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An Analysis of N.T. Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus"

An Analysis of N.T. Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus"

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Published by Ken McDuff
In this paper, I review N.T. Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus." Wright embraces historical scholarship as a means of providing answers regarding Jesus’ identity, but he arrives at different conclusions than many others on the Third Quest. Wright's book (and his fuller volume, "Jesus and the Victory of God") comes closer to an evangelical understanding in assessing who Jesus was and is than others who pursue an historical-critical approach, but I found Wright’s discussion to be lucid and intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing.
In this paper, I review N.T. Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus." Wright embraces historical scholarship as a means of providing answers regarding Jesus’ identity, but he arrives at different conclusions than many others on the Third Quest. Wright's book (and his fuller volume, "Jesus and the Victory of God") comes closer to an evangelical understanding in assessing who Jesus was and is than others who pursue an historical-critical approach, but I found Wright’s discussion to be lucid and intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing.

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Published by: Ken McDuff on Feb 08, 2011
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09/28/2013

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Faith Seeking Understanding

An Analysis of N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus
© Ken McDuff, 2011

In recent years, many New Testament scholars have focused on the historical setting of Jesus’ life and ministry in an attempt to determine His true identity. The result of this historical-critical approach has been widespread rejection of the notion that Jesus viewed Himself as Messiah. E.P. Sanders argues that Jesus was simply an eschatological prophet whose agenda was to restore righteousness in Israel. 1 Geza Vermes contends that Jesus was a charismatic holy man similar to other religious leaders of His day, 2 and Marcus Borg’s perspective is similar: Jesus was a “Spirit-person” with a unique connection to the divine. 3 In comparison, N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus (and his fuller volume, Jesus and the Victory of God) comes much closer to an evangelical understanding in assessing who Jesus was and is. Wright embraces historical scholarship as a means of providing answers regarding Jesus’ identity, but he arrives at different conclusions than many others on the Third Quest. As is characteristic of Third Quest scholarship (in the mold of Schweitzer), Wright is concerned with understanding Jesus within the first century Jewish milieu. After introducing his methodology (chapter one), he considers what Jesus had in mind when he preached about the kingdom of God (chapters two and three). Wright then explores Jesus' intention in His last, fateful journey to Jerusalem (chapter four) and considers Jesus’

self-understanding (chapter five). Recognizing that the resurrection is at the heart of Christian faith, Wright also addresses the question of the church’s beginnings following the resurrection (chapter six). His motivation in this work is to provide ammunition for Christians to shape the postmodern (and “post-postmodern”) world, and Wright concludes with a call for today’s church to tell the story and announce the message of the Kingdom (chapters seven and eight). In the postmodern world, the gospel of Jesus cannot be effectively communicated by, as Wright says, hurling doctrine at it (p. 167). “Our task,” he argues, “is to discover, in practice, what the equivalent of the resurrection might be within our culture and for our times” (p. 170). I found Wright’s discussion to be lucid and intriguing, but ultimately unconvincing. Reading Wright was like having him leading me down a garden path. At first, the way seemed pleasant and lovely, but the further down the path he took me, the more suspicious I became of the ultimate destination. In the final analysis, I was not sure that I could fully trust him; I was always on the lookout for potholes in the path, and weeds among the flowers. Wright's methodology differs from many Third Quest scholars in his stated rejection of the dichotomy between history and theology (p. 16). I certainly agree with Wright that serious students of the Gospels should not

Faith Seeking Understanding

fear historical assessment, nor should historians fear theological reflection. A theology of Jesus must be consistent with the historical record. And yet there is little doubt that Wright approaches the life and teaching of Jesus from an historical framework first and foremost. He agrees with the necessity of challenging the traditional view of Jesus, an endeavor that was sparked in the context of eighteenth century rationalism when the lecture notes of Hermann Samuel Reimarus were published. 4 His intent is the same as Reimarus: “to shake European Christianity out of its dogmatism” (p. 20). While I agree that the Christian faith should not rest on mistaken Christological notions, Wright wanders too far down the path in treating with disdain the hard work of theological development undertaken in the patristic and medieval church. Like so many since who have searched for the “real Jesus,” Wright seems to embrace the historical-critical method as the best means of arriving at the truth about Jesus, ultimately making theology subservient to history. Perhaps it is unfair to characterize Wright in this way. His task in this work is to seek out the Jesus of first century Judaism, not to develop a full-orbed Christology. He is simply engaging in the battle where the battle is being fought. Therefore, he must appeal to history to answer the skeptics who maintain that Christianity is founded on a mistaken caricature of Jesus rooted in the speculations of the early church rather than first century historical realities. True to his methodological moorings, he adds a theological perspective throughout, but his theology flows out of his

