Was Jesus’ atoning death unique?

Christian soteriology works on the assumption that Jesus’ death was a unique saving event. The only real antecedent considered is the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, upon whom the Lord has laid “the iniquity of us all”, understood not as referring to a historical figure or community in Isaiah’s world but as a prophecy about Jesus. But the easy presumption of uniqueness is maintained only by suppressing the historical context. Broadly, Jesus’ death can be located in a tradition of righteous suffering under pagan oppression. In particular, Jews at the time—presumably including Jesus himself—would have been familiar with the stories of the Maccabean martyrs.

In 2 Maccabees, which is generally dated to the late second century BC, we are given the story of the gruesome torture and killing of the old man Eleazar, seven brothers, and their mother by the tyrant Antiochus, for refusing to perform an “unlawful sacrifice” and eat the meat of a pig. This is happening because Israel has been unfaithful to the covenant and is being punished by God—sooner rather than later, “in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward, when our sins have reached their height” (2 Macc. 6:15).

Some notes on Mark 1:2-3 in response to Rikk Watts

Rikk Watts has kindly responded to my reflections on his argument about the high christology of Mark 1:2-3. I’m not trying to pick a fight here—and I say, as before, that this is an argument for the kingdom narrative rather than against a high christology. But the issue is an important one, and for my own benefit, if nothing else, I want to look closely at Rikk’s careful feedback. I should also point out that he refers to a couple of his publications (details below), which I haven’t read, and there are a few points which he doesn’t develop—so there is obviously more to his analysis than meets the eye. His comments on the previous post are set out in bold face. In the end, I’m still not persuaded that we go from Jesus is YHWH in Mark 1:2-3 to Jesus is servant of YHWH in 1:11, for reasons that are summarised in the final chapter.

What happened to the resurrection of the wicked?

Robin Parry poses an interesting puzzle about the resurrection of the wicked. I’ve slightly restated it, but it goes roughly as follows:

  1. At the end of the age there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous for judgment: sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, good-doers and evil-doers, etc. (e.g., Jn. 5:28-29).
  2. The resurrection of Christians depends on our relationship with Jesus, who is the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20).
  3. Moreover, our resurrection bodies will be imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42-55).
  4. So how can the wicked be raised when they are not “in Christ”?
  5. And will they have the same type of resurrection body as the righteous—as Robin puts it, paraphrasing Augustine: “super-dooper fire-proof, eternal bodies, specially built to endure eternal fire in hell”?

I replied to Robin, but this is an attempt to develop the argument in a bit more detail.

Deeper into the doctrine of the second coming of Jesus

The Gospel Coalition has been doing an intermittent series over the last year tagged “Deeper into Doctrine”. For people who prefer their theology in narrative form—and for post-moderns generally, if there are still any around—“doctrine” is a dirty word. But I don’t see any objection to formulating propositional summaries of core biblical ideas, provided that i) we don’t disengage from the critical interpretation of the texts; and ii) we don’t lose sight of the narrative framework. This is where I have a problem with Sam Storms’ definition of the doctrine of the second coming of Jesus….

Where Witherington finds Wright least convincing

Ben Witherington has been doing a thorough and informative series of posts on N.T. Wright’s new/forthcoming book Paul and His Recent Interpreters, starting here—in itself a good overview of recent Pauline scholarship. I haven’t been tracking with it too closely (I have been persuaded to read the book), but a remark in part nine gave me pause.

It comes up in a discussion of Wright’s reliance on Wayne Meek’s The First Urban Christians. Witherington quotes Wright’s explanation of why at certain points he finds Meek’s sociological analysis inadequate….

Telling our story (all of it)

Last week I went with my friend Steve Knight to see Hamlet at the Barbican. Hamlet is a tragedy. By the end of the play everyone of any dramatic importance is dead. The old king has had a “leperous distilment” poured in his ear. Polonius is stabbed in error behind the arras. Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are sent to their doom in England by Hamlet’s cunning. In the last scene, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Hamlet manage to poison each other within the space of a few minutes in a manner that teeters on absurdity. Only Ophelia’s death has any pathos to it. The poor demented girl slips into a river off-stage and drowns. Millais’ sumptuous depiction is well known.

Narrative, a Jewish Jesus, and early high Christology

I heard Rikk Watts from Regent College, Vancouver, talk this week to a group of church leaders about what’s currently going on in theology. He began with some good reflections on the challenges facing anyone trying to keep track of developments across the ever-expanding—or ever more boggy—field of New Testament studies. To paraphrase his paraphrase of Bernard Lonergan, there are good ways of not knowing everything and bad ways of not knowing everything.

But the core of his argument with respect to the New Testament was that we are steadily abandoning systematic constructions of theology in favour of 1) a historical narrative about 2) a thoroughly Jewish Jesus, which 3) has been shown nevertheless to generate an early high christology.

Why the end of the world is the end of the world

What happens at the end? What sort of transformation does John have in mind when he says that earth and heaven “fled away” from the presence of God at the judgment of all the dead (Rev. 20:11)? Are we to suppose that the world-as-we-know-it must finally disappear—or perhaps be destroyed—to be replaced by an utterly new heaven and new earth (21:1)? That has probably been the traditional view, but other interpretations are available. J. Richard Middleton, whose stimulating book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology I have been poring over recently, insists that what John describes is not cosmic destruction but the renovation of this world. Others will argue that John, like Isaiah, uses the language metaphorically to speak of the restoration of God’s people following the judgment of AD 70. Here’s why I think the “traditional” view is nearer the mark.

Who says that this prophecy has two referents?

It is often argued that biblical prophecies may have two or more frames of reference. For example, Middleton allows that the language of cosmic dissolution in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (sun and moon darkened, stars falling from heaven) may refer to events leading up to the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. He even concedes the possibility that “all the signs of the Olivet discourse were fulfilled in AD 70”. But he argues, nevertheless, for a multivalent hermeneutic:

Without denying any of this, I would also note that it is possible for the language of celestial signs and (seeming) cosmic destruction to have a double referent, pointing to both sets of events simultaneously, much as some Old Testament prophecies clearly refer to events in the prophet’s own day and also have a later and more climactic fulfilment in New Testament times (for example, Isaiah’s prediction in 7:14 of a royal birth in Ahaz’s court, or possibly the prophet’s own son, later applied to the birth of Jesus in Matt. 1:23).

The widow of Zarephath, Naaman the Syrian, and the redemption of the world

One of the ways the evangelical church is attempting to correct the traditional notion that salvation has to do with individuals going to heaven when they die is to affirm instead the idea of salvation as the redemption of creation. J. Richard Middleton’s book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, is an excellent contribution to the enterprise. But does the argument work? My sense is that the paradigm oversimplifies the biblical narrative, either by suppressing much of the political detail or by assimilating it into a universalised notion of redemption. Middleton’s discussion of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, I think, illustrates the problem.

Based largely on a reading of the “Nazareth manifesto” episode in Luke 4:16-30, Middleton argues that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God entailed the promise of “concrete, this-worldly deliverance and restoration” (258). The manifesto applies, in the first place, to Israel, and Middleton recognises this. But his statement of Jesus’ mission at this point has a wider perspective: it is to “proclaim in word and deed that God is at work restoring this fractured world—breaking the grip of evil, healing diseased bodies, bringing life out of death” (259).


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