Why N.T. Wright's narrative of Jesus is not narrative enough (reflections on the inaugural lecture)

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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.

So do you mean to say that Christendom (Constantine) is the culmination of the apocalyptic aspects of the Gospel? 

I'm all for the continuing narrative, but not sure how this relates to Empire.

@Geoff Holsclaw:

Geoff, just a quick and slapdash response for now. It’s late here.

Remember that we are looking back in time at Contantine and Christendom, with hindsight. The New Testament is looking forward.

We should be wary of judging the ancient world according to our own standards of what is politically and religiously acceptable. Wright often makes the point that in the ancient world religion and politics are inseparable. Well, I am simply suggesting that this carries through into the Christendom paradigm.

An aspect of the “gospel” in the New Testament is that Israel’s God would judge the nations. Our theology universalizes or absolutizes this, but the Jewish narrative works within much more limited historical horizons.

The story told in Daniel 7 is that the pagan imperializing oppressor of the saints will be judged and destroyed, and rule over the nations will be given to the saints of the Most High represented symbolically by the Son of Man figure.

In Revelation 19-20 Rome as an aggressive, corrupt, idolatrous pagan power is overthrown and Christ and the martyrs reign throughout the ensuing thousand year period.

As Wright says in his lecture, the confrontation between Israel and its powerful neighbours is a central theme in Old Testament and non-canonical Jewish literature right through to the New Testament. It is a theme that in a multiplicity of ways is echoed in the New Testament. What reason do we have for supposing that this language is not used precisely in order to project this same story into the future, creating the belief that one God Israel’s God would be glorified and worshipped by the nations?

The transformation of the Mediterranean world under Constantine and his successors was immense. Classical paganism was defeated; Jesus Christ was confessed as Lord by the nations. Why wouldn’t this loom large on the prophetic horizon of the Jewish New Testament?

That Christianity became an empire is problematic. but so too was Israel’s status as a kingdom or nation. A consistent narrative theology acknowledges such continuities and the underlying sinful human-social nature of the church as God’s people under Christ as Lord.

1600 years of Christian imperialism is a problem under any reading of the New Testament. This is what Christianity was for most of its history. Obviously we have the option of saying that this was not true Christianity, but that is not historically correct.

The relationship between the prophets and the establishment in the Old Testament does not lead us to conclude that only prophetic Old Testament religion was authentic.

The fact that Christendom has been overthrown—and therefore relativized—by the forces of secular rationalism and then postmodern pluralism is also part of the narrative. We are interested in historical Christian origins because we need to reestablish our bearings.

I am not suggesting at all that we should go back to Christian empire.

Perhaps I could recommend my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, which is now available on the Kindle, if you haven’t read it already? It attempts to show how the apocalpytic expectation of wrath not only against the Jew but also against the Greek fundamentally determines the shape of Paul’s argument.

Hi Andrew,

I confess that I am only just connecting with your work, so may not be interpreting you rightly. But the statement "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" leaves me nonplussed. Do you really mean this? 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? What am I misunderstanding in your point here?



peter wilkinson | Tue, 11/08/2011 - 10:39 | Permalink

Andrew - I'm grateful that you highlighted Tom Wright's lecture, and summarised its main points, and areas in which you disagree with him, so ably. I'd been wondering when we were going to hear more from him.

Roger Haydon Mitchell makes the same point as I do. The continuation of the narrative as you propose reframes the story so that

the lines of Jewish narrative converge not here (on the death and resurrection of Jesus) 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

It's here that the questions arise. First in respect of your assertion that the 'conversion' of the Roman Empire was a fulfilment of prophecy and an intended and 'concrete' continuation of the biblical narrative. Second, it is striking that the narrative lines of all four gospels converge on the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than judgement on Jerusalem or the future of Rome. This death and resurrection inform the language of the letters in almost every sentence, overshadowing the far less explicit references to a shortly forthcoming historical crisis.

It is undeniable that a catastrophic prophetic vindication of Jesus took place in judgement on Jerusalem, but a much greater vindication was in his death followed by resurrection, with implications for the entire creation, both immediately for believers, and for the future destiny of the universe.

It is quite possible for the narrative to continue if Jesus is the climax of the story. The narrative of the worldwide spread of the kingdom of God, and the proclamation of the victory of Jesus to all nations is a continuing narrative, although there are arguments about what this should look like. A climax does not bring a story to a halt, but it does decisively shape the rest of the story as it proceeds to a conclusion.

On the other hand, there are many problems with limiting the participation of Jesus in the story mainly to a continuation of Israel's story in terms of her previous history, not least on the grounds of the plausibility of this limitation, but also the as yet unanswered question of who, exactly, Jesus was in this version of the narrative to have had such a powerful and lasting impact on world history.



@peter wilkinson:

I’ll try to write a general response to the question about empire and the fulfilment of prophecy over the next couple of days. As for the other comments…

…it is striking that the narrative lines of all four gospels converge on the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than judgement on Jerusalem or the future of Rome.

Well, yes, you’d expect that of stories of the life of Jesus. But Jesus speaks emphatically and repeatedly to his disciples and to the Jewish authorities about decisive future events associated especially with the destruction of the temple and interpreted through the lens of Daniel 7. I think we have to take his teaching seriously and not park it out of reach at the end of history. Jesus’ self-understanding does not by-pass these events on the way to some worldwide mission of the church. Jesus makes his future absolutely dependent on these events.

You will notice that what I said was that the “lines of the Jewish narrative” converge on the defeat of Roman paganism, not the lines of the Gospels. The Gospels tell part of this narrative. Paul then picks up the story and clarifies aspects of the future trajectory.

