Jesus in Nazareth – Announcing the End of the Exile

After his baptism and temptation, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth where he attends a synagogue service. He is asked to read a portion of scripture from Isaiah 61. It is possible Jesus was allowed to choose the passage; it is not certain whether synagogue readings were scheduled for the prophetic books in the first century. In addition, a small synagogue in an insignificant town like Nazareth may not have had a complete set of scrolls other than the Torah.

Jesus ReadsAfter Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 he declares that they are fulfilled “today.” This is a remarkable claim since the passage in Isaiah is associated with the year of Jubilee – the time when the slaves would be set free and land returned to the original owner. N. T. Wright regularly points out that this prophetic text alludes to Lev. 25:8-12 and would have been understood as a reference to a new age of release and forgiveness for the nation (Simply Jesus, 75, for example).

Did Jews think they were still in an exile and in need of restoration? A key text is Daniel 9, where Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah and determines that the 70 year exile ought to be over. In response to his prayer for restoration and the end of the exile, God reveals to him that the exile will be extended for “70 Sevens,” presumably 490 years. Only after that period is over will God finally end the exile.

Another text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls has a similar view that the end of the exile will be like a Jubilee. 11Q13 Melichzedek indicates that at least some Jews prior to the time of Jesus thought of themselves as living in the exile. While this text is fragmentary it appears to be a collection of texts from Isaiah describing the end of the age as a new Jubilee. Melchizedek appears as a messiah-like figure who was predicted by “the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel]”in Dan 9:25. He will be a “the messenger of good who announ[ces salvation].” All this sounds very much like Jesus’ words in Luke 4.

In fact, if the community at Qumran is associated with scrolls like this one, then their location in the desert, near the place where Israel ended their 40 years exile in the wilderness and finally entered the Land is remarkable. They are enacting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 to go “into the wilderness and make straight the paths of the Lord.”

By choosing this text to read, Jesus is drawing on a stock of apocalyptic imagery to describe his own ministry, the “times of jubilee” are fast approaching! It is significant that he stops reading where he does, he does not read the lines about the day of vengeance. The Melchizedek scroll includes vengeance on the enemies of God’s people: “Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.]” Why did Jesus stop before the announcement of vengeance? I would suggest that it is simply because he knew his mission was not judgment, but to ‘provide a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The kingdom is already arriving, but it is not yet fully arrived in the ministry of Jesus. The prophecy of Isaiah is demonstrated in the next few pericopes. In 4:31-37 a demon is driven out of a man (releasing of the oppressed); in 4:38-44 many people are healed. In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus forgives a woman’s sin! As Wright says, these stories not only resonate with the long-awaited Jubilee, but also the Exodus story.

What other indications are there that Jesus might have thought of his ministry as the “end of the exile,” especially in the early years in Galilee?

 

NB: All DSS citations are from Martinez and Tigchelaar The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992.

Already? Not Yet!

When we study Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom” in the Gospels there are two competing themes. In some texts, Jesus seems to say that the Kingdom of God is present in his ministry. For example, Mark describes Jesus preaching that the Kingdom of God is “near” at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1). In Jesus says that if demons are cast out the hand of God, then the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20). Jesus also says that the reason he teachings in parables was to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to his disciples (Luke 8:10)

now laterYet in other texts he seems to say that the Kingdom is has not yet come and that his disciples ought to be prepared for a wait before the Kingdom finally comes. The parables in Matthew 25, for example, indicate that Jesus will go away for a long time before returning.  The Ten Virgins (25:1-12) indicates that the disciple will have to prepare for a long wait before the “wedding banquet” begins, and the parable of the talents (25:14-30) tells the disciples that they will have to give an account for how they use the time before the coming of the king. The parable in Luke 19 is told specifically to defuse the crowd’s expectation that Jesus was about to establish a kingdom in Jerusalem at that moment.

not-yet-gifHow do we account for this apparently conflicting data? One common way is to emphasize either one or the other aspect. C. H. Dodd famously stressed the presence of the kingdom, arguing that the kingdom was “fully realized” in Jesus’ ministry. This means that there is no real future kingdom, the present Church fulfills Jesus’ vision for a kingdom. This means that there is no future restoration of Israel, the promises of the Hebrew prophets are fulfilled in the Church. One potential problem with a fully realized eschatology is that the parables warning of a long delay must be taken as creations of the church to explain the non-return of Jesus.

