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

If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?

I taught a class, as part of a King’s School of Theology course over the weekend, on Jesus and the story of Israel. My starting point was to say that we have two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. There is a vertical-theological story about the eternal Son who is incarnated in the middle of time, who dies for the sins of the world, and who returns to resume his place in the godhead for the rest of eternity. There is also a horizontal-historical story about Jesus. In this story he is the beloved Son sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel, whose death at the hands of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem opens up a difficult, narrow and hazardous path for the few who are prepared to follow him, and whose resurrection vouches for the continued existence of God’s people in the age to come.

In the first story, I suggested in my usual simplistic fashion, that Jesus is the ladder between sinful humanity and God. This is the story that evangelicals love. In the second story, Jesus is the rickety bridge between Israel’s past and Israel’s future, spanning the chasm of the war against Rome, where the fires of Gehenna burn. I didn’t actually mention the fires of Gehenna, but we had a good conversation about whether it was right to describe Jesus as a rickety bridge. This is the story which I think evangelicals need to learn to love.

There is an enigmatic saying in Luke’s Gospel that helps us to grasp the significance of Jesus’ death for the horizontal-historical story, as we approach Good Friday.

Jesus is being led away to be crucified. Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross behind him. They are followed by a “great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Lk. 23:27). Jesus turns and speaks to the women:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Lk. 23:28–31)

Luke then tells us that two “evil-doers” (kakourgoi) are led away to be put to death with him, and when they come to the place known as The Skull, Jesus and the two other men are subjected to the routine humiliation and agony of crucifixion. Certain rulers of the people mock Jesus’ pretension to be “the Christ of God, his Chosen One”, and the soldiers taunt him: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Lk. 23:37). A facetious inscription above his head reads “This is the King of the Jews.”

Let’s look at the details of Jesus’ gloomy pronouncement.

When Isaiah contemplates the restoration of sparsely populated Jerusalem after the exile, he exclaims: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married” (Is. 54:1). Jesus’ vision of Jerusalem’s future overturns this optimism. A time is coming when fecundity and procreaton will be a curse, not a blessing.

He then quotes from the prophet Hosea. Israel has turned after other gods, but the Lord “will break down their altars and destroy their pillars”—a violent act of judgment to be carried out by the Assyrians. When this happens ‘they shall say to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us”’ (Hos. 10:1-8). “When I please, I will discipline them, and nations shall be gathered against them when they are bound up for their double iniquity” (Hos. 10:10). Jesus believes that the God of Israel will again gather the nations to discipline his people.

In Jesus’ mind his suffering anticipated the much greater suffering that would be inflicted by the Romans on Judea in days to come. The more significant event is still to come.

The meaning of the saying about the wood is not as transparent. Implicit in the metaphor is the idea that dry wood burns more easily than green or damp (hygros) wood, and it is not difficult to find statements in the prophets about the fire of God’s wrath that will consume the forest of Israel. For example, Ezekiel is instructed to prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb: “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree” (Ezek. 20:47; cf. Is. 10:16-19; Jer. 11:16, 19; Ezek. 17:24; 24:9-10). Perhaps Jesus had this saying specifically in mind.

Nolland warns against being over-precise in explaining the difference between the “green” and the “dry” wood. But there must be some sense in which the treatment of Jesus foreshadows the fire of God’s judgment that will destroy Jerusalem within a generation. “Jesus does not consider himself to be a natural object of the disaster that he senses is soon to engulf his people as a judgment upon their sins,” Nolland writes, “but he goes to the cross at his Father’s bidding and as his destined mode of participation in that wider impending disaster.”1

In Jesus’ mind his suffering—and presumably the suffering of the two malefactors crucified alongside him—anticipated the much greater suffering that would be inflicted by the Romans on Judea in days to come. He has interpreted his own death as a prophetic warning of the terrors that will come upon Israel. The more significant event is still to come. Wright captures the historical dimension well:

Jesus was warning, one last time, of what would happen as a result of Jerusalem rejecting ‘the things that make for peace’. She had chosen the way of revolution, of confrontation with Rome; the youngsters playing in the streets in Jesus’ day would become the firebrands of the next generation, and would suffer the terrible consequences. The mothers should save their tears for when they would really be needed.2

