The book of Acts as political-religious narrative

I’ve put this up for a couple of reasons. First, I’m pulling together some ideas for teaching on Acts at a mission conference in the summer, and a rough narrative outline is a good place to start, though how much use I’ll make of it remains to be seen.

Secondly, someone got in touch recently asking if I could recommend a commentary on Acts that takes a narrative-historical line. Not really, to be honest. I imagine Tom Wright’s Acts for Everyone - Part 1 Chapters 1-12 (New Testament for Everyone) (Chapters 1-12 Pt. 1) would go some way in the right direction. I’m also looking forward to Steve Walton’s commentary when it eventually appears. Robert Wall reads Acts as part of a “master” story about “what God has done to bring salvation to the world” ( The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts - First Corinthians (Volume 10) , 18). That rather downplays the “kingdom” motif, I think. I haven’t made much use of Craig Keener’s incomplete  Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47 , but judging by the introduction it appears to take a more or less standard approach—historical-critical, on the one hand, salvation-historical, on the other.

Who are the “elect” in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse?

I argued in a couple of posts recently that Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24 has reference exclusively to the siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the significance of this catastrophe for Jesus’ disciples. I maintain, in agreement with Dick France on this point, that the paragraph about the shaking of the heavens, the appearance of the Son of Man, and the sending out of the angels speaks of circumstances that would transpire in conjunction with the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:29-31). See It’s not eschatology, folks, it’s just a story and Assessing Dick France’s argument about the parousia of the Son of Man in Matthew.

The imagery of abnormal cosmic darkness is commonly used in the Old Testament for judgment on a city or nation. The tribes of the land will see the Son of Man who suffered—that is, Jesus—vindicated, and coming with power and glory. He will “send out his angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”. As these things unfold, the disciples will know that the Son of Man is at the gates, their redemption is drawing near, the kingdom of God is near (Matt. 24:33; Lk. 21:28, 31).

Assessing Dick France’s argument about the parousia of the Son of Man in Matthew

In a comment on my recent post It’s not eschatology, folks, it’s just a story Ian Paul kindly took me to task for not consulting Dick France’s The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament) . I used France’s commentary on Mark when writing The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church , but the Matthew commentary came out a couple of years later. I have since got hold of a copy, and I have to say, it hasn’t changed my view.

France’s argument is basically that whereas in Mark 13 Jesus speaks only about the fall of Jerusalem and its significance for the renewal of God’s people, in Matthew 24-25 he makes a fundamental temporal distinction between the vindication of the Son of Man in conjunction with the destruction of the temple and the parousia of the Son of Man at the close of the age. There are five main lines of support for this argument, which I have summarized below. I give my reasons for not being persuaded. Be warned. It’s a little complex….

It’s not eschatology, folks, it’s just a story

I spent some time with the staff of a church in south London this week talking about “eschatology”. Which is half the problem. As long as we treat eschatology as a more or less independent sub-section of—or worse, appendix to—our general theology, we have no frame of reference, nowhere to anchor it. So my argument was that eschatology is simply an aspect or part of the story, just as soteriology and ecclesiology and pneumatology are not independent topics but ways of speaking about what is going on in a narrative. Take the arguments and beliefs out of the story and they have no real reason to exist.

To make the point, we went through the “apocalyptic discourse” in Mark 13 looking at how Jesus draws on the scriptures to tell a compelling story about the real and foreseeable future of first century Israel and to explain to his disciples what it will mean for them. Here I will do the same thing with Matthew 24, setting the passage in the context of Jesus’ final week in order to underline the point that this is not free-floating teaching on the end times. It arises directly out of the preceding events.

Plotting the kingdom: now and not yet and not like that

In order to keep my knee-jerk prejudices against certain aspects of traditional evangelical theology in good working order I have been reading Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well , edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner. What I have been looking for is examples of how theologians really don’t get narrative, and I have not been disappointed. Thomas R. Schreiner begins the section on the New Testament by affirming that biblical theology, unlike systematic theology, “concentrates on the historical story line of the Bible”, and then proceeds to outline “some of the main themes of New Testament theology” (109). In other words, he’s incapable of dealing with the “historical story line” without systematizing it.

