The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 2)

One of the things that has always annoyed me about N. T. Wright’s description of the Kingdom in the Gospels is that he seems to be guarding the idea of the Kingdom on two separate fronts. On the one hand, he frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” or the end of the world.  Here has in mind the typical American view of the end times as channeled through the Left Behind series.  Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. On the other hand, Wright wants to invest the Kingdom with a fair amount of radicalness in the first century.  This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as doing good and loving your neighbor popular in liberal Christianity.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s regular characterization of their positions.  For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensationalist thinking, it is in fact fantasy, a fictional “what if” story and not at all a reasonable presentation of a theology.  To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma.  This is a strawman argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst.  Wright regular points out that the Jews expected a real kingdom in this world, not the end of the world whether (post-apocalyptic or eternal state).  This is exactly what Dispensationalist have always said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.  (There are many good reasons to attack dispensational theology, the popularity of the Left Behind series ought not be one of them).

On the second front, Wright is correct that protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom are bland and not at all what Jesus would have meant.  Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone.  There are far more political and social issues in the teaching of Jesus which have to be dismissed if he was just telling us to be nice to each other.  What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another?  What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught?  No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.

Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (52).  Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 1)

In The Challenge of Jesus, N. T. Wright correctly points out that we need to understand the “Kingdom of God” in terms of first century Judaism, not modern conceptions.  For Wright, this means properly understanding the election of Israel as well as the eschatology of Israel (35).  Israel was chosen by God to bless the whole world (Gen 12:1-3).  But after centuries of exile and domination by foreign powers, some in Israel began to wonder how that blessing was going to happen.

Wright suggests three ways at least some of Jewish thinkers understood the problem (37).  First, for Jews like the Qumran community withdrawal from society was the best option.  Assuming the standard view of the Qumran community, it appears that this group went out in into the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” by living an ultra-pure life in anticipation of the soon arrival of Messiah.  Second, the opposite was the case for Jews like Herod.  Herod was more or less a Roman, wholeheartedly buying into the a Roman worldview.  Perhaps I would include Josephus here as well, since he seemed to think that the Roman victory over Jerusalem was “God’s will.”  The third view was that of the Zealots, who did not meekly withdraw into the wilderness nor did the compromise.  Rather, like Phineas in the Hebrew Bible or Judas Maccabees, they burned zealously for the traditions of the Jews and took up arms against the Romans.

What was common between the Zealots and the Qumran community, according to Wright, was the belief that the exile would come to an end soon.  God was about to break into history and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem once and for all.  The nations would be converted (or judged) and the whole world would worship at Jerusalem.  While this eschatological view appears in slightly different ways among the various Jewish documents of the Second Temple Period, that God would establish his kingdom and end the exile is as much of a “standard” view as anything in this period.

How does the three-part description of Jewish Expectations help us to understand Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is “at hand”? Or better, how does this help us understand the idea of a “present kingdom” in Jesus Ministry?

Galatians 1:18-24 – Paul and Jerusalem

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

The word “next” in verse 18 indicates that Paul is setting up a time frame for these events.  He does not want the accusation that he is leaving out events.  The visit Paul makes here is to Jerusalem, for a short time, and is by no means a “formal” conference.  This is undoubtedly the event recorded in Acts 9:26-30.

It is stated that he meets with Peter alone, except for James, the brother of Jesus. This is first an indication of Peter’s  leadership of the Jerusalem church at this point.  By Acts 15 he is in less of a position of leadership and James is “more in charge.”  The reference to James may be because it is unclear whether he is an Apostle or not.  Is everyone who saw Jesus resurrected an apostle, or only those with a special commission?

What did they do in this meeting?  The Greek here is clear.  Paul states that he went to Jerusalem to “interview” Peter.  In Hellenistic Greek this is “to make someone’s acquaintance.” He wanted to meet Peter, let him know what was going on, exchange information, but not be instructed or approved in any way!  It is extremely likely that Peter shared with Paul his experience of meeting the resurrected Jesus, and Paul did the same.  It might be during this time that Paul learned of the events he describes in I Cor. 15:3-5 concerning those who had seen Jesus.

Fifteen days would have been plenty of time for Peter to tell him all that he knew of Jesus and his earthly ministry, something that Paul would not have been as familiar with, and that he would have had no other way of learning.  This is a first hand interview by Paul to get the facts of Jesus earthly ministry.  It is clear from this statement that Paul’s first contact with Jerusalem was minimal, with a limited number of the leadership, and was in no way a confirmation of his call or an instructional time.

