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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The return of the king

The Jewish world of meaning

The Jewish background to this question has three components: the hope of YHWH’s return, speculation about an agent who would be exalted to share the throne of God, and the symbolic language used for YHWH’s activity in the world.

The hope of YHWH’s return: Wright quotes a large number of biblical passages that express this hope (616-621). Although there was a geographical return from exile, there is no accompanying manifestation of the glory (as with the exodus), Israel’s enemies go undefeated, and there is no ‘universally welcome royal dynasty’. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the tradition of YHWH’s return to Zion is maintained in the post-biblical writings.

Sharing the throne of God: the point is that ‘according to some texts from this poeriod, when YHWH acted in history, the agent through whom he acted would be vindicated, exalted, and honoured in a quite unprecedented manner’ (624). The two main texts that Wright has in mind are Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7. He points out that whereas in Ezekiel’s vision there is only one figure on the throne, Daniel implies that there are two. According to the Septuagint translation of Dan.7:13 the Son of man figure comes not to but as the Ancient of Days, suggesting that the Son of man took upon himself the form and character of God. A brief survey of how this tradition developed in second Temple Judaism leads to the following conclusion:

Out of a much larger and highly complex set of speculations about the action of Israel’s god through various mediator-figures, one pos­sible scenario that some second-Temple Jews regarded as at least thinkable was that the earthly and military victory of the Messiah over the pagans would be seen in terms of the enthronement-scene from Daniel 7, itself a development of the chariot-vision in Ezekiel 1. (629)

Symbols for God and God’s activity: Jewish monotheism used the symbols of Shekinah (glory), Torah, Wisdom, Logos and Spirit to affirm YHWH’s active involvement in the world and especially in the life of Israel. The fact that the Messiah was also closely associated with these symbols signifies that he ‘would be the agent or even the vicegerent of Israel’s god, would fight his battles, would restore his people, would rebuild or cleanse the house so that the Shekinah would again dwell in it’ (630).

Jesus’ riddles of return and exaltation

Stories of YHWH’s return to Zion: Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem is the ‘symbolic enacting of the great central kingdom-promise, that YHWH would at last return to Zion, to judge and to save’. This action is interpreted by a number of stories and riddles that Jesus told that involved the return of a king or master. Wright rejects readings of these texts that find in them prophecies of Jesus’ ‘second coming’ and sketches an alternative approach:

First, I reiterate my earlier point. Jesus did speak of ‘the coming of the son of man’, but that this whole phrase has to be taken quite strictly in its Danielic sense, in which ‘coming’ refers to the son of man ‘coming’ to the Ancient of Days. He is not ‘coming’ to earth from heaven, but the other way around.

Second, I propose that Jesus did speak of a ‘coming’ figure in the more usual sense of ‘one who comes to Israel’. This coming figure was YHWH himself, as promised in the texts we have set out above. Jesus, I suggest, thought of the coming of YHWH as an event which was bound up with his own career and its forthcoming climax.

On this basis he examines at some length the parable of the talents or pounds, drawing from it two main points of interpretation: i) ‘it was a warning that, when YHWH returned to Zion, he would come as judge for those in Israel who had not been faithful to his commission’; and ii) ‘it was the further warning that his coming of YHWH to Zion was indeed imminent’ (637-638). Other parables of return are interpreted in a similar fashion (640-642).

Riddles of exaltation: Jesus makes a number of statements to the effect that he will be not only vindicated but ‘enthroned’, bringing together Psalm 110 and Daniel 7. This claim lies at the root of the charge of blasphemy against him.

The trial scene, which we have already studied from several angles, now comes into complete focus. At stake was the whole career of Jesus, climax­ing in his journey to Jerusalem, which itself exploded in his action in the Temple, and was further explained by his Last Supper. The trial opened, as it was bound to do, with the question about the Temple. Jesus had claimed authority over it, authority indeed to declare its destruction. This could only be because he believed himself to be the Messiah? Yes, answered Jesus: and you will see me vindicated, enthroned at the right hand of Power. The whole sequence belongs together precisely as a whole. The final answer drew into one statement the significance of the journey to Jerusalem, the Temple-action, and the implicit messianic claim. Together they said that Jesus, not the Temple, was the clue to, and the location of, the presence of Israel’s god with his people. Sociologically, this represented a highly radical Galilean protest against Jerusalem. Politically, it constituted a direct challenge to Caiaphas’ power-base and his whole position - and, of course, to those of Caesar and Pilate. Theologically, it was either true or it was blasphemous. Caiaphas wasted no time considering the former possibility. (644)

Vocation foreshadowed

This last section attempts to outline, within Jesus’ understanding of his prophetic and messianic calling, a ‘deeper vocation’, manifested supremely in the ‘peculiar appropriateness’ of designating Israel’s god as ‘father’.

Conclusion

By way of conclusion to this chapter Wright summarizes Jesus’ aims and beliefs.

I have argued that Jesus’ underlying aim was based on his faith-awareness of vocation. He believed himself called, by Israel’s god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH’s return to Zion, and the somewhat more nebulous but still important traditions which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH’s return. (651)

Jesus’ beliefs remained essentially those of ‘a first-century Jew’ (ie. monotheism, election and eschatology), but a first-century Jew ‘who believed that the kingdom was coming in and through his own work’.

I suggest, in short, that the return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror-image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a voca­tion, given him by the one he knew as ‘father’, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God. (653)