Part I: Introduction

The book begins by setting in place the two poles of 20th century New Testament scholarship, Schweitzer and Bultmann, who in radically different ways demonstrated that the fundamental puzzle of the New Testament was an historical one (5).

The legacy of these ‘giants’ has been a split between history and theology that has dominated recent western Christian thought: either the writing of New Testament history is made subservient to theological presuppositions or it is undertaken with the expectation that orthodox theology will be undermined. So write insists:

The underlying argument of this book is that the split is not warranted: that rigorous history (i.e. open-ended investigation of actual events in first-century Palestine) and rigorous theology (i.e. open-ended investigation of what the word ‘god’, and hence the adjective ‘divine’, might actually refer to) belong together, and never more so than in discussion of Jesus. (8)

Wright’s aim, therefore, is to reconnect history and theology – the ‘Jesus of History’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. He likens historical study to the prodigal son of Jesus’ story, who is in the process of being rehabilitated but who is not always welcomed by the various ‘elder brothers’ of Christian orthodoxy (9-10).

Wright then outlines the various ‘quests’ for Jesus that have been undertaken throughout the history of New Testament theology.

1. The primary interest of the reformers was in the death of Jesus as a saving event that, in practice, had very little to do with the historical circumstances of his life: “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?’” (14). In short, they were much more interested in theology than in history.

2. The critical movement, beginning with Reimarus (1694-1768), the ‘great iconoclast’, reacted against theological orthodoxy and sketched a supposedly ‘historical’ Jesus in keeping with the ideals of rationalism – a ‘timeless teacher of eternal verities’ (20). For Schweitzer, on the other hand, Jesus could only be understood against the backdrop of a thoroughly Jewish apocalypticism: he believed that God was about to bring the world to an end. ‘When this did not happen, and the great wheel of history refused to turn, he threw himself upon it, was crushed in the process, but succeeded in turning it none the less’ (19).

3. Schweitzer’s critique of the old ‘quest’ for Jesus was so devastating and his own solution so disturbing that New Testament theology again lost its historical nerve and recentred itself around the Christ of faith. Bultmann translated eschatology into existentialism. The ‘personality’ of Jesus could not be recovered from the documents and was in any case irrelevant for theology. The stories found in the gospels, purporting to be historical, were in reality faith-statements about the risen Christ and provided evidence only for the faith of the early church. Moreover, to have any value for the church today, they would have to be stripped of their mythological trappings – demythologized. The next change of tack came with ¤semann’s famous lecture on ‘The problem of the Historical Jesus’ in 1953, in which he argued, in Wright’s words, that ‘if Jesus was not earthed in history then he might be pulled in any direction, might be made the hero of any theological or political programme’ (23). This ‘new quest’, however, has proved less successful than we might have hoped, chiefly because it failed to shake off ‘the outdated view of apocalyptic as meaning simply the expectation of the end of the world, in a crudely literalistic sense’ (24).

Wright concludes that 200 years of research has ‘put the historical question firmly and irrevocably on the theological map, but without providing a definite answer to it’. The great works of modern systematic theology, and especially christology, have indicated the importance of the question of the historical Jesus, but Wright maintains that at no point has ‘the full impact of the historical evidence been allowed to influence very much the dogmatic conclusions reached’ 26).

The ‘New Quest’ renewed: Jesus seminar, Mack, Crossan, Borg

1. Wright regards the ‘Jesus Seminar’, founded by Robert Funk in 1985, as essentially a reinvigoration of ‘post-Bultmannian study of Jesus’ (29). He levels two principle charges against the project. First, it has relied on a positivistic methodology that is ‘quite out of place in serious historical scholarship’. Secondly, ‘the way the system operates… demonstrates simply that a certain swathe of modern American scholarship has opted, largely a priori in terms of the present exercise, for one particular way of understanding who Jesus was and how the early church developed’ 31-32). Wright concludes:

