fit into a much larger context: that of the God's self revelation of his identity in Jesus as the center of history. Without that, "kingdom inauguration" has next to no meaning and lapses into ideology--a willed imposition on reality of man's desire for meaning.

In any event, after reprising his "Biblical Story of God," Wright moves on to consider the four gospels from the perspective that he has outlined--and first up is Mark.


Looking for the Right Thing


Wright begins his brief examination of Mark by raising the issue of Christology in the gospels. According to a previous generation of scholars, "John thinks Jesus is divine, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke basically don't." This, says Wright, "is simply wrong." The way to understand the issue of Christology in the gospels, he says, is to realize that the same message about Jesus' divinity is communicated in the Synoptic gospels--just differently than it is in John: what we should be looking at in Mark, for example, can be found "in his opening chapter, where prophecies about the coming of God are applied directly to the coming of Jesus." (90)

Wright quotes Mark's account of John the Baptist's preaching in the desert, followed by Jesus' baptism and the descent of the Holy Spirit. He then explains:


What Mark then shows us, in a scene in which he obviously believes that these prophecies are being fulfilled, is Jesus coming for baptism, being anointed with the Spirit, and hailed by the Father as his promised Son. That gives you, right there on Mark's first page, every bit as high a Christology as John's, ...
It is in this context that we should interpret passage after passage in Mark's gospel. … Mark's Jesus goes about doing and saying things that declare that Israel's God is now becoming king—Israel's dream come true. But Jesus is talking about God becoming king in order to explain the things he himself is doing. He isn't pointing away from himself to God. He is pointing to God in order to explain his own actions. In case we miss the point, Mark rubs it in by having Jesus command the wind and the sea to be still, and they obey him: (92)

Now Wright is undoubtedly correct to this extent: Mark is presenting a Christology that is as "high" as that of John. Moreover, it is not only Mark speaking--Jesus by his own words and action consistently stresses his own personal authority which places him on a divine level. Nor is this missed by the crowds or the Jewish authorities. Jesus performs mighty works without once praying for divine help--healings are effected, demons are expelled, all on Jesus' word alone. He, the Son of Man, proclaims himself Lord of God's sabbath. He, on his own say-so, forgives sins--something that only God himself can do. There is no mistaking Jesus' claims for his own status and authority.

Nevertheless, what is missing from all this is any mention whatsoever of God becoming king. And when Jesus offers parables of the kingdom--a perfect time, it would seem, to talk about God becoming king--what we find instead are parables that stress the fruitfulness of the kingdom. Jesus never does "talk[] about god becoming king." What, then, of the kingdom itself? Just what is the kingdom life that Jesus' followers are called to spread and increase?

I think we get the answer by paying attention to the demand that Jesus' makes on those who listen to him and, especially, who receive the benefits of the kingdom in the form of healing: Jesus demands faith. Faith in himself. This is what brings us into the kingdom, but what characterizes our new life of faith in Jesus is set out very simply, immediately before Mark presents his parables of the kingdom. Jesus is sitting in a house teaching his disciples--those who believe--when his family arrives and sends in for Jesus to come out to them. When Jesus is informed that his family is summoning him he looks at those around him and says: "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he's my brother and sister and mother!" (3:34-35) And, in fact, Jesus has a lot of things to tell his disciples about the kingdom life, but it isn't at all what Wright keeps hinting at: it isn't "as much political as theological." It has to do with living our daily lives in a fully human way.

So, what we find in Mark is a Jesus who does, indeed, talk about God's kingdom coming, but who doesn't talk about God becoming king. And the answer is simple enough: Jesus doesn't talk about God becoming king because God is, always has been and always will be king. God is just as much king before Jesus' birth as after Jesus' death and resurrection. The kingdom that will come will be the community of Jesus' brothers and sisters, defined as those who believe in who Jesus is and who seek to do the will of God. This is the answer we've already found in Paul and in Jesus' Kingdom Sermon on the Mount, and it is the answer we will find throughout all the gospels. It is not a political answer, but a profoundly human answer that is all about God's (and therefore man's) identity.


