Part III: First century Judaism within the Greco-Roman world

The third part of the book consists of a survey of first century Judaism. Rather than summarize this very detailed historical overview of historical setting, social groupings, worldview, beliefs, and eschatological expectations, I will simply highlight what appear to be the most salient observations.

The developing diversity

Wright defends himself against the charge that he is reading Christian ideas or modes of thought back into Judaism by pointing out, among other things, that this project will have the effect of correcting certain Christian misconceptions: “Many ‘Christian’ readings of the gospels have screened out the political overtones of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom; a fresh examination of the Jewish background will put that straight’ (149). He insists that first century Judaism and Christianity have a central worldview-feature in common: ‘the sense of a story now reaching its climax. And, most importantly, it is the same story. It is the story… especially of exile and restoration – or rather, of puzzlement as to whether the exile was really over or not…. It is here that fundamental continuity is to be sought; and this legitimates the attempt to study Judaism in such a way as to shed light on emerging Christianity’ (150).

The impact of the Maccabean crisis (167-164 BC) on Jewish identity and life is highlighted (158, 167), not least because it was the prototypical revolt against oppression:

From our review of the historical situation in the previous chapter it appears that the pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation – from oppression, from debt, from Rome. Other issues, I suggest, were regularly seen in this light. The hope of Israel, and of most special-interest groups within Israel, was not for post mortem disembodied bliss, but for a national liberation that would fulfil the expectations aroused by the memory, and regular celebration, of the exodus, and, nearer at hand, of the Maccabaean victory. Hope focused on the coming of the kingdom of Israel’s god (169-170).

This leads to a survey of the main groupings within first-century Judaism (170-214): movements of revolt against Rome; the Pharisees; the Essenes; priests, aristocrats and Sadducees; and ‘ordinary Jews’. While this section is of general importance inasmuch as it describes the immediate religious and political context within which we must make sense of the story about Jesus, two particular emphases stand out. The first is the now quite well established view (associated especially with Sanders) that Pharisaic religion was not ‘the system of self-salvation so often anachronistically ascribed to them by Christians who knew little about the first century but a lot about the Pelagian controversy’ (189). ‘Their goals were the honour of Israel’s god, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel.’ Secondly, the point is made that within the context of first-century Jewish belief the idea of resurrection had more to do with the hope of national restoration than with speculation about life after death for the individual (200, 211).

Story, symbol, praxis: Israel’s worldview

Chapter eight considers how story, symbol and praxis together constitute Israel’s worldview. Wright argues that the great story of the Hebrew scriptures would have been read in the second-temple period as ‘a story in search of a conclusion’ (217). ‘This ending would have to incorporate the full liberation and redemption of Israel, an event which had not happened as long as Israel was being oppressed, a prisoner in her own land.’ How fundamental this was to the Jewish worldview is demonstrated by the fact that the inconclusiveness of Israel’s story expressed itself not only through narrative but also through religious symbolism and praxis. Of particular importance in this regard was Torah observation. Wright again insists that at issue here is not some legalistically motivated attempt to earn salvation but the overriding need to ‘maintain their god-given distinctiveness over against the pagan nations’ (237). He underlines the significance of this distinction for New Testament theology:

This conclusion, as we shall see later, is a point of peculiar significance for understanding both Jesus’ controversies and Pauline theology. The ‘works of Torah’ were not a legalist’s ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity, of belong­ing to the chosen people in the present, and hence the all-important signs, to oneself and one’s neighbours, that one belonged to the company who would be vindicated when the covenant god acted to redeem his people. They were the present signs of future vindication. This was how ‘the works of Torah’ func­tioned within the belief, and the hope, of Jews and particularly of Pharisees (238).

The beliefs of Israel

The Jewish worldview was constructed around a narrative core that consisted of three basic elements: monotheism, election and eschatology:

There is one god, who made the entire universe, and this god is in covenant with Israel. He has chosen her for a purpose: she is to be the light of the world. Faced with national crisis (and the story of second-temple Judaism is, as we have seen, one of semi-permanent crisis), this twin belief, monotheism and election, com­mitted any Jew who thought about it for a moment to a further belief: YHWH, as the creator and covenant god, was irrevocably committed to further action of some sort in history, which would bring about the end of Israel’s desolation and the vindication of his true people. Monotheism and election lead to eschatology, and eschatology means the renewal of the covenant (247).

Monotheism: first-century Jewish monotheism is creational, providential, and most importantly covenantal, because this is the means by which the problem of evil is addressed: ‘The creator calls a people through whom, somehow, he will act decisively within his creation, to eliminate evil from it and to restore order, justice and peace’ (251-252). Jewish belief in monotheism had nothing to do with ‘the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself. It had everything to do with the two-pronged fight against paganism and dualism’ (259).

