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

Review: Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

I read Naomi Alderman’s book The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel because a friend was trying to get her to speak at a debate in Westbourne Grove. Sadly, he failed, but the book, for all its profound Jewish distrust of the madman Yehoshuah and the unfriendly religion that his followers devised, is worth reading for at least three reasons. The first is a matter of hermeneutics—of how we read, how we interpret, how we re-interpret. The other two reasons have to do with how Alderman’s Yehoshuah—our Jesus—fits into history. Since modern evangelicals tend to have a very poor grasp both of storytelling and of history, The Liar’s Gospel may have some truths to teach us.

Some dull but seasonal reflections on the historical context for the fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy

These notes are an attempt to clarify, for myself at least, the historical setting for the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, following the helpful feedback given to yesterday’s post: Are Immanuel and Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace the same person? Thanks to all those who have so far contributed to the discussion. This may have to serve as a rather dull (but warm) Christmas greetings to all and sundry.

The birth of Immanuel was to be a sign, either to Ahaz or to the house of David, that within a few years the two kings, Rezin and Pekah, who threatened Judah at that time would be defeated by the king of Assyria (Is. 7:10-25). Some time later another boy was born to Isaiah, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, an event which further confirmed that Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel would be defeated. Following that, however, the king of Assyria would invade Judah, reaching to the gates of Jerusalem, as punishment for the failure of Ahaz and the people to trust YHWH when Syria and Israel first threatened (8:1-10; cf. 7:2). It seems likely that both boys, along with Shear-jashub (7:3), are “signs and portents in Israel”, along with Isaiah himself, regarding impending events.

Are Immanuel and Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace the same person?

When Matthew applies to the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit the words of Isaiah that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”, he is not saying that Jesus is God incarnate. The meaning of the allusion derives from the story that is being told in Isaiah 7-8. Matthew’s point, I think, is that the manner of Jesus’ conception is a sign to Israel at a time of crisis that God is with his people both to judge and to preserve.

John Doyle, however, asks about the relation of the boy Immanuel to the boy described in Isaiah 9:6-17—a passage very familiar to us from Christmas readings but, oddly, nowhere cited in the New Testament:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

The conception of Jesus, Trinity, and the search for an appropriate metaphysics: it’s nearly Christmas, after all

In a recent blog post entitled “Avoiding Trinity” Dave Bish discusses Christian squeamishness about sharing Jesus with Muslims using John’s Gospel on the grounds that it is too Trinitarian. He suggests that such a strategy of avoidance betrays two assumptions—first, that we think that the doctrine of the Trinity really is weird; and secondly, that we think it can safely be marginalized, left to the geeks. He goes on to argue that the doctrine is just as evident in the Synoptic Gospels, and concludes that you can’t avoid Trinity without avoiding Jesus.

Dave is writing from a fairly basic pastoral perspective. He’s clearly not offering a technical exposition of the texts on which he bases his argument. Nevertheless, I want to look at his claims in some detail because I think that they highlight a disturbing disconnection between popular theologizing and critical exegesis, between the complacent assumptions that we make about the meaning of scripture and what is actually being said. Why are we so readily content to defend, in this instance, the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of what are—as far as I can see—flagrant misreadings of New Testament passages? Why is it so difficult to get pastoral discourse and critical discourse to converge?

What is the benefit of Jesus’ death for the Gentiles?

I have been asked “how the death of Jesus (instead of the Maccabees, for example) had the effect of abolishing the law which divided Jews and Gentiles”. (It’s what the contact form is for. Feel free to use it.) 

This seems a fair question. The deaths of the Maccabean martyrs were thought to have potential atoning value for the sins of Israel (cf. 4 Macc. 17:21-22), but there is no suggestion that this put an end to the Law or that it opened the door of membership in Israel to Gentiles on the basis of faith. Why is Jesus’ death different?

I have argued in several posts recently that according to the core narrative of the New Testament Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of Israel, making a new future possible for a people that was otherwise condemned by the Law to destruction. Gentiles benefit from this secondarily and indirectly. This narrative-historical account is quite different from the traditional theological account that we are all familiar with—that God sent his Son into the world to die for the sins of humankind—though the final outcome may not be as unorthodox as appears at first sight.

