Why you should read Wright

Okay, I know some of you will groan at this point (Kate especially). I hate it too when people keep on banging on about their favourite theologian, as if he has the answer to everything. N.T. Wright (known as “Tom Wright” in his popular works) doesn’t have the answer to everything. BUT he is the silver bullet to one particular kind of werewolf: the New Testament historical scholar. The catch here is… N.T. Wright IS an historical scholar of the New Testament. What we have in the (now-retired) Anglican Bishop of Durham is not only an Anglican Bishop of Durham who believes in the Resurrection, but one who believes it is historically verifiable (for a given value of history).

I was first drawn to Wright when I read about his book “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. “I’ve got to read that,” I thought – and then discovered that it is actually volume three of a six volume set “Christian Origins and the Question of God”, three of which have been written and three of which are in production (according to this page, his “big book on Paul” is due out this year). Four years later, and I have read just about everything he has written on St Paul, but am only about two thirds of the way through the second book of the CO&QD series (my aim for my holidays is to finish it).

Now, why should YOU read Wright? In an article being re-run from 2006 by Dr Ian Elmer on Catholica, the “Jesus Seminar” is held up as an example of rigorous historical New Testament scholarship. I’m not quite sure where Dr Elmer sits on this, but the “historical” methodology of the Jesus Seminar is regarded with a good deal of suspicion by other NT scholars.

And this is why you should read Wright. Because he knows perfectly well the “five criteria for judging the historical truth or worth of individual pieces of information (sayings, stories, or events) found in the Gospels”, and rigorously applies them in his own work – more rigourously than the Jesus Seminar does, I might say. Those five criteria are:

1) Embarrassment.
2) Discontinuity or dissimilarity.
3) Multiple Attestations.
4) Coherence or Consistency.
5) Rejection and Execution of Jesus (something that might explain why Jesus died).

N.T. Wright deals with every bit of information available to him in the Quest for the Historical Jesus (part of the “Third Quest”, as he terms it) according to these rules. He applies them with an honesty which outshines the Jesus Seminar bods by miles. But his conclusions are (mirabile dictu!) the polar opposite of those very bods. It seems that there are “historians” and there are historians.

Dr Elmer writes that:

Christianity is a historical religion that takes seriously the belief that God acts in history. It is important for us even today to seek to travel back in time via the historical enterprise to uncover the very foundations of our faith that reside in the Historical Jesus.

And “Amen” to that, I say. But lets put all the cards on the table, and see who the real historians are. If you feel that the Jesus Seminar bods are pulling the historical rug out from beneath your feet, you NEED to read N.T. Wright. If you pay any attention to what “scholars” say (and, granted, not everyone does), then his scholarship will assure you that you are no dope, no idiot, no naive fool for believing that the Orthodox Christian Faith about Jesus of Nazareth is not a “fabrication of the early Church”, but the historical truth about who he really was. The “very foundations of our faith” which “reside in the Historical Jesus” are none other than those foundations which confess the Historical Jesus to be the Christ of faith. (Nb. and if this sounds familiar, it should: it is precisely what is argued by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, in his series of books on Jesus of Nazareth.)

For all that, the road is not easy. There is good reason why it has taken me several years to complete two volumes of Wright’s work. It is very easy to make facile claims about historical facts. It takes a lot more work to discredit such claims and to build up, in response, a credible alternative historical picture. Wright meticulously examines the historical evidence we have concerning Jesus, and, like a New Testament Sherlock Holmes, reconstructs a picture according to the dictum that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

Along the way – if you DO read Wright – you will have some of your perspectives on Jesus challenged. To approach the “Jesus of History” is a fearful task, if for no other reason than that it is precisely in the Jesus of History that God chose to reveal himself.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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10 Responses to Why you should read Wright

  1. Alex Caughey says:

    David,

    I shall follow your advice and read a little of Bishop Tom Wright’s works on The Resurrection, of The Christ in the meantime, I can confirm that I have read just about everything that Dr. Elmer has contributed to Catholica Australia, and also exchanged thoughts with him through various Aussie discussion boards, with much satisfaction knowing that despite not agreeing with all of Ian Elmer’s propositions I have, nevertheless always appreciated his thoughtful, and scholarly methodology leading me to believe that there is much to be learnt from those scholars who challenge my comfort zone.

  2. And I thought Joseph Ratzinger was your favourite theologian, David.
    But, yes, Wright is quite good on the resurrection, which is surprising for an Anglican bishop (how sad one should have that reaction, but that’s partly why I’m an ex-Anglican). I remember in sem I did a presentation on then Abp of Perth Peter Carney’s theology for Maurie Schild for which I read Carnley’s book on the resurrection. I could never quite pin him down on the historicity of the resurrection; he seemed to think the category of historicity was an invalid one for the “Christ event”. Thus Carnley seems to have stumbled into Lessing’s ditch and never come out. I also contacted Carnley’s office in Perth and they kindly sent me oodles of files of his sermons – by a “felicitous inconsistency” his preaching was much better than his theology, thanks be to God!