Matthew and Luke: Seeing Jesus, Thinking God


I have no problem with Wright's contention that, like Mark, the other two Synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, present as "high" a Christology as that of John. However, in his very brief consideration of Matthew, Wright begins to push his "political" understanding of the kingdom more aggressively, and that calls for comment:


Matthew makes things very clear in the frame he creates for his story. Look first at the opening of the gospel, right after the genealogy, which we noted in the previous chapter. The angel tells Joseph that Mary's child is to be called “Jesus,” because “he is the one who will save his people from their sins”; the name “Jesus” is here being interpreted as meaning 'YHWH saves.” ... In other words, we are to look at Jesus and see in him, … the personal presence of Israel's God, coming to be with his people and rescue them from the plight their sins have brought upon them—which, in ancient Jewish terms, was focused not least on the “exile” they were still suffering, the plight of being overrun and ruled by pagan nations.
Look next at the other end of Matthew's frame. Jesus has been crucified and then raised from the dead. Now he addresses his followers, in words that Matthew must have known were astonishing by anyone's standards. And the final sentence echoes that “Emmanuel” promise, “God with us” has become “Jesus with us”: … In Jesus himself, Matthew is saying, Israel's God has come back to be with his people and will now be with them forever. (96-97)

There are several problems with Wright's picture of Matthew here. First, it is certainly true that the plight of Israel/the Jews at the time in question included "being overrun and ruled by pagan nations." The problem is, there is ample reason--as we have already seen--to question whether that is the plight that Jesus has come to address. The whole identification of Israel/the Jews as God's people is also problematic, difficult to derive from anything Jesus actually says. We have already discussed this issue in some detail previously, but it is remarkable that Wright, while quoting Jesus' parting injunction to his disciples chooses to characterize it as Jesus telling the disciples that "Israel's God has come back to be with his people and will now be with them forever." Wright makes no reference at all to any significance that might be attached to the command to preach the good news "to all the nations/peoples." This is Jesus' core command, and it stands the Jewish understanding of just who God's people really are totally on its head. Yet Wright has nothing to say about it, even though we've seen that this command comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Jesus' words and actions: it is the point that the entire gospel was leading to, what it was "really all about."

Second, is Matthew's gospel really the story of God “coming back” to be with his people Israel, as Wright says? Would it not be better to work, not so much from Matthew's Israelite scriptural echoes but from Jesus' own self presentation as "the Son who has been sent?" Here, as elsewhere, Wright seems not to take the Trinitarian implications of the gospels all that seriously--certainly not as seriously as Jesus does. Wright seemingly believes that he has bigger fish to fry, but Jesus, while unquestionably asserting his authority as divine, is also explicit throughout the gospels in distinguishing the Son and the Father. This is a new aspect to God's identity, and must be addressed if we are to understand the significance of God's self revelation in Jesus.

In fact, the whole concept of “God coming back,” with its Old Testament echoes of Israel's Deuteronomic ideology of chosenness, is fraught with difficulties when applied to the gospels. To begin with, there is the question: if God is coming back, when did God leave his people? Presumably, Wright would maintain that God departed at the time of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of Solomon's temple. But even granting Wright's contention that "most Jews" didn't think that the exile was truly over yet, surely the return from exile, the rebuilding of a temple in Jerusalem, etc., must count for something? There is, in fact, no reason whatsoever to believe that the Jews whom the evangelists portray--Jesus' disciples, the Jewish authorities, the common people--accepted Wright's theory that God was still absent from the temple in Jerusalem. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is every reason to believe that they rejected that view, as any cursory reading of the early Christian writings will demonstrate.

God has always been king; he is not now becoming king. There is no indication at the beginning at the beginning of either Matthew or Luke (certainly not Luke) that God is returning after an absence. He has sent his son to announce the good news that God's kingdom is open and ready to accept new members--from "all the nations"--but to understand that we need to know more about who God really is, and Jesus is showing us that in his life by both word and deed. The fact is, Jesus in his establishment of God's kingdom on earth is echoing Israelite traditions that had fallen from favor, if they ever had enjoyed any favor. There had been Israelite thinkers who challenged the idea that Israel as a kingdom was actually God's kingdom, or was in fact a rebellion against God, but this is a train of thought that Wright prefers not to follow out.

Wright's remarks regarding the Jerusalem temple are also worth comment, if only briefly, because it affords a transition to the gospel of John, and we will discuss it further in that context:


The Temple is God's house, but if God is coming in person and finds the Temple turned into a symbol of Israel's failure to be his people, there is only one possible result. (100)

The selling of animals as sacrifices was a convenience for those who worshipped in accordance with the dictates of Torah. It could hardly be objectionable to Jews, in and of itself. If Jesus had wished to attack the Temple as "a symbol of Israel's failure to be his people" in a way that harked back to the Israelite scriptures, it would have been more understandable if he had attacked the legitimacy of the priesthood, which had become a political pawn. But he doesn't do that. Jesus' attack on the sacrificial system and, thus, on the establishment of which the Temple was a symbol is much broader and more fundamental. The Temple was a symbol of Israel's ideology of chosenness and exclusivity. In the future, as Jesus tells the unclean Samaritan woman shortly after his "cleansing" of the Temple, "true worship" will not be in the Temple but will be conducted, as John's Jesus says, "in spirit and in truth," wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus' name.


