October 14, 2005

Of Symbols and World Views

Today I'll continue my discussion of Tom Wright's The New Testament and the People of God. As always, assume any errors in the following are mine, not his; I Am Not A New Testament Scholar. (Not that, judging from the footnotes, that's any guarantee of infallibility.)

Wright's purpose in this book is to lay the groundwork for serious study of the New Testament, and to study the New Testament one needs to understand the People of God, the Jews, as they lived and moved and believed in Jesus' day. He does this by trying to identify their "world view." Wright spends a great deal of time defining just what a world view is; here, suffice it to say that it involves unifying stories, symbols, and praxis. "Praxis", I gather, is a fancy word for "how they put their beliefs into practice."

First, the symbols: racial identity, the Land, the Temple, and Torah. The Jews were and are God's chosen people, called apart from the nations to be His. This identity they retain to this day, nearly two thousand years after the destruction of Herod's Temple and the end of Temple worship. Next, the Land. God promised blessing to his people, and (I'd not considered this before) the Land was his chief means of blessing them. It was through the Land that they received milk and honey, grapes and figs and wheat; it was in the Land that they found green pastures and still waters. Next, Torah, the Law. It is Torah that defines the Jews as God's Chosen People, it is Torah that records God's covenant with them, it is Torah that explains what is expected of them as God's Chosen People. The Temple has been gone for over nineteen centuries; they have only recently regained the Land; for much of western history, Torah has been Land and Temple both to God's people.

These symbols are all wrapped up in the Jewish story, which is told and retold in the Old Testament, and in a wide variety of other texts and traditions. Indeed, there are two stories, the greater and the lesser. The greater story I've touched on already: God chose the Jews and set them apart from the nations to be his People, to do his work in the world, and ultimately to be a blessing to all nations. The lesser story fits within the greater story--and indeed, has been repeated multiple times: God's People become separated from the blessings of God's Promise; God rescues them and restores His rule in the land of Israel.

In the days of Joseph and his brothers, the children of Israel are saved from famine by going to the land of Egypt, leaving the lands which God had given to Abraham. Note that they go at God's command--this is important.

In time succor becomes slavery; and through Moses God rescues them again. He brings his people out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land, which he helps them to conquer. He is their God, and they are his People. This is the greatest rescue of all: they regain their identity, which they had forgotten; they regain the Land, which they had left; and they gain Torah, which tells them how not to lose themselves.

In time the Jews request a king, and God gives them Saul, and then David, and then Solomon; and Solomon at God's command builds the Temple. God's dwelling place is thus established forever more among his People.
Their descendents will number more than the stars in the sky, and they will dwell in God's blessing forever--provided they remain within the Covenant.

Of course, they don't. The kings of Israel were, unsurprisingly, of varying quality; many chose to follow other gods as well as (or instead of) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In time, the Land was split into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The prophets came to warn God's people, to call them to repentance and back into Covenant with God, but ultimately to no avail; and they were led into captivity in Babylon.

The exiles did not forget their God, and in time the Babylonian Exile came to an end--but in a strange way. God delivered them, and restored to them the Land, but He did so through the hands of Cyrus the Persian, and the restored Israel was a client state.

They were rescued yet again, but this time from the consequences of their own folly rather than from the wickedness of others; and the rescue was somewhat ambiguous. As a result, the Jews began to look forward to a yet greater rescue, in which the Land would be fully theirs, in which the Temple would be properly restored, in which God would reign triumpant in Jerusalem through his holy Priesthood and a king of the line of David. The Jewish story became one which was not yet complete, one which demanded a proper ending.

The Lord helps those who help themselves, it's long been said. Perhaps, some Jews reasoned, if Israel were to be restored it was up to them to move things along. Around 200 BC Israel was in the hands of the Syrians, and their ruler intended to set up a statue of his god on the Temple Mount. The Jews under Judas Maccabeus and his clan fought a successful rebellion. The Maccabeans declared that Israel was restored; and for over a century the head of the Hasmonean dynasty ruled Israel as both King and High Priest.

Again, God had rescued his people; and again the rescue was somewhat equivocal. The priesthood belonged to the sons of Levi; the kingship to the sons of David. Uniting them in one person ran counter to expectations. Moreover, the culture of Greece had spread throughout the shores of the Mediterrean Sea, and the Hasmoneans either started out or became (I am not sure which) far too Hellenized to suit the people they ruled. Morever, the Temple hadn't been properly rebuilt.

It was during this time that the Essenes withdrew from the people of Israel to live apart, to pursue holiness at Qumran and possibly other sites; they believed that if they kept themselves pure God would eventually raise from their numbers two (2!) messiahs, one to be the new high priest, and one to be the holy king. We know this from the Dead Sea Scrolls and excavations at Qumran; otherwise, the Essenes vanished without a trace. (No, Jesus wasn't an Essene. I'll tell you why that's so after I read the next volume.)

It was also during this time that the party of the Pharisees arose. If God hadn't chose to rescue his people fully, perhaps his people needed to pursue purity and holiness even more strongly? The Pharisees emphasized purity over and above the commitments expected of the average Jew; they were a political force to be reckoned with; and some large fraction of them were not averse to pursuing political change by violent means--which is to say rebellion.

Eventually the Romans arrived, and installed Herod the Great as King of Israel. Herod was no fool, clearly. He understood the story as well as anyone, and proceeded to rebuild the Temple forthwith. He did not presume to name himself high priest, but on the other hand made sure the high priests came from previously undistinguished priestly families, so that the high priests would be personally loyal to him. By the time of Jesus, the bulk of the aristocracy owed their positions to the Herodian dynasty.

Herod's attempts to use the Jewish story to bulwark his position were ultimately unsuccessful. Though his Temple was used and revered, it was used with an undercurrent of suspicion, for though it was a beautiful building and occupied the Temple Mount it was not the proper Temple--it had been built by a king not of Davidic descent, and moreover one who ruled at the sufferance of the Romans. The high priestly families were the tool through which the Herodians and later, directly, the Romans ruled Israel; but the people, all too aware of their origins, did not respect them as they ought. The Pharisees remained a strong party, and attempted rebellion was frequent from before Christ's birth up to 135 AD when the last rebellion was crushed.

After 135 AD Torah took the place of both Land and Temple in the lives of the remaining Jews, as it had already begun to do among the Jews of the Diaspora; thoughts of rebellion and restoration of the Temple were no more; and the hope of God's rescue of his people, the hope of a messiah, became increasingly remote.

As a Christian, of course, I believe in an alternate ending: that God sent a new high priest, a king of the Davidic line, in the person of Jesus; that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice such that no new Temple sacrifices need be made, and that Jesus' body was itself a new Temple, which, risen from the grave and ascended into heaven, can never be cast down or destroyed. But that story belongs to the the next volume of Wright's magnum opus.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 14, 2005 09:42 AM