Thursday, June 19, 2008

Who are the Enemies of the Faithful in the NT?

Luke records Zechariah singing about being "saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us" (1:71) and "being delivered from the hand of our enemies" (1:74).

But who are these enemies? It is common to say that Zechariah speaks for the Jews and that their enemies are the Romans. But is that right? It doesn't seem correct to me.

First, even if some of the Jews thought the Romans were their enemies, they were in fact appointed by God as their guardians. The book of Daniel makes that clear. And at this point in their history Rome wasn't really oppressing Jews. And they didn't appear to "hate" the Jews. Many of the Jews may have hated being ruled by the Jews, but that's a different matter altogether.

Second, if you look at the Gospel of Luke (or any of the Gospels for that matter) the Romans are not portrayed as enemies. Neither do they act like enemies of the faithful. Even Pilate has to be manipulated into condemning Jesus by the Jews.

Third, Zechariah's prophesy is not in fact fulfilled by the Jews being set free from the Romans. As it turns out the Romans are the instrument of God's judgment on the Jews! When the judgment that Jesus continually talks about in his ministry comes, it is the Jewish leaders and Jerusalem, not Rome, that is destroyed.

I'm taking the "us" and "our" pronouns in Zechariah's song to refer to the remnant of faithful believers in Israel. Their enemies
were the Herods, the Pharisees, and the chief priests, scribes, and lawyers of their own people. At least, that's how it turns out in the story. And the faithful people of God who cling to Jesus and form a new community are indeed freed from those enemies. Later, of course, Rome becomes hostile to the Christians, but it's mainly the Jewish leadership that are the enemies until the mid-60's AD. That's how Jesus sees it, too.

Fifth, NT Wright makes a big deal about Rome being the enemy of the Jews, but I just don't see it in the story of the Gospels or even the first part of the story of the church. It was the powerful troublemakers in authority in Israel that deflected attention from their own oppressive actions in order to demonize Rome as the big enemy of Israel. The powerful wicked in Israel, the enemies of the small faithful remnant in the land, saw Rome as an enemy because they related to Rome as a mimetic rival. They loved to hate Rome. They hated to love Rome.

I think N.T. Wright needs Rome to be the enemy because his big thing is that Israel is still in exile. It doesn't work. Isreal is not in exile in the first century. They returned from exile centuries ago. After they returned to the land being under Persian, Greek, and then Roman authority was not the same thing as being in exile. According to the prophesy of Daniel, living under these world emperors was God's new way of guarding them.

I believe this is one of the problems with the "new" way of reading the Gospels that NTW and others are now advocating. All this talk about the exile never being over and whatnot ignores what Daniel, Ezekiel, and others say about Israel's new role after the exile. The simple remnant of faithful believers actually lived like Daniel and the prophets instructed - submitting to Persia, Greece, and Rome and being faithful to the calling of Israel to serve the world. The enemies of the godly remnant were themselves rebels against God's order and therefore Roman overlordship. They are the leaders of Israel at the time of Jesus ministry. They are the true enemies Zechariah prophesies against.


BlackNTanInTheAM said...

Thanks, Jeff.
I wonder that they aren't still in exile. Here's why. Deuteronomy holds out the promise of restoration with repentance. Although the Empires are designated as housing Israel, Babylonian captivity is just that: captivity. The people on the whole do not repent even though there are remnants. So, even though there is a return to the Land is there not a perpetual wickedness in the majority of the people?
My biggest beef with having them no longer in exile is that Zerubabel failed. He did not usher in the blessing of the full restoration and the subsequent generations display a perpetuity of similarity rather than peculiarity (Heh! That's a title of a sermon I preached once: "Peculiarity Breeds Perpetuity" based on Deut. 4-8 ca.)
Anyway, hmmmmm where was I?
Well, you get the gist. I like what you said, I just still wonder that Jesus doesn't come to do what Israel is still failing to be--a light to the Gentiles.

Unknown said...

It seems like the new way of reading the gospels that you speak of may be a result of scholars putting the gospels in a historical context that has been provided by secular Jews of that time instead of the historical context provided by the Old Testament.

Jeff Meyers said...


Thanks for the comment. I'll have to think about what you say a bit more. The exiles in Babylon did repent. They did return. The rebuilt the temple. The problem in the first century was not exile but apostasy.

Jeff Meyers said...

Bentok: I think this is almost surely correct. Add to it that the fact that the rest of the NT, especially Acts, doesn't portray Rome as the enemy.

BlackNTanInTheAM said...


