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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Friday, 8 August 2008

The Gospel of Israel, part 5 (Jesus' Mission and the Hopes of Israel)

In what follows I am going to side-step debates on the historical Jesus and will take the gospels as they stand (feel free to raise historical issues in comments). I am not doing anything other than offering a few, brief, exploratory reflections.

Jesus and the Restoration of Israel
I suspect that it is only against this background sketched out in posts 1-5 that we can make sense of the story of Jesus. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, descended from David, and as such he was the one who would restore Israel and enable her to reach out to the nations. The whole mission of Jesus was tied up with these hopes. The Jesus of the gospels seems to be a man on a mission bound up with the eschatological restoration of Israel.

Jesus led an eschatological, Israel-restoration movement. His mission was in the first instance to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 15:24). (He told his disciples not to go amongst the Gentiles Matt 10:5. Only later did his mission expand to take in all nations [as per the OT expectations]).

His appointment of 12 disciples (something attested in numerous early sources) certainly suggests the restorationist nature of his agenda. The expectation was that God would restore the twelve tribes ruled by twelve princes. Jesus appointed twelve apostles to "sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19:28; Lk 22:30). The message was clear.

Israel expected a new, post-exilic, kingdom of God age to dawn in which Israel would be restored. Jesus' announcement of the immanent arrival of the kingdom would have been heard in such a context. That is not to say that Jesus did not stretch the kingdom expectations and make them his own (e.g., he certainly seemed to reject zealot models for bringing in the kingdom). The point is that the concept of the kingdom was not an empty category but was bound up with Israel's salvation (and the consequent redemption of all creation).

Israel as a whole - and its leaders in particular - did not embrace Jesus' kingdom message and Jesus warned them over and over again of coming judgement on the nation and its Holy City. (I think that Jesus saw his followes as an advanced guard of the restoration but that full restoration was deferred until after coming judgement. See later post)

I have no doubt that there is a LOT that should be said in qualification of, and in addition to, the above. But I do think it is the case that Jesus' mission was intimately bound up with the redemption of Jerusalem (something that comes out powerfully in Luke 1-2 which frame Jesus' whole life and ministry in terms of this Israel-restorationist agenda).

Jesus and the Torah
A word about Jesus and the Torah is in order (given that all these posts are really a long-winded response to a question from Nathahn about the Law). We need to recall that Jesus and his early followers were all Jews and all lived in Jewish contexts in which circumcision, food laws, holy-days and Sabbaths were not questioned. There were issues about how such commands were to be interpreted and applied but there was no question about whether they should be or not.

Jesus was Torah-obedient. He was circumcised, celebrated Jewish festivals, observed the Sabbath, attended the Synagogue, wore fringes on his garments, approved of tithing, endorsed sacrifice and gifts at the Temple, said grace before meals, and almost certainly maintained Jewish dietry laws, etc.. He may not have interpreted and applied the Torah in exactly the same way as all his contemporaries (as is witnessed by various controversies) but this should not be seen as an attempt to subvert the Torah (there were many disagreements at this time between different Jewish groups on how to interpret and apply the Law).

Jesus did not advocate abandoning the Torah. On the contrary he held the Torah in very high esteem (e.g., Matt 5:17-20; Mk 7:8), told the rich young man that if he kept the Mosaic commands he would have eterenal life (Matt 19:16-22), and condemned those that he felt subverted it (e.g., Mk 7:1-13 par). Jesus followed the Torah and taught his Jewish followers to do so as well.

In the Second Temple period different groups of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc) took different views on the interpretation of Torah and Jesus' approach to the Law of Moses needs to be situated within such a copntext. Just like these other groups Jesus was concerned with the interpretation of the Torah. Compared to some of them he may sometimes seems rather liberal but this should not lead us to think that he was indifferent to Torah-obedience. The difference lay in his hermeneutics.

Jesus' Torah-hermeneutic prioritized certain parts of the Torah - not all the commands were equally important: some parts dealt with "the weightier matters of the Law" (Matt 23:23). (It should go without saying that Jesus thought that Jews should obey the less weighty matters of the Law also.) He thought that the written Torah took precidence over the oral Toral of the Pharisees (Mk 7:1-13). He took the love commands in Deut 6:5 (love God) and Lev 19:18 (love your neighbour) as the key through which the whole Law could be summed up and interpreted (Matt 22:36-40). He focused on the moral requirements of the Law (but again, we must point out that he did not neglect issues of purity and ceremonial law, Mk 1:44 par; Lk 11:44; Mt 7:6; 23:27). He placed an unusual emphasis on the place of motivation in obedience to the commandments (most famously in the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount - "You have heard that it was said ... but I say unto you ..."). And so on.

