Defending Nicea

The Historical Jesus of N. T. Wright

James Veitch

From The Fourth R
Volume 11-2
March-April 1998

During the last two years, the ideas and books of the Very Rev. Nicholas Thomas (N. T.) Wright have received wide exposure. Former teacher at Oxford and Cambridge, and current dean of Lichfield Cathedral, he has become a prolific writer committed to defending and maintaining Protestant Christianity in its Anglican form. He is an international New Testament scholar and historian who seeks quite consciously to combine his preaching with his scholarship.

Wright is an able, articulate speaker and a forceful debater. He uses the writings of scholars with whom he disagrees—and these are many—as a foil to highlight the significance he attaches to his own views. The way he presents their ideas, and his attitude towards them, gives the impression that only his own views and conclusions are reasonable. His arguments appear conclusive: it is as if he alone has solved issues that have puzzled New Testament scholars for more than two centuries.

The issue facing Wright and those with whom he disagrees is the same: how to interpret the New Testament so that it makes sense to people who live in the modern world. The approach that Wright has taken is not only grossly misleading but is potentially disastrous for the church.

N. T. Wright and the Jesus Seminar

Wright is vigorously critical of the Jesus Seminar and many of those associated with its activities; he feels he has to do this because their conclusions are constantly in the public arena. He believes the Seminar has turned skepticism into an art form by rejecting the historicity of all but 18% of what the gospels say Jesus said, and all but 17% of what they say he did. Such, he believes, undermines confidence in the gospels and ignores what their writers claim for themselves.

Wright also criticizes what he maintains is the Seminar’s neglect of the Jewishness of Jesus and the emphasis some of its members give to Jesus as a wise man, either within the world of Cynic philosophy—a connection he believes is totally untenable—or as a peasant sage within Galilean Judaism. For Wright the evidence in the gospels overwhelmingly supports a portrait of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet figure.

What he finds regrettable and even offensive is what he sees as the Seminar’s policy of working publicly. Scholars should keep their work in progress in-house, and avoid sensationalizing their ideas through the media, until such conclusions have been scrutinized and evaluated by their peers. This has committed Wright to work in a similar vein through the media, to overcome the influence of the Seminar on the life and the witness of the church.

The Reimarus Questions

Wright claims to take as seriously as possible the issues raised by the eighteenth century scholar Hermann Reimarus (1694–1768), who effectively inaugurated the modern study of the New Testament when he sought answers to three questions. He asked:

  1. How much of what is reported in the gospels actually happened?
  2. How much of what appears in the gospels can be attributed to the historical Jesus?
  3. Did Jesus or did he not rise from the dead three days after his execution?

Reimarus examined in some detail the text of the gospels and studied the background in the Hebrew Bible and answered “very little” to the first question, “not much” to the second and became quite convinced that there had been no bodily resurrection, in response to the third. He also arrived at the conclusion that the historical Jesus was a political revolutionary who died in a failed attempt to ignite a major rebellion against Roman rule

Wright discards what he calls the “skepticism” of Reimarus and categorically asserts that Jesus did rise bodily from the dead. This he believes is a conclusion that can be defended by a fair and unprejudiced examination of the claims made about accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in the gospels. He defends the view that the gospels are reliable as reports of events that actually happened—as history—on the basis that this is precisely the claim advanced by the writers of the gospels, and they would not lie or deliberately mislead their readers.

There is also, he argues, a great deal about the historical Jesus in the gospels—in fact more than can be found in any other source—and this has to be accepted as a starting point in any serious quest for the historical Jesus. Crucial also in this quest is the firm acknowledgment of the Jewishness of Jesus (something Reimarus also maintained) as well as an expert knowledge of the Palestinian Judaism in which Jesus lives out his life.

Defending the Roots of Christianity: Kähler & Wrede

In order to defend these historic roots of Christianity, Wright builds on the work of others who have also tried to reverse the impact of the skeptical approach of Reimarus. Among them:

Martin Kähler (1835–1912) concluded that the gospels are not true fiction but true to the world of reality in which they were created. He rejected any attempt to reconstruct another more historical life of Jesus from the gospels by reading between the lines or trying to go behind the texts. Wright takes over Kähler’s incorporation of the Jesus of history into the Christ of faith.

William Wrede (1859–1906) discovered little in the gospels of historical significance about Jesus the Jew other than that he was a prophet-like figure. He concluded that it was the close friends of Jesus who perceived him to have been the messiah of Jewish expectation and wrote about him in these terms. The figure in the gospels is therefore largely fiction, as is the bodily resurrection, although fiction true to the religious convictions of his followers. Wright rejects Wrede’s skepticism, inherited from Reimarus, but adopts the prophet-like figure Wrede discovered in the gospels.

The Shocking Jesus of Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), after surveying the Jesus debate from Reimarus to Wrede, concluded that research based on reason was completely abortive. The discovery of the Jesus who really lived and who became the Christ of faith would not be acceptable to the church and its life of faith.

The gospels, Schweitzer believed, had created a figure of faith fashioned from the religious ideas and experience of Jesus’ later followers. The church adapted and developed the theological significance of that figure, crating it into the liturgy of the church service and commending it to the piety of generation after generation of believers.

Church leaders, administrators and theologians fitted this figure into concrete doctrinal formulations, definitions of orthodoxy and organizational structures. And there the matter had to rest unless the church was ready to face the biggest upheaval and revolution in its entire history. Schweitzer was quite sure that the church was both unready and unwilling to allow such change to occur.

For Schweitzer, the spiritually risen Jesus can be experienced by reading the gospels, and this is something independent of historical knowledge, but crucial for the human experience of the divine presence in our the world. Wright appreciates this separation of experience from the results of historical research: it becomes a crucial idea for him to develop.

But there is something else about Schweitzer’s Jesus with which Wright only partly agrees: Schweitzer thought that the historical Jesus of the first century was a complete and utter stranger to the twentieth century and therefore a threat both to the western Christian mind and to the piety of the church. Influenced by the eschatological interpretation of the gospels which had been put forward by Johannes Weiss (1863–1914), Schweitzer concluded that the Jesus of history was an apocalyptic prophet who had thought that if he died at the hands of the Romans, he could provoke God to bring the world to an end: his death would thus inaugurate the kingdom of God.

But Jesus was completely wrong and his death was, on these terms, an utter tragedy. His death did not force God to act: the kingdom of God did not come as he had believed. His life was thus a total failure and as he died he knew that it was. This Jesus of history is thus a rather alarming and shocking figure for the twentieth-century mind and one that the church would rather not know about.

Schweitzer, seeing this figure emerge from his studies, backed away. But it was not all that easy to put the lid back on Pandora’s box.

Copyright © 1998 Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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