Exile: A Conversation
with N.T. Wright
James M. Scott, Ed.
Reviewed by Joseph Johnson
At their best, good conversations are lively, wide-ranging, and sometimes even surprising. They push us to consider ideas from new angles and hammer out with fresh clarity why we see things the way we do. It’s not always easy to find these kinds of discussions, but the essays that make up Exile: A Conversation with N.T. Wright demonstrate for the most part what thoughtful scholarly discussion is meant to look like. The contributors are generally successful at avoiding the twin pitfalls of uncritical acceptance and blunt rejection in their responses to N.T. Wright’s influential (and controversial) proposal regarding the notion of ongoing exile as an influential “controlling narrative” for many Second Temple Jews and early Jesus followers (8).
The book opens with a lengthy essay by Wright himself giving a fresh articulation of his thesis. He delves into passages like Deuteronomy 27-33, with its sequence of sin-exile-restoration, and the great prayers of Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9, as well as other literature from the Second Temple period like the Dead Sea Scrolls, all in order to demonstrate that many Jews saw themselves as continuing to live in a state of exile, even though a large number of them had geographically returned to the land of Israel (21-22). Turning to his critics, Wright asks:
Would any serious-thinking first-century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed and Israel’s sins forgiven?… Or—in other words—that the exile was really over? (35)
The anticipated answer is clearly in the negative. For Wright, remembering this backdrop is important for understanding Jesus’ “kingdom of God” language. When Jesus told stories about the kingdom and even declared that it was at hand (Mark 1:15), Wright sees this language as thereby also announcing that “the real return from exile for the people, and the real return of YHWH to Zion” were finally happening (45-46). Using language strongly familiar for those who have read his other books (especially The Day the Revolution Began), Wright ends by characterizing Paul as a man deeply convinced that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had finally brought the long period of exile to an end, inaugurating creation’s long-awaited renewal by God (62,80).
The responses included in this book come from a wide range of figures, including the distinguished Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann and New Testament scholars like Scot McKnight and Timo Eskola. As in any good conversation, the participants engage with Wright in a spirit of both appreciation and critique. Some build on the foundation of his work and attempt to go beyond it, while others spend significant time questioning parts of his proposal that they find to be problematic. Unfortunately, there isn’t time to work through each and every response essay, as interesting as that would be. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few of the ones that I found to be especially intriguing additions to the discussion.
Brueggemann softens his critique by affirming that he thinks Wright is basically on the mark when it comes to the major claim of his thesis about ongoing exile (88,92). Nevertheless, he finds Wright’s arguments to be a bit expansive and reductionist. In his many scholarly works, Brueggemann embraces the richly varied and dialogical nature of the Old Testament canon, so it’s not surprising to see him express reservations about seeing the narrative of exile and return as being the essential key to understanding the Judaism of Jesus’ day (88). Without a doubt, Brueggemann is persuaded that this theme is important, but, as he puts it, “I doubt that here or anywhere is there ‘a key to everything else’” (90).
Jörn Kiefer’s essay is a noteworthy critical reflection on Wright’s arguments. He questions the frequently assumed connection between exile and a deep sense of loss and sorrow (119). For instance, he brings up a passage in Philo where exile’s aftermath is compared to the spreading settlement of colonies around the world (122). Kiefer ends by asserting that those who spent their lives outside of their ancestral homeland by no means thought they had come “to the end of their story with God” (134). It should be said that holding this conviction isn’t necessarily the same as seeing the exile in a positive light. After all, belief in God’s continued involvement with His people also contributed to the longings for messianic deliverance from continued exile felt by many Jews living in their homeland under Roman rule.
In his concluding reflections, Wright agrees with Kiefer that there were probably many Jews living throughout the Mediterranean world who didn’t see their lot in life in terms of national punishment. However, Wright counters that he never meant that all first-century Jews believed they were living in a state of ongoing exile, only that “a significant number of Jews living in the ancestral homeland saw things this way,” and furthermore that this sense of exile fueled eschatological hopes for redemption that shaped the reception of claims about the coming of God’s kingdom (307).
Most of the conversations contained in the pages of Exile center on ancient texts. This makes Philip Alexander’s response especially worth mentioning before we finish up this review because he focuses instead on some of the events that took place during the period of Jewish history stretching from the Maccabean revolt on through the costly wars against Rome. Hence, this paper seeks to lend support to Wright’s thesis from a relatively unexplored angle. Though it’s difficult to assess motivations behind ancient historical movements, Alexander’s examination this era is well-crafted. He ends by concluding that many of the major military-political events in the land of Israel during this era seem to have been driven by Jews who could see themselves as nothing other than “slaves in their own land” so long as they were still being ruled over by foreign powers like Rome. For these people, “the exile had not been totally ended, because Israel had not yet been fully restored” (154). The essays of Hans Boersma and Ephraim Radner are unfortunate exceptions to the healthy dialogue that takes place in most of the book’s pages. In response to their papers, Wright exasperatedly comments that “these two essayists seem not to have heard what is actually being said” (320). In these cases, both sides unfortunately seem to be speaking past each other, showing that the proverbial ditch between biblical studies and dogmatic/systematic theology can still sometimes be hazardous to cross.
In the end, though, most of the essays are well worth savoring. Wright’s proposal emerges from Exile relatively unscathed, and it will be interesting to see how discussions about the significance of exile as a theme continue to unfold in the future. Regardless, I’m grateful to the contributors in this book for asking numerous substantive questions and leaving readers like myself with much to ponder.