The Servant and Jesus: The Relevance of the Colloquy for the Current Quest for Jesus

(Originally published in Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, ed. William H. Bellinger, Jr. and William R. Farmer.  1998, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International. 281–297.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)



I am enormously grateful for the chance to take part in this colloquy.  I have caught up with some old friends and made some new ones.  I have greatly enjoyed listening, in particular, to scholars in a field that fascinates me but that I don’t normally have time to attend to, namely, the study of Isaiah in its original setting(s).  But I am particularly grateful because my own work has brought me back again in recent weeks, for the ninety-ninth time, to the great question of Jesus’ attitude to his own death; and I suspect that, in the providence of God, I am here to learn and think, first and foremost, rather than to teach or admonish.

I am in fact in a strange position in terms of my personal history of interaction with issues of this seminar.  I read Morna Hooker’s book Jesus and the Servant before I read anything of Jeremias; from the beginning of my theological research, the question she so sharply raised has been with me as part of my own mental furniture, challenging the sloppy thinking that so often characterized the would-be biblical background in which I grew up.  Morna’s own view of the book’s reception is, I know, rather less optimistic; all I can say is that when I began reading theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in 1971 her work was regarded as the thing with which one had to come to terms.  Some would have said, no doubt, that we all knew it was wrong but we couldn’t quite say why.  All I know is that when I came to do my final examinations in June 1973, and discovered that Dr. M. D. Hooker was to be one of the examiners, I resolved that, unless I were really stuck for a question to answer, there was one topic that I would be wiser to steer away from.  (I have to say, however, that my Old Testament examiners gave me a treat: the first question I answered in the first exam was a discussion of the sentence, “The Servant Songs can only be understood in the light of Second Isaiah as a whole.”  What a gift.)

At the same time (though this has been a subtext of this colloquy, rather than an explicit theme for discussion), it may be of interest that I read Bill Farmer’s book on The Synoptic Problem before I read B. H. Streeter’s massive book The Four Gospels, and was thus inoculated in advance against swallowing its conclusions whole.  As a result, I have never completely caught the disease called Q, though from time to time I have experienced that shivery feeling, and the concomitant double vision, that those who have a chronic case of the Q disease reveal as their normal state.  I have experienced, though, an interesting phenomenon: my inability to make up my mind on the synoptic problem has not, I think, in any way impaired my ability to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke as Matthew, Mark, and Luke, nor indeed my ability — though some would no doubt question this — to think and write about this historical Jesus.  But more of this anon.

Our discussion in these three days has, of course, ranged much wider than the question of Jesus; and to that extent my official subject for this article is somewhat narrower than any attempt to draw together the threads of the colloquy as a whole.  Nevertheless, as we have looked at wider questions — notably those of Pauline theology and echoes of scripture, and those in particular of the original meaning of Isaiah itself — we have been looking at issues which do in fact relate quite closely to the question of Jesus.  Studying Paul, despite what you might think from some recent work, is in fact closely related to studying Jesus.  Paul, after all, is our earliest Christian writing, and to ignore him in favor of other purely hypothetical sources is sheer folly.  The original meaning of Isaiah, and its re-use in subsequent Old Testament writing such as Zechariah, does tell us something about the range of available options for subsequent readers; though it is clear to me that if there is a lacuna in this conference it is at the point of discussing how Isaiah might have been read by Jesus’ own contemporaries.  This is not at all to deny that Jesus and his first followers were great innovators; we cannot study Jesus simply as the product of blind religionsgeschichtlich forces and influences.  It is simply to say that if we are to understand Richard Hays’s criterion of “availability” there is a lot more to be said than merely discussing what Isaiah 53 meant four hundred years earlier, fascinating and important though that is.

