A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Jesus, the Eschatological Prophet, Not Jesus, the Reformer

From N.T. Wright, "The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology":
...within Jesus’ narrative world, there are two... points to he made. First, Jesus invited his hearers to become part of the story. His radical narrative summoned all and sundry to celebrate with him the real return from exile, the real forgiveness of sins. He was offering the latter precisely because he was enacting the former. This is eschatology, not reform. Jesus's so-called "ethics" belong just here: they were part of the story, the story of what God's renewed Israel would look like. Like other Jewish leaders before and since, Jesus was urging his contemporaries to follow turn in the subversive way of peace. He was radically opposed to the way of ultra-orthodoxy, of violent nationalist revolution. This was not, of course, because he was supporting the status quo (or was "non-political"), but precisely because he was not.

Second, Jesus warned his contemporaries that failure to come his way would result in ruin. He stood in the great tradition of Israel's prophets, notably Elijah and Jeremiah. His story had two possible endings between which his hearers had to choose. If they followed his way, the way of peace, they would be the light of the world, the city set on a hill that could not be hidden. If they went the other way, as Jesus saw many of his contemporaries eager to do, they would call down on themselves the wrath of Rome. Jesus, like Amos or Jeremiah, warned that Rome's wrath would constitute God's wrath. To follow his teachings, his subversive wisdom, would be the only way to build the house on the rock. To follow the raised prophets who were leading Israel into nationalist revolution would cause the house to fall with a great crash.

After praxis and story, symbol. Consider Jesus’ work in relation to the regular Jewish symbols one by one. Family: Jesus regarded his followers as a fictive kinship group, subverting normal family loyalty, which was ultimately loyalty to the people. Land: Jesus urged his followers to abandon their possessions, which in his world mostly meant land. Torah: Jesus acted and spoke with a sovereign authority, and challenged in particular the two symbols—Sabbath and food—which distinguished Galilean Jews from their pagan neighbors. Temple: Jesus symbolically enacted its destruction, recognizing that its guardians, and the people as a whole, had refused his way of peace. He constructed his own alternative Jewish worldview (as, mutatis mutandis, the Essenes had done) around key symbolic actions and styles. In his case these were: healings, which were seen by sonic as subversive and "magical"; open and restive table-fellowship; the call of the twelve; the offer of the eschatological gift of forgiveness; the redefined family; and, of course, his own agenda and vocation. Jesus's critique of his contemporaries' use of traditional symbols came together in his action in the Temple (Mark 14:12-25) and the symbols of his own work in the Last Supper. These two actions belong together and interpret each other.

Does all this mean that Jesus was in some sense anti-Jewish? Of course not. Was Elijah anti-Jewish for telling his contemporaries that they were under judgment? Were the Essenes anti-Jewish for denouncing the present Temple and its rulers, or for attacking the Pharisees? The debate, like some tragic current debates, is essentially "inner-Jewish." Once again, Jesus' critique was based not on religion but on eschatology. Jesus did not "speak against the law"— as though he were a Lutheran born out of due time. He did not regard the symbols of Israel's worldview as bad, shabby, offensive, strange, or representative of a wrong sort of religion—as though he were a nineteenth- or twentieth- century liberal. Nor did he simply offer a new option to be chosen by those who fancied it—as, though he were a postmodernist. He claimed that the day had arrived in which the God-given Mosaic dispensation was being overtaken the eschaton, and this was highlighted for him by the fact that he saw the God-given symbols of Temple, Torah, land, and family being used to undergird the ultra-orthodox zeal for revolutionary violence, Jesus' work aroused opposition, not in the form of an intra-Pharisaic dialogue about the finer points of Torah, but in the form of a radical clash, of agendas. We of all people ought not to be surprised if zealous students of Torah turn violent against someone who advocates peace at the cost of ancestral land.


Michael Teston said...

Absolutely! There's no need to "reform" when you asking everything and everyone else to "die" first before they're raised to be something akin to a new "creation!"
We really do need to get this in the age of "self-help" that we toil in.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Mike, that's right... Moreover, Jesus the eschatological prophet cannot be manipulated into affirming our own political and social agendas.