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

Who will recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven?

The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s story got the leftovers from the table at which the “children” of the household of Israel were being fed. She had no right to sit at the table, nor was any such right promised to her or her daughter; and it is clear that Jesus found her a distraction.

The earlier encounter with the centurion whose servant was sick is similar in many respects (Matt. 8:5-13). Like her he knows that as a Gentile he is unworthy to receive this Jewish miracle-worker into his house and has to argue his corner. The woman claims the right to pick up the crumbs from under the table; the centurion makes a persuasive case for healing at a distance. Both make a deep impression on Jesus and get what they came for.

Having expressed his admiration for the centurion’s faith, however, Jesus says to those who followed him, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11–12).

As Luke tells the story, the centurion is held in high esteem by the people of Capernaum because “he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Lk. 7:5). So the elders of the town implore Jesus to come and heal the man’s servant. The centurion makes his little speech about being a man in authority, and Jesus marvels and declares, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Lk. 7:9).

In Matthew’s version, the centurion approaches Jesus directly, man to man. In response to his speech Jesus makes the same comment about not finding such faith in Israel, but then drives the message home with the saying about the eschatological banquet:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. (Matt. 8:11–12)

The question is: does Jesus mean that the centurion and others like him—Gentiles with great faith—will become members of the covenant people in the kingdom of heaven? Because this is indeed what happened to a centurion in Caesarea, who believed the story that Peter told him about Jesus and Israel, we might imagine that this is exactly what Jesus is predicting here. But I think the answer to the question is more likely no.

1. The centurion is a righteous Gentile, perhaps a God-fearer. Jesus is living in Capernaum at this time (cf. Matt. 4:12) and perhaps already knows the man and his reputation. It appears that Jesus was about to go straight to the man’s house to heal the servant (“No problem, I will come and heal him”). Perhaps the servant was a Jew. But the centurion interrupts him. In the end, the servant is not healed because of the demonstration of great faith—he was going to be healed anyway. Rather, he is healed at a distance because of the centurion’s great faith: “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed”—and the servant was healed at that moment (Matt. 8:13).

Heads of state will go to Rome to celebrate the inauguration of a new pope, but that doesn’t make them all Catholics.

So the core message of the story is that the Jews have not grasped the nature of Jesus’ authority: “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matt. 8:9). The healing is a demonstration of the fact that a higher authority (ie., God) is getting something done in Israel through the agency of Jesus (cf. Lk. 11:20).

2. In the judgment of the nations at the parousia Jesus says that Gentiles who have attended to the needs of the disciples when they are in distress will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from before the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). This is not, as I see it, an end-of-the-world judgment. It comes at the end of the age of second temple Judaism, with the completion of the disciples’ mission to proclaim to Israel and to the nations the approaching judgment and renewal of Israel (cf. Matt. 24:3, 14; 28:19-20). When YHWH establishes his rule in the age to come, Gentiles who have acted righteously towards his servants, even unwittingly (Matt. 25:37), will be rewarded with a share in the kingdom.

3. In the Old Testament, reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob typically evokes the hope for possession of, and prosperity in, the land. For example, God says to Israel: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:8; cf. 33:1; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 1:8; 30:20).

4. The formula occurs only once in the prophets, when God speaks to Jeremiah regarding his covenant with the patriarchs and David:

Thus says the LORD: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jer. 33:25–26)

This readily suggests that the restoration of Israel and of Davidic rule following judgment (cf. Jer. 33:24) is to be celebrated as the consequence of YHWH’s faithfulness to the patriarchs. This is getting us closer to Jesus’ saying.

5. Even after the catastrophe of AD 70 we hear the promise reiterated: “And I will return them to the land, which I swore to their fathers, to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob, and they will rule over it, and I will multiply them, and they will not diminish” (2 Bar. 2:34).

6. The image of an eschatological banquet is usually traced back to Isaiah. Jerusalem has been ruined, but a day will come when the Lord will “punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth”, and then the Lord will reign “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Is. 24:12, 21, 23). Then comes the feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Is. 25:6–8)

When YHWH restores Jerusalem, and his enemies have been defeated, the nations will be invited to a celebratory banquet. The curse of the covenant (cf. Is. 24:6) will be brought to an end, and the disgrace that Jerusalem has suffered in the eyes of the nations will be removed. There is no reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob here, but it seems reasonable to line this up with the previous two points about the significance of the promise to the patriarchs.

