Thursday, January 13

Looking at the 1st Century (Part 1)

As stated in my previous post, "mission statement" under my banner is that I'm blogging on Christianity, Cycling, and Current Events from (somewhat) Right of Center. Well, I've noticed that in the last week or so, I've been lax on the first, the second won't get under way really until the racing season is in full swing, and the third has been a little dominant. Now with my traffic levels, unlike some of the "big" Christian bloggers, I can't announce a symposium or project and get 60+ bloggers to dive into my project. So, I'm going to correct my focus problem on my own, and do so by inspecting and writing essays about things I find interesting in a book by N.T. Wright.

The large question being addressed in this book, Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) he tells us is:
how do we account for the fact that, by AD 110, there was a large and vigorous international movement, already showing considerable diversity, whose founding myth (in a quite 'neutral' sense) was a story about one Jesus of Nazareth, a figure of the recent past? How do we get, in other words, form the pluriform Judaism that existed within the Greco-Roman world of 10 BC to the pluriform Judaism and Christianity of AD 110 - from (roughly) Herod the Great to Ignatius of Antioch?
This is the driving question Mr Wright considers in this book. He points out that one cannot address this question without confronting Jesus. And just as we can ask questions about Claudius, Sejanus, or Cicero. There is no reason we cannot use the same methodologies to ask about Jesus. He then breaks this main question into five parts (plus a bonus). These are:
  1. How does Jesus fit into Judaism of his day?
  2. What were his aims?
  3. Why did he die?
  4. How did the early church come into being, and
  5. why did it take the shape it did?
  6. Why are the gospels what they are?
  7. The the bonus: So what?
Now these are large questions in scope, which explains why JVG is such a large tome and just the one (the 2nd) of 3 published (more promised) volumes in a series (each of which are 700+ pages). Now this book is the 2nd of a series. Why do I skip right to this one? Because the first book The New Testament and the People of God largely serves to set the stage, to establish historical context and method. I will refer to that where necessary.

Let's inspect Mr Wright's opening example in JVG (at the end of the introduction), He inspects an story we all know well, the prodigal son (here). He has takes a new spin (or at least claims it is, he says he hasn't seen any commentaries that take this position and I'm an amateur and am in no position to quibble). Mr Wright sees this as a story of Israel (and bear with me, there this does have a kick at the end). It is the story in metaphor, wherein Israel (as the younger son) goes off into exile, becomes enslaved, and returns. That is the theme. In Jesus day, AD 30, Israel for the most part regarded herself still in exile. This was the prevalent story describing Jewish expectation. What they expected is that finally, Israel would return, humbled and redeemed, sins forgiven and YHWH would bring a king, a Messiah. Exile and restoration would be fulfilled. But look closer at this story, there are some points out of synch with that theme,
  • The younger son asks for his share of the inheritance. For a peasant culture, that would be like saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead already". Against expectations, the father agrees.
  • The son goes out and does unthinkable things, feeding pigs for Gentile masters, very little could be worse.
  • He returns in disgrace, and then the father does more unthinkable things, he runs (less than dignified) to the disgraced son.
  • He orders a feast (like a wedding feast) in celebration of the disgraced son's return.
  • The elder brother too, shames the family by quarreling in public.
  • Again the father counters expectations and forgives him too.
  • Finally, the story ends, abruptly with no final reconciliation scene between all three members together.
This turns out all wrong. To make this point more clear, here is how the story would have been expected to fall out
  • The younger son is wayward and distracted by the siren song of the world
  • He goes out, falls on hard times, and is enslaved
  • Finally after a long time, he returns but the father is absent and the eldest son is there, but has fallen on bad times himself a slave on his fathers land.
  • The father then returns and rectifies the situation, tossing out the evil landholders and restoring his sons.
That would have been the expected story, but wasn't anything like the story told.

Jesus is claiming to all who have ears that by inviting sinners to his table, just as the prodigal's father, he is inviting all sinners no matter whether they pass Israel's ideas of the necessary conditions that they are invited to the welcome Jesus extends. And that as Jesus is doing it, Israel's God is doing the same. And this story doesn't just teach, it subverts symbol and expectation. To use Mr Wright's phrase, it acts, it creates a new world.

If this wasn't clear, have patience. We've just scratched the surface. These ideas, and methods I intend to explore more fully as I move further into this book, JVG, but for now, this post is getting a little long in the tooth.

Until next time...