Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why N.T. Wright is Not Totally Right

In an earlier post, I presented the evidence behind N.T. Wright's claim in his 1992 tome that most Jews thought of themselves as being, in some sense, in exile. Wright evidently faced some resistance on this point, because he returns to it in the introduction to Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), with this rejoinder:
"Without wishing to labour the point further, I would ask critics to face the question: would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed, and Israel's sins forgiven? That the long-awaited 'new exodus' had happened? That the second Temple was the true, final and perfect one? Or - in other words - that the exile was really over?" (xvii-xviii)
Well maybe. Wright's argument that "[t]he exile is not yet really over" (NTPG 269) because the promises mentioned in Isaiah and Ezekiel are never said to be fulfilled is one possible inference from the biblical prophets, but it doesn't substitute for evidence for what Second Temple Jews actually believed about the exile and their own situation. I have no quarrel with the idea that most Jews thought the words of the prophets had not been completely fulfilled, but it doesn't necessarily follow that they believed they were in exile long after the Persian period. As an analogy, consider how early Christians concluded that some prophecies had been fulfilled in Jesus' life, death and resurrection, while others awaited future fulfilment. Why couldn't the returnees from Babylon have done the same thing, assigning some prophecies to the return under Ezra and Nehemiah, and others to the future? Jews may have read the prophets in the way Wright proposes, but there is no reason why they had to read them this way.

And, in fact, there is good evidence that many did not:

First, when we examine the passages cited by Wright more closely, we see that they are, with one exception, set during or very soon after the Babylonian exile. Since Neh 9:36 was composed so close to the exile, it can hardly serve as evidence for typical Jewish thinking in the following 500 years. Tobit is written in the Diaspora from the perspective of a Diaspora Jew, and set (fictiously) during the Assyrian exile. Like Tobit, the fictive setting of Baruch is exile--this time the Babylonian exile. And the prayer in 2 Macc 1:27-29 is attributed to Nehemiah, who lived just after the return from exile. To be fair, Tobit describes the common hope for a restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel in the language of return from exile, and Baruch's expression of this same hope (4-5) draws on the language of Isaiah 40-66. However, I don't think we should conclude from the fictive setting of Tobit and Baruch that their authors still regarded themselves as being in exile. At any rate, that the desire for the restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel is associated in these texts with the concepts of exile and return does not make exile a ubiquitous concept.

The only passage cited by Wright that is not set during or shortly after the exile is CD 1.3-8, from the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, we need to be careful not to treat the Dead Sea Scrolls as representative of what most Jews believed. The Qumran community was, after all, a self-consciously sectarian group that saw itself in opposition to the rest of Israel.

Some Jews in some contexts may have likened the Diaspora, or life under Roman rule, as an exile of sorts, but we need to be careful not to extrapolate these scattered statements as the dominant metaphor for all of life.

On the positive side, Josephus begins his account of the return from exile by emphasizing the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy about a 70-year exile:
In the first year of Cyrus's reign--this was the seventieth year from the time when our people were fated to migrate from their own land to Babylon--God took pity on the captive state and misfortune of those unhappy men and, as He had foretold to them through the prophet Jeremiah...He would again restore them to the land of their fathers and they should build the temple and enjoy their ancient prosperity, so did He grant it them. (Ant. 11.1-2)
Cyrus commanded the rebuilding of the temple, Josephus adds, because he had read "the book of prophecy which Isaiah had left behind two hundred and ten years earlier" (Ant. 11.5). Though he does not have a lot of source material to work with, Josephus's depiction of post-exilic life through the reign of John Hyrcanus is generally very positive. He criticizes the later Hasmonean rulers, and of course believed that the destruction of Jerusalem in his own time was a result of divine judgement that paralleled the Babylonian exile, but Josephus does not regard "exile" as a useful category to describe daily life before 70 CE.

Nor, apparently, does Philo of Alexandria, as Louis Feldman explains in this somewhat convoluted quotation:
"That...Philo does not regard the Jews, who, in his day, were living in the Diaspora as "exiles" in this sense [of punishment for sin] may be deduced from his statement (Virt. 19.117) that God may with a single call easily gather together from the ends of the earth to any place that He wills the exiles...dwelling in the utmost parts of the earth. The word which he here uses for exiles connotes those who have emigrated, who have settled in a far land, and who have been sent to colonize it, and has not the connotation of having been punished thus." - Louis Feldman, "The Concept of Exile in Josephus," in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions (James M. Scott, ed.; Leiden: Brill, ), 146.
(See also the similar summary of Philo's view on exile by John Byron in Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Early Christianity [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 102-3.)

