Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God— Part Five

One of the major important contentions of Tom Wright is that Israel lived out of, or better said, lived as actors in, the grand story of God and his people, involving both their judgment and their restoration. Tom’s understanding of this fundamental narrative that he believes early Jews not merely resonated with but lived out of has not changed much from twenty years ago until now, to judge from the retelling of the story in Chapter Two, pp. 108ff. Tom still sticks by his contention not only that Jews were living in a ongoing story seeking an ending, so there was a sense of things being unfinished, but he also sticks by the more controversial suggestion that Pharisees and other Jews, even if living in the Holy Land believed they were still in exile awaiting the final promised rescue (p. 114). He things that after the Bar Kokhba revolt, Jews basically gave up the long story with an eschatological future, and exchanged it for individual stories of Torah-true, Law observant Jews.

Before then early Jews like the Pharisees were not primarily interested in developing their own individual piety but rather “They have pulled a book off the shelf called ‘My Life’ only to discover that it is Volume 99 in a hundred volume narrative, and that to make sense of who they are supposed to be they have to recall the entire narrative of the first 98 volumes, and read ahead into number 100 to find out how its all supposed to end.” (p. 116).

In other words, they did not see the Bible as a mere collection of types, shadows, allusions, symbols, examples… though it involved these things. They saw it as the source of their collective story with God. It follows from this that one needed to read the story right. Has Tom read the story of early Jews right by continuing to suggest they saw themselves in exile? For my part I do not think so.

In the first place, the Jewish festivals in the first century A.D. were enormously popular and well attended. Jews, including Jesus, and early Jewish Christians, continued to attend these feasts, worship in the Temple, sing the songs of Zion and so on. This does not sound like the Jews in Babylon saying ‘How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?’ Secondly, Dom Crossan and others are not correct about the ‘Temple domination system’ and indeed about the ever-present heavy hand of Rome. Ordinary Jews in Judaea and Galilee were not being followed around by Officer Publius. They ran into Romans where they were garrisoned in Caesarea Maritima, or occasionally when they were out on patrol, at border crossings, or very occasionally when it was tax time (though normally it was subordinate agents, often themselves Jews like Matthew who collected the taxes for either the Herods or the procurator or both). Most of the Roman troops in the region were stationed in Syria, not in ordinary cities in Galilee or Judaea.

In other words, if you were an ordinary Jew, not a Zealot or hot head, and not running around trying to bump off Roman soldiers or their auxiliaries, the situation would not have been seen as always ominous, much less an exile situation. When someone comes to your house and takes too much of your money or property to cover the taxes, you may feel like you’ve been robbed, but you don’t feel like you are in exile. You’re at home, but you feel vulnerable in your own home, in your own land. That’s about all.

Clearly, most Jews did not agree with the Qumran community that the Temple system was hopeless corrupt and doomed. It is not a surprise that such a suggestion got Jesus into hot water. It does not appear most Jews thought that way in Jesus’ day, especially not most Pharisees and Sadducees who had much invested in the Temple system (for example the sacrifices were offered according to the stricter Pharisaic rules). Notice how many early Jews were indeed named after the Maccabean war heroes— Simon, Judas etc. The time when they had complete and utter control of their land and Temple was fresh in their memories, and they saw the present difficulties as not preventing them from continuing to focus on Torah, Temple, and Territory.

When one arrives at pp. 139ff. it begins to become clear, as Tom presents yet more grist for his Exile mill, (citing O.H. Steck and Robert Carroll) that what he is basically talking about is the Deuteronomic pattern of sin, judgment (which may or may not involve exile) and finally restoration, with restoration coming after judgment on God’s people. This theme is actually present in a lot of the prophets (see the two volumes by Koch). So, Tom’s main point is that many early Jews saw themselves as under some kind of dark cloud, some kind of judgment, whether it involved actual geographical exile or not, and did not see the present as the full restoration Scripture promised. They were stuck in the middle between sin and restoration.

