In the past several years, New Testament scholar Tom Wright has stepped forward as the most scintillating champion of belief that the canonical Gospels, at least the first three of them, give us a reliable record of what Jesus of Nazareth actually said and did. A modern-day Saint George, Wright slays the dragon of skepticism with a flair that leaves even an antagonist like John Dominic Crossan marveling at his ability to captivate a critical audience. Thus the glowing description of Wright in an advertisement for his far-flung seminars: "Internationally acclaimed as today's most exciting communicator and most inspiring interpreter of the New Testament" as well as "most popular lecturer in the University of Oxford's Faculty of Theology." No longer lecturing in Oxford, Wrights jets here, there, and everywhere from the deanery at Lichfield Cathedral to make his case before scholarly elites and popular audiences alike. He has become a one-man show and, not without reason, the darling of many conservatives. So Jesus and the Victory of God, which elaborates Wright's views, is bound to attract a lot of attention.
The book makes up volume 2 in a series titled Christian Origins and the Question of God, ambitiously projected to run to five volumes. Volume 1, The New Testament and the People of God, occupied itself mainly with background and method. Later volumes will take up the Gospel of John through the Book of Revelation—above all, the letters of Paul. In addition to the volume under review, I will take some account of Wright's earlier published work.
With a sweeping and imaginative proposal, Jesus and the Victory of God treats the figure of Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Arguably, nevertheless, and despite some self-description to the contrary, the treatment does not represent biblical theology in a strict sense. For Wright is not interested in the synoptic portrayals of Jesus for their own sake so much as for what they can tell us about the Jesus of history who stands behind them. As already implied, Wright sees little difference between those portrayals and the historical Jesus, so that for the most part biblical theology and history merge into each other. But this merger prompts, in turn, another merger, that of the plural Jesuses of Matthew, Mark, and Luke into one synoptic Jesus. Thus the distinctive lineaments of the various portrayals are blurred almost to the vanishing point; Wright's main interest remains historical rather than biblical, and historicity is insulated against the doubts that differences between the Synoptics often raise (to say nothing about greater differences between these Gospels and the Gospel of John).
To some, the insulation will seem facile insofar as the neglected differences fall into patterns, suggesting that other-than-historical concerns led the evangelists to write unhistorically more often than Wright concedes. Repeatedly, for instance, he explains differences between parallel sayings of Jesus as due to Jesus' own variations, spoken on more than one occasion, and neglects the significant fact that, throughout, the sayings in Matthew tend toward rigorism, those in Luke toward humaneness, and so on.
Given his main interest, though, Wright starts appropriately with the nineteenth-century quest of the historical Jesus and moves next to the new quest inaugurated in 1953 by Ernst Ksemann and revived more recently by the Jesus Seminar. Wright's skewering of that seminar and its construction of a nonapocalyptic, almost non-Jewish Jesus occupies considerable space and shows Wright at his jousting best. Lastly, he associates himself with the third quest, represented also by E. P. Sanders and others who, on the whole, value synoptic historicity higher than does the Jesus Seminar and see the historical Jesus as solidly Jewish in outlook. The rest of Wright's book is devoted to spelling out the details of that outlook. What are they?
They are, Wright proposes, that, whereas the Jews regarded themselves as still living in exile because of Roman domination, Jesus announced that the divinely promised and long-awaited restoration was under way. (So he appeared less a teacher of wisdom than a prophet.) According to him, moreover, the restoration was taking place in and through his ministry. How so, given that he was not throwing off the Roman yoke?
Well, Jesus had redefined the problem of Jewish exile and its solution. The problem lay, not in Roman domination, but in the Jews' satanically inspired zeal to free themselves from it by armed revolution instead of carrying out their divinely appointed task of leading Gentiles to worship the one true God. The solution lay in repentance from that nationalistic sin and in belief in Jesus as the focal point of a renewed people of God that included Jewish outcasts and Gentiles. As such a focal point, Jesus spoke and acted messianically as well as prophetically, though neither for him nor for the Jews did messiahship entail deity.
To renew God's people more inclusively, Jesus also redefined the Torah along lines of mercy and forgiveness as opposed to Israelite ancestry, food laws, and such like. The temple he redefined in terms of himself and his followers. And so it became unnecessary to obtain forgiveness through offering a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, to observe Mosaic restrictions on diet, or to observe other practices demarcating Jews from Gentiles.
No wonder that the leaders—Torah-centered Pharisees and temple-centered chief priests alike—opposed Jesus. He was dismantling the main symbols of Jewish national identity! It did not take omniscience for him to see the opposition mounting; so he made his last journey to Jerusalem under the conviction that there he would be put to death and thus suffer the great tribulation that was expected to befall Israel just before God ushered in his kingdom.
Then Jesus did something that galvanized his opponents, especially the chief priests. He physically assaulted the sacrificial system of worship that took place in the temple. The assault was no mere attempt at reformation. No, it was an acted-out prophecy of judgment, of coming destruction. And reports came that Jesus had predicted such destruction verbally, too.