My biggest problem with Wright's model is that it requires an unduly negative view of first-century Jewish life. It is not so much that Wright is critical of first-century Judaism as that he requires first-century Jews to be critical of themselves: Since exile was regarded as divine punishment, Wright maintains that most Jews thought their nation was living under God's judgement. Again, Wright needs this to be true for his model of forgiveness-as-return-from-exile to work. It is a flawed historical model moulded to serve a theological purpose, and is rightly criticized as such by Martin Goodman.

The model is flawed not only because it fails to consider the range of evidence, but also because it is unimaginative. Wright's somber, dire portrait of a people in distress, desperate for God to act contrasts sharply with the humour of a Tobit or the temple celebration described in the Letter of Aristeas, or the apologetic historiography of Josephus, etc.

In sum, Christians are conditioned by the trajectory of the New Testament to think that everyone read their Scripture the same way, that there was, in fact, only one right way to read. The reality then, as now, is more complex. We are wise to have a healthy suspicion toward reconstructions of what "most Jews" believed, especially those that support Christian theology too well. They are often too good to be true.

This is the third and hopefully final post on this topic. Here are the other two:
The Myth of a Continuing Exile
N.T. Wright on the Continuing Exile


Anonymous said...

Nice. So you are saying that Wright's idea may be appropriate for the Christian movement but not for Judaism at large?

I do wonder about your point about the texts with humor. It seems like all you would need would be an instance of humor in the exile proper for this point to be suspect. Obviously if these writers are placing their character in the exile at one point or another we have to ask why. Certainly they have a point to make to their contemporaries, especially since these stores are fictional. What is the point? Also, because these authors place characters in a time not their own doesn't require the conclusion that they were looking back to the exile as something over and done with.

I also wonder about the apocalyptic genres the draw so heavily from exilic books. If apocalypse is about lasting meaning in present circumstances, what circumstances provoked the apocalypses? I realize not everyone was writing apocalypses.

But I see your point. Wright's proposal might be a size small shirt on a man who needs 2XL. There's always that diversity to tackle.

Thanks. said...


Your posts on N.T. Wright were mentioned today on the JesusCreed blog (Scot McKnight) on beliefnet.

I responded there with a few critiques of your post here:

Ken (#10):

I looked at David Miller's critique of Wright's point that Jews in the Second-Temple period saw themselves in exile.

I think he is off for several reasons (though his knowledge of the sources is good):
(1) The Maccabean period, at least early on, was beloved because it held out a promise for true freedom from exile -- a promise the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) did not deliver.
(2) The very fact of the first Jewish revolt shows Jewish zeal to be rid of the "exile" of Roman domination.
(3) Miller's use of Josephus is misleading, as Josephus was a known suck-up to his Roman patrons.
(4) In Judaism, we are in exile until the Messianic Age -- period.


Derek Leman

d. miller said...

Hi Derek,

Thank's for alerting me to your comment on Jesus Creed and posting it here.

Can you give me some evidence for point (1) where the concept of exile is clearly in view?

With regard to your point (2), I agree that Jews expected a divine restoration in fulfilment of OT promises. They did not think all the prophets said was fulfilled during the physical return from exile in 520 BCE. My problem--or one of them--is with the use of the term "exile" to describe the sense that not everything had been fulfilled. Again, Wright needs to use the term exile to denote Jewish beliefs about the present and hopes for the future because it is required for his system, but doing so distorts our view of early Judaism.

(3) I follow Steve Mason and other recent scholars on Josephus in believing that Josephus writes the Antiquities to defend the Jewish way of life. What pro-Roman motivation would he have had for depicting largest sections of the period between the return from exile and Jerusalem's second destruction positively?

In point (4), I gather you are describing contemporary Judaism. Is that correct? said...


In seeking a quick answer, let me back up my first point (that the Maccabean revolt showed a desire for freedom from exile) in two ways. First, the popularity of the movement and unwillingness to accept assimilation, suggests a powerful desire by the Judeans to be free from foreign rulers (a sort of exile). Second, let me cite a different example, the Psalms of Solomon, written about the rule of the Romans starting in 63 B.C.E. There is exile language in them such as:
2 Alien nations ascended Thine altar, They trampled (it) proudly with their sandals; 3 Because the sons of Jerusalem had defiled the holy things of the Lord, Had profaned with iniquities the offerings of God. 4 Therefore He said: Cast them far from Me.

As for my point (2), why a Jewish revolt if Judea did not feel oppressed and in exile?

As for my point (3), I know you know of examples and I could find some if you press me, in which Josephus downplays Jewish messianic expectation, calls Roman emperors messiah, and so on. Yes, he defended Israel to a Roman audience, but he also sucked up to his Roman patrons.

