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Out of his own commitment to both historical scholarship and Christian ministry, Wright challenges us to roll up our sleeves and take seriously the study of the historical Jesus. He writes, "Many Christians have been, frankly, sloppy in their thinking and talking about Jesus, and hence, sadly, in their praying and in their practice of discipleship. We cannot assume that by saying the word Jesus, still less the word Christ, we are automatically in touch with the real Jesus who walked and talked in first-century Palestine. . . . Only by hard, historical work can we move toward a fuller comprehension of what the Gospels themselves were trying to say."
The Challenge of Jesus poses a double-edged challenge: to grow in our understanding of the historical Jesus within the Palestinian world of the first century, and to follow Jesus more faithfully into the postmodern world of the twenty-first century.
of Studying Jesus
A friend of mine, lecturing in a theological college in Kenya,introduced his students to "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." This,he said, was a movement of thought and scholarship that in its earlierforms was carried on largely in Germany in the eighteenth andnineteenth centuries. He had not gone far into his lecture explainingthis search for Jesus when one of his students interrupted him."Teacher," he said ("I knew I was in trouble," my friend commented,"as soon as he called me `teacher'!"), "if the Germans have lost Jesus,that is their problem. We have not lost him. We know him. We lovehim."
Research into Jesus himself has long been controversial, not leastamong devout Christians. Several people in the wider Christian worldwonder if there is anything new to say about Jesus and if the attemptto say something fresh is not a denial either of the church's traditionalteaching or of the sufficiency of Scripture. I want to grasp this nettleright away and explain why I regard it, not just as permissible but asvitally necessary that we grapple afresh with the question of whoJesus was and therefore who he is. In doing so I in no way want todeny or undermine the knowledge of Jesus of which the Kenyanstudent spoke and which is the common experience of the churchdown the centuries and across widely differing cultures. I see thehistorical task, rather, as part of the appropriate activity of knowledgeand love, to get to know even better the one whom weclaim to knowand follow. If even in a human relationship of knowledge and lovethere can be misunderstandings, false impressions, wrong assumptions,which need to be teased out and dealt with, how much morewhen the one to whom we are relating is Jesus himself.
I believe, in fact, that the historical quest for Jesus is a necessary andnonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship and that we in ourgeneration have a chance to be renewed in discipleship and missionprecisely by means of this quest. I want to explain and justify thesebeliefs from the outset. There are, however, huge problems and evendangers within the quest, as one would expect from anything that isheavy with potential for the kingdom of God, and I shall need to saysomething about these as well.
There are well-known pitfalls in even addressing the subject, andwe may as well be clear about them. It is desperately easy whenamong like-minded friends to become complacent. We hear of wildnew theories about Jesus. Every month or two some publisher comesup with a blockbuster saying that he was a New Age guru, anEgyptian freemason or a hippie revolutionary. Every year or two somescholar or group of scholars comes up with a new book full ofimposing footnotes to tell us that Jesus was a peasant Cynic, a wanderingwordsmith or the preacher of liberal values born out of duetime.
The day I was redrafting this chapter for publication, a newspaperarticle appeared about a new controversy initiated by animal-rightsactivists, as to whether Jesus was a vegetarian.
We may well react to all this sort of thing by saying that it is all awaste of time, that we know all we need to know about Jesus, andthere is no more to be said. Many devout Christians taking this linecontent themselves with an effortless superiority: we know the truth,these silly liberals have got it all wrong, and we have nothing new tolearn. Sometimes people like me are wheeled out to demonstrate,supposedly, the truth of "traditional Christianitu," with the impliedcorollary that we can now stop asking these unpleasant historicalquestions and get on with something else, perhaps something moreprofitable, instead.
Some, however, react by reaching for equally misleading alternativestereotypes. A defense of a would-be "supernatural" Jesus caneasily degenerate into a portrayal of Jesus as a first-century version ofSuperman—not realizing that the Superman myth is itself ultimatelya dualistic corruption of the Christian story. There are several Jesus-pictureson offer that appear very devout but that ignore what theNew Testament actually says about the human being Jesus of Nazarethor what it meant in its original context.
I do not intend to encourage any of these attitudes. I repeat: I regardthe continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoingChristian discipleship. I doubt very much if in the present age we shallever get to the point where we know all there is to know and understandall there is to understand about Jesus, who he was, what he saidand what he did, and what he meant by it all. But since orthodoxChristianity has always held firm to the basic belief that it is by lookingat Jesus himself that we discover who God is, it seems to me indisputablethat we should expect always to be continuing in the quest forJesus precisely as part of, indeed perhaps as the sharp edge of, ourexploration into God himself.