They did return and rebuild but I think that the apostasy seems to imply a return to something "exilic-esque." Things are not the way they ought be.
Is there more tangible evidence for a national repentance than inferring from the "return" such an occurrence? It seems to me the trouble Nehemiah had, the prayer of Daniel, the failure of the Temple to be what Zeke dreamed (is it not dreampt? the spell check sez no.) shows that the people didn't really return to the Lord.
It's true (or at least plausible) that the oikamene rulers converted and then Cyrus commissioned a return; but I don't read into that any prerequisite repentance.
Thanks for indulging me.

Jeff Meyers said...

Travis: something exile-esque is not the same thing as exile. When you are in exile you've been relocated. The Jews came back. The exile ended. History moves forward. Things change. The temple Zeke saw was never meant to be literally built. It represented the influence of the Jews in the POST-exilic world. It came to pass. The Jews were more influential in the world than ever before. But they fell. They sinned. And we get to the NT time when we get the failure of the Israel on a massive scale. They are NOT in exile under Rome. If anything, the faithful remnant are under the oppressive yoke of the apostate Jewish leaders.

Anyway, that's the way I see it. And YOU better see it that way, too. Or else.

eric.m.parker said...

Pastor Meyers,

A couple of ideas: If the restoration under Zerubbabel was a true return from exile then how do we interpret verses such as Ezra 9:9 and Neh. 9:36 (verses Wright uses to substantiate his claim that the 1st cent. Jews were still waiting for the return)?

Also, do we have to pick one enemy from the multiple possibilities? Could it not be the case that both the Jews and Rome were the enemies of the faithful? Pilate was still in charge of Jesus's death. Also, it is very popular to interpret the Beast from the sea in Rev. 13 as Rome. John portrayed both of the beasts as worshipers of Satan. Rome had done blasphemous things in Israel since the arrival of Pompeii.

Surely Wright is weak on the OT but most folks will agree that he is a master of the 2nd Temple literature. The Remnant in the NT may not have seen Rome as their enemy per se but the Pharisees surely did, which is Wrights whole argument in the NTPG. One of his points is that the Remnant saw "forgiveness of sins" and "return from exile" as convertible. Of course he notes that the true "forgiveness of sins" came in a way no one expected.

Thank you,


Jeff Meyers said...

Eric: Rome does become an enemy in the mid-60's. Rome is indeed the sea beast of Revelation. But for most of the apostolic era Rome guards the church and does not persecute or oppress the faithful.

How does Ezra 9:9 prove that Israel has not returned? That is a prayer for the setting up of the house of God and for protection. That prayer was answered.

The fact that the Jews were "slaves" or "servants" of the new world emperors does not prove that they had not returned to the land or that they were still in exile. They were put under new rulers in the post-exilic age.

I'm not denying that Rome was a mixed bag and often was indeed evil. But she was not a direct threat to the faithful Jews. There's nothing to indicate this in the New Testament until you get to the time immediately before destruction of Jerusalem. And then the Jews bring the judgment of God on themselves.

Well, master of 2nd temple Judaism that he is, he's still wrong about this. Nothing in the NT indicates that the faithful Jews thought of themselves as still being in exile, especially to the Romans.

eric.m.parker said...

Pastor Meyers,

James Jordan speaks of the Israel of Daniel's day being identified (by God) with Egypt (Ez. 8). He points out that Israel had become the wilderness and Babylon was the new "Promised Land." What do we mean by "exile"?

If being in Babylon was considered exile from home to the faithful Jews and if being at home (in Egypt) was considered exile then we at least have to admit two different types or metaphorical referents for "exile." The faithful Jews of Daniel and Ezekiel's day wanted to return to Jerusalem and the Temple - Babylon kept them from this. These same Jews wanted to return to a Jerusalem free of pagan idols - the unfaithful Jews (Egyptians) kept them from this.

My question is: Is there more than one referent for the metaphor "exile" in the NT? I think Wright is trying to rescue that term from an extreme "spiritualization." Must the situation always meet conditions x, y, and z - assuming those conditions are identical to the OT exile - in order for it to be deemed an exile? What about all the "exiles" in the book of Judges?

Wright thinks that language is essentially metaphorical. Terms and phrases like "return from exile", "forgiveness of sins", "resurrection", etc. are all ways of describing a particular event in a way that gives a broader range of meaning than the non-metaphorical. Hence, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts could be described by all of the above terms. Do you think Zechariah may have equated the paganism of the Jewish leadership with exile (i.e. "punishment for sins")? Do you think he may have anticipated the outpouring of the Spirit upon the faithful as a "return from exile/forgiveness of sins"?