Studying Jesus Today: Introduction

The current state of play in the study of Jesus is notoriously difficult to describe.  The roll call of recent writers in the United States alone shows the range of different options available: from Sanders to Borg, from Charlesworth to Crossan, from Meier to Mack, from Johnson to the Jesus Seminar.  My own reading of this confused state of play is that we have reached again, by a circuitous route, the question that was posed by Schweitzer a century ago, as being reflected in the clash between his own work and that of William Wrede.  Skepticism faces eschatology.  Either you say, with Wrede and the Jesus Seminar, that Jesus was a teacher of timeless truths, into whose pure early teaching his first followers injected a quite unwarranted note of eschatology, resulting in Mark and his successors being theologically motivated fictions.  Or you say, with Schweitzer and Sanders, that Jesus does indeed belong with the Jewish eschatology of his day; and that, though of course the evangelists have their own reasons for arranging things the way they have, and though of course the tradition has been shaped by the interests of the early church, the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus as the eschatological prophet of the Kingdom of God is substantially on target.

This is a gross oversimplification, of course, and there are numerous important variations on either side.  I said to Dominic Crossan last year that we needed to revise Norman Perrin’s dictum of thirty years ago, that theWredestrasse had become the Hauptstrasse; and he replied that it wasn’t a Strasse any longer, but an autobahn, with lots of intersections and a good deal of traffic going in various directions.  I agree; but I think, in fact, that there has been so much heavy traffic on the Wredebahn in recent years that it is time to rebuild properly the old Schweitzerbahn, which always offered a quicker route and a better view.  But, again, more of this anon.

On both routes, however, there is a railway crossing that cannot be avoided.  Did Jesus believe that he would die a violent death, and, if so, did he give that death any meaning, not least in relation to the aims which had governed his life and work up to that point?  Schweitzer, of course, said that Jesus did come to believe it was part of the divine plan that he should die violently, and offered as a hypothesis a way of construing that belief which fitted Jesus closely to what Schweitzer had reconstructed as a first-century eschatological worldview.  Wrede and his followers, of course, deny all this.  Within the current state of scholarship there is, as on everything else, a wide range of opinion.

What I shall do, therefore, in order to be as faithful as I can to the brief I was given, is to set up some Jesus-questions as they appear to me in current study, with an eye to our present debate; and then to ask what contribution our own discussions might have to make to them.  And I begin with some important questions of method.

Studying Jesus: Method

To begin with, we must beware of false antitheses.  It really does not help to play off history against theology, as though history could be done without presuppositions and without an overarching worldview, or as though Christian theology had only a loose connection with history.  Nor does it help to play off the Jesus Seminar against other writings as though the Seminar represents history, or scholarship, and the other writings theology, or orthodoxy.  Life just ain’t that simple.  Nor will it do to invoke giants of the past either as heroes or as villains, such that to label something Bultmannian becomes a way of condemning it before we start, or such that to link something with the Reformation becomes a way of endorsing it before we start.

Rather, we must embrace wholeheartedly the historical task as a matter of hypothesis and verification.  Methodological skepticism, as practiced by Wrede, the Jesus Seminar, and thousands in between, is not the same thing as serious historiography.  Serious historiography proceeds by the disciplined and controlled use of historical imagination, the reconstrual of a world other than our own, and the testing of that, as a hypothesis, by a fresh and further reading of all the evidence.  It does not proceed by examining little bits of evidence piecemeal and forcing them, one by one, to justify their existence.  That is in fact a combination of positivism and phenomenalism, two somewhat discredited epistemologies.  The positivist insists that we need proof, copper-bottomed, cast-iron proof for everything: we only know what we can prove.  The phenomenalist insists that seeing things tells you about your own eyes and sense-data, not about the things you are seeing; historically applied, this means that Mark’s account of something tells us about Mark, not about the event.  In combination, the positivist insists that we must have proof, and the phenomenalist insists that it isn’t available.  Nobody would conduct their real life like that for half a day; yet this pseudoscientific combination has been powerful enough to make whole generations of scholars and students think things about Jesus and the Gospels that no serious, hard-nosed historian of other subjects and periods would allow for a moment.  John Roberts, one of the best-known English historians at the moment, says in his monumental history of the world that historians of other peoples and periods are often happy to make do with far more fragmentary and puzzling texts than the Gospels, and that the serious historian has no need to be unduly skeptical of them.

