A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context
McKnight, Scot. A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context. Studying the Historical Jesus 4. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999. xiv + 263 pp. $21.00. ISBN 0-8028-4212-7.
This study forms part of the growing, significant literature within the "Third Quest of the Historical Jesus." Jesus is fit squarely into his Jewish context, which means above all within the nationalistic hopes of his people. McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor of Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, builds on Tom Wright's thesis that Jesus came announcing the end-of-exile for the people of Israel (without all the conventional trappings expected), first of all corporately and only derivatively for individuals. Jesus was consciously claiming to be a messianic prophet, announcing the consummation of God's promises to Israel for those who would repend but horrible judgment against those who would not. For the most part, McKnight, an evangelical, does not argue for the authenticity of each part of the (largely Synoptic) Gospels that he discusses but chooses those texts and themes for which a credible defense has already appeared in mainstream critical scholarship. Occasionally, he notes where passages are more doubted, but he never actually argues for the inauthenticity of any text. In his introduction, McKnight highlights three key themes that account for the remaining chapters of his book: Jesus' covenant-making God, God's kingdom and kingdom ethics.
The first of these three themes is largely overlooked in studies of the historical Jesus and New Testament theologies alike. McKnight provides a long and helpful chapter organized under two key subheadings: God as inflexibly holy and relationally loving. Thus the judgment sayings of Jesus may not be dismissed as inauthentic but must be balanced by Jesus' God who is compassionate toward sinners and outcasts in Jewish society. One dare not downplay the significance of Jesus' table fellowship with the latter. McKnight thus simultaneously affirms a central tenet of Dominic Crossan's famous portrait of Jesus while denying that one can excise judgment as Crossan does. En route McKnight also supplies a detailed and up-to-date survey of scholarship on Abba, concluding that its special appeal "was neither its loving dimension nor its authority dimension but its ability to shoulder both" (p. 61).
Two detailed chapters follow on the kingdom--present and future. A brief review of scholarship gives way to the balance, now widely accepted, afforded by inaugurated eschatology. The key distinctive challenge from Jesus with respect to announcing the kingdom's presence was to do so without implying support for violence or political revolution. Nevertheless, Jesus did teach about the kingdom's "strength"--as displayed in healings, exorcisms and even cosmic conflict. But Jesus' mission would culminate with his death which he consciously saw in terms of sacrifice.
The coming aspects of the kingdom were described as imminent though uncertain in timing. Jesus did believe and teach that the parousia would take place within one generation of his prophesying, but he was not wrong (!). "He did not see beyond the destruction of Jerusalem but connected both the final judgment and the final deliverance with that event. In other words, like Jewish prophets of old, Jesus saw the next event--in his case, the destruction in A.D. 70--as the end event of history" (p. 130). (But surely the prophets regularly distinguished between coming events in their lifetime and "the Day of the Lord" after some indefinite future interval.). McKnight apparently buys into Wright's complete equation of Gospel parousia texts with the destruction of the temple without responding to Dale Allison's strong challenge to Wright. Nor will it do to assume that Mark 13:30 includes the parousia in its reference to "all these things" (p. 137), when the identical expression occurs in verse 29 in a context that cannot include Christ's return, because "all these things" merely point to Christ's return as near.
The ethics of the kingdom again occupy two chapters. First, McKnight discusses "conversion and cost," then "morality." Conversion to and faith in Jesus first of all meant trusting him as the messianic prophet and believing his word about the coming restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Personal repentance is important only as a prerequisite to national repentance. Clearly this was a costly discipleship given the urgency of the mission. Not all disciples were called, like the rich young ruler, literally to abandon all their material possessions, but everyone had to be prepared to do so if the need arose. "Righteousness" for Jesus was not the Pauline legal declaration but the Old Testament sense of covenant faithfulness, which leads to love for God and others, including one's enemies, with humility, forgiveness, mercy and peace. Disciples could expect rewards in this life--physical provision and community relationships--and in the life to come the great eschatological banquet symbolizing the intimacy offered by table fellowship.
However one might quibble with exegetical details here or there, this is the best contribution yet to this fledgling series, which has been uniformly good already. It is an important contibution to the Third Quest more generally, not least because it synthesizes much recent scholarship without being either so creative as to be implausible or so traditional as to be redundant.