Sorry to take up so much of your time,

Eric P.

eric.m.parker said...

I meant to say:

Do you think Zechariah may have equated the paganism of the Jewish leadership and the presence of the Romans (the whole situation) with exile, assuming "exile" is another way of saying "punishment for sins"?

Jeff Meyers said...

Eric: Good points. Don't be sorry about "taking up time." This is helpful clarification.

Of course, the categories of "exile" and "exodus" (as well as other OT typological patterns) can be applied to the situation in Israel at the time of Christ. But we need to be careful.

NTW thinks that Israel are still in exile under the Romans who are the enemies. I don't find any evidence of that in the NT. Rather, FAITHFUL Jews are being enslaved (and in exile, if you will) by the apostate Jewish leadership. Israel has become Egypt.

Rome is not Babylon. Jerusalem is (Rev. 18). She is also spiritually Egypt and Sodom (Rev. 11). Jerusalem is identified as the great whore that enslaves the faithful people of God. Not Rome. Again, my problem is not so much with the NT using "exile" language, but with identifying the proper references.

So metaphorical, typological references to the "exile of Israel" is fine. But it's really the exile of the faithful people of God--first a small # of Jews like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, Anna, etc. But then the disciples of Jesus after his death must be redeemed from the oppressive, murderous clutches of Jerusalem. In the end, Rome (the sea beast) joins Jerusalem (the land beast) in persecuting the saints. But this is at the end of Rome's appointed time. Like ever other guardian beast God appointed to rule over the world and guard his people (Daniel 2 & 7, etc.), Rome begins well and ends badly.

Unknown said...

Wasn't the Roman government (pre-60 AD) generally a good thing for the middle east? It seems that they kept peace and justice very effectively, especially when you consider all of the different religions that were practiced under their rule. If that was the case, why would their presence be equated with exile? Would it be because peace and justice came from a government outside of Israel?

Jeff Meyers said...

Bentok: That's exactly right. And my point has been that Yahweh set it up that way during the exile. Daniel the prophet announced the new covenantal arrangement that would have these world empires administering justice and keeping peace. Israel was called to submit to them and live peacefully under their rule. One of Israel's sins is their rebellion against these Yahweh-appointed empires. In the end, what gets them in trouble with Rome is their political warfare and rebellion against Rome.

eric.m.parker said...

Pastor Meyers,

I said this earlier:

"Of course he [Wright] notes that the true "forgiveness of sins" came in a way no one expected."

I know this is drifting into the realm of speculation but do you think Zechariah knew that the Messiah came to die? I think part of NTW's point is that all of the Jews (including the faithful) were lamenting the present situation with Rome. The Pharisees interpreted the Roman presence as judgment on the nation. Folks like Zechariah interpreted it in the same way but perhaps with a different perspective on why the judgment came.

The consistent picture of Jesus' disciples in the Gospels is men of "little faith." They thought the Messiah came to rule like David. Granted, they were wrong, but it makes sense that even Jesus' disciples would have seen Rome as the enemy since Caesar claimed to be king when Jesus was the real Davidic king. This is more clarification I suppose.

I agree with you that Rome was not put in Palestine in the 1st cent. AD in order to oppress God's people but to protect the Remnant. However, I think we need to distinguish between what was truly the case and what Every Jew thought was the case (prior to the crucifixion). Even the two on the road to Emmeus, who should have known their OT, were totally clueless.

I think Wright plays off of this mistake but shows that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the vindication of YHWH the declaration that he was King of Kings, whether it be Caesar, or Herod, or Napoleon.

Thanks again,


Jeff Meyers said...

Eric: I'm not sure if Zechariah knew that Jesus would die. I kinda doubt he did. Doesn't seem like any of the disciples did. But he could have.

A couple of things. First, there's nothing in the text of Zechariah's song (or Mary's) to suggest that Rome was the enemy from which the faithful would be delivered.

Second, Caesar's kingship was ordained by Yahweh. He was not a counterfeit king. He was the real deal. As king, Caesar was not a rival to Jesus. Rome's rulership was ordained by Yahweh. True, it was about to go bad and pass away. But the Jews had no business seeing Rome qua Rome as an enemy or Caesar as a rival king. This is part of NTW 's mistake, I believe. Jesus comes as the FULFILLMENT not only of the Davidic Promises, but also in fulfillment of the world emperor typology. Jesus becomes not merely a new Israelite monarch over the land of Israel, but the world emperor.

eric.m.parker said...

