November 20, 2010
NT Wright on Exile
Last Wednesday I attended a symposium on exile with NT Wright and several other scholars.
Wright’s big idea (not new in his work) was that Jews of the New Testament period saw themselves as living still in exile. We are probably used to thinking as “the exile” as the period of time that the Jews from Judea were taken captive to Babylon, a period that ended after 70 years with the returns of Nehemiah and Ezra (it is not exactly clear how to count the beginning and ending of the period). But Wright used copious citations from non-biblical Jewish literature to show that the Jews were not really convinced that the exile had ended with that return. It had been a step in the right direction, but not the full meal deal (that’s my own image, and you are welcome). The promises of return were just too glorious to think that they had already been fulfilled.
Wright points to this sense of being in exile as evidence that the Jews of the New Testament period saw themselves as living in a very long and very real story. The source of the story was Deuteronomy 30, where Moses outlined what would happen to the Jews in coming generations. To summarize: they would fall away from God, they would be exiled from the land, and then they would return and be restored. In the centuries leading up to Jesus, Jewish people basically saw themselves in that second stage of the story. Yes, there had been a return from exile of sorts, but it was nothing like the glorious promises of restoration seen the prophets.
Wright’s primary concern was to tie this view of history to the Pharisees because this material is background for his new book on Paul (fourth in the NTPG line) and his contention is that this is the story Paul inhabited. The pay dirt of this background is that, according to Wright, Paul thinks of “the Exile” as a period of time that ended with the coming of the Messiah, and the “those who belong to the Messiah are the returned-from-exile people.”
For Wright the Bible is a rich sprawling “narrative still in search of an ending.” He made a few comments about how this contrasts to the dehistoricized view that many bring to Scripture and in the discussion time after his lecture there was a fairly active exchange about this. It seems clear that Wright is not terribly impressed with theological/philosophical systems that only use the Bible as a source of doctrines. He wants to point us back to the big story and insist that the point of being a Christian is to live in that story. I think he’s on to something.
Wright’s paper, a draft chapter for his new book, is available here, though I don’t know for how long.