Posts Tagged ‘Romans 1’

A Christian reading of the book called Isaiah should not occasion constant surprise. And yet it does.

Jesus is remembered quite famously as having told a Samaritan woman that ‘salvation is of the Jews’.

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (ε͗κ τῶν Ἰουδαίων).

John 4:22 (NRSV, emphasis and inserted Greek text added)

In context, the deep impression Jesus leaves upon this Samaritan woman’s neighbors belies the idea that non-Jews are excluded from the salvation in question. Yet the origins of this ’salvation’—humanly speaking—are hardly in doubt for the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

This assertion of a salvific sequence worth careful consideration is hardly an outlier. The New Testament’s most famous apostle, in the midst of one of his recurring wrestlings with the interrelationship of Jews and Gentiles in the economy of Jacob’s God, deploys a phrase that he will find useful more than once.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι).

Romans 1:16 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek text added)

Here the collective singular stands in twice for masses of people. Likely, this signals the apostle’s confidence that this is an ingrained way of things independent of human manipulation that plays itself out in individual cases over and over again.

It is all too easy to imagine that this soteriological sequencing somehow takes the place of a prior ingrained Jewish nationalism in early Christian proclamation, opening a door that had previously remained closed to non-Jews while assuring that the privilege of it not be understated. In fact, my students tell me all that the time that this is the way of things.

Yet this seems not to be the manner in which early Christian theologizers read their sources in the Hebrew Bible.

Rather, it seems that early Christian hermeneutics discovered this sequence—this anchoring of expansive salvation in Jewish particularity—in the massively influential book of Isaiah as well as in other Jewish texts. For example, Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter fixes its gaze and addresses its promise to the restored Zion that it imagines in some of the book’s most soaring and lyric poetry.

The turning of tables to Zion’s benefit is named late in the chapter:

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:14-16 (NRSV)

Yet this stirring reversal ought not be read as a transformation that occurs to the detriment of those nations that now nourish Zion.

Rather, the chapter’s opening verses address Zion lit up and glorified in a manner that attracts the peoples in the manner of secondary promise and sequenced blessing. The second-person singular addressee is most certainly the restored city.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Passages like this steward the sequence and anchor the illumination of ‘the nations’ in a way that might easily have inspired, informed, and even shaped the New Testament proclamation of a Jesus movement that by appearances surprised itself at every turn by the response of non-Jews, then turned its hand to the hard work of how such ’new folks’ ought to be integrated into a family that began as a branch of Judaism.

Difficult times would come in that process which scholars often identify as ’the parting of the ways’. Yet it is both sobering and fascinating to observe the way in which early preachers and evangelists of the Jesus movement found themselves reading the Jewish Scriptures in a way that seems coherent even to (some) modern historians of the Way.

The stewards of those new wineskins that early Jewish followers of Jesus found necessary for the preservation of new wine did not, it turns out, imagine that everything had become something other than it had been. The vigor of their newfound regard for the risen Jesus led them back to old books like the one they called ‘Isaiah’, there to find the same sequencing of salvation, the very anchoring of light in YHWH’s disclosure to Israel itself that infused the teaching of their Lord and the writing of their apostles.

The notion that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ would be tested and often discarded in ensuing centuries, up to and including our own. Yet it seems difficult to this Christian reader of Isaiah to imagine that this sequence, this anchoring of ‘Jesus faith’ in Jewish experience can be discarded without inventing a new religion that is or will eventually become cast adrift from its moorings.

Dragons be there.


Read Full Post »