As Wright goes on to point out, Jesus attaches no atonement theology to this interpretation of his death: “it holds out no hope of rescue, only the warning that what is happening to Jesus is a foretaste of what will happen to many more young Jews in the not too distant future” (570). Jesus explicitly locates his own death not in a general theology of atonement, but in the brutal tragedy of his people. Nevertheless, he given us solid grounds for speaking of his death in “penal” terms:

Having announced the divine judgment upon Temple and nation alike, a judgment which would take the form of awful devastation at the hands of the pagan forces, Jesus was now going ahead of the nation, to undergo the punishment which, above all, symbolized the judgment of Rome on her rebel subjects. If they did this to the one revolutionary who was not advocating rebellion against Rome, what would they do to those who were, and those who followed them? (570)

I rather think that Paul had something like this in mind when he wrote that “God, having sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned the sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3-4). Crucified as a false messiah, alongside two other troublemakers, Jesus had the appearance of these misguided Jewish revolutionaries. In this way God condemned the particular form of Jewish sinfulness in the flesh (tēn harmartian en tēi sarki) flesh that would eventually bring disaster upon the dry wood of Israel. Those who would be “in Christ” must learn to walk “not according to the flesh”—not in self-destructive defiance of YHWH—“but according to the Spirit”.

  • 1. J. Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53 (1993), 1138.
  • 2. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), 568.

Comments

Thank you! This is helpful.

Re: “He has interpreted his own death as a prophetic warning of the terrors that will come upon Israel”

I wonder whether it might also be valid to affirm that Jesus actually intended “his own death [to be] a prophetic warning of the terrors that will come upon Israel”

He eludes capture at other times when his enemies try to harm him. But finally, at Jerusalem, when the city is packed with pilgrims who will hear that “the Romans have once again killed one of our would-be messiahs,” he submits to arrest, trial and execution, and warns his followers not to interfere.

The idea that “the Cross” is fundamentally God’s warning to Israel is very unfamiliar; it makes (to me, at least) a lot of sense as history.

And yes, this is a story I can love, and tremble as I contemplate Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you.”

There’s not a built in way to like or upvote comments, so consider this the ad hoc way.

I wonder whether it might also be valid to affirm that Jesus actually intended “his own death [to be] a prophetic warning of the terrors that will come upon Israel”.

It depends, doesn’t it, on the weight that we give to “intended”?

If you mean that this was how he primarily thought of his mission, that seems unlikely. The Gospels present Jesus’ death as a consequence of his mission to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God to Israel and call the people to repentance.

If you mean that he forced things to a head at a late stage in order to exploit the presence of Pilate and his troops at Passover, that may be more plausible historically.

But the symbolism of his arrival in Jerusalem suggests to me that he is thinking of himself primarily as the king who will benefit from the coming judgment rather than as one who is determined to sacrifice himself as a warning to the people. It is the carefully stage-managed spectacle of the triumphal entry that must give us the primary insight into his intentions, though the rejection of this king of peace certainly then gives him the opportunity intentionally and self-consciously to interpret his death as an anticipation of the disaster to come.

My thinking has been strongly influenced by NT Wright’s work (mostly in “Jesus and the Victory of God”) on “the intentions of Jesus.”

The thought that Jesus may have intended, from an earlier stage in the public ministry, his death to serve a prophetic function is, I concede, highly speculative. It does help me to make sense of a saying – the famous “Son of man has come to offer his life a ransom for many” – the meaning of which is obscure on conventional readings, whether historical or theological.

But if Jesus from an early stage in his public ministry (perhaps from before it began) was “reading the signs of the times” as portending a calamitous war with Rome in which multitudes of his countrymen would perish, it seems plausible to me that he could have regarded the idea of ‘offering his own death as an exemplary warning’ as functioning as a “ransom” – a “payment to Rome” that would save everyone who later remembered and heeded its warning.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus intended or even hoped to be visibly inaugurated as Israel’s king on his final journey to Jerusalem. The war would, I suspect, have broken out immediately, either as a result of ‘zealots’ attacking the occupiers or the Romans suppressing a visible ‘king’ in Jerusalem, Jesus’ assurances to the overlords that his Kingdom was “not of earth” notwithstanding. The violent suppression, in Jesus’ crucifixion, of Jesus’ visible messianic movement put the war off a full generation, and did save the many who later remembered his warnings and fled Jerusalem at the approach of the legions.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus intended or even hoped to be visibly inaugurated as Israel’s king on his final journey to Jerusalem.

