The Necessity, Problems, and Promise of Second Temple Judaism for Discussions of New Testament Eschatology

By Helyer, Larry R. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Necessity, Problems, and Promise of Second Temple Judaism for Discussions of New Testament Eschatology

Helyer, Larry R., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The study of second Temple Judaism has reframed evangelical biblical theology. The reason is the presupposition of this paper: Jesus and his apostles read the sacred Scriptures of Israel through the lens of second Temple Judaism.1 As the world of second Temple Judaism has become better understood, so has the background and thought of the NT.

NT writers, at numerous points, reveal that they are reading the OT in line with traditional readings derived from second Temple Judaism. My esteemed mentor, Dr. David Hubbard, used to illustrate the point by saying that the train of revelation, at the end of the OT, enters an intertestamental tunnel. Upon reemerging in the NT period, it obviously carries additional cargo.2

For example, NT writers adopt an eschatological framework, which, though rooted in the OT, receives considerable development and elaboration in the literature of the second Temple. Whereas the OT depicts God's saving activity as culminating in a climactic Day of the Lord by at least the first century BC, apocalyptic Judaism views redemptive history as unfolding in a two ages framework, "this age," inaugurated by creation, and "the age to come," inaugurated by the Day of the Lord (1 Enoch 71:15; cf. 48:7). The distinctive Christian modification of this framework, traceable to Jesus himself, is the notion of the overlap between the ages, whereby we have inaugurated eschatology, the concept of the "now, but not yet."3

Already in 1930, Geerhardus Vos is alert to the importance of the two ages concept for Pauline eschatology.4 Did Paul inductively derive this concept solely from the Old and New Testaments? Not likely, since he was well aware of this strand of teaching deriving from extra-canonical Jewish apocalyptic. According to Vos, "The usage of both terms in Paul leaves the impression that the antithesis is not of the Apostle's own coining."5 After examining this expression in the teachings of Jesus, Vos concludes: "We would thus seem to be forced down to the Jewish period about contemporary to Jesus and Paul for reliable attestation of the existence of the terminology, always keeping in mind that it must be somewhat older than this time in view of the easy way in which Paul handles it."6 Modern scholarship pushes the origins of this concept back into the second century BC, if not earlier. Furthermore, Vos was obviously influenced by the scholarship of men like Wilhelm Bousset, R. H. Charles, Gustaf Dalman, Hugo Gressmann, and Paul VoIz, to name but a few, all of whom were well versed in Jewish literature of the second Temple period and made use of it in explaining NT thought. Oscar Cullmann, Werner Kümmel, Herman Ridderbos, George Beasley-Murray, and George Ladd, among others, have continued to advocate this eschatological framework for understanding the NT. Many would now agree that Ernst Käsemann's epigrammatic statement, "apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology," contains a good deal of truth.7

George Ladd's work, in particular, has been influential among evangelical NT scholars. Perhaps no single theologian has been more responsible for the shift from classic to progressive dispensationalism than Ladd. The reason is not hard to find. Classical dispensationalism's airtight distinction between Israel and the church, exemplified, for example, in the distinction drawn between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God, seems oddly "out of sync" in light of the "now, but not yet" inaugurated eschatology of Ladd. Not surprisingly, classical dispensationalists criticize progressive dispensationalists on precisely this point. The notion that Jesus Christ is now reigning on the Davidic throne undermines the foundation of classical dispensationalism, namely the sharp distinction between Israel and the Church.8

Second, exegetical traditions arising in the welter of second Temple Judaism surface in NT texts. I can provide only a sketch.

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The Necessity, Problems, and Promise of Second Temple Judaism for Discussions of New Testament Eschatology


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