THEN THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY – NOW FACE TO FACE
(Apologies to St Paul. 1 Cor; 13.12)
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD (SPCK 1992)
and JESUS AND THE VICTORY OF GOD (SPCK 1996)
by N T Wright
This is the story of how Jesus and his Ministry have come to the centre stage in the world of the scholars. The story is told in the opening chapters of both the texts referred to above, beginning with JESUS AND THE VICTORY OF GOD.
Jesus Then and Now
Most scholars in the twentieth century have shied away from attempting a full-face portrait of Jesus; they have felt the need to distance themselves from a whole body of earlier commentaries which had portrayed Jesus in loving, but spurious detail, based on the imagination of the writers rather than on historical data. Instead, scholars have preferred to attend to the rise of the early church a generation or more after the time of the ministry of Jesus. This is because the gospel texts have been held to reflect the concerns of the evangelists themselves as they wrote for the later generations of Christians. The texts were not to be relied on, the scholars judged, as historical data concerning Jesus himself.
In his opening section of the chapter, Wright has suggested that, given the difficulties of providing an authentic full portrait of Jesus, historians and theologians alike, not to mention the ordinary devout Christian, have preferred a silhouette (an outline without detail) or an icon (an object of worship). Of those who prefer the icon, Wright says:
The Divine Saviour to whom they pray has only a tangential relationship to first-century Palestine, and they intend to keep it that way. He can, it seems, be worshipped, but if he ever actually lived he was a very strange figure, clothed in white while all around was drab, on his face a perpetually faraway expression of pious solemnity. This icon was one means by which Victorian devotion tried to cope with Enlightenment rationalism… (p.10)
* * * * *
In the next section, Wright reviews the continuing ‘Quest’ for the historical Jesus and the difficulties surrounding it. The pattern can be traced right back to the sixteenth century reformers.
Despite their desire for a church based on ‘scripture alone’, and their insistence on the literal sense of the scriptures, it may be questioned whether they ever found a satisfactory way of making literal sense of the gospels yield worthwhile results. If what was needed was clear, ‘timeless’ doctrinal and ethical teaching, one must go (so it seemed) to the epistles. The gospels must then be turned into repositories of the same ‘timeless truth’. This was achieved by treating them, not literally, as stories that were there for their own sake, but as a collection of sayings of Jesus which then became, as it were, mini-epistles; (p.13)
All this culminates, of course, in the event to which the gospels really do point, the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is to be understood not as an execution of an awkward figure who refused to stop rocking the first-century Jewish or Roman boat, but as the saving divine act whereby the sins of the world were dealt with once and for all. (pp.13/14)
So, it can be seen that
The reformers had very thorough answers to the question ‘why did Jesus die?’; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question ‘why did Jesus live?’. Their successors to this day have not done any better…If the only available answer is ‘to give some shrewed moral teaching, to live an exemplary life, and to prepare for sacrificial death’, we may be forgiven for thinking it a little lame…(p.14)
Pursuing the matter further, Wright comments:
It would not, then, be much of a caricature to say that orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry…If the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement-theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified…
It may be noted that in this last comment, Wright uses the present tense, suggesting pretty strongly that the faults of the reformers in failing to understand the significance of the historical Jesus, has carried through to the present day. Certainly, the trend continued for a century or more after the Reformation even within the privileged circle of scholars:
Within post-reformation circles, both Catholic and Protestant, there has been a general use of the gospels as sourcebooks for ethics and doctrine, for edifying tales…(but) for the church…Jesus was the Divine Christ who had redeemed the world…the icon was in place, and nobody asked whether the Christ it portrayed…was at all like the Jesus whom it claimed to represent. (pp.15/16)
Then came Reimarus (1694 – 1768) who, in the hope of destroying the credibility of Christianity itself, insisted that the same procedures used for studying the secular past should be applied to the New Testament story.