After his brief visit with Peter, he sets of for Syria and Cilicia.  The word  region here sometimes is “latitudes,” as in a geographic region.  But since this is not a technical document it likely refers to the Roman province of Syria and Cilicia.  This is parallel to Acts 9:30, and 11:25f.  We are told Paul boarded a ship for Tarsus, and later he and Barnabas went to Antioch.  This period was likely similar to his time in Nabatean Arabia, a period of preaching the Gospel.

Paul includes an unusual line in this section: “with God as my witness, I am not lying.”  This a courtroom oath.  Paul is more or less setting himself in a courtroom scene and swearing a legally binding oath that he is telling the truth.

The point of all of this is to prove his statement in Gal 1:11-12 – he did not receive his gospel from any human, but rather from God. If the Galatian churches defect from that gospel, they are in extreme danger because they are rejecting the only Gospel which has its origins in God himself.

Galatians 1: Paul and Judaism

In Galatians 1:13 Paul claims that he had excelled at the practice of Judaism more than any others in his age group. The word for his development in religion is the same word applied to Christ in Lk. 2:52 where it is said he grew in wisdom and stature.  He may be referring to his age contemporaries, or his social equals, other Pharisees, indicating how quickly he advanced through the religious ranks.

Paul highlights two things in verse 14.  He is born a Jew and that he excelled in the practice of Judaism more than others his own age.  By this Paul says that he was part of the Covenant by birth, and he was doing everything which was required to stay a part of that Covenant.  We can compare this self-description to Philippians 3, where Paul describes himself as a  “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and circumcised on the eighth day. Paul’s ethnicity makes him a part of the covenant, the practice of his family ensured his part in the covenant from the very beginning, and his continued practice of that covenant kept in the covenant.

As Ed Sanders has said, Second Temple Period Judaism was about election (what got you in) and practice (what kept you in).  For Paul, neither of these things matter.  That one is born a Jew does not make one right with God (via God’s gracious election) nor do the distinctive practices of Judaism make one right with God. Only the grace of God as revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus makes one right with God.  Ben Witherington agrees, although he does not make the connection to Sanders explicit”  “On Paul’s view, birth or ethnic identity is not sufficient, indeed it is not necessary, to make one a true member of the people of God” (Galatians, 98)

Paul is therefore laying the foundation for a discontinuity between the people of God in the Old Covenant and the people of God in the New Covenant.  As we will see, some members of the Jerusalem church disagree and see a continuity between the people of God, the New Covenant is for New Israel, if Gentiles come into that covenant, they must do so as new Israel.  This is really the source of the troubles with the “agitators” in Jerusalem – who are the people of God?

Does this mean that Paul has ceased to be a part of Judaism?  It is at least possible that Paul did not see things that way.  He might very well have understood  his Law-free Gospel as God’s new revelation for the salvation of the Gentiles in this messianic age.  If so, then it might be possible to talk about Paul’s theology as a kind of Judaism.  More on this after the weekend.

Are these Really the Words of Jesus?

In the first century most information was not recorded, it was reported orally.  Jesus taught orally, the disciples listened, remembered, and eventually wrote down what he said. The problem is obvious, how do we know if the disciples accurately recorded the words of Jesus many years after they were spoken?  For example, compare Matthew 16:13 with Mark 8:27and Luke 9:18:  What does Jesus say? “who do the people / crowds say that I / Son of Man is?”

Two issues are involved.  First, should we argue for the “exact words” of Jesus in the first place, and second, how can we determine whether the words of Jesus are in fact accurate reflections of what he taught to his disciples and the crowds?  I will discuss the second question in the next post, but for now, how can we be sure that the words of Jesus as we have them in the text could be what Jesus actually said?  Essentially, there are three options for the Words of Jesus.

  • The gospels are the exact words of Jesus.  In the modern world, we expect newspapers to record exactly what someone says.  If not, the person quoted will likely complain that they were mis-quoted. In fact, the presence of quote marks is an indication in the modern world that the words between the quote are the exact words that were said.
  • The word of Jesus in the gospels are fabrications of the early church.  The early believers created sayings for Jesus to meet needs in their own communities.  The sayings that were created usually are the claims that Jesus makes to be the Messiah or to be God.  The gospel writers are using “creative license” to make Jesus claim the things that the church came to believe about him.  This is the position of the Jesus Seminar scholars.
  • The words of Jesus accurately reflect the things that Jesus said, but likely not the exact words in every case.  The gospel writers accurately give the gist of the teachings of Jesus.  This position understands that in the oral period there were possible adaptations and changes made to the sayings of Jesus, but that the changes were not as radical as the second position states.  In fact, the proof that the gospel writers did not create sayings is found in Luke 1:1-4 – Luke bases his gospel on the reports and teachings of eyewitnesses to the events.