We may note one spin-off of this problem.  Gospel scholars often operate a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose policy with regard to biblical quotations in the Gospels.  If Jesus is not portrayed as referring to a biblical idea or theme, well, that proves he wasn’t interested in it, perhaps that he didn’t even know it.  If he is portrayed as referring to a biblical idea or theme, well, that only proves that Mark or Matthew, or whoever, wanted to saddle Jesus with it.  If there is a reference to prophecy, that is the cunning work of later historicizers; if there isn’t, that proves that Jesus was a nonprophetic sage.  Frankly, if life was like that, all gamblers would be millionaires.

In particular, history cannot be reduced to the history of ideas.  We have done so much of our scholarship under the shadow of the Enlightenment that we have reduced historiography to the tracing of lines of ideas, of who thought what, who was influenced by what, who read which texts in what way.  That is, of course, very important, but it is only part of the whole.  By itself, it reduces human beings to brains attached to eyes, tongues, and hands that hold pens.  Human beings, in fact, live in a much richer world than that: a world where what is done not only matters as much but often speaks more powerfully than what is said or thought; a world where the symbolic ordering of life carries meanings that may be hard to articulate, for those involved and for the historian, but are nonetheless vital and nonnegotiable as part of the whole package.  We live in a world in which stories are far more powerful than abstract thought, creating worlds and subverting them, changing the course of lives and communities.  This is the real world that historians ought to study.  Until we lift our eyes beyond the horizons of questions and answers and examine praxis, symbol, and story we will be condemned, if I may borrow the language of American cultural symbols, praxis, and story, never to get beyond first base.

Within historiography in general, and the study of Jesus as one example of it, it is also important to insist that we can in principle study human intentionality.  Of course, there is often not much material available, and we thus often have to admit defeat.  But serious historians have never confined themselves to asking “what happened”; they also regularly ask “why did so-and-so, or such-and-such a community, behave in the way they did?”  Human motivation, including that vital but elusive category, human awareness of vocation, is a proper subject of historical study.  This is not a matter of psychology.  We can say, beyond reasonable historical doubt, that Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, believed he had a vocation from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to announce to the pagan world that this God was now offering salvation to the whole world in and through Jesus Christ; in other words, we know as historians that Paul believed he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  We know, likewise, that John the Baptist believed he was called by this same God to prepare people for the great coming day in which this God would act to judge and save his people.  If we can say that sort of thing about the two figures who stand closest to Jesus on either side, what is to stop us in principle from asking the question: what did Jesus think he was supposed to be doing?  What was motivating him?  We who think we don’t live out of a metanarrative — though that merely reveals our own self-induced blindness — may find it odd to think of somebody, not obviously megalomaniac, seriously pondering the unique role that he or she might be called upon to play.  In our world, people talk like that when they are founding a new cult, or perhaps a new seminar.  First-century Jews would not have found it odd at all.

One final note about method.  Here I am between Scylla and Charybdis.  If I talk about source criticism, I risk offending Morna Hooker, who is convinced it isn’t relevant to the issue of Jesus and Isaiah; if I fail to mention it, I risk offending Bill Farmer, who is convinced that it is.  I fear I shall end up being smashed by the rock and drowned by the whirlpool, because I do want to say something about it, but not exactly what Bill would like to hear.  I understand that if we use the Two Source Hypothesis the apparent references to Isaiah in the Gospels may seem as though they are endangered; Q_does not encourage us to think that Isaiah was important for Jesus.  If, however, we use the Two Gospel Hypothesis, we appear to get Isaiah thrown into more prominence.  I have to say that I think this is more of a chicken-and-egg question than synoptic puzzlers usually admit.  There is no such thing as a neutral, objective source theory.  Streeter and his forbears advocated Mark and Q not least in order to shore up a somewhat truncated orthodoxy against the ravages of D. F. Strauss and the rest.  The current Q school, at least in America, has a very different agenda: to subvert orthodoxy by playing off an isolated Q against Mark and the others — though this can only be done, as we see taken to absurd lengths in Koester and Mack, by arbitrary and fanciful subdividing of Q into layers and strata.  In fact, as even the Jesus Seminar and Crossan bear tacit witness, and as the whole of what I have called the Third Quest takes for granted, source theories are not in fact the way to do historical-Jesus research.  They are a fascinating and vital part of the study of the early church, which is of course integrated with historical-Jesus research in all sorts of ways.  But they do not offer us a high road back to Jesus.  Life, again, just ain’t that simple.  You cannot first work out the synoptic puzzle and then assume that the earliest sources give the most direct access to Jesus.  That’s not how history works; nor is it how those I regard as the most serious recent writers on Jesus actually operate.  And now, as Herodotus would say, so much for source criticism; and so much, too, for method.