To be sure. The manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a sign of the eventual liberation of God’s people from its enemies and the establishment of a kingly rule that “shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:9-10). My assumption is that this would come about at or after the parousia—the moment when Jesus would be publicly recognised as the “Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).

Is it really plausible that the acceptance by the Jews of Jesus as a non-violent king would have triggered a Roman assault?

re: “Is it really plausible that the acceptance by the Jews of Jesus as a non-violent king would have triggered a Roman assault?”

Perhaps the Romans would have worked out a modus vivendi with a notional pacific “Jesus administration” in Jerusalem; Jesus as the acceptable-to-the locals king under Roman overlordship. But is it plausible that an Israel that preferred violent insurgents like Barabbas to the peacable messiah Jesus would have obeyed Jesus’ commands to not rebel once they had their own king, and a mighty manifestly God-approved one at that, in Jerusalem?

Jesus was scarcely able to restrain the ambitions of his own inner circle; how much less would he have been able to peacably control the entire nation that had been simmering in rebellion for more than a century, and would continue to for more than a century? John’s Gospel may be more theology than history, but is it not plausible that Jesus’ refusal to cooperate with the people’s “crown the messiah” impulses reflects historical memory of his attitude toward visible kingship?

The kingdom of heaven had been advancing, or trying to advance, violently up to that point; violent men had been taking the lead. I intuit that Jesus intentionally died in a prophetic manner to quash this dynamic. He succeeded for a generation, and in that time the “new Israel” that he had recruited around himself was able to spread (especially among Gentiles, as it happened) and mature enough that it could survive the calamity of the war when it finally came.

This is again highly speculative, but it might be that “delaying the war against Rome” plays a role in why Jesus, after his resurrection, does not reveal himself to Israel at large and does not remain bodily present among the apostles.

If in the days after Easter Jesus had revealed himself to Israel at large, what would have happened? Counterfactuals are impossible to “game out”, but does it not seem likely that the advocates of violent ejection of the Romans would have acted, believing that Jesus was YHWH’s king, sent to lead them in battle?

I have been nursing a theory that the necessity of Jesus’ ‘ascension’ prior to the outpouring of the Spirit was rooted in the unhealthy dynamic that existed among the apostles, who seemed to be competing among themselves for the best places in what they thought would be a visible kingdom. They didn’t “love one another” while Jesus remained among them, and so “the Spirit would not come” while Jesus remained visibly present.

Maybe there’s something to that; if so, the problem might have been even worse in terms of what Israel at large was looking for in Jesus, and what it may have sought had he disclosed himself to Israel, alive after Roman execution.

This is again highly speculative etc. …

This is also highly speculative: what if the Jews (who, as everyone knows are a “stiff-necked people”) need at least two thousand years to reconcile themselves with the idea of their Messiah ruling from heaven?

It seems to me that in every age and culture, the people at the top, the great men of the age, tend to be talented sociopaths. They call the shots; everyone else lives with the consequences.

Jesus intended that it not be like that among his followers; I’m not confident that this intention was realized the way things actually worked out.

It seems to me that in every age and culture, the people at the top, the great men of the age, tend to be talented sociopaths. They call the shots; everyone else lives with the consequences.

Of course, for those who do not believe in the Jesus of the Gospels, what you say about “talented sociopaths” etc. could apply with a vengeance to Jesus himself: what can be said (other than by faith) about a prophetic leader who, at the height of his “social success” in Galilee, goes on holiday with his 12 close followers to Caesarea Paneas (bka Caesarea Philippi - with its spring, grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan)? And while there he wants to know who his disciples think he is, but as soon as Simon Kepha proclaims him the Messiah of the Jews, he says that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21).