The feast will be “for all peoples”, but this should not be taken to mean that Isaiah envisaged the incorporation of non-Jews into the renewed covenant people. Heads of state will go to Rome to celebrate the inauguration of a new pope, but that doesn’t make them all Catholics.

The ideal relationship between Israel and the nations is expressed in Isaiah 26:9: “when your judgments are in the land, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Is. 26:9). Restored Israel is a model society, from which the nations as nations will learn the ways of righteousness. Other Old Testament passages confirm this (cf. Is. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1-4; Zech. 2:11-12; 8:20-23).

7. The reconciliation of the “poor” and repentant—the lost sheep of the house of Israel—with Abraham is a strong theme in Luke. The beggar Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham when he dies (Lk. 16:22); Jesus says of the tax collector Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9); and I think it likely that the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32), with whom the wayward son is reunited, celebrated with an extravagant feast, is better identified with Abraham than with God. This motif is solely focused on Israel.

8. When Jesus is travelling towards Jerusalem, someone asks him whether those who are saved will be few (Lk. 13:22-23). This is a question about the survival of Jews in Galilee and Judah when Jerusalem is destroyed by Rome. Jesus urges them to enter by the narrow gate because many Jews will be excluded from the presence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God. Indeed, “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 13:29). Gentiles are not in view in this passage.


So where does all this leave us? If sitting at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob conforms to Isaiah’s feast for all peoples, it may well be that Jesus envisaged the presence of righteous Gentiles, Gentiles who understood what YHWH was doing, at the glorious celebration of the restoration of Israel. But in Jewish prophetic expectation it is always diaspora Jews who come from east and west and north and south (Ps. 107:2-3; Is. 43:5-6; 49:12; Jer. 3:18; Zech. 8:7), so the main polemical point appears to be that the current régime (the “sons of the kingdom”) will be replaced by displaced and marginalised Jews. This is what the parable of the wedding feast is all about.

So on the day of the unorthodox restoration of Israel, following the catastrophe of the war against Rome, many Gentiles will be in attendance, paying homage to the God of Israel, but the dividing wall of the Law will not have been removed.

Comments

I’d agree with this. I find the Paul within Judaism perspective refreshing because Paul’s argument is a very Jewish argument that aligns with Jesus’ message and doesn’t blur Jew/Gentile distinctions.

This is somewhat “off the top of head”; please pardon if it is somewhat muddled. And maybe it’s a silly thought; I have many of those for each sensible one.

Is Paul’s concern that Gentile and Jewish Jesus-followers not continue to abide by the restrictive “table-fellowship” rules of 2nd Temple Judaism related in some way to this idea of the presence of righteous Gentiles at the eschatological feast?

I don’t think so. The traditional Jewish structure is not overruled completely, but once Gentile believers in the risen Lord start manifesting the same gifts of the Spirit as Jewish believers, they have become in principle members of the same community. So Paul gets upset with Peter and others who then attempt to reintroduce the dividing wall of the Law into this new arrangement (Gal. 2:11-14).

So Jewish and Gentile Christians eating together, as one body in the Spirit, anticipates the eventual victory of the Jewish-Gentile movement over the pagan empire.

But my view is that Paul expresses his belief in Romans 2 that when God judges the Greek-Roman world, the oikoumenē, some Gentiles will be found righteous, will be justified, and will put many Jews to shame.

Thanks; that’s helpful. The idea that Paul sees a measure of continuing validity in righteous observance of the way being “Old Israel” is a bit disorienting to me (influenced as I am by the Protestant/Reformed tradition). But it makes sense of a bits of narrative detail here and there that have never seemed to sit well with that.

I noticed in 1 Clement that he seems to regard the still-standing Jerusalem Temple and its serving priesthood to be still valid expressions of worship of YHWH. In addition to suggesting a pre-War date of composition, that might be an internal evidence of his familiarity with how Paul thought.