In fact, he had. Earlier warnings of coming wrath had dealt, not with the eternal judgment of individual sinners hereafter, but with God's using the Romans to judge the Jewish nation here and now for their insurrectionism. More recently and specifically, Jesus had cleared the ground for a redefined temple by predicting that the old, corrupt one would be destroyed within a generation. Furthermore, this destruction would make obvious that he and the renewed people of God now constituted the true temple, that God had returned to it, and that for his renewed people, the exile, the real one, had ended.
What to do with Jesus? Get rid of him, naturally, and use the Romans to do so. His constant talk of God's kingdom and his own kinglike deeds and words could be misrepresented as insurrectionary. The Romans crucified Jesus as King of the Jews, then. Only it was not so easy to get rid of him. He rose from the dead. That event, too, Wright treats as historical, not as fictional or eschatologically excluded from critical investigation.
Finally, Jesus came again at the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. Not in the way a traditional view of the Second Coming has it, of course. All that language about the sun's darkening, the moon's turning to blood, the stars' falling, and the Son of Man's coming in clouds derives from the Old Testament, where it is used metaphorically, not to describe an end to the space-time universe, but to invest human events with theological significance.
Thus, talk of celestial disasters painted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in colors of divine judgment, and seeing the Son of Man coming in clouds meant a recognition that the destruction both demonstrated Jesus' having already ascended to God's right hand, as distinct from descending to earth in the future, and vindicated God's renewed people still living on earth. So Jesus did not make a chronological mistake when he said that everything would happen before the contemporary generation passed away. Everything did happen, right on schedule. For the events of A.D. 70—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—were all that Jesus was predicting, and they took place within a generation of his prediction. Furthermore, those events marked the victory of God over those who had engineered the death of his son Jesus (hence the title of Wright's book).
There is much to learn from this reconstruction of the historical Jesus, and we may laud Wright for some sterling contributions: his calling attention to the neglected motif of exile and return; his maintaining Jesus' Jewishness; his defending Jesus' messianic self-consciousness (though self-consciousness of a uniquely divine sonship gets shortchanged); his resisting the separation of faith from history; his enlarging the historical base of our knowledge concerning Jesus; and his sharpening our tools of historiography, especially his developing a criterion of double similarity-cum-double dissimilarity: what is credible in first-century Judaism and as a starting point for Christianity, but sufficiently unlike both to be a mere reflection, is likely historical.
But there is also much to question. Most of it has to do with the possibility that Wright presses his thesis too far, makes it all-encompassing when, in fact, it validly covers only one aspect of Jesus' ministry. In other words, can all the synoptic and related texts tolerate the controlling story of reinterpreted exile and restoration that Wright places on them? For example, can the prodigal son, who wanted distance and wasted his substance in riotous living, represent Israel, who did not want to go into exile and had no substance to waste there? Or can the sower's sowing of good seed stand for God's causing true Israel to return from exile, even though Jesus describes as good, not any seed, but soil?
Why are Jesus' sheep scattered when he is struck? Is not the striking of the shepherd supposed to effect the opposite, their being gathered from exile? How is it that the elect are not gathered till after the great tribulation—that is, till after the Jewish War of A.D. 66-74, in Wright's view—if Jesus was already gathering them from their exile 40 years earlier? How is it that Paul put "our gathering together to him" not till a future "coming of our Lord Jesus Christ"? How is it that James and Peter addressed the recipients of their epistles as exiles in the Diaspora rather than as returnees from it?
According to Wright, Jesus thought that in his Passion he would suffer the great tribulation vicariously and thereby enable his followers living in Judea to escape the coming Roman slaughter, as they later did by fleeing Jerusalem before its destruction. Is not this restriction of the benefits of his suffering to Judean disciples too severe? Does not his expanding to "all" the address of his command, "Watch," imply a larger group? The destruction benefited disciples outside Judea by putting a stop to persecution emanating from there, yet this benefit did not derive from Jesus' suffering but from that of unbelieving Jews; and the benefit was erased by a shift to Roman persecution.
If Jesus he would suffer the great tribulation for his disciples, why did he put it after the abomination of desolation and link it with their later experience rather than with his own immediate experience? And how is it that he called on them to take up their crosses and follow him? Of what did their restoration from exile consist if they were not only going to continue living under Roman domination but also endure persecution for Jesus' sake? Does not answering that their restoration consisted in deliverance from the sin of insurrectionism spiritualize the restoration in a way analogous to the doctrine of "abstract atonement" on which Wright pours scorn? Does not most of Jesus' pacifistic teaching have to do with nonretaliation against Jewish persecutors rather than with nonrebellion against Roman overlords?
Does it not turn scriptural emphasis upside down to interpret the plural "sins" that people repentantly confessed as primarily the singular sin of nationalistic insurrectionism, only secondarily of individuals' sinning in various ways that Jesus discusses at length in his moral teaching? And has not Wright's fixation on redefined exile and restoration likewise led him to ignore and even deny Pharisaic legalism as an object of Jesus' critique?