Jesus intended that it not be like that among his followers; I’m not confident that this intention was realized the way things actually worked out.

Today, Christianity looks very much like an empty chrysalis, replaced by (or otherwise inhabited by) “secular christianity”. Unlike those who (by faith) still believe that God calls the shots, they may all be in for a big surprise, in due course.

Limited data sets invariably admit of multiple possible interpretations, and the range of possibilities can, I suppose, span polar opposites.

re: ” goes on holiday with his 12 close followers to Caesarea Paneas (bka Caesarea Philippi - with its spring, grotto, and related shrines dedicated to the Greek god Pan)? And while there he wants to know who his disciples think he is, but as soon as Simon Kepha proclaims him the Messiah of the Jews, he says that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”

It does not require much “faith” to see this as a teaching moment: ‘gentleman, behold what we are up against … this is how I propose to defeat it.’

re: “Today, Christianity looks very much like an empty chrysalis, replaced by (or otherwise inhabited by) “secular christianity”.”

I assure you that there are many who take a more sympathetic reading of the gospels than you do who substantially agree about the churches.

It does not require much “faith” to see this [what happened at - an[d] after - Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13-28)] as a teaching moment: ‘gentleman, behold what we are up against … this is how I propose to defeat it.’

I totally disagree.

There are, in Jesus’ public mission, a before and a clearly different after Caesarea. At Caesarea, it was NOT a “teaching moment” (as though, before Caesarea, the disciples were not ready), BUT a “realization moment”, for Jesus himself, that the way of the “successful Messiah”, cherished by the masses of the poor and simple, was NOT the way that the Father had laid down for him.

And, in view of the historic results (ignominious death of Jesus, destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, scattering of the Jews outside their homeland, victory of Christianity over paganism) one cannot avoid to ask: would you say that Jesus’ main concern was to “defeat” the ruling class of contemporary Israel? And, bad luck for Israel as a whole?

I assure you that there are many who take a more sympathetic reading of the gospels than you do who substantially agree about the churches.

I wonder what you mean by claiming that mine would not be a (very) “sympathetic reading of the gospels”: I take the narration of the Gospels (both Synoptics and John) very seriously and favourably. This is, AFAIAC, what matters.

I wonder what you mean by claiming that I would “substantially agree about the churches”. Agree with whom? Agree about what?

It’s a fair counterproposal. My thinking is strongly influenced by NT Wright’s attempts to discern Jesus’ intentions. Wright thinks that the “wilderness temptation” account reflects some kind of inner struggle that Jesus experienced at the outset of his public ministry in terms of by what means he would seek to accomplish what he believed himself to be called to do; my reading of Wright at this point (perhaps I am mistaken) is that Jesus embarked on a path of suffering from the outset.

Please pardon my misinterpretation of your “for instance” reading of “Jesus as sociopath”.

I was saying that I know quite a few people who agree with you that present-day christianity is like an empty husk inhabited by something else. Doubtless their views diverge from yours at other points.

@ Samuel Conner

My point is precisely that Jesus DID NOT embark on a path of suffering from the outset. Jesus answer to the “wilderness temptation” (making bread out of stones; throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple, so as to be saved by angels; worsipping Satan in order to receive the dominion of all the kingdoms of the earth) was NOT AT ALL that he “embarked on a path of suffering from the outset” ()consider Mt 11:17-19, BUT that he only resorted to Truth and Love, so as to advance the Kingdom of God.

Regarding “Jesus as sociopath”, I showed that, unless we believe (by faith) that he was truly sent by God, the Father Almighty, who proved this by raising him from the dead (Acts 3:15), there is no question that Jesus would only be one of a list of a deluded Jewish messiah claimants.

I have been specific about the “something else” that “inhabits” Christianity, reduced to be “like an empty husk” (or shall we say a mask): it is “secular christianity”, which is just a (disguised) mockery of Christianity.

re: “And, in view of the historic results (ignominious death of Jesus, destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, scattering of the Jews outside their homeland, victory of Christianity over paganism) one cannot avoid to ask: would you say that Jesus’ main concern was to “defeat” the ruling class of contemporary Israel? And, bad luck for Israel as a whole?”