Forgiveness of sins in Romans

The thesis I am exploring in these articles on the forgiveness of sins is that Jesus is primarily understood to have died for the redemption of Israel, as part of a corporate and political—rather than a personal and existential—narrative. The diagrams in this post illustrate the distinction. Jews and Gentiles, as individuals, receive forgiveness of sins, apart from the requirements of the Law, when they come to believe in this narrative about the unfolding kingdom of God and abandon their godless ways of life.

Paul does not speak of the forgiveness of sins as such in Romans, but his argument about justification and faith in chapters 3-5 obviously needs to be considered. I have set out previously my reasons for thinking that when he says in Romans 3:25 that God put Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood”, he means as a propitiation for the sins of Israel. I want to develop the case further here, though of necessity only in outline.

Sweet and Viola’s a-historical kingdom of God

In Jesus: A Theography Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have attempted to write a different type of book about Jesus. Not a biography but a “theography”: “we are telling the story of God’s interactions, intersections, and interventions with humanity through the life of Jesus”. It runs from eternity past to the second coming. The whole of scripture, they claim, is held together by a single narrative: the story of Jesus Christ. “Every bit of Scripture is part of the same great story of that one person and that one story’s plot line of creation, revelation, redemption, and consummation.”

I am not proposing here to offer a general review of the book, other than to say that it is well worth reading as an attempt to construct a newish christological synthesis, partly, at least, on the basis of recent historical research. There are a couple of odd arguments that I may pick up on later: the claim that God will “renovate” the earth rather replace a corruptible creation with an incorruptible one, for example, and the assertion that Jesus visited hell between his death and resurrection. Here I merely want to suggest that Sweet and Viola have largely missed the historical significance of the kingdom of God.

The forgiveness of Israel’s sins in Hebrews

The Letter to the Hebrews is addressed to Jewish Christians and is, therefore, thematically much closer to the Gospels and the early part of Acts, which is why I want to look at it before we come to Paul. The argument is by no means an easy one, so if you’re not interested in the sordid details of the exposition that follows, here is the executive summary:

Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins committed by Israel under the Law. Just as his death on a tree redeemed Jews from the curse of the Law, so Jesus’ offering of his own blood, by which he qualified to enter the heavenly sanctuary, gained for Jews forgiveness of sins committed under the Law and made possible a new sacrifice-free covenant.

This lends further weight to my cautious thesis regarding the central atonement narrative, which is that Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel, as an outworking of the Law, and only indirectly for the sins of Gentiles.

Forgiveness of sins in Acts

At the end of Luke the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations (Lk. 24:47). In Matthew they are told to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), which is presumably a baptism specifically of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ death, as a concrete and ultimate act of obedience to God, has sealed a new covenant with Israel, on the basis of which the sins of the people are forgiven. The disciples are to tell the world about this. In Acts we see, from Luke’s perspective, what this mission looked like in practice.

The absence of any reference to the atoning function of Jesus’ death in these passages is noticeable. The pattern is simple and consistent: people believe in the story of what God is doing for and through his people, central to which is the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus; they repent and are forgiven. The evidence of Acts suggests that modern evangelicalism has grossly overstated the personal saving significance of Jesus’ death. And conversely, understated the significance of the vindication and exaltation of Jesus.

Forgiveness of sins in the Gospels

My intention was to write a fairly straightforward piece on the connection between forgiveness of sins and the death of Jesus for my Lexicon of theological terms in narrative-historical perspective, but it’s become too unwieldy to fit into one article. In Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross I put forward a simple overview of the argument, with crude diagrams, and a reading of Colossians 2:13-15, where Paul links the forgiveness of sins to the cross by way of the metaphor of an erased document. But I think, now, that I will also deal with forgiveness in the Gospels, Acts, Paul and Hebrews in separate posts. I’ll then put a final summary piece in the Lexicon for good measure.

To repeat, the basic contentions are: first, that in the core narrative of the New Testament Jesus’ death is viewed as a death for Israel rather than universally as a death for all people; and secondly, that forgiveness of sins is tied not to Jesus’ death as an atoning event but simply to repentance and belief in what the God of Israel was doing to transform the status of his people in relation to the nations.

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