Until recently (writes N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God), it was generally assumed that ‘repentance’ was a major theme in the teaching of Jesus, and that this meant more or less the negative side of personal conversion. His message was one of divine grace, in contrast to the prevailing legalism of Judaism. It is now ‘widely recognised’, says Wright, that this involved a ‘complete caricature’, both of Judaism and of the teaching of Jesus. In reaction, scholars such as E.P. Sanders have claimed that repentance played little part in Jesus’ teaching.
Wright agrees that Jesus did not ask for repentance in the ‘traditional’ sense, but asserts that there is an important sense in which he did demand it. In a number of texts, says Wright, repentance is ‘what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end.’ It is a national return to the Lord, leading to forgiveness and restoration, in the spirit of Deut 30:2,8. The great prayers of repentance of Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 are precisely prayers that seek to bring about return from exile [at this point, Wright anticipates the rather obvious objection that the return from exile has already taken place in all three of these books by saying that the people are seeking a ‘real return’].
This eschatological meaning of repentance is found in contemporaneous Jewish literature, says Wright. This would speak of Israel’s ‘repentance’ as a condition of her liberation from the Romans and the ‘real’ end of her exile. It was only later that a non-eschatological, pietistic meaning became attached to the term.
Jesus, according to Wright, was using ‘repentance’ in an eschatological sense, as he taught what the people must do in the light of the arrival of God’s kingdom; what they must do now that God had visited his people and was restoring their fortunes. And this would entail an abandonment of revolutionary zeal.
To be sure, Wright does not exclude the notion of personal repentance, but this receives considerably less emphasis and attention in his exposition.
In his review of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, Robert Stein remarks that Wright emphasises the corporate and national aspects of repentance and forgiveness, at the expense of the personal and individual. The nation is to repent of its desire for the violent overthrown of the Romans.
‘Yet,’ (writes Stein) ‘Jesus, in justifying his eating with tax-collectors and sinners, states that he has come to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). Surely one would not associate a revolutionary desire to overthrow Rome with tax-collectors. These were collaborators. Whereas we may tend to err in neglecting the corporate nature of many Biblical texts by emphasizing the need for individual response, Wright so emphasizes the corporate nature of many of these texts that he neglects (or at least minimizes) their individualistic dimension.’
Similarly, for Wright, ‘forgiveness of sins’, while not excluding a personal dimension, has more to do with the state of the nation as a whole. Indeed, ‘forgiveness of sins’ is tantamount to ‘return from exile’.
As Stein comments: ‘clearly, however, this is at best an overstatement. There is much in the Gospels concerning the great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents and receives forgiveness (Luke 15:7, 10). It is difficult to see in Jesus’ forgiving the paralytic’s sins (Mark 2:1–12), in his forgiving of the sinful woman (Luke 7:36–50), in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), and in all the accounts of the forgiving of sinners the theme of the return of the nation from exile as being more central than the forgiveness of these individuals. Furthermore, what do we do with such references as Pss 25:18; 32:1, 5; 38:18; 51:2–3; 103:3, 10; 130:4, that speak of individual forgiveness, and the individual sacrifices for forgiveness described in Lev 4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22 and Num 15:27–28.’