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Journal for the Study of the New Testament http://jnt.sagepub.


Where Wright Is Wrong: a Critical Review of N.T.Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God
Maurice Casey Journal for the Study of the New Testament 1998 20: 95 DOI: 10.1177/0142064X9802006905 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Department of Theology, Nottingham University University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD.

We must begin by welcoming the publication of the book by our colleague N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory ~f G~d. In the present state of academia, obsessed with completion dates of any work to the detriment of work which matters, it is particularly good to see a new, thorough and vigorous attempt to locate Jesus in his original cultural context. Together with the recent work of E.P. Sanders, it must rate as one of the best books we have had on Jesus so far. At the risk of seeming to damn it with faint praise, one must add that it is infinitely better than anything to emerge from the American Jesus Seminar: good scholarship is sober and vigilant, as well as learned and

As well as the attempt to see Jesus in his original cultural context, a welcome feature of this book, compared with the majority of older ones, is the decreased emphasis on christological titles in so doing. The use of messiahship remains problematical, as we shall see, but even here genuinely relevant material is carefully gathered together so that it can easily be used by those of us who are not so convinced that the term messiah is an appropriate one for describing Jesus during
This is a written-up version of a contribution to the Jesus Seminar of the British New Testament Conference on 13 September 1997. I am grateful to colleagues, especially Dr Wright and Dr C. Marsh, for an interesting debate. 1. London: SPCK, 1996. 2. Cf. E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1985); The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books 1993).

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the historic ministry. Another very useful feature is the lengthy critical Forsclmngsbericht, which draws attention to the presuppositions and cultural environment of investigators, and to the drastic effects of this on their pictures of Jesus. Nonetheless, there are serious problems with this book, and the major purpose of this critical review has to be to draw attention to them. The most overarching is the missing piece of the Forschung.sbericht. The scholarly community as a whole has a myth, a story according to which we live. According to this myth, we live in the third quest of the historical Jesus. This myth entails the unfortunate notion that nothing serious happened in the quest between Schweitzer wrecking the first quest in 1906, and Kdsemann starting the second quest in 1953.~ Here again we are told of the absence of serious Jesus study in pre-war Germany, though Wright knows something of the attempts to show that Jesus was not Jewish.4 I prefer to regard this phase of the quest as the most crucial because it is the most illuminating. Here there was an overt attempt to demonstrate that Jesus was not Jewish, a verifiably quite false position.5 This was done because it was what German Christians needed. Accordingly, we can see here with the utmost clarity a hermeneutical circle controlling the work of scholars who were genuinely expert in the New Testament field. Equally clearly, we can see that the quest of the historical Jesus is a quest to avoid him. Avoiding him entails avoiding his Jewishness and replacing him with a Christ of faith who is to a significant degree a reification of the needs of a particular Christian community. When we have seen this, we can better understand radical criticism of the Gospels in the immediately preceding period, and return to our own
A. Schweitzer, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-JesuForschung (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1906). ET The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (London: Black, 1910); E. Käsemann, Das Problem des historischen Jesus, a lecture delivered on 20 October, 1953, ZTK 51 (1954), pp. 125-53. ET The Problem of the Historical Jesus, in Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM Press, 1964), pp. 15-47. 4. Wright, Victory, p. 23. 5. Cf., e.g., P. Fiebig, Neues Testament und Nationalsozialismus: Drei Üniversitätsvorlesungen über Führerprinzip, Rassenfrage, Kampf (Schriften der deutschen Christen, 11; Dresden: Deutsche-christlicher Verlag, 1935); W. Grundmann, Jesus der Galiläer und das Judentum (Leipzig: Wigand, 2nd edn, 1941, 3.


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time to understand better why the quest is currently going off the rails altogether. Like the first quest, it is still run by people whose need in the modem world is to avoid the historical Jesus and replace him with the Christ of faith, the cultural context within which the other faults of Wrights work must be located. This leads us to the second problem, the misunderstanding of apocalyptic and eschatological language as metaphor. This is done in reliance on Wrights teacher G.B. Caird, without any proper discussion of the nature of metaphor. So, for example, Mk 9.1 is reduced to a clear promise of future victory and vindication, then expanded to 7 such things as return from exile and rebuilding of the Temple. This is a completely unsatisfactory replacement of what the text says with something more convenient. The most notorious feature of this text is that it indicates that the kingdom of God would come within a generation, and this did not happen. This is a natural mistake by a first-century Jew, but any mistake at all by Jesus is inconsistent with orthodox Christian Christology.~ The driving force of Wrights interpretation is a hermeneutical circle with which the mistaken Jesus of history is replaced by the infallible Christ of faith. The process makes it difficult to interpret texts that discuss the delay of the end-time (e.g. lQpHab 7.1-14, with its discussion of i1n~iT 11iT, jpn Tn5, and 1n~iT *rl-,),7), and which have any substantial temporal or spatial content (e.g. Mk 10.35-45, where the request of Jacob and John to sit on Jesus right and left in his glory makes no sense if it is not interpreted