Studying Jesus: The Basic Persona

Well, what then about Jesus?  The question that is currently posed as between those on the Wredebahn and those on the Schweitzerbahn has to do with the basic persona of Jesus: was he a sage, a teacher of wisdom, a cynic wordsmith, or was he a prophet, the announcer of the long-awaited Kingdom of God?  Does Jesus stand in the wisdom tradition or the apocalyptic tradition?  Is Jesus the teacher of an atomized and ahistorical wisdom, or is he conscious of being part of the great on-going Jewish story and drama?  Here I have to say that the dominant voices in the Jesus Seminar have skewed the issue radically.  They have insisted that apocalyptic is of necessity bombastic, dark, and threatening, a bullying and dualistic worldview — which happens to have been held by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, by John the Baptist, by Paul, by all the early church except the noble Q people and the Thomas Christians, but not by Jesus himself.  (That’s a great piece of nineteenth-century liberalism, isn’t it?)  They have rescued Jesus from apocalyptic by rescuing him, more or less lock, stock, and barrel, from Judaism itself.  In particular, they have insisted, astonishingly, that Jesus did not make use of the Hebrew scriptures in his teaching.  From this point of view, the question of Jesus and Isaiah is stillborn; Paul, once more, is the inventor of Christianity.  This is sometimes reinforced, as in Crossan, by the suggestion that Jesus may not even have known or used the Hebrew scriptures at all; that he was either illiterate or at least not interested in texts, which were a later scribal preoccupation.  At this point, most of us round this table, whatever our other differences, seem clearly to believe that Jesus did know the Jewish scriptures, and did regard them as important for himself and his followers; the only question is, which ones did he make central and thematic?

I regard it, in fact, as historically certain that Jesus regarded himself, and was regarded by his contemporaries, as a prophet, like John the Baptist only more so.  Moreover, I regard it as overwhelmingly historically probable that Jesus regarded himself as, intended to act as, and was perceived to be acting as, an eschatological prophet, announcing the Kingdom of God.  The stories he told, the praxis in which he engaged, and the symbols of his work all combine to say: the Kingdom of God is happening here and now.  It is a false antithesis, for all its frequent repetition, that Jesus preached about God and the church preached about Jesus.  The whole point of Jesus’ work was that he believed that the God of Israel was acting uniquely in the events he was initiating.  (That doesn’t make Jesus odd; it puts him firmly on the first-century map, where dozens of groups believed the same thing, ending up anathematizing and often murdering each other as the terrible story of the Jewish War wound to its close.)

But what, then, does this eschatological Kingdom of God mean?  Forget the caricatures of Kingdom theology perpetrated by a good deal of scholarship, not least but not only in the Jesus Seminar.  A good many of them are simply retrojections of a shabby pseudoapocalyptic which characterizes some fundamentalist preaching.  Grasp instead the story, the praxis, and the symbols of first-century Judaism, within which there was a sustained longing for Yahweh, Israel’s God, to act within history to save Israel from the pagans, and to restore her kingdom, her temple, her law, and her land as they had been in the great days of the past.  They were living in a story in search of an ending, and the differences between Jewish groups can be plotted in terms of how they thought the story would end, what role they would take in that ending, and what variations within the symbolic world of Judaism would flag up both that ending and their role within it.  But the overall belief may be described as follows.  They believed that Yahweh would become King; in other words, they believed that the exile would end at last (or, if you like, the New Exodus would occur); that evil, by which they would mean paganism and the debased forms of Judaism, would be defeated; and that Yahweh himself would return to Zion.

