Who Was Jesus? Paperback – 21 Jan 2005
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-- Calvin Theological Journal"A gem. . . . Instead of buying and reading one of the avant-garde portraits of Jesus discussed by Wright, spend your money and time more wisely with this witty and devout rebuttal and alternate portrait."-- Image"In eighteen pages, Wright provides the nonspecialist with more useful information about the research on the history of Jesus than most seminarians know at graduation. . . . This book will provide reliable guidance for those wanting to better understand who Jesus really was and what he was about."
"-- Calvin Theological Journal"
"A gem. . . . Instead of buying and reading one of the avant-garde portraits of Jesus discussed by Wright, spend your money and time more wisely with this witty and devout rebuttal and alternate portrait."
"In eighteen pages, Wright provides the nonspecialist with more useful information about the research on the history of Jesus than most seminarians know at graduation. . . . This book will provide reliable guidance for those wanting to better understand who Jesus really was and what he was about." --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
About the Author
Tom Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of over fifty books, including the For Everyone guides to the New Testament, the highly acclaimed series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, and the best-selling Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, Virtue Reborn, Simply Jesus and How God Became King (all published by SPCK).
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But there seems to be method to Wright's mildness. As an alternative to the fumbling and bumbling of his protagonists, he offers a simple and readable description of who he has found the historical Jesus to be. Their errors prove a useful foil for explaining the methods and conclusions of legitimate New Testament scholarship. Wright's critiques of those with whom he disagrees are always a delight -- he shows a sincere appreciation for what is worthwhile, then refutes errors with wit and the gentle precision that comes of great intellectual power matched to thorough knowledge of the subject.
The subject here is Jesus, a fox in pursuit of whom academic hounds have banged their heads on many trees. Wright rightly follows him to the cross. "The Christian doctrine is all about a different kind of God -- a God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human . . . To say that Jesus is in some sense God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God."
I think Wright over-emphasizes the genius of Biblical scholarship. He tends to give the impression that nobody knew anything worth knowing about Jesus, until the question was brought to the attention of modern academics. Having read many "Jesus Seminar" books, I think credentialed scholars like Crossan, Borg, Mack, and Pagels, are often as foolish as Wilson -- and less truly knowledgeable about the historical Jesus than the average Pentacostal grandmother.
Wright also knocks C. S. Lewis for his "odd" criticism of the "quest for Jesus" as "the work of the devil," in the Screwtape Letters. Aside from the unfairness of ignoring the humor in a satire, I think the substance of Lewis' arguments, made more seriously in Fernseed and Elephants, is entirely sound, and makes an excellent critique of many recent historical Jesus reconstructions. I think Wright's historical reconstruction, and Lewis' literary critique of shoddy skeptical arguments, complement one another nicely.
In sum, I recommend this book both for people who have been bamboozled by the particular works it refutes, and also as an antidote to recent works of a similar nature, like the Da Vinci Code, Jesus Mysteries, The Jesus Puzzle, or perhaps Elaine Pagel's new book, Beyond Belief. I am working on a book that will combine Wright and Lewis' approaches, to answer recent attacks on the Gospels.
author, Jesus and the Religions of Man /
N. T. Wright, one of the world's leading biblical scholars, has provided in Who Was Jesus? a potent antidote to the faddish output of several popular characterizations of Jesus making the rounds in press reports at the time it was written. With clarity and power, he destroys the arguments of popular revisionist arguments with comparative ease. By placing Jesus in the proper historical and cultural setting, the pet theories of various contributors to the radical fringe in studies of the historical Jesus are found to owe more to the temperaments and cultural presuppositions of the writers than anything likely to relate to the true life and times of Jesus. As a leading figure in the study into the historical and cultural settings of the New Testament, Wright could never be accused of putting his head in the sand. However, Wright insists an understanding of the complex interplay of cultures in fist century Judea is essential to grasping the true meaning of the New Testament writings,
Wright begins with an overview of the quest among scholars for the historic Jesus. While sympathetic to the goals of many of these investigations, he points out they are often as guided by their own prejudices as many forms of traditional Christian belief. The beliefs of many Christians about Jesus may be distorted at points but they are not without historical basis. Indeed, the beliefs of the Church certainly have a greater correspondence with the historical realities of the time than the pet theories of many revisionists. Wright assures traditional believers that any honest investigation into the Jesus of history should leave them with a more robust faith - not a weaker one.
