Tomorrow in Nottingham we will be looking at the narrative skeleton of the Synoptic Gospels as an outworking of the history of second temple Judaism and as the ground for the emergence of the church in the third century. I shall quote Wright’s criterion of “double similarity”, though perhaps not quite to the end that he had in mind:
…when something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting-point… of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 132)
We should expect the New Testament to provide a plausible historical connection between the history of Israel and the history of the church. In simple terms the connection is the coming of the kingdom of God—what the God of Israel did to transform the condition of his people, not least in relation to their enemies. As Zechariah put it, the Lord God of Israel was raising up a “horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David”—that is, a king—and that as a result they would be “saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk. 1:68-71). That already sounds like a very “political” hope, but this is not how the kingdom of God has typically been understood. Tomorrow I will suggest three ways in which the narrative about kingdom may be construed.
1. In the traditional understanding an announcement is made in first century Israel about the coming (or the already present) kingdom of God. Once Jesus has been raised and has ascended into heaven, leaving behind the sphere of history, the kingdom of God has become a transcendent reality. God reigns over his people or in the world in a very general sense, unrelated to the historical existence of the people of God. A rocket ship has been launched—whoosh!—into orbit beyond the gravitational pull of the real world of human history. The reason we now have such a hard time talking meaningfully about the kingdom of God is that it no longer has a historical frame of reference. This state of affairs lasts until the kingdom comes in its fullness at the end of history-as-we-know-it, which, confusingly, is also the new heavens and new earth.
2. New perspectives on Jesus in recent decades have emphasized the apocalyptic dimension to the kingdom of God and have tended to acknowledge that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was a significant factor in the fulfilment of Jesus’ predictions. But then the same theologically powered rocket ship carries us up above the clouds to the remote abstraction of the kingdom of God, and nothing more is said about human history. So the story of second temple Judaism has been brought to a historical end, but the story of God and the nations lacks a historical beginning.
3. My argument is that the kingdom of God envisaged by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament is no less historical than the kingdom of God in the Old Testament. It is all about how God manages the political existence of his people in relation to the nations. Management has been handed over to his Son, who is seated at his right hand, rather than to any earthly king. But it is still the concrete life of the community in the midst of other peoples and cultures that is being managed. From the New Testament perspective the coming of the kingdom of God entailed not only “judgment” or drastic management of the household of God but also “judgment” of the pagan oikoumenē, the Greek-Roman world, the blasphemous empire. And then it’s just more history.
Take your pick.