In The narrative premise of a post-Christendom theology, which stands as an introductory piece for the approach to reading the New Testament that I think an “evangelical” church somehow needs to take on board, I suggest that:
The New Testament presupposes, describes, and predicts a long, tumultuous transition in the history of the people of God, running from the initial summons to Israel to repent in the face of imminent judgment and national destruction (John the Baptist) to the eventual displacement of the institutions and worldview of classical paganism and the recognition of Christ as sovereign over the empire and beyond (Constantine).
My point is that this is not just historical background. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what the theology of the New Testament is all about. So, for example, Jesus’ death must be understood in the light of the impending political catastrophe; his resurrection anticipates a dramatically different state of affairs beyond that catastrophe. Al has asked, however, whether the argument is not invalidated by the way things actually turned out:
I was wondering if your thesis is somewhat undermined by the fact that Judaism wasn’t completely destroyed during the Jewish war. It seems as though this would be the natural outcome of Jesus’ warnings to his contemporaries. And yet Judaism survives to this day. What’s your take on this?
What is predicted by John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church is not that Judaism would be destroyed but that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed, bringing to an end the paradigm of God’s people as a nation in the land given to it by God, governed by Torah, centred on a royal city, its relationship with the true and living God mediated and maintained by the temple system.
This whole paradigm of corporate existence is replaced by the “Trinitarian” model: Jesus’ death as the absolute ground for forgiveness, authority given to Jesus as King, God present in the midst of his people by the Spirit, communities instructed by the Spirit rather than by Law, Jerusalem above, citizenship in heaven, and so on.
If anything, the continuation of Judaism was to be expected. On the one hand, scattering and exile were always going to be a consequence of judgment on Israel (cf. Deut. 28:64). On the other, there was no reason to think that diaspora Judaism would be wiped out as a consequence of the Jewish War. Jews across the empire might expect a backlash against them. Josephus has king Agrippa attempt to dissuade the rebels in Judea from embarking on war against Rome by warning them that it would put not only national Israel but Jews throughout the world in danger:
But certainly no one can imagine that you can enter into a war as by an agreement, or that when the Romans have got you under their power they will use you with moderation, or will not rather, for an example to other nations, burn your holy city, and utterly destroy your whole nation; for those of you who shall survive the war will not be able to find a place whither to flee, since all men have the Romans for the lords already, or are afraid they shall have hereafter. Nay, indeed the danger concerns not those Jews that dwell here only, but those of them who dwell in other cities also; for there is no people upon the habitable earth which have not some portion of you among them, whom your enemies will slay, in case you go to war, and on that account also; and so every city which hath Jews in it will be filled with slaughter for the sake only of a few men, and they who slay them will be pardoned; but if that slaughter be not made by them, consider how wicked a thing it is to take arms against those that are so kind to you. (War 2:397–399)
But nothing in Paul’s argument in Romans suggests that he thought Judaism as a synagogue-based religion would be destroyed. The issue is whether his brothers, his “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3), would be reconciled to their ancestral God, whether before or after the coming day of God’s wrath against his people (see The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 132-38).
There is another problem with my argument, however—potentially a much more serious one. What sort of “victory” does Constantine represent? On the one hand, Christendom turned out to be a badly compromised embodiment of the rule of YHWH over the nations. On the other, the nations have since thrown off the yoke of servitude to Christ in favour of a new pantheon of secular gods. Surely the New Testament has led us to expect something better than that?
What this comes down to is how we read the language of biblical prophecy. Do we take it as an idealistic or as a realistic form of discourse? Does prophecy ultimately require transcendent outcomes, or does it, for the most part at least, endeavour to make sense of the messy compromised realities of history? Should we expect history ultimately to conform itself to the elevated conceptuality of apocalyptic? Or does the apocalyptic genre demand to be read in the light of human realities? What is scripture in the end? Is it theology or history?