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

Triumphalism, empire, and the early church

Paul Dean is troubled by the inclusion of the word “triumphantly” in the closing sentence of the previous post on The end of narrative for Christians and Jews: “For the church, narrative came to an end triumphantly in the conversion of the empire and was replaced by theology.” He asks: “Why is that word there? Do you think it was a good thing or is the word a psycho-historical interpolation?”

The word is there basically to heighten the contrast with the end of narrative forced upon the Jews by the catastrophe of the failed revolts against Rome and the subsequent emergence of rabbinic Judaism—a shift “from politics to piety”, as Wright puts it.

I think that the parallel shift from Jewish narrative to Christian theology—equally a shift from politics to piety—was bound to happen. I regard Patristic theology as a good and necessary development for historical reasons. The question is whether—or at least, to what extent—it still provides a viable frame for doing biblical thinking in the world today. If nothing else, it’s a curious circumstance that the collapse of the Christendom-modern worldview has coincided with a thorough-going “evangelical” (the “new kind of” variety) recovery of history-and-narrative as the basis for New Testament interpretation.

So, yes, arguably the shift from narrative to theology in the early centuries was a triumph for the church because it was a mark of how successful it had been in its bid to conquer the Greek-Roman world in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I assume that’s what Paul means by “psycho-historical interpolation”—a triumph from the historical perspective of the early church.

But it was still a political victory. My argument is that the story of Israel does not come to an abrupt end with Jesus and the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost. It runs through at least to the conversion of the empire as an event of fundamental biblical importance. And the more it becomes apparent that the church in the West is faced with a crisis of eschatological proportions, the more clearly we will see that we also need to do our theology in a narrative mode. But that’s another matter.

The historical confession of Jesus rather than Caesar as Lord of the nations of the Greek-Roman world marked the extraordinary fulfilment of a Jewish narrative that could not be fulfilled by characteristically “Jewish” means. That is the point of the contrast between the catastrophic end of narrative for the Jews and the triumphant end of narrative for those who believed that YHWH had given the nations to Jesus as his heritage.

Towards the end of Wright’s account in  of the story of Israel as it is told in the Bible—he goes on to consider its retelling in second temple Jewish and post-War writings—he notes that it has been told so far as a story of “rescue, of release from slavery and exile”. In Daniel 2 and 7, however, and in “later retrievals” of those passages such as 4 Ezra, the further expectation is voiced that Israel would not merely be restored but would become pre-eminent among the nations, “the head, and not the tail” (cf. Deut. 26:19; 28:1, 10-13).

This relates closely to the various Pentateuchal promises concerning the coming king, who will receive the obedience of the peoples, and be lord over many nations. The theme of a coming universal monarch is continued in the prophets, and found at Qumran. These promises are linked in Deuteronomy 30 to the theme of the return from exile, the ingathering of the dispersed tribes.  (120)

For some reason Wright does not mention Psalms 2, 82 and 110, which clearly express the conviction that in time either God or his anointed king will judge and rule over the nations—indeed, will inherit nations formerly ruled by other kings:

I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Ps. 2:7–9)

Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (Ps. 82:8)

The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. (Ps. 110:5–6)

Wright then briefly discusses (120-21) Horbury’s suggestion that Philo regarded the diaspora in the Greek-Roman world “as a kind of Jewish colonial movement”, foreshadowing a day when “a kind of Jewish empire” would be established:

…for ‘there shall come forth a man’, says the oracle [Num. 24.17 LXX], and leading his host to war he will subdue great and populous nations, … who will win not only a permanent and bloodless victory in the war but also a sovereignty which none can contest…. (Philo, Praem. 95-97)

Now the question is: In what ways and to what extent does the New Testament modify this Jewish narrative of kingdom? The usual understanding is that it is fulfilled obliquely in the emergence of the church as a spiritual, and therefore a-political, multi-ethnic community. That seems to me to reflect an essentially post-narrative, theological, Christendom point of view. Under the narrative-historical conditions that prevail in the New Testament, the Jewish objective remains operative: the rule of Israel’s God over the nations, in thoroughly political terms. In the same way that Philo imagined Jewish communities across the empire as outposts of Jerusalem, Paul thought of the churches as colonies of citizens whose political identity and future on earth, in the empire, were secured in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20-21).

The difference lies in the fact that this political-religious re-alignment of the ancient world, in fulfilment of the Jewish narrative, was to be achieved not through adherence to the Law—in whatever actual historical form that took—but through the faithfulness of Jesus, and most importantly, through the faithfulness of those who believed in him. The Old Testament hope that YHWH would be acknowledged as sovereign over the nations would come about because Jesus had rejected the path of self-exaltation, had become a slave, had been killed, had been raised to the right hand of God, and had been given authority to judge and rule over the nations.

This gives rise to a fully appropriate triumphalism. For example, Revelation at numerous points exults in the victory of Israel’s God not merely over abstract enemies such Satan and evil but over concrete and particular historical enemies, foremost among them Rome:

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (Rev. 19:1–2)

It is not too much to say that Revelation celebrates the predicted overthrow of the old pagan order and the conversion of the empire to the worship of the one, true, living God. We may struggle to find sympathy for this outlook from the post-imperial, moral high ground that history has afforded us. But I suggest that if we are to take seriously the argument that the New Testament fulfils the story of Israel, we have to keep the historical parameters firmly in place. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that the coming kingdom of God and of his Christ would be any less “worldly” or political than Judaism expected it to be.