Empire and the completion of Israel's story

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I suggested in my post on N.T. Wright’s inaugural lecture at St Andrews that the lines of Jewish narrative converge not at the end of history but “on the moment of the concrete victory of Israel’s God over the powers of paganism, which historically speaking is the conversion of the empire”. Not surprisingly this provoked some bemusement.

Roger Haydon Mitchell asks the inevitable question:

Surely this convergence was at best a repeat of Israel’s tendency to missalign with empire? Didn’t it import the deep structure of paganism into ecclesiology and theology and produce the toxic theocracy of Christendom? Isn’t Wright’s point precisely that the true trajectory of the Old Testament prophets is the counterpolitical positioning of the people of God as a radical theocracy in confrontation with empire?

This raises all sorts of difficult questions about the nature of Christianity and its relation to power that are beyond my competence to assess here. Roger writes from something of an Anabaptist perspective. His “thesis”—pulled from his doctoral dissertation—is that:

at an early stage in ecclesiastical history, the tradition’s founding and constituent principles were betrayed by a complicity with the prevailing politics of sovereignty. This has led to a recasting of divine transcendence in terms of sovereign power and a displacement of Christianity by Christendom, from which the Western church has not recovered.

I wouldn’t disagree with that as a retrospective assessment of what happened to Christianity following the conversion of the empire, though there is a discussion to be had about whether Christian theocracy was in confrontation with empire per se or with pagan empire. When Wright says that “Mark himself may have deliberately framed his gospel with strong hints that in Jesus an empire was coming to birth of a completely different character to that of Caesar”, he presumably means “empire” to be taken metaphorically. But in the crude light of Jewish apocalyptic I’m not so sure. The point of the clash between the Augustan narrative and the Christian narrative may simply be that the wrong “son of God” was ruling over the Mediterranean world.

But the issues that apocalypticism raises have to do with how we work forwards from the New Testament. How did the authors of the New Testament cast their future? How far did they see? It is rather like tunnellers digging from both ends—how well do the two trajectories, the forward-looking and the backward-looking, the etic and the emic accounts, align at the point where they are supposed to intersect? I think they may actually miss each other by some distance.

My proposal is that New Testament thought, as a conclusion to the story of Israel that is told in the scriptures and in Jewish apocalyptic more broadly, reaches its proper historical climax neither in the resurrection of Jesus nor in the final renewal of all things but in the victory of Israel’s God over the gods of the Greek-Roman world. This is not to claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus are narratively unimportant or that there will be no final renewal of creation. It is to claim that the story that centrally determines the trajectory for New Testament expectation and hope aims finally at the public confession of Christ as Lord across the world that directly challenged the sovereignty of Israel’s God. The death and resurrection of Jesus is a means to this end.

I think that the New Testament imagined that something like the following set of events would transpire in a historically relevant future—that is, in a future that had a meaningful relationship to the world as the early churches knew it, a world in which they were opposed by the most destructive of the pagan kingdoms that had arisen from the sea (cf. Dan. 7:3):

  • a judgment of the Greek-Roman world comparable to God’s judgment of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians in the past;
  • the public vindication of Israel’s God in the eyes of the nations;
  • the humiliation of the at best ineffectual and at worst demonic pagan gods;
  • the defeat of satan as the driving force behind Rome’s hostility towards YHWH and his king;
  • the deliverance of the churches from persecution;
  • the rewarding of the faithful martyrs with resurrection life;
  • the punishment of the system that had violently opposed the witness of the churches to the fact that the true God had made Jesus Lord through his resurrection from the dead;
  • the empire-wide confession of Jesus as Lord;
  • the inheritance of the world by the family of Abraham.

These outcomes are all part of New Testament prophetic-apocalyptic expectation. They all derive more or less from Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic expectation. They push the completion of Israel’s story beyond the New Testament period to the point at which it is conceivable that through the consistent, faithful witness of the early churches to the resurrection of Jesus the whole world would be turned upside down. So whereas Wright suggests that the Gospels “tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the story of how God became king”, I think they tell the story of how God will become king—and then only the first part of that story, having to do with the punishment and restoration of disobedient Israel.

If we assume that the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic mode of thought is essentially realistic, that it posits for the most part realistic historical outcomes to realistic historical crises, I don’t now see how we can avoid the conclusion that this set of expectations was fulfilled historically—and therefore messily and imperfectly—when Constantine put an end to the persecution of the churches and began the process by which the empire was eventually converted to Christianity. We don’t have to make that assumption, or we could argue that the death and resurrection of Jesus radically reconfigure apocalyptic in an a-political or counter-political direction.

