Exile & Reconstruction27 December 2020
Life is just too fast these days. The scale and speed of inventiveness is just staggering. It seems almost weekly there's an amazing new discovery or invention that will change the lives of those lucky enough to benefit. I can remember the first TV set in our road - I was a boy and we were invited to watch a football match. Wow! So exciting. A tiny screen with a huge magnifying glass on a stand in front.
Nostalgia is an industry nowadays. Old b/w films and the Antiques Roadshow. We look back with mixed feelings at what then seemed normal, and we wonder if life was better before all the modern appliances and gadgetry that somehow takes the magic out of the ordinary. We focus on certain events as hooks on which to hang our memories - the Battle of Britain, the first moon landing, the Kennedy assassination. The list is endless.
Reading Karen Armstrong's biographical story in The Spiral Staircase, I became aware of something which hitherto I had not realised - the significance of two particular events in the life of the people of Israel, and how this relates to our present-day beliefs about Jesus.
The first, which I have mentioned before, is the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians and the conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE by the Babylonians. These were catastrophic events which changed the course of Israel's history for ever. So momentous were these events that it brought about the beginning of the composition of the Hebrew scriptures. Hitherto there had been written documents and oral accounts, but now it was necessary to create a permanent record of who and why were the people of Israel. Those "historical" books of the OT - Samuel, Kings and Chronicles - are gathered together in the OT canon in the Prophets. They are not history per se but rather prophetic commentary on that history.
So the people of Israel rebuilt their temple and restored their worship of Yahweh. But with their restoring came a renewed emphasis on obedience to the ancient Mosaic Law, since obviously the Exile had been caused by their carelessness towards their faith. And not until 1948 CE did the Jewish people again have their own homeland - and that is still a work in progress.
The second significant event was not the birth of Jesus, but rather the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. There had been uprisings over previous centuries, but anti-Roman resentment grew amongst the Jews, not least because they saw their leaders conspiring with the hated Roman governor. So in 65 CE, when the Roman garrison was at its weakest, the Jews took back their city, eventually causing the Romans to lay siege against the city and in 70 CE totally destroy it. Now there was no longer a Temple, no longer a priesthood to maintain the faith. Yahweh's holy city was no longer.
The letters of Paul, plus those attributed to him, form the bulk of the New Testament. It was Paul, the converted Pharisee, who interpreted the words and works of Jesus in terms that could be understood by his Jewish readers and also by his Greek-speaking readers. It is Paul's theology that has formed the theological basis of worldwide Christianity. It has been said that Jesus founded a movement but Paul founded the Church. What began with Jesus as a inclusive invitation became and has remained an exclusive institution, once again bound by rules and doctrines.
But Paul's seven letters were written before the Fall of Jerusalem. Paul was keen to spread the gospel in the non-Jewish Greek-speaking regions of the Roman empire, but the early followers of Jesus wanted the new Jesus sect to remain with Judaism. Indeed, the story of Jesus' dismissal of the Canaanite woman - "even the dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table" - suggests that Jesus also thought that way at first.
So when Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Temple as well, the whole situation changed. This was also a catastrophe, the fall-out from which has lasted to this day. And the writers of the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) needed to present Jesus as attacking the Jewish hierarchy and not the Roman authorities. So Jesus is seen clashing frequently with the Pharisees, in an attempt to begin the transformation of Judaism from a lazy dependence on ritual and an over-zealous insistence on the letter of the Law into an experience of Yahweh that would set the people of Israel on the right track once again. "The reign of Yahweh is upon you, amongst you!"
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