According to Reimarus:
Jesus was a Jewish reformer who became increasingly fanatical and politicised; and he failed. His cry of dereliction on the cross signalled the end of his expectation that his god would act to support him (p.16)
This, then was the beginning of the Quest for the historical Jesus:
(It) began as an explicitly anti-theological, anti-Christian, anti-dogmatic movement. Its initial agenda was not to find a Jesus upon whom Christian faith might be based, but to show that the faith of the church (as it was then conceived) could not in fact be based on the real Jesus of Nazareth. (p.17)
* * * * *
Moving forward, Wright continues:
The nineteenth century writers were, in the main, attempting to meet the critical challenge by writing lives of Jesus which seemed to have some historical grounding and yet maintained a semblance of theological, or at least religious significance. (p.19)
But (They) frequently ignored the Jewishness of Jesus, trying as hard as they could to universalize him, to make him a timeless teacher of eternal verities. (p.20)
And later again, Wright points forward to the conflicting views of William Wrede (1859 – 1906) and Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) and the succession of scholars who followed one or other of these two. The essential distinction between them concerns their respective estimates of the reliability of the historical evidence available. Wright sums it up in a question:
Do we know rather little about Jesus, with the gospels offering us a largely misleading portrait (Wrede)? (See the opening paragraph of this paper). Or was Jesus an apocalyptic Jewish prophet, with the gospels reflecting, within their own contexts, a good deal about his proclamation of the kingdom (Schweitzer)? (p.21)
However, In 1926, Bultmann published a book (Jesus and the Word) in which he… insists that Jesus’ personality could not be recovered from the records and would in any case have been of no interest for theology. The stories which looked like stories of the historical Jesus were mostly faith-statements about ‘the risen Christ’ read back into his lifetime, expressing therefore the current faith of the church rather than historical memory. In any case, Jesus shared the primitive and mythological outlook of his day, and one would have to to go back behind that (by ‘demythologization’) if one wished to uncover the ‘real’ import of his message. (p.22)
In effect, Bultmann is saying that ‘the real Jesus’ is both irrecoverable and unnecessary. Both Rudolf Bultmann (1884 – 1976) and Karl Barth (1886 – 1968), in their respective ways, says Wright,
…ensured that little was done to advance genuine historical work on Jesus in the years between the wars. Attention was focused instead on early Christian faith and experience, in the belief that there, rather than in the dubiously constructed Jesus, lay the keys to the divine revelation…
* * * * *
To the non-specialist New Testament reader, it might seem obvious that the stories about Jesus in the gospels must be the main inspiration for Christians, more important, surely, than the Epistles, written earlier than the gospels themselves but less directly concerned with the life of Jesus himself. As this first chapter of Wright’s Jesus shows, this is not at all how it has seemed to scholars for the past four hundred years during which the Scriptures have been subject to rational enquiry. Ever since the Reformation, there has been a difficulty about the gospel stories because what scholars were looking for was not a story but the theology, the doctrine, the principles that lay behind it. Within this way of thinking, the Epistles have been seen as a more fruitful subject for study than a mere set of narratives. Wright has shown, however, how a more positive view of the importance of the gospel narratives has emerged as some scholars have sought to look at the New Testament through the eyes of the historian as well as those of the theologian. Remarius began it – by accident – and this strand of thinking continues through to Schweitzer, in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and beyond, in further ‘Quests’, but it was opposed by Wrede, by Bultmann and by others.
A strong body of scholars, then, during the whole period of scholarly biblical studies, has been looking, in the New Testament, for guiding principles, for doctrine. This search has led them away from the gospel narratives. Wright, of course, is a Quester. Jesus and the Victory of God and the earlier companion volume on which it rests, The New Testament and the People of God, comprise a massive riposte to the school of Bultmann, his predecessors and his followers.
How did Wright approach this task so as to establish that the historical Jesus can be brought to life for contemporary audiences by scholarly means? To provide an outline – it can be no more in the space available here – to the answer to this question, we must turn to the earlier volume, The New Testament and the People of God, where Wright discusses his method in terms which should see off any scholars disposed to hole his ship below the line, as it were. For Wright, this involves a review of the contemporary scholarly climate in both theology and history but also in literary criticism as well…
* * * * *
THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE PEOPLE OF GOD N T Wright (SPCK 1992)
The first two parts of The New Testament and the People of God take the form of a substantial exposition of Wright’s way of studying the Bible. Much of what follows is drawn from Chapter 2, but Chapters 3,4 and 5 refer respectively to the three disciplines within which Wright has worked, Literary Studies, History and Theology. Our account here, concentrates on Chapter 4 with a brief section on Chapter 5.
Christian Origins and the New Testament
‘The New Testament) must be read’, says Wright, ‘ so that the stories, and the Story, which it tells can be heard as stories, not as a rambling way of declaring unstoried “ideas” ’. This is a continuing theme throughout the whole of Wright’s enterprise.
The largest problem faced by the ‘New Testament theology’ project, particularly within the Bultmannian paradigm and its variants, is what to do with Jesus. ‘New Testament theology’, strictly speaking, does not include the teaching (or the facts of the life, death and resurrection) of Jesus, but merely the beliefs of the New Testament writers about Jesus…Some would say that the real Jesus cannot be rediscovered at all, being so thoroughly overlaid with the evangelists’ theologies. (p.22)
Knowledge: problems and varieties
Wright returns to his focal point here, the previously underrated category of ‘story’ as a tool for scholars.
Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative. Stories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person’s substitute fo the ‘real thing’ which is to be found in some abstract truth or in a statement about ‘bare facts’ (p.38)
Wright now introduces his key concept of ‘Worldviews’:
Stories are a basic constituent of human life; they are in fact one key element within the total construction of a worldview. I shall argue (in Chapter 5) that all worldviews contain an irreducible narrative element… As we shall see, worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims…The stories which characterize the worldview itself are located, on the map of human knowledge, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.
In case what has just been written seems unduly abstract, Wright now fills the reader in with concrete examples:
The stories which most obviously embody worldviews are of course the foundation myths told by the so-called primitive native peoples of the world to explain the origins of the world in general and their race in particular…But modern analogies are not far to seek, for instance in the use of narrative in political debate. Stories of how things were in the depression are used to fuel sympathy for the oppressed working class…Closer to home, stories are used in personal and domestic discourse not merely to provide information about events which have taken place, but to embody and hence reinforce, or perhaps modify, a shared worldview within a family, an office, a club or a college. Stories thus provide a vital framework for experiencing the world. They also provide a means by which views of the world may be challenged. (pp.38/39)
This last sentence is not a throwaway remark. Wright will go on to examine the ministry of Jesus in terms of him presenting an alternative worldview to the Jews, one which has enough similarity with their received worldview for them to lock on to, but containing substantial points which challenge it.
Stories and worldviews are, then, the basis of Wright’s method, but he is not, nor does he claim to be, a lone pioneer in this area; stories and worldviews are the central plank in an now widely accepted theory of knowledge.
Stories, never unpopular with children and those who read purely for pleasure, have thus become fashionable of late among scholars, not least in the biblical studies guild…Instead of ‘translating’ narrative into something else, we are now urged to read it as it is and understand it in its own terms. (p.39)
* * * * *
There are problems, however, with both stories and worldviews. We have already seen, for instance, how the gospel narratives are shot through with ambiguities and uncertainties for the scholar. How can one sort out which elements of the story genuinely go back to Jesus himself, and which elements are later accretions by the evangelists who were concerned to apply the data they had to the Christians living at the end of the first century?
With worldviews, the question to be asked is ‘where does the evidence come from for this or that scholar’s projection of a given worldview and its application to a given group? In dealing with civilisations of the ancient world this question is particularly relevant, given the scarcity of surviving contemporary material. However, in this respect, biblical scholars may have a distinct advantage in the shape of the copious Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) as well as the New Testament writings. Nevertheless, problems abound. First, there is conflicting evidence, for example, how is one to reconcile the YHWH of Joshua and the Walls of Jericho (Jos.6) with the YHWH of Isaiah 61.1-4? Then there is the problem of distinguishing fact from fable. This is addressed by a voluminous strand of modern scholarship dealing with what might be called the problem of the reality of myths.
In what follows on worldviews, we shall see that much of the picture which Wright develops is conjecture, and is built not on certain fact but on probabilities. How is the scholar to be guided through these thickets to produce findings which bear the stamp of authority and avoid being simply one person’s unvalidated view among many?
This leads us to the third major factor of his method: the process of hypothesis and verification which is generally used today by historians and of which Wright now provides an introductory description. Concerning stories, he says, some stories are better than others. It is not that they are more enjoyable or more extensive, but that they fit the observable facts better. Wright illustrates this important point thus:
I am driving along the road, thinking about all sorts of things, but taking for granted an underlying story about cars, driving and roads. The car then begins to shudder. At once I begin to tell myself a variety of stories which might explain the phenomenon. Perhaps the council has been digging up this bit of road…perhaps I have a flat tyre.
Perhaps there is something wrong with the suspension. These hypotheses offer themselves to me as potential missing links within the story…Then the car behind me flashes its lights and the driver points to one of my wheels. At once, the second story looms larger. I pull over and examine the tyre, which, sure enough, is looking sorry for itself…One of the stories I have been telling has emerged as a successful explanatory story…(p.43)
Now, Wright looks in turn and in detail at the implications of his ‘method’ within the disciplines of Literature, History and Theology respectively in Chapters 3,4 and 5. We omit Chapter 3 on Literary Studies and move straight to Chapter 4.