historical reconstruction of the first century setting. When theology is brought into the mix, Wright tends toward a metaphorical understanding and makes much—too much, it seems to me—of the symbols he finds surrounding Jesus’ ministry. A primary metaphor for Wright is that of exile and restoration. In addition to the obvious geographical component, he extends the Jewish exile to a theological state and asserts that Jesus came to enact the return from exile. This path was certainly intriguing, but I soon questioned where Wright was leading. While it is true that Wright is not alone in this view,5 it does not seem at all clear to me that exilic themes play out in Jesus’ life to the extent that Wright suggests. The Old Testament passages that warn of exile seem to be much more literal than Wright allows. I did not find the support that Wright claims in the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Even Klyne Snodgrass, who agrees with Wright’s overall assessment, argues that Wright has “pushed [these two parables] beyond their purpose and made [them] conform to [his] emphasis.”6 Snodgrass refers to this as “overreading.” I would propose another term: In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright states that “all history involves imaginative reconstruction;”7 it seems to me that not only Wright's history, but also his theology has undergone a bit of “imaginative reconstruction.” What drives Wright's methodology is an attempt to understand why Jesus was crucified. 8 His conclusion is that Jesus’ messianic claims threatened both Jewish

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Faith Seeking Understanding

religious leaders and Roman authorities. In coming to this conclusion, Wright examines closely the intent that governed Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and His actions prior to His death: “Did Jesus intend or expect to die as part of his vocation?” (p. 74). Wright interprets Jesus exclusively in terms of Israel: Jesus had no intention of founding the church; His aim was to reform Israel. According to Wright, Jesus’ death is rooted in the story of Yahweh's redemption of Israel and provides the climactic scene. Jesus came to take upon Himself the judgment of God that was soon to fall on Israel and, in so doing, to restore Israel. Wright argues, then, that Jesus thought of himself as Messiah and that He believed His messianic vocation was to die on behalf of Israel and the world. Wright points to numerous “riddles” and symbols to support these contentions, focusing primarily on His temple-action (symbolic of God's judgment) and the Last Supper. What most intrigued me in Wright's work, however, was chapter five, entitled “Jesus and God,” and it is on Wright's conclusions regarding Jesus' selfunderstanding that I will focus in the rest of this paper. Wright not only suggests that Jesus understood Himself to be the Messiah who was to die in place of Israel, but He believed Himself to be the embodiment of Israel's God. The primary question Wright addresses is, “Did Jesus know he was God?” Wright quickly and rightly dismisses the idea that Jesus would have thought of himself in terms that Enlightenment Deism might use of God (distant, detached, uninvolved). He then proceeds to tackle the real issue of Jesus’ deity.

His starting point is to define God (“god”) in the context of first century Judaism: The Jews believed in a specific God, of whom there was only one, who had made the whole world and who was present to it and active within it while remaining sovereign over it and mysteriously other than it. They knew this God as… YHWH (p. 101). He reduces this to two assertions: first century Jews believed in one Creator God (monotheism), and He had chosen to work through Israel to accomplish His divine purposes (election). Jewish writings during the second-Temple period also indicated an expectation of, first, God's return to Zion and, secondly, the enthronement of God “and of someone to share that throne” (p. 101-103). Wright concludes that a unique agent of God, perhaps an angel or a human being, might reasonably fulfill these expectations without violating what was, in reality, a complex Jewish view of monotheism. Wright acknowledges that the earliest Christian traditions identified Jesus as deity, but stops short of attributing this claim to Jesus Himself. The terms “messiah” and “son of God,” Wright argues, did not connote divinity in Jesus’ day, and neither would Jesus’ resurrection, which would have been expected of all righteous dead, have implied deity. Ultimately, Wright concludes that Jesus did not know that He was God “in the sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty” (p. 121), nor did He claim to be God; instead, He claimed to replace the Temple as the “place” where God was present and active with Israel (p. 111). Wright is not suggesting that Jesus is not the second person of the Trinity, only that
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An Analysis of N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus

Faith Seeking Understanding

He failed to recognize Himself to be so—or at least would not have described Himself in that way. Wright defines Jesus’ selfunderstanding in terms of vocation, arguing that Jesus believed he had to do and be what only Yahweh could do and be (p. 122). Does this place Wright's Jesus on orthodox ground? Maybe, but the ground seems shaky to me, no more so than when Wright reads doubt into Jesus’ thinking about His objectives: [Jesus] must have known that he might have been deeply mistaken. The aims and goals which we must postulate if we are to make sense of his praxis, stories and symbols must have involved him in what we might call a great Pascalian wager, staking all on his vocation and vision. It was, after all, a huge gamble. Messiahs were supposed to defeat pagans, not die at their hands. 9 It is this Jesus that bothers me—the one that Wright places so squarely in the context of first century Judaism that His perspective seems limited to that time and space. Wright's historical Jesus falls short of the Christ of faith. Wright would argue that this is as far as we can go toward Jesus' divinity in the basis of the historical data. He has, in fact, demonstrated by first century historical study alone that Jesus believed His vocation to be the embodiment of Yahweh (p. 122). Admittedly, that is a great deal to be able to say if restricted to an historical approach, and Wright has been rightfully commended for it. It seems, however, to argue against his contention that theology must not be divorced from history. If the historical Jesus is reduced

in stature and being-even slightly-because His true nature cannot be demonstrated historically, the Christ of faith is likewise reduced. “Wright’s dogged insistence on rooting Jesus in first century Judaism yields a convincing picture of Jesus as a prophet and messiah,” writes Carey Newman, “but how much more?” The answer: a bit more. Wright comes close to expressing Jesus’ deity—Wright's Jesus walks and talks like God—but Wright’s Jesus was not certain about His identity, only His vocation. And if Jesus did not fully understand who He was (and is), it seems to be a small step to the conclusion that John Hicks and several British colleagues expressed in a controversial book in 1977 entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. “That the historical Jesus did not present himself as God incarnate is accepted by all [theologians],” they argue, with noticeable exaggeration. “… Jesus did not teach the doctrine of the trinity… the later conception of him as God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for US.”10 Indeed, if Jesus did not understand Himself to be the second person of the Trinity, maybe He wasn't. Maybe, as Wright has suggested might have been expected, He was only a unique human agent who shared the throne with God. If Jesus didn't claim deity for Himself, perhaps Arius was right in saying that Jesus was of the same likeness, but not the same substance, as God. But contrary to Hicks’ contention, many theologians believe that Jesus did lay claim to deity. William Lane Craig, citing only the

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Faith Seeking Understanding

small percentage of passages that are widely recognized as authentic, writes: The clues sufficient for a high Christological self-understanding of Jesus are present even in the attenuated twenty percent of Jesus’ sayings recognized by the members of the Jesus Seminar as authentic… Here is a man who thought of himself as the Son of God in a unique sense, who claimed to act and speak with divine authority, who held himself to be a worker of miracles, and who believed that people's eternal destiny hinged on whether or not they believed in him. 11 Craig is not alone in this opinion. He cites several others who draw similar conclusions, including this statement by Horst Georg Pohlman: In summary, one could say that today there is virtually a consensus concerning that wherein the historical in Jesus is to be seen. It consists in the fact that Jesus came on the scene with an unheard of authority, namely with the authority of God, with the claim of the authority to stand in God's place and speak to us and bring us to salvation… This authority only God himself can claim. 12 Wright contends that Jesus defined Himself by his vocation rather than His divine nature. It is not clear to me, though, how Jesus can understand Himself to be called to do what only Yahweh can do and not figure out that He is in fact Yahweh (or, conversely, think of Himself as a fraud). But Wright argues, “Awareness of vocation” is by no means the same thing as Jesus having some sort of “supernatural” awareness of himself, of Israel’s god, and of the relation between the two of them, such as is often
An Analysis of N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus

envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a “high” Christology, place it within an eighteenth-century contest of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus “divinity” only by holding some form of Docetism. 13 To this, C. Stephen Evans replies: It seems remarkable that Wright can know not only what Jesus believed about himself but the manner in which the knowledge was obtained and the degree of certainty he possessed. One cannot but wonder here whether or not the traditional practice of reading back into Jesus the characteristics of the historian and his or her friends is happening again. Evans concludes, and I tend to agree, that it seems unreasonable to believe that Jesus did not have some knowledge of His identity as deity. In his humanity, He was dependent on the Father, but it seems likely that the Father would “clue Him in” (at least so that He wouldn’t worry that perhaps it was all a big mistake or a “huge gamble”). Several questions might be asked of Wright regarding his view. Following are several of my concerns with what he has outlined: • ! I would expect a substantial amount of continuity between what Jesus believed about Himself and what His first followers proclaimed. How, then, did the early church come to the conclusion that Jesus was worthy of worship and that He was the divine Son of God? William Lane Craig asks a similar question: Studies by NT scholars… have proved that within twenty years of the crucifixion a full-blown

