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Wright for Everyone: The Historical Jesus by Kevin Hanks
Astonishingly, N.T. Wright, over the course of his career, has bridged a gap in academics between conservative and liberal Jesus scholars, a rare feat. His vast amount of writings on Jesus has engaged readers on every level. For instance, my first semester in college I was assigned to read The Challenge of Jesus1, introducing me to a new perspective of the historical Jesus in simple language. While there is comfort in reading a book fewer than 200 pages (especially if you are a freshman!), although brilliantly written, it leaves you yearning for more. Little did I know how prolific of an author N.T. Wright was, as I did not have to yearn much longer when I noticed in the preface of CJ it stated the first five chapters are snapshots of what one will find in Jesus and the Victory of God.2 In an effort to be concise, this summary will highlight key themes in his monumental work JVG, while using his other works to clarify where needed. The Beliefs of Israel3 Why start here? This is a necessity, for every word and action of Jesus is deeply embedded in the story of Israel. Wright, in his book NTPG, laid the groundwork for JVG, therefore, this is where we now turn. After the rebellion of humanity, God elected a people through whom he would restore creation.4 He made a covenant with his people through Abraham that the curse would be reversed, ‘and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’.5 This theme is carried throughout all of the Pentateuch, prophets, and wisdom literature. Even in exile the prophets urged Israel to look towards the coming age, described as a
Hereafter will be referred to as CJ Hereafter will be referred to as JVG 3 ‘It must be stressed that we are attempting here to see things from a first-century perspective…’ New Testament and the People of God, 262. (Hereafter will be referred to as NTPG) 4 ‘The creator calls a people through whom, somehow, he will act decisively within his creation, to eliminate evil from it and to restore order, justice and peace. Central to this ongoing plan of action, then, is the call of Israel. When the creator acts to restore and heal his world, he will do so through this people.’ (NTPG, 251-52) 5 Gen. 12:3. NTPG, 262.
time when all will be restored to a new creation. This confirms the double impact of the covenant: Israel will be restored, consequently, being the key to the world’s restoration.6 This raised many questions for the period between Maccabees and Bar-Kochba. If the Creator has made a covenant with his people then why were they not ruling the world, why are they still in suffering, therefore, begging the question, what should Israel be doing in the present to bring about the time for their God to act on their behalf? How can one be a faithful Jew in the present situation? The common perception of this period believed that Israel, although back from Babylon, was still in exile because the message of the prophets had not been fulfilled.7 Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.8 Israel longed for the glory of YHWH to return to Zion. It had not been the same since the time of Solomon when the cloud of YHWH’s presence filled the temple. Israel was to be the means of undoing evil within the world, but now that she has fallen victim to evil, God must intervene to bring about the end of exile.9 This exile will be undone when Israel’s sin is dealt with by YHWH (i.e., forgiveness), thus re-establishing his people.10 To sum up: Israel is in exile due to her sin and awaits YHWH’s return—and this is the environment Jesus steps into.
‘What happens to the Gentiles is conditional upon, and conditioned by, what happens to Israel. In terms of the first level of covenant purpose, the call of Israel has as its fundamental objective the rescue and restoration of the entire creation. Not to see this connection is to fail to understand the meaning of Israel’s fundamental doctrines of monotheism and election. (NTPG, 264) 7 ‘This state of affairs had existed ever since the Babylonians had come and destroyed Jerusalem in 597 B.C., carrying away the Judaeans captive into exile. Thus, though some of them had returned from geographical exile, most believed that the theological state of exile was still continuing. They were living within a centuries-old drama, still waiting for the turn in the story that would bring them out on top at last. (CJ, 36) 8 Neh 9:36, NTPG, 269. 9 NTPG, 272. 10 ‘…the forgiveness of sins to a first-century Jew is not in the first instance the remission of individual sins, but the putting away of the whole nations’ sins.’ (NTPG, 273)
Announcement (Inauguration Eschatology) Jesus announced the kingdom of God was at hand. His announcement provoked three themes: Israel’s return from exile, the defeat of Israel’s enemies, and the return of YHWH to Zion, conclusively meaning Israel’s God was becoming king.11 This language evoked the story of Israel and now Jesus was claiming their destiny was approaching.12 Jesus used the Parable of the Sower as a kingdom-announcement, describing the time of fruit had come, the covenant was to be renewed, and YHWH was returning to his people.13 However, this would look radically different from the way Israel thought. Invitation Jesus’ call to repent can be summarized as follows: Israel had a history of revolting against Gentile nations and his call was for Israel to repent from this worldview. Wright uses an example of repentance in Josephus’s writings describing a brigand chief as making a plot against his life, whereas Josephus told him, “I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.” This quote gives necessary insight to Jesus’ statement, “if he would repent and believe in me.”14 Believing or having faith is what marks out God’s people in a time of crisis and is what characterizes the people who are restored. Believing this message meant God was acting climatically in Jesus.15 As stated above, forgiveness of sins meant the end of exile. Jesus’ real offense in the eyes of the officials was that he was offering on his own authority the forgiveness of sins to all the wrong people. In turn, the ones who accepted his message would be part of the restored people. For Wright, the forgiveness of sins was the
NTPG, 206. ‘…it was simply a Jewish way of talking about Israel’s God becoming king. And, when this God became king, the whole world, the world of space and time, would at last be put to rights.’ (JVG, 202-03) 13 JVG, 238-39. 14 JVG, 250. 15 JVG, 261-62.