On the other hand, it is possible to stress only the future aspect of the kingdom. Someone like Schweitzer, for example, thought Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected a messianic kingdom promised by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. While Schweitzer thought Jesus was wrong, other streams of theology (such as classic dispensationalism) understands Jesus as teaching a future kingdom, literally fulfilling the promises of the Hebrew Bible, including a restoration of the kingdom to the Jewish people. But a wholly future kingdom does not really do justice to Jesus’ claim that the kingdom is present in his ministry.

A third option is to see Jesus’s ministry as a present kingdom, but a kingdom which does not exhaust the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. This has the advantage of taking Jesus seriously when he says that his miracles are establishing some sort of kingdom, but also the warnings of a lengthy interim between the establishment of the kingdom and the consummation of the kingdom in the (now distant) future.

The catch-phrase “already / not yet” is perhaps so overused that it has lost all rhetorical value, but it remains a fairly good way of understanding the kingdom in the gospels. Some elements of the kingdom expected by the prophets is present in Jesus’ ministry, but others remain unfulfilled until a future time. The point is the present church lives “between the ages,” after the “already” but before the “not yet.” We look back to the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also forward to the future consummation of the ages.

Are there other specific sayings or actions of Jesus where the “already / not yet” may help our understanding of the text?

Messianic Expectations and the Kingdom

In order to understand how a first century Jewish audience might have understood the phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” is to examine messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period. This background should shed some light on the phrase “kingdom of God.”

A former student of mine once asked something like, “If the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely why would we care about their understanding of what the “kingdom of God” was supposed to be about?” If Jesus’ life and mission turned everything on its head, perhaps Jewish expectations are the opposite of what Jesus means by the kingdom. I find this an intriguing question, especially since N. T. Wright gives the impression that the Jewish leaders had many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

Not the Messiah

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century.  Like modern Christianity, the list of items “all Jews agree on” is fairly short. Hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom varied greatly among the various sub-groups within Judaism. I heard students say things like, “all Jews believed the messiah would be a military leader who would attack Rome.” I suppose that is true for some Jews, but not all. At Qumran the Essenes appear to have expected a “military messiah,” but also a priestly messiah who would reform the Temple.

Pharisees seem to have expected a messiah and they were certainly the most interested in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalms of Solomon 17 serves as an indication of messianic expectations which were current only shortly before the time of Jesus. Rome is viewed as a foreign invader who will be removed when the messiah comes. If these sorts of messianic expectations were popular in Galilee in the early first century, then we have good reason to read Jesus’ teaching as intentionally messianic and we are able to understand some of the confusion and disappointment among the Jews who heard him teach.

Consider the motives Judas may have had when he betrayed Jesus. If he believed things similar to Ps.Sol 17, then it is possible he was trying to “force Messiah’s hand” into striking out against Rome and the Temple establishment. Jesus seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah, but he did not seem to be the Davidic messiah expected in Ps.Sol 17.

On the other end of the scale would be the Sadducees, a group that (as far as we know) had no messianic expectations. The fact that they limited their canon to the Torah also limited their expectations of a future restoration of the Davidic kingdom. What would a Sadducee think when Jesus announced “the kingdom of God is near”? Perhaps that was enough to identify him as Pharisee or an Essene, and therefore not very interesting. (I would guess that the Herodians were even less interested in a coming kingdom, since any Jewish messiah would probably start their judgment with a thorough smiting of Herod and his family.)

This is all to say that there was a wide range of belief about Messiah, Kingdom, restoration of David’s rule, or a future reign of God in the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. I think it serves to show that Jesus did not fit neatly into any first century conception of Messiah or Kingdom, which is exactly why audience struggled to understand him, both disciples and enemies. But are there additional benefits to understanding the “Kingdom of God” in the light of the Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period? Perhaps there are other elements of Jesus’ life and teaching that would benefit from this contextual approach.