6. Cf., e.g., the unsatisfactory attempt to use the work of Max Black by P.A. Porter, Metaphors and Monsters: A Literary-Critical Study of Daniel 7 and 8 (repr.; ConBOT, 20; Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1985 [1983]), with my review, JTS NS 38 (1987), pp. 454-57. I cannot discuss here G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1980), pp. 244-71, which caricatures scholars who take some language more literally than Caird did, and which appears

ignorant inter alia of the Syrian tradition of biblical exegesis and modem linguistics. 7. Wright, Victory, p. 470. 8. Cf. P.M. Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology (The Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham, 1985-86; Cambridge: James Clarke; Louisville, KY:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 58-59, 170-74. 9. For a full discussion of this pericope, including a reconstruction of Marks Aramaic source, see P.M. Casey, Aramaic Sources of Marks Gospel (MSSNTS,

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), ch. 5.

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Another unsatisfactory aspect of Wrights attitude to language is the conventional fault of never discussing genuine sayings of Jesus in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. As so often, this is most catastrophic with the term son of man, because genuine uses are virtually untranslateable, with the result that examples of this expression shift significantly in meaning when attempts are made to translate them into Greek, English, German or the like.&dquo; Wright declares the expression notoriously ambiguous, even cryptic,- without any attempt to reconstruct an Aramaic sentence and explain what is ambiguous or cryptic about it, and without any attempt to answer the classic point that the synoptic tradition does not show any signs of difficulty in understanding this expression. He suggests that those with ears to hear would understand this term in Mk 2.28 in the light of its Danielic context. I published a reconstruction of Mk 2.28 some years ago, with proper critical discussion.&dquo; Wright should have explained how this could possibly have been intended to call up a particular Danielic context, or offered an alternative reconstruction which does. Instead of this, he has read it in the wrong language in the light of his Christian tradition. His general discussion of son of man is very oversimplified and does not respond to recent discussion at all. 14 Apart from the use of son of man, a notable mistake is the declaration that the high priests question at Mk 14.61 would be a statement in Greek, and presumably in Aramaic, only becoming a question as it was spoken at the end:S but we need an Aramaic reconstruction to show that it could be said in Aramaic at all. Let us try:
10. This well-known fact is occasionally challenged, as recently by S.E. Porter, Did Jesus Ever Teach in Greek?, TynBul 44 ( 1993), pp. 199-235; revised as Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee, in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.). Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (NTTS, 19; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), pp. 123-54. For a brief response, P.M. Casey, In Which Language Did Jesus Teach?, ExpTim 108 (1997), pp. 326-28: for comprehensive discussion, see Casey, Aramaic Sources. 11. Of the massive secondary literature, cf. especially P.M. Casey, Idiom and Translation. Some Aspects of the Son of Man Problem, NTS 41 (1995), pp. 16482. 12. Wright, Victory, p. 394. 13. P.M. Casey, Culture and Historicity: The Plucking of the Grain (Mark 2.2328), NTS 34 (1988), pp. 1-23. 14. Wright, Victory, pp. 513-19. 15. Wright, Victory, p. 523.

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However Semitic Son of the Blessed sounds to New Testament scholars, nr7r is not a recognized circumlocution for God in Hebrew or Aramaic.~ It must therefore be regarded as an attempt by a Greek writer to imitate a Semitic expression: hence its virtual uniqueness. The use of ~n&dquo;ja is not satisfactory either, as we shall see. There are also well-known problems with the sequence of events, and Jesus reply. We must infer that the high priests question is secondary, and commenting on what would happen in Aramaic without looking to see what does happen in Aramaic is not a satisfactory procedure. The next serious problem is almost a leitmotiv of the whole book: the notion that Jews believed that they were in exile. At the time of Jesus, many Jews lived in Israel. Some lived permanently in Jerusalem. Jews came to Jerusalem from all over Israel and the diaspora for the major feasts. In the Temple, the Tamid was sacrificed twice a day, a special symbol of Gods presence with Israel. As Jesus put it, And he who swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by Him who lives in it (Mt. 23.21). We would need stunningly strong arguments to convince us that these Jews really believed they were in exile when they were in Israel. All Wrights arguments for this view, however, seem to me to be quite spurious. For example, in a somewhat