What is afoot, at least in the ‘results’ available thus far, is not the detailed objective study of individual passages, leading up to a new view of Jesus and the early church. It is a particular view of Jesus and the early church, working its way through into a detailed list of sayings that fit with this view. Once this is recognized, it should also be seen that the real task, still awaiting all students of Jesus, is th at of major hypothesis and serious verification, not pseudo-atomistic work on apparently isolated fragments. (33)

2. Burton Mack argues for a two stage development in early Christianity: the Q material in Matthew and Luke casts Jesus as a Cynic sage telling subversive stories; Mark, however, invents a myth about Jesus as the innocent son of God who announces the end of the world, which forms the basis for the later Hellenistic Christ-cult (35-36). Wright suggests that Mack’s rejection of the apocalyptic Jesus had more than a little to do with a widespread academic reaction against Reaganism in the 1980s. He also offers a critique of the Jesus Seminar’s reliance on Q for developing a portrait of Jesus and the relegation of the apocalyptic material in the gospels to a secondary stage of theological reflection (40-44).

3. Wright regards Crossan’s book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant as a brilliant piece of inventive scholarship but ‘almost entirely wrong’ (44). The heart of Jesus’ activity, according to Crossan, is a highly subversive combination of ‘magic and meal’. On the one hand, miracles were ‘what the Kingdom looked like at the level of political reality’; on the other, the sharing of meals represented ‘a strategy for building or rebuilding peasant community on radically different principles from those of honor and shame, patronage and clientage’ (57-58). Wright’s objection to this vision is not that it gives Jesus’ ministry a social and political slant but that ‘in grasping the way in which Jesus’ programme cut against the normal social expectations of Mediterranean peasant culture, Crossan… has radically and consistently underplayed the specifically Jewish dimension both of the culture itself and of Jesus’ agenda for it’ (58).

4. A section is devoted to the view held widely by proponents of this renewed ‘New Quest’ that the Jesus material has much in common with Cynic philosophy. Wright admits the possibility of a superficial similarity between Christianity and Cynicism but insists that the core of the Jesus tradition is not the timeless challenge of the Cynic but ‘the very specific note that Israel’s god, the creator of the world, is bringing Israel’s and the world’s history to an awesome climax, so that urgent action is called for if Israel is to escape cataclysmic judgment’ (72).

5. Wright locates Marcus Borg between the Jesus Seminar and the “post-Schweitzer ‘Third Quest’ ”. Borg follows Schweitzer in setting Jesus within Jewish apocalyptic but argues for an historical and political interpretation of apocalyptic language. He depicts Jesus as a rather complex, multilayered figure: religious ecstatic, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement founder (76). Wright’s main criticism is that Borg’s Jesus uses the language of eschatology to express ‘the essentially timeless truth that God is always available to human beings, and requires compassion rather than exclusive and oppressive ways of life’ (77).

In conclusion, Wright lists the main weaknesses of the New Quest: i) an over-reliance on the sayings of Jesus; ii) the failure to develop a large historical hypothesis; and iii) a flawed account of Christian origins. He summarizes the difference between the renewed New Quest and the Third Quest:

The ‘Jesus Seminar’ has rejected Jewish eschatology, particularly apocalyptic, as an appropriate con­text for understanding Jesus himself, and in order to do so has declared the Markan narrative a fiction. The ‘Third Quest’, without validating Mark in any simplistic way, has placed Jesus precisely within his Jewish eschatological context, and has found in consequence new avenues of secure historical investigation opening up before it. (81)

The ‘Third Quest’

With the shift to the ‘Third Quest’ certain basic questions arise:

Jesus’ message is evaluated, not for its timeless significance, but for the meaning it must have had for the audience of his own day, who had their minds full of poverty and politics, and would have had little time for theological abstractions or timeless verities. The crucifixion, long recognized as an absolute bedrock in history, is now regularly made the centre of our understanding: what must Jesus have been like if he ended up on a Roman cross? (85)

Wright identifies five major questions that set the agenda for the Third Quest, ‘with a sixth always waiting in the wings’.

