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Unformatted text preview: Part Two Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. Profile of a Prophet Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. Chapter Five THE PRAXIS OF A PROPHET Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. 1. Jesus’ Career in Outline What would the average Galilean have perceived as Jesus came through the village? What categories would have been available for understanding what was going on? How did Jesus himself regard these basic categories? Only when we have asked these questions is it safe, historically speaking, to work forwards and ask about the other aspects of his mindset, and hence also about his beliefs and his aims. It is quite easy to lay out a brief list of things that few will deny about Jesus’ life and public activity.1 He was most likely born in what we now call 4 BC (the calculation of the BC/AD divide took place in the sixth century, based on limited information).2 He grew up in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth, close to the major city of Sepphoris. He spoke Aramaic, some Hebrew, and probably at least some Greek.3 He emerged as a public figure in around AD 28, in the context of the initially similar work of John the Baptist.4 He summoned people to repent (in some sense, to be discussed later), and announced the kingdom, or reign, of Israel’s god, using parables in particular to do so. He journeyed around the villages of Galilee, announcing his message and enacting it by effecting remarkable cures, including exorcisms, and by sharing in table-fellowship with a socio-culturally wide group. He called a group of close disciples, among whom twelve were given special status.5 His activities, especially one dramatic action in the Temple, incurred the wrath of some elements in Judaism, notably (at least towards the end) of the high-priestly establishment. Partly as a result of this, he was handed over to the Romans and executed in the manner regularly used for insurrectionists. His followers claimed, soon afterwards, that he had been raised from the dead. They carried on his work in a new way, and some of them were persecuted for doing so, both by Jews and by pagans. Some would question this or that detail of this list, and we will discuss these problems as they arise. Some would include more at this basic level. What we have here is enough—not for us to say everything that can and must be said about Jesus, but for us to find our necessary starting-point for further investigation. We can fill in the bare outline with a few more details, most of which are comparatively non-controversial.6 All through the gospels we find Jesus performing certain habitual actions, which, taken individually and together, contribute in no small way to our total picture of his career. Part of his paradoxical persona consisted of certain styles of activity that cannot be reduced to terms either of teaching (though they often provided the occasion for teaching) or of Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. mighty works (though they were sometimes associated with, or closely parallel to, mighty works of one sort or another). This activity formed the basic raw material of the ministry, the context within which teaching and mighty works took place. Jesus engaged in an itinerant ministry. This took him into synagogues, into private houses, into the open countryside, including non-Jewish territory. Sometimes he met with his followers in secret, sometimes he appeared in public. At least once, but possibly quite frequently, he travelled to Jerusalem and carried on his activities there, and on the last occasion the journey took on something of a new overtone. He was often to be found in prayer, not merely on formal and public occasions, i.e. when attending the synagogue,7 but informally and in private contexts, sometimes in lonely places.8 Among the characteristics of his prayer-life we must of course note his use of ‘Abba’ as an address for Israel’s god. It used to be thought that this address was unique, and that it was a child’s familiar term, meaning ‘Daddy’. Both of these ideas have been shown to be misleading.9 ‘Abba’ remains, however, a form of address which, if not unique, is particularly distinctive of Jesus. Apart from an early period in the wilderness10 he did not fast—which distinguished him and his followers from other pious Jews.11 He sat loose to family commitments, in a way which must have been felt and perceived by both family and onlookers as puzzling and offensive.12 This attitude to his own family was reflected in the shocking demands for family disloyalty that he made on his followers.13 In particular, he ate and drank with all sorts and conditions of people, sometimes in an atmosphere of celebration.14 He ate with ‘sinners’, and kept company with people normally on or beyond the borders of respectable society—which of course, in his day and culture, meant not merely social respectability but religious uprightness, proper covenant behaviour, loyalty to the traditions and hence to the aspirations of Israel.15 This caused regular offence to some of the pious, and we will consider in due course why this was so. For the moment we note that his table-fellowship was a sufficiently well-known and striking feature of his regular style to be commented on, and for him to respond to such comment in various ways. Like many other of his actions, this table-fellowship became seen as a further way in which the kingdom was actually being inaugurated. It is, of course, possible in theory that this whole picture is pure fabrication. Someone in the very early church might conceivably have started rumours of Jesus behaving in this way when in fact his style and conduct was quite different. But this can be confidently ruled out as highly improbable. (a) All our sources, however we analyse them, point back in this direction. (b) This activity carries the marks of the appropriate similarities and appropriate dissimilarities of which we spoke earlier. Jesus’ actions make sense within his Jewish context, and within the socio-cultural world of Galilee in particular, and they make sense also as the precursor of some aspects of the early mission of the church.16 At the same time, these actions presented a challenge to certain aspects of the Jewish worldview, and were not imitated easily or readily by the church as a whole. (c) For what it is worth, almost all serious contemporary writers about Jesus would agree that something like this activity was indeed characteristic of