History and the First century
Historical Method: Hypothesis and Verification
Wright lays a lot of emphasis on his historical method of Hypothesis and Verification, and he needs to because for a century or more, historical method has been in the grips of the once immensely influential movement of Positivism, the proponents of which would never accept Wright’s method as valid. This is a question of the theory of knowledge – hopelessly abstruse and academic, you might suppose – but it deals with the crucial questions of ‘What counts as knowledge?’ and ‘How do you come to know it?’. Obviously, if the ‘rules’ change, then the whole enterprise, in this case doing history, has to be, or at any rate, can be conducted in a different way. Within the discipline of History, this is plainly problematical. For instance, thee may be no dispute that a Pipe Roll of 1376 showing who provided taxes of three shillings and fourpence to the king is ‘knowledge’ – of a kind. Much more interesting and also more instructive would be an account of the attitude of the English nobility at the start of the Hundred Years’ War to their French counterparts – but it would be built on conjecture. Can this be history or is it merely fairy tale? That is the issue.
Wright says this:
The positivist believes that there are some things at least about which we can have definite knowledge. There are some things that are simply ‘objectively’ true, that is, some things about which we can have, and actually do have, solid and unquestionable knowledge. These are things that can be tested ‘empirically’, that is, by observing, measuring etc within the physical world. Taking this to its logical conclusion, things that cannot be tested in this way cannot be spoken of without talking some kind of nonsense. (pp.32/33)
Though this view has been largely abandoned by philosophers, it has had a long run for its money in other spheres, not least those of the physical sciences. Despite the great strides in self-awareness that have come about through (for instance) sociology of knowledge, not to mention philosophy of science itself, one still meets some scientists (and many non-scientists who talk about science) who believe that what science does is simply to look objectively at things that are there. The reverse of this belief is that, where positivism cannot utter its shrill certainties, all that is left is subjectivity or relativity…
Fifty years before Wright, R G Collingwood in his influential The Idea of History , saw positivism as the theory of knowledge modelled on the natural sciences, but based on an unacceptably narrow version of how science is conducted. The positivists held that there were two stages to the process; in the first, you collected the facts and in the second, you framed general laws from your objective data. Historians, as Collingwood indicated, were obliged to work within this framework and, as a result, collected mountains of facts into tomes and academic papers. Philosophers wanted to know where the second stage had gone to, for the positivists seemed reluctant to take their noses out of the detailed facts; other people simply found positivist history tedious – it failed to enlighten.
Collingwood complained that long after the philosophers had shown up the limitations of positivism as applied to doing history, historians were still emeshed in its toils. It has taken along time to die. In fact, it was fairly clearly established at least by the mid-twentieth century that science itself operated by a process of hypothesis and verification, so why shouldn’t history? The weakness of the positivist way of doing history, as Wright points out, quoting Collingwood, is that it provides the external, verifiable facts (“Caesar crossed the Rubicon’, for example) but its debarred from asking ‘Why?’. In Collingwood’s terms, under this regime it was impossible to look at the ‘inside’ of history (motivations, worldviews and so on).
The main point of this digression is to demonstrate that it is only in recent decades that the kind of history which Wright is doing could be reasonably sure of gaining credibility The within the academic community. This means, that only now has it become possible to work on an academically credible and rounded portrait of Jesus and his times. We are in new territory, and it is the premise of this paper that Christians should become aware of the new situation and its enormous significance for Christian life. However, it is not surprising that Wright has found it necessary to spend so much time going into the details of his ‘method’ – he may yet be shot at for writing unproven ‘nonsense’.
* * * * *
In the new, post-postivist regime, the question quickly arises: ‘What makes a good hypothesis’ and ‘How do you verify it?’.The criteria which Wright now offers are later to be used over and over again in his evaluaton of the work of other scholars, and, of course, applied to his own
There are three things that a good hypothesis (in any field) must do…First it must include the data. The bits and pieces of evidence must be incorporated without being squeezed out of shape…Second, it must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture…There is a third thing that a good hypothesis must do if it is to stand out from the others. The proposed explanatory story must prove itself fruitful in other related areas…(p.100)
The paleontologist has a skeleton to fit together. if she creates a beautifully simple structure which omits a few large bones, her colleagues may accuse her of satisfying the second criterion at the expense of the first…If, however, a second paleontologist produces a skeleton which cunningly uses up all the bones but has seven toes on one foot and eighteen on the other, the opposite conclusion will be drawn. (p.105)
Earlier, Wright has posed the problem in terms specific to New Testament scholarship:
These first two aspects fo a good hypothesis – getting in the data and simplicity – are always, of course in tension with one another. It is easy to create simple hypotheses at the expense of some of the data; it is easy to suggest explanations for all the data at the cost of producing a highly complex and convoluted hypothesis. Both these alternatives are encountered frequently within New Testament studies, not least the study of Jesus. ‘Jesus the simple Galilean peasant’ is straightfoward but ignores a good deal of evidence…Conversely, most ‘conservative’ readings of Jesus include all the data, because that is their aim, but without any historically cogent account of Jesus’ aims and intentions during his ministry. (p.100)
Later, Wright discusses what it means to ‘do history’. We have already seen that merely stringing together a whole lot of facts without showing how, if at all, they are related, as the positivists did, results in sterile accounts inviting the response, ‘so what?’. At the start of this discussion, Wright observes:
To begin with, history involves not only the study of ‘what happened’…but also the study of human intentionality, (what R G Collingwood called, looking at ‘the inside’ of an event). This means hypothesising about aims, intentions and motivation. (pp.109/110)
At the end of the same discussion, Wright notes:
If history involves all of these things it must clearly involve them not just at the level of individuals, whose mindsets are involved directly, but also of societies, whose worldviews are at stake…The task of the historian is thus to address the question of ‘why?’ at all possible levels down to its roots in the way the people under investigation perceive the world as a whole. (p.112)
Wright concludes with the question ‘How is this to be done?’. This leads to the next section, once again alluding to the previous postivist way of doing history:
The task of the historian is not simply to assemble little clumps of ‘facts’ and hope that someone else will integrate them. The historian’s job is to show their interconnectedness, that is, how one thing follows another, precisely by examining the ‘inside’ of events. And the model for such connections is not simply that of random atoms cannoning into one another. It is that of the interplay of fully human life – the complex network of human aims, intentions and motivations, operating within and at the edges of the worldviews of different communities and the mindsets of different individuals. To display this, the historian needs – to tell a story. (p.113)
Theology, Authority and the New Testament
Studying the New Testament necessarily involves the disciplines of both Literature and History, but since it is concerned quite centrally with the worldviews of first century Jews and Christians, it also, necessarily, involves Theology.
Wherever we find the ultimate concerns of human beings, we find worldviews…’Worldview’, in fact, embraces all deep-level human perceptions of reality, including the question of whether or not a god or gods exist and if so, what he, she, it or they is or are like, and how such a being or beings might relate to the world. (p.123)
* * * * *
Wright now deals with the concept of Worldview with reference to the Jews of first century Palestine. Their worldview consists, he says of four elements:
First, Christian theology tells a story and seeks to tell it coherently. The story is about a creator and his creation, about humans made in the creator’s image and given tasks to perform, about the rebellion of humans and the dissonance of creation at every level, and particularly about the creator’s acting, through Israel and climactically through Jesus, to rescue his creation from its ensuing plight. The story continues with the creator acting by his own spirit within the world to bring it towards the restoration which is his intended goal for it. (p.132)
Second, this story…offers a set of answers to the four worldview questions: who are we? – Where are we? – What is wrong? – What is the solution? (Wright discusses the Jewish answers to these questions in Chapter 8 (See Paper 2). In the same section of Chapter 8, he comments more fully on all the worldview elements).
Third, this worldview has been given expression in a variety of socio-cultural symbols. (p.133)
Most important of these are Torah, Temple and Land, (See Paper 2, p.2/6).
Finally, the Christian worldview gives rise to a particular type of praxis, a particular mode of being-in -the-world.
Praxis might in general be described as ‘practice based on principle’; in the present case it might particularly be thought of as ‘the practical expression of the Jewish system of beliefs’.
* * * * *
So far, we have seen that Wright has made the case that we can know enough of the historical Jesus to paint a viable portrait, in the face of a long tradition which thought otherwise, and we have also looked briefly at the methods he has used to establish his position. Now we must go on to see what sort of a portrait of Jesus results from this impressive enterprise. But first, it must be stressed that although this paper concentrates on the work of one scholar, there are others working in the same field of the quest for a full-length portrait of Jesus and his ministry, though not in an identical fashion. Wright pays tribute to the leaders in this field, particularly to J D Crossan, Marcus Borg and Ed Sanders.
What has been reviewed here, so far, both from Jesus and the Victory of God, and the earlier New Testament and the People of God, is culled from the first substantial introductory sections of each work, as described in the Introduction to this collection of papers. This deep shift within scholarly circles about the methodology of history/ bible study has placed Jesus the Man centre stage within Christian thinking in ways that were previously not possible. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is now possibile, for the first time, for the church – every church – to preach not ‘the Christian religion’ but ‘Jesus’.
As noted in the Introduction, the two papers that follow describe, first, the thought-world of the Jews in their homeland during the first century CE, and second, the message of Jesus about his father’s Kingdom, the New Covenant. By comparing the two one comes to understand how deeply subversive and disturbing the message of Jesus was to his contemporaries. This is an historical project, but its implication for the church today and its task within secular society is surely just as disturbing.