inauguration of the kingdom of God.16 This presented a challenge for the hearers to live as a new covenant people by giving loyalty to Jesus and those who opposed him would face judgment.17 Judgment and Vindication In the Old Testament we see the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel symbolically act out judgment against Jerusalem and the Temple. Following in the line of the prophets, Jesus too acted in judgment towards Jerusalem and the Temple. Jesus, in seeing the atrocities take place in the courts, and Israel’s attitude to both foreigners and her own people (specifically the poor), was driven to symbolically act out in the Temple the destruction of Jerusalem.18 God would use Rome as his agent of destruction, as he had used Babylon and Assyria before (i.e., 722, 587/6), with the events of AD 70, thus validating Jesus as a prophet. Ironically, Jesus was announcing the enemy was not Rome but was Israel herself!19 However, for God’s people there would be vindication, his enacted parable was a window to the future judgment that Jesus opened for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Israel had a choice either to repent and trust in Jesus’ agenda or to follow their own path which leads to destruction.20 Jesus’ disciples would have to trust him in order to be preserved and protected in and through tribulation and persecution.21
JVG, 272. ‘If the kingdom is at hand, those who reject it will incur judgment. In and through this judgment, those who have accepted the kingdom will find their vindication. (JVG, 319) 18 ‘Mark’s fig-tree incident; Luke’s picture of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem; John’s saying about destruction and rebuilding; the synoptic traditions of the false witnesses and their accusation, and of the mocking at the foot of the cross; Thomas’ cryptic saying (‘I will destroy this house, and no-one will be able to rebuild it’); the charge in Acts that Jesus would destroy the Temple: all these speak clearly enough, not of cleansing or reform, but of destruction.’ (JVG, 416) 19 ‘…Israel’s official leaders (and their cherished symbol, the Temple) have been cast in the role of ‘enemies’, while the role of ‘persecuted and vindicated Israel’ is given instead to Jesus and his disciples.’ (JVG, 339) 20 ‘The destruction of Jerusalem on the one hand, and the rescue of the disciples on the other, would be the vindication of what Jesus had been saying throughout his ministry.’ (JVG, 338) 21 JVG, 338.
The Beliefs of Jesus Jesus’ words and actions must be considered in order to get a complete vision of how Jesus saw himself; after all, he too was a theologian.22 Jesus saw himself as Messiah, but as Wright indicates, this has nothing to do with making a statement about his divinity.23 In recognition of the fact that there are many different pictures of what Messiah is within the Judaism(s) of Jesus’ day, Wright explains aspects of Messiah around the key symbols within Judaism, one example being the Temple. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his action in the Temple are depicted as royal imagery. His actions in the Temple were seen as him claiming authority over the Temple, an explicit messianic claim.24. After Jesus’ action in the temple the leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” If the authority came from God then the answer is, the king, the one whom is acting on God’s behalf. However, instead of answering, Jesus asks them what they thought of John the Baptist. Throughout the synoptic tradition, Jesus refers to John the Baptist as the last great prophet, making Jesus the Messiah. Additionally, John’s baptism further pointed to him as the anointed one, the Messiah.25 Following Marks’ train of thought, this leads naturally into the parable of the wicked tenants, whereas, the final prophet or messenger is different, he is unique—he is the Messiah. He has come to judge the managers of the vineyard, further explaining his actions in the temple, again symbolizing the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem.26
JVG, 482. ‘There are puzzling and opaque texts in the Hebrew scriptures which speak of the king as one speaks of Israel’s God. There are passages where the roles of YHWH and of the king seem to be intertwined…but the word ‘Messiah’, within Jesus’ world, does not refer, in itself, to a divine or quasi-divine figure. So, when Peter says to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah’, and when Caiaphas says the same words but as an ironic question, neither of them should be understood as either stating or asking whether Jesus thinks he is the incarnate second person of the Trinity.’ (JVG, 478) 24 JVG, 492. 25 CJ, 78. 26 JVG, 498.
