From Worldview to Theology, NT Wright

From Worldview to Theology, NT Wright October 29, 2013

From Worldview to Theology

NT Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, volume 2, opens up with a sketch of his plan, which I will sketch briefly before we get to Wright’s own proposal: Paul’s theology is thoroughly Jewish from top to bottom, and it therefore revolved around three major themes:

Monotheism: God is one and it is the God of Israel.

Election: God formed a covenant with Israel by his own will, a covenant that grabbed this nation among the many and gave to Israel a mission to the world. This election and covenant form the soteriology of Israel’s theology.

Eschatology: again, God has a plan for history to rule this world with Israel having formed a special role.

Paul’s theology though takes these three themes into new territory in reframing each through Jesus and Spirit — thus, a christology and pneumatology give the monotheism, election and eschatology reshaped focus.

Paul’s mission was to engage both Judaism and the Roman Empire with its paganism in forming churches across the Empire.

So now to Wright:

My particular proposal in this Part has a simple outline, unfolding in three stages.

  1. I take as the framework the three main elements of second-temple Jew- ish ‘theology’, namely monotheism, election and eschatology. I am aware, as I have said before, that second-temple Jews did not characteristically write works of systematic theology… (610). “I am equally aware that many essays in ‘Pauline theology’ have assumed that its central, dominant or even sole theme will be soteriology, and that my proposal may appear to be ignoring this and setting off in a quite different direction. However, as will become clear, I believe that the theme of ‘election’ is the best frame within which to understand Paul’s soteriology, and that ‘election’ in turn is only properly understood within the larger frame of beliefs about the One God and the promised future (and the particular problem of evil which only emerges into full light once the reality of the One God has been glimpsed). Soteriology thus remains at the centre” (611).
  2. This brings us to the second stage of the hypothesis. I shall argue, in the case of each of these three central and correlated topics, that Paul rethought, reworked and reimagined them around Jesus the Messiah on the one hand and the Spirit on the other (612)….
  3. The third stage of the hypothesis is to demonstrate that this christologically and pneumatologically redefined complex of monotheism, election and eschatology was directed by Paul in three further ways, which we postpone to Part IV of the present book. I list them here in the reverse order in which they appear in that Part. — First, it was what drove and governed the main aims of his letter-writing…. Second, though, if Paul was indeed redefining the central beliefs of second-temple Judaism, we might expect to find, at least by implication, a running debate between him and others within that world, focussed not least on how they were reading scripture (613)…Third, this christologically and pneumatologically redefined Jewish theology was in reasonably constant engagement, again sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, with the pagan world of Paul’s day.

So he is taking 2 Corinthians 10:5 at Paul’s word: the man was capturing every thought for Christ.

And all of this ends up in a local church, in the ekklesiai of Paul:

The result of all this (again, this will come in chapter 16) was the founding and maintaining of communities which, in terms of the first-century world of Diaspora Judaism, were bound to look extremely anomalous.On the one hand, they would seem very Jewish, indeed ‘conservatively’ so. On the other hand, they would seem very ‘assimilated’, since they did not practice the customs and commandments that marked out Jews from their pagan neighbours. But these communities, Paul believed, possessed their own inner coherence, due to the freshly worked elements in the theology which he expounded, elements that were not bolted onto the outside of the parent Jewish theology as extraneous foreign bodies but were discerned to lie at the very heart of what that theology had most deeply affirmed (614).

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  • Norman

    Paul’s engagement of Judaism and the Roman Empire found its roots all throughout the OT and 2nd T periods so in essence he is not introducing anything new to Judaism; except for the veracity of the resurrected Messiah. This he ties in with the expected OT breath “Spirit” that would raise faithful Israel to the standing that she was in need of (Eze 36-37)

    We see similar Israel and Pagan themes and their judgment at hand even in the book of Revelation in which the Beast from the Sea (pagan Rome) and the Beast from the Land (Corrupted Israel) are judged using apocalyptic language familiar to that audience. These NT writers including Paul are reflecting the Jewish 2nd T worldview that a Risen Messiah has empowered. Paul like the writings of Hebrews, John , Peter and the Gospels are all reflecting similar concepts except from their own particular expressive modes. I realize that some modern biblical scholars like to discount this congruence by stating that Paul influenced all these supposedly later authors whoever they are and thus attempt to discount that harmonious recognition by disbelieving any independent similarity

  • mark

    As before, I disagree with this exposition of Wright’s GRUNT (Grand Unified Narratival Theology). I’ll try to keep this brief, so let’s look at the second element, or “key theme” that Wright (in McKnight’s summary) identifies in Paul’s theology–or as I would call it, Paul’s thought:

    Election: God formed a covenant with Israel by his own will, a covenant that grabbed this nation among the many and gave to Israel a mission to the world. This election and covenant form the soteriology of Israel’s theology.