Scholarship usually uses the terms Ipsissima Vox versus  Ipsissima VerbaVox is the “very voice” of Jesus, while verba refers to the “very words” of Jesus.  The gospels record the voice of Jesus rather than his exact words.  Why is this so?

First, Jesus likely taught in Aramaic, the common language of the first century Jew.  When addressing a crowd of Jews in a synagogue, Aramaic would have been the only language he could have used.  The text of the New Testament is in Greek, implying that the words of Jesus have been translated from their Jewish / Aramaic context into the Greek  language.

Second, Jesus is said to have spoken for hours to attentive audiences (Mark 6:34-36.)  The longest speeches in the Gospels would only take a few minute to read (Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, for example).  The writers are clearly giving us the teaching of Jesus in a summary fashion.

Third, It is very likely that Jesus taught very similar things in different places.  Many in the crowds would not have traveled with him, the theme of the Kingdom of God and the ethical demands of the Kingdom would be repeated in many different settings in similar, although different ways.  Which set of sayings does Matthew record?

In the end, I think we ought to treat the words of Jesus in the gospels the same way that we would treat the words of any ancient speech.  No ancient writer claimed to have written word for word what was said by a historical character.  In the ancient world, this was impossible and not expected as it is in the modern world.  A writer like Thucydides knew that he did not have the exact words of the famous speeches in his history, but he was confident he had the gist of what was said.

A question remains for the evangelical Christian:  Is “the gist of the words of Jesus” good enough?

What is the Problem with Q?

The dominant view in over the last 150 years of New Testament scholarship is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as an outline from which they wrote their gospels.  This accounts for the narrative portions of the gospels.  But there is a great deal of material where both Matthew and Luke agree that is not in Mark.

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source).  This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.”  Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another.  For example, G. N.  Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650).  Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence.  Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147).

The existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence.  The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew.  A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.   Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Alas, circumstantial evidence is just.  Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century.  What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy.  We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources.  Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do).  Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels?  For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a  broad spectrum of scholarship as well.  The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.
Both of these warnings are well intended.  It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible.  If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind.  Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew.  For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew ans cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel.  Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection.  There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.


Thomas Edgar.  “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).

Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downer’s Grover, Inter-Varsity, 2004).

G. N.  Stanton.  “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed.  Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight;  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).

Galatians 1: One Gospel

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes  for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

Paul is clear that there is only one Gospel and this gospel is the one that he has already preached to them.  Ben Witherington makes two important observations here (Galatians, 80).  First, Paul is saying that he has authority to say what the Gospel is, or is not.  The Gospel he preached is the Gospel, what the opponents are preaching is “not a gospel.”  It is not a variation on the gospel, it is not another view on how the gospel should be presented, nor is it a difference of opinion on a minor matter.  The opponent’s teaching is simply “not the gospel”!

Second, Paul has the authority to pronounce a curse on those who preaching this “other gospel.”  This authority is derived from the fact that he represents God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as their apostle (1:1).

Paul is so committed the gospel that he preached in Galatia that he pronounces a curse upon anyone that preaches a different gospel, even if it is an angel from heaven or Paul himself!   Paul makes this sweeping statement in verse 8: Even if an angel preaches another gospel, do not believe it!  This means that if Paul were to return to Galatia and declare that the Gentiles needed to keep the Law, the churches ought to not believe him.

That Paul should mention “an angel of the Lord” is important.  Later in the letter Paul alludes to the Jewish tradition that the Law was given to Moses through the mediation of angels. Paul is saying that even if a new revelation be given in the same way Moses received the Law contradicts this gospel, it must be rejected.

The fact that Barnabas is missing from the introduction is important.  Paul is stating that it does not matter who preaches, if he does not agree with the original gospel he ought to be rejected – even if that person is Barnabas!  It is possible Paul’s opponents made something out of the fact that Barnabas separated from table fellowship, siding with them.  They could say that Barnabas, the apostle from Jerusalem, agrees with them, not Paul!

People in the multi-cultural world of the twenty-first century might be shocked that Paul states unequivocally that the only way to be right with God is the Gospel which he preached.  But this is really the point of Galatians – there is but one Gospel, and that Gospel is Christ Crucified on our behalf.  For Paul, anything else is “not-a-gospel.”