Baker Academic

Sunday, July 12, 2015

If Jesus is the Answer, What was the Question?

To paraphrase Ernst Käsemann, Jewish apocalyptic is the mother of New Testament theology. This statement is true in content, but probably betrays an assumption that must be challenged. The assumption--and this is seen in much of Käsemann's work--is that there was something lacking in Jewish apocalypticism that is answered uniquely in the New Testament.

Today I viewed a magnificent lecture by Loren Stuckenbruck posted by Chris Keith. This lecture was the keynote address at the St. Mary's 2014 conference: "Evil in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity." Loren argues compellingly that the worldview (including ideas related to the nature, problems, solutions, key players and timeline of the cosmos) of certain New Testament authors fit hand in glove with the worldview we find in numerous apocalyptic texts. In short, there is a false assumption made by several Pauline theologians (Käsemann, Martin, and Dunn are mentioned) that Paul's singular contribution to Jewish apocalypticism was the invention of "inaugurated eschatology." Loren challenges this assumption in his discussion of the problems of evil in "old" and "new" ages. Loren summarizes a common worldview we discover in several apocalyptic texts from the third century C.E. to the turning of the Common Era:
To talk about the Flood in some of these texts is also in the same breath to think about the present. . . . The Nephalim and mighty men of Genesis 6 were interpreted in several influential, Jewish, apocalyptic works as giant-sized offspring of disobedient angels and daughters of humanity whose destructive activity has led to a crisis in which God intervenes to destroy their bodies, punish the angels, and ensure the survival of humans. . . . who are integral to the created order. Those texts were not simply attempts to reinterpret the sacred past; they conveyed to Jews from the third century until the beginning of the common era an assurance that evil (however rampant and overwhelming it may be in the present age) is but a defeated power whose time is marked. Divine victory in the sacred past could even be understood as an expression of God’s royal power.  . . . Since God’s rule has asserted itself in the cosmos on a global scale, the present era is represented as a time when those to are pious can proceed with some confidence in dealing with the effects of demonic power, knowing that although it cannot be gotten rid of altogether before the ultimate end of things, it is nevertheless possible to address, to curtail, or to manage its effects. This understanding of sacred past and imminent future was not simply a matter of charting how time works, it was a way of defining what it meant to be God’s people in the present and it could manifest itself in terms of a theological anthropology that negotiated the relentless uncertainties of life with the certainty of victory under the covenant. (circa min.39ff)
And then, a bit later in the lecture:
The present is shaped by both an eschatological past a future that loops back as an inclusio to bring God’s activity in history to it’s proper end. The thing to get from these Jewish texts is that there is no flight attempt to escape the reality of suffering. At all. Absolutely no. And when we look to even what is presented about Jesus in the Gospels and even to Paul, there really is no escape either from suffering. … Evil is never destroyed; it is simply relocated when Jesus exorcizes demons. (circa min.49ff)
The title of Stuckenbruck's lecture is "How Much Does the Christ Event Solve?" Loren concedes at the beginning of the lecture that research presented will work toward the backdrop of that question rather than answering directly. It is, however, interesting that Loren hints (quite forcefully) toward an answer. The Christ event as conceived by Paul is an answer to the problem of evil in the world. But--and I hope that you'll listen to Loren's lecture rather than taking my word for it--those with first-century apocalyptic worldviews (including several NT authors) had a different narrative of evil than we do. Paul and Mark had a narrative and mythology of evil that could not be concluded once and for all by the death and resurrection of Jesus, only inaugurated. Moreover this notion of inaugurated eschatology was not invented by the New Testament authors.

As if Loren's lecture wasn't stimulating enough, I was struck again by the erudition of my friend Chris Keith (who organized this conference). Chris' question to Loren was nothing short of brilliant. Chris asks:
Is Jesus a Jewish answer to a Jewish question, a Christian answer to a Jewish question, or a Christian answer to a Christian question? (circa min.53ff)
I won't provide Loren's answer here even though I think it's fascinating. For the moment, I am stewing on the implications of the question. Or, to nuance the title of this post, if Jesus is the theological answer to the problem of evil, what was the nature of the question?

My deepest gratitude to both Loren and Chris for this lecture and the many new avenues it anticipates!



  1. I’d almost say, this is a talk that belongs in a conference about interfaith dialogue, and not in a conference about evil. Here is Dr. Stuckenbruck’s lead sentence: “The title of the lecture implies that there is something at stake when in relation to the writings that eventually became the Christian New Testament, Judaism is drawn into the conversation.” His talk might be subtitled, how to do comparative religious work. He points out the heavy investment of many in the notion that, as compared to second Temple Judaism, early Christianity brought something entirely new, singular and definitive (and for some, something superior and more effective) to the table. Thus while he states that he’ll be talking about the question of evil and not that of Christology, for my money he’s talking about both, in an overall context of the relation between Christianity and Judaism.