What Kind of Kingdom?

When N. T. Wright describes “Kingdom of God” in The Challenge of Jesus, he seems to be defending against two separate views he considers inadequate.  Frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” which seems to mean “the end of the world.”  He has in mind here the distinctly American view of the end times found in traditional Dispensationalism (especially through Left Behind type fiction). Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. Essentially, most Dispensationalists have argued Jesus came to offer the kingdom promised in the Hebrew Bible to the Jewish people. Whether they know it or not, most Dispensationalists understand Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet and they understand the prophecies for a future kingdom more or less like many in the Second Temple period did.

rapture 1992

No.

But Wright also wants to describe Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom as fairly radical in a Second Temple Jewish context. This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as simply “doing good” or “loving your neighbor” popular in liberal Christianity. For Wright, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom does refer to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, although how the prophecies are fulfilled are quite different than in pre-millennialism.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s characterization of their positions. For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensational thinking, it is a fantasy story not a reasonable presentation of a theological position. To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma. This is a straw-man argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst. Wright regularly points out people in the Second Temple period expected a “real kingdom in this world” not the end of the world. This is exactly what Dispensational writers have said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.

On the second front, Wright is correct to chastise protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom as “bland.” Most of these descriptions of the Kingdom are certainly not what Jesus 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 too many political and social issues which have to be dismissed if Jesus 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” (Challenge of Jesus, 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.

A major question to be resolved is “did Jesus think he was going to come back after the ascension?” If he did, what did he image he would be doing “when the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all his angels with him” (Matt 25:31)?  If Jesus intended apocalyptic elements in his preaching of the Kingdom of God at the end of his life, perhaps there were there when he appeared in Galilee, announcing that the Kingdom of God was near.

I think there is room at the exegetical table for pre-millennialists.

The Challenge of the Kingdom

We may therefore safely conclude that Jesus habitually went from village to village, speaking of the kingdom of the God of Israel, a celebrating this kingdom in various ways, not least in sharing meals with all and sundry. These actions and words must therefore be seen not as incidental behaviour, irrelevant to his worldview or mindset, but as part at least of the praxis through which we can bring his worldview into focus N. T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996) 150.

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.

King JesusWright 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 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.

Jesus appears in Galilee announcing the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:14-15). The “Kingdom” is so commonplace those of us in the church that it has lost any rhetorical “punch” it once had. “Kingdom” has become an overworked metaphor or a theological fighting point. But we are not the people to whom that announcement was originally addressed. In the synoptic gospels, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness, using language drawn from the great kingdom passages of the Old Testament, then Jesus preached that the Kingdom was at hand – and that it was actually present! To those Jews living in the first century, under the oppression of Roman rule, especially in Galilee — the Kingdom of God was a radical, even revolutionary idea. It was the hope of many Jews that God would establish the kingdom immediately, and the Messiah would come to end the long exile of his people.

Is Wright’s view of the “kingdom” different than the use of the phrase in popular preaching? What do people mean when they use phrases like “building the kingdom” or “working for the kingdom”? How is this related to what Jesus was teaching? (Or, is it related at all to the teaching of Jesus?)

Keeping Sabbath

Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest and those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned to death.  This Sabbath was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited. The Romans took advantage the practice by building earthworks near the walls of Jerusalem on the Sabbath because the Jews refused to shoot weapons at them (War 1.15-147). In the Diaspora it was common for a Jew to be taken to court on the Sabbath, hoping they would not appear to defend themselves (Antiq. 16.45-46). Greek and Roman writers regularly mocked the Jews for the practice of the Sabbath. The poet Rutilius Namatianus, for example, ridiculed the Jews for being lazy, wasting one day a week when they ought to be working.

Sabbath RestSabbath was not intended to be simply a cessation from all activity.  On the contrary, most Jews tried to make it as festive a day as possible. Food was prepared ahead of time so that it was available for an evening meal after sundown when the Sabbath came in.  There were rules (devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath. Meals were likely fish or fowl, better than a regular mean but not the red meat of a feast day.  Many Jews gathered at a synagogue for prayer and scripture reading.