Central to this whole expression of Jewish hope, not as a set of isolated texts but as part of the controlling element of the story, is of course the whole prophetic corpus.  Even the Torah itself could be read, and indeed seems to have been read, as story and as prophecy, the story which includes the promise to Abraham, the Exodus, and the approach to the promised land, and the prophecy that the scepter shall not depart from Judah and that a star shall arise from Jacob — Genesis 49 and Numbers 24, as we now know, being quite important at least for Qumran.  Within the whole prophetic corpus stand several passages which seem to have been important for Jesus’ self-understanding. Zechariah is clearly of great significance; Malachi, arguably so too.  Daniel, controversially but I think crucially, was central to the expectation of the first-century Jews, particularly the revolutionaries; Jesus made it central in his own understanding of his own vocation.  But when we ask where, in scripture, we find the clearest statements of a coming time when messengers would announce the Kingdom of God, we turn to Isaiah, and to chapters 40-55 in particular.

I think, in fact, that we have been too shortsighted in focusing on the fourth Servant Song and on the precise meaning of various phrases within it.  We have reminded ourselves tirelessly that first-century readers were ignorant of Duhm’s analysis and all that has followed it, and yet we have failed to take seriously, I believe, the very passage that sums up the whole of Jesus’ public ministry, Isaiah 52:7-12.  “How lovely upon the mountains are the feet of the mebasser, the herald of good tidings, the one who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, Your God reigns!”  Astonishingly, the concordance worship that has characterized so much New Testament scholarship has sometimes meant that this passage hasn’t been considered relevant, because it doesn’t use the phrase “Kingdom of God”; but that is obviously what it means.  And when Zion’s God becomes king, three things will happen, according to this short and pregnant passage.  The exile will end at last, with a purified people returning home; evil will be defeated, as Babylon falls at last; and, most important, Yahweh himself will return to Zion.  Again, I find it astonishing that the theme of Yahweh’s return to Zion has been so largely ignored in New Testament scholarship, though it is assuredly one of the two great themes of Second Isaiah as a whole, announced in chapter 40 as the main message of good news, and reinforced here in particular.

The other great theme is, of course, forgiveness of sins.  Here I want to stress a point which seems to me vital, and regularly overlooked.  From the exile to Bar Kochba, and arguably beyond, exile itself was seen as the punishment for sins; so forgiveness of sins was another way of saying “end of exile.”  We who live in the shadow of the medieval church, of Martin Luther, of soul-searching pietism, and now of navel-gazing self-help spiritualities, have to make a huge historical effort of the imagination to get this right.  Read Daniel 9, Ezekiel 34-37, Jeremiah 31, and above all Isaiah 40-55, and you will see that if exile is the result of sin, return from exile simply is the forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness, in other words, in this period isn’t first and foremost a matter of private piety, of the individual wrestling with a troubled conscience.  If you’re in prison, being granted an amnesty doesn’t mean you can feel good inside yourself.  It means you are free to go home.  This is all summed up in a little verse in Lamentations, 4:22: “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer.”

Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom, therefore, and his regular offer of forgiveness of sins, mean, in effect: this is how exile is ending!  This is how God is becoming King!  This is how evil is defeated!  This is how Yahweh is returning to Zion!  This, I submit, is thoroughly historically grounded and believable within Jesus’ world.  Lots of other first-century Jews thought they knew how God was becoming King, and thought they themselves would be key instruments of that kingship.  Jesus belongs on that map.

But, just as Israel’s story as a whole was, from the first-century point of view, a story in search of an ending, so Jesus’ own story of the wandering Galilean prophet announcing the Kingdom of God was a story in search of an ending.  What did Jesus think would happen next?  Would he be content to heal a few more people, teach some more how to pray the Lord’s Prayer, tease a few more with parables and aphorisms, hope that his timeless message of the love of God would spread to a wider audience?  If that were really so, as Sanders argued a decade ago, it is very hard to see how Jesus could have been an important historical figure.  Rather, I believe, and have argued in detail elsewhere, that Jesus understood his vocation in terms of establishing a following of sorts in Galilee, and then going to Jerusalem to force a showdown with the authorities.  His claim could never be that he had access to a secret wisdom which could make individuals feel better about themselves, and order their lives more satisfactorily.  His eschatological message, his way of peace and salvation, had to be announced to Zion.