Pastor Meyers,

Concerning your two points:

1. I agree. We're all kinda relying on our favorite Grammatical-Historical hermeneutic.

2. I agree. Once again we have to distinguish between what was truly the case and what the Jews thought was the case. Like I said above, I think Wright is playing off of this, pointing out that no one expected what Jesus did, and implying that even Caesar needs to bow the knee to King Jesus.

I'm not sure if Wright says that Caesar is a counterfeit king. Just that the Jews thought he was. Once again, after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection things changed - hence Paul's call to submit to the authorities in Rom. 13.

I think I mostly agree with you. I'd just like to give Wright a bit more credit. He's really helped me put things into context. Down here in MS everyone is looking for anything that sounds fishy in order to hang him. They're trying to brainwash me : )

Eric P.

Jeff Meyers said...


Great! Look, I like NTW. A lot. I'm not trying to hang him. I just disagree with him on this point. His commentary on Romans is the best. His massive studies on the Gospels have been extremely helpful to me. No problems. It's just this one point. Well, there's a few things about his formulation of justification, but that's another issue.

Thanks again!

eric.m.parker said...

Pastor Meyers,

Thanks for the discussion. I've enjoyed your blog, writings, etc. Hope to talk with you some more.


BTW: NTW was on the Cobert Report last night. Nothing too special ... it was pretty funny though.

Daniel Olson said...

I have enjoyed reading this discussion and would like to add my two cents.

You said, "Caesar's kingship was ordained by Yahweh. He was not a counterfeit king. He was the real deal. As king, Caesar was not a rival to Jesus. Rome's rulership was ordained by Yahweh. True, it was about to go bad and pass away. But the Jews had no business seeing Rome qua Rome as an enemy or Caesar as a rival king."

I think this is true and not true. Caesar was ordained by God, but he overstepped his authority--claiming divinity, spreading the idea that Roman rule will bring peace and prosperity, promoting salvation by the State. Caesar in this sense is a counterfeit, rival king. Emperor worship was a problem in the Roman world. Saying "Jesus is King and there is no other name by which we may be saved" was not just a spiritual thing to say, but also political.

Ken said...

Stumbled across your site as it was linked by a friend. Good discussion here. I agree that NTW is very helpful in many areas - he's the kind of guy you want on your team - but using the exile as an interpretive lens becomes starkly reductionistic.

Also - I was at the talk on sacraments at General Assembly. Though provoking presentations by all of you. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I thought emperor worship didn't come around until later.

Daniel Olson said...

"I thought emperor worship didn't come around until later."

I don't know how wide spread emperor worship was at this time, but in 44 B.C. Julius Caesar had a statue with an inscription that said "unconquered god".

"Julius Cæsar allowed a statue of himself with the inscription, Deo Invicto (Latin "to the unconquered god") in 44 BC. In the same year, Cæsar declared himself dictator for life. Julius Cæsar's nephew and adopted son, Augustus Cæsar constructed a temple built in Rome dedicated to Divus Julius, the "divine", or "deified" Julius. This was an act that consolidated Augustus' power, since he was the (adopted) son of the deified Julius, he became titled divi filius—son of a god."

John said...

Jeff, you wrote: "NTW thinks that Israel are still in exile under the Romans who are the enemies."

It's true that NTW does think of Israel as still waiting for the full restoration from exile. But does he really think that the Romans are the enemies?

On the contrary, doesn't NTW stress in Jesus and the Victory of God that Jesus came to fight the true enemies of Israel and that those enemies are Satan and his hosts?

See JVG, pp. 446ff., and especially pp. 451ff. On p. 451, for instance, the heading reads: "The Real Enemy Identified: not Rome, but the Satan."

Jeff Meyers said...

John: you know the answer to this question. Yes, NTW says the real enemy is Satan. But he effectively equates Satan's oppression with Rome's rule. Read his For Everyone commentaries. References to human "enemies" in the Gospel texts refer to Rome. Israel in in exile under Rome (Satan's instrument). I'm not questioning Satan's status as enemy #1. I'm challenging the idea that the real human enemy of the people of God at the time of Jesus is Rome.

JD Linton said...

Wow, great dialogue. Very interesting. I almost fear to put my two cents in, but you know "fools rush in . . ." In the book of Acts, it appears that Luke is clearly portraying the unbelieving Jews as the enemy and Rome as the protector. This may be a bit anachronistic, but since Acts is the second volume to the gospel of Luke, it is somewhat helpful to read this mindset back into Luke.

Jeff Meyers said...

David: yes indeed. I think you are exactly right. Thanks for adding that!