Jesus and First Century Context

Some Jesus scholars, especially Wright, love to put it like this: “There is a framework of hopes and ideas that Jesus lived and worked within but some Christians, unaware of this, seem to lift Jesus’ teaching out of its first-century context and place it in some timeless abstract cosmic context.”

But what about Caird’s insight? (an unlikely ally of mine in this, I know!) He wrote “if … Jesus spent so much of his time explaining what he meant… would it not follow that he did not mean what everyone else meant…?” (NTTheol, p. 367). Perhaps Jesus spent so long explaining the “kingdom” and was so secretive about words like Messiah and was killed precisely because his ideas and priorities did not sit well within the lattice of first-century hopes and expectations. Jesus lived as a man within the first-century thought-world, to be sure. But he was not a product of the first-century thought-world.

Which of these is more likely: 1) that the Lord used ideas and language about eternal cosmic realities to tell us how important the political and social events of the first century were; or 2) that he used the political and social events of the first century to try to teach people to look through the temporal realities to eternal cosmic realities beyond? Is that not the teaching of the Gospels? Of the unjust steward? Of the virgins with their lamps? Of the Rich man and Lazarus? Of the Beatitudes and lots of the Sermon on the Mount?

I don’t think it is Christians who violently wrench Jesus out of his first century setting as much as it is Jesus who tried to wrench first-century Jews from their short-sighted hopes of first-century political independence — as if that was going to make the world beautiful.

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