Studying Jesus: Reasons for the Cross

What then did Jesus think would happen when he got there? Let us stress once again: this is not a matter of isolated proof texts or allusions to particular passages.  It is a matter of the whole story of what Jesus was deliberately doing, of the whole complex praxis in which he had been engaged, and at last of the whole symbolic universe which he both invoked and subverted.  His actions spoke louder than his words (footnotes, if you want, to Austin, Searle, Thiselton, and other philosophers of language who have struggled to say in the post-Enlightenment world what was blindingly obvious to everyone in Jesus’ world).  His action in the temple functioned like burning a flag, or like tearing up a contract.  His action in the upper room functioned like running up a new flag, like writing a new contract; or, in his language, like establishing a new covenant.  This was how the exile would end.  This was how evil would be defeated.  This was how Yahweh would return to Zion.  This was how the Kingdom of God would come.  This was how sins would be forgiven.  If we look, as the post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment world has taught us, for biblical texts that will give us an intellectual grid on which we can plot and perhaps domesticate these actions, we are looking for the wrong thing and will get into great problems, as our debates have borne witness.  If we look at Jesus’ acted parables, his symbolic praxis, his encoded meta-narratives, we will find his understanding of his own death looming up out of the mist like a great and ugly mountain where we were expecting a small and climbable hill.

It is not, perhaps, surprising that scholarship has tried to make the mountain less daunting by reducing it to terms of this or that theory, this or that text.  But it isn’t a matter so much of text as of texture; and history demands that we take seriously the richly textured symbolic universe in which Jesus lived.  He believed that the great crisis of Israel’s history was fast approaching, the crisis through which Yahweh would become King, the crisis as a result of which exile would end, sins would be forgiven, the Gentiles would be judged and saved, evil would be defeated at last.  And, as Schweitzer saw so clearly a century ago, he believed that this would come about through the messianic woes bursting upon Israel — or rather, upon Israel’s representative, the human figure who stands in for the people of the saints of the Most High.  He would suffer at the hands (or should it be the paws?) of the beast, and be vindicated.  In his vindication Israel would receive the Kingdom; Yahweh would become King at last, and evil would be defeated once and for all.

I believe, therefore, that Jesus did not consider his own death in terms of an abstract or ahistorical atonement theology.  He did not think of himself going to his death in order to set in motion a piece of celestial mechanics whereby a timeless system of purely spiritual salvation would be set up.  He saw himself as possessed of the awesome vocation to bring Israel’s history to its climax; to be the means of ending exile at last, of defeating paganism as a good Messiah should do, and of overturning the renegade and faithless Judaism that was still occupying center stage.  He saw himself as being called upon not merely to announce, but moreimportantly to enact, the end of exile, the return of Yahweh to Zion, in other words, the forgiveness of sins.  This was a wager, a terrifying Pascalian wager.  He knew he might be wrong.  Others made great claims and were shown to be charlatans.  And the irony was, of course, that the sign of their mistake, of their being self-deceived, was that they ended up on crosses.  The problem with a crucified Messiah is not that there happens to be one text in Deuteronomy which says a hanged man is accursed.  That could only be imagined when we have left history behind and entered into a world of pure abstract ideas.  The problem with a crucified Messiah is that the true Messiah was supposed to defeat the pagans, not to be executed by them.

It is within this world, I suggest and propose, that we must ask the question of Jesus’ relation to Isaiah 53.  Of course, if we are looking for a bit of detached teaching with an Old Testament background in which Jesus will say “look, I am the Servant of Isaiah 53,” we will look in vain.  Of course it will always be open to the historian to try to reduce the matter to things that can be proved by a complex web of allusion and echo.  But in the middle of the picture is a hypothesis that can be stated as follows: Jesus made Isaiah 52:7-12 thematic for his Kingdom announcement.  He lived within the controlling story according to which Israel’s long and tangled relationship with her God, and with the gentile world, would reach a great climax through which exile would be undone, so that Israel’s sins would be forgiven at last, and the whole world would see the glory of God.  He spoke of this in terms of Daniel, Zechariah, and other passages.  But if we ask how the message of Isaiah 52:7-12 is put into effect, the prophecy as Jesus read it had a clear answer.  The arm of Yahweh, which will be unveiled to redeem Israel from exile and to put evil to flight, is revealed, according to Isaiah 53:1, in and through the work of the Servant of Yahweh.