    I will simply repeat my contention that in Paul’s most systematic exposition of his gospel, Romans, an objective reader will not find anything really even remotely like what Wright is claiming for Paul. Rather than talk of a covenant and a mission of Israel to the world, what we find embedded within Paul’s overall anthropology and theory of man in history is talk of Israel being a “vessel,” a potter’s creation.

    But note well–Paul stresses that the call comes before the covenant, and that the call is for all, irrespective of nationality. The call is a call to faith in God, and the measure of faith is the willingness to conform oneself to God’s law–as knowable from God’s creation for Gentiles and as revealed in Torah for Jews. But all are equal before God, if they seek God sincerely. Further, as to covenants, what kind of a covenant could it be “with Israel” if membership in Israel is conditioned on faith, with the result that Gentiles may belong and Jews may not! Israel, true Israel, is for Paul not an ethnicity–neither Jew nor Greek–nor, on principle has it ever been so.

    To be sure, Paul sees ethnic Israel as having a special role–as keepers of “the oracles of God.” (τὰ λόγια τοῦ θεοῦ–I quote the NSRV) I submit that that role is different than the “mission” of Wright’s GRUNT.

    My contention is that Israel’s role in Paul’s thought is better understood through Paul’s image of the olive tree, which grows and develops. You will not, I submit, find in Paul the idea of a mission of Israel to somehow convert the nations–that is part of Wright’s “redefinition” of the Israelite scriptures, which amounts to a Christianized (and unhistorical) rereading of them–which is, precisely, why Paul’s gospel was a “scandal” to some of his Jewish interlocutors. To “redefine” is precisely to change. I may redefine Socialism to make it identical with, say, Libertarianism, but to then to apply that redefinition to past history is no longer a study in history.

    No, the olive tree that was Israel was the growing and developing knowledge of God’s identity throughout the history of Israel, from West Semitic concepts to something like creational monotheism. In the fullness of time, when the tree of this knowledge had attained sufficient maturity, the full revelation of God’s identity was grafted into that tree in Jesus. And this revelation was completed in Jesus risen. God would never have been so unreasonable as to give Israel an impossible mission–the mission of converting the world could only come with God’s entrance into history and into humanity (if the free will of man, God’s creation, were to be preserved).

    I urge a careful rereading of Romans–and all of Paul’s letters, but Romans is the most systematic.

    BTW, this has implications for the first theme–Monotheism: God is one and it is the God of Israel. As with all of Wright’s GRUNT, this is an oversimplification. As always, the work of Mark S. Smith is a useful corrective.

  • OwenW

    While I await NT Wright’s work being made to the broader public before I could read and say anything about how he would respond, I would address the question of ‘redefinition.’ Change could either be in grand sweeping changes, that is from socialism to liberalism, or subtle (but still significant) restructuring of the same basic concepts and how they relate to each other to include something new, the Christ.

    One is a total paradigm shift, whereas the other is an internal shift and change; that was exhibitted with Judaism as the various sects of Judaism did not all interpret the Scriptures and relate the concepts of each other (such as covenant, redemption and judgment) in the same way. Paul was doing nothing different than his fellow Jewish contemporaries did, except interpret the Old Testament in light of the Christ (which even that that is related to Pesher intepretation, which itself was a Jewish style of intepretation).

    NT Wright’s argument from all I have read of him seems to fall what I would call a subtle restructuring, not the dramatic transition like socialism to libertarianism. The same notions of monotheism, election, and eschatology are present, but they are restructered/redefined.

