John the Baptist and the Prophets of Israel

That John announced the Kingdom of God was near seems clear, but what the crowd made of this announcement is less obvious. The hope of the Hebrew Bible prophets is for the restoration of the nation after the long period of punishment. A repeated theme in the prophets is of God’s desire to restore his people after a period of discipline.  This is not the “end of the world” in the sense of a destruction of this universe but rather a renewal of all things to the way God had intended it in the first place. The Jews of the first century would not be looking for the “end of the world” as much as a “this world” time of shalom, peace and prosperity. Wright suggests this restoration included a resurrection of the nation based on Ezekiel 37 (NTPG, 286).

As with the other elements of John’s sermon, the source of this hope of restoration of the kingdom is to be found first in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but also in the massive literature post-dating the Hebrew Bible. The idea of restoration and the themes of Messiah and persecution are expanded and developed in this period by a variety of writers, each contributing to the messianic worldview of the first century. For example, in the Psalms of Solomon, Messiah will come and purge Jerusalem from Gentiles (17:22-23), destroying them with the word of his mouth (cf. Rev 19). Messiah will distribute the land to the twelve tribes of Israel and he will judge the nations (17:30-31). Messiah will not bring about salvation for Gentiles, at best, they will be allowed to admire the glory of Jerusalem from a distance.

The fact that John the Baptist was gathering large crowds was enough to bring him to the attention of the Herodian government. It was his specific critique of Antipas which was the cause of his arrest and eventual execution. Josephus makes it clear that John was arrested because he was attracting large crowds. For Herod, John’s ethical teaching was not a problem (after all, likely the same sort of preaching came from Pharisee or Essenes).

Like the prophets of the Old Testament. it was John’s political comments which brought him into conflict with Herod Antipas.  John was similar to other messianic pretenders mentioned by Josephus: Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 17.10.5, 18.1.6), Simon (Antiq. 17.10.6) and Athronges (Antiq. 17.10.7). Each of these popular leaders rose from humble origins with royal ambitions to gather a following. Each causes trouble for the Romans, resulting in their death.  Athronges, for example, had four brothers which he considered as a core for his “kingdom.” He eventually gathered a large number of people, organized them into a militia and commanded them as a king. This band even attacked Romans at Emmaus and captured food and weapons, killing forty Roman foot soldiers. Josephus uses similar language to describe John the Baptist’s following. Athronges ruled his followers as a king and everything depended on his decision. This is remarkably similar to Josephus’ description of John the Baptist:  because of John’s eloquence, Herod feared they would do anything he commanded them.

There are, however, some significant differences between the preaching of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and John the Baptist. John never uses the stereotypical phrase, “thus says the Lord.” His preaching seems to be by his own authority, perhaps giving rise to the thought that he might be the Messiah himself. While Luke’s version of the sermon has a universal tone (both Jews and Gentiles can be saved), both the Psalms of Solomon (PsSol 2:2, 19-25, 7:1-3, 8:23, 17:13-15) and the Qumran literature (1QM 1.4-9, 14.17-18) are looking forward to the punishment of the gentiles, not their eventual salvation.

John is therefore a “classic prophet” of Israel whose message brought him into conflict with the political powers of his day (Herod Antipas) as well as the religious establishment (Pharisees). If John is functioning as a “classic prophet,” how does his ministry “prepare the way” for Jesus as Messiah?  In what ways will Jesus  following in John’s footsteps?

John the Baptist and the Coming Judgment

John the Baptist’s preaching is a window into what at least some Jews believed about the coming messianic age.  For the most part, there was a consistent belief that the Lord himself would intervene in some way in history and render judgment.  Israel’s enemies will be destroyed and the nation gathered in a restored kingdom in the land promised to Abraham.  Both Matthew and Luke describe John as declaring that this judgment would be made by a messiah, who is coming soon.

The day of judgment is near in the preaching of John: the axe is to the root, branches which do not produce fruit will be thrown into fire (10). His winnowing fork is already in the hand of the coming one and he is ready to clear his threshing floor (12), consigning the chaff to unquenchable fire (12). The general image John is using is of a final harvest and separation and judgment of those who have not repentant (branches, chaff). This is an good example of continuity between John and Jesus, compare the image of burning fruitless branches here to Matt 7:19, the same phrase is used, Matt 13:29, bundles of weeds are to be burned, Mt 13:42, the tares are to be burned.