This, of course, carries certain corollaries. If it is true that Christianfaith cannot preempt the historical questions about Jesus, it is also truethat historical study cannot be carried out in a vacuum. We have beentaught by the Enlightenment to suppose that history and faith areantithetical, so that to appeal to the one is to appeal away from theother. As a result, historians have regularly been suspect in the communityof faith, just as believers have always been suspect in thecommunity of secular historiography. When Christianity is truest toitself, however, it denies precisely this dichotomy—uncomfortablethough this may be for those of us who try to live in and to speak fromand to both communities simultaneously. Actually, I believe this discomfortis itself one aspect of a contemporary Christian vocation: asour world goes through the deep pain of the death throes of theEnlightenment, the Christian is not called to stand apart from this painbut to share it. I shall say more about this in the concluding chapter. Iam neither a secular historian who happens to believe in Jesus nor aChristian who happens to indulge a fancy for history. Rather, I amsomeone who believes that being a Christian necessarily entails doingbusiness with history and that history done for all it's worth willchallenge spurious versions of Christianity, including many that thinkof themselves as orthodox, while sustaining and regenerating a deepand true orthodoxy, surprising and challenging though this will alwaysremain.
Let me then move to the positive side. What are the reasons thatmake it imperative for us to study Jesus?
The Necessity of the Quest
The most basic reason for grappling with the historical question ofJesus is that we are made for God: for God's glory, to worship Godand reflect his likeness. That is our heart's deepest desire, the sourceof our deepest vocation. But Christianity has always said, with John1:18, that nobody has ever seen God but that Jesus has revealed God.We shall only discover who the true and living God actually is if wetake the risk of looking at Jesus himself. That is why the contemporarydebates about Jesus are so important; they are also debates about Godhimself.
The second reason why I engage in serious historical study of Jesusis out of loyalty to Scripture. This may seem deeply ironic to some onboth sides of the old liberal-conservative divide. Many Jesus scholarsof the last two centuries have of course thrown Scripture out of thewindow and reconstructed a Jesus quite different from what we findin the New Testament. But the proper answer to that approach is notsimply to reassert that because we believe in the Bible we do not needto ask fresh questions about Jesus. As with God so with the Bible; justbecause our tradition tells us that the Bible says and means one thingor another, that does not excuse us from the challenging task ofstudying it afresh in the light of the best knowledge we have about itsworld and context, to see whether these things are indeed so. For methe dynamic of a commitment to Scripture is not "we believe the Bible,so there is nothing more to be learned," but rather "we believe theBible, so we had better discover all the things in it to which ourtraditions, including our `protestant' or `evangelical' traditions, whichhave supposed themselves to be `biblical' but are sometimes demonstrablynot, have made us blind." And this process of rethinking willinclude the hard and often threatening question of whether somethings that our traditions have taken as "literal" should be seen as"metaphorical," and perhaps also vice versa—and, if so, which ones.
This leads to the third reason, which is the Christian imperative totruth. Christians must not be afraid of truth. Of course, that is whatmany reductionists have said, as with apparent boldness they havewhittled down the meaning of the gospel to a few bland platitudes,leaving the sharp and craggy message of Jesus far behind. That is notmy agenda. My agenda is to go deeper into the meaning than we havebefore and to come back to a restatement of the gospel that groundsthe things we have believed about Jesus, about the cross, about theresurrection, about the incarnation, more deeply within their originalsetting. When I say the great Christian creeds—as I do day-by-day inworship—I mean them from the heart, but I find that after twentyyears of historical study I mean something much deeper, much morechallenging, than I meant when I started. I cannot compel my readersto follow me in this particular pilgrimage, but I can and do hold outan invitation to see Jesus, the Gospels, ourselves, the world and, aboveall, God in what may well be a new and perhaps disturbing light.
The fourth reason for undertaking the study of Jesus is because ofthe Christian commitment to mission. The mission of most Christianslikely to read this book takes place in a world where Jesus has been ahot topic for several years now. In America particularly, Jesus—andthe quest for him—has been featured in Time magazine, on televisionand elsewhere in the media. And the people whom ordinary Christiansmeet, to whom they must address the gospel, have been told overand over by the media, on the basis of some recent book or other, thatthe Jesus of the Gospels is historically incredible and that Christianityis therefore based on a mistake. It simply will not do to declare thisquestion out-of-bounds, to say that the church's teaching will do forus, thank you very much, so we do not need to ask historical questions.You cannot say that to a serious and enquiring person who engagesyou in conversation on a train or to someone who wanders into achurch one Sunday and asks what it is all about. If Christianity is notrooted in things that actually happened in first-century Palestine, wemight as well be Buddhists, Marxists or almost anything else. And ifJesus never existed, or if he was quite different from what the Gospelsand the church's worship affirms him to have been, then we are indeedliving in cloud-cuckoo-land. The skeptics can and must be answered,and when we do so we will not merely reaffirm the traditions of thechurch, whether Protestant, Catholic, evangelical or whatever. We willbe driven to reinterpret them, discovering depths of meaning withinthem that we had never imagined.
