p.ost

how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The end of narrative for Christians and Jews

The New Testament is an eschatological text. It tells a story, which is essentially a Jewish story about the fulfilment of age-old, deeply held hopes expressed in the Psalms and the prophets. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings that story to some sort of climax, but not to an end. There is much still to come: revolt, war, persecution, resurrection, judgment, vindication—and the day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations. The message that the apostles took to the nations of the Greek-Roman world had as much to do with the future as with the past. The “gospel” looked back to what God had done in Christ, but it also pointed forwards to the judgment that would soon come on the great idolatrous empire:

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev. 14:6–7)

This is the dominating eschaton, the end, the consummation, the telos, towards which the New Testament points. There is more to come, of course—it is not the end of the world. But it is what matters.

The consummation—the conversion of the Greek-Roman world—brought the story to its anticipated end. But it also brought story to an end, more or less. The church steadily lost interest in the narrative questions about how God would become King and found itself increasingly having to answer theological questions about the peculiar relationship between the leading protagonists. Jewish apocalypticism understood what it meant to set Jesus at the right hand of the Father. Philosophy did not. Patristic theology was, by and large, an attempt to solve the conundrum.

The Jews had a similar problem to deal with. In his section on the Pharisees in Wright makes the point that the rabbinic texts, written after the revolts of AD 66-70 and 132-35, have “screened out more or less entirely that which was vital and central… for Saul of Tarsus”—the tradition of zeal for the Law which was ready to use violence to enforce Torah-observance (81).

Texts from after this period have lost two things which seem to have been vital up to that point: not only that commitment to ‘zeal’ in terms of violent ‘political’ or ‘military’ action, but also the sense of an ongoing narrative which would reach its glorious climax in (what we call) the first century or thereabouts…. (82)

For the Jews, narrative came to an end catastrophically in the failure of the revolts that were supposed to trigger its fulfilment and was replaced by rabbinic Judaism. For the church, narrative came to an end triumphantly in the conversion of the empire and was replaced by theology.

Comments

It seems that the early Apostolic fathers still used narrative as the fundamental theme - an example being the OT prophecies as an apologetic. But by the time of the Alexandrian School, well before the conversion of the empire, Greek philosophy had pretty much brushed aside narrative, at least in the East. It seems that the motivation was primarily for a Greek audience that had little use for story, let alone a Jewish Messiah.

However, Acts 17 is an early example of how the Apostle still encompassed narrative to a Greek audience… something of a tradition that the Alexandrian Church in the 2nd century seemed to miss out on.

Yes, I realize that it is an oversimplification to collapse a long and complex process down to the simple shift from history to theology; and we should also recognize that narrative was not expunged entirely: see The history of biblical interpretation—a tale of two cities.

Acts 17, whatever we make of its historicity, illustrates my point very well. Like Revelation 14 it is an announcement of impending judgment on the pagan world, very much in line with Old Testament and second temple Jewish expectations.

Amen to your extraordinary insightful last sentence, minus the word ‘triumphantly’. Why is that word there? Do you think it was a good thing or is the word a psycho-historical interpolation?

Good question, Paul. I’ve addressed it here.