A Narrative Theology of the New Testament: Exploring the Metanarrative of Exile and Restoration

Written by Timo Eskola Reviewed By L. Michael Morales

With his most recent work Timo Eskola, New Testament scholar at the Theological Institute of Finland and Privatdozent at the University of Helsinki, investigates how the metanarrative of Israel’s exile and restoration provides a consistent theological context within which to understand the New Testament writings more deeply. Although the fruitful studies of restoration eschatology by E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright are foundational to his proposal, he also adjusts and amends their viewpoints along the way. Restoration eschatology’s essential tenet is that, despite the return from captivity via Cyrus’s edict, Israel had not yet experienced the prophesied restoration; that is, even for Jews living in Judea, Israel yet remained in spiritual exile. Fundamental to Israel’s hope of restoration, furthermore, was the arrival of the Son of David who would end the curse of exile and build the eschatological temple (the destruction of the first temple being the core symbol of the exile). This point then provides the basis for Jesus’s self-understanding and mission, and becomes the narrative backdrop for how the New Testament unfolds its Christology. Stated differently, the long-awaited restoration of Israel becomes the literary context for understanding the significance and accomplishment of Jesus. Eskola’s aim, then, is to build upon restoration scholarship in order to test its explanatory power for the New Testament as a whole. By focusing on the metanarrative of exile and restoration as the major integrating principle, he endeavors to synthesize the theology of the New Testament.

A Narrative Theology of the New Testament opens with a chapter given to introductory matters, followed by four substantial chapters and a summary conclusion. In addition to a bibliography section, three indices are provided for ancient sources, authors, and subjects.

Chapter one outlines the purpose and method of narrative theology, discussing the relationship between history and narrative, and the role of semiotics and signification processes. Here Eskola also provides a brief summary of scholarship on restoration eschatology, along with more recent developments, including that of temple criticism.

“Jesus’ Message” (chapter two) covers a wide array of topics: exile and restoration, Son of David as builder of the eschatological temple, the time of tribulation that marks the end of the exile, God’s royal jubilee, priestly purity, the Lord’s Supper as a priestly meal, and the suffering Messiah—each with four to six sub-topics. The opening section surveys the impact of the historical exile upon the formation of Jewish and Christian theology, and develops the concept of spiritual exile as an ongoing condition of the people. The other sections investigate major events and teachings in the life of Jesus in relation to this theology; for example, how by his triumphant entry Jesus had performed a prophetic act which, given the eschatology of Zechariah (8:3; 9:9), served as a symbol for the restoration of Jerusalem. Jesus’s teaching on righteousness and his demand for perfect commitment to God’s covenant, to take another example, are positioned within the restoration expectations that God would renew Israel unto holy obedience, enabling his people to live out their Shema confession.

lness of the restoration paradigm for explaining and even shedding new light on Paul’s thinking. Pauline topics such as Davidic messianism, the Holy Spirit, adoption as God’s children, and Torah obedience, are found to fit well within the context of restoration eschatology. Eskola here critiques covenantal nomism in a helpful manner, promoting the “old” perspective on justification (pp. 328–41). By an intriguing connection between Jesus’s opposition toward the temple and Paul’s criticism toward “works of the law” (erga nomou), Eskola argues for a closer affinity between Paul’s theology and Jesus’s teaching—a potential boon for Pauline studies.

In the final chapter (“Jewish Christianity) before his conclusion, Eskola examines Hebrews, James, the letters of Peter, and the Johannine corpus in light of restoration eschatology. While his treatment of James, using the eschatological jubilee as a backdrop, was not entirely convincing, his exploration of Revelation under the themes of release for the tribes of Israel, the enthronement of David, and the re-establishing of the garden-temple, rounded out his study in a particularly persuasive manner. Rightly, he melds the restoration from Israel’s exile with that of humanity’s from Eden. The conclusion then highlights the fruits of Eskola’s project, such as allowing the new perspective on Jesus to correct some of the inconsistencies of the new perspective on Paul.

In terms of drawbacks, this volume would have benefited from a stronger editorial hand; typos and grammatical infelicities abound. More substantively, some of his connections between the historical context of Second Temple Judaism and New Testament theology lack sufficient demonstration—a case in point would be the purported influence of merkabah mysticism on the early church’s understanding of Christ’s enthronement. Moreover, Eskola’s sound historical work would have been complimented by further exegetical work, especially on the prophetic material. For instance, an introductory section delineating the elements of the prophesied new exodus/restoration in more detail would have complemented his discussion on prevalent expectations in Second Temple Judaism and served his biblical theological aims well. His section on “Patterns of restoration” (pp. 23–30) comes nearest this desire, but lacks various elements (such as the reunification of the northern and southern kingdoms) that have been developed by others. This would also have been the place to rehearse the major motifs of the historical exodus out of Egypt (i.e., Passover), inasmuch as they feed into expectations for the second exodus. Lacking this synthesis, it is understandable why the book’s treatment of John’s gospel (pp. 399–408) neglects completely the Passover imagery of Jesus’s crucifixion, not to mention the parallel between Jesus’s first sign and that of the original exodus—which would have bolstered Eskola’s thesis.

These remarks aside, Timo Eskola is to be thanked for this work of magnitude, which others will no doubt profit from and build upon—we commend it to scholars, pastors, and theological students. Not only was A Narrative Theology of the New Testament a delight to read, but the author’s basic thesis has been demonstrated: New Testament theology is fundamentally the theology of exile and restoration.

L. Michael Morales

L. Michael Morales
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Taylors, South Carolina, USA

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