1. How does Jesus fit into Judaism? Was he a thoroughly Jewish type, indistinguishable from other figures of his time? Was he quite out-of-place in his culture, an alien? Or does he confront and challenge Judaism, seeking to recover ‘a key part of the Jewish heritage itself’ (93)? This is Borg’s argument: Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees ‘not because Judaism is the wrong sort of religion; it is because Israel has forgotten her vocation’. Wright summarizes at this juncture the argument of The New Testament and the People of God about apocalyptic language, which he characterizes as ‘an elaborate metaphor-system for investing historical events with theological significance’ (96). Jesus’ warnings about imminent judgment, therefore, ‘were intended to be taken as denoting (what we would call) socio-political events, seen as the climactic moment in Israel’s history, and, in consequence, as constituting a summons to national repentance’ (97). This has the implication, finally, that Jesus’ theology was thoroughly ‘political’, if by ‘politics’ we mean ‘the concern about the structure and purpose of a historic community’ (Borg).

2. What were Jesus’ aims? The traditional pre-critical view is that ‘Jesus came to die for the sins of the world, and/or to found the church’. The Old Quest, and to a large extent the New Quest, regarded Jesus as essentially a teacher. Most Third Quest writers start with the assumption that Jesus’ purpose had to do with the kingdom. Three questions need to be addressed: i) Did Jesus change his mind at any point in his life? ii) Did he go to Jerusalem with the intention of dying there? iii) Did he believe that he had a special or unique role in the kingdom?

3. Why did Jesus die? Wright carefully differentiates between historical and theological answers to this question and then sets out the range of possible answers to the historical question. He suggests, however, that the Third Quest has tended to focus in particular on Jesus’ attitude towards the temple as a primary reason for his death (108). This sort of investigation, however, does not disqualify the theological question because the theological interpretation (‘Christ died for our sins’) was applied to his death very early in the Christian tradition.

4. How and why did the early church begin? In first century Judaism the execution of a messianic or revolutionary leader usually led to the defeat or disappearance of his followers. This did not happen following the death of Jesus. So the question arises:

why and how did the early disciples, shattered as they had been by the crucifixion of their master, regroup and go out to face persecution for declaring that in him the hope of Israel had quite literally come to life? Why did they then organize themselves and act in the way that they did, and, in particular, why (granted their abiding commitment to Jewish-style monotheism) did they begin very early on to worship Jesus, and to include him in Jewish-style monotheistic formulae? (111)

5. Why are the gospels what they are? This question goes beyond the scope of the current book, but it remains a test of any historical hypothesis about Jesus that it is also able to explain why the gospels are what they are (112-113).

The sixth question: “How does the Jesus we discover by doing ‘history’ relate to the contemporary church and the world?”. Wright reiterates the point that theology has often regarded historical research as a threat: ‘To put it bluntly, if one locates Jesus in first-century Palestine, one risks the possibility that he might have little to say to twentieth-century Europe, America or anywhere else’ (117). There are two particular areas of interest here. The first is a perceived tendency in modern scholarship to want to correct older ‘anti-semitic’ theologies. The second is the sensitive question of christology: ‘Is it possible to proceed, by way of historical study, to a portrait of Jesus which is sufficient of itself to evoke, or at least legitimate, that worship which Christianity has traditionally offered to him?” (120) The difficulty of reconciling the historical and theological readings of the gospels is illustrated with reference to three writers (Schillebeecks, Harvey, and Witherington) who have not been altogether successful in their attempts to move from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith.

Wright suggests, in conclusion, that history may result in a new perspective on theology: “when the New Testament writers speak of their encounter with Jesus as an encounter with Israel’s god, they are redefining what ‘god’ (or even ‘God’) means at least as much as they are redefining who Jesus was and is” (123).

Prodigals and paradigms

Wright returns to the parable of the ‘prodigal son’ and makes a remarkable interpretive proposal – that it should be understood fundamentally as ‘the story of Israel, in particular of exile and restoration’ (126). Israel went into exile ‘in a far country’ because of her own folly and is now returning ‘simply because of the fantastically generous, indeed prodigal, love of her god’. (See the commentary for a discussion of this interpretation.) The retelling, however, is subversive in that the ‘real return from exile, including the real resurrection from the dead, is taking place, in an extremely paradoxical fashion, in Jesus’ own ministry’. The parable, according to this reading, encapsulates perfectly the shape of Jesus’ ministry and his place within the story of Israel. By associating with sinners Jesus acts out ‘the great healing, the great restoration, of Israel’; he is ‘reconstituting Israel around himself’ (130-131).