One final messianic riddle necessary to consider is when Jesus asks about David’s Lord in Psalm 110, which refers to the enthronement of the Messiah, to his successful battle against the kings of the earth, and to his being ‘a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’27 In this psalm, the king supersedes the high-priestly establishment, and this is precisely what Jesus is alluding to in his own actions in the temple. In addition, this psalm speaks of the one whom pronounces judgment on YHWH’s enemies, Jesus is again implying from where his authority comes.28 The Victory of God The age-old question, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ has provoked many answers over the centuries and caused much frustration to researchers. With this in mind, Wright takes up the challenge. First, we will look at his actions in the Temple, alongside his actions in the upper room, noting how they both interpret one another.29 In short, Jesus was replacing the cherished Jewish symbol, namely the Temple, with a new-exodus feast; one that was centered on Jesus himself.30 Jesus, in his death, was enacting how Israel was to respond to their enemies by turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and his agenda showed his followers to take up their cross—these were examples of how Israel was to be a light to the other nations. Jesus’ agenda is subversive: he would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.31 “How often, would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, and you would not. Behold, your house is left desolate.” He had hoped to take on Israel’s judgment, however, Jerusalem
Direct quote from JVG, 508. JVG, 509. 29 JVG, 557. 30 ‘The Last Supper was Jesus’ own alternative symbol, the kingdom-feast, the new-exodus feast. And, just as the Temple pointed to the sacrificial meeting of the covenant God and his people, the sign of forgiveness and hope, of God dwelling in their midst as the God of covenant renewal, covenant steadfastness, covenant love, so now Jesus by his double action was claiming that here, in his own work, in his own person, all that the Temple had stood for was being summed up in a new and final way.’ (CJ, 84) 31 CJ, 85.
would not benefit from his death.32 Jesus knew his actions would lead him to the cross. But creation would not have the last word. The Creator would vindicate His Messiah by raising him from the dead. Jesus himself would be the means of the victory of God.33 Return of YHWH Jesus’ life, as we have seen, was enacting YHWH returning to rescue his people. This comes to a head on his journey to Jerusalem, where he personifies judgment on Jerusalem as did Ezekiel laying on his side or Jeremiah smashing the pot. Wright sees the parables that are typically interpreted as Jesus’ second coming as YHWH returning to his people through Jesus’ vocation in the first-century. This is not to say Wright does not believe the earth will drastically be transformed by the return of Jesus in the future.34 Jesus was stating in these stories YHWH was doing what he promised, by returning to Zion to judge and to save. Imagine this—Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, whispering to his disciples if only it would have known what brings peace, but the days are coming when your enemies will come against you and dash you to the ground, why did you not recognize the time of God’s visitation? Israel was confused; the judgment was coming on their heads and not the Romans!35 YHWH’s return was full of judgment but also full of grace; he loved his creation but it was in dire need of being saved from evil. Jesus’ death was used as a catalyst to bring about this salvation, to start afresh what YHWH had intended from the start.36
CJ, 87. CJ, 92. 34 ‘The belief that the creator God will at the last recreate the whole cosmos and that Jesus will be at the center of that new world is firmly and deeply rooted in the New Testament, not least in such vital passages as Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22.’ (CJ, 117) 35 CJ, 118. 36 ‘In Jesus himself, I suggest, we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Is 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do; the creator God, giving new life; the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures; the faithful God, dwelling in the midst of his people; the stern and tender God, relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress.’ (CJ, 121)
Conclusion The significance of Easter is crucial for Wright’s historical Jesus and, for that matter, the church. This day is the birthday of God’s new world, and Jesus’ resurrection has commissioned the church to be a light to the world. Jesus intentionally invited his hearers to participate in his retelling of the story of Israel; furthermore, it is imperative for the church to make Israel’s story their own. This task is a necessity for the redemption of the world.37
Bibliography CJ= The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999). MJ= The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: Harper One, 1999). NTPG= New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol.1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). JRI= Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999). JVG= Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
See CJ, 53.
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