N.T. Wright on Jesus’ Vindication

I think I’ll start off this blog with its demise, which is to say I want to use it to critique the work of arguably the leading NT scholar in the world, N.T. Wright. How’s that for starting off with a bang (or a death wish)?

I just finished reading Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, volume 2 in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. I actually thoroughly enjoyed the book; Wright’s explanation of Jesus’ prophetic program, aims and beliefs, practices, and stories all greatly enhanced my understanding of not only the Gospels but the OT as well. I think Wright is careful and meticulous, and he does the church a great service not only with this volume but also with The New Testament and the People of God and The Resurrection and the Son of God. All three of these books help the church first of all in its battle with the Enlightenment project’s seemingly endless quest to either “prove” the fictitious character of the Gospels or to undermine Jesus’ message through labeling him as a misguided apocalyptic prophet. Second, they serve the church well in its quest to understand the Bible better, especially the Gospels.

One nagging question for me, though, in reading through the latter parts of JVO is whether Wright is entirely correct in his assessment of how Jesus believes he will be vindicated as a prophet. Particularly in Part II of the book, Wright frequently argues that Jesus believes and teaches that he and his message will be vindicated through the fall of Jerusalem, which we know occurred in AD 70. Wright is especially concerned to show that when Jesus teaches the disciples about “when these things will be” in Mark 13 (cf. Matt 24), he is speaking not about “the end of the space-time universe” but about his vindication as a prophet. According to Wright, this vindication begins at his death (and resurrection, although Wright mainly leaves that for vol. 3) and ends emphatically with the calamity of AD 70. Wright sees the events of Mk 13:14-23 as referring to the events of AD 70 (the “abomination of desolation” standing where it ought not to be, fleeing to the hills, false prophets), and Jesus is speaking of these events as the way in which the disciples will know that he is right about the Temple’s destruction and his own program to restore Israel from exile.

Although I agree with Wright’s larger assessment of Jesus’ program and with his definition of “the last days” not as some distant, future end-of-the-space-time-universe event but as beginning with Jesus’ mission and especially his death and resurrection, I have a number of questions about Jesus believing he would be vindicated by the events AD 70. My initial reaction is to say no, Jesus believed he would be vindicated primarily by his death and resurrection. The following are a few reasons I lean this way and not with Wright.

First, there is no explicit reference in the NT to the events of AD 70. Although some would argue there are implied references, if those events were the main vindication of Jesus’ message one would think the writers of the NT would at least mention it in a few places, whether prophetically if the book was written before AD 70 or reflectively if written afterwards.
Second, other NT writers (esp. Paul and John) both use similar language in describing a) the period in which we now reside (commonly “the last days”, “these last days”, etc.) and b) the second coming of Christ. I wonder why they would interpret Christ’s words to refer to a future second coming if, as Wright argues, these chapters in the Gospels do not refer to his return at the consummation of the new creation.

Third, Wright consistently, and I think convincingly, argues throughout the book that the primary difference between Jesus’ message and the Pharisees’ and other first century Jews’ expectations was that Jesus saw the coming of the Kingdom centered around himself and inaugurated with his life, death, and resurrection, while the Pharisees and other C1 Jews saw it centered around various symbols and practices (Torah, Temple, Sabbath, food laws, etc.) and inaugurated with a military overthrow of Rome. I wonder why Wright so consistently argues for Jesus’ non-military agenda and then says that Jesus’ vindication will come through a military victory 35 years later (albeit by Rome over Jerusalem instead of the other way around).

Fourth, two of the events of Mk 13/Matt 24 that Wright argues are seen in AD 70, namely the “abomination of desolation” and the destruction of the Temple, are already seen in Jesus’ final work in Jerusalem and in his death. Wright himself argues that Caiaphas is presented as “evil incarnate” and his position as chief priest may point to his fulfillment of the “abomination of desolation.” Second and more strongly presented by the Gospels is the fact that the Temple is destroyed not in AD 70 but at Jesus’ death when the curtain is torn in two. As Wright demonstrates, Jesus proleptically enacts the Temple’s destruction in the Temple cleansing; the temporary cessation of sacrifices momentarily ends its purpose and thus its destruction is foreshadowed. Therefore when the curtain is torn in two at Jesus’ death, the Temple is permanently destroyed. The Holy of Holies has been violated; it can no longer serve its purpose.

Also of interest is Matthew’s use of the phrase “after these things”; Beale argues that John, through a quotation of Daniel, uses this phrase in Revelation to refer to the entire time period of the “last days”, and if Matthew uses it similarly then Jesus could be referring not just to one future event on the horizon but to the entire period of time between his first and second coming.

Obviously these arguments need to be fleshed out further to provide any sort of serious critique of Wright’s position. The purpose of this post  has not been to provide a definitive alternate position, but simply to put forth some questions about Wright’s conclusions concerning Mark 13/Matt 24 and the events of AD 70.

What do you think?

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