If Jesus' charge that the temple had become "a den of robbers" meant that it had become "a den of revolutionaries," why did Jesus drive out the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and birds? In what way did their activity represent insurrectionism? And if Jesus meant to do away with the temple and its sacrificial worship, why did he tell a cleansed leper to go show himself to the priest and offer the things commanded by Moses? Why did Jesus say to offer your gift at the altar after reconciliation with your brother? Why did Jesus clear the outer court of the temple to enable Gentiles to pray there?
Why should we regard the mountain being cast into the sea as Mount Zion, where the temple was located, when that mountain has not been mentioned in the context, when the Mount of Olives has been mentioned recently, when "this mountain" refers more naturally to the Mount of Olives, right where Jesus and his disciples were located, than to Mount Zion in the distance, and when he hardly meant that the destruction of the temple would happen because some disciple of his was actually going to tell Mount Zion to be thrown into the sea?
If in speaking of judgment to come Jesus did not refer to the last judgment but to the destruction in A.D. 70, what are we to make of the Ninevites' and queen of the south's being raised "in the judgment with the men of this generation"? Did he think the Ninevites and queen would rise from the dead at the destruction? And in what sense did the destruction fulfil the judgment of "all the nations," a judgment issuing in "eternal life" for "the sheep" and "eternal punishment" for "the goats," not in temporal survival and death, as in A.D. 70? Did the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple really exhaust Jesus' warnings of judgment?
Does the accusation that Jesus said he would destroy the temple and in three days build another one form "the rock of history" on which, "ironically enough," we may stand? Is not the irony rather that Wright takes as rock solid a testimony whose wording differs seriously from passage to passage and whose description as false he freely admits? Solid but slippery? How can the house built on the rock be "a clear allusion to the temple," that is, "the true temple" built by Jesus, when the wise man who builds that house is a person who "hears and does" Jesus' words, not Jesus himself?
Can it be that no first-century Jew would take Daniel 7:13 as the Son of Man's descent from heaven? What of John 3:13, "And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man"? Does not Wright's way of saving Jesus from making a mistake about the occurrence of "all these things" within a generation come at the price of subverting the natural meaning of Jesus' other eschatological pronouncements?
If Paul agreed with Jesus by referring the Day of the Lord to the destruction of Jerusalem rather than to the end, as Wright avers, how is it that Paul made that day an object of watchfulness and source of comfort for Christians living far off in Greece, and described the day as one in which the Lord himself will descend from heaven, the dead in Christ will rise, and living Christians will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air? How can Wright allow that Paul was describing Jesus' return to earth yet affirm that Paul thought of the Day of the Lord as entailing intermediate destruction rather than final return?
Wright also avers that later Christians invented the doctrine of Jesus' return because they could not conceive that he was resurrected if not to join those who will yet be resurrected to populate the coming new earth. But where is the evidence for any puzzling over the problem of Jesus' absence from the new earth—till someone hit on the solution of a return? For that matter, why could not Jesus himself have followed the line of reasoning that Wright ascribes to later Christians?
Maybe Wright can answer these and similar questions. It is a compliment to him that his writing provokes them; but because the questions are serious, they need not only answers, but convincing ones. Otherwise, readers who are understandably eager to celebrate Wright's demolition of the Jesus Seminar and its anemic Jesus might think twice before accepting the Jesus that Wright has reconstructed as an alternative.
Robert H. Gundry is Kathleen Smith Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of commentaries on Matthew and Mark and other scholarly works. His most recent book, written for a lay audience, is First the Antichrist: Why Christ Won't Come Before the Antichrist Does (Baker Book House).
Frederica Mathewes-Green, National Public Radio commentator and author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperSanFrancisco)
I'm fed up. Are you fed up? Let's secede.
There are times when that looks like a pretty good last-ditch strategy. Novelist Walker Percy suggested that Christians and defenders of tattered morality would eventually gather in the ficticious town of Lost Cove, Tennessee, and leave the rest of the world to continue its handbasket journey. In The Revolt (Word, 1996, 425 pp.; $12.99, paper), first-time novelist Susan Wise Bauer has relocated that encampment to the state of Virginia—or rather the Commonwealth of Virginia, which flies the brand-new flag of the Reformed American States.
In this lively political thriller, Bauer has assembled a cast of characters who actually move the plot by force of their character: psychologically complex figures make decisions, and make mistakes, that make things happen. It is a refreshing change from the puppet-fiction that dominates this genre—indeed, from most modern fiction.
Another quality that sets The Revolt apart from most of its classmates is that it never loses touch with believable reality—in part because Bauer has done an extraordinary amount of nuts-and-bolts research. The plotlines include a love story, paramilitary plotting, panicky White House strategy sessions, and behind-enemy-lines detective work at risk of death. There is something for everyone in this novel, and it is all refreshingly well done.
Give The Revolt to your favorite Clancy or Grisham fan. It's just the thing to educate a palate.
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