We look back now from a post-Christendom perspective and we can speak of Constantinianism as a “toxic theocracy”. But this is not the perspective of Jewish apocalypticism. Jewish (and early Christian) apocalypticism addressed a very specific problem, which was that their convictions regarding the sovereignty of the God of Israel were not matched by geo-political realities. The world was subject to pagan Rome. Israel was subject to Rome—and was about to be brutally punished for its refusal to accept that state of affairs.

Apocalypticism believed that God must soon address this lack of congruence between theology and political reality for the sake of his glory. The question that the New Testament fundamentally asks is: By what means will this correction be achieved? How will the reign of YHWH over the nations be established? The answer that is given is it will be achieved through the suffering and vindication of Jesus and of those who suffered for his sake. The king who will receive the nations as his inheritance, who will be given authority to rule in the midst of his enemies, to execute judgment among the nations (Pss. 2, 110), is the messianic pretender from Nazareth who turned the other cheek, who loved his enemies, who forgave his persecutors, who trusted utterly in his Father in heaven, who was obedient unto death….

The question that this leaves us with, I think, is this: Do we have any idea how the New Testament conceived of the reign of Christ after judgment on pagan Rome? I’m not sure we do. In the same way that Jesus barely looked beyond the horizon of AD 70, Paul and John barely look beyond the horizon of the parousia—of the consolidation of Christ’s reign vis-à-vis the nations. There is no Constantine in the New Testament. The story ends with a judgment of the nations and an ill-defined expectation that the saints will reign on the earth.

Clearly any subsequent Christian politic—and there was bound to be one—would be accountable to Christ as king over the world that had once been ruled by the idolatrous Caesar. Christendom had its problems, but any form of corporate Christian existence would have had its problems. As the climax to the Jewish narrative what Christendom stood for, concretely and publicly, was the vindication of YHWH at the end of a long series of brutal clashes in which pagan empire invariably kicked Israel’s butt.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 11/10/2011 - 11:25 | Permalink

It needs to be borne in mind that everyone is assessing history retrospectively; an apocalyptic interpretation of the NT and the Jewish narrative is also being undertaken retrospectively. Nobody is around who can tell us what those alive at the time were really thinking. It is basic to all good interpretation to attempt some degree of historical reconstruction, to put ourselves in the shoes of those living in the circumstances of the historical context. Even modern evangelicals do this.

The statement

Apocalypticism believed that God must soon address this lack of congruence between theology and political reality for the sake of his glory. The question that the New Testament fundamentally asks is: By what means will this correction be achieved? How will the reign of YHWH over the nations be established?

can be applied to interpretations of the outcome of the biblical narrative other than Andrew's interpretation. How was the lack of congruence between theology and political reality achieved? By the new covenant, as declared in Deuteronomy 30:6, fulfillled through Jesus in his followers.

What did that look like? An entirely new order of things - the old order (2nd temple Judaism, and beyond that the order of old creation realities) being swept away. The rule of God, the rule of God's messiah/king among the Gentiles (Isaiah 55:3-5 etc), spreading round the world.

But what did that look like? Not the ethnic, nation-state theocracy which Israel had been envisaging, but a theocracy based on God's new servant community, energised and empowered by the eschatological Spirit. It was a theocracy which consistently made progress through proclamation, invitation, servanthood and suffering, rather than violence, warfare, imposition and demand. Here, within itself, "theology and political reality" are made congruent.

The overthrow of idolatry and the worship of the one transcendent God was certainly a central issue, and remain so, where idolatry is concerned with the heart, and where it places anything above devotion to YHWH. In this sense, idolatry was a continuing issue in the Roman Empire after Constantine, wherever the values of God's new community were displaced by the values of power politics and greed.

Idolatry was also, and remains, the distortion of God's image, which is now perceived through the lens of Jesus himself, as expressing the heart of God's character. The distortion of God's image in a community had, and continues to have, its fruit in behaviour. Idolatry defines itself ultimately in the ferocity of grotesque animal imagery used to describe the pagan nations in Daniel and Revelation.

This is another way of visualising what the future looked like, from the point of view of apocalyptic versions of the narrative as they were being worked out in their time, as well as from the point of view of versions of the narrative which see a broader fulfilment of the whole story, to which the story of Israel was subordinate.  Both versions, in my view, need to sit together.

I haven't read Roger Haydon Mitchell's doctoral thesis, but I don't personally dismiss 'Constantinian Christianity' entirely, since there was huge variety in the way it was expressed, and there were many movements within it that seem to me to be addressing its flaws and countering the tendency toward power politics and greed. We just need a more historical understanding of history as it was worked out.