The “it” in “defeat it” that I had in mind was “the pagan world system”, not “the ruling class of Israel”.

There doesn’t seem to have been a “solution space” that would have saved “all Israel”; my sense is that Jesus intended to the delay the war long enough that something could be saved from the impending calamity. I think he succeeded in this.

@ Samuel Conner

When would have Jesus confronted (in Caesarea or elsewhere) “the pagan world system”?

What exactly did Jesus “succeed” in saving, of Israel, “from the impending calamity”?

Re: “When would have Jesus confronted (in Caesarea or elsewhere) “the pagan world system”? “

On the hypothesis I mentioned; Jesus is foreseeing what is to come. The movement he is founding will ultimately defeat the pagan world system. And his death is part of how that will happen; the “new Israel” he is founding needs space to grow and spread and that calls for peace. His death will quash militant messianism in Israel enough to keep the peace with Rome for another generation.

Re: “What exactly did Jesus “succeed” in saving, of Israel, “from the impending calamity”? “

Well, every living Jew who did not die at the hands of the Romans between AD 30 and AD 66 because the war was delayed that long was definitely “saved” during that period from the kind of “perishing,” by Roman sword or in falling buildings, that Jesus warned his hearers of in Lk 13. None of them were killed in a siege of Jerusalem and their bodies thrown into the Valley of Hinnom during that period.

Perhaps more to the point, the Jewish church in Jerusalem was also saved from the same kinds of death when they remembered Jesus’ sayings and fled the city in AD70 at the approach of the legions.

I’m interpreting “saved” here in concrete historical terms, which I think is valid; that’s more or less what it means (rescue “under the sun” from enemies) in the OT, which is an important part of the context of the NT documents. That, of course, is “off the reservation” of mainstream evangelicalism, which wants to see “saved” in terms of endless post-mortem punishments. There certainly is a strand of that in the early Church, perhaps related to the regard in which 1 Enoch was held by some at the time. But I think that it’s a misunderstanding of Jesus’ warnings.

His death will quash militant messianism in Israel enough to keep the peace with Rome for another generation.

1. So you are confirming that what Jesus would have cared for was NOT the “salvation of Israel”, BUT to provide enough time for the establisment of Jewish Christianity.

BTW, talking about “militant messianism”, what about Theudas (Acts 5:36), Judah the Galilean (Acts 5:37) and the unnamed Egyptian Jew (Acts 21:38)?

None of them [the Jews who did not die at the hands of the Romans between AD 30 and AD 66] were killed in a siege of Jerusalem and their bodies thrown into the Valley of Hinnom during that period.

2. So you are confirmind that, according to you, the only “salvation” that Jesus provided for that generation was some respite from the Roman crackdown.

Perhaps more to the point, the Jewish church in Jerusalem was also saved from the same kinds of death when they remembered Jesus’ sayings and fled the city in AD70 at the approach of the legions.

3. See 1. above.

That, of course, is “off the reservation” of mainstream evangelicalism, which wants to see “saved” in terms of endless post-mortem punishments.

Obviously you intended to refer (as “mainstream evangelicalism” does) “endless post-mortem punishments” to the “reprobate”, and “life everlasting” to the “saved”.

I see, in what you say, nothing about Resurrection and Judgment, which, I firmly believe, are in Jesus words (according to ALL 4 canonical Gospels), to Paul and to the Book of revelation.

To reduce “salvation” to mere “concrete historical terms” is the peculiar disease of Christianity since Hegel & Co.

My view is that the Scriptures tell us much less about post-mortem realities than is commonly believed. In Romans, for example, ‘wrath’ is entirely “under the sun”, much as it is in the OT. I strongly suspect that the “aionial destruction” of which Paul speaks in the Thessalonian correspondence also refers to the coming war. The famous Matthew 25 “sheep and goats” judgment scene does not make a lot of sense to me as a “end of the cosmos, general resurrection” judgment. The standard of conduct is whether the people had treated Jesus’ followers well. That’s a really strange standard for a general judgment of all who have ever lived. It makes a lot of sense as judgment of Israel in the context of the persecution endured by the Jewish church in the years prior to the AD66-70 war.

