Sunday, January 20, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (1)

Chapter Four of N. T. Wright's How God Became King, "The Story of Israel," begins by begging a question and continues with tendentious interpretation. The question begging follows logically enough from Wright's Protestant premise that revelation is a book, rather than the person Jesus.  Thus he writes:
… the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.  All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear, though many generations of Christian readers have … in effect, … ignore[d] it. (65)

Accepting for the sake of argument--something which is by no means certain, as we will discuss further--that Wright is correct regarding the gospels, our real question is not necessarily how "the gospels present themselves" but rather how did Jesus see himself and present himself? Did Jesus see himself as the climax to the story of Israel or something (and someone) much more: the climax to all of history? By framing the question as he does, by assuming that the gospels and the story of Jesus are strictly identical, Wright avoids addressing that crucial issue. And the problem is that--as we previously discussed, Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures--there is excellent reason to draw a distinction between the editorial theologizing of the evangelists and their portrayal of Jesus speaking in his own voice. The first is a matter of the evangelists--like all early Christians--trying to understand how best to come to grips with the uniqueness of Jesus. The second has to do with whether the evangelists' recording of the events and words of Jesus' earthly life are best explained by the theological approach that the evangelists take: whether Jesus himself saw himself in a somewhat different light, one which the evangelists recorded along with their own theologizing. Viewed from this dual standpoint, the gospels are more complex than Wright allows for. Yes, he states that they are, indeed, complex documents, but how deeply does he understand that?

For example, there is no doubt that, much as Wright maintains, the evangelists tended to try to come to grip with Jesus by looking at him in terms of fulfillment of the Israelite scriptures. By the time of the Second Temple--the period following the return from the Babylonian Exile, but especially the period that began shortly before the time of Jesus, when Israel, after an all too brief renewal as an independent kingdom, once again found itself under the thumb of a great power, Rome--Jews were accustomed to searching their sacred writings for texts that they thought could give a clue to the future of their nation. That was not, of course, the spirit in which those texts were originally written, but that was how they had come to be used. The early Christians were, overwhelmingly, Jews themselves and were thus naturally influenced by Jewish approaches to their sacred writings and especially by Jewish Messianic expectations. It was only natural, therefore, that they should tend to interpret Jesus from that standpoint. At the same time, however, their lives had been transformed by their experience of Jesus, and especially by their experience of his resurrection, and their devotion to preserving a true portrait of Jesus the person is reflected in all the gospels. It became the task of later Christian generations to distinguish between theologizing and historical portrayal based on the experience of eyewitnesses. It will simply not do for Wright to sidestep this fundamental distinction, but unfortunately his Protestant presuppositions lead him to ignore these questions and to fit the data, willy nilly, within his own ideological framework.

A further important question regarding Wright's view of the gospels as fulfilling the Israelite scriptures is one we will have to consider closely: what were the hopes and expectations that Jews had based on their scriptures, and were those expectations reasonable? Wright has a strong tendency to skim over these questions, but it is clearly fundamental to a balanced examination of early Christian thought. To our mind the Jewish expectations--taken strictly as a matter of what their scriptures told them--must be considered to be reasonable. But, if that is so, what is the point of these scriptures when God was always going to act—according to Wright—in a way that would be totally unexpected to anyone who paid attention to those same scriptures? Are God's ways mysterious or simply devious? What is the method to this madness?

These are the issues we will be examining when we turn to Wright's first approach to the four gospels.

The Strange Story of Israel

Before turning to a thumbnail treatment of each gospel, Wright presents an overview of "The Strange Story of Israel." In line with his ideological presuppositions, Wright chooses to treat "the Old Testament" as essentially one book with various chapters, presenting a consistent story:

Israel's ancient scriptures are framed with a narrative, an unfinished narrative of a certain shape and type.  ... you are still left with a sense that this story is supposed to be going somewhere, but that it hasn't gotten there yet.
… That, I suggest is the impression we might get if we read straight through the Old Testament: great beginning and wonderful visions of God's plan and purposes, then a steady decline and puzzling and shameful multiple failures, all ending in a question mark. … (66)

