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The Wright Quest for the Historical Jesus

by Ben Witherington, III

Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, is the author of The Jesus Quest and The Christology of Jesus. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 19-26, 1997, pp. 1075-1078. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


One of the more bizarre experiences of my career took place at the Christian Booksellers Association meeting two years ago in Denver. A press conference was set up for the media to interrogate several authors who are of a more traditional bent on the historical Jesus. In the midst of booths selling everything from schmaltzy Christian greeting cards to tacky Christian pillows to memberships in Christian health resorts to healing handkerchiefs -- and even some books -- was a small cadre of scholars huddled in a back room with newspaper reporters, trying to discuss serious questions about Jesus. All of us would have been mightily relieved if the Man from Nazareth had shown up and cleansed this convention center of its all-too-American religious paraphernalia, little of which had much to do with the historical Jesus.

At the same time, both the presence of the press and the enormous popularity and success of this Christian trade show seemed to suggest that we are at the very least a Jesus-haunted culture. Even those not on familiar terms with the Man from Nazareth want to know more about "what he was really like."

Apart from certain members of the Jesus Seminar (such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg), the person most visible in the Jesus debate on both sides of the Atlantic (on the BBC, on the lecture circuit, in print, at scholarly meetings and in church settings) has been Nicholas Thomas Wright, formerly of Oxford and now the dean of Lichfield Cathedral in England. His visibility has been enhanced by the recent appearance of the second book of his projected trilogy. Since the final volume will deal with the period subsequent to the death of Jesus, we are in a position now to assess Wright's contribution to the debate on the historical Jesus.

Wright is not satisfied simply to discuss this or that aspect of the search for the historical Jesus. Indeed, he offers an alternative to the dominant model of approaching the Gospels, the model championed by Rudolf Bultmann and his followers. Having set up his own alternative, he pursues the Jesus question in his own manner.

Specifically, Wright is skeptical of form criticism, which dices the Gospels up into bite-sized portions -- a riddle here, a parable there -- and then pronounces judgment on the authenticity of this or that piece of data. He is not at all convinced that the Gospels are like onions, from which one peels numerous outer layers to get at the core -- and then discovers there is none. Instead of seeing in the Gospels numerous layers of literary strata, Wright sees traditions that have been passed along relatively intact, with some editing done by the transmitters and then by the Gospel writers. He believes that this model better fits what we know of the way early Jews handled revered or sacred traditions than does the Buitmannian one, which contends that the Gospel material was handled rather like ancient folklore such as Homer's Odyssey or Iliad. The gestation period for the Gospel material is at most only a generation or so, a period of time in which there were still numerous eyewitnesses to corroborate or correct this or that form of a Jesus tradition. Thus, analogies with the handling of legendary material by writers far removed from any eyewitnesses simply will not work.

In Wright's view, the way to get at the historical Jesus is by means of a pincer movement--forward from the picture of early Judaism and backward from the portrait in the Gospels. Wright draws especially on the insights into the social, political and religious milieu of Galilee that have arisen with recent research -- the so-called Third Quest of the historical Jesus. But he hs no time for reductionistic social analyses that ignore the religious and theological factors that helped make the ethos of Jesus' society what it was. In short, he pursues his subject as an historian and theologian, not chiefly as a literary archaeologist or social scientist.

Wright insists that our view of the history of the Gospel traditions, like our portrait of Jesus, must make sense within the structure of early Judaism, not least because all the Gospel writers (with the possible exception of Luke) and their forebears were themselves Jews before they became followers of Jesus. It makes no sense for Jesus and his followers to be compared with Hellenistic cynics or existentialist sages or New Age gurus, for such figures never existed in any significant numbers in first-century Israel and certainly never attracted large audiences of Jews. For Wright, a non-Jewish Jesus is a non sequitur. And since those who first handled the Jesus material were Jews, it is unlikely that they handled it in a non-Jewish way. Even Luke constantly uses the Greek version of the Old Testament as his chief vehicle for commentary on Jesus and his movement.

For Wright, the most fundamental question is what sort of first-century Jew Jesus could have been, given what we know about the political and theological milieu of early Jewish life. It is in his focus on the obvious Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers that Wright differs most from various members of the Jesus Seminar -- especially Crossan and Robert Funk. Funk paints Jesus as a social radical, gadfly and deviant who serves up an alternate construal of reality by offering puzzling parables. Crossan offers a Jesus who was setting up an egalitarian community in Galilee by free healing and meals open to all comers. Wright, however, seeks to understand Jesus in light of the major symbols and values of early Judaism: Torah, temple, territory and ethnic ties. If the former two scholars could be accused of anachronism, Wright will surely be accused (though not by this writer) of archaizing. In short, Jesus and the Victory of God reads like a good old-fashioned book on Jesus, one that gives matters of theological substance and historical plausibility pride of place. Wright is no postmodernist, not least because he believes real historical knowledge about the past and about Jesus is still possible if we will but sift our sources carefully and sympathetically This historical optimism comes especially into play in Wright's analysis of the passion narratives. He would not concur with Crossan that these stories are largely prophecy historicized rather than history seen as fulfilling prophecy. In other words, he would not agree that the O.T. prophecies were the raw material out of which these narratives were concocted. To the contrary, it was the shocking events at the end of Jesus' life that caused his early Jewish followers to search the scriptures diligently in their effort to understand how God's Anointed One could have been crucified. Wright has an advantage over many other Jesus questers in that he gives full historical weight to the importance of the last week of Jesus' life in understanding who he was. It is especially there that one glimpses how Jesus stood on issues of Torah, temple, territory and ethnic ties.