exaggerated discussion of Jesus offer of forgiveness of sins, he roundly declares that Fongiveness of sins is another way of saying &dquo;return from e.dle&dquo;, and brings forward texts in which the point is crystal clear.&dquo; None of the texts quoted demonstrates anything of the kind, because of a non sequitur at the centre of the argument. All the texts (e.g. Jer. 31.31-34; Ezek. 36.24-26, 33) concern the period when Israel genuinely was in exile, a different situation from that in the ministry of Jesus. They genuinely do announce that Israels sins would be forgiven when Israel returned from exile. From this it cannot possibly follow that Israel was in exile whenever Jesus, during the course of a ministry which took place entirely in the land of Israel, offered
16. R.H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 909-10, finds a precedent at I En. 77.2, but this is

found in the (defective) Aramaic, and the corrupt Geez text may not have meant it either. He also suggests ? at m. Ber. 7.3; b. Ber. 50a, but here ? qualifies the name of God, it is not a circumlocution as in Mk 14.61, not even in the wrong language at a much later time. 17. Wright, Victory, p. 268, his italics.

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100 anyone forgiveness of sins. There are many circumstances in which individuals and nations may be thought to need and/or be offered forgiveness of sins: these circumstances should not be identified with each other by means of such associative treatment of texts. Again, Wright asserts that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16.19-31 ) is not... a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. He reinterprets resurrection as return from exile and comments that Jesus invited his hearers to see themselves as the true Israel, returning at last from exile, and turning back to their god as an essential part of the process.&dquo; Here again, while the text genuinely does concern Jesus hearers turning back to God, return from exile is imposed on the text by Wright. This reinterpretation also has the effect of removing evidence that Jesus believed that people went straight to an afterlife without their tombs being empty, a mode of survival contrary to that needed by Wright to support his conviction that Jesus rose bodily from the
y dead.9

This takes us to further hermeneutical circles, by means of which aspects of Jewish culture are shifted in a Christian direction. Perhaps the most serious example is messiahship. This is a traditional Christian category in which to see Jesus, and one that has traditionally been interpreted in terms of Davidic kingship. It is however very improbable that the term (t~)~T,tit~/~1~t~(~ 1) had already become a title, which undermines the traditional understanding of some key passages. For example, Wright treats Peters confession at Caesarea Philippi as a significant historical event, the quasi-formal acknowledgement of Jesus as king, as Messiah .20 As usual, however, Wright does not treat this in Aramaic, the language in which it would have been spoken if it had been genuine. However, only a sentence like the following one could have been translated to form the confession as we have it in Mk 8.29:

18. Wright, Victory, pp. 255-56. 19. Cf. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), pp. 321-34; idem, Who Was Jesus? (London: SPCK, 1992). pp. 6163, which could mislead many people into maintaining a traditional form of Christian belief. 20. Wright, Victory, p. 470, and further pp. 528-30.

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This is not be a major confession, nor indeed to form a complete utterance at all. It merely says that Jesus is anointed, and fails to specify which anointed figure he might be. It does not tell us that he is being hailed as king, rather than high priest, prophet or more generally someone appointed by God to do something significant (cf. e.g., Lev. 4.3; 1 Kgs 19.16; Isa. 45.1). The high priest obviously excluded, the context does not tell us this either. It follows that this confession originated in Greek, and there was no original Aramaic. We must infer that it is not part of the oldest tradition that came down to Mark. It is due to the editorial work of the evangelist, working in Greek. Again, Wright describes the triumphal entry as clearly messianic, alleging that Jesus action spoke more powerfully than words could have done of a royal claim.~ Yet the earliest account does not use the term Xpt<J1, nor #aJiXe6g, the term so conspicuously inserted by Luke (19.38) and independently by Matthew in a quotation of Zech. 9.9 (Mt. 21.5). Wright finds the allusion to Zechariah obvious. This illustrates beautifully the extent to which Wright is controlled by the Christian tradition to which he belongs, in which it is indeed obvious. In Marks narrative, this allusion is not obvious; it is conspicuously absent. Moreover, this use of the term messianic usually generates unfruitful debate, as if those of us who do not use it really believe that Jesus ministry was non-messianic, and consequently undervalue its importance and the centrality of Jesus himself to it. It is not that Jesus ministry was non-messianic. It is merely that the category of messiahship had not yet crystallized out, and the term king did not emerge until Pilate ordered it put on Jesus cross, crucifying Jesus as a sort of brigand with two other brigands, not as Messiah, a term which Pilate is not likely to have known. This shifting of evidence in the direction of later Christian tradition runs through several matters of importance. For example, it is genuinely important that John the Baptist offered a baptism of repentance in a culture where God was believed to forgive the sins of people who repented, thereby leading a renewal movement within Judaism, which caused many people to believe that he was a genuine prophet. In Wrights hands, however, this becomes water-baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and its significance is paraphrased as you can have,




