Interview — Galilean Rabbi or Universal Lord?

Even C. S. Lewis was skeptical of searches for the “historical Jesus.” And why not? Even before Albert Schweitzer published his The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906, many Christians bemoaned such searches because they usually denied the claims of the Gospels. The quests’ latest manifestation, the Jesus Seminar, has voted out almost every Gospel saying of Jesus as unhistorical.

So why should Christians who believe in a Jesus available to all people of all times even care about what historians say about Jesus’ life on earth?

We posed this and other questions to Tom Wright, whom Time magazine called “one of the most formidable of the traditionalist Bible scholars.” He is author of several influential books on the Jesus of history, most notably Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996).

If Christians believe in a resurrected Lord who transcends history, why should we even bother with the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth?

If we believe as traditional Christianity always has that God became truly human in Jesus of Nazareth, then he was an actual person who worked and spoke in this world. When Christians allow “the Christ of faith” to float free, they reinvent him to suit particular ideologies.

The most obvious recent example is how Hitler’s theologians made a Christ who legitimated Nazi ideology. That happened while many German theologians were saying they couldn’t know much about Jesus historically.

The Jesus who actually was shows us who the transcendent Lord actually is because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So the yesterday is just as important as the today and forever.

Do you see some dangers in using history as a means to examine Jesus?

There are always dangers, particularly with ancient history, because we don’t really know nearly as much as we’d like to. My son is a historian studying the nineteenth century and has the opposite problem: there’s so much documentation, he could go on researching a five-year period all his life and never read all the material.

But once you've read Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, the New Testament, and a smattering of other texts, you've read almost all the primary sources about first-century Judaism and Christianity. It’s like connect-the-dots. The more dots, and the closer they are together, the less a child can improvise. But if you’re trying to draw a picture of someone and you've only got four dots, people may connect them quite differently.

Of course, when scholars do not connect the dots right in studying the historical Jesus, they can end up with some strange pictures of Jesus.

Do the apocryphal gospels shed any light on Jesus’ life?

Though the apocryphal gospels can get fanciful, I don’t believe everything in them must be wrong. Some material may well go back to Jesus himself.

For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “[The kingdom] will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” It doesn’t occur in exactly the same form in the canonical Gospels, but I have no trouble believing Jesus could have said that sort of thing.

What has been the biggest temptation and challenge you face as a Christian scholar studying Jesus?

To assume I know what the text says, usually something that affirms my Christian tradition. Theologians often say, “What Jesus really meant wa“ and then follow with something that Luther or some twentieth-century theologian said. You have to ask why Jesus used his words instead of those that later theologians use.

But when I stick with what the Gospels actually report Jesus saying, I gain new insights that make the truisms of one’s own tradition look cheap and shallow. When you come to the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, we assume, “Of course, it’s about God’s gracious welcome for sinners.” End of conversation. But when I discovered most first-century Jews believed they were still in exile, still suffering under the pagans because of their rebellion, I realized, Hey, this is a story of exile and restoration.

Scholars today emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Why is that so important?

We have to recognize Jesus’ apocalyptic eschatology, the first-century Jewish sense that history was coming to its climax. Starting a Jewish movement in the first century was not simply saying, “Here is a better way of doing religion, sacrifice, and forgiveness.” It was not a new philosophy or teaching. It was a movement saying, “The great moment of history is upon us. We've got to seize it or be seized by it!”

The Jesus who was shows us who the eternal Lord is because he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Of course this clashes radically with, and offends, more recent Western assumptions that world history actually reached its climax in the European Enlightenment or in today’s postmodern era.

One of the great struggles we have as Christians is to say Easter morning was the beginning of God’s new age for the world. Christians often talk as if the Resurrection simply “meant” that individuals can know the living Jesus and discover forgiveness for themselves. That’s true, of course, but the full meaning of Easter is the much bigger truth that we are already living in God’s new age, under the hidden rule of Christ.

But to set Jesus thoroughly in his Jewish, apocalyptic, first-century world makes him seem irrelevant today.

Many people assume the only things that are “relevant” are great truths hanging in mid-air, applicable to everybody equally. But the entire biblical revelation, from Genesis to Revelation, insists that God reveals himself through the particularity of Israel’s history, which reaches its climax in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

That is always scandalous intellectually and culturally. But it is only by holding on to Jesus as the Jewish prophet who finally fulfills his messianic vocation that we understand in biblical terms—not in our terms—the Lord of all space and time.

What are some of the misunderstandings we've developed?

Let me give but two examples. First, the word messiah is routinely taken as a description of divinity. When people read Peter’s pronouncement, “You are the Messiah,” many think Peter is saying Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. But in Jesus’ day, messiah referred to the concept of king—not deity.

Second, many people believe that when Jesus spoke of giving his life as a "ransom for many," he was implicitly pointing to an atonement theology that Luther or Augustine developed. In fact, within first-century Judaism, some believed the suffering and death of God’s righteous people could bring about Israel’s liberation; that it could focus and thus conclude the time of wrath. I have argued that Jesus believed his death would bring salvation not through some abstract theological scheme but by his taking upon himself the fate of the nation, and thus of the world, so that God’s new age would come at last.

I don’t want to deny the importance of theologians trying to fill out for us the full meaning of atonement or Christ’s divinity, but we must always begin with what the text said in its original setting.

What makes us think that the Jesus we’re trying to reconstruct now is not just a figment of late—twentieth-century scholars’ imagination, just as earlier scholars reimagined Jesus in their Enlightenment world?

The one big thing that has changed is we recognize that our own standpoint as scholars does make a difference. Nineteenth-century historians believed they could research and write as neutral, unbiased, impartial spectators. Most scholars now readily acknowledge the impossibility of objectivity.

We also recognize history is a corporate discipline. Though it involves individual scholars, it also requires we engage other colleagues around the world, including several who don’t share our views. We recognize our views have to be tested against those of others if we’re going to come to a fuller picture of Jesus.

What to you has been the most challenging aspect of researching Jesus historically?

First, trying to come to terms with first century Jewish ways of talking about Jesus’ death. That has been absolutely explosive for me for the last 20 years. It’s like an artist trying to paint a kaleidoscope that is constantly moving; it’s frustrating but also extremely exciting.

Second, how do I use God-language in a way that does justice historically to how people spoke and thought in the first century and that still resonates for us today? That’s always been a huge challenge.

I guess the pattern of my own life-of going from my study into the church and back again (my study overlooks an 800-year-old cathedral, where I worship morning and evening)—that rhythm has been enormously helpful.

More resources:

N.T. Wright’s latest two books cover both ends of the scholastic spectrum. The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary. It’s a personal, illuminating look at Jesus and the Gospels.

Links:

Wright recently wrote an article for Christianity Today on the importance of the resurrection. The article is titled “Grave Matters.”

Christianity Today also ran a lengthy review of Jesus and the Victory of God titled “Reconstructing Jesus.”

Wright is very interested in Jesus’ Jewish world, as are many other recent scholars. One scholarly but well-designed site devoted to such inquiry is The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. James D. Tabor, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, provides information on a variety of topics including Hellenistic/Roman religion and philosophy, archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Christian Origins and the New Testament and ancient Israel.

By N.T. Wright

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #59 in 1998]

Tom Wright is author of several influential books on the Jesus of history, most notably Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996).
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Issue 59

Christian History Magazine #59 - Jesus

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