There certainly are post-mortem realities; Jesus was raised imperishable, and Paul sees that as the future of those who are ‘in Christ.’

I agree with Andrew that Jesus’ warnings to Israel, interpreted in their historical context, are not about post-mortem punishments but about the suffering that Israel will experience in the coming war. Jesus is speaking in the customary mode of Israel’s prophets, warning of “under the sun” consequences of national sin. This isn’t Hegelianism, it’s sound interpretation of the text in its own terms.

As to Revelation, I am reluctant to hold strong opinions about the meaning of the visions, including the vision of the fiery lake.

But while I concede to others the right to read these literally, and form opinions based on such readings, I find it puzzling and inconsistent that they also insist that the non-visionary prefatory and concluding parts of that book, which state that the visions concern “what must soon take place” and that “the time is near”, can be compatible with the view that the events described in the visions must lie in a very distant and indefinite future. It makes much more sense to me to see this book, which is written to identifiable historical churches of the first century, as speaking to the situation that they faced in their own time.

Regarding the fate of those who are not ‘in Christ,’ my sense of the biblical data is that it is not optimistic. But as a matter of theological coherence, I find arguments like those of David B Hart in “God, Creation and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo” to be difficult to resist.

Hi Samuel,

after 14 consecutive comments exchanged between the two of us on this post, I suppose that we are hijacking it. If you are interested, as I am, I suggest that we continue our exchange privately :)

@ Andrew

All the expressions in “quotation marks” in the following are quoted verbatimg from your post. Can you please answer these questions?

1. Are the “two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus” (the “vertical-theological” and the “horizontal-historical”), IYO, (a) compatibe or (b) mutually esclusive ?

1a. If they are compatible, how does that differ trom traditional Christian understanding.

1b. If they are incompatible, surely the “beloved Son sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel” is a metaphor, right? Jesus is not really, in any sense (other than figurative) the Son of YHWH, right?

2. What does “Israel’s future” entail, according to the “second story”, other than (and beyond) destruction and defeat?

3. If the figure of the “green” and the “dry” wood used by Jesus (Luke 23:31) “foreshadows the fire of God’s judgment that will destroy Jerusalem within a generation”, does that mean that Jesus was judged by God, and only instrumentally by the Jews and the Romans?

4. If “Jesus explicitly locates his own death not in a general theology of atonement, but in the brutal tragedy of his people”, who is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death? The Jews? The Romans? Both? Neither? God?

5. I have examined your post Mapping the hermeneutics of penal substitution: McGrath, Bird and me. Where and how would you have accounted for Jesus having “given us solid grounds for speaking of his death in “penal” terms”?

6. Did Jesus have only “the appearance of these misguided Jewish revolutionaries”, or was there something more? Was he truly guilty of provoking Jews and Romans alike? Did he incur God’s wrath, as “God condemned the particular form of Jewish sinfulness in the flesh”?

1. I see the vertical story as an extremely compressed and abstracted summary of the horizontal story for a church which had lost touch with the Jewish-apocalyptic narrative and aspired to a universalising theological perspective. You could call that a contrived compatibility. John takes us someway in the direction of a merging of these two perspectives, but probably not as far as we might think. But the point is that traditional theology forgot about the historical narrative until fairly recently. Yes, “Son of YHWH” is a metaphor.

2. I would say it entailed the restoration of the people, under the terms of a new covenant, around a heavenly Zion from where Jesus would reign as king, at the right hand of YHWH, throughout the coming ages.

3. I wouldn’t say that Jesus was “judged by God”. He suffered the real consequences of the judgment of Israel. His death was collateral damage. He provoked as a prophet, not as an insurrectionary.

4. The New Testament blames the leaders of the Jews, in collusion with Rome, but with the foreknowledge of God (cf. Acts 2:23). Samuel Conner has suggested that Jesus intentionally sought death as a prophetic warning to his people. I’m not sure it makes much difference which story we are telling here.

5. In Luke 23:28-31.

6. I think the answer is the same as for #3. His provocation was prophetic, even if it included the prospect of his own attainment to kingly rule. I don’t think he personally merited the wrath of God.

@ Andrew,

Here are some problems I see with your “contrived compatibility”.