him.17 We may therefore safely conclude that Jesus habitually went about from village to village, speaking of the kingdom of the god of Israel, and celebrating this kingdom in various Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. ways, not least in sharing meals with all and sundry. These actions and words must therefore be seen not as incidental behaviour, irrelevant to his worldview or mindset, but as part at least of the praxis through which we can bring that worldview into focus. What sort of worldview, then, might such praxis reveal? And what sort of mindset begins to emerge as Jesus’ own variant on that worldview? I want now to argue that the best initial model for understanding this praxis is that of a prophet; more specifically, that of a prophet bearing an urgent eschatological, and indeed apocalyptic, message for Israel. This, of course, corresponds to many ‘Third Quest’ studies, as opposed to some within the renewed ‘New Quest’, for whom the specific hope of Israel has been set aside in favour of a ‘sapiential’ outline of Jesus as simply a teacher of wisdom. The model of Jesus as prophet also, as we shall see, has the capacity to function as a basis for further study which will draw in many other features of Jesus’ life and work which may otherwise remain on the margins. One of the strongest arguments for the prophetic portrait is the sense it makes in the total context of Judaism in general, of popular movements in particular, and of John the Baptist above all. We must look briefly at each before proceeding further. 2. Jesus’ Context Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. (i) First-Century Judaism We have already studied the wider context within which what Jesus was doing would have made whatever sense it did (NTPG Part III). First-century Judaism, with all its pluriformity, had certain dynamics running through it, not least an undercurrent of potential or actual revolution. This was not confined to the lowest social classes, but enjoyed the support of at least some Pharisees and, eventually, even some aristocrats.18 Tacitus says that in Tiberius’ reign (AD 14–37) all was quiet in Palestine; what he means, as we have seen, is that there was no major war such as would necessitate calling for intervention from the legions, stationed in Syria.19 But there is plenty of evidence for revolutionary movements smouldering away throughout the period, coming into explicit confrontation with the authorities from time to time as opportunity offered or pressure to revolt became intense. The extent to which these movements were automatically committed to violence is very difficult to assess. Sometimes violent intent was there from the start. Sometimes those who followed a new leader seemed to assume that their god would intervene on their behalf, as had happened when the walls of Jericho fell before Joshua and his company. But at least we can be sure of this: anyone who was heard talking about the reign of Israel’s god would be assumed to be referring to the fulfilment of Israel’s long-held hope.20 The covenant god would act to reconstitute his people, to end their exile, to forgive their sins. When that happened, Israel would no longer be dominated by the pagans. She would be free. The means of liberation were no doubt open to debate. The goal was not. What would a prophet be doing in such a setting?21 It used to be common to say that in the first century prophecy was regarded as having ceased, and there is some evidence which points in this direction.22 Jews in the second century BC spoke of waiting for a prophet to come, Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. in the tone of voice of people who do not imagine that this will happen very soon. In 1 Maccabees 4:46, Judas and his companions store the stones of the defiled altar in a convenient place ‘until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them’. In 14:41 of the same book, Simon is appointed leader and high priest ‘until a trustworthy prophet should arise’. In both cases the prophet is seen as the one who would reveal the will of YHWH on matters of the highest importance. In the former passage, the prophet will effectively have authority over the Temple; in the latter, over the present royal and priestly regime. Both of these might be thought to point to a more-than-prophetic role, namely that of the coming king who would have authority over the Temple and, naturally, over any temporary royal house. At the same time, there is no obvious reference to Deuteronomy 18, and no suggestion that this prophet would necessarily be the only one who would arise in the future.23 As far as these texts are concerned, then, prophecy is not available in the present time, and when it returns all sorts of crucial elements in Israel’s life will be differently ordered. Some rabbinic texts, too, seem to indicate a sense that prophecy had come to a stop.24 The phenomenon of the Bath Qol, the ‘daughter of a voice’, should not be taken as counter-evidence, since it is a more indirect phenomenon, a substitute for the direct revelation to the true prophet. However, in each of these cases we are right to be a little suspicious of the evidence.25 1 Maccabees, written to undergird the authority of the Hasmonean regime, would be unlikely to acknowledge as truly prophetic any oracles that challenged this upstart royal house, and the nod in the direction of a possible future prophet is most likely to be seen as a pious gesture. (It should not be pressed into service, either, as evidence for a lively expectation of a specific prophet, perhaps the one spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:18.) The rabbis, not least in the second century (when their traditions began to take written form), were concerned above all with the supremacy of Torah (and of themselves as its accredited interpreters), and with the renunciation of revolution in favour of Torah-piety. It suited this double agenda to declare, or imply, that old-fashioned prophecy, especially if it carried revolutionary overtones, had come to an end.26 One grain of truth in the idea of the cessation of prophecy is no doubt to be found in the absence, at least since Daniel, of written prophetic material being included within the developing canon.27 This certainly seems to be what Josephus means when he writes of the failure of an exact succession of prophets in the second-Temple period. He is thinking specifically of the prophets as historians, and explaining that, though the history of Israel right up to his own time has indeed been written, the