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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Eternal life and the story of Israel

I got a question from someone recently asking about the meaning of “eternal life” in the Gospels. He takes it that the expression “age to come” refers to the time after either the collapse of national Israel or the collapse of the pagan oikoumenē. That is also my view. But at the end of the story of the wealthy ruler Jesus appears to connect the age to come with “eternal life” (Lk. 18:30); and later it is closely associated with the resurrection (Lk. 20:35). Does this not suggest that “age to come” refers not to a historical but to a resurrected existence?

I want to answer the question a little indirectly—and perhaps incompletely—by considering the criticism of Tom Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ eschatology and kingdom ethics that Nicholas Perrin puts forward in Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright .

What is the basis for the mission to the Gentiles?

As a thoroughly Gentile church we take the logic of a mission to the Gentiles for granted, but it’s not as obvious or inevitable as we might think. Jesus appears to have been almost entirely occupied with a mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; cf. Jer. 50:6) and, while in the flesh, even to have opposed the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5). The community of believers in Jerusalem—the direct heirs of his mission to Israel—had a hard time coming to terms with the unconditional inclusion of Gentiles in the renewal movement. It was clearly not a self-evident extension of the program. So how did it come about? What was its theological underpinning?

Eschatology, mission and the theological formation of the church

I spent a day this week with a group of leaders from a network of churches in the UK who were discussing how best to teach theology across the movement. They went about it with a refreshing candour: “We have an anti-intellectual history—we need to embrace learning.” The discussion revolved around the questions of what should be included in an “in house” theological training programme and how it might most effectively be delivered.

The rather less practical question that kept going through my mind, however, was: What do we want this sort of programme to achieve? What is the guiding vision? Are we looking to theology to underpin our ecclesial structures and doctrinal commitments? Or do we need it to take us somewhere? In the context of the consultation that would probably not have been a very helpful contribution—the network in question already has a solid vision for the coming decade. But I want to explore a bit further here what we currently need theology to do in our churches.

Misreading the parable of the minas from the post-Christendom margins

There is a strong dissident view that the nobleman in Jesus’ parable, who gives ten minas to each of his servants to do business with, before travelling to a far country to receive a kingdom, is an unjust rather than a just “lord” and that his “kingdom” is quite antithetical to the kingdom of God. Lloyd Pietersen makes use of it to illustrate how “readings from the margins completely subvert the natural Christendom reading which is still favoured by commentators”.

What has especially recommended this line of interpretation is a story in Josephus’ Antiquities. The appointment of Archelaus as king in 4 BC was contested before Augustus by a delegation from Judea, accompanied by a large number of Jews who were living in Rome. The Jews were understandably afraid that Archelaus would follow in the footsteps of his father Herod: before setting out for Rome to have his kingship confirmed by Caesar he had violently suppressed opposition from the Pharisees. To avoid a repeat of Herod’s brutal reign, the Jews asked that:

they might be delivered from kingly and the like forms of government, and might be added to Syria, and be put under the authority of such presidents of theirs as should be sent to them (Jos. Ant. 17:314)

Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel (part 2)

In the second part of The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving beyond a Diversionary Debate Richard Horsley first discusses a number of methodological issues, then outlines his view of Jesus as a prophet leading the renewal of Israel against the rulers of Israel. I will give a quick summary of his arguments and then briefly discuss the failure of the reconstruction adequately to take account of the theme of the coming of the kingdom of God, which seems to me to be the major shortcoming of the book. The first part of the review can be found here.

Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel (part 1)

I have read a fair bit of Richard Horsley’s work on the social and imperial background to the New Testament. It’s always been interesting stuff, but my impression is that he has been more interested in the critique of political and economic injustice in the abstract than in the particular Jewish-historical reaction to pagan empire that, in my judgment, shapes the emerging Christian narrative. I haven’t read his Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (2010), but this review by Kevin McCruden suggests that he presents Jesus as a prophet of covenant renewal primarily against a background of economic exploitation. That seems to me a less valuable perspective, on the whole, than the argument of the present book, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving beyond a Diversionary Debate (2012), which considers the historical Jesus in the light of a revised understanding of Jewish apocalypticism.