One of the reasons why we had not imagined some of the depthsthat, I believe, are actually there to be found lies in our own historicaland cultural setting. I am a first-century historian, not a Reformationor eighteenth-century specialist. Nevertheless, from what little I knowof the last five hundred years of European and American history, Ibelieve that we can categorize the challenge of the eighteenth-centuryEnlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its asking a necessaryquestion in a misleading fashion. The divide in contemporary Christianitybetween liberals and conservatives has tended to be between thosewho, because they saw the necessity of asking the historical question,assumed that it had to be asked in the Enlightenment's fashion andthose on the other hand who, because they saw the misleadingness ofthe Enlightenment's way of asking the question, assumed that thehistorical question was itself unnecessary. Let me speak first of thenecessity of the Enlightenment's question and then of the misleadingway it has been addressed.
To understand why the Enlightenment's historical question wasnecessary we need to take a further step back to the ProtestantReformation of the sixteenth century. The protest of the Reformationagainst the medieval church was not least a protest in favor of ahistorical and eschatological reading of Christianity against a timelesssystem. Getting at the literal historical meaning of the texts, as theReformers insisted we must, meant historical reading: the question ofwhat Jesus or Paul really meant, as opposed to what the much-laterchurch said they meant, became dramatically important. Go back tothe beginning, they said, and you will discover that the developedsystem of Roman Catholicism is based on a mistake. This supportedthe Reformers' eschatological emphasis: the cross was God's once-for-allachievement, never to be repeated, as the Reformers saw theirCatholic opponents doing in the Mass. But, arguably, the Reformersnever allowed this basic insight to drive them beyond a halfway housewhen it came to Jesus himself. The Gospels were still treated as therepositories of true doctrine and ethics. Insofar as they were history,they were the history of the moment when the timeless truth of Godwas grounded in space and time, when the action that accomplishedthe timeless atonement just happened to take place. This, I know, is agross oversimplification, but I believe it is borne out by the sequel.Post-Reformation theology grasped the insights of the reformers as anew set of timeless truths and used them to set up new systems ofdogma, ethics and church order in which, once again, vested interestswere served and fresh thought was stifled.
The Enlightenment was, among many other things, a protestagainst a system that, since it was itself based on a protest, could notsee that it was itself in need of further reform. (The extent to which theEnlightenment was a secularized version of the Reformation is afascinating question, one for brave Ph.D. candidates to undertakerather than the subject for a book like this. But we have to do businessat least with these possibilities if we are to grasp where we have comefrom and hence where we may be being called to go to.) In particular,the Enlightenment, in the person of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768),challenged unthinking would-be Christian dogma about theeternal son of God and his establishment of the oppressive systemcalled "Christianity." Reimarus challenged it in the name of history—thesame weapon that the reformers had used against Roman Catholicism.Go back to the beginning, he said, and you will discover thatChristianity is based on a mistake. Jesus was, after all, another in along line of failed Jewish revolutionaries. Christianity as we know itwas the invention of the early disciples.
I believe that Reimarus's question was necessary. Necessary to shakeEuropean Christianity out of its dogmatism and to face a new challenge—togrow in understanding of who Jesus actually was and whathe actually accomplished. Necessary to challenge bland dogma with aliving reality; necessary to challenge idolatrous distortions of whoJesus actually was and hence who God actually was and is, with afresh grasp of truth. The fact that Reimarus gave his own question ananswer that is historically unsustainable does not mean he did not askthe right questions. Who was Jesus, and what did he accomplish?
This necessity has been underlined in our own century, as ErnstKäsemann saw all too clearly. Look what happens, he said in a famouslecture in 1953, when the church abandons the quest for Jesus. Thenonquesting years between the wars created a vacuum in whichnonhistorical Jesuses were offered, legitimating the Nazi ideology. Iwould go so far as to suggest that whenever the church forgets its callto engage in the task of understanding more and more fully who Jesusactually was, idolatry and ideology lie close at hand. To renounce thequest because you do not like what the historians have so far come upwith is not a solution.
But the Enlightenment's raising of the question of Jesus was donein a radically misleading manner, which still has profound effects onthe research of today. The Enlightenment notoriously insisted onsplitting apart history and faith, facts and values, religion and politics,nature and supernature, in a way whose consequences are written intothe history of the last two hundred years—one of the consequencesbeing, indeed, that each of those categories now carries with it in theminds of millions of people around the world an implicit oppositionto its twin, so that we are left with the great difficulty of even conceivingof a world in which they belong to one another as part of a singleindivisible whole. Again, so much debate between liberals and conservativeshas taken place down this fault line (history or faith, religion orpolitics and so on), while the real battle—the challenge to rearticulatea reintegrated worldview—has not even been attempted. But there isa deeper problem with the Enlightenment than its radically splitworldview. The real problem is that it offered a rival eschatology to theChristian one. This needs a little explanation.
Excerpted from THE CHALLENGE of JESUS by N.T. WRIGHT. Copyright © 1999 by N. T. Wright. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted October 21, 2009
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