Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Weekly Wright: Stories of the Second Temple

Two weeks ago I re-started reading through N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I'm in the middle of the horrendously long chapter 2. Today I want to review pp. 108-39. I apologize for how boring this post is.

1. I'm beginning to see the structure of chapter 2. Wright is reconstructing a Jewish worldview (and especially what he sees as a Pharisaic worldview) in the categories that he developed in The New Testament and the People of God. There he suggested four components to a worldview. Pages 90-108 cover two of them--praxis and symbol. Now in pages 108-79 he covers the other two--story and basic questions.

So in the pages I've covering today, we have his basic introduction to the analysis of story (108-14) and his analysis of the basic Jewish story (114-39).

2. "Despite the danger of generalization, we can and must say that most Jews of Paul's day perceived themselves, at a deep, worldview level, as living in a story in search of an ending" (109). "Any narrative analysis of the letters he would write as Paul the apostle... has to begin with a proper understanding of the stories in which he had lived all his life."

I think I would have really liked these statements twenty-five years ago, but they drive me a little crazy today because of how far Wright takes them. He just seems to generalize too much for me.

So, given the last 100 years, you might think that the second coming has dominated the thinking of Christians for the last 2000 years. But in reality, it was only in the late 1800s that the imminent second coming of Jesus became a central feature of much Christian thinking, perhaps even since the time of the New Testament itself.

You can create a metanarrative out of specific texts that you stretch out for all of history and it can make a lot of sense in terms of ideas. But it may not match what real people thought at real times and places.

Does it make sense, in terms of an idea system, to think that all Jews were waiting for Messiah to come, that they were waiting to return from exile. It makes perfect sense as a set of ideas. And we do have evidence of some messianic expectation here and there. Some Jews probably were thinking these sorts of things. Wright has convinced me of some things.

But his sweeping, two-dimensional metanarrative is the stuff of the classroom, not of real people (especially real ancient people) with their inconsistencies and practical existences. Wright's ideological balloon too easily becomes un-tethered, and that massive genius of his gets carried away into some Platonic realm.

He's responded and will no doubt continue to respond to this critique. But I suspect the critique will continue to be true, no matter how much more he writes, digging in his heals.

3. So his introduction plays out the basic Jewish story using Greimas' actantial model. I've used it myself, so I don't oppose the model. He makes three claims at the end of the introduction to this section:
  • "There is every indication that the kind of Jew who became a Pharisee was implicitly aware of living in a continuous story going back to Abraham, perhaps even to Adam, and on to the great coming day" (113).
  • They did not expect the decisive moment to come "to involve the collapse or disappearance of the universe of space, time, and matter" (114).
  • The Pharisees saw their current time as being one of continuing exile.
He has convinced me of the second bullet (or rather, his Doctor Father, G. B. Caird, has). Apocalyptic, "sun darkened, moon turned to blood" language was never meant literally. Not as powerful but similar is when we speak of "earth-shaking" events.

I am quite willing to believe that some Jews saw themselves currently in a kind of exile, but I don't think we have nearly enough evidence to say that Pharisees did. Frankly, I think we can make a better case that many Essenes felt that way. I think many Jews did expect a royal figure to rise soon, but perhaps not necessarily in a way that was well-connected to Abraham or Adam. I see these more as separate mini-narratives that weren't necessarily well connected to each other.

The first one is Wright once again going metanarrative. It is hard enough to say that Paul himself thought in terms of a single narrative, so that makes the idea of a single proto-Pharisaic narrative all the more problematic.

4. So on page 114 he gets down to business with his single story. He reminded me a little of the method Bultmann used to come up with a Gnostic Redeemer myth. Wright sees pieces of the overall story popping up here and there. Now mind you, it is hard to find the whole story in any one place. :-) But he is just sure it is there below the surface. Everyone's thinking it, even though they don't really come right out and say it. "They were, in other words, snatching items at random as miscellaneous examples or warnings" (117). Classic.

But, alas, I do agree that the backdrop at least to some of the earliest forms of Christian faith was some limited version of what Wright is saying, and that he does see patterns, even if his personality can't help but over-systematize them.

Here are his concluding points to this section:
  • "There are considerable and obvious differences between the examples we have studied" (135). Great!
  • "Despite the considerable differences there are also remarkable commonalities." 
  • "In more or less all cases the story being told is a story in which the writer believes that he and his readers are still participants" (136).
  • "Most of these long and varied accounts of Israel's history are the very opposite of success stories" (137).
  • "The Messiah will precisely bring the story of Israel to its goal" (138).
I apologize that I have not been able to capture why so much of this is just bad business to me. I think it's because he's not talking specific people at specific times. He's trying to speak of a whole people over a large period of time.

5. I just finished a section of a chapter on Jewish views of the temple at the time of the NT, especially Philo and Essenes. In the case of Philo, I had several passages where I could draw evidence about him. I knew of events in his life that arguably could have altered the intensity of his attachment to the temple as well as other Jews. We know when he lived and that it was about the time of Jesus.

As far as the Essenes, we again have several texts that mention the temple, including a Temple Scroll. We have solid hypotheses about the Dead Sea Scrolls and can locate them in time in relation to the NT. We don't view even them as a single point of view but recognize them as a set of documents that covers as much as a century, with various events potentially altering their circumstances during that period.

My point is that we can talk reasonably about the point of view of these specific people toward the temple around the time of Christ. What Wright does is abstract the question of story from real people at specific times and places under specific circumstances. As such, his overarching narrative becomes detached from history and becomes something else, something abstract and theological.

The balloon becomes untethered from history, IMO, and becomes somewhat of a two-dimensional caricature.

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