A couple more problems with the narrative-historical premise. Will it never end?

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In The narrative premise of a post-Christendom theology, which stands as an introductory piece for the approach to reading the New Testament that I think an “evangelical” church somehow needs to take on board, I suggest that: 

The New Testament presupposes, describes, and predicts a long, tumultuous transition in the history of the people of God, running from the initial summons to Israel to repent in the face of imminent judgment and national destruction (John the Baptist) to the eventual displacement of the institutions and worldview of classical paganism and the recognition of Christ as sovereign over the empire and beyond (Constantine).

My point is that this is not just historical background. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what the theology of the New Testament is all about. So, for example, Jesus’ death must be understood in the light of the impending political catastrophe; his resurrection anticipates a dramatically different state of affairs beyond that catastrophe. Al has asked, however, whether the argument is not invalidated by the way things actually turned out:

I was wondering if your thesis is somewhat undermined by the fact that Judaism wasn’t completely destroyed during the Jewish war. It seems as though this would be the natural outcome of Jesus’ warnings to his contemporaries. And yet Judaism survives to this day. What’s your take on this?

What is predicted by John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church is not that Judaism would be destroyed but that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed, bringing to an end the paradigm of God’s people as a nation in the land given to it by God, governed by Torah, centred on a royal city, its relationship with the true and living God mediated and maintained by the temple system.

This whole paradigm of corporate existence is replaced by the “Trinitarian” model: Jesus’ death as the absolute ground for forgiveness, authority given to Jesus as King, God present in the midst of his people by the Spirit, communities instructed by the Spirit rather than by Law, Jerusalem above, citizenship in heaven, and so on.

If anything, the continuation of Judaism was to be expected. On the one hand, scattering and exile were always going to be a consequence of judgment on Israel (cf. Deut. 28:64). On the other, there was no reason to think that diaspora Judaism would be wiped out as a consequence of the Jewish War. Jews across the empire might expect a backlash against them. Josephus has king Agrippa attempt to dissuade the rebels in Judea from embarking on war against Rome by warning them that it would put not only national Israel but Jews throughout the world in danger:

But certainly no one can imagine that you can enter into a war as by an agreement, or that when the Romans have got you under their power they will use you with moderation, or will not rather, for an example to other nations, burn your holy city, and utterly destroy your whole nation; for those of you who shall survive the war will not be able to find a place whither to flee, since all men have the Romans for the lords already, or are afraid they shall have hereafter. Nay, indeed the danger concerns not those Jews that dwell here only, but those of them who dwell in other cities also; for there is no people upon the habitable earth which have not some portion of you among them, whom your enemies will slay, in case you go to war, and on that account also; and so every city which hath Jews in it will be filled with slaughter for the sake only of a few men, and they who slay them will be pardoned; but if that slaughter be not made by them, consider how wicked a thing it is to take arms against those that are so kind to you. (War 2:397–399)

But nothing in Paul’s argument in Romans suggests that he thought Judaism as a synagogue-based religion would be destroyed. The issue is whether his brothers, his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3), would be reconciled to their ancestral God, whether before or after the coming day of God’s wrath against his people (see [amazon:978-1606087879:inline], 132-38).

There is another problem with my argument, however—potentially a much more serious one. What sort of “victory” does Constantine represent? On the one hand, Christendom turned out to be a badly compromised embodiment of the rule of YHWH over the nations. On the other, the nations have since thrown off the yoke of servitude to Christ in favour of a new pantheon of secular gods. Surely the New Testament has led us to expect something better than that?

What this comes down to is how we read the language of biblical prophecy. Do we take it as an idealistic or as a realistic form of discourse? Does prophecy ultimately require transcendent outcomes, or does it, for the most part at least, endeavour to make sense of the messy compromised realities of history? Should we expect history ultimately to conform itself to the elevated conceptuality of apocalyptic? Or does the apocalyptic genre demand to be read in the light of human realities? What is scripture in the end? Is it theology or history?

Thanks Andrew. Very helpful. 

Bruce Dayman | Sat, 11/24/2012 - 21:36 | Permalink

Those are good questions Andrew, and not easily answered. Some considerations include the fact that there is a distinction between prophecy and apocalypticism. i.e. Dodd (1935) vs Schweitzer (1906). Prophecy was orginally directed at specific cities by the Hebrew prophets, such as Jerusalem or Babylon. Between the Bablonian exile (586-539 BC) and the rise of Christianity  this changed. The Jewish restoration in Jerusalem under the Persians (often called ‘proto-apocalyptic), the persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Macabean revolt along with the contemporaneous rise of Cristianity in the context of the second destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans all changed the focus to the expectation of the end spurred the rise of apocalypticism over a 600 year period. Apocalypticism arose in response to the new challenges f the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In the context of Israelite and Jewish tradition, this worldview was novel in the Hellenistic period, especially in its expectation of a final judgement. i.e. divine intervention and a judgement of all nations on a cosmic scale. This would be followed by a resurrection of the dead, allowiing for indivual and national retribution. Apocalypticism is a report of supernatural revelation with an eschatological dimension. It was not the exclusive property of one sect of movment but characterized various movements from time to time. Many see apocalypticism as failing to deliver on its promises yet providing hope to those who would otherwise have no hope at all.

This is an area I have been mulling over for some time. Was Jesus apocalyptic? Prophetic? What is the nature of the Kingdom of God which Jesus taught as being here now? I appreciate your comments.

@Bruce Dayman:

Was Jesus apocalyptic? Prophetic? What is the nature of the Kingdom of God which Jesus taught as being here now?

These are obviously the critical questions. My view is that there is very little in the Synoptic Gospels that cannot be accounted for, both conceptually and linguistically, by reference to the Old Testament. I do not get the impression that Jesus drew upon speculative apocalyptic traditions that went beyond the scope of biblical prophecy.

In particular, I would argue that like the prophets Jesus stays focused on historical events and does not envisage a universal end-of-the-world catastrophe. In fact, I don’t think he looks much beyond the horizon of AD 70. His long term objective is to bring into existence a faithful community that will survive the coming crisis of war and destruction and form the nucleus of a renewed people of God in the age to come.

The main reason I would use the term “apocalyptic” with respect to Jesus is that it keeps his vision of the future in focus. We too easily suppose that Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus has a great deal to say about a future that extends beyond his death.

As for the kingdom of God….