    And I would urge caution on giving any one metaphor primacy in interpreting Paul, like the metaphor of the olive tree. A) Most thought does not work that way and B) that is a concept/metaphor used only once with Paul, thus exhibitting a minor role. The concepts of pistis, charis, sarx, pneuma, nomos/Torah, are all much more present, along with the metaphors of family (which is related to pneuma for Paul).

    Also, if Romans is systematic, then it is unlikely there is one overarching concept/metaphor, but it is a conglomeration of concepts and metaphors working in conjunction. And that is precisely what one would expect with a change in thought due to historical events, where the whole set of concepts and beliefs adjust and accommodate themselves to the new understanding within historical experience, because the central point of the new definition comes from history, that is the Christ, and not a metaphor.

  • OwenW

    To add from anthroplogical/cognitive psychology framework:

    A network of related concepts are generally realized (that is, subconscious/unconscious feelings being made more conscious) and reinforced (strengthened what is already believed), but not necessarily newly generated, by narrative. Furthermore, later narratives can build upon and modify previous networks of concepts. So the (hi)story of Jesus modifies and builds upon the narrative of Israel.

    New concepts, on the other hand, tend to be generated by metaphors and analogies from experiences. For instance, gnosticism seems to be largely a work of interpretation around metaphors, and as such represents a distinctly novel development in thought.

    Hence, I would suggest there is a tension between the centrality of narrative and the centrality of metaphors/concepts. But the pattern for Paul fits better with a redefinition of a network of concepts, since a person is the focal point of his theology, rather than a concept.

  • mark

    This is one of the problems that I have with NTW:

    ‘God formed a covenant with Israel by his own will, a covenant that grabbed this nation among the many and gave to Israel a mission to the world.’

    And he knows this, how? Because he read it in a book? Gleaned it from an ancient library of books? Assembled it into a GRUNT by drawing selective quotes from a wide variety of writings that weren’t actually a collective library until after the time any of them were written?

    It seems to me that there’s a certain disingenuousness about NTW’s GRUNT, in that I think he’s far more insightful about these issues than he lets on. He realizes these are real issues but declines to address them for reasons of his own, yet he is aware that as an academic he really should be doing so. His work cannot be complete unless he does. No one who read the first half of The New Testament and the People of God can doubt that he is aware of these issues.

  • D. Foster


    I’ve read and re-read your comments, and I think you’re saying pretty much the same thing that Wright is. I know you’ll think I’m not understanding you, but hear me out.

    First, have you read the first 3 installments of Wright’s “Christian Origins/Question of God” series? I don’t mean that facetiously, but because Wright spells out what he means by “fulfillment” in the first volume of that series and
    his meaning of “fulfill” seems much broader than what it
    seems you’re implying.

    Here’s what I get from Wright.

    In the world of 2TJ, there were competing narratives that various Jewish sects had gleaned/created from the Scriptures (broadly conceived, as there was no “Bible”). What many had in common was a general belief that their teachings or movements or events were “fulfilling” (our word, not theirs) the Scriptures in the sense that they were bringing God’s ultimate purpose for the Scriptures to its intended climax.

    That’s an important point: the Scriptures contain markers pointing to something beyond the Scriptures themselves, which it seems like is the same thing you’re saying above. In trying to assimilate these markers into a unified whole, Jewish sects created their own personal GRUNTs they believed brought out the true intent of the Scriptures.

    Jesus and Paul have their own narratives as well. You seem to be downplaying Jesus’s “fulfillment” of Scriptures, but I think that is front and center in the Gospels.

    If what you mean is that Jesus didn’t contextualize his ministry within the framework of some other fully fleshed out narrative circulating among his contemporaries, you’re right. But there are general overarching themes common to all of those GRUNTS that he does pick up on and restrctures around himself. That’s what Jesus means by his coming “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law,” and his repeated affirmations of how he “fulfills” the Law of Moses/Scriptures in Luke 24 after his resurrection. What [Wright says] Jesus is saying is that his GRUNT is the true purpose of the Scriptures.