The first part of the book deals with the debate over the apocalyptic Jesus, which in Horsley’s view has dominated study of the historical Jesus since Schweitzer. It is presented as a neat oscillation between two misguided scholarly positions taken with respect to the apocalyptic content of the Gospels, and I will do little more than summarize his analysis here. The second part, which I will review in a separate post, presents Horsley’s own account of Jesus as a prophet of renewal.

Jesus as judge of the living and the dead in the Apostolic Fathers

I recently outlined what I see as the apocalyptic Christology of Acts and suggested that most of what is said about the post-Easter Jesus in the New Testament needs to be interpreted within this narrative framework: Jesus was unjustly killed by the rulers of Israel and the Gentiles; he was raised from the dead and given authority to rule as king at the right hand of YHWH; and the historical outworking of this would be judgment first against the Jews, who had rejected the prophets and finally the Son, then judgment against the idolatrous Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the pagan world.

Part of this story is the belief that Jesus is the one “appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (cf. Acts 10:42; 1 Pet. 4:5). We would normally understand this as a reference to a final judgment at the end of the world as we know it, but it seems to me that the language of judgment in the New Testament is too closely tied up with the vindication of the early persecuted churches and the overthrow of Rome for us to think that it can be indefinitely deferred. In the 1 Peter passage he writes that the “end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7). There is a clear and consistent expectation that this day of judgment was coming soon.

Since the idea that Jesus was “destined to judge the living and the dead” is also found in The Epistle of Barnabas, The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and 2 Clement, I thought I’d have a go at reconstructing the apocalyptic Christologies—and the surrounding narrative—of these texts. They probably date from around AD 100-110. They are not the only texts in the Apostolic Fathers that speak of a future judgment, though they may be the most important. If you’re not interested in the details, you can skip to the end for a quick summary.

The parables: Jesus was just being obtuse

It’s remarkable how pervasive the assumption is that Jesus told stories for the same reason that aspiring preachers and teachers today are urged to tell stories—to get people’s attention, entertain, illustrate the point in a homely and accessible fashion, provide vividness, bring clarity, and so on. I came across it this morning in an MA hermeneutics paper that I am marking. The student suggests that the rabbinic practice of telling stories to communicate spiritual or heavenly truths would have been familiar to first century Jewish audiences. So Jesus would have been speaking “in a familiar currency”, which would have facilitated “maximum understanding amongst the audience”. She then quotes from Fee and Stuart’s classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth : “Jesus was not trying to be obtuse, he fully intended to be understood”.

I don’t have a copy of the book to hand so I can’t check the context, but presumably the student has not seriously misrepresented their view. In any case, the argument of the essay is that Jesus spoke in parables in order to make his teaching about the kingdom of God as clear and simple as he possibly could, and I suspect that a lot of people share that opinion.

The christological narrative of Acts

The book of Acts tends to get overlooked when we try to explain who Jesus was and why. We go to the Gospels for an account of Jesus earthly existence and to Paul and Hebrews for an account of his heavenly existence—an approach that reflects the fact that we have been conditioned by later christological developments to think of Jesus as a split human-divine personality. Acts, however, gives us an apocalyptic narrative of the exalted Jesus arising directly out of the Gospel story that challenges the bifurcated ontology of traditional representations. In fact, I would argue that Paul and Hebrews mostly presuppose this apocalyptic-narrative framework—that most of what needs to be said about Jesus, as far as the New Testament is concerned, can be found in Luke-Acts.

Are we religious, spiritual, or something else?

Most of us will have observed that in the western context religion is out and spirituality is in, and we may well have adjusted church life, preaching styles, and mission strategies with that observation in mind. Religion is institutional, spirituality is personal; religion is controlling, spirituality is liberating; religion is toxic and polluting, spirituality is environmentally friendly; religion is intolerant and competitive, spirituality couldn’t care less—whatever floats your boat; and so on.

According to an article on the BBC website, research by Professor Michael King from University College London shows that one in five people in the UK regard themselves as spiritual but not religious. The figure is roughly the same in the US. It also appears that people in this category are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. The study concludes that “there is increasing evidence that people who profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework are more vulnerable to mental disorder”. Of course, the correlation could be stated the other way round, to subtly different effect: people who are vulnerable to mental disorder are more likely to profess spiritual beliefs in the absence of a religious framework. But that’s another matter.

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