Why I disagree with Tom Wright about the triumphal entry and divine kingship

A key text for Tom Wright’s “gospel christology” is the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-9; Mk. 11:1-10; Lk. 19:28-40). In Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, which is excellent in many ways, this story is the climax towards which his chapter on the “hurricane” of divine kingship is directed. The argument goes something like this. The theme of the return of YHWH to Zion is widely evidenced in the major Old Testament prophets but is also found in Zechariah and Malachi, even though these texts belong to the post-exilic period. It appears, therefore, that at least some Jews at this late stage were of the view that, despite the ending of the exile and the rebuilding of the temple, YHWH himself had not yet returned to fill his house with his glory. So the return from exile had not really happened—and had still not really happened by the time we get to Jesus’ day.

So we have this statement in Zechariah 8:3:

Thus says YHWH: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain… (NRSV)

And in the following chapter we have the well-known passage in which “it appears that the divine king might after all come in the form of a human king”:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech. 9:9 NRSV)

Wright infers from this collocation and from associated narratives of divine kingship that it is, in effect, YHWH who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as Israel’s victorious king, marking the final ending of Israel’s exile; and that Jesus, therefore, implicitly claims—or at least was understood to have claimed—to be this divine king:

Within a few years of his death, the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were speaking and writing about him, and indeed singing about him, not just as a great teacher and healer, not just as a great spiritual leader and holy man, but as a strange combination: both the Davidic king and the returning God. (Kindle loc. 1104)

The argument is developed at greater length in Jesus and the Victory of God, coming to a climax in this marvellous but I think mistaken paragraph (see my summary):

I suggest, in short, that the return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror-image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a voca­tion, given him by the one he knew as ‘father’, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God. (653)

I am only part way through Simply Jesus, but I will give my reasons why so far I am unpersuaded by the argument.

1. The Septuagint translates Zechariah 8:1-8 as a narrative of future events, and most English translations follow suit. But biblical Hebrew does not have a future tense as such, and the passage can be read quite naturally as describing past events. God had “scattered (imperfect) them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known”, and the land was desolate (perfect) (7:14). But the return from exile has happened. So YHWH continues to speak in the perfect tense: I have returned to Zion (curiously, the ESV starts out with the perfect tense here: “I have returned to Zion”), I have dwelt in the midst of Jerusalem, Jerusalem has been called the faithful city, old men and women again sit (imperfect) in the open places of the city, and so on. For this reason, things will be different from now on, and eventually even the nations will come to “seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord” (8:22). But there is still work to be done.

It also seems unlikely to me that the coming of YHWH in Malachi 3:1-5 is understood as a return from exile. Here YHWH is coming to his temple to judge and purify a corrupt priesthood (Mal. 3:3; cf. 2:1-2). Clearly not everything is well with post-exilic Israel, but the theme of a return from exile seems not to be present.

2. Scholars are inclined to think that Zechariah is made up of two literary units, with chapters 9-14 constituting a later collection of oracles. It is unlikely that Jesus was troubled by critical distinctions of this nature, but we should be a little careful about reading Zechariah 9:9 as some sort of restatement of 8:3. Moreover, the narrative context in the two chapters is different: the past return from exile in chapter 8 and the defeat of hostile surrounding nations in chapter 9.

3. This all makes it much less likely that Zechariah 9:9 is another way of saying that YHWH is returning to Zion to bring to an end a continuing state of exile. But is the king who rides into Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” meant to be God or is it simply Israel’s human king, to whom God will give victory over his enemies? I think the latter, for the following reasons:

  • the king appears to be spoken of in the third person whereas God speaks in the first person: so God will “cut off the chariot from Ephraim”, etc., but the king “shall speak peace to the nations” (9:10);
  • it seems unlikely that YHWH would be described as “humble”—the word more properly means “poor” or “afflicted”;
  • the word translated “victorious” in the NRSV is noshʿ (niphal), which means “having been saved or delivered” (at least, all the other uses of the verb with this stem in the MT have the passive sense), though the LXX has the active participle sōzōn;
  • and perhaps decisively, the idea that this king will rule “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10) is found in Psalm 72:8, where it unambiguously refers to the rule of Israel’s king.

So I would argue, first, that the entry into Jerusalem, either in Zechariah or in the Gospels, is not about the return of YHWH to Zion following an extended exile; and secondly, that there is a crucial option missing from Wright’s list: great teacher and healer, great spiritual leader and holy man, or strange combination of human and divine king. In this extraordinary prophetic drama Jesus is not claiming to be a divine king; he is claiming to be Israel’s king, who represents an oppressed and afflicted community within Israel, to whom God will give victory over his enemies.

Image of Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters

On Amazon:

N. T. Wright
HarperOne (2011), Hardcover, 256 pages, $24.99

Comments

You did not convince me.

what then is the meaning of the entry of Jesus?

Isn’t the answer to your question given in the last paragraph? Why were you not convinced?

Andrew,

What do you make of the prologue to John’s gospel? I’ve read a lot of your stuff, and am not clear on you conceive the identity of Jesus. Would you identify him with Yahweh in any sense? Do you have any problems with the Nicene Creed as far as it goes (I’m aware of deficiencies in it, but are you on board with what it is meant to assert and defend), etc?

Daniel, for the sake of quick response before we leave for the airport, here’s a post on the Word becoming flesh and another on a draft narrative-historical creed, which you may have seen. I haven’t looked at the Nicene creed specifically, and many of these questions are still open in my mind.