1. You are right that “traditional theology forgot about the historical narrative”. What you don’t seem to consider is that, for the laymen (the hoi polloi) in the Church, the Gospels (yes, including GoJ) are a constant reminder of the historical narration from which the Church abusively extracted its theological metaphysics, including, first and foremost, the “trinity” and the “survival of the soul”, with all the paraphernalia of “Paradise” and Inferno-Hell and even, eventually, Purgatory.

You seem to be capable, though, of taking literally the account of Jesus who, having defeated death as a real person, was literally raised and is now ruling from heaven, “sitting at the right hand of power”.

If you really take all the above seriously and literally, why wouldn’t your “contrived compatibility” include also taking literally John 1:14, in a non-metaphoric sense, together with Luke 1:35 and Matt 1:18? Or are you suggesting that the Church herself never believed them literally? (And, anyway, sober and serious scholars never would?)

2. So upon whom now “Jesus would reign as king, at the right hand of YHWH, throughout the coming ages”? The Jews? The universal Church? Both? Neither? Who?

3. Jesus was judged by Pilate (at the request of the Jews) in 30-33 AD. The “judgment of Israel” only happened 70-135 AD. So it is simply anachronistic to say that Jesus “suffered the real consequences of the judgment of Israel”. At most this would be true proleptically and prophetically. But the real point is this: Jesus chose to carry his challenge to the ruling class of the Jews (and only indirectly to the Romans) to the extreme consequence. How would/did his death benefit the Jews, though? Or is the opposite true, vis. he started the process that ultimately led to the “punishment” of the Jews? This leaves unanswered the question: how would/did this behaviour benefit the Jews as a nation?

4. This thingy of the “foreknowledge of God”, examined critically (rather than affirmed dogmatically) would take us a long way.

I will sum it up by saying that the passion and death of Jesus was not necessary but, in a sinful world, inevitable.

5. You agree with Wright that “Jesus attaches no atonement theology to [his] interpretation of his death”, yet you insist that Jesus has “given us solid grounds for speaking of his death in ‘penal’ terms”, and cite Luke 23:28-31 in support of this alleged “penal” understanding of the impending future of Israel. While Luke 23:28-31 spells prophetic doom, it is not at all obvious that it announces “penal retribution” for Israel.

6. You “don’t think he [Jesus] personally merited the wrath of God”. At the same time you say that “God condemned the particular form of Jewish sinfulness [rebelliousness] in the flesh”. Surely you are aware that for the Romans, to proclaim oneself king - however nominal and “spiritual” - amounted to the capital crime of lese majesty. Samuel Conner’s comment only confirms that, had Jesus Messiahship - however “meek” - been accepted, it would have simply precipitated the Roman crackdown. So, at best, by being condemned and executed instead of Barabbas, jesus only gained for the Jews a 30-35 years respite.

re: “… that the passion and death of Jesus was not necessary but, in a sinful world, inevitable.”

Inevitable, yes, but depending on one’s views of Jesus’ intentions, I think it could be affirmed that, in Jesus’ mind, they were also “necessary” (given the historical circumstances). This seems to be his view cited at Lk 24:26, post-resurrection, of the matter; “the messiah had to suffer”

A “necessity” that is brought about by “historical circumstances” looks to me very much like “inevitability”.

The phrase translated in English with “was it not necessary” (Lk 24:26) is, in Greek, ouchi edei, where edei is the 3rd person singular active present, used impersonally, from the verb deō and it can have various nuances of meening, from: it is (was) necessary (as binding), to behove, be meet, must (needs), (be) need(-ful), ought, should.

What I deny is that that edei, in context, means philosophical necessity and/or God’s unchangeable decree.

If you are interested, you may want to look at my article The Cross: necessary or inevitable?

andrew,

loved this post. As I read it I was thinking about your methods. I’m reading through Licona’s book on the resurrection and his discussion on postmodernism and realism is interesting. I was thinking about historians who are realists and I thought of you. Would you consider yourself a ‘radical’ (for lack of a better word) historical realist? Bringing the flesh back to the NT narrative, given what we know about the ancient world, 2nd Temple texts, and other historical considerations?

thanks!