On the one hand, there is some truth in this picture. The men who, relatively late in Israel's history, edited the Israelite scriptures and gathered them into a canonical collection did, in fact, attempt to impart to them a more systematic viewpoint than these writings originally had. On the other hand, these editorial efforts cannot obscure the fact that the individual writings retain their separate identities, with viewpoints that can, at times, conflict significantly. To pretend otherwise, to pretend that the Israelite scriptures present a single coherent viewpoint, is simply not sound scholarship. To avoid the question of why we should believe that these writings are revelatory of "God's plan and purposes," to fail to deal with how they fit within an overall theory of revelation, seriously compounds the problem. But instead of pausing over the issues Wright hurries onward:

The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven't been careful, simply as God's answer to the plight of the human race in general. The implied backstory hasn't been the story of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the  prophets; it's been the story of Adam and Eve, of “Everyman,” sinning and dying and needing to be redeemed. … the story of Israel itself, for most modern readers of the Bible, is to be quietly left aside. It was part of the problem, not part of the solution. …
Here again the creeds leave an ominous gap. They don't mention Israel at all. … the tendency I just mentioned to see the gospels as the answer not to the story of Israel as a whole, but to the story of Adam and Eve. …
But when we turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John we discover that they at least think it's important to retell the history of Israel and to show that the story of Jesus is the story in which that long history, warts and all, reaches its God-ordained climax. (66-67)

Well! There are a few problems here. To begin, one of the ways in which late Israelite thinkers sought to mold the Israelite scriptures into a coherent whole was by adding the early chapters of Genesis as a sort of prologue--a prologue that situated the history of Israel within the framework of the history of "the human race in general." And part of that picture included the portrayal of the "plight" of the human race--we might say, the human condition--as imperfect and sinful. From that standpoint, it's hardly surprising that the early Christians should see Jesus as "God's answer to the plight of the human race in general"--although Wright, characteristically and tellingly, speaks of "the gospels [books, not Jesus] ... as God's answer to the plight of the human race in general."

On the other hand, Wright makes a very valid point. The story of Adam and Eve has taken on a significance for Christian thought that it simply did not have for the early Christian writers. We have had occasion to speak of that at considerable length, and unfortunately Wright ends up straying into this same swamp (as we will see). Still, it's instructive to note that Adam is mentioned a grand total of one time in all four gospels combined--and that one mention is simply as the starting point of Jesus' genealogy in Luke. Clearly neither the evangelists nor Jesus saw the importance in the Adam and Eve story that later theologians found. Only Paul makes much use of Adam in his letters, but even then the use that Paul makes of Adam is more metaphorical and rhetorical in nature than truly theological.

But Wright appears to believe that the story of Abraham should be of particular importance to us, as central to the "story of Israel," which is supposedly central to the evangelists. And that is problematic, too. Abraham simply doesn't figure very prominently in the gospels (most references show up in stock sayings which have no special significance), and when mention of Abraham does take on some special significance, it is usually negative as regards the case that Wright is making. It is worth taking a closer look at this issue. What I mean is this: when Abraham is mentioned in a significant context it is normally to relativize the notion of the Jews as a chosen people. Let's look at the texts.

The single reference to Abraham in Mark is a quote from the Israelite scriptures, which Jesus uses to refute the Sadducees regarding the resurrection of the dead--the mention of Abraham has no special significance of its own. Matthew and Luke, however, do use Abraham to make an important point, and they do so by quoting John the Baptist:

7  Now when he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to  flee the coming wrath?  8 Produce fruit that shows you've repented, 9 and don't think you can say to yourselves, 'Abraham is our father!' for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (Matthew 3)

7  So he [John] said to the crowds that were coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  8 Produce fruit that shows you've repented, then, and don't go saying to yourselves, 'Abraham is our father!' for I say to you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  9 Already now the axe is laid at the root of the trees; any tree, then, not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3)

The point in both gospels is to relativize the significance of Israelite origin: if God can raise up children to Abraham from stones, there can be no special merit in Abrahamic descent. That is a distinctly universalist attitude, rather than an Israel-centric one. 

