Thursday, December 15, 2011

Parables of the Kingdom 2

... continued from yesterday.
Given the fact that these parables have traveled from Jesus through decades of Jesus-followers to the individual gospel writers, it is not surprising sometimes to find a "layered-ness" to them.  For example, it is no coincidence that parables involving money and women stand out in Luke, because these are some of its emphases.  It is not surprising to find more pronounced parables about judgment in Matthew, because Matthew specializes among the gospels in weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Similarly, it is not surprising that we do not always pick up on the "political" overtones Jesus' parables probably had originally in terms of Israel as a "nation." In the next volume, I will argue that all four of the gospels in their current form likely date to after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, so it is no surprise if we have to dig a little to hear them as the Galilean peasants on the countryside would have.  The gospels were written to present Jesus to their audiences and so understandably focus on Jesus' ministry in terms that apply most to their communities of faith in the late first century.

For Luke, this was the "times of the Gentiles" (cf. Luke 21:24).  For Matthew, this was the time when the mission had shifted to all the nations (cf. Matt. 28:19).  By contrast, Jesus' primary focus on earth was surely on Israel and the Jews (cf. Matt. 10:5-6), and even then only on a subset of Israel. [1] The last chapter showed how likely it was that the restoration of Israel politically was part of John the Baptist's message, and it is not hard to find hints of this dynamic in the gospels even as they now stand (e.g., Matt. 19:28).

Originally, Jesus' audiences would not have distinguished the kingdom of God from the kingdom of re-established Israel, and it would have been understood undoubtedly as a kingdom to come on earth.  In the period after Easter, it no doubt was clear to Jesus-followers that only those who accepted Jesus as the messiah would be part of this kingdom.  Nevertheless, even Paul argues that the vast majority of Israel would eventually come to have this faith (cf. Rom. 11:25-32).

These observations remind us of how differently we read the Bible than its first audiences would have heard them.  We tend to think of the church as something completely separate from Israel as a nation.  Similarly, over the centuries Christians have tended to think more in terms of heaven and hell than in terms of a coming kingdom on earth.  Recent days have seen a movement to recognize that the Bible primarily teaches about eternity on a restored earth after a resurrection of our bodies. [2]

And there is an increasing recognition that Christianity did not become a separate religion from Judaism perhaps until after all the books of the New Testament were written, [3] with some arguing they were not completely distinct even in the early 300s. [4] In the thinking of the New Testament, Gentiles were added to the kingdom of (true) Israel.  Christianity was not some new religion, and Gentiles who converted to Christianity saw themselves converting to a form of Judaism.  It was not until around AD200 that the Gentile Christian Tertullian made his famous comments about Christianity being a "third race," neither Jewish or Gentile. [5]

The point is that we can usually read Jesus' parables in more than one way.  Originally, they had much to say to the Galilean Jews who came to hear him from the surrounding villages.  Yet the gospel writers also "translated" them in ways that spoke to increasingly Gentile audiences in the late first century.  And the way the gospels have sometimes generalized them has also helped us to hear truths that apply directly to us even today...

[1] The "lost sheep" of Israel, and even then, primarily the lost sheep in Galilee.

[2] E.g., N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008) and Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).  Wright and Green may at times overstate their case, but their fundamental argument seems beyond reasonable doubt.

[3] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2011).

[4] Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed, The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007); also Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2006).

[5] To the Gentiles 1.8.

1 comment:

davey said...

"We tend to think of the church as something completely separate from Israel as a nation ... In the thinking of the New Testament, Gentiles were added to the kingdom of (true) Israel"

Paul reinterpreted the promise of the land to Abraham as the promise of all things. And nowhere is there in the NT explicit exposition of the Trinity. So, if indeed the gospels are focused on the nation of the Jews, as argued by this blog entry, I would prefer it to be explicit that we are not bound by that understanding, but can and must develop it theologically where it can now be seen to lead. Hence, I think this: In a historical sense, Jews were the first people en masse some of whose members are recorded as added to true Israel, and later Gentiles. Jews, ie true Israel Jews, never had a monopoly on true Israel, they weren't the first or only true Israelites before the time Gentiles (some of them) en masse are recorded as added to true Israel. Thus the theological story told by NPP has its feet wrongly planted in Gentiles being added to OT Israel and Abraham being a seminal figure. Resurrection also is not to only a renewed planet Earth.