As for my point (4) i mean not only contemporary Judaism, but from the rabbinic periods (Tannaim, Amoraim). A similar attitude can be inferred in Second Temple period in a number of ways, not least Saul of Tarsus and his persecution of the Way to cleanse the land for the Messianic Age.

Derek Leman

d. miller said...

Derek, thanks for your reply. I'm apologize in the delay in my own response. It's interesting to me that your argument about exile is based largely on inference. Sometimes, like Wright, you put "exile" in brackets. I don't object to the idea that Jews wanted to be free from foreign rulers or even that exile language could be used in the Psalms of Solomon, but I don't think this is enough to show that Jews in the land actually viewed themselves as being in the same exile that took place in 586. We agree that Jews--or at least some of them some of the time--felt oppressed and sought freedom from foreign rule. Whether they regarded it as exile is another matter.

With regard to rabbinic exile language, Martin Goodman has made a strong case in his excellent book, Rome and Jerusalem, that the sense of being in exile that appears in Rabbinic literature is a response to AD 70 and 135, and does not reflect normal Jewish perceptions before war broke out with Rome.

Again, thanks for your comments!

John Ottens said...

So, at this point David I agree that 'exile' in particular is probably not the best image for describing how the Jews viewed their situation in the Second Temple period. (Sorry, Derek.) Nevertheless, I wonder whether you move too quickly from that point to conclude that therefore Judaism of the first century was characterized by a carefree and joyful outlook on life. (An intentional caricature for the sake of argument, sorry.)

The specific image of 'exile' is not a good fit, but that doesn't change the fact that these centuries are sometimes referred to as 'the apocalyptic era' because of their distinct worldview. (Present evil age, coming time of reckoning and vindication.) Pious and theologically-attuned Jews of that era detected a palpable tension in their faith, attested in much of their literature and in many of the popular movements. Do you think we can (and perhaps should) keep much of Wright's model even as we abandon his central image for expressing that model?

What do you think? Am I making sense?

d. miller said...

Good question, John. I'm not sure how to judge an ancient society's happiness quotient, though I suspect scholars like Goodman and Sanders overdo it on the other end. Some Jews composed apocalyptic literature-- including those responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls; other apocalypses seem to be located in particular periods of crisis such as the Hasmonean revolt and the period *after* the destruction of Jerusalem. How much ordinary Jews were *dominated* by an apocalyptic worldview, I'm not sure, but I think it's fair to say Jesus and his followers were. That Jesus attracted followers suggests that others shared the same perspective--or at least that that perspective was there, waiting to be activated much like the eschatology of some contemporary Christians seems to lie dormant most of the time.

I think Wright's model requires his negative view of first century Judaism. Because his negative view is wrong (in my view), it follows that the whole model is wrong too. On the other hand, I'm still impressed with the way Wright's model makes sense of much of the New Testament.

I'm thinking aloud here. Maybe, this is just a long, rambling way of saying I dunno.

d. miller said...

Let me try that again: Wright's model of forgiveness-as-end-of-exile requires a general belief that exile was ongoing for Jesus' message of forgiveness to tie into return-from-exile passages in the prophets.

I don't think there was a general sense in first-century Judaea/Palestine that exile was ongoing. Where does that leave us?

John Ottens said...

I've been having trouble trying to write a response. It seems like you've managed to get 'ongoing exile' and 'pessimistic outlook' and 'negative view' all tangled together. Let's remove the exile thread from the fray; you and I are in agreement on the subject of exile as an unsatisfactory central image. However, as I said before, that doesn't immediately lead to the conclusion that Judaism had a cheerful outlook.

As for your suggestion that 'Wright's model requires his negative view of first century Judaism', I'm not sure this is actually fair to Wright. Wright's intention seems not to be the maligning of early Judaism, but rather an attempt to establish the cultural/social/theological setting which would have fostered the birth of Christianity. (Indeed, I think that the four evangelists would be far more willing to promote a negative view of first century Judaism than Wright himself would.)

Early Judaism undeniably contained pessimistic apocalyptic expectations and values, even if, as you've suggested, those expectations and values remained fully or partially submerged most of the time. Removing the imagery of exile from Wright's reconstruction doesn't invalidate the somberness and sobriety of the the portrait he paints. It was there. Maybe it wasn't always there or even usually there, but it was certainly there.

What do you think? I'm trying to construct a balanced summary here, so let me know if anything of importance still seems to be out of proportion or missing or uncertain.

Anonymous said...

Schiffman, at least on the DSS, overlaps with Wright.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous, and for the link to Schiffman's piece. As I note in the original post, I agree with Wright too when it comes to the DSS. Only I don't regard the DSS as representative of what most Jews before 70 CE believed. There are good post-70 reasons why the idea of a continuing exile emerged in rabbinic literature.