Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Praxis of a Prophet; Or, Why Jesus probably did have a beard and carry a big stick

That's what prophets do, right? Although my great great great grandfather, a German Lutheran pastor, once wrote a theological treatise about beards and concluded that they were bad, not least because if you got the communion wine after lots of bearded people their dirty moustaches had made it taste sour. Did I tell that story already? It's really my only good theological ancestor story, so I wheel it out pretty regularly.

Anyway, chapter 5 of Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright points out the things that 'most everyone agrees on, whatever they think of Jesus: he was born about 4 BC, grew in the Galilean town of Nazareth, speaking Aramaic, some Hebrew, and probably at least a smattering of Greek. Around AD 28 he went public, and his work was originally connected with that of John the Baptist. He told everyone to repent, and announced the kingdom of Israel's god, telling a lot of parables along the way. He travelled round Galilean villages announcing his message and performing miracles like healings and exorcisms (obviously not everyone agrees they were miracles, but y'know, some stuff happened involving sick people), and ate dinner with all sorts of people. He had some followers, including 12 special disciples, and the things he said and did, especially one thing he did in the Temple, annoyed at least some other Jewish groups, particularly the high priests and their posse. Partly because of this, he got handed over to the Romans and crucified, which was what usually happened to insurrectionists (Pete Rollins, take note). But what does all this tell us about what Jesus was up to?

First-century Palestine was heaving at the cringes with a raggedy bunch of various types of prophet. Some prophets were powerful and educated, some hung around with weird sects, some had no friends, and some had huge gangs of followers. Some announced salvation; some announced impending doom. Some tried to lead uprisings against the Romans; others told people to get the hell out while they still could. Some were basically terrorists (and remember that a terrorist is basically just a violent person without any official power rather than a violent person with an army to command); others weren't violent at all.

John the baptist was one of many prophets. He was well-known in the late '20s, warning Israel of impending judgement, and getting into trouble for being a bit more political than King Herod felt comforable with. But he also baptised people for the forgiveness of sins, which implied that they didn't need the temple to have their sins forgiven; so the Temple authorities weren't fans either. Jesus clearly saw John as an important figure at the beginning of his own ministry. Jesus himself was like John the Baptist, only more so: announcing a prophetic message, inaugurating a renewal movement, and annoying the temple hierarchy.

At least at the start of his ministry, Jesus travelled around Galilean villages, avoiding the bigger towns and cities. He explained what he was doing in terms of the reconstitution of Israel. And since he went to lots of different villages, he probably said similar things in each of them; if he told a parable once, he probably told it several times, which Wright thinks goes some way to explain the variation between the different gospel accounts. The parables he told set out his agenda for Israel: what the convenant people should be doing at this point in their history. Jesus used parables because if he'd explicitly said what his parables implied, he would have gotten himself killed even earlier than he did. Jesus also warned of impending judgement that was coming on Israel if they didn't repent, threatening disaster and, specifically, the desctruction of the Temple. This isn't just ooby-dooby prediction, as if Jesus were a fortune teller: it didn't take a genius to see that if the people of Israel kept stepping on the Romans' toes, eventually there would be reprisals. Jesus also healed people, and his healings didn't just make people better, they also made unclean people clean, welcoming them back to full membership in God's people. And the nature miracles seem to hint at the idea that if Israel was restored, then the whole of creation would be restored along with her.


Phil said...

Your blog is being cited on the notorious Telegraph Damian Thompson (blood-crazed ferret) blog (Padre Pio one)
Dare you follow it up!

Be warned. Most of them are devious traditionalist RC sock puppets.

Marika said...

Good grief, that's a lively blog. Nice though it is to be referenced, I think it's somewhat beyond my ken to figure out what the conversation is and make a meaningful contribution at this point...!