Monday, January 21, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (2)

Wright next turns to each of the gospels in turn and attempts to show how they embody the "story of Israel."

Matthew: The story Reaches Its Goal

Wright uses the beginning of Matthew, the genealogy, to sketch out his version of the Jewish worldview at the time of Jesus, and how that view embodied a narrative or story of Israel. Thus, he notes that Matthew's genealogy is divided into three parts of fourteen generations each, beginning with Abraham. The first part runs from Abraham to King David, the second from David to the Babylonian Exile, and the third from the Babylonian Exile to the present: Jesus, the Messiah. This is Matthew's way of signaling at the outset that with Jesus we have reached another turning point in the story of Israel. Building off this idea, Wright constructs the following outline of the "story of Israel.

The beginning of the story is the "Fall"--the sin of Adam. Wright takes the "Fall" itself for granted at this point but "discusses" it later in the book (170). For now he is content to assert that:

The call of Abraham is the answer [i.e. God's answer] to the sin of Adam. (73)

For most people it might not seem obvious how selecting a person, apparently at random, and promising to make of him a great nation could be an answer to the "Fall" of all mankind in Adam. Wright's reasoning, however, is that the call of Abraham in fact extends beyond Abraham's descendants to "all nations." You won't actually find that reasoning in the current book, How God Became King, or even a summary of how Wright arrived at that conclusion. Instead, Wright refers the reader (in a footnote) to an earlier book, The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). If the reader doesn't already own a copy of that book (I did) he can obtain the book from Amazon for an additional $26.37. I suppose that's of a piece with the lack of any indices. Anyway, in NTPG Wright maintains that Genesis 12:3 extends the call and promise to Abraham to "all the families of the earth:

The line of disaster and the 'curse', from Adam, through Cain, through the Flood to Babel, begins to be reversed when God calls Abraham and says 'in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'

In a footnote Wright admits that his use of this text for the indicated purpose may be somewhat dubious although, as is usual, he offers the reader no details, only the assurance that the passage "involves the nations in some way or other":

Gen. 12:3. The translation of this clause is a matter of dispute; but it is beyond question that the passage speaks of a blessing upon Abraham which involves the nations in some way or other. (NTPG, 262-263)

The New American Bible (NAB), in a footnote to the same passage, does offer some details which show how dubious Wright's use of the passage is:

NAB, Genesis 12:3: Shall find blessing in you: the sense of the Hebrew expression is probably reflexive, "shall bless themselves through you" (i.e., in giving a blessing they shall say "May you be as blessed as Abraham.") rather than passive, "shall be blessed in you."

The NAB's interpretation has the advantage of reflecting consistent Israelite views as expressed, especially, in the prophets: all the nations will be awe struck by the power of Israel's god, who has raised up Israel to a position of preeminence by humbling those other nations before Israel. The nations will then offer tribute to Israel. This is not a universalist message, still less a blessing to the nations who will thus be reduced to subservience.

We should also add that Wright offers no indication whether he regards the Adam and Abraham "narratives" as history, or simply as ... narratives, stories. We have no way of knowing whether he regards Adam and Abraham as historic persons and the events related in Genesis (let alone Exodus) as accurate accounts of historical events. It would be useful to know whether Jesus is later fulfilling promises made by God to fictional characters in stories or is fulfilling actual promises made by God to real people. It could make a difference but Wright, apparently, sees no point in discussing the matter.

Moving quickly, Wright skips over much of the "story of Israel" and arrives at the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (with its Temple in Jerusalem). This was, of course, followed by the Exile to Babylon as punishment for Israel's sins. Obviously, says Wright, what Israel needed was forgiveness for its sins which had caused its exile.

Now, it so happened that "the word" [i.e., God's word] came to the prophet Jeremiah (25:11ff, 29:10). That word stated that the exile would last for seventy years after which Israel's enemies would be severely punished (even though they had been fulfilling God's will to punish Israel) and Israel would return to Judah to "a future full of hope." And so it happened. The Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem by Cyrus of Persia, who had defeated the Babylonians.

In the euphoria surrounding the news that the Jews would be allowed to return to Jerusalem, Deutero-Isaiah was led to make expansive prophecies. Wright admits that many of these prophecies are extremely nationalistic, but he claims to find in at least one a continuation of the extension of God's promise to the Gentiles which Wright claimed to have found in Genesis 12:3 (we must again refer to NTPG for any details regarding Wright's reasoning):

(f) Israel and the Nations

The natural corollary of Israel's being the true Adam is that the nations are seen as the animals over whom Adam rules. But this belief, however expressed, is capable of bifurcating. Is Adam's rule to be beneficial, bringing order and blessing to the world, or is it to be one of judgment, consigning the threatening beasts to perdition? Evidence of both attitudes can be found in our period.

