BNTC 2015: The End of Exile image

BNTC 2015: The End of Exile

The British New Testament Conference has become something of an annual ritual for me. I pack my bags, head off to a university campus somewhere in the north (St Andrew's, Manchester, or in this case, Edinburgh), and prepare to spend a few days being the only person in the room without a jacket. The way I review each conference varies, depending on what I found interesting, but this year, I wanted to focus on one superb session I attended. It considered the end of exile, and featured papers from Philip Alexander and Tom Wright, followed by an excellent discussion involving the speakers, Markus Bockmuehl, several established scholars, and (first, but certainly least) me.

Before reviewing that specific session, however, a few other highlights. The joy of a biblical studies conference is largely found in the fragmentary conversations over a beer, a coffee or a breakfast, and BNTC is no exception. Eddie Adams, raving about John Barclay’s new book Paul and the Gift, mentioned that he thought the New Perspective on Paul was now in serious trouble. Robin Parry both surprised and fascinated me when he told me that most biblical studies books, even ones which sold for £20 or so, only sold 200 copies and yet still broke even. Tom Wright, when I asked him how he would explain why the early Christians still worshipped at the Jerusalem temple despite believing that theywere now the temple, used the analogy of us, as Protestants, visiting St Peter’s Basilica: it might not mean to us what it means to a Roman Catholic, but it is a powerful house of prayer nonetheless. Andy Angel explained why he agrees with the Caird/Wright/France view of the Olivet discourse, but distinguished between the Jewish focus of Matthew 24 (24:30 should be translated “the tribes of the land will mourn”) and the Gentile focus of Matthew 25. I even had one very senior scholar explain why it was so difficult to debate with another very senior scholar (“he’s a remarkable deflector, like Teflon”), although privacy requires that both scholars remain nameless. All very interesting.

Anyway: now to the end of exile. I’ll summarise both papers, and then the discussion.

End of Exile in Second Temple Judaism - Philip Alexander

It has often puzzled me that so many scholars do not see the end of exile theme in second temple Judaism, when it seems (to me) to be so obvious. I remember hearing Gerald Downing reject it, in discussion of Tom Wright’s work. Amy-Jill Levine dismissed it at a conference in the Netherlands a few months ago, which surprised me, because she obviously knows a lot about Judaism. So I have reflected a bit on why something, which appears so obvious to me, remains not obvious to others. And I think there are four methodological reasons:

1. An excessively narrow approach to language, with a focus on prooftexts in which the idea is clearly expressed. The phrase“end of exile” itself, of course, is not found in the second temple Jewish texts - which is enough to prompt many scholars to wave the idea as a figment of modern imagination - but the idea certainly is. For me, the phrase, despite not being mentioned, is a useful shorthand for this idea.
2. A failure to see second temple Judaism as a generally integrated system of belief and practice. The entire trajectory of second temple Judaism over the last few decades has been to deny unity and stress diversity. We’ve been taught to talk about “Judaisms” rather than “Judaism”, and so on - but this simply pushes the problem back a place, because the word “Judaisms” is meaningless unless there is a “Judaism”. The broad theology of second temple Judaism, for all the internal diversity, is the theology of the Deuteronomic school, and where there are exceptions, we should recognise them as deviations from this norm. Through all these strands, my assumption is that anyone who held strongly to the idea that the kingdom of God had not yet come would have agreed that the restoration of Israel had not been fully realised, and therefore that Israel was still in exile.
3. A lack of attention to analogies. Zionism is clearly a modern parallel here: a profound debate in Judaism exists over whether return to the land means that the exile is over. Even in its most secular incarnation, this debate draws deeply from the wells of ancient Jewish thought, because simply being in the land, even in sovereignty, does not mean the end of exile. And, although the language of “continuing exile” does not seem to be found in this modern discourse, the language of “exile within the land” certainly does. This has some important implications, since using analogies is a necessity in all historical tasks, even if it is open to distortion. Deficiencies in understanding of ancient Judaism can reflect a lack of exposure to contemporary Jewish life and practice.
4. An excessive attachment to texts, and corresponding neglect of events. The Maccabean war, the Jewish war and the Bar-Kochba revolt are hard to understand unless you see each of them as, in some sense, attempts to end the exile and inaugurate the restoration of Israel. But in modern scholarship, there is an attempt to downplay theology as a historical cause; much analysis is Marxist or subMarxist, which analyses all history in social and economic terms, and reduces theological explanations to material ones. Yet people act because they live in certain stories, and it is utterly reductionist to say that those stories are reducible to material causes. (To take a very contemporary example, Islamic State is driven by eschatological hopes and theological convictions, but in modern analysis it gets reduced to realpolitik.) It is impossible to understand the big events in the second temple period without reference to some sort of doctrine of continuing exile. The actors in these events were trying to bring about the restoration of Israel, and implicitly acknowledging thereby that the exile had not come to an end.