While the imagery is agricultural, it is also violent. An ax is a tool, but this particular word can also be a  vicious weapon (Jer 26:22). Branches which do not bear fruit are to be pruned, but the sense here is “to sever completely, to mutilate” (Philo, Spec Leg. 3.179.), to gouge out eyes (PssSol 4:20, Antiq. 10.140), and to totally eradicate something (Job 19:10, 4 Mac 3:2-4). This harvest language is frequent in the Hebrew Bible and the literature of the Second Temple.

While Malachi 4:1 (MT 3:19) compares the day of the Lord to a furnace or an oven, it is Isaiah which seems to be the source for the rich imagery of John’s sermon. It is not surprising that these same texts appear frequently among the DSS applied to the time of the Messiah. Isaiah 30:30-33 is a close parallel to John’s imagery. There the Lord’s raging anger and consuming fire judge Assyria. Verse 33 develops theme of a burning fire in great detail as a fire pit made deep and long, which is ignited by the breath of the Lord like a stream of burning sulfur.

The image of a fiery judgment is very common in the intertestamental literature, I will only summarize a few from the Psalms of Solomon here since that book dates nearest to the time of John’s preaching. In PsSol 15:4-5 the “flame of fire and anger” going out from the Lord to destroy the sinner. PsSol 12:2 compares the wicked man’s tongue to a scorching fire and prays for the Lord to deliver the devout by destroying the slanderous in fire (12:4). Based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, PsSol 8:2 compares the onslaught of invaders to a “raging firestorm sweeping through the wilderness.”

That the one who is coming has a “winnowing fork” in his hand is also a metaphor for impending judgment. In Isa 30:30-33 the Lord will shatter Assyria with his “scepter” (31). This word refers to a weapon that is used as a symbol of tribal leadership, but also as a shepherd’s staff (Mic 7:14, Psa 23:4). The parallel term in verse 32 is a common usually translated“punishing rod” (NIV) or “staff or punishment” (NRSV). Neither of these terms is exactly equivalent to a “winnowing fork,” but there are a remarkable number of texts which indicate salvation in the eschatological period will come from the rod or staff of the Lord. PsSol 18:7 describes the reign of Messiah as “under the rod of his discipline.” This text is ironic in the sense that Isaiah 10:24-27 tells the remnant that they need not worry about the rod of the Assyrians; now in 30:31 a rod is being used against the Assyrians. Perhaps John the Baptist substitutes a similar agricultural tool which is more appropriate for the theme of separation.

A major difference between John’s sermon and the fiery judgment scenes surveyed above is the motif of separation. When messiah comes there will be a separation, not of Israel from the oppressing gentiles, the enemies, the Kittim, etc, but of true Israel from false. At the harvest Israel itself will be shifted. Recall that John is addressing a cross section of Israel and telling them that they are facing a coming fiery judgment if they do not repent. The fate of the unrepentant Israelite is the same as for the gentile – fiery, violent destruction.

If this is the judgment that John expected, what happened to it?  Was he wrong about a coming fiery judgment ? Did John misinterpret the words of Isaiah?  How do the words of John the Baptist foreshadow the work of the Messiah especially in Luke / Acts?

John the Baptist and the Kingdom of God

In the New Testament, the first character we encounter is John the Baptist. This well-known preacher announces the impending Kingdom of God and prepares the way for the ministry of Jesus. John’s audience listened expectantly, wondering if he was the Messiah (Luke 3:15), although he made it clear he was not (John 1:21). John is not a Christian preacher, but rather a distinctly Jewish voice which expresses an understanding of the coming kingdom in Jewish terms, relying on the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish religious world of early first century Palestine. John is therefore an important witness to Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus’ ministry.

The historicity of John the Baptist is rarely doubted. As John Meier describes him, John is a “wild-card” in the Gospel tradition and all four gospels struggle to “make John safe.” (A Marginal Jew 2:19-22). He is an independent prophet who preceded Jesus and had a following which might be described as a rival to Jesus’ ministry. He was so respected by the Jewish people that after his death he was still regarded as a prophet (Matt 21:26) and still had disciples well after the events of the gospels (Acts 19:1-6). That Jesus submits to the baptism of John is certain – the writers of the four gospels would not have created such a difficult problem for their own theological aims.

John himself does not become a disciple of Jesus and it seems he doubted Jesus was the coming Messiah. In Matt 11:2-3 (cf. Luke 7:18-20), John sent disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the “coming one” or if they should expect someone else. Does this imply that John had second thoughts about Jesus? Jesus does not condemn this as a lack of faith, however, he praises John as the greatest of the prophets and associates him with the coming prophet of Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6.