On the one hand, there is a train of thought which goes back at least to Isaiah, [i.e. Deutero-Isaiah, in the post-exilic period] according to which Israel was to be the light of [sic] the nations. ... (NTPG, 267)

Naturally Wright doesn't provide the overall context, but here it is:

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— 
he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ 

Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave of rulers,
‘Kings shall see and stand up,
   princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’
(Isaiah 49:5-7)

Clearly, the light that will extend to all the nations will be the revelation that Israel has God on its side, and that revelation will be so overwhelming that the Gentiles will prostrate themselves before the Israelites. Isaiah goes on to describe how the Gentile nobility will end up licking the dust at the feet of the Jews and being servants to Jewish children, while "the wealth of nations" will stream to Jerusalem in endless caravans. Yahweh's light to the nations could not have been something that those nations would be looking forward to!

Unfortunately, after the return to Jerusalem, the realities of life were those of a somewhat hard scrabble existence rather than "a future full of hope." The temple was rebuilt--giving this period its designation as the Second Temple period--although it was a poor affair compared to the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. Therefore, says Wright, Jewish thinkers concluded that the exile, despite all appearances to the contrary, hadn't really ended, and they continued to speculate about what the future would bring and to affirm that return from exile was only the beginning of the good things God would grant to Israel. In other words, they were still being punished for their sins, and/or the sins of their ancestors.

The expectations propagated by Jewish thinkers of the Second Temple period typically took the form of "prophecies" that Israel would acquire status as a great power that would lord it over the Gentile nations and despoil them of their wealth. In this they follow Deutero-Isaiah, although mostly lacking his poetic power.

As this "Second Temple" period continued, however, conditions worsened. The Persian empire was overthrown and Judah was now dominated by a Hellenistic Syrian kingdom that propagated its culture throughout its domain. With the help of Hellenized Jews it also aggressively tried to bring all Jews into line with Hellenism. Writing in this period, centuries after the actual exile, a prophet calling himself Daniel likened this situation to the Babylonian Exile and speculated as to how long it would last.

Daniel, supposedly in exile in Babylon, in Chapter 9 of his collected writings, asks God when Jeremiah's prophecy--that the exile would last for 70 years--would be fulfilled, after which the jubilee year of liberation would come. The answer that God gave to Daniel--notwithstanding "the word" that was given to Jeremiah--was that this exile would last, not the 70 years that Jeremiah had spoken of, but 70 "weeks" of years, i.e., 70 x 7 years, or 490 years.

The book of Daniel reached final form during the first half of the second century BC. As the Jewish region around Jerusalem first gained independence from the Syrians, then fell under the harsh sway of Rome, Daniel's writings fueled intense speculation about the possibility of deliverance from the foreign yoke--the time when the seventy sevens would be fulfilled (69-71).

This metaphor of exile as applied to Israel's misfortunes is the basis for Wright's oft repeated assertion:

"most Jews of Jesus's day did not believe that the exile was really, properly over. Yes, they'd come back from Babylon … Yes, they'd rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. ... But pagan foreigners were still ruling over them. ... (69)

It's unclear where Wright ranks the belief of "most Jews of Jesus's day" on the scale of what is or might be revelatory, but it is this history and tradition of speculation, based on the metaphor of exile and return, that Wright says Matthew is alluding to when he begins his account of the Good News with a genealogy of Jesus:

And Matthew makes it clear beyond cavil, to anyone thinking Jewishly in that period, that the moment for a "return from exile" had come with Jesus. Instead of years, he does it with generations, the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens--with Jesus we get the seventh seven. He is the jubilee in person. He is the one who will rescue Israel from its long continuing nightmare (71).

And so Matthew ties this all in to the very name of Jesus. Jesus is born and is given the name that signifies that he will deliver his people from their sins (Jesus = Joshua, "Yahweh helps/saves"). (Matthew 1:21)

But, crucially, Wright adds that "saving his people from their sins" 

"to any first-century Jew, didn't just mean that individuals could turn to him and find personal forgiveness, though that would obviously be true as well. Read Isaiah 40 and Lamentations 4 again and see. Exile is the payment for sin, so forgiveness of sin means the end of exile" (71).

