The King of God's Kingdom: A Solution to the Puzzle of Jesus
Seccombe, David The King of God's Kingdom: A Solution to the Puzzle of Jesus. Carlisle, UK and Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster. xxiii + 648 pp. 2002. Pap. ï¿½17.99. ISBN 1-84227-075-3.
David Seccombe is principal of George Whitefield College in Cape Town, South Africa. He is best known to New Testament scholars for the published form of his dissertation twenty years ago on "possessions and the poor in Luke-Acts." This is his first major work since then, but it was well worth waiting for. A cross between a "life of Christ" and a contribution to the "quest of the historical Jesus," this book offers a thorough presentation and analysis of all the major events and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes the groupings are thematic, sometimes the structure is chronological, but always there is a robust defense of the historicity of the canonical Gospels' material along with penetrating analysis as to its meaning.
Seccombe whets the reader's appetite by beginning, unconventionally, with the resurrection narratives and all of the thorny historical questions surrounding them. He concludes that no other explanation than Jesus' genuine bodily resurrection accounts for their origin. After an overview of issues surrounding the composition of the Gospels, and especially their dating, more generally, Seccombe returns to the beginning of the story with a treatment of John the Baptist. John is best characterized as a prophet like Elijah, whose popularity was greater than that of Jesus until after Jesus' baptism. Seccombe proceeds to analyze the temptation narratives in considerably greater detail than do most works of this genre. However visionary some aspects of the temptation may have been, they must reflect a genuine triumph by Jesus over the devil, which explains his later metaphors about having bound the "strong man" in order to plunder his house.
One of the encouraging features of this book is Seccombe's full integration of Johannine material into the Synoptic framework. Thus the next major section of his survey turns to the opening chapters of John for material concerning Christ' life prior to his great Galilean ministry. Included is compelling evidence for assuming John to be accurate in placing a "temple cleansing" near the beginning of Jesus' ministry (as well as a separate one at the end). The next several chapters are topical in their treatment. Jesus' announcement of the kingdom involved both a power and a people; the arrival of the kingdom implied the arrival of the king, who must have subjects in order to reign. Seccombe accepts N. T. Wright's view that Jesus announced the end of exile and reconstituted the people of God, a new Israel, with his band of disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is fundamentally about non-retaliation as the key to reconciliation with one's enemies.
The discussion of miracles shows that Jesus did not closely resemble the other miracle-workers of his day with which he is often compared. Like his more explicit teaching, his miracles pointed to the inauguration of the kingdom. We must not assume people were more gullible in Jesus' world than in ours; they knew the types of things ascribed to Christ did not ordinarily happen, yet they compiled narratives claiming that with this unique person they did. Parables, also unique to Jesus among early Christians, likewise revealed God's dynamic reign. But they also concealed his message from outsiders as a form of judgment against those who had already freely chosen to rebel against God. There is a limited allegorical dimension to the parables that cannot be denied; Seccombe here cites my work on that topic with approval.
Jesus' fundamental redefinitions of the Torah inevitably led to opposition with the Jewish leaders (E. P. Sanders' influential denial notwithstanding). Other religious literature does not find people asking "who is such-and-such a person?" the way observers of Jesus' ministry did. Peter's climactic confession of Jesus as Messiah still did not have room for the suffering servant dimension of Jesus' ministry. The sending out of the twelve and, later, of the seventy-two afforded Israel one final chance to repent. The haste with which these groups of disciples went out reflects the fact that they were simply announcing this "last chance"-not doing "church planting" as after Christ's resurrection and ascension.
Jesus' clearest Messianic self-revelation comes as he makes his climactic trip to Jerusalem for his final Passover, especially via the so-called triumphal entry. The co-operation of Jewish and Roman leaders in Jesus' arrest and crucifixion is historically plausible, but ultimately it was the sins of all humanity that killed Christ, no one specific group of people. Since Seccombe has already defended the resurrection at length at the outset of this volume, he closes by discussing Jesus' pre- and post-resurrection vision for the future. Particularly in dialogue with Wright, Seccombe denies that all of the parousia passages in the Gospels can be reduced to Jesus' invisible coming in judgment against Israel in A.D. 70. There is a glorious, future, visible return which he anticipated, which will usher in Judgment Day at the end of human history as we now know it.
Tucked into all this discussion are countless conventional and not a few fresh insights by way of elaboration. Among the more convincing points not typically made are the significance of Tobit 12:19 for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a harmonization of John and the Synoptics concerning the Baptist's prior knowledge of Jesus (what was newly revealed to John at Christ's baptism was an assurance that Jesus was indeed the Messiah), an emphasis that Galilee was still comparatively peaceful in Jesus' day, the unparalleled nature of Jesus' ethic of enemy-love, a balanced assessment of Jesus' teaching on possessions that finds him advocating "a non-acquisitive, non-ascetic, generous lifestyle" (p. 268), and the very ordinary settings for all of his miracles (against many supposed parallel accounts in other literature).
Other claims prove more provocative, some even dubious. Seccombe suggests that the demons did not initiate the rush of pigs over the cliff, so that this forms part of their destruction rather than their survival. He accepts Sanders' description of the first-century Pharisaic system as covenantal nomism but believes it "had been rendered totally inoperative by the people's rebellion" (p. 389). Luke's source for information that would otherwise have remained confidential within Herod's court may well have been Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, who was one of the women who went on the road with Jesus. Indeed, the motley combination of male apostles plus female supporters would have formed a "sign," in and of itself, of the difference Jesus could make in society. John 11 shows evidence of a Perean ministry of Jesus just before his final march to Jerusalem. Luke's extended central section is more of a thematic than chronological unity but should probably be parceled out on one side and the other of this divide. Seccombe harmonizes the Synoptics and John with respect to the date of the Passover by assuming that Jesus celebrated one day earlier than most. He reverts back to Westcott's advocacy of the Fourth Gospel following Roman reckoning of time to account for the difference with Mark concerning the hours of the crucifixion. And he observes that many of the soldiers working for Rome in Judea may have been Samaritan, perhaps enhancing the plausibility of the centurion's confession as fully affirming the Sonship of Jesus.
I would take issue with some (not all) of the items presented in the last paragraph, along with a handful of other things here and there. There are a smattering of typographical mistakes as well. But both of these are perhaps inevitable in a work of this detail. Overall, Seccombe has produced an outstanding volume. Evangelicals who want to write on the historical Jesus and/or the life of the Christ in the future will most assuredly have to take thoroughly into account both the form and content of Seccombe's volume. Someone who has never read a work of this genre would be hard pressed to find a better exemplar with which to begin.