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4.0 out of 5 stars Paving the way for Jesus scholarship of the 21st Century, 11 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: v. 2 (Christian Origins & the Question of God) (Paperback)
Tom Wright cannot be accused of setting his sights too low: in his (projected six-volume) Christian Origins and the Question of God series, he is endeavouring to revise the nature of historical Jesus scholarship, the context of Pauline studies (in particular in the field of justification), the reading of the synoptic evangelists, and even the hermeneutics of New Testament scholarship itself - and this is on top of writing an average of eight popular books a year! Wright began his series with The New Testament and the People of God, setting the scene (and also the tone) for the subsequent volumes, proceeding under the banner of what he refers to as a `Critical Realist' hermeneutic (essentially steering a path between the naivety of positivism, and the overly critical nature of much contemporary New Testament scholarship). That first volume was an attempt at putting the emergence of the early Christian community in a proper historical context, setting in his critical sights the accounts which he views as either contextually overly similar (i.e. a Jewish community with little or no distinction from the Palestinian Judaism out of which it developed) or overly dissimilar (i.e. a Mystery Cult that is simply another variation of Near Eastern paganism). By creating a compelling image of 1st Century Judaism - with an emphasis on the diversity of reactions to the central notion of continued (spiritual) exile - Wright was able to thus present the early Christians as both inhabiting, and yet also expanding upon, traditional Jewish narrative categories, without the cost of losing that essential Jewishness.

What Wright's first volume did with the early Christians, Jesus and the Victory of God attempts to do with historical Jesus scholarship; and what's more, it is an impressive attempt. In this volume, Wright is revisiting and adapting what he calls a `Third Quest for the Historical Jesus' - another adventure in getting behind the texts to see the `real' Jesus; nonetheless, unlike many other contemporaries doing a similar thing, Wright is broadly respectful of the intentions of the texts themselves. There is no sense of conspiracy - of the synoptic evangelists trying to cover up the real nature of Jesus - nor of some kind of unexpected (though largely undocumented) radical change within the early Christian community. Instead, Wright approaches his subject in what would seem to be the most logical procedure: if this is the Jewish context in which Jesus lived, and knowing the individual theological purposes of the Synoptic Evangelists, to what extent do the accounts of these Evangelists `fit' with the contextual evidence? Does the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke really look and sound like a 1st Century Jew of the 20s-30s? And if so, what does that say about the nature of the Synoptic Gospels themselves? If the Jesus they portray does `fit' into this context, is there more to their portrayal than simply attributing it to theological construction? In other words, could it not be the case that the manner of their portrayals of Jesus and his mission actually originated with Jesus himself? It is this respect for the nature of the texts that enables him to deflect the criticisms of those who would decry him for writing a `Fifth Gospel', a meta-gospel that would enable us to dispense with the previous four.

Wright raises some interesting points. Firstly, for Jesus to truly have an impact on the Judaism of his day - an impact great enough to have him hated by the Jewish authorities, subsequently killed by the Roman authorities, and cause his followers to proclaim him as Messiah after his death - he must have both radical and charismatic, both in teaching and mission. As such, Wright argues that neither the peasant Jewish Cynic-philosophy of pithy, witty aphorisms beloved of the Jesus Seminar, nor the Orthodox Jewish rabbi of the post-Holocaust scholarly reaction, would have made much of an impact in his day. Simply stating Jesus as a revolutionary may have got him killed by the Romans, that neither explains the Jewish opposition, nor the subsequent Christian theological development. Wright greatly respects Marcus Borg's portrayal of Jesus as the non-violent Jewish prophet-mystic, but parts grounds with him over several key points, many of which are unfolded over the course of the book - though mainly over the issue of the Messianic.