Wright then turns to the particular projects of three major revisionists: Barbara Thiering, A.N. Wilson, and John Shelby Spong. Rather than dismissing them outright, Wright takes the path of considering their ideas seriously and applying the same critical analysis to them given to any serious scholarly hypothesis. In many ways this proves to be even more devastating, as rather than attempting a knockout blow, Wright counters their arguments with surgical precision and leaves their novelties to die of a thousand cuts. Thiering is particularly skewered as both a proper historical understanding of Judaism at the time and archeological discoveries of the period refute her concept of a coded pesher language in the New Testament. Once Wright is finished, her theories are exposed as little more than figments of a fertile imagination. Of the three, Wright shows the most empathy for Wilson for at least attempting to place Jesus within Judaism, but the rather bland figure from Wilson's account could hardly have been expected to found a movement to concern both Jewish and Roman authorities. Wilson's peculiar explanation of the Easter event (the Apostles mistook James for Jesus) comes in for severe criticism as an ad hoc conjecture giving no likely explanation for subsequent events. Spong is calmly refuted as simply taking part in a discussion over his head. Spong tries to paint the Gospels as an exercise in midrash , but as in Thiering's use of pesher, the description does not meet the reality. Spong simply has no idea what midrash is and misapplies it in an attempt to make the Gospels say something they do not. The critique by Wright in all three cases leaves the respective theories lying in ashes.
Wright finishes with an outline of the major points in an honest evaluation of the historical evidence about Jesus. First, the events chronicled in the Gospels must be understood in the context of a Judaism that had endured the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and their being taken into captivity, the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem under Persian rule, the attempts to Hellenize the Jews under Greek dominance, and the current humiliations of pagan Roman occupation. It was these Jews, looking for the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies, to which Jesus came. The Gospels themselves must be understood within the literary forms of first century Judea. The language of the New Testament must not be read within a flat literalism but examined within the particular form in question. By moving forwards from first century Judaism and backwards from the Gospel, we are most likely to grasp the true Jesus. Most importantly, Wright sees nothing in such an endeavor to threaten the Jesus of faith. Wright even suggests the New Testament accounts of the resurrection make little sense as a developed tradition - unless it actually happened.
N. T. Wright has issued a challenge to both believers and skeptics alike for a greater appreciation of historical and cultural settings when interpreting the Gospel. Who Was Jesus? is a wonderful introduction to such a study and ideal for anyone looking to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of various theories commonly promoted in the national media. It also may serve as a primer for Wright's own more scholarly work. As a summary of the state (at the time of its writing) of modern scholarship into the historic Jesus, it is highly recommended.
I use the term popular in two ways. The first is that the scholars that Dr. Wright critiques have made quite a name for themselves in the media, both print and broadcast. Their thoughts have been sought as intellectual additions to articles and shows meant for a general audience. I also use the term popular as opposed to academic, for their theories and thoughts are not placed primarily in academic publications for professional perusal, but rather they seek to convince those without very much training. And for good reason. Although fascinating and occasionally original, the thoughts that are being put forth are without much academic merit. And thus, we have Tom Wright responding in a clear, though also popular, manner to their theses. He begins by giving a very brief overview of the recent history of the Quests for the Historical Jesus, thereby helping to place these recent writers within an historical context. Following this he takes a look at three different recent examiners of the life of Christ and points out why their arguments about who Jesus was are deficient.
Wright is engaged in a noble goal. While it is for him a condescension to deal with these unscholarly portraits, it is a service which can do great good. In an era of pluralism, it is vital that Christians express who Christ really was, what he really did, and what he really requires. Faulty descriptions and claims of the life of Jesus can influence the thought of those who have not studied the relevant issues, and can cause insensitivity to the truth. These portraits are made popular not because of their scholarly worthiness, but because they are daring to strike at what is sacred for many people. It is not worth the time or effort to attempt to get angry at these people, rather Tom Wright shows us that what is more effective is simply to dismiss them by the same rules and standards which they want to assert. Their claims are not just spiritually disturbing, they are also academically without merit, and this should be made known.