The reference to Abraham in John, which comes from Jesus himself, seems somewhat different at first glance:

52 The Jews said to him, "Now we know you have a demon. Abraham died, as well as the prophets, yet you say, 'If anyone keeps my word he'll never taste death!  53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died, too! What are you making yourself out to be?"  54 Jesus answered, "If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It's my Father Who glorifies me, Who you say is your God.  55 Yet you haven't recognized Him, while I know Him. And if  I were to say that I don't know Him, I'd be like you, a liar. But I know Him and I keep His word.  56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad."  57 So the Jews said to him, "You're not fifty years old yet, and you've seen Abraham?"  58 Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am."  59 They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple. (John 8)

Here, too, however, the passage conforms to the general pattern. Clearly, our first impression must be that Jesus is setting himself up as far superior to Abraham. Then again, it may be important that the Jews refer to Abraham as "our" father, just as Jesus, too, refers to Abraham as "your" father--that is, the Jews' father. Jesus appears to be distancing himself from the Israel-centric attitude of the Jews; otherwise, he might have referred to Abraham as "our" father, since he too was Jewish. But John's Jesus has one Father--his Father in heaven, who is Father of all and creator of all. So, as with Matthew and Luke, we see Abraham, progenitor of the Jews, used as a foil when a universalist point is to be made. Of course, John's universalist perspective is evident from the very beginning of his gospel, with his identification of Jesus as the Word who was in the beginning, was with God and was God.

This universalist perspective, which runs counter to Wright's theme, also appears elsewhere in all the gospels, and not just when Abraham is mentioned. To cite a few examples:

Matthew's story of the "Magi";

Jesus' aggressive use of the Naaman story as well as that of the Syro-Phoenician widow (there were plenty of lepers and widows in Israel in those days ...);

Luke's account of Jesus' return to Nazareth, where he preaches reconciliation with the Gentiles;

Jesus' command at the end of Matthew to make disciples of all nations.

But let's go back to Wright's suggestion that we "read straight through the Old Testament" to take in the "wonderful visions of God's plan and purposes." As we've indicated, and as we will examine in somewhat greater detail later, the "Old Testament" is a highly complex collection of writings. Reading it straight through, without serious study of the historical and cultural background (gleaned from history, archaeology, linguistics, comparative religion, etc.) is a sure recipe for misunderstanding. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, to proceed in this way is a naive and frankly anachronistic approach, and it will not yield the "story of Israel" for the simple reason that Israel was an historic reality, a people, that existed in the real world--not simply in a collection of books. Further, those books were never intended to give a complete "story of Israel"--at most, in the form that they have come down to us, they are theological interpretations of Israel's meaning in history, which contain portions of Israel's story that have been adapted to the underlying theological purposes of the writers.

Therefore, no "story of Israel" can be complete that relies solely on these theological interpretations. And, by the same token, no theological interpretation can be complete that doesn't address what can be learned through a complex interdisciplinary approach such as has been ongoing for the past two centuries. I don't know Wright, but I do know that he is an ardent proponent of the historical critical study of the Israelite and early Christian writings. He strikes me as a non-naive person, so I can only conclude that his decision to jettison the historical critical method in this book was made for purposes of his ideological agenda.

Jesus is a person in history, in reality. Contrary to what Wright says, if Jesus is the answer to mankind's plight, then it is the person Jesus who is that answer--not books about Jesus. Those books about Jesus and those that chronicle the life of the early Church are important, but they must also be understood and studied in their historical context--which is as documents of the Church. Part of that study involves the relation of the Church and its documents to what came before, which includes the story of Israel. But Wright is presenting the "backstory" to Jesus (or, to the "gospels" as he prefers to say) as if that backstory can be derived from an uncritical, cover to cover, reading of the Israelite scriptures. Wright, of course, is fully aware of the foundational myth element in those scriptures and will address it later, but he is doing a disservice to Christian believers who are serious about their faith and hungry for real knowledge by obscuring the importance of these issues. If we take the actual story of Israel seriously—to the full extent that it is now known in multi-disciplinary scholarship--we will discover a different but more historical narrative: that of the gradual discovery of the identity of God and its full revelation in the person of Jesus. This is the real story of revelation, not Wright's denial of history by reading a late understanding of God into his anachronistic "story of Israel."

Wright now turns to each of the gospels in turn, offering a thumbnail summary intended to place each within his perspective.

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