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?

Fourth Anniversary of Reading Acts

On September 1, 2008 Reading Acts published its first post, “Why Acts?” I originally set up this blog as a supplement to my preaching through the Book of Acts at Rush Creek Bible Church. My plan was to offer a few thoughts before and after I preached on a particular text in Acts. After the series concluded, I kept the blog going, expanding to Pauline Theology and other New Testament topics. At some point I began adding a link to the audio for the study, although I am resisting the urge to call that a “podcast.” Remarkably, people really do download the sermons. I have no evidence the listen to them, but I appreciate the fact that someone is listening.

Reading Acts has grown consistently over the years. This is not my first attempt at blogging, but the others died a lonely death while Reading Acts thrived.  In the four years I have been blogging, I have written 700 posts and now average well over 500 views a day. This summer I passed the 250,000 mark, and will likely hit 300,000 before the year is over. I find this all quite remarkable and humbling. I sometimes think that 90% of the traffic is Brazillan spam hoping to con me into buying a time-share in the Mediterranean, but that does not always seem to be the case. It is gratifying that Reading Acts is consistently in the Top Ten Biblioblogs (#8 for August 2012), although I know that several popular blogs have dropped off that list in the last year, inflating my rank just a bit. I get the occasional mention in the BiblioBlog Carnivals and some good links from Zondervan and Eerdmans.

I hosted the Biblical Studies Carnival for July on Reading Acts and took over the responsibility for drafting volunteers for the Carnival from Jim Linville about the same time.  I think that these carnivals are important since they highlight some of the more serious scholarship that is happening on the internet.

Last summer I wrote a post on Top Apps for Bible Study in the iPad. This remains my top post by far and attracts more hits every month. The top non-iPad post all-time is “Who were the Judaizers?” A close second is “The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship.” I suspect that I am helping Bible College students with their papers (properly cited of course!) In the last year my post on Paul’s Disagreement with Barnabas continues to generate discussion.  I think that my view is a bit different than what is usually heard from the pulpit, accounting for the occasional dissenting opinion.

Aside from iPad Apps for Biblical studies, the top search engine term which hit Reading Acts were “who were the judaizers?” and “Why did Judas betray Jesus?”  I got quite a few hits from “harry potter praise,” which might be a new genre of church worship (if so I will alert the Barna Group immediately of this trend).  I notice that I often get hits with this sort of a search term: “5. how did paul’s roman citizenship impact his evangelistic efforts?”  Protip:  If you are going to cheat on your homework, at least delete the number from your google search.  My summer series on Bible Commentaries was popular, I am thinking of expanding it into some form of eBook in the future.

One of the new cool features WordPress introduced this year on the stats pages was country flags.  Since February 2012, The US, UK, Canada and Australia are the most common countries to visit Reading Acts.  Philippines, India and Singapore are also in the top ten.  In fact, about half the hits to this blog on 2012 were from outside the US, which is remarkable (insert Brazillain spammer joke here).  Occasionally google translate appears in the site log, so I know that people are reading who are not native English speakers.  I would love to hear from any regular readers who visit from outside the US.  Hopefully I am providing you with material you can use in your ministry or Christian walk.

What to Expect on Reading Acts. Since I am in academia, I tend to think of the year as starting in September rather than January.  (I also think it ends in May, and the summer months do not count, but that is my problem).  Starting in September, Reading Acts will “reboot” and return to the Gospels. Since I am teaching Jesus and the Gospels, I thought I would read through Luke and Acts on the blog, commenting on Bock’s new Theology of Luke-Acts and Talbert’s Reading Luke and Reading Acts. (Sadly, I did not realize that Talbert had written that book when I started this blog!) I am planning on teaching through the Thessalonian letters on Sunday evenings, so I will continue my practice of posting a few comments from that study along with a link to the audio.

I am looking forward to another great year on Reading Acts, thanks to everyone who regularly reads the blog.  I do appreciate your interest and comments.

The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction

It is hard to imagine a work on Paul’s theology which does not address the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).  Since Ed Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1979, a landslide of books have been published developing and modifying his ideas.  The 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Society was almost entirely devoted to a discussion of the New Perspective, especially as expressed in the writings of N. T. Wright.  I heard papers decrying the New Perspective as an attack on the assured results of the Reformation (one paper concluded with a lengthy quite of the Westminster Confession, as if that somehow proved the point being argued!) I heard papers from Wright Fan-Boys taking his ideas as if he has somehow become the Pope of Evangelicalism.

Usually these sorts of scholarly arguments are confined to the Academy.  Several factors have dragged the New Perspective out of the University or Seminary classroom and into the popular media.  First, the growing popularity of N. T. Wright over the last ten years has brought these ideas to the public’s attention.  Wright has attempted to communicate at the popular level both in print and in his many speaking engagements every year.  Second, since Wright is perceived as a representative of the New Perspective, he has come under fire from advocates of the traditional view of Paul’s theology.  This too has taken place in more popular media than most academic debates.  John Piper wrote a very popular book which sought to correct Wright, although he more or less defends the traditional view of justification by faith.  Wright responded with a book intended for laymen, Justification. Third, in the last five years the phenomenon of the Blog has propelled otherwise arcane theological debates into the public eye.  Bloggers do not have the same level of accountability as a major publisher and are far more likely to describe Wright as an arch-heretic bent on destroying God-Ordained Reformation churches.  This sort of thing is picked up by pastors and teachers in local churches and trickles down to congregations.

The New Perspective is not a dangerous idea which will destroy the heart of Christianity, although it will force a reconsideration of some of the assumptions of the Protestant Reformation.  This is not to say it will turn Protestants into Catholics.  As Wright frequently says, all he is trying to do is to continue the reformation by being faithful to Scripture and accurately describing Paul’s theology. Of course, that is what advocates of the traditional formulation is doing too.

I find the reactions to Sanders, Dunn and Wright somewhat bewildering, mostly because I do not work within a context of a Protestant Reformed denomination.  I have always resonated with a more Calvinist view of salvation, but I am not bound by a commitment to a confession nor do I have a strong affinity for Luther and the reformation, although that is probably because my tradition moved beyond the reformation in Eschatology and Ecclesiology.  I agree with Wright that there is nothing wrong with “reforming the Reformation,” Calvin and Luther would want the discussion of Pauline theology to continue and make use of all of the evidence available today.

Because this is an important issue, I am going to devote five or six postings to the New Perspective in anticipation of my Pauline Theology and Literature class I will be teaching this fall.  Here is my plan for this series, I might add one or two more topics before I am finished.  Feel free to suggest a potential topic for the series.

  • What was the Old Perspective?
  • The Beginnings of the New Perspective:  Lake, Davies and Sanders
  • Wright and Dunn: A Newer Perspective?
  • Response to the New Perspective
  • Dispensational Theology and the New Perspective on Paul

I will admit that this is a brief overview.  Each of the topics ought to be a chapter of a book (they probably will be, eventually!)  I am confessing up front that this series is woefully inadequate for a full understanding of the topics.  For this reason I will provide a list of other resources for each post “for further study.”  My goal is to provide a brief orientation to the New Perspective on Paul so that a student may read other works on the New Perspective with some context.