The story they found themselves in

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The main challenge of New Testament theology at the moment, as the church struggles more or less self-consciously to come to terms with its modern exile, is to tell and retell the story of which Jesus is part – to tell it both critically and hopefully, in a way that brings out its complexity without suppressing its evangelical force, in a way that subverts our dogmatic preoccupations and renews the rhetoric of faith, in a way that not only brings clarity and conviction but also fires the theological imagination to engender abundant forms of new life.

What follows is another attempt on my part, within the frame of what I think of as essentially a narrative-historical hermeneutic, to sketch the core New Testament narrative as an organizing structure for theology. It is a truncated exercise. It does not attempt to locate this story within the narrative of the people of God or within the larger narrative of humanity.

It has been customary in New Perspective readings of the New Testament to regard the events that it relates as the culmination of a narrative about Judaism – as a climax of the covenant. While recognizing the force of this observation, I would suggest that in many ways it is more illuminating to think of the New Testament as a forward-looking rather than backward-looking text, as prophetic rather than summative – as the story of an emerging community that had to make sense of its existence in light of two more or less clearly foreseen historical horizons.

The significance of this approach is that it forces us to keep in mind the purchase that biblical history continues to have on biblical theology, and to resist the drive towards abstraction and rationalization that lies at the heart of European theology. The New Perspective has a tendency to respect the contingency of biblical thought up until the ascension, at which point it is assumed that everything may now be translated into absolute terms – by Platonizing the particularities of Jewish belief and by shoving all the eschatological material, much of it unfathomable anyway, right to the distant end of the tunnel of history.

A lot has been lost in that translation, and I think the story now needs to be told with a consistent understanding of and respect for its engagement with the concrete realities of history – that is, of corporate experience. The first horizon was the war against Rome in AD 66-70 and its devastating outcome. The second horizon, more distant and less clearly grasped, was determined by the conviction of the widening community that the Greek-Roman oikoumenē – in effect, pagan Europe and Asia Minor – would sooner or later acknowledge that the God of Israel had demonstrated his supremacy by making Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords.

The story begins with prophetic alarm about the religious and moral condition of Israel and warnings of a coming judgment on the nation. John the Baptist appears in the wilderness as the messenger who announces to the people of Jerusalem and Judea that YHWH is coming both to judge and to forgive. Jesus’ parabolic language draws on powerful Old Testament analogies: the Jews are travelling a broad path leading to destruction; they have built a house on sand that will suffer ruin when the storm and flood of God’s pent up wrath come.

In response to this dreadful prospect Jesus gathers around himself a community of the forgiven from amongst the ‘poor’ and disenfranchised of Israel, who will follow him along a narrow, rocky and treacherous track leading to life. His teaching is consistently aimed at enabling his disciples to negotiate this narrow path successfully. The healings and exorcisms that he performs are signs of the coming transformation – the coming sovereign intervention of God. He conjures up for them a vision of a very different way of being Israel, dressing himself in the potent symbols of national identity.

Jesus’ death and resurrection, in the end, constitutes the epitome of the way of salvation for Israel. He dies because of the stubborn opposition of the Jewish authorities and because Rome will not accept any challenge to its hegemony. His crucifixion anticipates the brutal suppression, a generation later, of the insurgents’ last desperate attempt to force the hand of God. His resurrection on the third day entails the restoration of a people under judgment and gives assurance to those who have been called to make the painful journey of renewal that God will not abandon them to death. They express their willingness to replicate Jesus’ faithfulness in their own lives, for the sake of the future of the people of God, by being baptized into his death and resurrection, in the name of the Father who does not abandon his children in their extremity, of the Son who is the firstborn of many brothers, and of the Spirit which sets them apart and empowered them for

The outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost gives the small group of Jesus’ followers the boldness and inspiration to live in Judea as a concrete sign both of impending judgment and of the renewal of community. But there is also a mounting impetus, arising from prophecies in Isaiah, to proclaim the good news of Israel’s salvation to the nations. The resurrection of Jesus comes to be understood not only as a sign that God has secured the future of the family of Abraham; it also constitutes evidence that the whole idolatrous and decadent pagan order is coming to an end – that God has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē by a man whom he has appointed. The New Testament sketches in vivid apocalyptic strokes the hope that the community of the Son of man will eventually be delivered from its opponents and vindicated, and that, by virtue of their faithful testimony, the reign of God over the oikoumenē will be established in the person of the one who self-sacrificially embodied in himself the death and resurrection of Israel.

The practical teaching of the New Testament always has this historical end in view. The hybrid communities of Jews and Gentiles thinly scattered across the oikoumenē are in themselves a sign that the God of Israel will eventually justify himself before the nations. But to succeed they need to be fit for purpose. As Paul puts it to the church in Corinth, they face a day of fire, a day of severe testing, and only communities established on the foundation of Christ, who died and was raised, and constructed from durable materials will survive. What the Letters give us is not a universal template for ‘church’. They are intended to shape and equip the communities of believers that will have to make the long and arduous journey from Pentecost to the transformation of the empire.