World's Top New Testament Scholar - Christians Need To Read The Gospels Through Ancient Jewish Eyes

Jerry Bowyer, Contributor

I’ve written here about New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and his most recent book, The Day the Revolution Began. The book was published recently and is now being made available in an online course format. The book (and the course) will bring insights to even the most seasoned student of the Scriptures… And to the least seasoned as well.

There’s an old saying among conservative evangelicals that if something is new, it’s not true – and if something is true, it’s not new.

Wright doesn’t see it that way, and I don’t think the rest of us should either.

Evangelicals look back in time with appreciation to the Protestant Reformation, but that event was at the time something quite new. The charge of innovation was frequently invoked against the reformers: If the best minds had been studying the scriptures for 14 centuries, what could Luther or Calvin add? One of the counters to this argument was the cry, ‘ad fontes’, ‘to the source’. In this case, the source referred to the original source documents which had come into the possession of European scholars shortly before the reformation. Scholars were suddenly able to access texts in the original language instead of through Latin translations. Insights poured out of the newly opened fontes.

But that was 500 years ago (to the exact year). What would be the source of new insight now? Answer: The explosion in knowledge of the historical background in which the New Testament was written. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls proved to be a treasure-trove of knowledge about 1st Century Palestine. These discoveries have provided a kind of glossary of ideas with which to decode texts from a distant time and place.

Biblical archaeology is in its most explosive phase in history. We now know much more about the world of Jesus of Nazareth than did any other generation of historians before; it would be shocking if we did not find ourselves flooded with new insights into the meaning of the scriptural texts. What kind of science would Biblical theology be if it remained unchanged by a flood of new information of this magnitude?

Principally, what Wright sets out to do with it in this new book is reintegrate the gospels with ‘the gospel’. By this, I mean that in writing about the atonement, Wright spends much of his time in the gospel texts. This would seem like an obvious strategy for understanding the meaning of the death of Jesus, but books about the atonement almost never focus much attention in the main body of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Instead, they tend to focus attention on the letters of St. Paul. The bits of attention which they do spend in the gospels, are almost entirely in selected sections of the crucifixion narratives (and maybe John 17, the great ‘priestly prayer’ which conspicuously does not offer much help to the Penal Substitution view).

Implicitly, the standard works about the atonement act almost as if the vast majority of the gospel material is simply preamble to the Passion. It’s almost as if the gospels don’t give us sufficient information to understand the theological importance of the Passion – until St. Paul comes along and reveals it. But the Church was already preaching the gospel, and flourishing, before the conversion of Paul and long before his letters – indeed, the great success of the Gospel was one of the things which drew Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) into trying to destroy it.

One of Wright’s most scintillating insights was his discussion of the genealogy at the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel. This passage points out that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David and 14 generations from David to the Babylonian exile and 14 generations from the exile to ‘The Christ’. I’ve often puzzled over the meaning of the number 14 as it is used there (two sevens, meaning a 2nd creation? Or St. Jerome’s observation that 14 is the numeric value of the name, David in Hebrew? Or both?). However, I have blithely glossed over the references particular events mentioned many times: Life of Abraham, life of David, Exile, Christ. I read the text as though these were generic events in the history of Israel, not specific exegetical markers.

Wright shows that this genealogy sets a foundation which helps the reader to understand the rest of that Gospel: Jesus is there to reaffirm Abraham’s mission to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. He does that by being the faithful heir to David (i.e. David’s son)…

As an aside: So much of His dispute with the religious leaders of the day was the contest over who is the legitimate heir to David; the dispute over Jesus making himself equal with God in which Jesus quotes Psalm 110 for example; as well as the dispute about picking grain on the Sabbath (in which Jesus invokes David as precedent); the question about paying the temple tax, et cetera…

And then finally, the reference to the Exile, at the beginning of the gospel, sets us up to be looking for this next natural step in Israel’s history – the end of exile. And once our eyes are open for that possibility, we see it in almost every chapter – in every discussion of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘sin’.

You see, Israel saw itself as being in exile for her sins, and therefore the necessary precondition to the end of exile is for those sins to be forgiven. Put another way, if Israel’s sins had already been forgiven, why in the world would it still be left in exile? The normal pattern of Israel’s history had been that when right relationship with God had been established (for example cyclically in the book of Judges) they were rescued from national captivity. So no end of exile meant that there had been no forgiveness of sins.

When we modern readers are missing this historical context, we tend to misread many of these texts, or at least to under-read them. Here’s an example (from me, not Wright): Little details like Jesus’ admonition to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ is typically boiled down to a fortune cookie moral lesson (‘forgive people many times’) rather than seen in their historical context. Few informed Jews living at the time of Jesus could hear ‘seventy times seven’ and not instantly think of the warning of the prophet Daniel that Israel would be in exile for seventy times seven years, that is 490 years. This period of time was nearing its end in their day and had become a source of great prophetic speculation, even frenzy, at the time.

