Sunday, December 04, 2005

Kingdom vs. Covenant

Sean du Toit expresses reservations about Scot McKnight's reconstruction of the eucharist account. In Jesus and His Death, McKnight argues that covenant ideas don't trace back to the historical Jesus, having entered the eucharist tradition after Pentecost. Sean doubts this, in no small part because

"Given the criteria of multiple attestation and coherence [Meier, Marginal Jew II, 302], I'm struggling to see how McKnight defends this odd position. I say odd because I can't source any other scholars who hold to the historicity of the last supper, yet deny this pivotal phrase."

But just because McKnight's position is new doesn't make it odd. It's actually long overdue in my opinion, for carefully distinguishing different forms of sacrifice and the (very) different understandings of Jesus’ death which had become fused in the NT writings. Covenant ceremony and passover are indeed "countries and ideas apart", as McKnight says. The fact that covenant is only once attributed to Jesus points to the unreliability of the criterion of multiple attestation, which simply tells us what's multiply attested by the time of the sources -- the earliest of which (Paul) dates to around 20 years after Jesus. That offers a long window for covenant ideas to creep in. I think McKnight's arguments (pp 308-311) add up to a very strong case.

What's interesting is that Paul seems to have had as much use for covenant ideas as Jesus -- that is, none -- for he speaks of a new covenant (and even this only rarely) which supersedes the old. It's especially because of Tom Wright that we're accustomed to reading Paul (and the historical Jesus) through covenantal lenses, when we should be doing anything but. Far from a "climax of the covenant", Christ's death ended a dark age in which no one (save Abraham) ever attained faith-righteousness. Paul stigmatizes the covenant as a curse from which Christ liberated Israel, inaugurating a new one altogether (II Cor 3:6-14; Gal 4:22-26; I Cor 11:23-26). Philip Esler has shown serious weaknesses in Wright's covenant readings, arguing that it's even inappropriate to speak of salvation-history in Paul's thought.

So when Sean asks, "Isn't the emergence of the kingdom of God part of YHWH maintaining, fulfilling, his covenantal relationship with Israel?", I would say no, at least as far as the historical Jesus and Paul were concerned. Jesus seems to have avoided covenant ideas, and his being a millenarian may help account for this. Dale Allison notes that apocalyptic sectarians are strongly anti-traditional, emphasizing only selected portions of their religious heritage, (see Millenarian Prophet, p 87). For Jesus, "covenant" and "kingdom" were probably at odds with one another, for more than a few reasons. But it was Paul who explicitly drove a nail in the covenant.

Thanks to Sean for the post. It's nice to see the value of his blog increasing along with those of other bibliobloggers. Pretty soon I'm going to be the lone zero. (What this says about my ideas I hardly care to explore.)

UPDATE:In the comments section of Sean's post Scot McKnight replies (to Sean) as follows:

"It is not that 'covenant' is not a fair way of saying what Jesus said, which he said through the term 'kingdom,' but it is a question of whether or not Jesus said it. Of course, I'd agree with you to speak of 'covenant faithfulness' -- but show me where Jesus is using your term 'covenant.' It can't be found.

"The issue is one of both 'history' (what did Jesus really say?) and 'significance' (can Jesus be explained through covenant language? Of course.). My argument moves into the history of that term, and then I clearly say that it is fine and good to express Jesus' theology and the last supper in that term, but it is unlikely that Jesus used that term."

So McKnight has no problems with explicating the historical Jesus in covenantal categories, as long as we recognize that Jesus never used the term. I've made a much stronger suggestion (above).


Anonymous steph said...

sorry Loren - I have to disagree.

NOT worthless. PRICELESS!!

Have a nice day.

Blogger Scot McKnight said...

Part of this is what we mean by "history" which to me is more than the discovery of what happened, but the putting into a narrative of what we think happened.

Covenant is a narrative pattern that Tom Wright has used well -- as also has he done with "end of exile." My point is that Jesus used "Kingdom" for his history work. Paul is perhaps a little kinder to "covenant" than you express (Gal, Rom and 2 Cor); the early Church quite early used "covenant" for the benefits of Jesus' death; "new covenant" was inevitable after Pentecost.

Blogger Ben C. Smith said...

Loren, yours is always one of the first five blogs I visit every day. I have no idea why your blog value would be $0.00.


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks Steph and Ben. I take the whole blog-value thing with humor, of course, but I'm curious to know what the formula is. I get three times the # of hits of another biblioblog right now which is being assessed at ~ $12,000!


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