Glory Unveiled: John's Temple Christology


Wright concludes this chapter with a section on John which, while brief, is ambitious in attempting to offer an overview of John's Christology based on John's relation of Jesus to the Temple. We will therefore offer a somewhat detailed summary of his line of argument, with commentary.

1. Wright first references his earlier account of the creation story in Genesis, which we have already quoted and discussed:


For [John], the story of Jesus is the story of how God became human ["The Word was God ... and the Word became flesh"], how the creator became part of his creation. But, as we have already seen, this astonishing claim, rooted as it is in the echoing narrative of Genesis 1 in which humans were made to bear the divine image and likeness, is woven tightly together with the story of Israel. (101)

2. The Genesis story is tied closely to the story of Israel, says Wright, because after driving Adam and Eve from the garden the Creator God later deigned to "pitch his tent" in Israel's midst--first in Israel, then Jerusalem. 

It will be worth noting for now that the whole question of the Temple was not totally uncontroversial, even in ancient Israel. There were traditions that held that the building of a temple at all was a sinful act. Thus, Stephen, the first martyr, explicitly questioned the temple, citing it as one more sign that Israel had always been "stiff necked" in resisting "the Holy Spirit." (Acts 7:44-53) There is good reason to believe that these views of some early Christians came from Jesus himself, as we will see.

3. The Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 587 BC showed that God had abandoned his "house" and therefore Israel. "God had promised to come back. He had promised one final great Passover. ... when he returned, his people would be free forever." (102) 

4. Wright maintains that John saw all this as fulfilled ("made good") in Jesus. The Word became flesh and "set up among us his tent." (102) Wright puts great weight on the most literal meaning of the Greek verb, "to pitch one's tent," because it translates the (mostly postbiblical) Hebrew expression, Shekinah, that refers to the divine presence--especially in the Temple. Thus, Wright argues that, when John in his prologue writes that the Word "dwelt among us and we saw his glory," (1:14) we should be thinking of God's glory in the Temple and of God's personal presence in Jesus. The same word is also related to the common Hebrew word meaning "abide" or "dwell." Wright believes that when this word (= meno, "abide," "remain") is used by John--referring both to God/Jesus abiding/remaining as well as to humans abiding/remaining in Jesus--we should again be thinking about echoes from Shekinah.

Wright is undoubtedly correct that John (who may well have had a priestly family background) is describing Jesus in terms that were certain to raise associations with both the Genesis narrative as well as the common Jewish understanding of the Temple. To the extent that Wright argues that John is using these allusions to make a Christological point, he is on solid ground. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that these associations are never again combined in this way in the rest of John's gospel. Further, it is notable that John says Jesus/the divine Word made his dwelling "among us"--not in or even near the Temple (as Luke describes in his story of the boy Jesus). The Jerusalem Temple was regarded in the ancient world as one of the wonders of the world, but when the Word comes to "dwell among us" he lived in humble circumstances and offered challenging views regarding the Temple and its attendant power structure. It seems, therefore, questionable whether the Temple imagery in John can bear the full weight of John's Christology. Thus, when Wright later maintains that John "describes Jesus ... as the Temple in person" (103) we will need to examine that claim carefully. If Jesus is actually adopting a deconstructive attitude toward the Temple, then we will want to look for other imagery/allusions that may bear some of the weight of John's Christology and may offer a more balanced view of John's thought. In turn, this will call into question Wright's overall "exile/return" narrative.

5. Wright maintains that John's use of "the Word" (Logos) isn't modeled on "Platonic or Stoic ideas" but instead draws on Deutero-Isaiah 55:10-11, "where the Word goes out like rain or snow and accomplishes God's work." (102) 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

The specific work Wright has in mind for the Word is "God's great act of rescue" of Israel, exiled in Babylon: the renewal of the covenant and a new creation. For Wright, this means that it is Israel's creator God who has become human in Jesus of Nazareth--the Word who will accomplish God's purposes. (102-103) 

Obviously there's merit in this, but Wright takes it too far. Where in John do we find an "act of rescue" as the "work" that Jesus/the Word was sent to do? The picture of Jesus that John advances seems to be more that Jesus is a guide, a shepherd for the sheep who will recognize him, the strong vine who will nourish the branches, who has come to make the Father known to us as well as how the Father wants us to worship him.. 

