Sunday Meditations: Jewish Expectations

I’ve been reading through Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight.  Although I wouldn’t sign off on everything in it, I highly recommend it.  It is a very good popular, easy to read, evangelical introduction into the critical questions that have been posed by scholars like Sanders, Wright, and Dunn in the past several years and the implications for how Jesus would have been heard by first century Jews and what impact that should have on our own formulations about biblical teaching, the Gospel, and so on.

One thing that came up in the book is something that comes up rather a lot in evangelical discussions about the Jews of Jesus’ day, and that is the notion that the Jews of Jesus’ day had inaccurate expectations and/or grossly misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ mission.

The idea behind this is that the Jews of Jesus day were longing for the restoration of Israel and the overthrow of oppression.  Hence, they expected Jesus would raise an army and kick Rome out.  Instead, what happened was that Rome killed Jesus, and even in the wake of the resurrection, Rome’s power was firmly ascendant and the corrupt Temple officials who were complicit in the death of Jesus still had their old jobs.

Faced with this seeming contradiction between expectations and outcomes, the evangelical story tends to respond something like this:

  1. While the Jews of Jesus’ day expected a political liberation, Jesus actually came to secure a spiritual liberation.  Instead of being set free from Rome, believers are set free from sin and death.  The deliverance from judgement Jesus speaks of is not a historical, political outcome of YHWH moving against world powers with other world powers, but rather refers to the final destiny of the soul in Heaven or Hell.
  2. The passages that are clearly “earthly” in nature, such as Matthew 24, do not refer to imminent historical events, but rather the “End Times” preceding a final judgement of the whole world and the end of the space-time continuum as we know it.

And you can understand how this happens.  The Old Testament prophecies and pattern of God’s working in history would lead anyone to believe that the deliverance and judgement Israel hoped for in the first century would be a historical, political event that would take the form it always had – one world power’s army defeating another.

When this clearly doesn’t happen in Jesus’ ministry, and in fact he seems to be against wielding traditional military power against Rome, we have to do something with this lest God be a liar or His purposes be thwarted.  The tendency, then, is to allegorize the whole affair as spiritual and/or push it all to some events in the distant future that have yet to happen.

The side effect of this, then, is that we narrate the Jews as being wholly mistaken in their expectations.  They thought they would be delivered from their political enemies, but really they were being delivered spiritually, and they consistently misunderstood that.

I think this narrative is incorrect, unfair, and probably has a certain amount of its origins in the anti-Semitism of some of the early church fathers.

If we look at the trajectory of Israel’s story from Jesus going forward, we find that, historically, these things did come to pass in a historical, political manner.  Rome shattered the compromised power structure in Jerusalem mere decades after Jesus’ execution.  They did not stay in place forever.  Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet predicted their downfall in a coming judgement, and this is more or less what happened, and it happened in a format that would have been quite familiar to Ezekiel or Isaiah or Jeremiah – God brings a world power to bear to deliver His people from oppression and judge the oppressors.  It just so happens that, in this case, both the oppressed and the oppressors are Israelites.

The situation is analogous to Isaiah 9-10, and both Jesus and his biographers are not shy about using Isaiah’s words to describe his own situation.  In those early chapters of Isaiah, YHWH wishes to free his people from their enemies and restore them as a nation through a period of repentance and renewal.  To accomplish this, YHWH will use Assyria, who will smash the other nations as well as Israel, herself.  But when this is done and YHWH will have established His faithful in this way, He will turn his judgement onto Assyria, because even though Assyria accomplished His purposes, they did so purely out of arrogance, idolatry, spite, and a lust for power and blood.

We see a comparable scenario, at least from the theological perspective of the first century, playing out.  The corrupt power structure that rules Israel from Jerusalem is going to come down so YHWH can deliver and restore Israel through a period of repentance and renewal.  This is part of the theological explanation of the events of 70 A.D.  There are other things that happen to make this possible, such as the continuation of faithful Israel as a people that also includes faithful Gentiles who hear what YHWH is doing, have faith in His Messiah, and come to worship Him.  God resurrects His fallen people, and this is a concrete historical event.  It is not just something that occurs in the human heart, but rather establishes the kingdom of God as a physical, embodied reality throughout the known world.

But what about Rome?  Wasn’t Jesus supposed to conquer Rome?

Well, have you seen Rome for the past 18 centuries or so?  Do you think Jesus made any inroads into Rome or what?

Once again, though the movements of politics and history, the unheard of happens – Caesar professes that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Empire.  Those who persecuted the faithful of YHWH find themselves in prison, in exile, or put to the sword.  This is not to say Christendom was a terrific idea or that everything went well or even that Jesus would have liked it.  It does demonstrate, however, that Jesus’ conquest of Rome was a political and historical reality that radically changed the face of the Roman Empire and the course of world history for centuries to come.

It is true that Jesus did not take up arms against Rome, and he encouraged his followers to do the same.  It is also true that Rome executed him.  In that sense, we might say that Jesus went about the mission of being the Messiah in unexpected ways.

But the outcomes were not outcomes that showed the Jewish hopes to be mistaken.  If anything, they validated those hopes.  Yes, the mechanisms did not fit the expectations of an armed insurrection.  Yes, some of the time frames bled out beyond the production of most if not all of the New Testament.  Yes, the kingdom of God ended up dispersed throughout the world and is no longer defined by a particular nation or form of government.  Yes, the ongoing survival and prosperity of faithful Israel involved becoming a new people that included Gentiles.  In these ways and perhaps others, we could point out that some expected things to be different.

But the hoped-for liberation of God’s people, the judgement against their oppressors, and the resurrection of faithful Israel were not mistakes and were not relegated to “spiritual realities” or some cosmic dissolution at the end of time, but were concrete historical outcomes that may have had their share of novelties, but also stood in strong continuity with Old Testament hopes and patterns.