  3. Ephraem says:

    I have heard Tom Wright a number of times and find his scholarship and capacity to communicate exceptional. I have not read his works but I hope they are as easy to read as he is to listen to.

    I would recommend Larry Hurtado’s book “How On Earth Did Jesus become a God?” he examines closely the language of worship in the New Testament and suggests that far from some invention of the Church or of the victory of the “orthodox” version of Christianity aided or imposed by Constantine in later centuries, that identification of the historical Jesus with God is the most remarkable feature of earliest Christianity. He suggests weeks or months after the resurrection, may be a more reasonable time frame for this God langange about Jesus to have emereged in the first Christian communities.

    Hurtado’s other works on early Christian devotion and artifacts are also worth reading.

  4. Ian Elmer says:

    David and Friends,

    Thanks you for the link to an old article of mine that is little more than a very short introduction to the typical “criteria” used by historical critics to make some judgements concerning the historical data we find in the Scriptures. A big “thank you” to Alex Caughey for his kind words as well.

    In that short article, I did refer people to the website of the Jesus Seminar simply because it is one of the few places online where you can find some relatively accessible discussion of the “criteria”. I would caution readers, however, against placing too much confidence in either the use of this criteria or the Jesus Seminar, which in both cases are far more complex phenomena than would first appear. I am not a devotee of the Jesus Seminar, as can be evidenced from other articles I have written on the divinity of Jesus and on the virginity of Mary. And I would want to supplement the “criteria” listed in your post with a couple of others, including the teaching of the Church down through the ages. What has the church taught consistently about this or that piece of Scripture?

    Ultimately, the scriptures are not straight-forward historical and objective texts that yield reliable information akin to say a police crime report or a thoroughly researched documentary on current events. Ultimately the Gospels specifically and the Bible generally are the products of faith communities that have preserved, augmented and passed on these stories as relevant to their lived faith experience. This, generally, is not the starting point for studies of the “historical Jesus” carried out by members of the Jesus Seminar. Similarly, I would be critical Tom Wright who, at times, is want to accept the historicity of aspects of the New Testament to the detriment of its theological or spiritual significance.

    I am not convinced that we can ever really recover the so-called “historical Jesus” – all such attempts, Tom Wright’s included, are bound to create little more than approximations or temporary, highly speculative constructions (as opposed to “reconstructions”). And such constructions do not supply firm foundations upon which to build faith in the “real Jesus”.

    Tom is great scholar; I would concur with your endorsement of his work. But we must always be careful of becoming a “one-book” theologian. I would encourage people to read a wide variety of scholars, even those they don’t agree with (including scholars from the Jesus Seminar like John Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg, or Robert Funk). One must always be ready to counter misconceptions with good, well argued rebuttals. Just, by-the-by, I would recommend Luke Timothy Johnson’s excellent little book, “The Real Jesus” (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), which offers a great critique of the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus”.

    I agree with Johnson’s view that the only “real Jesus” is not the one found in history books, but “he” who we encounter in the lived and living traditions of the community of faith. The “real Jesus” is alive and active in the Eucharist and the charitable outreach of these communities, all of which draw their inspiration from the Scriptures (but whose meaning and origin are not exhausted by the material found the Scriptures).In Catholic terms, we must grant dual primacy to both Scripture and Tradition (something which even Tom Wright fails to do on occasion).

    Godspeed,

    Ian

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks, Ian, for your comments, which I broadly agree with – although, products of the faith community though they be, I do believe NTW shows convincingly thst they are more historically convincing than thought by many. Because of the paramount importance placed on the science of history in the academic (rather than the faith) community I believe the work of NTW is an inestimable service precisely for the faith community as we go about the work of evangelisation.

      I was initially suspicious of where you were coming from in your article, but I did go back and read your other articles and found my suspicions unwarranted. So I do want to make clear here that I mean no criticism of you in this post. Your comments about the teaching of the Church are particularly relevant as a Catholic theologian in a Catholic institution!

      I will also add that I have downloaded your doctoral thesis and have read a bit of it. I was particularly interested in your treatment of the dating of Galatians, as I too believe it to be one of Paul’s early, perhaps even his first, letters.

      I also add that I am not a “one book” or even “one theologian” reader in NT scholarsip. I do read works of those you have named – for the reasons you outline. I am also a fan of Ben Witherington’s work, which I think is very good indeed.

      Thank you again for visiting and adding your clarifications.

  5. Ian Elmer says:

    Thanks David! I too was not intending to “slap you on the wrist” so to speak viz-a-viz your promotion of Tom Wright. I am fully aware that you are not simply a “one book” theologian. Tom Wright’s output is staggering and keeping abreast of his latest offerings can sometimes mean that we don’t get time to read other scholars who equally can contribute to our growth in understanding. I would also hope that people might take a look at John P. Meier’s magisterial multivolume work on the historical Jesus: “A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus” published by Yale University Press.