What Wright is getting at here, is that forgiveness of sins isn't just a matter for individuals, it means inauguration of the kingdom on earth as in heaven--a matter that is "as much political as theological" (36). Oh yes, Wright says--we can see that Matthew shows how Jesus "recapitulates" the story of Israel:

as Jesus stands on the mountain giving the famous sermon, he is Moses ...

answering his critics about his actions on the Sabbath, he is David ...

as he calls and names the twelve disciples, he is perhaps Jacob ...

healing the sick and raising the dead, he is Elijah or Elisha ... (72)

This recapitulation business is all fine and good, says Wright, but "far more important" is the realization, "the towering sense" that God is about to "turn all that around"--"all that" being the "story of Israel" that had gone awry. (We will briefly note here what should be obvious--in all the examples Wright provides of "recapitulation," Jesus is actually taking the place of God, rather than the "Old Testament" personages. Jesus isn't Moses receiving the tablets, he is a voice thundering: But I say! He isn't David, doing what needs to be done on the Sabbath--he proclaims himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, etc.)

But, Wright says, what's happening is all happening with a difference:

... the new event that is now happening is precisely an event we might call rescue. A fresh initiative (72).
It hasn't come from within the story as it was—though, strangely, those with eyes to see will recognize that it is where the story ought to have gone all along. … the only thing that Israel contributed to the story of Jesus that Matthew is telling was the particular set of muddle and rebellion from which God was now coming to free it (72-73).

Wright apparently believes he has "eyes to see" and can see "where the story ought to have gone all along." He can see what Genesis 12:3 "ought to have" meant "some way or another"--no matter what the Hebrew might actually mean. He has eyes to see what Deutero-Isaiah "ought to have" been saying, despite the overall context and the wealth of passages that give meaning to what he actually did say. Still, he does have eyes to see that Jesus “hasn't come from within the story as it was,” even though he insists that the Jews should have had eyes to read their scriptures the way he does. And he doggedly insists:

This is a point of fundamental importance for the whole New Testament and indeed the whole early Christian movement. The gospel writers saw the events concerning Jesus, particularly his kingdom-inaugurating life, death, and resurrection, not just as isolated events to which remote prophets might have distantly pointed. They saw those events as bringing the long story of Israel to its proper goal, even though that long story had apparently become lost, stuck, and all but forgotten (73).
In Israel's scriptures, the reason Israel's story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world. The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam. Israel's story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world's story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders. Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament (73-74).

This much we can agree with: it is important that God chose Israel. But Wright's overly facile identification of the God of Israel with the God who reveals himself in Jesus is troubling. It suggests, for starters, that Wright places little importance on Trinity. Secondly, it suggests that Wright is imposing his Protestant ideology on the gospels, that he sees little or no relation between the identity of God as revealed in Jesus and the nature of the new life that we are called to. The message of the prophets was that Israel was promised lordship over the nations. The message of John, to take one example, was that God had promised through Jesus that we would see him as he is. This is the true revelation--not the story of Israel as Wright sees it but the self revelation of God in Jesus.

All this "story of Israel," says Wright, was "vital" for Matthew. Well, alright, let's suppose that it was vital for Matthew--although there is certainly room for qualification at the least. Is there any reason to suppose that it was vital for the other evangelists? Can we really suppose that it is a logical outgrowth of the Israelite scriptures?

And more importantly, we must ask: Was it vital for Jesus? Not that I can see. Did Jesus harp on the exile and return themes? No. Did Jesus give any hint that he was talking about the kingdom returning to Israel, in the sense that the prophets spoke of it and that "most Jews" in his time understood it? No--to the contrary. As we have seen, the kingdom as Jesus envisioned it was the spiritual union of those people who would dedicate themselves to doing God's will through belief in Jesus as the revelation of God and by living in him. This dedication would lead to forgiveness of sins, but those sins were described by Jesus very much in a personal sense, not in a societal sense. And, while Matthew is the most conventionally "Jewish" of the gospels in its expression, it ends on the characteristically universalist note of all Christianity--all nations are equally called to discipleship.