John is so significant in the synoptic gospels that his death is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 6:14-29, Matt 14:1-12, Luke 9:7-9). Even after his death, John still commanded the respect of crowds at Passover who still regarded him as a prophet (again, all three gospels relate this tradition: Matt 21:23-37 / Mark 11:27-33 / Luke 20:1-8). A few disciples of John are mentioned in Acts 19, nearly 30 years after their master had died. When Paul meets these disciples, they claim to only know the “baptism of John” and do not even know that there is a Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).

What was so compelling about John’s preaching that he gathered disciples who continued to following him long after his death, perhaps even rejecting the preaching of the disciples of Jesus? First, John’s preaching was drawn from the Hebrew Bible and declared that the Messianic age was about to begin with a fiery judgment. This is one of the most common messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period and it was popular because many who were looking forward to a Messiah expected him to deal with the nations oppressing God’s people.

Second, there may have been some dissatisfaction with Jesus’ version of the Kingdom of God. The idea that the Messiah would become the suffering servant and die on behalf of others was not a common view. In fact, claiming that the Messiah would die to take the curse of the Law on himself is virtually unique to Christian preaching. For the disciples of John, then, it is at least possible that the rejected Jesus and his disciples because these new “Christians” misunderstood the Messiah.

Is there a contrast between John’s preaching and Jesus with respect to the Kingdom?  Is it possible that John was looking for something different than what Jesus ultimately offered as a Kingdom?

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 4)

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 by the hand of God, then the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20). Jesus also says that the reason he teaches in parables was to reveal the secrets of the Kingdom to his disciples (Luke 8:10).

Yet 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 of the Minas 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.

How 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.  This means we live “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.

What are some ways this “already/not yet” strategy helps read the message of Jesus?  Or to put it another way, what elements are “present” and what are “future”?

The Challenge of the Kingdom (Part 3)

A couple of days ago Sam asked about the reason we would look at Jewish messianic expectations from the Second Temple Period as background for understanding the Kingdom of God. His point was that the Jews misunderstood Jesus completely, so “…why would we look to their understanding of what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be about? Wouldn’t it be likely that they missed on that, too? Jesus’ life and mission turned on its head everything they were looking for in Messiah. Why would it be different with ‘the Kingdom of God’”?

I found this an intriguing question especially since reading N. T. Wright one might get the impression that the Jewish leaders had a great many things correct and only slightly misunderstood Jesus announcement that he was the Messiah.

One possible way to answer this objection is to properly understand Judaism in the first century. Like modern Christianity, there were less things that “all Jews agree on” that might be expected, and hopes for a future Kingdom and the role of the Messiah in that kingdom were quite varied. I often hear people say things like, “all Jews thought that 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 be like Aaron. This view was not “normative” for all Jews, but probably a minority position.

Pharisees seem to have expected a Messiah, certainly they are the most interested in Jesus’ talk about the Kingdom in the Gospels. It is likely that the Psalms of Solomon reflect the view of the Pharisees. Psalm 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 20’s A.D. 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.

I might even speculate that the ideas in PsSol. 17 are the motive behind Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. If Judas was thinking something like what we read in PsSol. 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 Psalm 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. Sam is right to wonder about the use of this material, but 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.

I really am not sure he fits very neatly into contemporary theological categories either.

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. (While I do believe in a future rapture, I think that pop-media goes too far, turning what was a “blessed hope” into a post-apocalyptic movie of Schwarzenegger-ian proportions.)

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.  In Simply Jesus, for example, he compares Jesus to several messianic movements in the Second Temple period.  Jesus is in many ways more radical than these, but obviously less militaristic.

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” (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.

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.

In his more recent Simply Jesus, Wright compares Judas Maccabees (“The Hammer”) with Jesus.  Both begin their career with a revolution.  Judas’s revolution was quite literal, a rebellion against the Selucids in response the policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Jesus was no less revolutionary, although his preaching that the “kingdom of God is near” did not have a military component.  But would people have heard echoes of The Hammer in the preaching of Jesus?  Perhaps, and as Wright says, these echoes would have been even more clear after Jesus cleanses the Temple in his final week – the same sort of thing Judas did.

Wright suggests three ways at least some of Jewish thinkers understood the problem (Challenge of Jesus, 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?