Wednesday, October 1, 2008

N.T. Wright on the Continuing Exile

A few people asked me (in person and online) why I disagree with N.T. Wright's view that most Jews saw themselves as being in a state of continuing exile. I'll have to save my explanation for another post, because this summary of the evidence for Wright's view is already long enough:

In a rough-and-ready nutshell, Wright has argued that most Jews saw Roman domination as a continuation of the exile. Since the biblical promises of restoration (esp. in Isaiah 40-66) hadn't been fulfilled in the way they expected, they believed they were still living under divine punishment, and longed for divine intervention, which would ultimately signal divine forgiveness. So when Jesus came announcing the forgiveness of sins as part of the coming kingdom of "god," he was understood as proclaiming the return from exile and all that goes with it. To everyone's surprise, Jesus set out to end the exile by heading for the Jerusalem temple, where "the satan" had set up shop. There Jesus assumed Israel's role, and viewed his own death, as Israel, as atonement for the sins of the nation.

Wright's model seems to fit Jesus realistically into his first-century Jewish context, while making excellent--if unconventional--sense of much of the New Testament. For it to work, Wright needs to be able to show that many, if not most, Jews thought they were still in exile. The evidence for his view, presented on pp. 268-71 of The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), is as follows:

1) Isa 52:8 and Ezek 43:1-7 envision YHWH's return to Zion. "Nowhere in second-temple literature is it asserted that this has happened: therefore it still remains in the future. The exile is not yet really over" (NTPG 269).

2) Nehemiah 9:36 is part of a Deuteronomic prayer of repentance composed soon after the return from Babylon. Wright thinks it was "typical" of post-exilic piety: "Here we are, slaves to this day -- slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts."

3) A passage found among the Dead Sea Scrolls connects return from exile with the origins of the sect:
For when they were unfaithful and forsook Him, He hid His face from Israel and His Sanctuary and delivered them up to the sword. But remembering the Covenant of the forefathers, He left a remnant to Israel and did not deliver it up to be destroyed. And in the age of wrath, three hundred and ninety years after He had given them into the hand of king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, He visited them, and He caused a plant root to spring from Israel and Aaron to inherit His Land and to prosper on the good things of His earth" (CD 1.3-8; Vermes).
4) Tobit 14.5-7 (ca. 3rd century BCE) envisions a future return from exile:
5 But God will again have mercy on them, and God will bring them back into the land of Israel; and they will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfillment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendor; and in it the temple of God will be rebuilt, just as the prophets of Israel have said concerning it. 6 Then the nations in the whole world will all be converted and worship God in truth. They will all abandon their idols, which deceitfully have led them into their error; 7 and in righteousness they will praise the eternal God. All the Israelites who are saved in those days and are truly mindful of God will be gathered together; they will go to Jerusalem and live in safety forever in the land of Abraham, and it will be given over to them. Those who sincerely love God will rejoice, but those who commit sin and injustice will vanish from all the earth. (NRSV)
5) Bar 3.7-8 (ca. 2nd century BCE) seems to confirm that Nehemiah's prayer is typical:
7 For you have put the fear of you in our hearts so that we would call upon your name; and we will praise you in our exile, for we have put away from our hearts all the iniquity of our ancestors who sinned against you. 8 See, we are today in our exile where you have scattered us, to be reproached and cursed and punished for all the iniquities of our ancestors, who forsook the Lord our God. (NRSV)
6) A letter included in 2 Macc 1.27-9 attributes to Nehemiah a prayer for God to "Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. 28 Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. 29 Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised."

On the basis of these passages, Wright concludes that "until the Gentiles are put in their place and Israel, and the Temple, fully restored, the exile is not really over, and the blessings promised by the prophets are still to take place" (270).

This is the second of three posts on this topic. Here are the first and third:
The Myth of a Continuing Exile
Why N.T. Wright is Not Totally Right


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your argument and look forward to continue reading your blog.

Ken Penner said...

I referred someone to your discussion, at
Jesus Creed (comment 10). Someone responded a few comments later, and I thought you might want to chime in.

d. miller said...

Thanks, Ken. Derek was kind enough to re-post his comment here. I replied in the comments.