But there's a bigger problem. The fact is, there is a much more obvious source for the Word imagery in John's Prologue than Deutero-Isaiah. That obvious source is the Wisdom literature of the Israelite scriptures, especially The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach and Proverbs. Of course Wright is well aware of this, and he even mentions the Wisdom literature in passing, stating that John's Jesus is 


a combination of the living Word of the Old Testament, the Shekinah of Jewish hope (God's tabernacling presence in the Temple), and "wisdom,"--which in some key Jewish writings was the personal self-expression of the creator God--coming to dwell with humans and particularly with Israel (see Wis.7; Sir. 24). (103; I have inserted hyphens to make the sense of Wright's words clearer.)

The truth is that John uses imagery that echoes the Wisdom tradition at many important points in his gospel, and it will be well worth our while to illustrate how pervasive that influence is, especially when compared to Wright's preference for Temple imagery.

Above all, John's Prologue:


In the beginning was the Word,And the Word was with God,And the Word was God.The Word was in the beginning with God.All things came to be through him,And without him nothing came to be.

echoes not only Genesis but, just as clearly, Proverbs 8:22ff, Wisdom 1:14 and Sirach 24:3-5. While it is true that Wisdom, like Deutero-Isaiah's word of God, is effective in accomplishing God's purpose, there is a significant difference for our purposes. The divine purpose in John's prologue is to make Himself known, so that those who believe may become His sons and receive grace and truth. It is not a nationalistic program, nor is it a program that relies in any way on the Temple. And the nature of this mission undoubtedly explains why John is drawing on the Wisdom literature as well as Genesis: John's purpose is to speak of God's identity and the Son/Word's identity as the wisdom of God--a theme that runs throughout the entire gospel. 

If we compare that to Deutero-Isaiah's idea of God's word as effecting change in the world by accomplishing the works of God. For example, John's Jesus does frequently speak of his role as performing the works that the Father has set him to do. But those works refer almost invariably to Jesus' signs--what are commonly referred to as "miracles." These works, like his words, testify to Jesus' divine authority so that all should believe in him and keep his commandments (cf. John 10). Only at 17:4 does the use of "work" appear to be similar to Isaiah 55:10-11: "I glorified you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do." But even here it is by no means clear that this refers to a "great act of rescue" that is "as much political as theological."

Another prominent Christological theme in John is Jesus as law-giver. We are accustomed to thinking of Matthew's Jesus in this way, but the fact is that John's Jesus refers to himself as giving commandments more frequently than does Matthew's Jesus. This is another example of the way in which John presents themes that are undoubtedly related to Synoptic themes, but in a different manner so that the reader may not notice the similarities. But this law-giving function that Jesus arrogates to himself is further evidence of Jesus' divine self-identity--he is speaking the words, giving the commandments, that his Father has spoken to him. Thus:


This is the commandment that I've received from my father. (10:18)

but especially in Jesus' climactic final discourse to his disciples at the Last Supper:


I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. (13:34)
If you love me you'll keep my commandments. (14:15)
Whoever keeps my commandments and obeys them,He it is who loves me. (14:21)
If you keep my commandments you'll abide in my love. (15:10)
This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. (15:12)
You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15:14)

John doesn't hit the reader over the head with overt symbolism such as law-giving on a mountain-top, but the message is undoubtedly the same.

Likewise, without going into detail, we should be able to see the commonality of themes between John and Paul. John's constant emphasis on "abiding"--whether it is Jesus abiding in the Father (and the Father in him) or Jesus abiding in the disciples and they in him--there can be no doubt that John's Jesus is expressing the ideas that Paul communicates by talking about the life of the believer "in Christ," and of bringing the believer into a new relationship with God (righteousness). As we saw earlier, this is the "kingdom life." It's about doing God's will--keeping his commandments--much more so than it's about politics.

Finally and most remarkably we must bring up Jesus' "Action in the Temple" (traditionally but misleadingly referred to as the "Cleansing of the Temple"). What's remarkable is that in a section entitled "John's Temple Christology" Wright says not one word about the Action in the Temple--an event that is quite obviously absolutely crucial to evaluating Jesus' attitude toward the Temple. John's positioning of the Action--at the beginning of his gospel, before any of Jesus' subsequent visits to the Temple--make clear how important an element this in this gospel. (For what follows I'm indebted to Karl Olav Sandnes.)

