Concerning God’s Promises


J. John interviewing the brilliant Tom Wright, asks a question from the audience (the Youtube video can be viewed at the end of the post):

[Warning:  Long sentence alert]!


“How do you understand the specific scriptures concerning God’s promises to the Jewish people today and also concerning the actual land of Israel?”

Tom Wright:

“I take very seriously what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that all the promises of God find their Yes in Christ.  There is an extraordinary ideology, and I call it that advisedly, that has grown up in the last 150 years particularly, since the Darby-ite movement in the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th century, which spread to America more powerfully than here; which saw dispensationalism (not many Anglicans know about this stuff), but the dividing of history into different periods, in which Jesus came but the people didn’t respond, so we went into a Plan B, but then there’s still some promises waiting to be fulfilled, and maybe that’s the time when the Jews will return to the land and rebuild the temple and do all that stuff.

And that’s been enormously powerful in some Christian circles, particularly, as I say, in north America.  And I have to say, in all humility, as an American friend of mine says, “In my humble but accurate opinion”, that actually, there is no scriptural basis for that!

There was an article in the New Yorker last year on one of the Republican Presidential candidates, talking about her particular religious background, and it said, she like other people in her context, believes that the Jews will return to Israel because Paul in Romans 11 says that they will.  And I stared at that in the New Yorker, and the New Yorker used to employ people called “fact checkers” who would check out everything that was asserted.  No-one checked that one out; there’s nothing in Romans 11 about the Jews going back to the land.


It is difficult.  There are different cultural pressures, different problems, etc.  But I see no justification whatever in the New Testament, for saying that, say, the UN mandate in the late 1940’s was actually the fulfilment of prophecy.  What I see going on…..the trouble is, if you say that, it absolves you from thinking wisely or justly about everything that’s happened ever since; you just say, “Oh well, that’s it, they had to go back, that’s a fulfilment of prophecy, there we are!”  No.  What I think we have to say is, “One of the biggest convulsions in the history of humankind and certainly in the history of the Jews, for whom there have been enough convulsions, goodness knows, happened in the early 1940’s through the holocaust, one of the most horrible crimes ever perpetrated, cold-bloodedly, I mean let’s not talk too much about it but let’s recognise it.

As a result of that, it seems to me, something radical had to be done; it was done, unfortunately there was a lot of misinformation about how many Palestinians there were that were going to be displaced.  And I have friends on both sides of the green line in the Holy Land, and I grieve over that whole situation.  But I don’t think we do anyone any favours by pretending that that was a sudden late blossoming fulfilment of Ezekiel or Daniel or whatever.  According to Paul, the entire scriptural narrative finds its Yes in the Messiah.  Basically, being a Christian means believing that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah.  Some people, some Jewish people talk as though Jesus is the “Christian Messiah”.  There’s no such thing as a Christian Messiah over-against a Jewish Messiah.  Either he’s Israel’s Messiah or he isn’t.  And the New Testament says he was raised from the dead, having been crucified on the charge of being Messiah; and the resurrection demonstrates he really was the Messiah.  That means that Israel’s history has been focused onto Jesus.  It is actually about the centrality of Jesus.  And to try to make out that there’s some stuff which has to be fulfilled irrespective of Jesus, I find deeply problematic, from a Christological as well as from a scriptural basis.

I know this is usually controversial, and people get very hot under the collar about it, but you asked me the question and that is my considered opinion.”

J. John:

“Jewish Rabbis take the scriptures seriously (the Old Testament – our Old Testament), they know the Messianic prophecies, why are they waiting for another Messiah to arrive?”

Tom Wright:

“The Messianic prophecies are interestingly complex.  If you look at the Jews in the Second Temple period, in other words, between the return from Babylon and the time of Jesus; it isn’t the care that they’re all sitting around saying, “Aha, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7, and so on – we know exactly who the Messiah’s gonna be and what he’s gonna look like!”

There are some very specific things that they are expecting.  Namely, a Warrior King who will defeat the pagans, rebuild the temple, and establish a Rule of justice and peace in the world.  That’s Isaiah 11, Psalm 2; it’s all sorts of stuff, which we know was taken very seriously.  Now, Jesus did not defeat the Romans, he died at their hands; Jesus did not rebuild the temple.  He did something very odd which looked like an enacted parable of its destruction.  He did not obviously and visibly and then and there manifestly, establish a rule of justice and peace in the world.

However, because the his resurrection, the early Christians said, “Oh my goodness, we have to go back to all those texts, including some that were favourites, and have to read them differently now,” and others that they never even dreamt of, but we now see were going on there as well.  And we’re gonna say, on the basis of his resurrection, he won a victory, not over Rome but over the dark principalities and powers that stand behind Rome and use it in their fiendish ways.  That [Jesus] really did build the temple, not a temple of bricks and mortar, but a new living temple – living stones.  That he really has established a rule of justice and peace in the world.  But it’s not by a normal human rule, because Jesus, afterall said, “We’re gonna do power the other way up, guys!   The rulers of the nations do it this way, by bullying and harrying people; we’re gonna do it by service!”   That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is all about.  So that this was a Christian re-reading of scripture in the light of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.  Jewish people, and of course all the early Christians were Jews, but Jewish people who didn’t believe in the resurrection weren’t seeing it in the same way, because if you don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, you won’t see it in quite the same way.  So it isn’t the case that they were just stupid and weren’t making the obvious conclusions, however, if you talk to user-friendly interlocutors, who are prepared to have this dialogue and many are, it’ll be very interesting to talk to them about Isaiah 53, because it seems at the time of Jesus there are broadly two interpretations of Isaiah 53 going around: one that says this is the Messiah, but then reinterprets the suffering as something the Messiah will inflict on his enemies, as in Psalm 2.  And the other which says, these people are suffering, like the martyrs, like the Maccabean martyrs and so on, but therefore it can’t be Messianic.  So you have a Messianic interpretation but non-suffering; and a suffering interpretation but non-Messianic, and it’s only in the light of the resurrection and the crucified Jesus can people say, “Oh my goodness, these two things belong together, and we never saw it!”  So you can understand why it’s not as easy as all that!”

A photo of me taking a photo of that damn wall!












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