Was this "reading" of the good news vital for the other evangelists? Well, it would seem to be relevant that another gospel, Luke's, also contains a genealogy. But that doesn't fit into Wright's narrative as well as Matthew's genealogy does. Matthew's genealogy starts with "father" Abraham, father of Israel, but Luke's genealogy (despite other strongly Israel-centric elements in Luke's infancy narratives) begins on a distinctly universalist note with Adam--the father of all mankind. Wright also references Matthew's transfiguration narrative, but omits Luke's--which might seem surprising, since in it Luke refers to an "exodus"--surely a quintessentially Israelite theme. But Jesus is applying the term exodus to his own death, and that would be much harder to integrate into Wright's framework. John, too, begins on a more abstract but equally universalist note: the communion in being of God and Word before "all things" came to be through the Word. Wright, as we will see, is forced to gloss over these universalist themes in John in order to try to claim an Israel-centrism that really isn't there--certainly not in the sense that he claims.

We will expand on these issues as we deal further with Wright's treatment of the gospels, but another point is worth mentioning at this time because it highlights Wrights selectivity as well as offering a measure of his lack of reflectiveness. As we saw, Wright complains that the creeds skip over Jesus' life--from God the Creator and the Incarnation to the crucifixion and Resurrection. No middle, no in-between. Yet, in his treatment of Luke, Wright skips from the infancy narratives to the road to Emmaus story--no public ministry, no middle, no words and works: zero, zip, nada. He concentrates on evangelistic theologizing--a real and important element in the gospels, let there be no doubt about it--and omits all reference to the overwhelming evangelistic preoccupation with Jesus the real person, which may or may not harmonize fully with the theologizing.

Of course the evangelists all theologize about Jesus, trying to come to grips with him, his meaning and his person. How could they not--were not their hearts burning within them? And in their zeal they turned to the traditional resources that all Jews were familiar with--the Israelite scriptures. But that was not the end of the story--not by a long shot. The influence of their past lives and the culture in which they were raised could not overcome the experience of the living and risen Jesus, and to the best of their human abilities they preserved that experience for future generations so that we could share that experience--the experience of Jesus and not simply of their own theologizing. This is a distinction that Wright determinedly resists, preferring his Protestant framework of revelation by book. This is the reality that those with "eyes to see" will see, but which has been "misread" by so many.

Wright deals with the remaining gospels in relatively perfunctory fashion, selecting what he considers to be their important themes.

Mark: Jesus and the Breaking In of God's New World

Mark picks up, here and throughout his gospel, a major theme from the ancient Hebrew scriptures: that when Israel's God acts in fulfillment of his ancient promises, he will do so in dramatic and radically new ways. Here, to be sure, is a paradox we meet throughout the New Testament: God acts completely unexpectedly—as he always said he would. Just because the new events are able to be seen as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy (and Mark, like the other evangelists, is clear that this is the only right way to see them), that doesn't mean that one can see a smooth, easy line from the ancient texts to the modern fulfillment. On the contrary, what is being fulfilled is precisely the promise of drastic, unexpected, and perhaps even unwelcome judgment and mercy (75).

This is a significant misrepresentation of what the Israelites scriptures actually say. What the Israelite scriptures repeatedly claim is that God will act in a way that has never been seen in the world before, and that the timing will be unexpected. However, they are not at all bashful about describing the results of God's action. As we saw with Deutero-Isaiah, the result of God's action to rescue Israel from its historical plight is described in somewhat lurid terms: the subjugation of the Gentile nations to Israel and a ration of dustlicking for the Gentile aristocracy, accompanied by the looting of the Gentile nations' wealth. When this happened Israel would not find it totally unexpected--the prophets had already told them! God had always said that the timing would be unexpected, but if we are to believe the prophets the results were to be wholly expected. And that's what was different about Jesus--his coming was not unexpected as to timing but, far more importantly, the manner of his coming was quite the contrary of what was expected based on the Israelite scriptures. That was the whole problem.

What then of Wright's claim that the evangelists regarded fulfillment of prophecy as “the only right way to see” Jesus? There is no doubt that the evangelists were culturally conditioned to view Jesus through Jewish theological lenses. That meant that they would welcome instances of what they could call "fulfillment." (For examples of the twists that that expectation of "fulfillment" could take, cf. our review of Enns' Messy Revelation.) Nevertheless, this expectation did not prevent the evangelists from preserving in great detail the words of Jesus. We have previously examined in the distinction that must and can be made between theologizing passages in the gospels--in which the evangelists offer their theological interpretations--and the portrait they offer of Jesus speaking in his own words. As we saw (Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures), Jesus' use of the Israelite scriptures--as repeatedly portrayed by all four evangelists--is strikingly modern, even deconstructive. So, while it is, of course, relevant to ask whether the evangelists regarded fulfillment of prophecy as “the only right way to see” Jesus, the far more important and interesting question is, Is that how Jesus saw himself? And there is ample reason to doubt that.