    However, most people don’t have the time or the patience to wade through these huge multivolume treatises. I would highly recommend some of our local scholars who have consistently produced very accessible works on the Gospels and Jesus – e.g., Frank Moloney, Bill Loader, Brendan Byrne, Michael Trainor, and Michael Casey, to name only a few.

    Ultimately, though, I’d really encourage people to read the primary text itself – the bible. A good study bible is an important tool here. I favour the wonderful “The Catholic Study Bible” with the New American Bible, published by Oxford University (there is a revised version of te NAB out, but no revised study bible yet). It has a great array of short informative articles by notable Catholic scholars – Donald Senior, Laurence Boadt, Luke Timothy Johnson, Daniel Harrington, John Collins, etc. Similarly the “Oxford Annotated Bible” with the NRSV translation is similarly excellent for personal study. The Nevarre Bible & Commentary collection (compact edition) publishde by Scepter is good too; but I am not sure it comes in a single volume like the other two.

    On the point you raised about the importance of the historical Jesus studies, I too concur with your view in broad terms. But I think we should be aware of the very limitations of “Quest” for the historical Jesus. The “Quest” has never yeilded up anything other than a plethora of “Jesuses”, each one reflective of a diffrent scholar’s imagination. Such different outcomes have all been achieved using the same “evidence” and the same “criteria” for judging the evidence. And maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising, since I think that the “real Jesus” (even the actual Jesus who lived, worked, preached, died and rose 2000 years ago) cannot be easily pigeonholed. I guess no “real” person can; but even less so one who is both human and divine. He can only be “encountered” via a personal relationship. No amount of historical digging and reconstructing will replace simple reading, reflection and prayer (albeit within the context and tradition of a faith community).

    I believe wholeheartedly that one cannot fully appreciate the meaning of scripture outside that community (liturgical, theological, spiritual) context. These documents grew out of community worship; they are liturgical documents. Any hermenuetic that we apply to the reading of these documents must take that seriously; we cannot read the Bible apart from the faith context and expect it to yield up anything other than ambiguous strands of disparate pieces of historical information.

    • Alex Caughey says:

      I agree with Ian when he states that Jesus can only be known (encountered) through our personal relationship with Him.

      Reading Holy Scripture is also part of our encounter with Jesus when our inner inspiration guides us to read verses pertinent to our current needs.

      Our Saviour invites us to enter into our inner chamber where we can meet Him, and discuss those matters that require answers only Divine Wisdom can supply.

      And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.~Romans 8:11

    • Schütz says:

      Dear Ian,

      You rightly perceive that the first problem facing any one who wants to get a good handle on Wright’s work (as I do – I would love to do PhD work on Wright at some stage – are you looking to take on a student?) is faced with the simple challenge that he has produced so much material. Meier’s work has been on my list for some time now, but I wonder if I will ever get to it. If Wright is still writing when he reaches the Pope’s age, the challenge of being a true “one author scholar” in his regard will be virtually impossible.

      I recently read both Byrne’s and Maloney’s commentaries on Mark, and found the former much more helpful as a reading of the Gospel both from a personal spiritual point of view and from the point of view of a teacher of the text. I know Fr Byrne and it is good to hear an author’s voice in his work. But I am doing a course with Fr Maloney next week, so I look forward to getting to know him better too. Again on Mark, I also found Ben Witherington’s introduction to Mark – almost 1/3 if his commentary – very very useful.

      I would want to tread carefully in talking about the “real” Jesus too. The danger is, as I said earlier, that “Jesus” becomes an inkblot for our own ideas. The teaching of the Church can save us here. But we also need to be confident that the Jesus we encounter in the Scriptures – no less than he Jesus we encounter in the Eucharist – IS the real Jesus. Although both the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church are products of the believing community, we are also confident (in the Holy Spirit) that the “Real” Jesus is known through them. And because our faith is a belif about domething that actually happened in history, we need not fear that rigourous scientific historical investigation will do anything other than strengthen the foundations of our faith.

  6. Ian Elmer says:

    Always happy to take on new students, David. One word of warning, though: if you are seriously thinking of a PhD try to arrive at a very narrow topic. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to cover a subject in a mere 100000 words. A study of Wright’s corpus would be impossible.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I know. “Coming up with a narrow topic” is one reason for stalling on this. I am particularly interested – as an ecumenist as well as a student of the New Testament – in what Wright’s take on Paul’s doctrine of justification has to offer the Catholic Lutheran dialogue. It seems to me there are possibilities here, especially in the light if the Joint Declaration. But to do this well, one would need a thoroughgoing understanding of Wright’s whole hermeneutical picture, hence my attempt to read all his major works.

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