Archive for April 19th, 2010

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

As I continue my reflections on this historic conference, I want to state at the outset of this post that all of the participants are my professional colleagues, people with whom I have worked and/or interacted, and many of them are my friends, including Bishop Tom. So any criticisms I offer are those of a friendly critic.

I do not intend to give full summaries of the various papers. But Marcus Maher, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School student who was at the conference, has done a look of summarizing over at his blog, Seeking the truth…

Day one of the conference, Friday, was dedicated to the Bishop’s treatment of Jesus and its theological implications, especially in his justly famous 1996 book Jesus and the Victory of God. The morning session was as follows:

“Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” by Richard Hays (Duke)

“The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God,” by Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller)

Richard Hays is probably the most respected American New Testament scholar and a long-time friend of Tom Wright. As always, Richard’s paper was incredibly well done, and one of the two or three from the conference that everyone interested in NTW or NT Theology needs to view, hear, or read. It was both a summary and a critique of Tom’s methodology in the study of Jesus and a public rejoinder to Tom’s devastating SBL review of the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus, edited by Richard and Princeton’s Beverly Gaventa. At that session, I remember Richard’s initial reaction to Tom’s review: “It makes me wonder if you read the book.” The tension over that book and the issues it raises have no doubt strained their friendship, and this paper and its hoped-for but unfortunately postponed dialogue (since Richard had to leave) can be seen in part as an attempt to heal the rift.

So what is the issue between Wright and Hays? It is the age-old tension between the so-called Jesus of history and the so-called Christ of faith, which has to get worked out in each new generation of theologians and scholars. More specifically, it is the relationship between, and the significance assigned to, the first-century Jew known through historical reconstruction and the no-less-Jewish but living Jesus whose identity is revealed in the canonical gospels and in the Christian tradition. In my view, Tom and Richard are actually closer together than they can sometimes appear to be, and their differences may be largely a matter of emphasis—though I’m not 100% sure either of them would agree with me on this.

After reviewing seven dimensions of NTW’s distinctive methodology for studying the historical Jesus and pointing out its principal strengths, especially vis-à-vis certain other approaches, Hays raised some concerns and questions, and then asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Among the most important points in Hays’s paper (meaning the ones I agree with most strongly):

• The story of Israel and Jesus that NTW posits as the biblical meta-narrative is never actually told anywhere in the NT; it is not the story proclaimed by any of the evangelists, nor is it the story of Jesus found in later Christian confession. I would say that this does not necessarily make it wrong, but it does make it suspect—or at least in need of nuancing. Hays rightly contends that sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.

• The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).

• The absence of the Gospel of John from NTW’s historical reconstruction is hermeneutically significant. Tom later replied that he did not include John for apologetic reasons—he would not have been taken seriously as a scholar of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, in light of recent scholarly developments, that situation is quite different now, and John’s gospel is receiving renewed attention for its possible contributions to understanding the historical Jesus. Maybe NTW would consider John if he were writing Jesus and the Victory of God today.

• The starting point for, and the basic fact of, a Christian statement about the identity of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. It is the key to any ultimately truthful and meaningful historical account of him. How would NTW as the author of The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) reconceive the project taken on in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)?

• There is no need to bracket out the Christian tradition in our quest to understand and identify Jesus. Richard implied what another panelist, Edith Humphrey, said the next day: that the effects of Jesus tell us something important about him as an historical figure.

Marianne’s paper developed a point made by Richard—the problem of the neglect of John in Jesus and the Victory of God. She made two especially important observations:

• The destruction of the Temple, which occurs early in John, would likely signal, not the end of exile, but a new exile, or at least divine judgment. What does one (especially NTW) do with that?

• Ironically, the Jesus of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God (taking on the role of YHWH, etc.) might look a lot more like the Jesus of John than of the synoptics. Actually, I think the work of Kavin Rowe on Luke and the forthcoming work of Richard Hays on the use of Scripture in the gospels indicate that all the evangelists saw Jesus as identified in a significant way with YHWH. But the standard critical interpretation of the differentiation between the synoptics and John on this matter makes Marianne’s point at least interesting and probably valid.

Clearly these two papers gave and give both Bishop Tom and the rest of us much to consider.

Three thoughts on all of this:

1. Later on in the panel (I think), Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel. I have heard him register this complaint before, and I share his concern to a point, as I share his similar concern that the creeds skip from Jesus’ birth to his passion.

One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.

2. Someone on the panel spoke about a two-dimensional (purely historical) versus a three-dimensional (historical plus theological/canonical/creedal) interpretation of Jesus. I have to think more about this image, but if it is valuable, it reinforces my previous point. As Christians, we cannot think only two-dimensionally, historically (Jesus the first-century Jew), but neither can we skip the two dimensions, however flat they may be, and pretend that Jesus can be known only in the third dimension of canon/creed/theology. Or, better put—if the two-dimensional (historical) Jesus is inseparably part of the three-dimensional Jesus, then it is better to say that understanding Jesus historically, at least in regard to some basic aspects, is not merely an historical task but an essential part of the theological task, of understanding Jesus theologically. This is because, at the very least, (1) incarnation and resurrection and parousia all have something to do with history, and (2) failing to identify Jesus as a Jew, and a particular kind of Jew (the One who brought salvation to and through Israel), is a fundamental theological error in all sorts of ways.

3. It may be that Bishop Tom’s reading of Jesus, even in Jesus and the Victory of God, is more theological than he might want to admit. That’s OK. He’s a Christian! But that does not make his reading any less historical, or any less valid, in my view, because his implicit theological vision is fundamentally both historically and theologically true.

To summarize briefly: it’s a both-and, not an either-or; historical and theological readings of Jesus need to go hand in hand.

At almost 1,500 words, I will stop here and say something briefly about the Friday afternoon session in the next post.


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