This approach points to a ‘basic hypothesis’ that will address the five questions outlined in the previous section. Wright’s overview of this process is worth quoting at length:

(1) Jesus fits believably into first-century Judaism, retelling its stories in new but thoroughly com­prehensible ways. He speaks and acts, and is perceived to be speaking and acting, prophetically, challenging his hearers to recognize that in him the new thing for which they have longed is, however paradoxically, coming to pass.

(2) He believes himself, much as John the Baptist had done, to be charged with the god-given responsibility of regrouping Israel around him­self. But this regrouping is no longer a preliminary preparation for the return from exile, the coming of the kingdom; it is the return, the redemption, the resurrection from the dead. As a result, it is also a counter-Temple move­ment, and is perceived as such. It also puts Jesus in a different position to John.

(3) For all these reasons, it will arouse hostility. During the course of Jesus’ ministry, this may well come from the Pharisees. If the message is ever to be spoken or acted in Jerusalem itself, hostility will come from the Temple authorities. If the Romans hear of a major renewal movement among the Jews, they too will want to stamp it out.

(4) If this proclamation were to end simply with the shameful death of its proclaimer, that would be that: a beautiful dream, with all the charm, and the brief life-span, of a butterfly. But if it were vindicated after that shameful death, there would be every reason to continue to believe that the kingdom had indeed arrived, in however paradoxical a fashion.

Every reason, too, for the all-embracing wel­come then to be extended in a new way to Gentiles; and (5) for a writer like Luke to retell the original story with an eye to this new, but theologically consistent, setting. Thus, in a nutshell, the parable of the prodigal father points to the hypothesis of the prophetic son: the son, Israel-in-person, who will himself go into the far country, who will take upon himself the shame of Israel’s exile, so that the kingdom may come, the covenant be renewed, and the prodigal welcome of Israel’s god, the creator, be extended to the ends of the earth. (132-133, paragraph breaks added)

Wright moves on to discuss the role of stories in peasant society, drawing especially on the work of Kenneth Bailey and his description of ‘informal and controlled oral traditions’ (134). This is part of his argument against the renewed New Quest: ‘the narrative form is unlikely to be a secondary accretion around an original aphorism: stories are fundamental’ (136).

Finally, in this introductory part of the book, Wright discusses some methodological issues relating to ‘worldviews’ and ‘mindsets’. He describes a cyclical analytical process: a person’s actions and words give rise to a characteristic praxis, in the light of which the actions and words are seen to tell stories, generate and modify symbols, and address the deep questions that all worldviews attempt to answer. This plotting of a person’s worldview/mindset provides the basis for an analysis of beliefs and aims, and of consequent beliefs and intentions, which brings back to the starting point of actions and words (142).

This analytical structure will shape the programme for the remainder of the work:

The aim of the next Part of the book will thus be to plot Jesus’ distinctive mindset within the Jewish worldview of his day. We shall first set out the basic material we know, by more or less common consent, about Jesus; this leads directly to the praxis which his contemporaries regarded as character­istic of him, which we shall study in chapter 5. We shall then examine the stories Jesus told, including of course the parables (chapters 6-8); his attitude towards the symbols of Judaism, and the conflict which this brought about (chapter 9); and the answers he gave to the basic worldview questions (chap­ter 10). Once we have thus completed the four quadrants of the worldview, we will be able, in Part III, to explore the beliefs and aims in which this found particular expression, and so see our way back towards the particular consequent beliefs and intentions which generated the central actions through which his public career gained its particular shape and came to its particular conclusion. In the course of this we will look in particular at Jesus’ own sense of vocation and identity, and his attitude to his own approaching death. (142-143)