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N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God (First two chapters)

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  • Robert M. Schacht
    I have begun reading Wright s JVG, and for those who might be interested, I offer some reviewing comments below on the first two chapters, in which Wright
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 12, 2000
      I have begun reading Wright's JVG, and for those who might be interested, I offer some reviewing comments below on the first two chapters, in which Wright reviews the literature. I also have a question below on an unpublished(?) paper.

      First, this book is very much a sequel to Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, which is cited frequently in the Preface and the first few chapters, to the extent that more often than not a page chosen at random will have a footnote to NTPG. I am handicapped by not having this book at hand to check on.

      Second, Wright divides 20th century NT scholarship into essentially two streams: those who follow the "thoroughgoing skepticism" of Wrede, and those who pursue the "thoroughgoing eschatology" of Schweitzer. Wright's sympathies lie with the latter, and it is to that stream of scholarship that Wright gave the name, the Third Quest. In Chapter One he briefly reviews the work up to the time of Schweitzer. Chapter two is devoted to a summary of the work of scholars in the Wrede tradition (what Wright calls the WredeBahn, adapting Perrin's metaphor of the  "Wredestrasse." Most of what follows is based on Chapter Two.

      Wright's observations about the formative years of the Jesus Seminar appear quite interesting. Far from being an ivory tower exercise, Wright noted that "The extent to which the shadow of Reaganism falls across the page is remarkable, and makes some parts of the agenda look quite dated from the perspective of 1996" (p.31 n.8). He might have added that Funk's agenda, openly acknowledged in his publications, is similar to Bishop Spong's attempt to rescue the Bible from the fundamentalists (Liberating the Gospels, 1996).

      There is a concern very similar to one that I expressed in a series of messages on CrossTalk (1997?), regarding the alleged modus operandi of critical scholarship that Wright would associate with the Wredebahn and, in particular, with the Jesus Seminar. Wright commented on the "Premises" listed in the introduction to the red-letter edition of Mark (1991)(Wright, JVG pp.32f.), which apparently were re-arranged and printed in red as bulleted items in the Introduction to The Five Gospels (1996), where they are presented as "Rules of Evidence." My concern years ago was the same as Wright's: that these premises or rules of evidence pre-determine the outcome. Furthermore, while many of the rules are indeed basic tools of historical scholarship, Wright criticizes some of them as "misleading in the extreme, reflecting viewpoints now abandoned by most serious students of the subject matter concerned", citing the "premis" regarding apocalypticism in particular. As he points out, many of these premises are not premises at all, they are conclusions ("Unfortunately, the whole point of a premise is that it is not a conclusion, whereas most of the statements offered as 'premises' in what follows are conclusions, many of them very dubious." )  Whereas in the red-letter edition of Mark (which I have not seen) the premises are apparently explicitly labelled as premises, the presentation in T5G is more confusing. The first bulletted items printed in red are clearly identified as "Rules of Evidence" (T5G pp. 5, 19, 21), but then the editors seem to forget what they were doing, because later bulleted items in T5G include such items as "To sum up the message of Jesus as Mark understood it: 'The time is up. God's imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways and put your trust in the Good News.'[Mark 1:15]" This is plainly neither a rule of evidence or a premis in any meaningful sense, and echoes Wright's point that the editors of T5G have hopelessly confused rules of evidence, premises, and conclusions. Mahlon Smith on CrossTalk about a year ago, I think, reported that these were actually more like consensus statements drawn up relatively late in the Jesus' Seminar's work on sayings. If I am summarizing Mahlon's comments correctly, then it was simply disingenuous to present these items as premises or rules of evidence. At any rate, it seems that there are so many of these conclusion-laden "premises" or "rules of evidence" that one doesn't even have to look at the texts to guess what kind of "Jesus" will emerge from the analysis.

      To Wright, the real bete noir (my words, not his) of the Jesus Seminar is Burton Mack, whose role in the Seminar and in the debate about Q is summarized on pp. 35-44. It is plain that Mr. Wright is not pleased with Mr. Mack. He later notes that Mack's influence was fading, even as Borg's influence within the Seminar was increasing (p. 75).

      However, Wright situates Mack with J.D. Crossan together in the tradition of Wrede's "thoroughgoing skepticism," even though his treatment of Crossan is very different. Wright begins a long review of Crossan's oevre (mainly The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant) with a paragraph full of praise for Crossan's intellect and insight, concluding that "Crossan represents, far more than Burton Mack, the high point of achievement in the new wave of the New Quest." With this assessment, I whole-heartedly agree. His review of Crossan's work is extensive (pp. 44-65), and punctuated here and there with praise for Crossan (e.g., p. 47: "Crossan is original, clear, and highly provocative.") But in the second paragraph of his review of Crossan (p.44), he ruefully warns the reader that unfortunately, "[Crossan's] book is almost entirely wrong." This is an overstatement, because Wright does find much to agree with. I share with Wright his observation that "there is still an unresolved tension [in Crossan's work] at the philosophical, specifically the epistemological, level" (p.55). I believe I have written to this effect on CrossTalk before. In fact, it strikes me that the whole quest for the historical Jesus today is in an epistemological muddle from which there seems to be no escape, pace Wright. No one, apparently, wants to return to the bad old days of positivism-- or, at least, no one will admit it. As Wright notices, the JSem and Crossan exhibit some positivist reflexes, but I take this as a compliment rather than as a criticism, retarded as I am. As I have noted before, Crossan seems much more aware of epistemological issues than most, but his 'method' has not been widely emulated. Similarly Wright's "critical realism" has not won many followers, either. But I digress.

