Friday, 13 July 2012

Stories of Salvation

It's about time I stopped neglecting this blog! I've added a pretty picture showing one of many reconstructions of Solomon's temple, which I freely admit to having nicked. It's meaningless, but conventional.

When the New Testament sets out to tell us about salvation, it doesn't give us a nice neat doctrinal package with all the ribbons nicely tied, or even tell us to go through a ceremony, like going to the front at the end of a service and saying a ritual 'sinner's prayer'. It tells us a story. Behind that, however, lurk other stories, half seen, like the fossilised remains of our simian ancestors.

The one we all know about is, of course, Paul's comparison of Jesus with Adam. Adam was the first man, and he messed up. He sinned and, to borrow a Pauline phrase, fell short of the glory of God. Humanity was kicked out of the garden, and somehow (Paul doesn't explain how, though the church later devoted many gallons of ink, and, no doubt, cubic kilometres of hot air, to trying to explain it), we all managed to sin in Adam. So we're all polluted. Then Jesus came along, the Second Adam, and did a rather better job. He didn't sin. For his fidelity, God raised him up and exalted him, making him, as it were, his viceroy over creation, set above all created things.

Of course, we don't hear much about the latter bit. It isn't exactly the Doctrine of the Trinity as set out in the Nicene Creed, modified by the Council of Chalcedon, and modified again by the Western Church a few centuries later. You can't expect the poor guy to proclaim doctrines invented long after his death.

But I don't think this was the original story. Nobody before Paul seems to have seen the Fall in Genesis 3, and I think he invented it for a reason. Jesus was a Jew; he proclaimed his message to Jews, and there was a familiar story of sin and redemption available to him, and to his church.

That, of course, is the story of the Exile and the return. Pre-exilic Israel was clearly as polytheistic as any other nation, worshipping Yahweh, Ba'al, Asherah, Molech (if he was indeed a separate god), the sun and moon, and the heavenly host. Some, of course, believed that they should worship Yahweh alone, and it was this faction which eventually won out. They believed that the Exile was a punishment for polytheism, or idolatry as they saw it. The exile resulted from sin, but it wasn't the end of the story. God hadn't finished with his people after all, and the return, by a small group of people who were sponsored  by the Persians to put Jerusalem back on its feet. Persian policy was to encourage the religions of its subject peoples, and so the Temple was rebuilt. This was later spun into a glorious Return, with which all those who came to be known as Jews identified.

We can see this story being re-used in John. First, we find the story of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-21). The author has moved this from shortly before Jesus' arrest, where we find it in the Synoptics, to near the beginning, and clearly he must have had a purpose in doing so. The Temple has been turned into a marketplace, and Jesus drives out the merchants so that it can function as 'a house of prayer for all nations'. The language is softer that that used in the Synoptics, without the accusation that it has become a 'den of robbers'. The comment about the nations, also found in Mark, could be a reference to the market having been established in the Court of the Gentiles, but most likely it's intended to make the point that Gentiles are included. The Temple is to be replaced by the risen Jesus, who becomes the new temple.

The next story concerns Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, who meets Jesus at night. Physical darkness is, of course, sometimes used as a metaphor for spiritual darkness. The Jews have sinned, the Temple, the centre of the cultus, isn't what it ought to be, and God has rejected them. Nicodemus is told (3:1-10) that he must be 'born again' of water and the Spirit. God himself is involved in the process - the Jews tended to think of God as transcendent, 'out there', but divine extensions; his Word, his Wisdon, his Spirit, etc; were thought of as being present with us. Water is explained a little later; in the next story (3:22-36), we find Jesus and his disciples baptising. This developed out of Jewish ritual washings, to remove impurity.

So we find the pattern of exile and return repeated. The Jews have sinned; the Temple isn't acceptable to Jesus, and by extension, to God. Nicodemus, who seems to function as a representative Jew here, is in darkness. Through the action of God, and the purifying effect of baptism, a renewed Israel is brought into being. It's not a case of Israel being 'superseded' by a Gentile church; the author is a Jew, writing for a Jewish community. He's reworking a traditional story to explain how Israel can be renewed through Jesus.

Paul, of course, worked in a totally different context, with Gentiles. The Exile story would have meant nothing to them; they'd never identified themselves with the people who were taken into captivity, or with those who eventually came home to Jerusalem.  So he had to use a different story, and over the course of time, we've lost sight of what John is saying here.

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