    Paul does pretty much the same thing. His contention with other Jews is that his GRUNT is faithful to God’s core purpose for the Scriptures, whereas the other GRUNTS are not. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”

    All that said, I don’t think what you’ve said differs substantially from Wright.
    But I’m curious to hear your thoughts


  • mark

    Derek, thanks for your very acute comments. Let me assure you in the first place that, yes, I have read Wright’s works–I’ve read them and taken notes on them and thought about and so forth. I actually admire a lot of what he does, so I didn’t undertake criticizing him lightly. Really, I started down that road only after I became convinced that I was reading into him what I wanted to see, rather than what he was really saying. So, that said, let me try to respond briefly.

    I agree re 2TJ, but with a very significant caveat. Yes, 2TJ was very much about constructing GRUNTs, revolving around the idea of fulfillment. The caveat is this–and appeal to James Kugel for support: these GRUNTs, while appealing to the idea of fulfillment, have just about no organic connection to the actual Israelite scriptures that they appeal to. The ideas expressed have no basis in the actual scriptures. Kugel has some very trenchant observations on this score in the last few chapters of How To Read The Bible. In particular, Kugel (an Orthodox Jew) discusses the different types of “interpretation” that the Bible, contrasting Jewish, early Christian/Catholic and Protestant approaches. In some respects he finds a kinship between 2TJ and Protestant forms of interpretation.

    Re Jesus and Paul, I am very much of the opinion that Paul’s theology is in complete harmony with the good news that Jesus proclaimed. I presume that I would be in agreement with Wright on that point, that Paul is not–as used to be said, and still is to some extent–the “founder of Christianity.”

    You’re correct that I downplay the notion of fulfillment as applied to Jesus. That’s huge topic, so I can’t address it in detail in a comment. However, let me make a few points. The first is that I believe that it’s necessary to distinguish clearly in the gospels between the theologically oriented editorializing of the evangelists (for example, the infancy narratives) and the viewpoint of Jesus himself as he is presented as speaking in his “own voice.”

    I will grant you that there are a few points at which Jesus seems to be talking about fulfillment in much the way that Wright might do: Moses wrote about me, I came not to destroy but to fulfill, etc. At first glance, these statements may appear to be moving toward a GRUNT. However, I would maintain that these statements, when placed in the overall context of the overall use that Jesus makes of scripture makes the case far less compelling than they initially appear to be. In fact, these statements begin to appear almost like obiter dicta when compared to the general thrust of what Jesus does. You will not ever, I believe, find Jesus saying something like, Here, read or listen to this scripture if you want to understand what I’m all about. And it’s no wonder, because if he did his interlocutors could easily have pointed out that his “narrative” (if such it was) was not in harmony with the overall “story of Israel.” They would have been right. Instead Jesus’ approach is, overall, highly deconstructive, placing great emphasis on his personal authority rather than that of the Israelite scriptures–something that was repeatedly remarked upon by his contemporaries.

    With regard to the Road to Emmaus story, which is so frequently cited, I would argue that that is best understood as theologizing on the part of Luke. Clearly the gospels represent real recollections of the living Jesus–I have no doubt about that. OTOH, they also represent to varying degrees the attempts of the early Church to come to grips with the significance of Jesus, and to that extent they are theological documents. Thus, just as the early disciples were 2TJ Jews, for the most part, it was only natural that they would attempt to apply 2TJ interpretive approaches to the life of Jesus. With somewhat indifferent success, I would maintain, because Jesus–even as the evangelists present him otherwise–breaks through all such bounds. In the case of Luke 24, consider what’s being said:

    Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

    I think you would agree that a bible study session conducted by Jesus himself in which he covered the relation to himself of “Moses” (2TJ shorthand for the Pentateuch), “all the prophets” and “all the scriptures” would be of more than passing interest to the Church. And yet Luke didn’t see fit to pass on anything that Jesus said on that occasion, which had left the disciples hearts burning within them. Nor do we find in the other early Christian writings anything that purports to be a comprehensive fulfillment narrative deriving from Jesus. So, what I’m saying in that regard is that, while I do believe that for practical purposes the evangelists exercised great care in passing on the ipsissima verba of Jesus, his very words to the best of their ability, we do nevertheless have to exercise critical caution when dealing with the gospel accounts.