The first of the main themes is the “already-not-yet” of the kingdom, which Schreiner thinks “dominates the entire New Testament and functions as a key to grasping the whole story”. I’ve discussed this before, but I’ll discuss it again.

Two narratives of the cross for Good Friday

There is a simple, universal or cosmic or existential narrative of the cross—the horizontal beam. Humanity has fallen, every individual person has sinned and must go by way of the cross to gain eternal life. But, for all its merits, this is a theological abstraction. It is not the biblical narrative.

The biblical narrative of the cross is not universal or cosmic or existential and it is nothing like as simple. It is historical—the vertical piece, which sustains whatever else we may wish to say.

It arises out of the story of ancient Israel. The brutal execution of Jesus by the Romans is a critical moment in the story of how the descendants of Abraham made the long and arduous journey from exile to empire, from judgment to justification, from sin to forgiveness, from Law to Spirit, from death to the life of the age to come.

Chris Tilling aims a relational christology at Bart Ehrman

I’ll make this my last post on Bird, et al.’s lively—bordering on manic—response to Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee . Chris Tilling is a good friend, so I need to tread a little carefully here. His argument is based largely on his published PhD thesis Paul’s Divine Christology (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament, 2. Reihe) , which I have read and greatly enjoyed.

In chapter 6 of How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman he puts forward an analysis and critique of Ehrman’s basic christological narrative. At the heart of Ehrman’s project, Tilling thinks, is the distinction between “exaltation Christologies” and an “incarnational Christology”….

Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics

Bart Ehrman thinks that Jesus became God—not in reality, of course, but in the minds of the early Christians. Against Ehrman, Simon Gathercole argues in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman , much as Michael Bird did earlier, that the Synoptic Gospels “see Jesus as having pre-existed and as divine in the strong sense of that word” (116). Again, I think the chapter demonstrates that evangelicals are on very weak ground here and should really just come to terms with the christological limitations of the prophetic-political narrative in the New Testament. The affirmation that Jesus is “Son” belongs to a specific, circumscribed argument about kingdom. It has nothing to do with divinity or pre-existence. So with all due respect for Gathercole’s good intentions, let me explain why I think he is barking up the wrong tree.

The meek shall inherit the world: an exercise in historical restraint

The sermon on the mount is addressed to first century Jews in Israel. The Beatitudes define that small community of first century Jews in Israel through which and for the sake of which YHWH would restore his people at a time of severe political-religious crisis. It is a community of the helpless, of those who suffered and mourned because of Israel’s wretched condition. They would be persecuted. But they would be the beneficiaries of the impending intervention of YHWH as king to judge his people. They would inherit—so I argued recently—not the earth but the “land” of Israel. It has nothing to do directly with the church today.

When and how would this come about? Presumably when the owner of the vineyard came and put the wicked tenants to a miserable death and gave the vineyard to others who would produce fruit for him (Matt. 21:41); and when the king in anger “sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” and then ordered his servants to gather for the wedding feast whomever they could find in the streets, “both good and bad” (Matt. 22:7-10).

Michael Bird on the question of whether Jesus thought of himself as God

I am very appreciative of Michael Bird’s work, partly because he understands the importance of developing a credible theological mindset on the basis of a New Perspective reading of the New Testament, partly because he quoted my sinking ship parable from The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church in his Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction . But I am not persuaded by his argument in one of the chapters that he has contributed to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman that the Jesus who is presented to us in the synoptic Gospels understood himself to be divine, even in the qualified sense that Bird proposes:

When I say that Jesus knew himself to be God, I mean that he was conscious that in him the God of Israel was finally returning to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to renew the covenant and to fulfill the promises God had made to the nation about a new exodus. (52)

Bird argues that if we read certain episodes from Jesus’ career in the light of this premise, it may appear that the boundary between divine author and divine agent becomes blurred. “Several stories and sayings in the Synoptic Gospels point toward Jesus’ unique role as a divine agent with an unprecedented authority and who undertakes divine action” (56). I have covered this issue before (see below), but I will hastily work through Bird’s admittedly rather summary arguments here, leaving out his section on the “Johannine testimony”.


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