As the eschatological hopes of the prophets were not fulfilled in the way they had envisaged, and Gentiles more than Jews came to Matthew’s eschatological feast, it makes sense to ask whether Jesus really did conform to an ethnocentric view of Israel’s destiny. In Matthew’s gospel especially, there is evidence that he didn’t, not least in the accounts of the centurion and the Canaanite woman! It was actually during the development of your posts on the subject that I became aware of the extent of gentile inclusion in Matthew’s gospel, going far beyond these two incidents. Church history as it actually happened is a powerful advocate for taking far more seriously a gentile inclusive interpretation of Matthew.

… the eschatological hopes of the prophets were not fulfilled in the way they had envisaged …

Peter,

that being true, as far as we can see, you can choose different options. Off the top of my head:

  • The prophets where not inspired. And that’s that.
  • What matters is the “Narrative-Historical Perspective”. And that’s that.
  • The prophets (unwittingly) clothed their (universal) inspiration in national garb.
  • The fulfilment of the Israel-centered promise is only posponed.

What matters is the “Narrative-Historical Perspective”. And that’s that.

Spot on! But my argument would be that the prophetic vision was fulfilled in the conversion of the Roman Empire, when the nations of the oikoumenē turned—in real political terms—to serve the God of Israel and obey his Son.

The major difference between the prophetic expectation and the historical fulfilment was that the seat of empire was not the Jerusalem on earth but the Jerusalem above. Israel’s king was qualified not by military success but by obedience unto death, and was raised from the dead to judge and rule at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

@ Andrew

Let me now append some qualifications on the 4 options that I proposed “off the top of my head” in my previous comment, expanding on Peter’s comment that “the eschatological hopes of the prophets were not fulfilled in the way they had envisaged”.

Here we go:

  • “The prophets where not inspired.” => That obviously settles it, by denying any value to alleged “prophecy”.
  • What matters is the ‘Narrative-Historical Perspective’. => Your “Spot on!”, in response to my “… And that’s that.” seems to have missed my irony: you seem to consider your Method an infallible tool!
  • “The prophets (unwittingly) clothed their (universal) inspiration in national garb.” => This is more or less what the Catholic Church (not tied to literal interpretation like Protestants mostly are) would say, and of course the Jews would reject it in horror. For my part I consider this not incompatible with … see next!
  • The fulfilment of the Israel-centered promise is only posponed. => I am not a Christian Zionist (or Restorationist). That doesn’t make me a Supersessionist, though. So yes, I believe that biblical prophecy can have multiple fulfilments. The destruction of Jerusalem, with the immediate victory of Rome of the Jews, can lead to the victory of the Biblical God throughout the Roman Empire (well, with some unwanted … “temporary tri-morphing”). Ultimately, the One True God will reign, on Jews and Gentiles alike (Paul’s short-lived dream) from a “Heavenly Jerusalem”. How about that? [:wink]

The prophets (unwittingly) clothed their (universal) inspiration in national garb

Your summary of alternatives is thoughtful.

I believe the prophets were inspired, but not in a simply literal sense.

The narrative historical perspective doesn’t work, as the world could clearly see that Israel had been destroyed, certainly by 135 AD, and any kind of future based on her key symbols and boundary markers was finished. What the nations could see was the end of Israel’s hopes, not their fulfilment. The NT provides no expectation of any future for Israel the nation, which is what the OT was all about.

I therefore think the ”Israel only” option, as you put it, was not postponed, but came to an end, along with all the symbols and boundary markers.

I don’t think the prophets were self-consciously “clothing” universal inspiration in national garb. But I do think that what they saw as a fulfilment of Israel’s destiny in national and ethnic terms was fulfilled by Jesus in himself as a person, and in his followers in multi-ethnic terms, in ways that brought the story to a climax, whilst frequently turning the terms of the story on their head.

The significance of this was a people who coexisted with the existing power structures, but who owed allegiance to a higher power structure which frequently brought them into conflict with the powers that be. This has continued to the present day, even where the power structures take on the expression of the faith itself, but fail to reflect and even conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus.

In other words, the ”’conversion” of the Roman Empire as a change of political power structure was not in itself the fulfilment of prophecy, either OT or NT.