This makes better sense than continuing to use the word exile to explain the point. Still, it is important not to over-egg the pudding. John the Baptizer and Jesus were both reformers. So were various of the Pharisees. So was the Qumran community. That the reformers saw a great need for repentance and change in the relationship with God is true enough. And many ordinary Jews responded to the call to repent, or become more Torah true etc. Many of them bought the Pharisaic notion of ‘every man a priest’ and living by a modified set of priestly rules. In other words, they either believed something was wrong or in need of improvement, but this does not mean that the majority of them saw the Temple in Jerusalem or the festivals as illegitimate, or saw themselves as in exile. Under some sort of cloud of judgment perhaps, but in exile no.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Though you desire to create distance between your position and Wright’s, I don’t see that distance as material. Where you both agree is on the notion that Israel felt that it was living below God’s ideal. With that sense there was a concomitant expectation – an expectation of judgment and restoration to come.

    Likewise, those who aspire to be the people of God today sense that they are living below God’s ideal. Our hope is less fervent and our expectation is less sure than what we see in the New Testament. Perhaps if we pray more sincerely and repent more thoroughly we can recover the intensity of that expectation. If we do, God will not disappoint…for He did not disappoint then (notwithstanding the implicit unbelief in the posture of the institutional church – that the kingdom did not come at the expected time).

  • http://bridger.biz/ Dimitri

    I agree, “intensity of expectation” is what is lacking now. I’ve known Christians who were constantly repentant, prayerful, and sincere, but still were haunted that they were living below God’s ideal. But what is it that we are not expecting as we ought? Jesus was always decrying people’s lack of faith, which is an interesting word, because it carries a double meaning. One is that sense of expectation, of trust that God will provide for us all our spiritual needs. The other is our belief, our theology. The two ideas are embodied in a single word, which I think should clue us in that they must work together as one. Perhaps our theology itself reflects a lack of expectation of the meaning of the words in the New Testament.

    This latest opus of Wright is an indication that scholars are still looking for deeper meaning in those words. That Tom and others could write more words than were contained in the Talmud about a small collection of letters that can be read aloud in an afternoon shows a real hunger for meaning. Have you ever lost your keys, and had to spend an hour or more turning the house upside-down to find them? And then they turn up in an obvious place that you had overlooked because you assumed that they could not be there? I expect that this hunt for meaning will eventually be concluded in the same way.

  • davidweinschrott

    Claiming life under the Romans was sanguine might work for Jesus’ time, but it is falsified by two revolts in 70AD and 135AD. Nero chose to send those troops to the eastern Med for a reason, even though he was rebuilding Rome after his firey urban development project. Similarly Hadrian chose to send another army while he was limiting commitments in Britain and Gaul Vespasian sent Titus onto put down the revolt when Nero passed even though he might have needed those troops to press his claim as emperor. The threat of revolt must have been real and prevalent in the population not to trust the Syrian garrison to deal with it. Moreover Pilate caused enough strife that he was fired. Those revolts didn’t pop up overnight, they had been simmering for a long time. There was an expectation that God would intervene. On the Jewish side, the Pharisees were not into purity for its own sake, it was a patriotic duty that they thought would prompt God to bring more sovereignty to Israel. The Pharisees had a different scenario in mind than the Essenes, but the same objective. Also the Essenes were not all holed up a Qumram, some were living in the villages. Wright marshalls more evidence in PFG for the sense of exile than that in JVG which I don’t think can be dismissed so lightly.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    The disciples were still hoping for Jesus to “restore the fortunes of Israel” by kicking out the conqueror Rome. John the Baptist asked similar questions, prodding Jesus to act IF he was such a messiah.

  • http://juliemwalsh.blogspot.com/ Julie Walsh

    While I have yet to be convinced that there is a very strong idea of Exile running through Paul’s writings, I can see that the Jews of Jesus’ day could have felt this to be the case. One example that I don’t hear often mentioned is Sepphoris, around the time of Jesus’ birth (4 miles from Nazareth). Having hundreds of Zealots hanging crucified outside of it, the city itself burned, and all the citizens of the city turned into slaves seems like it would have had more than a little bit of an impact on the small nation’s soul–maybe something like the chilling effect the Tiananmen Square Massacre would have had upon the average Chinese citizen. But maybe I don’t have some of these facts correct?