A four hour ferry journey across Lake Van gives me the opportunity to write up some reflections on chapter seven of Tom Wright’s How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels, in which he describes how the clash between God and Caesar plays out in the story of Jesus. These rusting boats have for a long time carried trains and their passengers travelling between Istanbul and Tehran. Today’s cargo consists of several freight wagons, a couple of Kurds, ourselves, and an emaciated German cyclist heading for Tashkent, whom we fed with the leftovers from our bread and cheese lunch.
Wright makes the important point that when Jews around the time of Jesus told their story, “one key element was always the question of how their God would deliver them from wicked and powerful pagan empires” (128). So if, as Wright has been arguing, Jesus is to be understood as the fulfilment of Israel’s story—Israel’s God come in person—we would expect the “triumph over the nations and their gods” to be a significant part of this. Not half! Our theologies fail us miserably when they treat this dimension as mere background noise or filter it out altogether—not Wright’s exact metaphor, but close.
The story begins with Babel. Wright usually links the call of Abraham with the “fall”: it is the beginning of God’s programme to rescue the world from the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve. But here he emphasizes what seems to me the much more substantive connection: the call of Abraham is “God’s answer to the arrogance of human power”.
We then pursue the narrative by way of the defeat of Pharaoh and David’s victories over the minor neighbouring nations to the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile. Isaiah 40-55 and Daniel, most importantly, give urgent expression to the “clash of the kingdoms” (130):
He will vindicate his people, rescuing them from their exile (Isa. 52; Dan. 9), exalting them to his right hand (Dan. 7), setting up a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Dan. 2), the true Davidic kingdom, which, built on the renewal of the covenant, will be nothing less than new creation (Isa. 54-55).
In Isaiah this victory will be accomplished by the “servant of the Lord”; in Daniel “through the suffering and faithfulness of God’s people”. But the theme continues into the postbiblical period, right up to the bar-Kochba revolt in the 130s. This is the background of Jewish expectation against which the Gospels tell us the story of Jesus as the “focal point of the story of God and Caesar” (134).
To back up his claim Wright cites Luke’s reference to the census (“Augustus’s signature on the decree was Rome signing the ultimate death warrant for its classic pagan power”), the political significance of the journey of the magi in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching about Gentile rulers in Mark, and the announcement of judgment against “this world’s ruler” in John. The writers make it clear that Jesus’ death will be the means by which Israel’s God will gain victory over the pagan nations and the powers behind them.
The cross in John, which we already know to be the fullest unveiling of God’s, and Jesus’s, love (13:1), is also the moment when God takes his power and reigns over Caesar. From now on, the ruler of this world is judged. (146)
This has been for me the most satisfying chapter so far, mainly because it corroborates a basic argument that I have been trying to get across since The Coming of the Son of Man, which is that the “Son of Man” motif locates the life, death and resurrection of Jesus firmly and necessarily in a story about the defeat of imperial paganism through the faithful suffering of Jesus’ followers. So this statement was music to my ears:
And Mark (followed by Matthew) also highlights Jesus’s words about the vindication of the “son of man,” which by its evocation of the whole narrative of the book of Daniel declares, as powerfully as any statement to a scripture-soaked audience could do, that, despite present suffering and disappointment, Israel’s God is indeed going to take his seat and, in vindicating the one who represents this suffering people, pass judgment on the monsters, the pagan powers, that have arrogantly taken charge of the world. (138-39)
There are, however, still a couple of points at which I would diverge from Wright’s account.
First, I think I would reverse the general balance between kingdom and salvation. Wright asserts quite rightly that kingdom and cross cannot be separated—as we do, for example, when we oppose a social gospel to a gospel of personal salvation. But he tends to view the primary biblical story, nevertheless, as one of salvation—how God rescues the world—in which the kingdom component then plays a crucial part.
I would put it the other way round. I would argue that the central theme of scripture—the metanarrative—has to do with how the creator God gains victory over the pagan kingdoms of the ancient world, in which the salvation, first of Jews and then of Gentiles, plays a crucial part.
Secondly, I think we make much better sense of the New Testament if we maintain the historical particularity of “Caesar’s kingdom”. For Wright Caesar’s kingdom is, in the end, representative of all empires. So for example, he says, with reference to John 18:37-38, that whereas Jesus’ kingdom employs the weapon of truth-telling, “Caesar’s kingdom (and all other kingdoms that originate in this world) make their way by fighting” (144, italics added). And at the end of the chapter he writes:
A new empire had been launched that would trump Caesar’s empire and all those like it, not by superior force but by a completely different sort of power altogether. (173, italics added)
This is what I mean when I say that, in Wright’s telling, the story—or the history—of the people of God effectively grinds to a halt when we get to Jesus. The historical clash between the early church and Rome comes to stand for a universal clash between the Church and Empire.
There is a great deal to be learnt from Wright’s reconstruction, but we still have a whole chapter on God and Caesar which makes no explicit reference either to the destruction of Jerusalem by the forces of Rome or to the final concrete victory of the suffering and faithful communities of Jesus’ disciples over imperial paganism when the empire was converted to Christianity. In my view both of these critical events are anticipated in New Testament apocalyptic, not least through the language of Daniel 7, and in fact constitute climactic eschatological moments in the forward-looking storyline.