Modifications of the Sabbath laws were made. For example, the Law prohibits fighting on the Sabbath, but the command does not refer to fighting in defense during a war on the Sabbath. To attack was not permitted, but if the enemy tried to take advantage of the Sabbath, defense was permitted. In the Mishnah, there are 39 activities prohibited on the Sabbath (m.Shabbat 7:2). One was not permitted to reap on the Sabbath, since this is a form of work. By the time of the Talmud, some rabbis would not climb a tree on the Sabbath lest they accidently break off a branch and be guilty of “reaping on the Sabbath” (Shabbos 8:3–5, 21:6–10). It is highly unlikely that these specific rulings go back to the time of Jesus, but undoubtedly the process of clarifying the Sabbath was underway in the first century.

Some Jews made other modifications in order to make keeping the Sabbath easier (or perhaps more difficult). For example, according to the Law one is only permitted to neither walk a short distance nor carry burdens on the Sabbath. How is it possible, then, for a family to gather in one home for a Sabbath meal? They may have to travel more than a short distance and they certainly would have to carry some food to share at the meal. By the time of the Talmud a person was permitted to walk and carry within an area bounded by walls and doors, like a city wall. This led to the development of eruvin traditions.  An eruv is a boundary within which movement and carrying is permitted. This tradition is far more complicated than my short description here, but it illustrates the trend to make the Sabbath easier for people to keep and enjoy.

Jesus’ words in Matt 23:1-4 may refer to these additional clarifications of Sabbath and other laws. While Jesus never breaks the Sabbath, he seems to challenge more restrictive interpretations of the Law. In Matt 12:8 he declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath and proceeds to heal someone who is not critically ill on the Sabbath. If the Sabbath was so important to some Jews that they were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to keep it, how might Jesus’ words and actions be understood? Is he challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?

Prayer and Study of Torah

Daily Prayers were accompanied by the reciting of the Shema. While the Qumran community prayed three times a day, most Jews appear to have prayed twice a day.  These prayers were either at the time of the morning and evening sacrifice or at dawn and sundown at whatever location the person happened to be at (they did not have to go to the synagogue to pray.) Home was the primary place of worship for the Jew.  In addition to memorized prayers, individuals presented petitions to God for their own health and happiness.

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Eighteen Benedictions represent prayers used in public worship, although it is impossible to know for sure if they date to the pre-70 period. These prayers emphasize the attributes of God (his justice and mercy), his uniqueness, his willingness to forgive and to heal the sick as well as his control of the harvest. Sanders is doubtful first century Jews did any prayers (or hymns) in unison, but this cannot be certain since there is no evidence either way.

How often the average Jew studied the scripture is unclear.  This may refer to simply going to the synagogue and heard the scripture read (especially for the non-educated who would not be able to read.)  In addition, scrolls were expensive, only the incredibly wealthy would be able to own a scroll to study.

The Synagogue is of critical importance to the Jews of the first century.  While we do not know when the synagogue was first used, we do know of synagogues dating to the first century (in the town of Gamla and one in Masada and the Herodian, likely built by Zealots long after Herod’s time.) Often synagogues were built over the site of an older building, accounting for the lack of first century archaeological remains. The synagogue at Tiberias was large enough to hold a crowd gathered to discuss the impending war (Life 277, 280, 290-303). We know from the Bible that both Jesus and Paul taught in synagogues regularly.

Philo describes the synagogue meeting which took place on Sabbath: a priest or elder would read from the scripture and comment on the text while people listened, then anyone who was moved to comment would do so.  Usually they simply sat in silence and listened. Essenes were taught in the law every day, but more often on the Sabbath. The synagogue as designed with benches around the perimeter to encourage participation by all in attendance, as demonstrated in Mark 1:14-15, 6:1-5.

I am not sure Jesus challenges this institution of Second Temple Judaism. He is often described as participating in Synagogue discussions may have been asked on occasion to address the group as a teacher.  But it is possible Jesus does subvert the normal practice of gathering to study Scripture at a Synagogue in other ways, but teaching on hillsides or other locations.