Reviews of

N.T. Wright, “Apocalyptic and Mysticism in the New Testament”

In Apocalyptic, David J. Larsen, Mysticism, N. T. WRIGHT, New Testament, SEMINAR REPORTS, St Andrews on February 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm

This is a report on the University of St Andrews New Testament Research Seminar (N. T. Wright chair), 7 February 2012.

Professor N. Thomas Wright commenced this semester’s New Testament research seminar on Apocalyptic and Mysticism with some introductory remarks regarding these categories and what they mean for the academic study of the New Testament.

Prior to Wright’s remarks, Dr. Scott Hafemann announced that Professor Wright had recently been awarded the Mark O. Hatfield award for excellence in leadership in the field of Christian higher education by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington D.C.

Wright began by commenting on the rather bumpy road that has been traveled in the history of the academic study of Apocalyptic Literature and Mysticism. Some parties, both in the German and then the American academies, have historically been very wary of venturing into these subjects and have long resisted and pushed to the sidelines the study of related texts. They have often not found a place for these categories in the study of the New Testament, arguing against the historical Jesus’ involvement in anything “mystical” and asserting that Paul wouldn’t have dabbled in it. The academy has long privileged matters of the mind over those of the heart.

However, in the late 20th century there has been a revolution regarding the study of Apocalyptic and Mysticism due in no small measure to the enormous wealth of new texts that have become available, which have opened up many new possibilities for understanding the world of Second Temple Judaism and Christian origins.  The academy began to take the history of this period more seriously. Apocalyptic is now seen as something that is not so much on the fringes of Jewish thought, but based on central tenets of their understanding of Scripture. Mysticism is being looked at as based on the experience of real people.

Wright explained that the Jewish Temple was the focal point of Jewish society — it is what held everything together.  We should not underestimate the role that the hymns of the Temple, the Psalms, played in the development of Apocalyptic and Mysticism. Both Jews and Christians were Psalm-singing people.  The Psalms celebrated the monarchy and the Temple and these themes were perpetuated in them. Yahweh was to rule the world from his Temple in Jerusalem. We find that the Temple themes dominate the shaping of the Pentateuch.

The story of Genesis/Exodus builds toward the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is Genesis 1-2 all over again — a re-creation — they built a little (new) world where God could again be with his people — a new Eden. The purpose of the Genesis-Exodus story is to tell of the re-creation of the world.

After the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, the promise of Yahweh’s return was a very important subject. We see in the Second Temple period that this promise had not yet been fulfilled.  Even when the Temple was rebuilt, it remained unoccupied. The post-exilic prophets, like Malachi, were often calling on the temple priests to repent and make themselves clean before the great and terrible day when the Lord would suddenly return to his temple.

In the Second Temple period, we see the expression of a need for a “New Exodus.” We read in Ezekiel 10 of how the Glory/Kavod leaves the Temple in Jerusalem and in Ezekiel 43, we see the return of the Kavod to the future ideal temple. Ezekiel became the prototype for Apocalyptic and Mystical speculation.  This thinking is developed further in Daniel, where we see Daniel praying to receive revelation from God. Although heaven and earth have been made separate because of the absence of the Presence from the Temple, God can still be accessed by the righteous. Daniel’s visions reveal that God will return and overcome the kings of the nations and become King of the whole world. Daniel 7 shows God sitting in judgment over the wicked nations and the arrival of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

For Wright, Apocalyptic and Mysticism arise from this sense of Yahweh’s absence. God’s natural state, Wright argues, was to be living with his people. Heaven and Earth were supposed to be united in the temple. During this period when God was not present in his Temple, believers nurtured a desire to re-connect with the divine. This return to unity with God, for Wright, is a type of personal inaugurated eschatology. Their meditation on the Merkavah allowed them to see the eschatological hope in the present. Ways were found to bring heaven and earth together again — mystical practice, strict adherence to Torah, etc. Again, this was not merely a fringe movement, but stems out of central features of the Jewish world-view.

The New Testament, Wright explained, represents a new kind of inaugurated eschatology, one in which Jesus the Messiah and the Spirit represent the return of God’s Glory to the world. Acts is a thoroughly apocalyptic book. The ascension of Jesus is essentially Daniel 7 — the Son of Man riding on the clouds and being presented before the Ancient of Days. Pentecost represents the return of the Kavod, when the Spirit descends upon the Church, the New Temple (the apostles are the pillars of the New Temple). Stephen has a vision, as it were, of the Holy of Holies — God on his throne with Jesus at his right hand.  Acts is full of temple speech. We see the fulfillment of Daniel 7 where the Kingdom is given to the people of God.

Paul, on the road to Damascus, may have been meditation on the Throne-Chariot — this would make sense when we consider that as a result of his meditating he does receive a vision of the Kavod, and finds that it is Jesus. He has achieved a vision of the Glory and this results in his conversion.

The vision of the Glory is the return of Yahweh to Zion. See 2 Cor. 3:18. The Glory has reappeared through Jesus and continues to be present in the people through the Spirit. Essentially, the Eschaton has been inaugurated and the long awaited hope realized.  The New Creation has begun — the Christ has already won the great battle. The Prologue of the Gospel of John parallels Ben Sira 24. For John, this is what it looks like for the ancient promises to be fulfilled. Jesus has overcome the world and conquered wickedness.

This is all temple theology — the temple tradition has been renewed. Also, this is Jewish two-age theology. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross is the revelation of God’s Glory that all flesh would see together (Isa. 40:5). The Resurrection is the New Genesis.

In conclusion, the traditions of Apocalyptic and Mysticism arise in the context of the non-return of Yahweh to his Temple.  In the Jewish world-view, unlike modern thought, there was not supposed to be a gulf between heaven and earth. The Jews wanted to bring them back together.  The New Testament depicts Jesus as the Glory of God returned to his Temple in Zion.

David J. Larsen
St Andrews

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