Jesus seems to be teaching that Israel’s job was to forgive its oppressors for seventy times seven years. Israel had been founded with the job to be a ‘priest to the nations’, even from those nations which wronged her, so that through this faithful ministry the nations would turn to the God of Israel. That tension, nationalism vs. priest to the nations, runs throughout the exilic literature: From Psalms (“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Answer: that’s precisely why you have been brought to a strange land, to teach them to sing the Lord’s song, too) to the entire books of Daniel and Esther (the eponymous protagonists of which each faithfully executed that mission to the gentiles).

Even the opening roar at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist quotes the prophecies about a voice in the wilderness calling for the construction of a highway in the desert, would be heard as direct references to the exile in their original contexts.

And there is an important hermeneutical principle right there: When the New Testament quotes the Tanakh, it is quoting not just the snippet, but the context. We 21st century folks have hyperlinks embedded in HTML. Those 1st century folks, had their own hyperlinks too, links embedded in a culture of memorization. These people carried ‘the cloud’ (of memories, of witnesses) in the soft drive which resided between their ears. Sometimes the lector (reader) would verbally make the connection between an allusion in current scripture and the original text being referenced (see Matthew 24, ‘Let the READER understand’). We see Jesus doing this in his home synagogue in Luke 4 wherein he quotes Isaiah, but points out that Isaiah was referring to Leviticus.

This technique of seeing quotes from the Old Testament as allusions to the original context becomes a veritable exegetical power tool (and like all power tools, should be used cautiously and with the right goggles). Once you start ‘clicking on’ these ‘hyperlinks’ to drill down into the text, you start to hit real gold. But I’d urge you to be cautious because you’ll just as often hit pyrite as well. Not all that glitters, et cetera. This means that when engaging in this kind of exegesis—what Wright calls ‘exuberant exegesis’ of ‘exuberant texts’—one must be sure to hold conclusions lightly. The last thing we need during this time of rediscovery is to create yet another cold, dead orthodoxy which will be used to stifle exegetical work from the next great era of rediscovery.

Below you can find a continuation of the (partial, edited) transcript from my previous column about my interview with Wright:

Jerry Bowyer: So Jesus becomes King; he’s declared King; he is coronated King; he’s enthroned on Good Friday. And I think the next question anyone listening would ask is, what is it about that day? How does he become King by being crucified? What is it about that ordeal that he goes through that would make him either become King or be a fully crowned king?

N.T. Wright: The two passages which come most obviously to mind are John 12 and Colossians 2. But in John 12, Jesus says, now is the judgment of this world; now is the ruler of this world cast out. And if I’m lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself. So this is when the Greeks come and say we want to see Jesus. And Jesus knows that the Greeks, like the rest of the world, are currently enslaved to the ruler of this world, who is the dark force that dominates the world, whether you call it the Satan or whoever. And until the dark force has been defeated then Jesus’ own kingdom is not established. But when that defeat has happened, then the word will go out, and the Greeks will be free to come in.

And likewise in Colossians 2 when Paul says he disarmed the principalities in powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross (or in him, it’s a variant reading there) these seem to be ways of saying that Jesus is fighting what you might loosely call the messianic battle. The messiah, whether it’s David or whoever, one of the qualifications is he has to fight the ‑‑ I mean, think of David again ‑‑ David’s single combat against Goliath — and I think from that moment onwards Saul knows that his time is up, that he, King Saul, is not going to be king forever, because this young man has done what he, Saul, should have been done, which is to fight Israel’s battles and to beat the great foe. So I think all of that’s going on.

Now, of course, saying at what precise moment he became King can get a little artificial. Like I still have dim memories of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on June the 2nd, 1953. It’s a very long time ago; I was a little boy at the time. It was on television. And did she become queen at the moment when the archbishop put the crown on her head, or when he anointed her with oil, or when he gave her the orb and the scepter, or when the crowds shouted hurrah? In a sense it was all of those. So I wouldn’t want to be too fussy about that.

But what I do want to say is that the New Testament is very clear that by the end of Good Friday, by the time Jesus has died, the dark power that has enslaved the world was defeated. And of course, people say how could that be because evil was still rampant, people were still getting sick and dying, tyrants were still ruling, Caesar was still on the throne, Herod was still on his throne. And yet the early church says, right from the beginning, like at the end of Matthew where Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Now, how has that come about, and what does that look like? And that’s why in the Book of Acts it seems that when the disciples say, “Will you, at this time, restore the Kingdom of Israel?” Jesus says, well, don’t talk about times and seasons; that’s the Father’s job. But you will receive power. In other words, yes but ‑‑ yes, this is the time for the kingdom, but it doesn’t look like you might have thought; it looks, in fact, like the extension of Jesus’ own ministry with the disciples going out to heal and to teach and to talk about Jesus being King.