      Wright criticizes other aspects of Crossan's methodology. For example, Crossan's impressive Inventory of sources, while putatively grouped by date on the basis of independent criteria as a "starting point," seems tainted again by conclusions. After reviewing the Inventory, Wright concludes, "I submit that his inventory is the *result*, not the *ground*, of a position about early Christianity adopted for quite other reasons" (p.50).

      Wright praises Crossan's attention to social anthropology, but notes that "Questions remain, though, about Crossan's actual use of the social sciences. Following Neyrey's critique, we may note the following...." The reference to Neyrey is to an unpublished paper dated 1992 with the title, "A Review of *The Historical Jesus*: the Use of the Social Sciences in Crossan's Reconstruction." Has this paper subsequently been published? I would like to obtain a copy.

      Most of Wright's criticisms of Crossan are related to epistemological themes. Rarely does he claim that Crossan has "misunderstood" something. One exception is with respect to Apocalyptic (p.56f.), where it appears that they have a disagreement (reviewed in more detail in NTPG ch. 10 and pp. 459-464).

      Wright also disputes Crossan's hypothesis on how the Passion Narratives developed (pp.59-61) (Wright is certainly not alone in this regard), and on the hermeneutic of suspicion underlying Crossan's "Prophecy Historicized" hypothesis (p.61). I share Wright's concerns in these areas. Wright concludes (p. 61),
      With Crossan's reconstruction of the genesis of the passion narratives, we are back again in the realm of William Wrede. Once you doubt everything in the story, and postulate a chain of events by which someone might have taken it upon themselves to invent such a narrative from scratch, all things are possible. But not all things are probable.

      Wright ends his review of Crossan's work the way he begins it: with high praise (p.65).
      I began this analysis of Crossan's work by saying that he is one of the most brilliant New Testament scholars alive today. Sharp disagreement should not make the praise sound faint.... We may say of Crossan, as he says of Mark, that he is such a gifted script-writer that we are lured into imagining that his scheme is historical...
      The rest of this present book offers an alternative hypothesis... This book was not originally conceived as a reply to Crossan, since its earliest draft was written two years before The Historical Jesus was published. But I have had to think through everything again after reading him... Crossan towers above the rest of the renewed 'New Quest', in just the same way as Schweitzer and Bultmann tower above  most of twentieth-century scholarship, and for much the same reasons... May the debate continue!

      I cannot think of much higher praise that can be heaped on a debate opponent.

      Wright also examines the "Jesus the Cynic" hypothesis, considering that its strongest advocate is Gerald Downing:
      Downing's bracing style and clear argument is refreshing; his parallels are often striking; his fine-tuning of the argument is impressive; his learning is prodigious; his present-day conclusions are as challenging as Schweitzer's. (p. 70)

      The issue is to discern the difference between whether Jesus occasionally sounded like a Cynic, or whether Cynicism was the core of the message. Wright concedes that Christianity shares some features with Cynicism (72), but ultimately rejects the Jesus the Cynic model because
      It is this essential Jewishness that I find totally absent in Downing's portrait. For him, the worldview is Cynic, the incidentals Jewish. In my reading this is, to say the least, the wrong way round. (p.71)

      Finally, Wright reviews the work of Marcus Borg. Wright finds Borg more congenial than any of the other member of the new wave of the New Quest, and credits him with "many shrewd and well-worked points" (p.78). Borg is credited with a position that straddles the new wave/New Quest Jesus Seminar on the one side and the post-Schweitzer Third Quest on the other, because
      Borg thus follows Schweitzer in setting Jesus within Jewish apocalyptic, while disagreeing radically with Schweitzer about what apocalyptic language actually denotes.

      Wright closes the second chapter with a summary of his objections to the renewed New Quest:

      1. Continued reliance on the sayings of Jesus as primary material [Note: the JSem's Acts of Jesus was not published until several years later.]

      2. Reliance on "criteria" of evaluation. Epistemologically, there is nothing wrong with this. The problem Wright seems to have with reliance on such criteria (Date and multiplicity of [independent] Attestation are mentioned specifically) is that they are too "difficult to assess."

      3. Continued acceptance of a modified Bultmannian Jesus,  which Wright claims is as much a fiction as the "fiction" it was intended to replace.

      Wright concludes by charting the way he will follow: The "Third Quest", following Schweitzer's basic position of Jewish eschatology as the context for Jesus, "joining forces with scepticism to confront naive traditionalism, but then defeating scepticism with appropriate historical reconstruction..." (p.81).

      In Chapter Three, Wright includes some 20 writers as particularly important within the Third Quest, beginning with Caird in 1965, and including Chilton, E. P. Sanders,  Theissen, both Horsley and Freyne, Charlesworth, Witherington, and Meier, among others. But I have written enough of this for now. I hope that someone finds this of interest.

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