Rowan Williams on the Continuity-in-Discontinuity of Theological History (Re)writing

Rowan Williams“By the time the first texts in the New Testament were being written, Christians were aware of tensions over whether they still shared the same identity as Jews; there were no short answers (there still aren’t in some important respects).  There was, they believed, fulfillment; there was also redefinition.  And while these texts were being written and developed and responded to, the dramatic events which marked the end of Jewish political independence (the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) added a further element in Christian interpretation, with some long and unhappy consequences.

Thus what we read in the New Testament is not a simple record of what happened, but also a hugely creative and innovative attempt to make one story out of a set of memories that covers events of great disruptive force.  Jesus brings the earlier history to a climax, yet in such a way that the history is seen quite differently; what mattes in the earlier story will be different depending on the point of view of the telling, and passages and incidents that did not necessarily occupy the foreground now take on fresh significance.  This, incidentally, is why Jewish-Christian dialogue can be very complicated:  the Christian will read Hebrew Scripture looking for answers to questions that the Jewish reader isn’t asking.  But the point is that the New Testament writers know quite well that they have to present a story that is both coherent in essential ways and yet does justice to the novelty of what happens in the life and death of Jesus.  They cannot unequivocally say either yes or no to the history of God’s people as the Hebrew Scripture they were reading sets it out.

In this, they are doing nothing that is not already happening in the Old Testament itself, which goes on rewriting its own history.  Look, for example, at Hosea 1:4, where the massacre of Jezreel, implicitly celebrated elsewhere as the triumph of orthodox faith over idolatry, is roundly condemned.  Because God works in a long and varied historical process, the perspective within the Hebrew Scriptures is necessarily one that is constantly developing and moving; if Jesus is the culmination of that process, his life and death will provoke an unprecedentedly far-reaching shift of perspective, and thus a major essay in historical revision” (Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, (pp. 6-7).