In his recent inaugural lecture at the University of St Andrews Tom Wright talks about his leading concerns about the state of Gospel studies. In particular, despite generations of redaction criticism and narrative criticism, he remains unconvinced that that “the main message of the gospels has been grasped”. What in his view is the main message that has not been grasped?
My proposal about the gospels is that they all, in their rather different ways, tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the story of how God became king. They all, in other words, announce the launch of a ‘theocracy’.
The first statement will have come as no surprise to his audience. The second may have raised a few eyebrows. “Theocracy” is a bad word these days. Wright argues that it’s only what “kingdom of God” means—so the word is defused and rendered safely rhetorical. But I’m inclined to think that “theocracy”—now you come to mention it—is actually a much more pertinent term for our understanding of New Testament theology than Wright may be prepared to allow.
That is not my direct concern here, however. What interests me is how he constructs the Jesus story—and how, despite his properly historical understanding of the Jewish narrative, the story gets prematurely truncated.
In the first part of the lecture he describes three “narratival strands” that he thinks are often overlooked in scholarly discussion. I will summarize them much too briefly. His lecture deserves careful reading.
First, the canonical gospels tell the story of Jesus “as the continuation and climax of the ancient story of Israel”. The emphasis on continuation here is important. What happens in Jesus is not merely analogous to Old Testament events such as the exodus or return from exile but actually something fundamentally different. It is part of the same story.
Secondly, this is not the story of Israel alone. It is the story of Israel’s God. “In the world of second-Temple Judaism there was a strong sense, not just that Israel’s fortunes needed to change, but that Israel’s God needed to come back to his people, to the temple.”
Thirdly, the Old Testament story at numerous points has to do with the confrontation between Israel and pagan empire. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Gospels tell the story of Jesus “as the story of Israel, and of Israel’s God, reaching their proper climax, so as thereby to tell the story of how Israel’s God becomes king of the whole world”. Wright then argues at some length for a largely implicit but highly significant parallel between the climactic Augustus narrative and the climactic Jesus narrative, and concludes with a note about the “confession” made by the centurion at the foot of the cross:
Mark hopes that his Roman readers will come to share this astonishing viewpoint. In a world where Caesar, unambiguously, was hailed as ‘son of God’, the centurion looks at the dead Jesus and transfers the title to him. It is the point where all the lines meet….
In the second part of the lecture Wright argues that the “Enlightenment Epicureanism” that has dominated biblical studies provides a very bad framework for understanding the Jewish traditions, especially the New Testament itself”. I won’t try to explain. Read it for yourself.
In the third part he discusses the significance of the reconstructed narrative about how God became king for early Christian mission and theology. His point is an interesting one. In the absence of the more concrete “worldview-symbols of Judaism” it was early Christian theology—Paul’s theology in particular—that sustained the missional existence of the emerging missional communities.
Early Christian theology was not an exercise undertaken for the sake of speculative system-building. It was load-bearing. If the unity and holiness of the early church were the central symbols of the movement, they could only be held in place if a vigorous theology was there to stabilize them in the winds and storms of the first century. Theology, in this sense, serves ecclesiology and thus the kingdom-based mission.
This is all excellent stuff, but it seems to me that in two important respects he does not follow through on the narrative-historical commitment. I made the same point with respect to Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel—that the narrative runs up to Jesus, and then theology takes over (though Scot disputed the point).
First, by arguing that the story of how God became king is presented in the Gospels not merely as an aspiration but as an accomplishment, Wright effectively brings to a halt a narrative that is supposed to be continuous. Once God has become king there is nothing more to be said narratively speaking. It becomes instead a matter of theology underpinning ecclesiology and mission in a generalized sense.
There is a dimension to the New Testament story of Jesus, however, that Wright does not touch upon in this lecture. Much is made of the fact that the narrative is dependent especially on Daniel’s apocalyptic conviction that the climax to Israel’s story “the arrival of God’s own kingdom, his sovereign rule, trumping the rule of all pagan powers”. But the symbolism of a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom—however exactly we understand it—is consistently projected into the future, well beyond the life and death of Jesus. If we take the apocalyptic part of the story seriously, we cannot simply regard the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story. The climax comes when the Son of man is seen—whether by Caiaphas or by the peoples of the pagan world—coming on the clouds of heaven.
Wright, I suspect, would still place Paul’s parousia event—as distinct from Jesus’ use of the Daniel 7 motif—at the end of history, as part of the final renewal of all things. But it seems to me that the lines of Jewish narrative converge not here 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. This is why I think that the word “theocracy” may get rather closer to the core meaning of the “kingdom of God” than is dreamed of even in Wright’s philosophy. The centurion at the cross merely prefigures this moment.
Secondly, I think Wright’s argument about Paul’s theology being specifically the means by which the missional function of the emerging communities is sustained is correct and of considerable importance. But it is not specific enough. In Paul’s thinking the reason why Jesus’ death anticipates the eventual culmination of the long story of the confrontation between Israel and pagan empire is that this victory will be achieved through the faithful suffering of the churches. These communities are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection because they will have to face the same fate if Israel’s God is to be justified—shown to be right, righteous—in the eyes of the nations.
Paul’s theology, therefore, does not yet serve the purpose of defining the “new world” into which the church had been called, except perhaps tangentially. Rather it shapes the distinctive existence of eschatological communities that have been called to suffer for the sake of the good news that in the decades, perhaps centuries to come, Israel’s God would finally establish his rule over the nations that hitherto been subjected to Roman rule.
So my issue with Wright is not that he takes the narrative-historical argument too far but that he does not take it far enough. The New Testament looks backwards to the story of Israel, but it also looks forwards to critical outcomes that arise out of the story of Israel but which are not fully realized in the Easter event and Pentecost. Jewish apocalyptic cannot be detached from its historical context and allowed to drift off into a far distant and irrelevant future. This forces us, I think, to bring not only the Roman-Jewish war but also the story of the church’s struggle with paganism firmly into the prophetic purview of the New Testament.