This death and resurrection inform the language of the letters in almost every sentence, overshadowing the far less explicit references to a shortly forthcoming historical crisis.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are indeed of central and critical significance, but to say that they overshadow the forthcoming crisis, I think, misses the point. His death and resurrection anticipate the coming historical crisis. They foreshadow rather than overshadow it. So, for example, in Acts 17:31 Jesus’ resurrection is put forward as evidence for the coming judgment on the pagan oikoumenē.

It is quite possible for the narrative to continue if Jesus is the climax of the story. The narrative of the worldwide spread of the kingdom of God, and the proclamation of the victory of Jesus to all nations is a continuing narrative, although there are arguments about what this should look like.

The question of what this would look like is precisely the issue. My view is that the Jewish apocalypticism of the New Testament strongly suggests that the climactic confrontation between the emerging churches and paganism will be a decisive dynamic in the unfolding story. The one clear statement that Jesus makes to the high priest regarding his identity and purpose is that he will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. He puts the climax of the story in the future—at some point within the lifetime of his disciples, but certainly not at the moment of his death and resurrection.

Incidentally, the New Testament does not speak of the “worldwide spread of the kingdom of God”. That is the invention of modern missiology.

@Andrew Perriman:

"Incidentally, the New Testament does not speak of the “worldwide spread of the kingdom of God”. That is the invention of modern missiology."

Can you expand on this a bit? I thought the kingdom of God encompassing the world is precisely the point - per Daniel 2, etc. Maybe you're understading "world" there as the Roman world, which is fine, but do you see no necessary implication of expansion beyond that?

-Daniel H.


I don’t think the sentiment is wrong, I just think it reflects a later perspective than that of the New Testament. In the New Testament there is an expanding proclamation of the good news about the coming kingdom of God, which is understood essentially not as a spreading state of affairs but as the decisive event which establishes a new state of affairs. Following the establishment of the reign of God, displacing pagan Caesar, etc., it makes sense to talk about the practical sphere of God’s sovereignty extending, though under the Christendom paradigm this meant in effect the expansion of Christian empire. Since the collapse of Christendom it has come to be understood in more modern terms, disengaged from political realities. Now in the postmodern era we are asking again how to makes sense of God’s sovereignty over his people in relation to the nations.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew -

Incidentally, the New Testament does not speak of the “worldwide spread of the kingdom of God”. That is the invention of modern missiology

The worldwide spread of the kingdom of God is the intent contained in the entire biblical narrative, and by no means an invention of modern missiology, but I know perfectly well what your argument against this is. I just think it flies in the face of just about any reasonable interpretation of the bible, and certainly a lot of people round the world over the last nearly 2000 years need to be informed that they have been totally wasting their time, if what you argue is true.

But we're not going to agree, are we?

@peter wilkinson:

Did you read my response to Daniel? My argument is that the New Testament speaks of the kingdom of God primarily as something that will happen in the future—a régime change. That event will have lasting implications, and I think it makes sense at that point to speak of the worldwide spread of the kingdom of God—the expansion of the consequences of régime change. But I think that is beyond the scope of the narrative as we read it in the New Testament. It is certainly not an implication of this argument that people have been wasting their time. I’m simply trying to straighten the narrative out.

@peter wilkinson:

certainly a lot of people round the world over the last nearly 2000 years need to be informed that they have been totally wasting their time, if what you argue is true.

With all loving deference to those whose shoulders we stand upon, if we love the truth, we can't be afraid to ask those questions. If traditional perspectives have lasted for thousands of years because they were the ones closest to the truth, then we have no fear in critiquing them, because careful examination would vindicate those perspectives. And what happens if we find that the truth is something different? What's the worst that could happen, we get closer to the truth?

That doesn't anybody has been wasting their time. They just did what they could in time and space with what God gave them.  Let there be no arrogance among us.  But for the sake of getting closer to the truth, there's no harm in asking these questions and trying to take another fresh look at Scripture.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 11/16/2011 - 12:31 | Permalink

http://www.ntwrightpage.com/ has reappeared, after it crashed (?) under the weight of cyber theologians visiting after reading this blog.

I've therefore only today succeeded in accessing the above mentioned text of Tom Wright's inaugural lecture at St Andrew's University.

I have to say I like everything Wright is saying - so much so, that I kept thinking "But this is what I think too!" But maybe that's because of a subliminal absorption of Wright's ideas over the years.

In particular, I'd like to tease out more of his his views on contemporary, but according to him, skewed presentations of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet. Whatever could he mean, I wonder?

I liked the argument. I could also pick out many detailed comments for particular attention. I thought the comparison between Epicureanism in the 1st century and Enlightenment deism was telling. Also the 'left brain/right brain' metaphor (carefully qualified) as applied to theological methodology - and today's over-emphasis on analytical "left brain" to the detriment of the “right brain”, “with its initial intuitions, metaphors and imagination”. In particular, Amongst many things I could pick out, I liked this comment:

The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today.

I realise Andrew, that you bring a further critique to Wright, accusing him of leaving the narrative in a limbo of universalism by seeing it fulfilled in Jesus. I think this is only partly true (if at all).

First, Wright insists that the gospel remained (and therefore remains) Jewish through and through, and was not changed to fit Hellenistic thought-forms by Paul and others. The lecture argues strongly for maintaining this Jewish base, and not for letting contemporary culture impose the agenda of its own thought-forms. The viewpoint of the gospel is therefore particular, and Jewish, rather than presented in universalised Hellenistic categories.  

Second, as I've already suggested, "climax", as in the narrative being brought to a climax in Jesus, does not mean "conclusion", in that there is no more narrative. There is more narrative, from Wright's point of view, in the sense of what flowed from this "climax", although for "flowed" he uses the telling word "launched". To use Oscar Cullman's analogy, the decisive battle has been fought and won, even though the war has yet to be brought to a conclusion.