Traditionally the Action has been understood as a purifying or restorative action--Jesus is seen as seeking to restore the Temple cult to what it should have been--but this certainly cannot be true. The sale of animals for sacrifice and the changing of foreign currencies that bore forbidden images were certainly not abuses. In fact they were crucial to the proper functioning of the Temple system, as commanded by Yahweh, and we have no contemporary accounts alleging fraud or other abuses. The money that was brought in was used to finance the daily whole offerings that were offered in atonement for Israel's sins. Thus, Jesus' Action must be seen not as an attempt at reform but as an attack on the entire sacrificial system of atonement. The very symbolic actions that Jesus engaged in--"overturning" and "driving out"--make this clear enough: these actions brought the whole functioning of the sacrificial cult to a halt, if only briefly. But the point was in the symbolism, and the symbolism communicates that, contrary to Jewish messianic expectations, Jesus had no intention of restoring the Temple.

The obvious question is, If not the Temple, then what? As Sandnes points out, following Jacob Neusner ("Money-changers in the temple: The Mishna's Explanation"), Jesus' Action implies that there is "a means of atonement for sin other than the sacrifices in the Temple." This is not the place to go into detail on that topic, but the implication is hardly surprising. Jesus repeatedly and publicly forgave sins on his own initiative and in his own name--an action which scandalized the Jewish authorities, who correctly pointed out that only God could forgive sins. Which is, of course, the point, although not one which Wright cares to dwell upon. This action of Jesus forgiving sins on his own initiative apart from the Temple cult is totally of a piece with his Action in the Temple, and must call into question the entire concept of a "Temple Christology." Yes, Jesus uses imagery drawn from Jewish life and religion, but to adapt Sandnes words, the use of such imagery cannot necessarily be taken at face value when interpreting Jesus' words and actions, any more than "general Old Testament and Jewish expectations about the Messiah."

The episode involving Jesus' words with the Samaritan woman, which follows Jesus' departure from Jerusalem in the wake of his Action in the Temple, drives home his view of the Temple as well as the significance of the imagery that Jesus uses. Jesus openly tells the woman that temples on mountain tops have no relevance for true worshippers of God. True worshippers will worship Jesus' Father neither on Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem--they will worship in spirit and truth. Those are the worshipers that the Father seeks, as we learned in the Prologue, and Jesus has come to call them.

This episode with the Samaritan woman in a sense points both back toward the Action in the Temple as well as forward, toward the future controversies that surrounded Jesus' words and actions that appropriated Jewish symbols. It is important to keep in mind that Jesus in his words and actions is not engaged in fulfillment, but in clear breaks with the past. Consider: Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the first Passover of his public life--and symbolically attacks the entire sacrificial cult.  To the Samaritan woman Jesus offers living water--something, he points out, that the patriarch Jacob was unable to do. In his great Eucharistic discourse, Jesus proclaims himself both the source of living water as well as the bread of life--which he aggressively contrasts with the manna that "your fathers ate in the desert, yet they died." At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus presents himself as providing living water (which he had earlier offered to the Samaritan woman) and proclaims himself to be the light of the world. The contrast with the water and lights of the festival is clear--those are symbols, Jesus is reality. Finally, when Jesus returns for the final Passover in Jerusalem, he offers himself in sacrifice--but he instructs his disciples to offer bread and wine in remembrance, not a lamb. Once again, Jesus is not fulfilling the Passover sacrifice--which is occurring as Jesus offers himself on the Cross. Instead, he is offering believers the reality beyond the symbols and is thereby showing the ineffectiveness of those symbols. By embracing in belief these realities believers can become the worshippers in spirit and truth that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about.

In this context, we should at least mention the Synoptic gospels. Although John does not include the episode of the cursing of the fig tree, Mark's account of this somewhat enigmatics (for most readers) episode is noteworthy. Mark constantly uses a literary technique of juxtaposition to emphasize points he is making. Thus, by placing the cursing of the fig tree  exactly between Jesus' triumphal entry to Jerusalem and the Action in the Temple--to which Jesus is headed--Mark identifies this action as another symbolic action. He is using the episode to point directly ahead to Jesus' action Action in the Temple, evoking images of destruction and replacement, not restoration or fulfillment. Matthew's twice repeated use of Hosea 6:6 should almost certainly be related to the Action in the Temple, as also to Jesus' actions in forgiving sins on his own initiative. This is particularly clear at 12:6-8, where Jesus makes a threefold assertion: he explicitly states that "something greater than the Temple is here," he then cites the words of Hosea: "I desire mercy and not sacrifice"--and sacrifice could only be offered at the Jerusalem Temple; and he finishes by proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath, of the Lord's day.

To summarize, Wright's Temple Christology appears to avoid the complexities of John's Christological thought in favor of an approach that leads toward an interpretation of Jesus and the kingdom that will be "as much political as theological." In so doing, however, he misses the big picture of Jesus' coming, which is the revelation of God's identity. Despite Wright's many useful observations, we must keep that larger picture firmly in view.

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