Wright understands that a Jesus separated from the passion narratives is to a large degree a passionless and perhaps pointless Jesus. The Jesus of endless one-liners or short pithy sayings or even of modest social reforms was highly unlikely to cleanse the temple or get himself crucified during one of the major Jewish feasts, and certainly unlikely to generate the variety of Christologies one finds in the New Testament. Jesus' startling views of the law, the temple, the land, the people and the kingdom do not become fully evident apart from the passion material.

Jesus died because of who he was and what he said and what he did, not in spite of these things. His death was no mere accident or miscarriage of justice, if by the latter one means a death unrelated to a person's actual life and work. In short, while various Third Questers have sought to void or avoid the scandal of the cross, Wright shows how it is quite plausible that Jesus would end up as he did. His words and deeds, given how the temple leaders and Roman overlords would view them, would lead him to the cross. Passion narratives are not later attempts by Jesus' followers to place a christological mantle on a nonchristological Jesus, but are the reflection of what the first followers came to understand as a result of the last events of Jesus' earthly life about Jesus' relationship to God and to God's people, God's word and God's dominion.

In some ways, Wright's view is a revival of the old Schweitzerian model of Jesus as a person who truly believed he was sent to inaugurate God's kingdom on earth and so focused his message on last or end things. Jesus' "beliefs were those of a first-century Jew who believed that the Kingdom was coming in and through his own work. His loyalty to Israel's cherished beliefs therefore took the form of critique and renovation from within; of challenge to traditions and institutions whose true purpose he believed . . . had been grievously corrupted and distorted."

Yet there is a notable difference from Schweitzer. In Schweitzer's view Jesus believed the world was about to end at any moment and his teaching was a sort of interim ethic or a set of reflections as the curtain of history began to come down. In Wright's interpretation, which owes much to the realized eschatological views of C. H. Dodd and G. B. Caird, Jesus did not proclaim the imminent end of the world, if by "world" one means the space-time continuum. Rather, Jesus proclaimed the end of a world -- the world of early Judaism, which was centered on the Herodian temple, its hierarchy, retainers and scribes, who expounded the Torah (Wright apparently includes the Pharisees), and a land-centered approach to Jewish life.

Wright proffers the controversial view that early Jews believed they were still in exile, even though they were in the Holy Land, and that Jesus came to bring an end to that exile by taking upon himself the punishment for Israel's sins and so set it free. This conclusion rests uneasily with various Gospel pronouncements about the return of the Son of Man. It especially leaves one wondering why someone like Paul, writing well after the crucifixion, might place so much emphasis on future eschatology in texts like 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Wright will have to come to terms with such early Pauline texts in the third volume of the trilogy.

Readers might have been better served if Wright had spent more time on Jesus' miracles and relationships and less on Jesus the wordsmith. More needs to be said about the messianic implications of Jesus the exorcist and miracle worker and about Jesus' presentation of himself as God's Wisdom come in the flesh. Prophetic categories are not fully adequate to describe a person who was known as much for what he did as what he said, and who taught not in a "thus sayeth Yahweh" mode but spoke on his own authority and taught primarily in parables, aphorisms and riddles--the mighty meshalim. Prophetic categories are also stretched to the breaking point by comparing and contrasting Jesus and John the Baptist, who was indeed a prophet and self-consciously styled himself on the prophets of old.

The depth and breadth of Wright's work is profound and impressive, though his lack of attention to detail on important issues of form and redaction criticism will cause some to dismiss his arguments too quickly. Wright prepared readers for his non-Bultmannian approach to such matters in his first volume, which focuses more on first principles and methodology. In most respects Jesus and the Victory of God is the most revealing of all the Jesus books to date, precisely because it takes Jesus' Jewish and Torah-centric matrix so seriously. Wright's work shows that the Third Quest is fertile, not futile, and important both for the church and for its dialogue with the synagogue and the larger Jesus-haunted world.

Anyone who thought that the Jesus Seminar and the Third Quest have eliminated the need to ask profound historical and christological questions about Jesus will be brought up short by Wright's work. Wright allows no radical separation of the theological and social dimensions of Jesus' ministry. "It was because Jesus' agenda was 'theological' from first to last that it was 'social,' envisaging and calling into being cells of followers committed to his way of life. . . It was because this way of life was what it was, while reflecting the theology it did, that Jesus' whole movement was thoroughly and dangerously, 'political."' If nothing else, Wright's work will force us to deal with the problems of anachronism and truncated interpretations of Jesus that lead to such horrible aberrations as anti-Semitism on the one hand and an all-too-modern non-Jewish Jesus on the other.

The book makes clear that interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians can never be easy not least because Jesus was a very Jewish yet complex figure with clear messianic overtones. These overtones and undercurrents call into question the contours of both early Judaism and modern Christianity. Jesus does not fit neatly into the categories of modern Judaism, or modern Western Christianity, or modern Western secularity.

Jesus continues to raise profound questions about what it means to be human, what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Christian. Jesus is still the stumbling block or the building block which defines how we construct our world views. We must still seek to take his measure, even if some choose to avoid measuring themselves by him.


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