We’ve emerged from part one (1a, 1b, 1c) of N.T. Wright’s new book, in which he highlights the problem he perceives in Western Christianity, namely that we’re missing the true story of the gospels. Now, we’re ready to dive into Wright’s reading of the gospel story. We’ve been beaten down enough, it’s time get pulled out of our muddy pits.
To help us out and rediscover the true gospel story, Bishop Wright hints at four subplots running through each of the four gospels. The first subplot, which Wright insists most Christians have muted completely, is the back story to Jesus’ story: the story of Israel.
Of course, if asked directly, we’d all give the right answer: Jesus was Jewish. But do we really know the arc of the story of Israel, where it’s left off at the close of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Chronicles or Malachi conclude? And, therefore, do we really know what Jesus is doing (or what the gospel writers say about what Jesus is doing) to bring that narrative to its dramatic and surprising climax?
To put it briefly, the Jews of Jesus’ day, did not truly believe they had yet been rescued from their long exile, which began in 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple and took most of the Israelites out of Palestine. Though many of the Jews had returned in the late 500’s BC, and though a temple had been reconstructed by 516 BC, the Jews still felt the reality of being under foreign rule – first under Persia, then the Greeks, then the Egyptians and Syrians, and finally Rome. The words of Nehemiah, uttered 500 years before Christ, still rang true in the first century AD: “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces” (9:36, NIV).
The story of Israel had by Jesus’ day come to a standstill. They had been the people through whom the Creator had promised to redeem the whole of creation. It was through Abraham’s seed that the whole world would be blessed. But here they were under the foot of the most powerful and treacherous empire the world had ever known. They weren’t even in charge of their own affairs; how could they be the means of the world’s rescue? Moreover, just where was this God who had promised to do all this?
This, says Wright, is one of the four key points to the gospel stories, that Jesus is bringing that long story to its climax and fulfillment. Jesus is the resolution to Israel’s specific tale, and the ultimate resolution to that long story, the thing Israel’s prophets most hoped for, but which most of Israel effectively disdained, was that God would again become their true king. “Unless we are constantly aware, in reading the gospels,” says Wright, “that they are telling the Jesus story in such a way as to bring out the Israel story, we will never hear their proper harmony” (80).