Thursday, March 12, 2009

Taking Jewish context into consideration

I'm going through John Piper's "The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright" at the moment and just arrived at chapter 3. Obviously I'm taking my time to read and think through the book. One thing that I found notable to note at the moment upon the few pages that I have just skimped through is that Piper 'disregards' reading the NT taking into consideration of it's Jewish context. Although he criticizes Wright's heavy usage of first-century thought in understanding Paul and also the NT and gives some needed warnings on leaning too much on it in our reading and understanding I'm not convinced with his argument. Reading the first chapter kind of gave way to the framing of his ideas and understanding the doctrine of justification which seems obvious taking the cover of his book into consideration.

One of the things that has attracted me to Wright's writings and thought of Jesus and the NT is namely the framework that he uses to frame the understanding. I like the stance of understanding Jesus in his Jewish context. I would say it illumines the NT to the point of understanding it better. Why so?

Let me frame this in one of the struggles I had with the bible and my christian faith. Being a new christian, one of the things that bothered me was Paul's constant use of "first for the Jew, then for the Gentile". Although I was happy being a follower of Jesus, it bothered me that reading the NT there was a lot of Jewish stuff having notable mention (I secretly wished that I was a Jew to be honest because Gentiles seemed second class citizens!). The framework of Jews working for their salvation (self righteousness) and the notion of Jesus coming to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law because we could not fulfill it was something I found incomplete. Even the gospel message that explained Genesis 1-3 where we in the beginning were supposed to have relationship with God and sin came in the was by route of the Fall. God's remedy was to send Jesus to die for our sins and we to believe in this wonderful sacrifice.

In all this framework shaping our christian faith, it seemed that there was no room for the OT, particularly in God's election of a nation, Israel, as God's plan of redemption. The gospel presentation that I was taught cut out this vital element of God's plan by simply throwing Jesus in the picture without any reference to his Jewish upbringing and thought life as a Jew. The OT and NT seemed very different reflections on God and by far miles apart.

My first encounter with taking Jesus' Jewishness seriously was Philip Yancey's "The Jesus I Never Knew". I'm sorry to say that I thought that this understanding was revolutionary, something new even. I think it shows how far we have wandered off in taking Jesus' Jewish context seriously, at least that is how I would state it. My journey in taking Jesus' Jewishness seriously was further aroused reading an article from Christianity Today (February 8, 1999 edition) with a special section entitled "The New Theologians". The article focused on 5 theologians of note; Richard Hays, Kevin
Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf, Ellen T. Charry and N. T. Wright. I like the article so much that I vowed to own and read books by these authors of whom I put as my new heroes. I can say that this was the day that I stared to think that being a scholar was cool or in the eyes of some the day I was converted to dweeb land. I can safely say that I own a substantial amount of their works in my library (I have 3 of Hays', 4 of Vanhoozer's, 1 of Volf's and Charry's and the bulk of Wright's work!). Of all the authors mentioned here it was my reading of Wright that propelled and compelled me further in really taking Jesus' Jewishness seriously.

Reading the bible after reading it '
Wrightly' has made the bible more readable in the sense that the context and framework that Wright proposes for us to gives understanding of God's big picture; His grand story of redemption (Genesis- Abraham and Israel- Jesus and the Church).



3 comments:

Mason said...

I can really resonate with this post Tremonti.
I've not read Charry, but each of the other authors you list have been major influences on me.
I think we really have much to gain by taking the historical Jewish setting of the Gospel seriously.
The way Piper hesitates to allow any significant rethinking based on historical evidence was one of my major issues with his book actually.
Like you said in the quote below, too often our ‘Gospel’ has no context and this allows us to insert our own pet meanings instead of paying attention to what the message of Jesus would have meant to those who heard him, almost all of whom were Jews like him.


"The gospel presentation that I was taught cut out this vital element of God's plan by simply throwing Jesus in the picture without any reference to his Jewish upbringing and thought life as a Jew."

Kurt said...

You already know how much i resonate with you (and Mason). One thing that stood out to me was the following quote:

"Even the gospel message that explained Genesis 1-3 where we in the beginning were supposed to have relationship with God and sin came in the was by route of the Fall. God's remedy was to send Jesus to die for our sins and we to believe in this wonderful sacrifice."

I grew up with the same understanding. It was like we went from creation/fall and jumped straight to the NT without much regard for the Hebrew Scriptures. the OT was essentially a bunch of stories that pointed us to Jesus, or gave us lessons in propositional spirituality. Psalms were for your prayer life, and proverbs gave us a didactic instruction manual, but Israel's place in God's plan of redemption was reduced to them being "God's chosen people" who will be regathered in Zion during the great tribulation (sorry...bullcrap!).

Anyway, I would have to add that Wright and Bell turned me on to the Jewishness of Jesus in a fresh way early during college. I truly have been enriched by this and desire to find out more about the context of the first century. Lois Tverberg has been helpful in this area lately.

I no longer can appreciate any approach to the scriptures that doesn't appreciate the world of Jesus and his jewish identity. Piper is right to make sure we dont push this too far, but is wrong by not exploring it at all (basically). Too much is lost when we make Jesus a Westerner!

Tremonti said...

Mason,
I too have not read Charry's work although I have her book. I have a habit of expanding my book shelf for the sake of future endeavors (I have a 'who knows it might come in handy for a thesis/ministry thought formation in the future' kind of mentality). I just recently bought Richard Hays "Echoes of Scripture in the letters of Paul" with a hefty price tag with the shipping cost and all(it cost me 200++ in Malaysian currency)!

What you said here "The way Piper hesitates to allow any significant rethinking based on historical evidence was one of my major issues with his book actually." resonates with me as well. I enjoy reading through but that part is a big turn off. But what I especially like about the book is that it helps me navigate my new theological bearings as well as future ways of engaging reformed thought patterns on what they don't agree with the New Perspective on Paul, although Wright does not fully ascribe to NPP.

And we do alot of pet interpretations when we disregard context as well as cultural background of Jesus' Jewishness! This is a major concern for me, because without context we can bring up unnecessary interpretation to the text which takes a lifetime to unlearn. I wish I had learned about this earlier in my life.

Kurt,
What you said here is really spot on:
"I no longer can appreciate any approach to the scriptures that doesn't appreciate the world of Jesus and his jewish identity."

I am very much in full agreement with this! It is a pity that Christianity took this long to recover it! Sometimes I get angry because many simply disregard it without trying to wrestle through it. I hope people will not be turned off to Wright after reading Piper's take on him. I sincerely hope people will not easily discard Wright as heretical without even reading his works. That is why I read Piper anyway though I don't agree with his take on Wright apart from his other works.

"Too much is lost when we make Jesus a Westerner!" Wow, how true! I always thought Jesus was a white American guy growing up. Yes we learn that Jesus is Jewish but that was always secondary because his Jewish thought pattern was never really discussed. Well, at least I got that sorted out! :)

Hopeful Theo

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I'm a student of Theology (currently and will always be one). I'm a student of culture and a student of music as well. I guess you could say life is a never ending journey of learning. Because of that we never stop being students. Just a little something about this blog: Deconstructing The Monkey is all about being a safe space for emerging conversations