    If this interests you, I would refer you to my blog in general, and specifically to such entries as Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures (as well as many of the 2011 entries) and The One Who Is To Come. As you will have come to expect by now, they’re all well over two paragraphs in length. 🙁

    To conclude. I won’t repeat what I’ve been saying about Paul, except to reiterate that Paul is aware of the scandal involved in attempting to relate Jesus to “the story of Israel”–and in the final analysis Paul doesn’t care. He stakes his all on Jesus risen, not on Jesus fulfilling a book or even a whole library of books. And that approach is one, I maintain, that was “handed down” to him ultimately from Jesus himself. Thus, in the end, the good news is not a GRUNT at all–it is not, as with so much 2TJ interpretation, an attempt to find a “secret meaning” in the Israelite scriptures (as Kugel describes this type of interpretation) and to apply it to Jesus. Instead, the good news is based on Jesus’ own lived story, his life story–historical fact. As Paul openly acknowledges: if Jesus isn’t risen, we’re the most pitiable of men.

    It is this, I think that distinguishes what I’m saying from what Wright is saying. Of course, you’ll say (and no doubt be able to find passages in Wright) that Wright understands the centrality of the Resurrection–he has an enormous tome to his credit to vouch for that! Nevertheless, Wright is still convinced that fulfillment is the key. He’s correct in the sense that many symbols of Israelite thought are used to by Jesus, and later by Paul, in ways that express truths of Christian faith. However, I maintain that the key is that Jesus is God’s self revelation, building on the development of Israelite thought over centuries. That development begins with an Israel that is basically indistinguishable from other West Semitic nations and religions, and develops over centuries into something that can serve as human vehicle and preparation for God’s self revelation. That development identifies Israel as a sort of Everyman among the nations. But in that sense the “story of Israel” is essentially beside the point–the story of Israel as Israel understood it largely remained a form of national self worship, a type of paganism. Jesus enunciated this and Paul, following Jesus reiterates it, as Wright points out in his earlier writings. That’s why to understand the significance of Jesus we need to break out of the ideology of fulfillment, as Paul does in Romans and elsewhere.

    I hope this is at least a downpayment on your request, and thanks for spending so much effort on this.

  • D. Foster


    Thanks for the lengthy reply. If you disregard portions of the Gospels as flourish and editorializing on the part of the authors, I can see how you come to a different conclusion from Wright, who sees the Gospels as fairly representational of Jesus’s mission all throughout.

    So let me ask it a different way: do you think Wright’s basic thesis is representational of the views of the final redactors who edited the Gospels and (possibly) Paul?


  • mark

    Derek, I guess I invited some of what you said by using the word “editorial,” but I didn’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Recall, what I was talking about was the effort on the part of the early Christians to come to grips with this world shaking train of events: the life, death, and–above all–the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus didn’t leave a handbook on how to do that, although all the evangelists record words of Jesus that point very clearly in the direction that Paul elaborated in his letters.

    From that standpoint I certainly do agree with Wright that the Gospels are representational of Jesus’ mission, when they are taken in their totality and allowance is made for theological statement. And in that regard it’s important to note that Paul is adamant that the gospel he preaches is approved by “the pillars”–he is not running in vain, even if some of what he writes (says Peter) may be difficult to understand. Paul’s views which, beyond the gospels, are the early Christian views that have been most extensively preserved, must be considered mainstream in their major thrust. I don’t think my view on the presence of theologizing in the gospels (what you referred to as “flourish and editorializing”) differs much from Wright’s views, if you were to pin him down on that question. Nor do I think that theologizing by those authors should be “disregard[ed].” Quite the contrary–I’m only saying that those portions should be recognized for what they are and evaluated on that basis. I regard it as certain that each evangelist’s overriding concern was faithfulness to Jesus, to his words and deeds–not to their own theological vision or agenda.

    Your question raises complex issues. I have to be perfectly frank and state that I’m not prepared off the top of my head to evaluate the role that theologizing plays in each of the gospels, nor to evaluate the various types of theologizing that is going on. For example, it is one thing for an evangelist to include what could be called “midrash” in the form of the infancy narratives for theological purposes, it is another thing for evangelists to rearrange the presentation and order of events for theological purposes. A further issue regarding such theologizing would be, to what extent can we say that each gospel or any of the gospels present a consistent theological viewpoint throughout. Certainly, some would maintain that some or all of the gospels do just that, but I think it’s arguable that in their dedication to preserve the actual Jesus for posterity they may have included facts and words that could be seen to run against their own theologizing–such was their dedication to Jesus over their own personal thoughts. For example, I might argue that Matthew’s use of the fulfillment narrative is not entirely consistent of the picture he presents of how Jesus actually used the Israelite scriptures in his proclamation, teaching and controversies. All this must be taken into account, and I’ve attempted to argue these points at greater length at my blog.

