Reading the Gospels without Israel

One of the concrete ways that Christians misread the Gospels is by reading them without reference to Israel’s story.  When we open the pages of the New Testament, we are not encountering a beginning.  The Gospels are part of another story that is already well on its way.  They claim to bring the story of Israel to its completion—the story of the God of Israel and his relation to his people and his commitment to reclaim the nations through them.

N. T. Wright elaborates on this missing element in Christians readings of the Gospels:

The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven’t been careful, simply as God’s answer to the plight of the human race in general.  The implied backstory hasn’t been the story of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets; it’s been the story of Adam and Eve, of “Everyman,” sinning and dying and needing to be redeemed.  Israel’s story sneaks in alongside, in this version, in order merely to offer some advance promises, some hints and signposts.  But the story of Israel itself, for most modern readers of the Bible, is to be quietly left aside.  It was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  It seems, after all, to be so dark—such a failure, such a disappointment. . .

But when we turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John we discover that they at least think it’s important to re-tell the history of Israel and to show that the story of Jesus is the story in which that long history, warts and all, reaches its God-ordained climax (p. 67).

The gospel writers saw the events concerning Jesus, particularly his kingdom-inaugurating life, death, and resurrection, not just as isolated events to which remote prophets might have distantly pointed.  They saw those events as bringing the long story of Israel to its proper goal, even though that long story had apparently become lost, stuck, and all but forgotten (p. 73).

But why is the story of Israel so important?

In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world.  The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam.  Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy.  What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world.  That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders.  Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament (pp. 73-74).

8 thoughts on “Reading the Gospels without Israel

  1. greekUNorthodox

    This is a really great point, but I have found that it is also a really hard point to get across to people who aren’t yet thinking along these lines. They’ll say “sure,Jesus completes Israel’s story…” but you can tell that they aren’t really grasping all the implications that such a conviction entails.

    The fact that Jesus completes Israel’s story, and not just Humanity’s story, means that the text is moving in directions that we’d miss entirely under the latter’s plot line. The story of Humanity doesn’t deal with the implications of “Temple” and “Sabbath”, what the “line of David” means for pollitical rule, or the responsibility of “image bearers” in light of Sinai’s directives towards law and worship.

    Humanity’s story line is about us being rescued while Israel’s story line is about us being rescued TO BE God’s people – and God’s people have a job to do…

    1. timgombis

      Those are huge points, greek, and I want to unpack a few of those. I agree that many miss this, but mostly because they need to see how it works in text after text in order to really see it and grasp it. It’s a very long and slow conversion and old vocabularies and worldviews don’t die easily. It takes a ‘new birth’ into a new world of thought and conception to really grasp what’s going on.

      Just pointing ahead, I think the political implications make many people actually refuse this way of reading.

  2. athanasius96

    I don’t know if Wright covers it, but I think redemption takes hold in a more immediate way when we are specific about brokenness. At least in the particular case of race, those with a theology acknowledging Jesus’ Jewish roots are more likely to appreciate the fullness of multi-ethnic redemption of all people. Likewise, if we can identify with the story of Israel (which really was one of the more ethical people groups of the ancient world), then we might realize that our rationally justified morality falls short as well.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, the story of Israel does indeed add particularities to the brokenness of humanity–and those include individual and communal sins. All of which means that redemption is both individual, communal, and utterly practical–it’s a lived reality. I think many don’t want to read the Gospels this way precisely because it means that redemption will look very practical and concrete.

  3. S Wu

    I feel that there is something really profound about God’s way of working. That is, he works through a people despite the fact that they fail him again and again.

    Another reflection is around why Israel’s place is overlooked when we come to the Gospels. I think it’s because we don’t read the Old Testament enough as a reading community. I know that the OT can be difficult to read for modern readers. But if we try to read the OT before we come to Matthew and the rest of the NT, then it’s hard to miss the importance of Israel in God’s dealing with humanity. The more we read the OT the better.

  4. John Cook


    This is a great summary of the book! I do have one observation to make, though. What exegete of the NT would disagree with Wright on these points? I had to do Book summaries for Biblical Theology this semester (fun…) and it seemed like most if not all agree with these points about the Gospels.

    I say this knowing that these books are written more for laypeoples (I guess I answered my own question…), which I see the immense value of bringing everyone up to speed and on the same page. I may be overlooking something here though, I tend to be sheltered from the opposing view (like when I made the observation of “who actually hates Paul?” and was surprised to find out that there are quite a few). So please, any feedback would be greatly appreciated! 🙂

    At any rate, I wanted to poke my head in and say that I really enjoyed this concise summary of the book. I look forward to continue reading more of your material.

    Grace and Peace

    1. timgombis

      Hey John,

      Wright is indeed getting at pervasive popular readings of the Gospels, though if you looked at commentaries on the Gospels a generation ago, you’d scarcely find mention of what Wright is hitting on. With the rise of narrative methodologies in a range of fields, along with theological readings, this emphasis has been renewed.

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