The language of “continuing exile” encapsulates the idea that the return under Cyrus did not completely negate the exile, because being in the land was not a sufficient condition for the exile to have finished. The antonym of exile is not “return” but “restoration” (as indicated by Nehemiah 8-10, in which Ezra is a second Moses, yet says that “we are slaves to this day,” reflecting an underlying Deuteronomic theology): in the Davidic and Solomonic period, future hopes and expectations were couched in terms of a return to paradise, as reflected in many of the Jewish prophets, and this clearly had not yet happened. More explicitly, Psalms of Solomon 17 is reminiscent of Nehemiah 9, and makes the obvious point that until all the tribes are gathered in from the end of the earth, the exile cannot fully be over. So the return of 538 did not mean the end of exile. The attitude of Qumran is undoubtedly extreme, but there are good grounds for thinking that others in second temple Judaism would agree with the premise that the restoration of Israel had not yet happened, and therefore the end of exile had not yet come.

So how widespread was this idea? It is unlikely to have been universal, but that doesn’t much matter: the ruling class would, of course, have tried to bear down on it, given how ideologically driven wars and revolutions are. But the idea that the exile was not over did not have to be universal, or even held by the majority, but simply held by enough people who could bring others with them into the Maccabean revolt, the Jewish War, the Bar-Kochba revolt, or whatever else. So there is good evidence that the doctrine of continuing exile was widespread in second temple Judaism, widespread enough to underpin three revolutions.

The parallels with modern Israel are uncanny. Some see the present Israel as a satanic entity; others see the return to the land as the beginning of the redemption of Israel, and work tirelessly to transform the secular state into a theocratic one; some see the exile as partly negated until Israel becomes the best and most just of states. But almost nobody thinks the exile is fully over. My contention is that second temple Judaism was somewhat like that.

End of Exile and Early Christianity - Tom Wright

I want to begin by making three preliminary points:
1. I, like Philip, am still puzzled as to why people don’t “get it” with the return from exile theme; I set the evidence out in PFG chapter 2. There’s a big story here, and the early Christians regarded themselves as living towards the end of it. (As an aside, one recent project I’ve been asked to consider is a Children’s Bible, but the problem with Children’s Bibles is that they are basically Christianised versions of Aesop’s fables; they don’t tell the big story.) If you don’t see the Bible as a big story, the end of exile obviously doesn’t fit. The Scriptures themselves present an unfinished narrative, which finishes, as it happens, with an anticlimax.
2. I also agree with Philip that the way people think, including the story they think they’re living in, remains far more powerful than the discipline of New Testament studies generally allows.
3. When I speak of an extended exile, I have in mind a cluster of ideas which belong together: the new exodus, the forgiveness of sins, the reconstruction or cleansing of the temple, and the return of Israel’s God to dwell there.

You can see this idea emerge clearly in all four Gospels. As Matthew begins, Jesus is the start of the seventh seven, following Abraham, David and the exile. In Mark, John is the one promised by Isaiah, proclaiming the return of Yahweh to Zion. For Luke, the rescue from enemies and enslavement are emphasised poetically through the songs of Mary and Zechariah. In John, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, so Isaiah 52 has been fulfilled in Jesus, and Exodus 25 is now repeated in post-exilic mode. For all four Gospel writers, the inauguration of the kingdom of God is central, which in Isaiah 52 is connected with the return from exile and the return of Israel’s God. Even the resurrection accounts at the end of each Gospel are accounts of returns from exile; as Rowan Williams has suggested, the angels on either side of the tomb, like the cherubim on either side of the ark, say to the world: God now lives here.

I’ve written extensively on how Paul views the return from exile as having happened in and through Jesus. Romans 10 picks up Deuteronomy 30 to show that the return from exile is happening through Jesus; similarly, in Galatians 3, he argues that the Messiah has shared Israel’s covenantal curse - exile and death - and thereby brought it to an end; and there is obviously 2 Cor 3-4. And that’s without going into Hebrews, Peter or Revelation, all of which add interesting angles on things. But taken together, this proposal puts in the shade a lot of the work that has been done on the use of the Old Testament in the New, because it revolves around a controlling story which had not yet come to an end. It was never about prooftexts.


My opening question - I learned a while back that if you get in first, you’re much more likely to be answered! - was whether Tom sees a “now and not yet” within early Christianity on the end of exile (which he does), and whether he sees this as materially different from the way second temple Jews regarded things (which he does, but mainly because he doesn’t want to play down the epochal significance of what has happened through Jesus and the Spirit). It wasn’t until I spoke to Markus Bockmuehl afterwards that I realised how significant this is: if you broaden out the word “exile” to mean anything implied by “paradise is not yet restored,” in order to make the point that Jews believed they were still in exile, then Christians are still in exile too; whereas if you want to say that the exile is over for Christians, because the decisive blow has been struck, then you may find yourself suggesting that the Jews weren’t in exile either (since they were, after all, back in the land). Markus then raised Psalm 126 as a great example of a text in which restoration has happened already, and yet is still in a sense anticipated (“When Yahweh restored our fortunes ... Restore us, O God!”), and it made me realise that the simplified version of Tom’s account - the Jews awaited the end of exile, and the Christians announced it - is thoroughly unsatisfactory, since both Jews and Christians held to a “now and not yet” view of exile. The problem, as Markus commented afterwards, is that this makes “exile” a bit of a blunderbuss, since if it means everything, it means nothing.

And here endeth the lesson.

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