Wright's solution to the problems inherent in contemporary Jesus scholarship is to present a hypothesis of Jesus as a self-conscious Messianic figure, ending Israel's exile through recreating Israel - and thus the Temple - around himself. In order to do this, Jesus creates a middle-ground between the Pharisees and Essenes, and between the extremities of collaboration with the Roman occupation and violent reaction against it (which he recognises as leading to the destruction of Israel). This is a mission that ends with a journey to Jerusalem, embodying in himself the return of YHWH - but a journey he nonetheless realises will end in his own sacrificial death if he is to be the true Israel and the true Temple. For Wright's hypothesis, all of Jesus' teachings, his actions and the trajectory of his vocation revolve around the notion that God is ending the exile through the person of himself, and thus subsequently subverting all other groups and viewpoints. Yes, I realise this is traditional substitution theology, but the question must therefore arise (which is not addressed explicitly in Jesus and the Victory of God): why did the early Christians view Jesus in substitutionary terms? Rather than pass it off as the disciples' (or a later Christian) reaction to the inexplicability of the death of the Messiah, through careful analysis of Jesus praxis and teachings in the light of the 1st Century Jewish worldview, could it not be the case that substitutionary theology originated with Jesus himself? Wright painstakingly studies how each of the events of Jesus' life - in both praxis and aural teaching - can be read in the light of this hypothesis, which can make for repetitive but still enlightening reading. He wears his scholarship lightly on his sleeve, and makes a compelling case (though I still have my hesitancies about how far he pushes this; see below).

Second, contemporary scholarship has often attributed much of Jesus' complex allusions to the narratives of the Old Testament, in both praxis and teaching, to the Synoptic Evangelists. Wright's basic contention with this theory is this: it once more neglects the impact that Jesus would have had in his day. Surely a figure such as Jesus, steeped in the narrative and literature of the Old Testament as he was (as any respectful reading of the Sermon on the Mount would admit) could be able to consciously allude - as well as subvert - the stories told? And surely in being the figure who inspired the Evangelists - rather than some hollow figure that they projected upon (as if such a hollow figure could truly inspire people to go to their deaths years after his own death) - Jesus would have had a much deeper sense of the resonances of the Law and prophets than even they? Wright raises the suspicion that contemporary scholarship respects the written word more than the aural - and thus this scholarship is merely projecting modern concerns and suspicions into the 1st Century.

Third, Wright takes a swipe at overly critical readings of Jesus' portrayal within the gospels - in particular those of the Jesus Seminar - by asking the question, `Why would the Gospel writers (or the early Christian community) invent these sayings?' For instance, to give one example, why would the early church invent the accusations given against Jesus of being possessed by the Satan, and thus the subsequent reply that follows? Wright contends that much of these overly critical readings tend to view the sayings and parables most acceptable to modern audiences as `authentic' whilst dismissing the more difficult readings. As such, he accuses many of his contemporaries, in typical 19th Century Liberal style, of merely projecting contemporary political, moral and social concerns onto Jesus. On the note of disparities between the gospels of Jesus' sayings, Wright argues that Jesus, in true rabbinical fashion, probably said the same teachings more than once, in different contexts, which in themselves would develop minor Post-Easter variations. This takes away much of the sting of the accusation that the sayings have been changed to such a degree from originally uttered that we cannot tell whether Jesus said it in this form or not; by originating the disparities with Jesus himself, Wright avoids both the fundamentalist desire for a stretched harmony between the gospels, and also the radical critics of the gospels' historical accuracy.

Nevertheless, despite my overall praise for Wright's hypothesis and painstaking scholarly effort, I have several reservations. Primarily, I feel that Wright's `Critical Realism' sometimes loses its `critical' edge. Though Wright never lapses into positivism - he always reads the historical resonances in each example he gives - there is a sense in which Wright tries too hard in justifying his hypothesis. For instance, he spends much time analysing the dialogue between Caiaphas and Jesus, and fascinatingly brings out the historical - and theological - resonances within the text. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that the Gospels present this as a private trial at night. As such, we must ask the question: who was watching? Who could have recorded - or at least memorised - the events that took place? There was the Sanhedrin, the Temple guards, and a few servants; now we may hypothesise that some of the figures there eventually turned to the nascent Christian faith, or the Resurrected Christ subsequently informed his followers about the events in the trial, but this is obviously a hypothesis too far. Wright skirts over the problem. I suspect that it may be the case that Wright has allowed his theological desire for scriptural infallibility to get in the way of his historical readings.