Now let us be clear.  Jesus did not speak of this when faced with Caiaphas: the trial setting called for the judgment scene of Daniel 7, and the question about the temple called for a statement of messianic enthronement (because of the nexus between king and temple).  He did not speak of it directly when instructing his puzzled disciples; if they had understood it, they would not have followed him to Jerusalem.  He spoke of it in his actions, in the temple and in the upper room, and in his readiness to go to the eye of the storm, the place where the messianic woes would reach their height, where the peirasmos would become most acute, and in bearing the weight of Israel’s exile, dying as her Messiah outside the walls of the capital city.  We catch echoes of this, rather than direct statements, as Jesus’ words cluster around his actions.  To give his life as a ransom for many; my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for the many for the forgiveness of sins, in other words, for the end of exile.  In terms of the controlling metaphor we have used during the time of the colloquy, Jesus was not pussyfooting around Isaiah 53, refusing to put his head in the bowl and drink the cream.  He was himself, if I may put it like this, both cat and cream: the cup that my father has given me, shall I drink it? Only, as we study the history of his last actions, and let those actions resonate within the symbolic universe which he inhabited, we discover here something greater than a cat, and in the cup something stronger than cream.


It is time to stand back from the picture I have been painting, which I offer as a historical hypothesis, not of course as a complete argument.  I have been trying to suggest that we can, as historians, discover a portrait of Jesus in which praxis, story, and symbol are even more important than the history of ideas and texts, but within which ideas and texts settle down and make themselves at home.  Within this hypothesis, I have suggested that Isaiah 40-55 as a whole was thematic for Jesus’ ministry and Kingdom announcement, which is to be understood not in terms of the teaching of an abstract and timeless system of theology, not even of atonement theology, but as the historical and concrete acting-out of the return of Yahweh to Zion to defeat evil and to rescue his people from exile, that is, to forgive their sins at last.  Within this notion, in turn, I have suggested that the allusions to Isaiah 53 are not, in fact, the basis of a theory about Jesus’ self-understanding in relation to his death; they may be, rather, the telltale signs of a vocation which he could hardly put into words, that themebasser of Isaiah 52:7 (and Isaiah 40:9) would turn out to be himself, the Servant, representing the Israel that was called to be the light of the world but had failed so signally in this vocation.  The only way that such a vocation could be articulated without distortion was in story, symbol, and praxis: and all three came together in the temple, and in the upper room, and ultimately on the large and ugly mountain just outside the city gates. This is not so much an argument from silence, though I recognize that it may be castigated as such.  The silence only pertains to words and texts, and even then it is not in fact complete.  When we examine story, symbol, and praxis, there is no silence.

Another objection which is sure to be raised in several minds, around this table and farther afield, is whether this remarkable construct is predicable as having been in Jesus’ mind and worldview, or rather only in the evangelists and their sources.  With this question, we are back to the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose situation.  For my part, I believe it was a great gain in the 1950s and 1960s that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were recognized as theologians, not mere chroniclers.  Perhaps the 1990s should become the decade in which we realize something that was after all staring us in the face, that Jesus too was a theologian — but one whose theology was expressed not as another movement in the history of ideas, or as a collection of texts finely exegeted, but as one who believed that in and through his own work, life, and death, the very subject matter of theology, of Israel’s prophetic, apocalyptic, eschatological, and redemptive theology, was coming to birth.

I suggest, then, that the categories of the sixth or fifth or fourth centuries B.C.E., and those of the sixteenth or subsequent centuries C.E., are not necessarily good guides for our understanding of Jesus.  Listening to the debate between substitution and representation, in however a sophisticated and nuanced fashion it may be carried on, leaves me as a historian with the same feeling I have when I meet people — as I don’t, fortunately, very often — for whom the key question in the New Testament is whether the Rapture comes before or after the Tribulation.  The critical nest of meaning in the second-temple Jewish world did not focus on substitution and representation, but on exile and how it would be undone; on a social and political liberation with an inescapable theological and spiritual dimension; on the temple, its destruction, cleansing, and rebuilding; on the fulfillment of the whole of Torah, prophets, and writings, not simply on isolated bits and pieces of text.