But the point is that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who followed the Law of Moses (even if his hermeneutic made some Jewish leaders feel that he was abandoning Torah-obedience) and taught other Jews to do likewise.

Tomorrow - the cross and resurrection.

5 comments:

Rafael said...

Robin,

This is spot on:

"In the Second Temple period different groups of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc) took different views on the interpretation of Torah and Jesus' approach to the Law of Moses needs to be situated within such a copntext. Just like these other groups Jesus was concerned with the interpretation of the Torah. Compared to some of them he may sometimes seems rather liberal but this should not lead us to think that he was indifferent to Torah-obedience. The difference lay in his hermeneutics."

Your point here has dramatic implications for a wide cross-section of research on the historical Jesus and on Christian origins generally. We seem to be raising questions more than establishing answers here. But that's all very excited. Well done, sir.

PS I've tried to restrain myself, but I have to say that, contrary to some of the comments posted here, I don't think the solutions to the problems you're feeling out in this series point to the extra-terrestrial origins of Christian and Israelite religion. Just thought I'd go on record with that one.

Teresita said...

Jesus appointed twelve apostles to "sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19:28; Lk 22:30). The message was clear.

Christ's authority as Messiah needed to be established in the context of the fulfillment of a variety of Jewish scriptures pointing forward to him, including the symbolism of twelve apostles representing the original twelve tribes. But this was solely metaphorical, since the twelve tribes no longer existed as intact and ongoing concerns even in Christ's time.

The point is that the concept of the kingdom was not an empty category but was bound up with Israel's salvation (and the consequent redemption of all creation).

We can look at how Christ interpreted the other scriptures to derive his concept of how Israel's restoration related to his kingdom. In many ways, Christ's hermenuetic was so loose and fastened on such shaky points it would shock modern students. I'm thinking of his defense of the afterlife by pointing out the use of the present tense when God is called "The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob". Or his use of the "Ye are gods" passage in Psalm 82 to defend against the charge of blasphemy. With these insights into Christ as a rabbi, we can well imagine that he would call a small movement within Judaism a full restoration, in the same way he declared that John the Baptist was really Elijah come again.

Jesus did not advocate abandoning the Torah. On the contrary he held the Torah in very high esteem (e.g., Matt 5:17-20; Mk 7:8), told the rich young man that if he kept the Mosaic commands he would have eterenal life (Matt 19:16-22)

Ah yes, but the rich youth was to keep the Law the way Christ interpreted it, which was even more strict than the way of the Pharisees, in that even the inner thoughts of a man which led to anger, adultery, etc. must be governed, which is impossible without sanctifying grace.

In the Second Temple period different groups of Jews (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc) took different views on the interpretation of Torah and Jesus' approach to the Law of Moses needs to be situated within such a copntext. Just like these other groups Jesus was concerned with the interpretation of the Torah. Compared to some of them he may sometimes seems rather liberal but this should not lead us to think that he was indifferent to Torah-obedience. The difference lay in his hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is often elevated over ethics in the Protestant Tradition, because they always had an argument with Rome over the faith-works issue, and their fallback to sola scriptura leaves them with little to do but pick over what is written. So again there is a tendency to retroject this exegesis-focused mindset back onto Christ's outlook. But Christ was primarily all about Jewish ethics, just like the other prophets. He, in fact, considered the ethic of reciprocity to be at the heart of the Torah. Hermeneutics applies to Christ's actions such as when he read from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" and declared that this scripture was hereby fulfilled.

James Pate said...

Hi Robin,

I'm reading this in light of your subsequent posts. So the Jews were expecting Jesus to restore Israel, defeat their enemies, and inagurate a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Instead of doing that literally, he did that by rising from the dead. Isn't that somewhat disappointing, or misleading on his part? And, sure, he'll give the full deal in the future, but that's 2000 years from his first coming.

Robin Parry said...

James

I maintain that the fulfilment of Israel's hopes in in 3 stages: Christ's resurrection and ascension, the church, all Israel + the nations.

If it was ONLY Christ's resurrection then that would be great for Jesus but of limited value for the rest of us (and a disappointment for Israel). But for the early Christians Christ's resurrection was both the means by which God will resurrects his people and the promise that he will. So it was of great interest to the Church. It is also the means of and promise of Israel's future restoration. Yes it has been an unexpectedly long time in coming but we trust that it is comming.

Robin

James Pate said...

Hi Robin.

I'm somewhat open to that, since Paul in Acts talks about being on trial for the hope of Israel, and he mentions specifically the resurrection. At the same time, reading Luke-Acts can be a let-down. Here the pious Jews are in the beginning, trusting that God will defeat their enemies soon, which is why they're so excited. And that doesn't happen.