Luke: The Scriptures Must Be Fulfilled

In his brief discussion of the theme of scriptural fulfillment in Luke, Wright himself largely makes our point:

That the scriptures must be fulfilled is precisely the point made by Luke at key points in his gospel. …
Even Jesus's closest followers, however, cannot begin to see in the strange events of his arrest, trial, and death any kind of fulfillment. They had been living in the currently prevailing version of the Jewish story, and it certainly wasn't supposed to end with the violent death of God's anointed (75-76).

That's right. Luke repeats the common Jewish belief that "the scriptures must be fulfilled" (however that was understood, cf. once again our review of Enns), but that doesn't prevent Luke from handing down to us Jesus' own words that call into question that whole understanding of what revelation is all about. A striking case in point begins Jesus' public ministry in Luke--Jesus' return to his hometown of Nazareth. There, Jesus proclaims that Isaiah's prophecy has been fulfilled in their hearing, but he does so by truncating the scriptural passage that he chooses to read, causing it to mean something quite different than the proper context presents: reconciliation with the Gentiles rather than their subjugation.

Moreover, as we have repeatedly emphasized, a "fulfillment" that contradicts the clear words of the Israelite scriptures is no fulfillment at all--not unless we redefine "fulfillment" to mean something radically different than Jesus' contemporaries could ever have been expected to understand from their "scriptures." To do this requires a theory of revelation that goes well beyond the notion of "fulfillment." Wright finds himself in theoretical difficulties because he starts from the Jewish narrative of Israelite history and ignores what that history was--as can be determined by the modern social sciences, or by viewing the words of Jesus apart from the theologizing of the evangelists. And, of course, when we urge a new understanding of Israel's history we do not confine ourselves to history in the sense of political history, but importantly—cf. our posts re Mark Smith's work—in the sense that Israel's history witnessed the development of a knowledge of God's identity. This development was largely unparalleled in any other culture and reached fulfillment with Jesus and the self revelation of God not just as Creator but as Trinity. Just because the Jews understood their story differently, as a waiting for secular salvation, just because they failed to see the big picture of revelation, doesn't mean we have to go down the same path. Jesus said they had got it wrong (and we will explore this further as we continue). Why can't Wright accept that and look for another explanation? Because he's blinded by ideology.

John: Creation and New Creation

In his brief consideration of John, Wright once again attempts to come to grips (from within his own ideology) with the paradox of fulfillment:

The paradox we saw in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—that the events involving Jesus are to be seen as the fulfillment of the story of Israel, but that this “fulfillment” is not what Israel was expecting or wanting—is stated sharply right at the start of John's gospel. John's prologue takes us back to the first books of the Bible, to Genesis and Exodus. He frames his simple, profound opening statement with echoes of the creation story … and echoes of the climax of the book of Exodus (… where the word “lived” is literally “tabernacled” …) This, in other words, is where Israel's history and with it world history reached their moment of destiny. But Israel … were looking the other way … Yes, some did accept him, and they were given “the right to become God's children … So John too sees the story of Jesus as the paradoxical climax of the story of Israel (77-78).

Yes, Jesus gave those who believed the “right to become God's children,” but that isn't what the scriptures had promised—they had promised the right to have their foot on the Gentiles' neck. Nor is the creation story, with which John begins, Israel's story—it's the story of the universe and of everyman, as Wright himself has already said. Appropriating the symbolism of Israelite religion (tabernacling = temple) is simply not the same as fulfilling the “story of Israel.”

People ask how Jesus can possibly be the Messiah, but others insist that he must be. Jesus persists, saying that when Moses wrote, he was writing about him, and when Abraham believed God, he was looking forward to him (78).

Those who believed in Jesus believed precisely because of who he showed himself to be through his works and his words (“no one ever spoke like him”)--not because they thought that Moses had written about him. Those who disbelieved did so precisely because Jesus didn't appear to be fulfilling the scriptures: Search the scriptures--no prophet ever came from Galilee! This was the same dilemma that faced all the early disciples--the dilemma that faced everyone who met Jesus! In retrospect they sought to explain Jesus in terms that they were familiar with, but they faithfully preserved the evidence that something much bigger than "fulfillment" of words in books was going on.

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