We live in times, like then, when discernment and wisdom are needed over anything which is said to be or sets itself up as the expression of God’s purposes in the political, national or international sphere. A glass of petroleum (gasoline) may look like wine, but it doesn’t smell like wine, and definitely doesn’t taste like wine.

I believe the prophets were inspired, but not in a simply literal sense.

[a] The narrative historical perspective doesn’t work, as the world could clearly see that Israel had been destroyed, certainly by 135 AD, and any kind of future based on her key symbols and boundary markers was finished. What the nations could see was the end of Israel’s hopes, not their fulfilment. [b] The NT provides no expectation of any future for Israel the nation, which is what the OT was all about.

[a] I fully agree.

[b] I agree here too, but, not so fast. I read as part of God’s plan that, in spite of the catasrophe of the Temple, of Jerusalem and of national Israel by 135 CE, Israel as “nation under YHWH” has survived up to today.

However unlikely this may seem, this means that Israel has still the opportunity to recognize Yeoshua/Jesus as their Messiah.

I therefore think the ”Israel only” option, as you put it, was not postponed, but came to an end, along with all the symbols and boundary markers.

First I didn’t call it ”Israel only” option, but ” Israel-centered promise “. Second, Israel, however scattered among other nations, has survived for two thousand years since their disaster. A historical phenomenon that defies all the “laws” of history.

I don’t think the prophets were self-consciously “clothing” universal inspiration in national garb. But I do think that what they saw as a fulfilment of Israel’s destiny in national and ethnic terms was fulfilled by Jesus in himself as a person, and in his followers in multi-ethnic terms, in ways that brought the story to a climax, whilst frequently turning the terms of the story on their head.

This is certainly the theological understanding of the Christian Church(es), but, here, I agree with Andrew that this non-national “mode” of fulfilment of the Biblical prophecy is not entirely satisfactory.

The significance of this was a people who coexisted with the existing power structures, but who owed allegiance to a higher power structure which frequently brought them into conflict with the powers that be. This has continued to the present day, even where the power structures take on the expression of the faith itself, but fail to reflect and even conflict with the life and teaching of Jesus.

What you describe above, in its fully established form, is Christendom, even when Christendom started to collapse under its too many conflicts with absolute states, nationalisms and ideologies. What happened historically is that, even in its heyday, in the Middle Ages, Christendom was only a poor imitation of the Kingdom of God.

In other words, the ”’conversion” of the Roman Empire as a change of political power structure was not in itself the fulfilment of prophecy, either OT or NT.

It escapes me how this follows from (or combines with) what you said previously.

We live in times, like then, when discernment and wisdom are needed over anything which is said to be or sets itself up as the expression of God’s purposes in the political, national or international sphere.

We live in times when we are convinced that God does not exist, certainly not as a personal entity leading the historical process, anyway.

You say that Israel’s survival, “a nation under YHWH”, is a “A historical phenomenon that defies all the “laws” of history”. I don’t think Israel’s survival for nearly 2000 years without a geographical territory of its own was foreseen by Paul, who alone in the NT comes nearest to believing in an on-going destiny for Israel. Israel also did not survive as what we would understand to be a political nation, which is the main issue as far as biblical history is concerned.

It’s debatable whether Paul actually did say that Israel, or the Jews, would have an on-going purpose in God’s plans (from any post 1st century eschatological NT perspective, that is). The translations confidently insert verbs where there are none in Romans 11, and the final “all Israel will be saved” has various shades of meaning, and sits uncomfortably in the A.P narrative historical scheme, where salvation is a 1st century phenomenon. But this is getting into detail of textual interpretation. I am personally doubtful that many of the eschatological assertions concerning Israel (or the Jews) are so clearly stated anywhere in the NT. This doesn’t contradict the observation that their continued survival as a distinct people is remarkable, or even miraculous.

We’ll agree to differ over the figurative reinterpretation of Israel’s glorious OT prophetic destiny as fulfilled in Christ (and therefore in those who were “in Christ”). But I would point out to you and Andrew that early rabbinic interpretation of the Isaiah 53 servant in particular was that he was a person, not the nation, and messianic (Targum, Talmud, Midrashim, Zohar, Maimonides et al).

