I was pointed to G.B. Caird’s Ethel M. Wood Lecture “Jesus and the Jewish Nation” last week. The lecture was delivered in 1965 and published by The Athlone Press. It can be downloaded from Rob Bradshaw’s BiblicalStudies.org.uk.
I tend to trace my understanding of Jesus’ eschatology back to Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, which was published in 1996. But Caird’s lecture gives us a brilliant, vivid, precise and very accessible sketch of the reading, in much the same language, from thirty years earlier. Wright acknowledges the influence of Caird—“it was his little book Jesus and the Jewish Nation that provided the clue to a fresh line of thought” (JVG xix). But still, you have to wonder why it has taken us so long.
The essay should be read, but I thought it might be worth summarising the main points of the argument. I’ve suggested some minor adjustments at the end, but really, there’s little that I would seriously take issue with.
Jesus and the Jewish nation
First, the hermeneutics…
1. Any person who believes that God has uniquely revealed something in the life and teaching of Christ is committed, whether he or she realises it, to the quest of the historical Jesus. “Without the Jesus of history the Christ of faith is merely a docetic figure, a figment of pious imagination.” Christianity appeals to history and therefore must be justified by history.
2. But where in the Gospels are we to find history uncontaminated by the faith and piety of the early church? Against the historical scepticism (we might call it “reduction criticism”) of Bultmann, Caird argues that there is a large amount of material in the Gospels that was of no direct interest to the church that later compiled the Gospels, which we may therefore regard as historical fact. This material “links the ministry and teaching of Jesus with the history, politics, aspirations, and destiny of the Jewish nation”.
Now the story…
3. The crisis announced by John the Baptist was one “which would determine who among the Jews belonged to the true Israel”. Jesus came to John for baptism because he understood this and “accepted his own involvement in the national life of his people”. It shows that from the outset he was concerned with “questions of national policy”.
4. The disciples were sent out on their mission trips in a great hurry. Why? Because “Jesus was working against time to prevent the end of Israel’s world”. The disciples were not evangelists sent to save individual souls. “They were couriers proclaiming a national emergency and conducting a referendum on a question of national survival.” I love that sentence.
5. When Jesus referred to the judgment that would come on “this generation”, he was not thinking of a last judgment of individuals. He meant the current generation of Israel, which had been given “an opportunity to break with the past” (especially Matt. 23:34-35; Lk. 11:49-51). “This generation is in imminent danger of being the last generation in Israel’s history.”
6. Jesus turned the spotlight of judgment on Jerusalem: the temple would be left desolate, he wept over Jerusalem, the overthrowing of the tables in the temple was a prophecy of coming judgment, the city would be surrounded by armies, not one stone would be left on another; if the Romans crucified Jesus when the wood was green, “what will they do when the tree is dry (when all Israel is tinder, ready to be ignited by the first spark)”?
7. Jesus said and did things which implied the “universality of the gospel”. He spoke of the Son of Man, who was “given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14). When he rode into Jerusalem, he brought to people’s minds the vision of Zechariah that YHWH’s king “shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). He declared that the temple should have been a “house of prayer for all the nations” (Mk. 11:17). So how do we explain the fact that in Acts the disciples appear to have been very slow to preach the gospel to the Gentiles? The answer is found in Jewish eschatology. According to one school of thought, at least, the inclusion of the nations would come about not through missionary activity but through a great act of God on behalf of his people: “then the redeemed nation would act as a beacon, drawing all nations to Jerusalem to join in the worship and service of the one true god”. So it makes sense that in the weeks after the resurrection the disciples “felt their immediate task to be the winning of Israel to an acceptance of her proper rôle as God’s nation”.
8. What Jesus intended to bring into existence was not the “church” as a new religious entity but the “restored nation of Israel, promised in the Old Testament prophecies”. If the nation as a whole rejected this mission, then success would depend instead on the existence of a “nucleus” of the restored people of God. “Like the children of Isaiah in an earlier crisis, the ‘little ones’ of Jesus were to be ‘a sign and a portent in Israel’ (Isa. 8.18).”
9. What we are dealing with here is exactly the sort of “national eschatology” that we find in the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophets used cosmic language to describe transformative historical events. For example, when Daniel “sees the throne of judgment erected, this is not the end of the world, but a climax of history, in which world dominion is to pass from the bestial and tyrannical oppressor by whom it has been exercised into the hands of the saints of the Most High, represented by that symbolic figure, ‘one like a son of man’” (Dan. 7:9-27).
10. Caird thinks that in the New Testament things are complicated by the fact that there is now a belief in personal life after death to reckon with. “It is therefore not always easy to tell whether we are dealing with national or individual eschatology, and, as the church moved more and more away from its original Palestinian setting into the Gentile world, there must have been a tendency to reinterpret the national in terms of the individual.” Nevertheless, in the Gospels the day of the Son of Man “remained firmly in the sphere of national eschatology”. The coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven is “a symbol for a mighty reversal of fortunes within history and at the national level”.
11. The connection between the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man is that Jesus and his disciples would be vindicated by the disaster, which was “an open demonstration that Jesus was right and the nation was wrong”. The conclusion to the story about the unjust judge is quoted: “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:7–8).
Some minor points of difference
1. I agree that as the church established itself in the Greek-Roman world, it lost touch with the Jewish story that gave it its original impulse. But I wouldn’t say that “the gospel broke out from its Jewish cocoon to become a universal faith”. That suggests too sharp a distinction between Jewish national religion and a universal faith that transcended politics. The eschatological vision of the church as it engaged with the Greek-Roman world was no less political than the vision of Jesus.
2. I think Caird also overstates Jesus’ interest in the universality of his message. Jesus does not himself draw attention to the fact that the Son of Man would be served by all peoples or that the king who comes riding on an ass will have dominion to the ends of the earth. I agree with the soteriological paradigm: the Gentiles would be saved by the salvation of Israel. But it was somewhat remote from Jesus’ mind. There is also nothing in Acts 2-3 that suggests that the disciples in Jerusalem thought that they were calling the Jews to repent for the sake of the incoming of the Gentiles.
3. The pilgrimage of the nations to restored Zion is one aspect of the Old Testament vision that shapes New Testament expectation. But there is also the belief that YHWH would judge and rule over the nations of the old pagan empires from restored Zion. This is the culmination of the kingdom of God story. I think that Caird makes too little of it. He says in the conclusion, admittedly, that Jesus believed that Israel was to be “the agent through whom God intended to assert his sovereignty over the rest of the world”, but “rest of the world” obscures the natural political focus on the regional empires.
4. Caird seems to have thought that in the New Testament national and individual eschatologies get entangled with each other for no good reason. I would argue that the personal hope of life after death arises as an integral part of the national eschatology, as is evident both in Daniel 12:1-3 and the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. It is those who lost their lives out of loyalty to YHWH during a period of national political-religious crisis who would be raised to share in the life of restored Israel.
5. Since his focus is on Jesus as the Son of Man, Caird makes much of the theme of vindication. The expectation that Jesus would become Israel’s king could have been brought out more clearly. His appeal to Psalm 110:1 suggests that he believed that he would be seated at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies (Matt. 22:41-45; 26:64 and parallels). Significantly, in his words to the council Jesus weaves together the story of the Son of Man who will be vindicated and the story of the Son of God who will be enthroned: “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
6. Caird says that “God was summoning the nation once for all to take its place in his economy as the Son of Man”. It seems rather that the “Son of Man” symbolism is applied both in Daniel and by Jesus not to the nation as a whole but to a faithful but persecuted community within the nation. Daniel 7 becomes relevant precisely because the nation has abandoned the path of loyalty to the covenant.