Now let’s go over this again: historical narratology and the horizons of the New Testament

Generative AI summary:

The narrative-historical approach to the New Testament views it as a story from specific historical viewpoints, shaping its theological content. Jesus’ mission anticipates a catastrophic war against Rome, leading to Jerusalem’s destruction. His disciples continue the mission to Judea, narrating the story to nations. Initially focused on Jewish resolution, Gentile inclusion expands the horizon. Jesus’ triumph over oppressive systems becomes central. Three eschatological horizons emerge: Jerusalem’s fall, Gentile conversion, and final renewal. The upheaval of post-Christianity challenges the church to adapt prophetically, navigating emerging futures. Prophetic storytelling becomes crucial amid Christendom’s collapse and the church’s marginalization.

Read time: 7 minutes

I am writing this in answer to some questions sent to me about the reading of the New Testament presented on this blog and in my books. The specific point at issue is my contention that we now understand the New Testament best if we map most of the stuff of New Testament eschatology—the weird future stuff—on to two foreseeable historical events. But let’s back up a bit first and briefly address the underlying hermeneutics.

A historical narratology

A narrative-historical approach or historical narratology regards the New Testament, in general terms, as a story told from certain historical perspectives. The writings either tell that story or they assume and engage with that story. The plural “perspectives” is important because Jesus’ mission to Israel and the apostolic mission to the nations have quite different ends in view.

The distinctive theological content of the New Testament, therefore—typically identified by such words as sin, gospel, faith, salvation, kingdom, judgment, eternal life—is framed by the story and those perspectives and is to be interpreted accordingly.

The various “authors” of the New Testament, including Jesus, do not attempt to present a universal religious methodology, rather they interpret what is happening at a critical moment in Israel’s history and predict certain more or less realistic outcomes. The theological language is corporate, in the first place; the fate of individuals is determined by large scale events that impact nations and cultures.

In the fullness of time

The historical crisis driving the whole story forward, the event that makes this the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), will be a catastrophic war against Rome within the life time of Jesus’ followers, which will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the end of Israel’s possession of the land. That’s the problem that needs solving. A storm is coming that will bring ruin to the house that Israel has built on sand (Matt. 7:26-27).

This is the horizon that dominates Jesus’ mission and teaching. He comes at the end of a line of prophets to seek the fruits of an authentic righteousness from the recalcitrant tenants of the vineyard of Israel. He knows it will end badly for him, but he has found in a late prophetic-apocalyptic tradition the assurance that the persecuted figure “like a son of man” will in the end be vindicated before the throne of God and will receive dominion, glory, and kingdom (Dan. 7:13-14).

Jesus also gathers a group of disciples who will continue the Spirit-inspired prophetic mission to Jerusalem and Judea after his death, but who will also tell this whole story about Jesus, Israel, and the “kingdom of God” to the nations. The nations will hear about the extraordinary sequence of events, from the preaching of John the Baptist though to the fall of Jerusalem, and they will praise God for his mercy to his people (Rom. 15:8-11).

But Jesus knows that his disciples will suffer in the same way that he suffered, so he promises them that he will be with them until the end of the age of second temple Judaism, and when, directly following the destruction of the temple, he is seen coming with the clouds of heaven, they will share in his vindication and glory. Well done, good and faithful servants!

That is the first eschatological horizon of the New Testament. Jesus is not talking about the end of the world, he has in view judgment on the current wicked and adulterous generation of Jewish elites and the transfer of the vineyard to a disregarded people, the humble righteous in Israel. It is not a trivial observation that Israel’s king rides into Jerusalem on a beast of burden as one of the ʾani—not merely in humility but as one of the poor and afflicted of the land (Zech. 9:9).

What happens next?

I think it likely that Jesus and his disciples initially expected a Jewish resolution to the crisis. One contributor to the SBL Global Virtual Meeting this week argued for an “Abrahamic hermeneutic” for reading Matthew’s Gospel, suggesting that “son of Abraham” anticipates a mission to the Gentiles, who would be included as heirs to the promise (Matt. 1:1; 28:19). But Matthew makes no attempt to dissociate Abraham from his descendants, either in the genealogy or in the formulaic references to “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Matt. 8:10; 22:31). I have argued before that even the words in response to the faith of the Roman centurion point only to the participation of sympathetic Gentiles in the celebration of the inauguration of a renewed Israel that traces its heritage back not only to Abraham but also to Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 8:10-11).

It is almost an accident of history that when Gentiles hear about Jesus and see something of the supernatural power released by calling on his name, a much more expansive future horizon is opened up. If significant numbers of Greeks are turning from their idols to serve the living and true God, then a further historical outcome presents itself to the apostles—that the wrath of God will finally come upon the idolatrous civilisation that has dominated the region for the last three hundred years (Acts 17:30-31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10).

Jesus’ vision of the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven and seated at the right hand of power (Mk. 14:62) gets reworked, I think, for this new context. The thought is less of the vindication of the one who was persecuted and killed than of the defeat of a satanically inspired political-religious system and the embrace of Jesus as Lord and King by the peoples of the ancient world (Phil. 2:6-11). But the persecuted churches could still expect to be caught up in this triumph and to share in the glory and kingdom.

So this is the second eschatological horizon in the New Testament. It is not unrelated to the first. Paul is at pains in Romans to argue that God must first hold his own people accountable before he can with integrity judge the Greek world (Rom. 3:6, 19). The two may in some way be interlaced in the vision of a “man of lawlessness” who takes his seat in the temple of God but whom “Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). I also think that judgment first against Jerusalem and then against Rome pivots around the defeat of the dragon in Revelation 12 and the emergence of a beast from the sea (Rev. 13:1).

It is still not a final horizon because Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic logic requires a period of political-religious hegemony in the midst of the nations. We also have a distinction between the religious and political aspects to reckon with: first, wrath against the corrupting religious culture of Greece, then against the oppressive political dominance of Rome (Rom. 1:18-32; Rev. 18-19). So after the fall of Babylon the great, John allows a thousand years to elapse before we get to the third eschatological horizon of a final judgment and the absolute renewal of heaven and earth.

So where does that leave us?

So just to be clear, there are three eschatological horizons in the New Testament: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the conversion of the Greek-Roman world to worship of the living and true God, and the final remaking of creation.

But this is where it gets a bit difficult from our perspective. The political-religious hegemony of the renewed people of God, in the midst of the nations embraced by the apostolic mission (we know it as European Christendom), lasted for perhaps fifteen hundred years but has now been largely overturned. A new post-Christian civilisation is being painfully and chaotically birthed; new horizons rise into view—climate catastrophe, technological transformation. The church is off the map that determined its place in the world for so long, and we are struggling to get our bearings. We are having to relearn navigational skills that the people of God has not needed for a very long time.

History presses on, refusing to be constrained by apocalyptic schemata, and we have no choice but to keep telling the story, not just as it happens, but also with a prophetic eye on emerging futures. It seems to me that in biblical terms prophetic storytelling is the necessary means by which we negotiate the existential crisis of the collapse of Christendom and dangerous marginalisation of the church.