One almost desires that at certain occasions Wright admit to passages or sayings being either invented or at least thoroughly re-written by the Evangelists. I understand Wright's desire to react against the excesses of the Jesus Seminar and other radical critical readings, but his overly positive view of the Evangelists' account becomes both somewhat tiring (one can quite often predict in advance how a certain passage will be read), and also short sighted. If Wright's scholarship is to shift the centre ground of Jesus scholarship away from radical criticism, then this over-reaction will later itself be criticised as pandering to both conservative and radical readings of the Bible.

Secondarily, I must turn to Wright's criticisms of other scholars projecting contemporary needs backwards. Although Wright readily admits of the provisional nature of his study (and therefore I would expect would welcome criticism such as mine), one has the suspicion that, fifteen years on, there is a strong element of projection in his hypothesis, arising from the political situation in Britain in the 1990s. Wright presents his own account as a Third Way between the extremities of Schweitzer and Wrede; he presents his account of Jesus as a Third Way between Zealot and Pharisee, collaborator and revolutionary. Considering Wright's broadly left-wing political sympathies, as well as the timing of the writing of this book (first published in 1996), one cannot help but be reminded of the emergence in Britain of Tony Blair, New Labour and the `Third Way' of politics between the extremities of Thatcherism and Socialism. Nevertheless, as it will take a longer period of distancing in time to see whether there is any substance to this suspicion, one cannot make too much of such a claim.

My final point is neither criticism, nor praise, but warning: to what extent is the Jesus as portrayed by Wright worthy of worship? Although Wright continually emphasises that the Jesus he presents is not egocentric nor delusional considering the Jewish context - and the historical similarities with both earlier and later figures - one cannot help but be reminded of the quip about politicians: `Anyone who decides to be in a position of such immense power and responsibility has to have something wrong with them, and why should I trust the running of the country in such a stunted human being?' A similar thought applies to the reconstructed historical Jesus as present by Wright: human beings are human beings, and no matter what their historical context certain attributes always rise to the surface. In the light of Wright's kenotic perspective on Jesus' divine consciousness, to what extent can we view the Jesus who views himself as the embodiment of YHWH returning to Jerusalem as the same Eternal Son who views equality with God as something that cannot be grasped, and thus truly humbled himself even unto death? In other words, does believing yourself to be the embodiment of God really sound humble? The defence may arise that it is in being the Word incarnate that Jesus' humility is located, but this is to skirt the issue. This may be to place the issue in its most extreme and exaggerated perspective, but one begins to realise that in the light of thorough historical criticism, and the realisation of the incarnation taking place within thorough historical contingency, the literal Resurrection is thoroughly necessary, that the vindication of Jesus is theologically required. Otherwise, how can we in good conscience present the man Jesus as truly worthy of our worship? This is perhaps why Wright himself states that if the Resurrection did not happen, then he'd forget the whole enterprise - hence the writing of the third volume of the series, The Resurrection of the Son of God (proving once more the inter-connected nature of theology and historical criticism).

To reiterate, this is not to criticise Wright's historical method for presenting us with such a Jesus. As a historical reconstruction of the life and context of Jesus of Nazareth, Wright's study is - to use that overly used term - magisterial, and surely ranks with some of the great works of New Testament scholarship of the modern era, even if this is judged merely by the breadth of scholarship and the fecundity of hermeneutical insight. Instead, my acknowledging of these problems is to make us aware, once more, of the difficulties historical criticism still raises for modern Christians. In Wright's account, one can historically see how in the light of the figure of Jesus how New Testament theology could have developed, and therefore subsequently how Orthodoxy stands on good historical grounds (another nail hammered into Harnack's coffin). Yet in spite of this, historical developments do not necessarily entail theological truths, and vice versa. The problems inherent within New Testament historical reconstruction are still present: even in Wright's moderately conservative (and textually respectful) form it raises large issues for contemporary theology, about the nature of what has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
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