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Faith Seeking Understanding

Christology proclaiming Jesus as God incarnate existed. How does one explain this worship by monotheistic Jews of one of their countrymen as God incarnate, apart from the claims of Jesus himse… If Jesus never made any such claims, then the belief of the earliest Christians in this regard becomes inexplicable. 14 • ! Jesus acted as one who possessed unique authority. He forgave sin (Mark 2:5-7; Luke 7:48-49), he cleansed the temple (Mark 11:27-33), he claimed that the eternal destiny of people was determined by their response to him (Matt. 10:32-33; 11:6; Mark 8:34-38). And while the Old Testament prophets declared, “thus says the Lord…,” Jesus declared, “I say to you…” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). These actions might all be said by Wright to be part of His messianic vocation, but after stilling the storm, the disciples noted Jesus' unique nature. “What sort of man is this,” they asked in astonishment, “that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27 ESV). This authority does not seem to reflect Jesus’ vocation, but his nature, and I question whether the same might be true of the other marks of authority as well. • ! Wright says that the title “Son of God” was not understood to be a reference to deity in Jesus’ day. Several passages, though, seem to indicate that the title as applied to Jesus refers to him as the eternal, heavenly Son who is equal to God Himself (Matt. 11:25-30; John 5:18; 10:33; 1 Cor. 15:28; Heb. 1:1-8). Wayne Grudem states that these passages “combine to indicate
An Analysis of N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus

that the title ‘Son of God’ when applied to Christ strongly affirms his deity as the eternal Son in the Trinity, one equal to God the Father in all his attributes.”15 Michael Wilkins comments as well: In both his incarnate and eternal state as Son, Jesus and the Father know each other in an exclusive way, which in Biblical language means that they enjoy an exclusive relationship. For Jesus as Son, the father is “my Father.” They enjoy a direct, intuitive, and immediate knowledge that is grounded in their relationship as Father and Son, which implies that it is on the level of divine knowledge.16 • ! While the title that Jesus used most often of himself, “the Son of Man,” is commonly understood to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, it seems to lay claim to divine authority and power. The title is used in reference to his authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:10), to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and to judge the world (John 5:27). More significantly, John used the term in contexts that emphasize his preexistence (John 3:13-14; 6:62) and his self-existence (John 5:26). In Jesus’ encounter before Caiaphas, the High Priest (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65), most commentators see a claim to deity. When demanded to answer whether he was the Christ, Jesus replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62, ESV). His reference is to the words of the prophet Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14), which
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speak of the presentation of the Son of Man with the glory and dominion of deity. Wright read this to refer to someone other than God (a divine sidekick), but the high priest’s reaction seems to indicate a claim to deity. • ! Other than Jesus; reference to Daniel's “son of man,” perhaps his most explicit claim of deity can be found in John 8:58: “Jesus said to [the Pharisees], ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” Jesus declares himself to be “I AM,” the eternally pre-existing God of the Old Testament who had revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. In his assessment of Wright's fuller work, Jesus and the Victory of God, Carey Newman asks, “Can we get there from here?” 17—that is, can we get from Wright’s Jesus to the church’s Christ. I appreciate Wright's scholarship and his commitment to exploring the historical setting in which Jesus lived. Certainly among Third Questers, Wright is perhaps the strongest proponent of an orthodox Christology. And yet as I followed him down that Christological path, I am not certain that he has been able to take me there from here. I suppose I cannot expect the Gospel writers to communicate a sophisticated Nicean Christology; but neither do I expect Jesus’ perspective of His identity to be confined within the expectations of first century Judaism. _____________________
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Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974). Marcus Borg, Jesus, a New Vision (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987). Between 1774 and 1778, the philosopher/poet Lessing published a series of essays by Reimarus, a recently deceased Hamburg language professor. James M. Scott, ed. Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions (Leiden: Brill, 1997). Klyne R. Snodgrass, "Reading and Overreading the Parables in Jesus and the Victory of God," Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, Carey C. Newman, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 69. N .T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 8. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 540ff. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 609. John Hicks, The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), p. 3. Craig, p. 244, 251-252. Horst Georg Pohlman, Abriss der Dogmatick, 3'd rev. ed. (Dusseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1966), p. 230, quoted in Craig, p.252. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 652-53. Craig, p. 243. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 547. Michael Wilkins, “Introduction to Biblical Theology in the Gospels” (class notes), p. 180. Newman, p. 281.

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E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

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