    I would say that Wright’s overall thesis, his GRUNT, is in broad sympathy with the type of fulfillment theology that we do see in the gospels. On the other hand, I don’t believe that any of the gospels actually base their theological vision in a systematic way on fulfillment narrative of the type that Wright espouses. The gospels are more complex documents than that and in my view the authors avoid a tendentious imposition of their individual perspectives, even as they do offer theological views. This is part of my criticism of Wright, that he fails to take this complexity into account and tries to conform all the evidence to a single pattern, to which the evangelists (and Paul) did not adhere. Indeed, in an important sense, I would maintain that the use of fulfillment narratives in the gospels remains tentative, and that it’s failure to achieve systematic form is precisely due to the evangelists’ (and the early Church’s) realization of the unprecedented nature of everything to do with Jesus: his person, his words, his deeds.

    Nor do I see fulfillment theology as particularly characteristic of Paul’s thought–as I’ve argued, this becomes even more clear when Paul is pushed to the limits of his faith. Then he is clear that fulfillment is not the point. But even leaving those “ultimate” passages aside, I would argue that Paul’s style of exegesis is more typological in character than oriented toward fulfillment. “Christ is the rock.” That is typology and not fulfillment narrative. Nor do we see Paul typically saying things like, This happened to fulfill what was written … Therefore, I would definitely maintain that in his most recent work Wright fails to represent the true nature of Paul’s thought on its most central issues. But since I’ve argued these matters at much greater length already in the comments section of this blog, I’ll leave it there.

    A final thought. To say as I have that everything about Jesus was “unprecedented” is not to say that their is no continuity between Jesus and “the story of Israel.” The tension between these two standpoints was certainly important in the early Church and, in fact, continues to be of central importance to this day. I suppose you could say that that’s what the “New Perspective” is all about. My view is that Wright attempts to resolve this tension by constructing a GRUNT, but that he does so by a selective use and Christianized interpretation (= misreading, from a critical standpoint) of the Israelite scriptures.

    My approach is to look at the overall development of Israelite religion from its origins in West Semitic religion to its development into what I think is probably unprecedented in comparative religion–a fairly thoroughgoing creational monotheism. That is not, I would maintain, a “narrative” plucked from a book or books. It is a matter of historical fact, the development of which is largely hidden from our view, although we can trace the results of this development at various points in the Israelite scriptures. This means that much of “Biblical” narrative is peripheral to the main thrust of Israelite religion’s development–from the standpoint of the resurrection. Thus Jesus is consistently dismissive of the ethnic concerns of his contemporaries, but which bulk so large in the Israelite scriptures. Jesus’ concern is to communicate the identity of his Father, and what this means for us.

    This is for me an area of major disagreement with Wright. Wright seems to facilely assume that when Jesus reveals in his person the Father, he is revealing no more than the “God of Israel.” Certainly the early Christians, including Paul, got a lot of pushback on that score from faithful Jews. My view is that this self revelation of God in Jesus does mark a true advance and development in our knowledge of God’s identity, which is best expressed as Trinity. I’ve tried to elaborate that point in the series of posts at my blog during January and February of 2011, where I argue that the identity of God as Trinity brings to theoretical clarity basic issues about man that are impossible to fully explicate from within what could be termed monistic monotheism.

  • Luke Breuer

    First, thanks for writing all this up!

    I’m struggling to see how Jesus’ interpretation was anything more than a correction of the OT prophecy that had Israel being a light to all the nations, a font of justice and knowledge to which all the nations would flow. After all, Abraham was promised that he would be a blessing to all nations, not just Israel. Jonah can be seen as a patriot who doesn’t want other nations to be forgiven like Israel had repeatedly been forgiven. Which, now that I think of it, makes it profound that Jesus tells the Jews they will get the “sign of Jonah”. That is, Jonah got [albeit temporarily] turned around from his bad attitude, long enough to bless Ninevah.