    Listening carefully, Dr. Stuckenbruck seems to be taking on Christian scholarship in much the same way that E.P. Sanders did 40 years ago. Whereas Sanders largely focused on the question of grace, Stuckenbruck focuses on the question of salvation. But oddly, the two scholars seem to be addressing the same problem! Sanders focused on the effort made by many scholars to portray Christian grace as unique; hence, Judaism was described by these scholars as a dead, legalistic faith obsessed with works. Stuckenbruck focuses on the Christian concept of salvation made a present-day reality with the coming and death of Jesus; hence, Judaism gets described as a faith stuck in the first of two “ages” of salvation, where there’s no present-day hope. Sanders and Stuckenbruck share this argument in common: Judaism gets positioned by scholars to satisfy the need to make Christianity (and Jesus) unique.

    As Sanders showed that second Temple Judaism was a grace-based religion, Stuckenbruck argues that the Jewish apocalyptic tradition BEFORE Jesus understood that God had already broken into history to inaugurate the defeat of evil.

    I freely admit, Dr. S is talking WAY above my head. I cannot say if his critique is correct. But I DO get it when Dr. S says that Judaism is being used as a foil, and I think I get it when Dr. S asks what’s at stake when Judaism is drawn into a scholarly conversation about the uniqueness of Christianity. Naturally, part of what’s at stake is getting Judaism right, and eliminating scholarly vestiges of the “teaching of contempt.” (I don't know the scholarship well enough to know if it IS teaching contempt, but I'm grateful for Dr. S's concern nonetheless.) Again, this is where I see Sanders and Stuckenbruck working together. Another part of what’s at stake is our understanding of Jesus: do we see him within Judaism, or in contradistinction against Judaism? If you buy into what I see at stake, then what’s at stake effectively bifurcates Chris’ question into two sets of questions, depending on which Jesus we’re asking questions about.

    Chris and Anthony, thanks for bringing this talk to my attention.

  2. Anthony,

    I fast forwarded to Chris Keith's question - which indeed is fantastic. It would actually be a great way to start a sermon!

    So if inaugurated eschatology is not unique to Paul, this would mean that there were categories in place for 2nd Temple Jews to understand Paul's view of Jesus in "their" framework.

    This makes it even more puzzling that there was such a massive rejection by 2nd Temple Jews of "Jesus" as an answer to questions pertaining to the now and not yet.

    If, for example, inaugurated eschatology ideas existed, in theory Jesus was not a problem by being both a present righteousness of God (Rom 3) through His signs, wonders, work on the cross, resurrection, etc. AND a future completed righteousness of God through a final vindication of God and His people, and judgment of the unrighteous.

    If this is the case, what exactly was the problem with Jesus as an answer - at least as it pertains to righteousness? Would Paul's answer of "Jesus" in this example really have been that problematic? After all, Paul's answer of Jesus would have satisfied the demands of the question.

    I am assuming in the above that Paul was answering a question (in Romans 2-4) as to how God could be seen as faithful and righteous in a Jewish context if Jesus is the "but now" righteousness of God.

    1. Corby, I would be purely speculative for me to guess why many of Jesus' contemporaries never joined his movement. It seems like I might be on more solid ground to guess why so many left his movement once he was executed, shamed, and departed. The simple answer is that most people didn't anticipate or want a crucified messiah in the first place and didn't believe that he rose from the dead in the second.


    2. Corby, your argument cuts two ways. If second Temple Jews already had an inaugurated eschatology, then they didn't necessarily need the inaugurated eschatology offered or represented by Jesus.

      Perhaps one way to view this is that (in this respect at least) Jesus offered a confirmation of something that Jews already believed. This confirmation doubtless was of great significance to his followers, and I don't mean to minimize the importance of this confirmation. But not everyone is going to join a new Jewish sect to confirm something they already know.

    3. I feel compelled here to say something almost entirely uninteresting: just because some or many first-century Jews had a particular form of eschatology in common does mean all or most Jews did. There, you've had your banality dosage for the day.


  3. If we take seriously how liturgy is based on cosmogony (the idea of reenactment of god's action to put chaos to order in the beginning of creation) and how liturgy is a way of nurturing hope for the future (that that order will prevail over chaos, not only because the divinity has acted, but because the liturgical rituals are actualizing that action), then, of course the jewish eschatology is not one of a completely disruptive future aeon. I would say that the liturgical context in the present brings past and future together in a way that neutralizes (as Jon Levenson put it - Creation and the Persistence of Evil) or even supersedes the present evil (this is true for the Temple liturgy). I would say then that the difference for the Christian thought is to put the Christ event in the center of how we understand that God deals with evil (something that will also be reenacted in Christian liturgy, bringing this past event to present reality and making the future hope a present reality too), while the second temple judaism would put another historical event in the center (past or future). I'm not sure if I made myself understood, but I would suggest, for the overall view of how liturgy works in many ancient religious manifestations, Christine Schnusenberg's The Mythological Traditions of Liturgical Drama.