Friday, April 23, 2010

the wright jesus and the wrong jesus

The first day of the Wheaton Theology conference focused on N.T. Wright's substantial work on Jesus in Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). The conference began with a bang. Richard Hays kindly, yet provokingly, challenged Wright's reconstructive project acting as a "fifth evangelist" (echoing Martin Kahler). Hays pushed Wright to answer how the Christian faith ought to influence historical inquiry. He wondered what significance the resurrection has for doing history. Hays asked some crucial questions worthy of much consideration.

Hays wondered how we are to understand the relation between story and history? What relation, if any, do churches, canon and tradition play in knowing the truth about Jesus? Is there a place for historical inquiry to operate outside of a tradition? If so, then what is that place? In what ways might the historical study of Jesus play in apologetics? What ways does Resurrection change our epistemology?

Following right along with Hays' line of questioning comes the glaring absence of John's Gospel, the most clearly resurrection-epistemologically-oriented gospel from JVG. Marianne Meye Thompson, the distinguished scholar of Johannine literature, lamented the exile of the fourth evangelist from the historical Jesus project as a whole and JVG in particular. Still, she imagined Wright's Jesus quite at home in John's gospel. Despite writing one of the best papers of the conference, I have to point out a serious disagreement. I feel like a Chiwawa barking at a Great Dane, but I'm siding with N.T. Wright and E.P. Sanders on this one. Thompson suggests that Jesus did not intend his action in the temple as a condemnation, but a cleansing (Mk 11.15‒18 || Mt 21.12‒13 || Lk 19.45‒46 || Jn 2.14‒22). She suggests that Jesus is offering his body as another temple that will be destroyed, but the literal temple will stand cleansed. I'm currently working on a paper that speaks indirectly to the temple-action in line with Wright's argument. In light of Mark's account, appreciated in all of its literary nuance, it does not work to suggest Jesus' action in the temple was just a cleansing. I also think judgment is part of the meaning of John's gospel, but Thompson surely knows the arguments better than I. These opening papers were probably the highlight of the day.

While Hays and Thompson cast a long shadow, the afternoon papers were not to be eclipsed. The philosopher exegete duo of Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat challenged Wright to draw out the radical economic aspects of Jesus' kingdom message. In the process they offered a fascinating and fresh reading of Luke 19.11‒27. They suggest that the parable functions as a subversive economic critique advocating "crucifixion economics." They saw this parable as an economically critical retelling of Archelaus' trip to Rome. Understanding the trip to Rome takes a little explanation.

Archelaus was one of Herod's many sons. Despite his best efforts, when Herod the Great died the people of Jerusalem rejoiced. Not only was Herod a villain in life (cf. Mt 2), but he planned to be one in death. Knowing that he was hated by those he ruled Herod gathered a group of Jewish leaders in the Hippodrome with orders to be killed upon Herod's death so that the nation would mourn (1.659‒660). In addition to this narcissistic political tragedy, there was a dispute about the desires of Herod's will regarding a successor. He killed the two sons who seemed the most likely heirs out of jealousy and paranoia. When he died, the Jewish leaders were released and it seemed Archaleus was the designated heir. Still, Archalaus would have to go to Rome to receive his coronation from the Emperor. So, when his Herod's tyrannical reign was over Archelaus maneuvered:

"Now the necessity which Archelaus was under of taking a journey to Rome was the occasion of new disturbances; for when he had mourned for his father seven days and had given a very expensive funeral feast to the multitude (which custom is the occasion of poverty to many of the Jews, because they are forced to feast the multitude; for if any one omits it, he is not esteemed a holy person), he put on a white garment, and went up to the temple" (JW 2.1)

After the expensive funeral Archelaus went to the temple procuring favor among people by promising, among other things, to lower taxes and release prisoners (JW 2.4). As fate would have it, the Passover feast was beginning. With a heightened sense of patriotic fervor and worshiping the God who raises the dead many of the Jews began to protest Herod's tyranny. Archaleus did not want to look the unstable ruler before his trip to Rome so rather than risk a revolt, he sent soldiers on the Passover crowd killing 3,000 (JW 2.10‒13). When Archelaus was before Caesar, the Jewish delegation made this plea against his rule:

They [. . .] went over Herod's breaches of their law, and said that he was not a king, but the most barbarous of all tyrants, [. . .] a very great number had been slain by him, those that were left had endured such miseries, that they called those that were dead happy men; (85) that he had not only tortured the bodies of his subjects, but entire cities, and had done much harm to the cities of his own country, while he adorned those that belonged to foreigners; and he shed the blood of Jews, [. . .] (86) that he had filled the nation full of poverty, and of the greatest iniquity, instead of that happiness and those laws which they had anciently enjoyed; that, in short, the Jews had borne more calamities from Herod
[. . .] than had their forefathers during all that interval of time that had passed since they had come out of Babylon, and returned home, in the reign of Xerxes:  [. . .] they readily called Archelaus though he was the son of so great a tyrant, king, after the decease of his father, and joined with him in mourning for the death of Herod, and in wishing him good success in that his succession; (89) while yet this Archelaus [. . .]began his reign with the murder of three thousand citizens; as if he had a mind to offer so many bloody sacrifices to God for his government, and to fill the temple with the like number of dead bodies at that festival: [. . .] they prayed that the Romans would have compassion upon the [poor] remains of Judea, and not expose what was left of them to such as barbarously tore them to pieces, (91) and that they would join their country to Syria, and administer the government by their own commanders (JW 2.84‒91).

Walsh and Keesmaat suggested, then, that just as these Jews desired the worse-than-exile conditions of Herodian rule to come to an end, those eating at Zacchaeus's table thought surely the exile is over in this Jesus. The parable serves not as a picture of what God is like, but of what empire-economics are like. The hero of the parable, the parabolic "Zacchaeus," is the servant who does not engage in usurious economics for the wicked ruler. The ruler's slaughter becomes a picture of worldly economics and what happens when people refuse to participate‒ they get crucified!

Consider the sharp contrast between the ruler of the parable who says, "Whoever has will be given more, but from whoever does not have, what he has will be taken away" (Lk 19.26 my translation) and Jesus, "Any of you who does not leave behind to all you possess is not able to be my disciple" (Lk 14.33 my translation). Walsh and Keesmaat forcefully showed that our culture has predisposed us to hear the villain as the hero.

Nicholas Perrin located Wright's eschatology in the corporate-political vein of C.H. Dodd and his former teacher-mentor G.B. Caird in opposition to individual-existential eschatology of Bultmann and Bornkamm. He suggested that the proverbial pendulum stop swinging. According to Perrin, Wright ought to give both individual and corporate eschatology a place in Jesus' kingdom proclamation (emphasis for Wright on the individual). Wright concluded the day with a rousing sermon urging Christians to bring together the kingdom and the cross‒ social ethics and individual salvation. I went to my hotel room that evening simultaneously feeling as though I needed to read a hundred books, sleep for a couple days and give a homeless man my Bible and a meal.

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