I think I’m getting to the bottom of Samuel V. Adams’ excellent, invigorating, complex, stimulating and—in my view—flawed critique of N.T. Wright’s historical methodology.
History and theology have given us two different ways of understanding “apocalyptic”. When historians such as Wright use the term, what they have in mind principally is a body of literature, mostly of Palestinian Jewish origin, dating from roughly 300 BC to the early second century AD, which furnished, among other things, supernaturally revealed narratives of hope for Jews suffering Greek and Roman oppression. The corpus consists of texts such as Daniel, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Levi, or parts thereof. Some of the Qumran literature has a distinctly apocalyptic colouring.
Adams accepts that the literary-historical understanding of apocalyptic has some value. “Wright’s observation that apocalyptic literature is both political and covenantal seems exactly right and is an important point that needs to be made, especially when interpreting the book of Revelation” (238). But he thinks that Wright is at fault in dismissing the use of the term to designate “an epistemological/theological posture as well as a perspective on the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s saving work” (235). Scot McKnight has also recently discussed the controversy.
From Adams’ point of view, “apocalyptic” is a category that transcends all historical worldviews, including the historical-apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism; and he maintains specifically that when Paul speaks of the revelation or apocalypse Jesus Christ, it is this epistemological/theological definition that provides the appropriate “interpretive matrix”.
The problem, he argues, is that if we leave the interpretation of Paul to history, if we confine our understanding of his thought to the first-century Jewish-apocalyptic worldview, then “the actual impact of the irruption of God is minimized”. The assumption is that at the heart of Paul’s theology is something like a “dialectical engagement with the living and personal God” (242) that must be universally or cosmically relevant and accessible. The apocalypse of Jesus Christ is “absolutely unique with respect to any and all worldviews to which it comes” 270). It is an epistemological and ontological novelty.
The word “irruption” comes from Wright’s Hulsean Lecture, published in Paul: In Fresh Perspective:
In the messianic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul believes both that the covenant promises were at last fulfilled and that this constituted a massive and dramatic irruption into the process of world history unlike anything before or since.
For Wright the “irruption” of God into history in and through Jesus, even if a unique event, remains explicable according to the historical categories of Jewish apocalyptic and is, therefore, “confined within the limited field of worldviews” (239). Indeed, the phrase “unlike anything before or since” sounds rather like Jesus’ description of the suffering that would attend the siege of Jerusalem: “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21; cf. Dan. 12:1; Jos. War Prologue 12).
The question that Adams asks is “whether or not Paul’s experience of the singular apocalypse of Jesus Christ is knowable in these terms”. Put simply, is Paul’s “apocalyptic” historical or theological? Was Paul a Jewish apostle or a post-Barthian theologian? On which side of the hermeneutical wall does he belong?
Adams’ argument about “Paul’s epistemological shift” needs to be looked at more closely. For now, I want briefly to consider his interpretation of the phrase “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, which comes from Paul’s defence of his apostleship in Galatians:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation (apokalypseōs) of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11–12)
Adams offers little in the way of exegesis. In discussing Barth earlier he made the very general statement that, for J. Louis Martyn, Paul is writing about the “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, therefore Paul is “to be read with the expectation that the reader might encounter a third horizon”. This third horizon is clearly not limited to the historical outlook of the text. The idea is that in the text the objective reality of God (Torrance) is encountered as his self-disclosure in the event of Jesus Christ, especially within the crucifixion.
The phrase “revelation of Jesus Christ” in Galatians 1:12 can be understood either objectively or subjectively: basically, either Jesus is the content of the revelation or he is the means or agent of revelation. The former seems more likely to me in view of the statement in verse 16 that God “was pleased to reveal (apokalypsai) his Son to me”. But either way, Paul’s argument is that he received his “gospel” through a “revelation of Jesus Christ” in order that he might “preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16).
To make sense of this, the obvious place to turn is Romans 1:1-4:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul’s gospel is not that God has been revealed in the “Christ event”—though he may not have disagreed with that, assuming he would have understood such an abstraction. It is that the risen Jesus, whom Paul encountered on the road to Damascus, has been made king—over both Israel and the nations—by means of his resurrection from the dead. There is no reference to the crucifixion.
Adams’ theological apocalyptic offers no help in understanding that “gospel”, but the proposition makes excellent, if remarkable, sense when interpreted according to the matrix of first century Jewish apocalyptic. By means of Jesus’ faithfulness and elevation to the right hand of God, YHWH has both resolved the political-religious crisis faced by his people in the first century and has asserted his sovereignty over the pagan oikoumenē—to use a less theologically loaded term than “cosmos”. This is the “mystery” that has been revealed and made known to all nations (Rom. 16:25-26).
We should also register the fact that for Luke the risen Christ who is revealed to Paul is identified not with YHWH but with the persecuted disciples (Acts 9:4). Again, this makes good sense in Jewish-apocalyptic terms, but for the theologians it can only throw a spanner in the works.
It has to be a problem that the theological approach is so reluctant to engage in a careful reading of the texts on which it presumes to hang its biblical argument. I made this point with respect to Adams’ reliance on the traditional understanding of the name “God with us”. Exegesis does not support the theological-apocalyptic reading of Galatians 1:12. The view depends almost wholly on a theoretical discussion that makes little attempt to establish common ground with the apostle commissioned by the risen Lord to proclaim his name among the Gentiles.
Exegesis points to a Jewish story about how the God of Israel intervened in the affairs of his people to bring about a far-reaching transformation of their historical condition. If at a later point theologians, operating outside of the Jewish-apocalyptic worldview, need to find less circumscribed ways of explaining the significance of the so-called “Christ event”, then that is their prerogative. They may even have a point. But I object to the pretension that the theological construct somehow transcends the historical and to the attempt to impose that construct on Paul.