[This post is part of the Christian Origins and The Question of God series]
Last Friday, I told you we were starting a review series through N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God. Today then, we’ve got our first look at Jesus and The Victory of God thanks to Fortress Press.
The introduction of Wright’s book takes four chapters:
- Jesus Then and Now
- Heavy Traffic on Wredebahn: The “New Quest” Renewed?
- Back to the Future: The “Third Quest”
- Prodigals and Paradigms
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Jesus Then and Now
In the opening chapter, Wright is more or less setting the stage for another book looking into the life of Jesus. His approach is building on his earlier work – necessarily so, for “what we say about Jesus is thus inextricably intertwined with what say about the first century as whole” (5).I haven’t finished reading The New Testament and The People of God, but Wright often summarizes the salient point from his previous book and his footnotes point you back to the place where more detailed discussion takes place.
Those readers most familiar with the landscape of New Testament studies will be able to follow this chapter and the others in the introductory section most easily. Reader’s who are perhaps interested in what Wright is going to get around to saying about Jesus could probably skip ahead to the final chapter in the introduction.
Throughout the rest of this particular chapter, Wright is attempting to situate his approach on the “map” of New Testament studies (11). His argument is necessarily historical (13) and so in many ways, this book is a historical work. However, for Wright, historical work doesn’t take place in isolation from theology and theological questions emerge from the study. Rather, for Wright the gospels give us historical stories with theological significance. His concern is to dig deeply into the historical in order to better understand the theological
Heavy Traffic on Wredebahn: The “New Quest” Renewed?
Having surveyed almost 200 years of the twists and turns of New Testament studies, Wright comes to more recent history in chapter 2. Here, the concern seems to be ground clearing for the path to a real historical Jesus. As part of that ground clearing effort, Wright engages the Jesus Seminar, Burton L. Mack, J. Dominic Crossan, and Marcus J. Borg. While previously Wright had written off this collection of scholars associated with the “New Quest” for the historical Jesus (78), he now sees them as important conversation partners. Though he is not in full agreement with their frame of reference, he nonetheless wants to include some of their insights into the discussion. The sense I had from reading this is that Wright is willing to play the critical scholar’s game, but is going to do so in order to come to more orthodox conclusions.
Back to the Future: The “Third Quest”
The frame of reference that Wright is more comfortable using (with modifications of course) is the one associated with the so-called “Third Quest.” This Third Quest includes such familiar names as G. B. Caird, Martin Hengel, E. P. Sanders, and Ben Witherington (84, Wright lists many more), though as anyone familiar with these authors will note, they are certainly not completely unified in everything they say. The quest though is centered around answering 5 particular questions:
- How does Jesus fit into Judaism?
- What were Jesus’ aims?
- Why did Jesus die?
- How and why did the early church begin?
- Why are the Gospels what they are?
As Wright notes, these are interdependent questions that cannot be completely answered in isolation. Rather, “together they form the jigsaw of Jesus himself, which is itself a piece in the larger jigsaw of the rise of Christianity as a whole” (113). This points to two headings which you could combine the questions under:
- Jesus’ relation to Judaism
- Jesus’ relation to the early church
Wright then details how different scholars have answered these questions and how it impacts the other questions involved. Afterwards, he proposes a sixth question:
- How does the Jesus we discover by doing “history” relate to the contemporary church and world? (117)
Prodigals and Paradigms
Toward this end, Wright then turns to offer a kind of “philosophy of history.” He opens by connecting history to story and presents one of the most well-known stories: the prodigal son(s). Wright uses this as a case study to preview where the rest of the book is going. It is here too that Wright introduces his oft repeated and frequently disputed theme of exile: “in Jesus’ day many, if not most, Jews regarded the exile as still continuing” (126). For Wright, exile and restoration are “the central drama that Israel believed herself to be acting out” (127).
From this starting point, Wright expounds the nature of stories and worldviews and illuminates the relationship between the two. This occupied a couple of early chapters in The New Testament and The People of God and Wright encapsulates the arguments briefly here. In the end, he sets the stage nicely for exploring how Jesus fit into his first-century Jewish context and opens the way for a more detailed analysis in the next section.
For that, you’ll have wait until next week!