We are considering N. T. Wright’s newly released Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God) — a massive and masterful consideration of Paul’s theology.
Beginning around page 110, Wright re-argues the case for the so-called “new perspective,” which calls for a deeper, truer understanding of the Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament.
A bit surprisingly, I’m sure, the tipping point for many theologies is the teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus, of course, roundly criticized the Pharisees. Paul wrote extensively against the Judaizing teachers, who are generally considered to have been Christian converts from among the Pharisees.
And yet Paul himself claimed to a Pharisee quite late in his career —
(Phi 3:3-6 ESV) 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh– 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Notice the grammar carefully. Paul says that he has more reasons for confidence in the flesh — present tense. He’s not claiming to have left the Pharisees. Rather, he remains a Pharisee, but has reinterpreted the purposes of Pharisaism in light of Jesus.
The basic Pharisaic story [metanarrative or framing story] was not, then, about the sort of question that has exercised western theology over the last half millennium. The reason a Pharisee studied and elucidated Torah, and tried both to keep it himself and to get more and more other people to do so, was not because of some moralistic scheme, designed to enable him to earn favour with a potentially angry deity and so to reach a “solution” which was basically an other worldly salvation. …
Reading through (say) Josephus, the [Dead Sea] Scrolls, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and indeed the rabbis, this is simply not how they were thinking. They were not asking about ‘life after death’. Continuing life of some sort was assumed by most first-century Jews, except for the Sadducees. What mattered far more … was ‘the age to come’; and this did not mean ‘life after death’ but ‘life after life after death’; in other words, a period of being ‘dead’, however that is described, followed by [bodily] resurrection into God’s new creation. And the reason first-century Jews, especially Pharisees, were interested in resurrection was because they believed in a God who was the creator of the whole world. … God’s faithfulness to Israel (the birds hovering over Jerusalem) would be reflected in his faithfulness to all creation (the bird hovering over the waters).
(pages 110, 113).
(Gen 1:2b ESV) And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
(Isa 31:5 ESV) 5 “Like birds hovering, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it; he will spare and rescue it.”
(I quote these verses because Wright does not give the citation for his allusion to the hovering of the Spirit/birds.) By the way, “protect” in Isa 31:5 is the word used for “passover” in Exodus. (I just love reading the Prophets and finding these things.)
Wright breaks the argument down further —
First, there is every indication that the kind of Jew who became a Pharisee was implicitly aware of living in a continuous story going back to Abraham, perhaps even to Adam, and on to the great coming day, and of being called to be an actor within that drama, to play a particular part in bringing the story forward into its final, decisive moment.
Second, there is every indication that Pharisees, like other Jews of the period, did not expect that decisive moment to involve the collapse or disappearance of the universe of space, time, and matter. It would involve, rather, the transformation, redemption and renewal of that universe.
Third, there is every indication that Pharisees, like many other Jews of the period, saw their own time within this narrative as one of continuing exile awaiting the final promised rescue. The exile in Babylon has only been the first stage of a much longer process of God’s people being enslaved to pagans. The real redemption, coupled with the long-awaited return of YHWH to Zion, still lay in the future.
(pp. 113-114; italics in original).
As you can see, Wright is setting up an argument, built from history, that shows that Jesus and Paul did not throw away the Law and Prophets and legislate new answers. Rather, the Jews had correctly read the Scriptures, in a very broad sense, and so weren’t shocked when Jesus appeared declaring that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They’d been expecting, even praying for, the coming of the Kingdom for hundreds of years!
Moreover, it’s not surprising that the Gospels can record Jesus preaching “the gospel” long before anyone had been taught about his death, burial, and resurrection. You see, “good news” is a term used by the Prophets to speak of the coming the Messiah, the establishment of the Kingdom, and the outpouring of the Spirit.
(Isa 52:7 ESV) How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Of course, there were elements of Jesus’ ministry that came as a huge surprise to the Jews, especially his death on a cross. No one expected the Messiah to be killed, buried, and resurrected.
In the 16th Century, Protestantism rejected any notion that salvation means entry into a continuing story (a true story, of course) with continuous history stretching back to Abraham, or even Adam. Rather, Christianity became almost entirely focused on personal salvation, with the goal of evangelism being to change someone from a damned to a saved condition, and with the saved being left to await death or the Second Coming, when they could escape the fallenness of God’s creation. (For example, see this article on Pietism and this personal testimony.) In this form of Christianity, the world is wicked and so Christians are to be rescued from the broken world when Jesus returns.
In a strange parallel, the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and Rome’s brutal suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132-135 AD caused the Jews to give up their attachment to the Promised Land. The rabbis were much less focused on the coming of a messiah and a kingdom. Instead, the rabbis rethought Judaism as a personal relationship with God — with no sense of a continuing story.
Wright doesn’t make this point, but it’s true that Christianity and Judaism were closely tied for quite some time after the apostolic age, as shown by Oskar Skarsaune in In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (a great read and resource). It would not be surprising that the early church might have forgotten much of the narrative that it inherited from Judaism if Judaism was at the same time leaving its narrative behind.
Of course, Jesus and the apostles taught the coming of the Kingdom, but the Jews believed in an earthly kingdom headquartered in Jerusalem.
Christianity’s spiritual kingdom was largely rejected by the Jews, who clung to the dream of an earthly kingdom until the Romans killed something like 500,000 Jews, sold hundreds of thousands more into slavery, and destroyed over 1,000 Jewish towns and villages in retaliation for the Bar Kochba revolt (led by Simon ben Kosiba, who claimed to be the Messiah). The Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem, except for one day a year, and until the death of Emperor Hadrian, Roman policy was to exterminate the Jews and Judaism.
Thus, Christianity — especially Protestantism — became self-focused — with converts being told to live in their own stories, each one of having a “personal relationship” with God that has little to do with God’s promises to Abraham, the promises of the Prophets, or our place in God’s plan to redeem his creation.
And so, Christianity becomes purposeless, that is, if the whole point of Jesus and the apostles and the New Testament is convert someone to faith, baptize them, and have them thus be saved, what’s the point of life after baptism?
For many Christians, the only purpose of life after baptism is evangelism — some going so far as to declare that you aren’t really a “disciple” unless you’re actively engaged in personal evangelism — an obvious turn toward a works-based religion, driven by the need to find a purpose for Christian living.
For others, the gap is filled in with a never-ending list of “marks of the church” or “tests of fellowship” that mandate that a saved person properly sort out God’s will on these issues to preserve his very tenuous salvation. Again, one thing that drives this sort of thinking is the need for a purpose beyond merely getting saved. The logic is that, if Christianity is not about getting the rules for worship and church organization right, then what would be left? For those caught up in this kind of legalism, there would indeed be very little left of their Christianity if they gave up their search for rules and regulations.
Some denominations have rejected this sort of legalism and this extreme push for evangelism, and find themselves having become little more than book-study clubs. They gather each week to talk about the scriptures, hoping to find guidance for their personal lives, but still find no purpose in life beyond going through the motions — and as a result, their children and grandchildren are preferring to sleep in and play golf on Sundays, figuring they can learn morality from books and the Internet.
You see, the loss of God’s story — his great metanarrative — has left us — fundamentalists, evangelicals, and mainline denominations all — with a greatly impoverished religion.