N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
One of the challenges Wright had to confront in writing the book, and one of the challenges of blogging through the book, is that the book builds on conclusions taught more thoroughly in earlier books. For those of us who’ve been reading Wright for years and who are familiar with the earlier materials, this is no problem, but for a novice student of Wright, it’s asking a lot to catch up in a single reading.
Rather than interrupting the argument to explain materials taught in earlier works, I thought it might be helpful to explain several key concepts at the beginning.
So consider this as something of an introduction to Wright’s theology — although I’m not going to attempt to cover it all. I’m going to stick to concepts and teachings that come up in the book
The Second Temple period
Scholars often speak of this or that happening during the “Second Temple period.” The first Temple, of course, is the one built by Solomon, which was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. The Second Temple is the Temple built by Nehemiah when many Jews returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule. This Temple was later rebuilt by Herod the Great under Roman rule. Hence, the Second Temple period is from about 515 BC to 70 AD, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman army under Titus.
Second Temple Judaism is Judaism as practiced during this time, especially as reflected in the Second Temple literature, particularly the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (uninspired Jewish writings preserved from this time), the writings of Philo (a Jewish philosopher who wrote around the time of Jesus), and the writings of Josephus (a Jewish historian who served the Romans during the Jewish revolt of AD 66-70 and later wrote histories of the Jewish people and the Jewish rebellion).
The Jewish Talmud (oral law), Midrash (rabbinic commentary on OT), and Targums (rabbinic paraphrases of Hebrew OT into the vernacular) date from a time beginning during Second Temple Judaism but weren’t put in writing until centuries later, leaving us often uncertain as to whether the Talmud is speaking of Second Temple Judaism or a later time. In fact, many Christian commentators have erred by assuming that the Talmud necessarily speaks of how things were at the time of Jesus, and this has sometimes proved to be in error.
Of course, the NT itself is a Second Temple period document, and it’s certainly the most important source giving us insight into how Jews of that period lived and thought.
I should add the Septuagint, a translation of the OT into koine Greek, which Paul and other NT writers frequently quote. It was the Jewish version of the King James Version translation. Jews who lived west of Judea used the Septuagint as their scriptures, as very few could read Hebrew.
“Septuagint” is abbreviated LXX, the Roman numeral 70, after the legend that 70 Jewish scholars made this translation. When a NT author quotes the LXX, it’s best to check the context in the LXX, as it’s often a paraphrase of the Hebrew text.
(Since Jesus often quoted from a paraphrase of the scriptures — a so-called “free translation” — it must be okay for us to do the same. Therefore, feel no guilt over using the NIV, which isn’t nearly as free a translation as much of the LXX. In fact, the early church debated whether the LXX should be treated as itself inspired or a manmade translation of the inspired Hebrew text. Many of our earliest and best manuscripts of the NT include the LXX as though the Greek text is inspired. But I digress …)
Much of Wright’s work, based on the earlier work of E. P. Sanders, is based on historical studies of Second Temple documents seeking to find out how First Century Jews thought and lived. What was their worldview? How did they perceive God and their leaders? Were they legalists? Did they consider faith sufficient to save? What kind of Messiah did they expect? How did they view faith and works? To the extent we can understand how Second Temple Jews thought, we can read the NT in light of this information and perhaps gain new insights.
Second Temple Judaism was heavily shaped by the Torah — the first five books of the OT. “Torah” is the Hebrew word for “law.” Almost always, when Paul speaks of “law” he means the literal Torah. We Westerners tend to abstract “law” to mean “commands of God” or “meritorious works,” but Paul usually was much more concrete in his thinking. In fact, a great deal of Paul is better translated — and clearer — if we translate “law” as “Torah.”
Now, although “Torah” means “law,” any good Second Temple Jew knew that the Torah contains much more than laws. It contains the accounts of the Creation, Abraham, Joseph, etc. And even the Law of Moses includes blessings and curses in addition to rules to be obeyed. Hence, sometimes “Torah” means the Law of Moses contained within the first five books. Sometimes it means the first five books in their entireties.
The commands of the Law of Moses are scattered through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It’s helpful to know that the sacrificial system — overseen by the tribe of Levi — is largely found in Leviticus, which is something of a how-to manual on tabernacle rituals.
Deuteronomy (the Second Law) is a restatement of the Law of Moses read to the Israelites as the second generation prepared to cross the Jordan River and conquer the Promised Land. It begins with a recitation of the history of God’s dealing with Israel (chapters 1- 10). You can’t read this section without being reminded of many things taught by Paul, who seems to have been very influenced by Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is written in the form of a treaty (or covenant) between two nations, one greater than the other. In those days, treaties weren’t negotiated. Rather, the more powerful nation imposed the treaty on the weaker nation.
It was customary for two copies of the treaty to be made, one for each party, each to be kept at the temple of that party’s national god. God had Moses make two copies of the Ten Commandments, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant.
The use of two tablets probably indicates that Moses was given two copies, not that some of the commandments were on one tablet and some on the other.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 115.
That is, the tabernacle, where the ark was kept, was the Temple to God where the Israelites kept their copy. The Holy of Holies was considered an intersection of heaven and earth, a portal, as it were, God could be present on earth among his people while simultaneously being in heaven.
And so God’s copy was kept in heaven — but in the part of heaven that intersected with the earth — the Holy of Holies.
Like all Ancient Near East (ANE) vassalage treaties, Deuteronomy ends with a series of blessings for obedience for the weaker (vassal) nation should it obey and a series of curses on the vassal should it disobey. These are found in Deu 28-29. Deu 30, to which we will return, speaks to what happens if Israel disobeys, suffers the curses, and later repents.
The Second Temple period Jews saw themselves as under the curses of Deu 28-29 and looked forward to the day of repentance, forgiveness of sin, and restoration. This is evident in Acts especially, if you read the sermons recorded there with Deu in mind. And Paul repeatedly alludes to Deu in Romans. That is, Deu is one of those OT books that the NT authors repeatedly refer to, directly and indirectly, and so studying Deu is a great introduction to NT thought.