What did Paul Do to Jewish Eschatology?

Maybe we should begin where NT Wright begins in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God — with how different Jewish hope was from Greek and Roman (no) hope:

The verdict ‘without hope’ might at first seem harsh. Did not many hope for a blissful life beyond the grave, whether in the Elysian fields, conversing with fellow-philosophers, or at least for a reincarnation in which a better fate might await them than they had previously enjoyed? Well, yes, they did.5 But the judgment remains. There is nothing in the literature of Greece  or Rome that remotely corresponds to what we find – to look only at the most obvious of passages – in Isaiah and the Psalms:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of YHWH shall rest on him . . . He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . . The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them . . . They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of YHWH as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:1-4, 6-9).

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
At the presence of YHWH, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity (Ps 98:7-9).

A world set free both from human injustice and from ‘natural’ violence; a world in which oceans and mountains themselves will rejoice at a new fulfilment; a world in which all peoples will celebrate the fact that everything has been set right at last. That is the ancient Israelite vision, variously re- expressed in Jewish texts across the second-temple period. This is not simply a hope beyond the world. It is a hope for the world. The difference is all-important, and is rooted, as those two extracts and many others indicate, in the ancient Israelite and Jewish belief that the true God, Israel’s God, was the creator of earth as well as heaven. Sooner or later he would put all things right, and there would be – you can feel it in those texts – a cosmic sigh of relief. That, we hear from lambs and wolves alike, is what we’ve been waiting for. About these things we have already spoken in detail, in the present volume and elsewhere (1043-1044).

Wright’s view of Paul’s eschatology may pave new ground when it comes to reforming Jewish eschatology but it essentially is the traditional “inaugurated eschatology” of NT scholarship. Hence, we read:

The source from which all these streams flow is Paul’s belief that with the resurrection of Jesus the hope of Israel had been split into two. Jesus had been raised first, demonstrating him to be Israel’s Messiah; all his people would be raised later, at the moment Paul calls ‘the end’. The future had burst into the present, close up and personal; at the same time, the future remained future, glimpsed as in a darkened mirror. This sudden irruption of future into present, Paul concluded, was not simply a strange accident, as though a cog had slipped in the providential clock, leading it to strike the hour too soon. Paul was not just freewheeling pragmatically into an unexpected situation, making up inaugurated eschatology on the hoof. When he reflected on what was already the case and how that related to what was not yet the case, but would become so through Messiah and spirit, he advanced arguments which sought to explain that this interval, however unexpected, had itself a specific purpose within the divine economy. To repeat and amplify what was said above: within eschatological ethics, this purpose has to do with the present development of character. The present time is the time of the formation of truly human beings; this cannot be achieved at a stroke, precisely because of what a human being is. Within the eschatology  of Israel’s election, it is the need to bring all, Jew and Gentile alike, ‘under sin’, in order that all who are saved may be saved by mercy alone. The inaugurated eschatology caused Paul ‘great sorrow and endless pain in [his] heart’ (Romans 9.2), but he discerned a clear though startling divine purpose in the time-lag. This was how God had planned it all along, to ensure that his entire plan of salvation would depend, not on privilege, but on mercy (Romans 11.32).The present time is the time when, after the long years in which Israel was called to be the light of the world, the mission to the Gentiles was to be the means of rescuing Israel itself (1048-1049).

The focus of Jewish eschatology was the return of YHWH to Zion, the Day of YHWH, the Day of the Lord. This return is a species of the New Exodus and connected to God filling the Temple and whole earth with his glory: hence, return of God, liberation, and blessings in abundance.

Five further themes (but he calls the fifth the fourth [he has two fourths]): the Messiah as agent in this liberation-redemption, renewal of the covenant, God will be glorified beyond Israel’s borders, a present Age and the Age to Come, and resurrection.

Then this:

This hope was expressed in a wide variety of ways: in Psalms, in visions, in political movements which promised to create the conditions for it to happen, and in narrative which, like the Pentateuch itself, was read both as history and as prophecy. It was expected both as the long-awaited fulfilment of promises and as a new thing: one of the most regular prophetic promises is that when YHWH acts to do what he had always intended to do this will take everyone, Israel included, by surprise. It was experienced in fits and starts: some at least of those who lived through the Maccabean revolt really did believe the ancient prophecies were at last being fulfilled, and the Qumran sect would not have existed were it not for the belief that the promises had been fulfilled in advance, albeit secretly, in their community, and would be fulfilled more completely in the coming days. Expressed, expected and experienced (you can take the scholar out of the pulpit but you can’t take the pulpit out of the scholar): the ancient hope of Israel came to fresh and coherent life not only in texts but also in movements, in prayer, in faithfulness, in zeal. This is the hope which fired Saul of Tarsus in his own life of Torah-devotion. And in his zealous persecution of the early church.

Our task now is relatively straightforward. I shall argue that Paul, with this complete and striking Jewish hope in his head and his heart, believed both that it had already been fulfilled in Jesus and the Spirit, and that it was yet to be more completely fulfilled. The ‘now and not yet’ shape of all this is obvious, and often pointed out. What is not so often noticed is that both the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ embody very closely the christological and pneumatological revision of the central and enlivening hope of second- temple Judaism, and indeed of the ancient scriptures of Israel themselves (1061).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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