I intended to convey that the political character of “Christendom” as a power structure adopted from the outset many of the characteristics of the Roman empire it replaced (violence, oppression of dissent etc). It was yet another power structure with which believers had to co-exist, either in its publically sanctioned expressions (the norm), or as oppressed dissenters (far more widespread than is generally known).

If the teaching of Jesus has any relevance beyond the 1st century, then his warnings about false prophets are apt: good trees produce good fruit, bad trees not; by their fruit etc. Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven.

By “fruit”, we might take practising the teaching of the sermon on the mount, following the example of Jesus’s own lifestyle and displaying his character as the measure by which to judge anything which bears the name of the kingdom of God.

I think there is (or was) widespread belief in the USA and (and in this country) that Donald Trump was God’s representative, because he seemed to support causes dear to the hearts of a wide section of the church. Something similar might be said of Putin (having widespread support of the church in Russia), and was once true of HItler (having widespread support of the German Lutheran church). It might look like wine, but if it doesn’t smell like wine, and doesn’t taste like wine, then it isn’t wine.

I would point out to you and Andrew that early rabbinic interpretation of the Isaiah 53 servant in particular was that he was a person, not the nation, and messianic

You certainly do well to keep pointing it out to Andrew. I know because I agree with you that (a) Isaiah “suffering servant” is an individual, NOT Israel itself and (b) throughout the NT Jesus is certainly identified with that figure.

As I do not feel bound by most Christian dogmas (in particular the “trinity” and the “conscious survival of the disembodied soul”) I believe that, once all that dogmatic rubble is moved out of the way, the Jews will gradually feel there are no impediments left to recognizing Yehoshua/Jesus as their Messiah.

This gives an idea of how modern interpreters have thought about the identity of the servant:

it is apparent that four “servant” identities appear on these pages. Israel, scattered throughout the Diaspora, is the first. The Persian emperors who produced edicts supporting the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple—Cyrus, Darius, and possibly Artaxerxes—are a second. The implied author is a third, while loyal worshipers in Judah and Jerusalem are a fourth. Some have even considered the city of Jerusalem to be a candidate for the identification as “servant.” (John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 656)

But the centurion and the Canaanite woman were not included and were not offered inclusion. Merely their dependents were healed. Jesus says nothing about the abrogation of the Law for Gentiles, or of the incorporation of Gentiles into the covenant, or of the giving of the Spirit to Gentiles, or of the problems that his Jewish followers will have sitting at table with Gentiles. None of the eschatological parables in Matthew 24:45-25:30 expects the inclusion of Gentiles.

The Old Testament model envisages Gentiles attending the restoration of Israel following judgment; it envisages the nations being ruled from Zion (cf. Matt. 12:15-21). This is the most that we can say about Jesus’ eschatology, and it does not require the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people. Otherwise, his “view of Israel’s destiny” is the one put to Caiaphas and the Jewish Council—that this wicked and adulterous generation of Israel’s leadership will live to “see” divine authority transferred to the Son of Man.

If all we had was the Synoptic Gospels, we would not conclude that Jesus expected Gentiles to become part of the covenant people.

But all we have is not simply the gospels, and the subsequent story as told in Acts and letters does show that Gentiles were included in the (new) covenant. It would be very odd to say that the Gentile ministry of Jesus had nothing to do with this; rather it encourages a very different view of the centurion story from your own, the many coming to take their places at the feast with the patriarchs being Gentiles, not Jews.

The story of the Canaanite woman introduces Jesus’s ministry in Gentile areas in Matthew, which would be odd if the story was intended to show Jesus rowing back on Gentiles ( as you have suggested in an earlier post). Is this Gentile ministry irrelevant to the subsequent covenant inclusion of Gentiles? What an odd idea.

[Jesus’] “view of Israel’s destiny” is the one put to Caiaphas and the Jewish Council—that this wicked and adulterous generation of Israel’s leadership will live to “see” divine authority transferred to the Son of Man.

“Put to Caiaphas and the Jewish Council”? Mmm …

These are the two verses in Matthew that speak of “wicked and adulterous generation”:

But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matt 12:39)

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed. (Matt 16:4)

BTW, the “sign of Jonah” is the resurrection …