more recent material is not accorded equal weight with the work of the ‘former prophets’, i.e. the historical books of the Hebrew Bible.28 To this extent at least, a form of ‘prophecy’ had ceased. Prophecy of various sorts, however, seems to have continued unchecked in the secondTemple period.29 Among the best and most recent analyses is that of Robert Webb, who discusses the sources and possible categorizations very thoroughly, and offers his own variation. He distinguishes three basic types. First, there were ‘clerical prophets’, holders of priestly (and perhaps also royal) office, possessing prophetic powers apparently in virtue of their office. This applies particularly to John Hyrcanus, and to Josephus himself.30 Second, Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. Copyright © 1996. SPCK. All rights reserved. there were ‘sapiential prophets’, wise men belonging to various sectarian groups such as the Essenes,31 or the Pharisees.32 We may perhaps add in this cluster a reference to Philo and the author of Wisdom, for whom prophecy was still a live possibility, and occurred as and when ‘wisdom’ inspired people.33 Third, there were ‘popular prophets’, with a further subdivision: ‘leadership popular prophets’ and ‘solitary popular prophets’. These last two categories denote prophets who emerged from, and appealed to, the ordinary people of Palestine, without the benefit of office or scribal learning. They are described by Josephus in various places.34 First, he uses the term to describe revolutionary leaders such as Theudas, ‘the Egyptian’, and the prophet who, towards the end of the siege in 70, persuaded 6,000 Jews to stay in a portico of the Temple, hoping in vain for ‘the signs of salvation’.35 Josephus comments bitterly that there were many prophets at this time in the pay of ‘the tyrants’, promising salvation in order to stop people deserting to the Romans, and so blinding the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the signs, both natural and supernatural, that their doom was near.36 A second, different sort of prophet, promising no salvation, gathering no following, but only announcing disaster, is typified in Jesus the son of Ananias, who despite punishment proclaimed the coming doom throughout the war until he was himself killed in the Roman attack.37 These, then, are Webb’s two types, ‘leadership popular prophets’ and ‘solitary popular prophets’. (Webb points out that Horsley’s distinction of ‘action prophets’ and ‘oracular prophets’ ignores the fact that the ‘action prophets’ also uttered oracles in order to gain, and give directions to, their following.) The first type, copying Moses or Joshua, attempted, with promises of salvation, to initiate and lead a movement of liberation. The second, copying some parts at least of the work of the classical Hebrew prophets, announced oracles which warned of impending doom. From the examples already given it is clear that all the above categories could and did overlap. It is risky to project artificially clear twentieth-century distinctions (e.g. those between scribal and peasant activity) back on to the screen of what was clearly a very confused social setting. In some technical senses, then, ‘prophecy’ might be held to have ceased in the secondTemple period, but in all sorts of ways it was still very much alive and well.38 Certainly the general populus thought so. And it is in this context, I shall argue presently, that we can credibly locate both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The gospels fit them both into this context and setting, and it is highly unlikely that the early church, which had come to evaluate Jesus in several other more important ways, made this up. Both belong here, even though both, in different ways, broke the moulds from which they came. Somebody announcing a message from Israel’s god, which might include both warnings of coming disaster and promises of coming deliverance, belongs broadly in a context that was not unknown, even if the precise contours of their message differed somewhat from what other prophets had offered. One feature of ‘leadership prophets’, and also of some of the others described above, is of enormous importance for the subsequent argument of this book. We have seen that the prophets who gained a following often engaged not only in teaching and oracular pronouncements, but also in symbolic actions. These regularly involved leading people into the wilderness, often Wright, Tom. <i>Jesus and the Victory of God</i>, SPCK, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central, . Created from acu on 2019-08-12 00:25:57. around the Jordan. They sometimes appear to have focused on a stylized symbolic entry into the land, with the apparent expectation and promise that Israel’s god would act dramatically as he had done at the time of the exodus. These symbolic actions were not random. No historical purpose is served by ignoring the fact that people who act in this way, as leaders or as led, do so in obedience to a controlling story, a metanarrative which underlies their whole programme and agenda. The sense of expectation which induced this strange behaviour is, quite simply, only explicable if we understand those involved to have been obedient to an underlying story within which their actions made sense. Nor do we have to look very far to see what sort of story this might be. It was a story in which Israel’s long night of suffering and misery would soon be over, and the new day would dawn in which Israel’s god would act, at last, as king of all the world: These movements were oriented toward the deliverance of those peasants from the oppression and dissatisfaction they felt toward their lot. These prophetic figures called the people to gather together and participate in a symbolic action reminiscent of their past religious heritage, especially the events associated with the Exodus and Conquest. The prophetic figures evidently promised the people that the deliverance would take place by divine intervention. These prophetic movements appear to have had an eschatological dimension.39 Retelling, or re-enacting, the story of the exodus, then, was a classic and obvious way of pretelling, or pre-enacting, the great liberation, the great ‘return from exile’, for which Israel longed. Moreover, the ‘popular’ prophets in particular seem to have been informed by the memory of the great classical prophets, not least the prophetic ministry of Moses and Joshua.40 We are here in touch with part of what we wi...
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