Friday, 17 June 2011

Jelly Jesus

NT Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God starts with an overview of the history of modern biblical scholarship. Since some guy called Reimarus wrote some book in the 18th century, huge amounts of time and energy and almost countless books have been devoted to using 'modern historical critical tools' to try to dig out the 'real' Jesus from the gospel accounts. The idea was that the biblical accounts of Jesus' life were later distortions of history written by people who had their own theological agendas to push and weren't all that concerned to give an accurate representation of Jesus. Modern biblical scholars set out to provide a neutral, scientific alternative (hah!). They used tools like comparing different ancient manuscripts to the existing gospel accounts, comparing gospel accounts too each other, and trying by various complicated and often ludicrous means to work out which bits were genuine and which bits were fake. I will always love NT Wright for arguing, essentially, that an awful lot of recent New Testament scholarship is bollocks: vast theoretical edifices built on the shakiest of foundations, like skyscrapers built on jelly.

Still, it's worth knowing a bit about the broad trends of thought within gospel scholarship, especially if you want to make more sensible arguments about the gospels. Wright thinks that the problems began with the Reformation (and I'm totally happy for us to blame Luther), where the Reformers were so obsessed with propositional truth that they lost sight of the biblical narrative, so although they thought it was super-important that Jesus died on the cross, they couldn't really give a coherent account of why he spent 33 years or whatever before that being alive.

This is where Reimarus came in. Wright says he was basically out to destroy Christianity. He thought Jesus was a Jewish reformer who got more and more politicised until he went and got himself killed, which should have been recognised as the failure it was. After that, lots of liberal theologians weighed in, offering readings of the Gospels that didn't make them uncomfortable, getting rid of anything that sounded a bit miraculous, or painting Jesus as a 'pale and timeless Galilean', teaching timeless moral truths whilst looking like a worried hippy.

Next came Albert Schweitzer, who thought that the most important thing about Jesus was his apocalypticism, warning of a terrible judgement about to fall on Israel; when the apocalypse didn't show, the early Church was able to rework his teachings into something more universal that could appeal to Gentiles as well as Jews. By the end of the 19th century, there were two main strands of biblical scholarship: the followers of Wrede, who basically thought that the gospels told us a lot about the early church but very little about Jesus; and the followers of Schweitzer, who emphasised Jesus' Jewishness and apocalypticism.

Coming soon: Jesus scholarship in the 20th century.


Nathan said...

Hello! Found you through Verbatim. This post is genuinely rather exciting.

As soon as you get the chance, please do write part two about 20th Cent. Jesus studies and help me tip over the edge full-on into theological geekdom (you make it look rather fun).

Marika said...

Thanks! Part 2 should be up later today.