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:
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.