Wright. Victory,

pp. 490-91.

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here and now, what you could normally get through the Temple cult, so that John presented a clear alternative to the Temple .2 This is precisely what is not in the primary source material. It may, however, be congenial to people within the Christian tradition, for whom it is very important that they have forgiveness of sins, who think of the Temple cult as obsolete, and Christianity as superseding Judaism. Again, Wright presents Mk 7.15 as a cryptic invitation to abandon one of the most cherished boundary markers of Israel, the foodtaboos. 23 But it is Christians who need to live without the dietary laws of Judaism: Jesus historic ministry took place within the framework of obedience to the Torah. Describing the invitation as cryptic does not remove the major objection that it caused no dispute, as a genuine attack on the food laws would have done. Moreover, Jesus the Jew had no motivation for attacking the dietary laws in the Torah. He was, however, very opposed to scribes and Pharisees, who were so concerned to keep their insides clean that they thought Jesus and his disciples should follow the tradition of washing their hands before meals. His general statement at Mk 7.15 implies that unclean food does not make ones insides unclean, a reasonable interpretation of the fact that the Torah only forbids eating unclean food, it does not tell people how to cleanse themselves if they have been sinful or mistaken enough to do so. This frame of reference is also necessary for understanding why the leader of the Twelve needed a vision after Jesus death and resurrection to persuade him to eat unclean food, which Luke records him as saying he had never done (Acts 10.9-16; 11.5-10). If anyone had understood even a cryptic invitation, it would surely have been he. We must infer that Wrights interpretation is again controlled by a hermeneutical circle. Another example is provided by Wrights comments on Jesus final meal with his disciples. Our oldest source makes it quite clear that this was a Passover meal (Mk 14.12, 14, 16 1t<Jxa).24 Wright, however, prefers to think of a special quasi-Passover meal a day early, so that Jesus was not dependent upon the Temple for the necessary sacrificial
22. Wright, Victory, pp. 160-61. 23. Wright, Victory, pp. 179, 396-98. 24. For detailed discussion, including reconstruction of Marks Aramaic source, see Casey, Aramaic Sources, ch. 6. On the secondary nature of the Johannine account, see P.M. Casey, Is Juhns Gospel True? (London: Routledge. 1996), pp. 18-25.

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Temple-system (ind Jesus himself .2 This is the Christian imagination again, from the main point of having Jesus separated from Judaism to the little detail of assuming that even an absent Passover victim must have been a
lamb, with
an intended contrast between the

lamb, rather than a goat. Jesus himself, however, went to Jerusalem with entirely Jewish disciples for the major feast of Passover, commanded in the Torah. Jesus the Jew and his Jewish disciples were bound to celebrate the Passover. It also provided the symbolic context in which he could offer an innovative interpretation of the bread and wine. Ironically, therefore, I must end with criticism that is almost the opposite of the praise with which I began this critical review. It is therefore especially important to repeat, and to stress, that one of this books great virtues is its attempt to locate Jesus in his original cultural context. That I have had to point out where it does not succeed is not so much a measure of weaknesses in this book, but a sad reflection on the current state of scholarship and a measure of how far the quest still has to go. Several of the points that I have sought to dispute were inherited from G.B. Caird, many of them are widespread in scholarship. If, therefore, we are to end the quest of the historical Jesus by finding him, we have a mammoth task before us, one which must include handling genuine material in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke: how much easier to complete hermeneutical circles with whichever community makes us feel most ourselves! As we contemplate this task, this book must be seen as a genuine step forward, albeit on a path where there is still very much further to go.


Wright, Victory,

pp. 554-59.

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