Election and covenant: covenant theology functions on three levels: i) the creator ‘has not been thwarted irrevocably by the rebellion of his creation, but has called into being a people through whom he will work to restore his creation’; ii) Israel’s own sufferings are the consequence of infidelity to the covenant but holds that ‘our god will remain faithful and will restore us’; and iii) the sufferings and sins of individual Jews are met with forgiveness and restoration (260). Wright also maintains that ‘Israel’s covenantal vocation caused her to think of herself as the creator’s true humanity’ (262). But the implications of this belief for Israel’s relation to the nations are ambiguous. On the one hand, Israel was to be a light to the nations (cf. Is.49:6): ‘When Zion becomes what her god intends her to become, the Gentiles will come in and hear the word of YHWH.’ On the other, when Israel was oppressed by the nations, the thought is more that of resisting and destroying the forces that oppose the true god and his people (267).

Covenant and eschatology: here we come to the central argument that Jews of the second-temple period, despite the physical return of the people to the land and the rebuilding of the temple, regarded themselves as being still in ‘exile’. The present age, therefore, remained an ‘age of wrath’: ‘until the Gentiles are put in their place and Israel, and the Temple, fully restored, the exile is not really over, and the blessings promised by the prophets are still to take place’ (270). This problem is often defined in second-temple literature in terms of the covenant faithfulness (ie. ‘righteousness’, tsedaqah) of god: ‘when and how would Israel’s god act to fulfil his covenant promises?’ Wright underlines the extreme importance of this formulation of the problem for Paul’s theology.

The biblical prophets consistently articulate a two-fold motif: ‘Israel’s exile is the result of her own sin, idolatry and apostasy, and the problem will be solved by YHWH’s dealing with the sin and thus restoring his people to their inheritance.’ It must be emphasized, therefore, that to the first-century Jew the phrase ‘forgiveness of sins’ would most naturally apply to the nation as a whole, not to the individual. Wright argues that the sacrificial system should be understood ‘as a way of enacting and institutionalizing… the belief that Israel’s covenant god would restore the fortunes of his people’ (275). He then suggests that the national experience of exile may be interpreted not only as punishment but also as a sacrifice, a ‘righteous bearing of sin and evil’. The quite common belief that a period of intense suffering (‘birthpangs’) would precede the inauguration of the new age should also be brought into view here: ‘Israel will pass through intense and climactic suffering; after this she will be forgiven, and then and thus the world will be healed’ (278).

The hope of Israel

Wright begins by considering the nature of apocalyptic writing. The most important observation is that Jewish apocalyptic language cannot be read in ‘a crassly literalistic way’ to signify the end of the world; rather the ‘metaphorical language of apocalyptic invests history with theological meaning’ (284). ‘Far more important to the first-century Jew than questions of space, time and literal cosmology were the key issues of Temple, Land, and Torah, of race, economy and justice’ (285). The result of the literalist reading, which has dominated both modern popular Christian thought and modern New Testament scholarship, is a ‘dualistic belief in the unredeemableness of the present physical world’ that is in fact closer to Gnosticism than to biblical apocalyptic.

Central to Jewish apocalyptic literature is Daniel 7. Wright argues that ‘those who read this (very popular) chapter in the first century would have seen its meaning first and foremost in terms of the vindication of Israel after her suffering at the hands of the pagans’ (292). In other words, the ‘Son of man’ would generally have been understood as a representative figure only in a literary sense. The interpretive context is provided by Daniel 1-6: ‘Pagan pressure for Jews to compromise their ancestral religion must be resisted: the kingdoms of the world will finally give way to the everlasting kingdom of the one true god, and when that happens Jews who had held firm will themselves be vindicated’ (294).

In the context of first-century Jewish expectation ‘salvation’ is to be understood not as the enjoyment of a non-physical, ‘spiritual’ bliss following the destruction of the space-time universe but as national restoration. ‘The age to come, the end of Israel’s exile, was therefore seen as the inauguration of a new covenant between Israel and her god’ (301). This restoration is part of what it meant for Israel’s god to become king (307).

From a survey of Jewish beliefs regarding the messiah six conclusions are drawn: i) expectation was focused primarily on the nation; ii) under certain circumstances this expectation could be narrowed to a particular individual; iii) in this case the portrait of the individual messiah could be redrawn to fit the situation or person involved; iv) the main task of the messiah was ‘the liberation of Israel, and her reinstatement as the true people of the creator god’; v) the messiah will be the agent of Israel’s god, not an independent transcendent figure; and vi) there was no expectation that the messiah would suffer (319-320).

Wright argues that belief in resurrection arose in conjunction with ‘struggle to maintain obedience to Israel’s ancestral laws in the face of persecution…; it is what will happen after the great tribulation’ (331). But this belief also functions metaphorically as an expression of the hope of eventual national renewal following the continuing experience of exile. “As such, ‘resurrection’ was not simply a pious hope about new life for dead people. It carried with it all that was associated with the return from exile itself: forgiveness of sins, the re-establishment of Israel as the true humanity of the covenant god, and the renewal of all creation” (332).

Finally, in a similar fashion, the word ‘salvation’ is defined as the gift of Israel’s god to the whole people; individual Jews would find their own salvation within the context of national liberation and restoration, through membership of the covenant community. ‘The first-century question of soteriology then becomes: what are the badges of membership that mark one out in the group that is to be saved, vindicated, raised to life (in the case of members already dead) or exalted to power (in the case of those still alive)?’ (335).