The Importance of Background cont…

July 26, 2011 — Leave a comment

I have been thoroughly enjoying N.T. Wright’s book on Jesus. He is a clear writer and very insightful into the mindset of Jews during the time of Jesus. He masterfully asks age old questions like “what is repentance” and “what is faith”? But what he adds to the discussion is “what did these terms mean to the Jewish people?”

However, there are times when I think that when he does the historical reconstruction he actually misses the “history” in the Biblical text. In other words he gets carried away with his historical reconstruction, and follows the wrong trail into the dark part of the woods.

So here is one example I found. When I first read it I found myself thinking he was right. But then I started to think about the Gospels and how they presented things. In fact, some of it is right, but as I will show below what he denies is simply against what the Gospels claim.

Why did people object to Jesus’ practice (0f beings with sinners)? Not, again because he was preaching about love and mercy while ordinary Judaism, not least Pharisaism, remained hostile to such ideas…The objection did not arise because Jesus was letting wicked people carry on with their sin and pretending all was well; nor because Jesus, as a private individual, was associating with people who were ‘beyond the pale.’ There is no reason to suppose that Pharisees, or anyone else, spied out ordinary people who were ‘associating’ with ‘sinners’ and angrily objected to them doing so. Accusations were leveled, rather, because this welcome of sinners was being offered precisely by someone announcing the kingdom of god…It was about the scandalous implied redefinition of the kingdom itself. Jesus was replacing adherence or allegiance to Temple and Torah with allegiance to himself.

So he asserts that the religious leaders of the day did not object to Jesus showing love and mercy to the outcasts but rather about the scandalous redefinition of the kingdom. But here is what the Gospels say:

Matt. 9:11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Matt. 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Luke 15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus was redefining the kingdom. But Wright is making the same mistake that he keeps criticizing his contemporaries of. That is, he is jumping the gun. He is providing an a-historical interpretation. They objected precisely because Jesus was associating with people beyond the pale. I don’t think they fully understood yet that Jesus was in the process of redefining the kingdom.

And this is where, although I have gobbled up Wright’s book, I think we need to be careful. In his historical reconstruction, he starts focusing so much on the historical that he has strayed too far in my mind from the text.

He has put on the spectacles of a first century Jew, but in the process of seeing things so clearly, it actually begins to damage his eyesight.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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