When we reach him, as we have happily done during this weekend, we find Paul firmly convinced that this whole complex of meanings and events has in fact come to pass, and, in coming to pass, has been radically redefined, so that he as a zealous Jew now finds himself as the one who welcomes the pagans to equal membership in God’s people.  We have no evidence whatever, outside the baseless speculations of a few scholars, that there were any Christians in the earliest church who didn’t think the climactic event in God’s purpose for Israel had occurred in Jesus Christ.  Their perceptions of this climactic event, and the large-scale redefinition of exile and restoration it occasioned, were in the process of formation, and were in any case much larger and richer than simply the tracing of a few lines of thought and ideas from a few texts, however beloved.  We therefore find them expressing their understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus in a multiplicity of ways, not least, like Jesus himself, in story, symbol, and praxis as much as in articulated and text-based abstract theology.  Paul himself uses dozens of different ways to say all this, depending on the context and his particular argument.  It is clear, however, that when he did use Isaiah 53, such as in Romans 4:25, this application was not a new idea or a throwaway line; its quasi-formulaic nature, and its careful location at the end of a great section of argument, tell heavily against that.  But he is not constructing, there or in Galatians 3 or in 2 Corinthians 5, an abstract theology of how sinners in general find salvation in general.  He is arguing about how, within history, the one God of all the world has revealed his righteousness and salvation in dealing with the Babylons of this world, the principalities and powers, and has thrown open the Davidic promises for everyone to share.  In other words, he is articulating on a grand scale the message of Second Isaiah.  And when, in the middle of his theology, we find him saying things like Romans 4:25, I have no problem in saying that he, like Jesus, regarded Isaiah 53 as one central piece of a picture that was far wider and richer than any single text.  It is not the only, or even the controlling, element in his thought.  Genesis and Deuteronomy and the Psalms must be given their due.  Nor is the death of Jesus, whether as representative, substitute, or whatever, the only meaning he finds in Second Isaiah.  As we have seen, his own apostleship, his own suffering, are part of the picture as well.  He, like Jesus, exegeted the text not just as a matter of theory but as a matter of symbolic vocation.

Why did Paul, our earliest witness by far, come to this view?  Because of the resurrection, certainly.  But the resurrection only vindicates what was in question before.  Nils Dahl argued a generation ago that Jesus must have been known as Messiah before his death if the resurrection were to have the effect of installing him in that position.  I think we can and must go further.  Jesus lived, taught, and acted as though Israel were summed up in him.  He would be the Israel who would go into exile on behalf of the Israel in exile.  He would suffer the fate which summed up perfectly the present exilic condition of God’s people.  And he would do so in the belief that God would raise him from the dead, inaugurating the real “return from exile” which would be the sign that sins had indeed been forgiven, not only for Israel but also for the world.

The relevance of our colloquy discussion for the wider debate about Jesus, therefore, focuses of course on the meaning of Jesus’ death.  But we cannot remain content with an atonement theology that simply chops away at its own logic, anxious on the one hand to maintain a traditional formula which has meant so much to so many, anxious on the other hand to protect God from talking or acting nonsensically or immorally. Atonement is something bigger than that altogether. According to Paul, it is about how the creator is revealing his righteousness in order to renew the whole cosmos.  According to Jesus, it is about the destruction of the temple that has come to symbolize rebellion against the true God, and about the construction of a returned-from-exile community, a community of prodigals who have come back from the far country to find an astonishing welcome laid on for them, a community of the renewed covenant whose sins have been forgiven.  This community is constituted, not by a set of ideas, but by a person; not by a dogma, no matter how true and valid, but around a set of symbols and praxis; not by a bowl of exegetical cream, but by a broken loaf and a cup of wine.

If we put the central things in the center, it is surprising how easily the other things settle down and make themselves at home.  If our debate, not least its puzzles and unresolved tensions, serves to remind us that Christian theology is not about words and ideas but about a person, it will have had a relevance for the study of Jesus far beyond the dotting of a few i’s and the crossing of a few t’s. As the old saying goes, when you have dotted your i’s, it may be time at last to open them.