Thursday, 23 June 2011

The New New Quest

In chapter 2 of Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright does a survey of more recent attempts to find the historical Jesus. Sadly, there's no mention of cannabis Jesus; those scholarly efforts Wright considers worthy of consideration include:

The Jesus Seminar: they get together, argue about whether half a sentence from a gospel is authentic or not, and then use different coloured balls to vote about it (there's a dirty joke in there somewhere but I haven't found it yet). I still half-believe that someone made them up as a joke about the excesses of 'historical' biblical scholarship, but apparently they really do exist, though Wright doesn't think that their scholarship is worth much.

Burton L. Mack:
So, Matthew and Luke both seem to have got a lot of their material from Mark (you can tell because they use the exact same words to tell the exact same stories). But they also seem to have some other material in common which doesn't appear in Mark, so some people have suggested (logically enough) that they had a common source: Q. Less obviously, some people have argued that their shared source was a single document – contentious, but fair enough. Burton Mack thinks that not only can we recreate Q, but we can also work out which bits of Q were written first and which bits were added on later. If historical criticism generally is like building skyscrapers on jelly, this is like building the Empire State building on top of cream, which you've layered onto custard, which in turn rests upon a bed of jelly spooned lovingly over a nest of sponge fingers and raspberries. I'd eat it, but I don't buy it.

J. Dominic Crossan: Crossan talks about the system of 'patronage', common in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Jesus. It was basically a really formal system of nepotism, and unless you had friends in high places, you didn't have any power. He argues that Jesus sets out to subvert this system: he kept moving around so no one would see him as a patron and claim to mediate between him and the normal people; and by healing and eating with outcasts Jesus was trying to subvert the social ordering of things. But Wright thinks that Crossan overlooks Jesus' Jewishness, and so misses the really important points. He can't explain why Jesus got himself killed, or why the early church should have seen his death as significant.

Jesus the Cynic?: Cynics were popular philosophers in the Roman world at the time of Jesus, and they basically thought that society sucked and people should know that it sucked. They went around begging with long hair and scruffy clothes, and made sarky comments in the cinema. Some people have argued that Jesus was a Cynic: fine, says Wright, but there were loads of Cynics: why should this one have founded a new world religion?

Marcus J. Borg: Borg argues that Jesus' teachings had political, social, and theological themes; that he prophesied the destruction, by Rome, of Jerusalem and the Temple. But he doesn't think Jesus was the son of God, and doesn't think Jesus expected to found the Church, so Wright isn't satisfied by his work (though I think they're actually buddies, which is sweet).

So, all in all, Wright thinks there is lots of interesting stuff in the New New Quest, but also some major flaws: they priorities the sayings of Jesus over the stories about what Jesus did; they don't pay enough attention to Jesus' Jewishness; they don't think that Jesus expected to be crucified, and they don't think that there was really all that much relationship between Jesus life and teachings and the early church. So what's the answer? Wright thinks it lies in the Third Quest - that's the New New New Quest - and that's what he deals with in chapter 3, and what we'll deal with in the next instalment.


Karin said...

Personally I'd rather read the work of the Jesus Seminar, Borg or Crossan than that of Wright. The latter are willing to look at new evidence and ask awkward questions, while it seems that Wright prefers to mock and dismiss what doesn't agree with his ideas, from what you have said.

I haven't found anything I've read of Wright's very convincing.

Marika said...

I'm afraid most of the snark in that post was mine rather than Wright's. He's rather more measured and professional than my blog-summary makes him out to be. But measured and professional doesn't make for such a fun blog post.

Karin said...

I've got a lot of time for the Jesus Seminar. I think their book 'The Five Gospels' is very interesting. It is true it is based on how the members of the Seminar voted and this reflects the different views held by individual members of the Seminar.

If you look at the 'Five Gospels' it is clear that we can't be sure Jesus said half that we have been told he said. Of course we don't have to take what the book tells us as 'the gospel truth', but it is an interesting counterbalance to the unquestioning/unquestionable 'certainties' dished up by Evangelicals and others.

Borg and Crossan are members of the Jesus Seminar along with John Selby Spong and others. Of course Evangelicals don't like what they say, but that seems to be a good reason to read what they have to say, even if I don't agree with every word. It opens up the very necessary debate, to my mind, about what Christianity should really be about if it is about following Jesus.

Marika said...

Fair enough! I'd agree with you that Wright's sometimes a bit too keen to make everything fit together perfectly; but he often makes the point that lots of non-evangelical scholars are so eager to escape traditional Christian readings of Jesus that they'll believe the most tenuous theories over something that sounds like Christian orthodoxy. That's certainly my experience of New Testament studies.

Karin said...

The trouble with Christian orthodoxy is that it has been developed over a couple of thousands of years to suit the purposes of those who developed it. Biblical scholars who are not Evangelicals are trying to see what Jesus might really have been about before orthodoxy got its hands on him.

Even if you read what the gospels say in a standard Bible, it is clear that the Church doesn't practise what Jesus preached.

Modern biblical scholars have a better understanding of the culture Jesus lived in than some of the people who developed Christian Orthodoxy. So, they realise that 'the Son of God' was a phrase sometimes used for someone who seemed especially in tune with God, or maybe favoured by God, but never meaning the literal, genetic son of God, for example.

It has also become clear to Biblical scholars who are open to such possibilities that first of all the New Testament has been edited down the ages, which is not surprising as that has also happened to the Old Testament. It can also become clear from biblical criticism that ideas about Jesus developed over time as the earliest NT texts do not suggest he was the son of God or that his mum was a virgin, for instance.

Which theories posited by non-Evangelicals have you read in any detail, Marika?

Marika said...

I totally agree that modern biblical scholarship has good things to contribute; so, for that matter, would NT Wright. I do think that a lot of it is much more reflective of the sort of Jesus scholars want to find than it is 'objective' historical research, and that goes for liberal and evangelical biblical scholarship alike. I don't think Wright's perfect, but I do find his account more persuasive than most others I've read, and it certainly doesn't sit entirely comfortably with traditional evangelical scholarship: Wright himself acknowledges that some of the conclusions he reached weren't ones he was hugely comfortable with.

Obviously the NT doesn't necessarily lead you to Chalcedonian orthodoxy; I don't think that means that Chalcedon necessarily represents a misreading of the NT: it's one interpretation, thrashed out over the first few centuries of the Christian church.

I'm certainly not bang up to date with contemporary New Testament scholarship, but I did spend a fair amount of time on biblical studies as an undergraduate, so I guess I'm a moderately informed amateur; although asking me to remember exactly who I read is, I'm afraid, asking a bit much!

Karin said...

Marika, I was wondering if you had read anything by Borg, Crossan, Spong or even Karen Armstrong, or if you were just taking Wright's word for what they are like.

Marika said...

Like I say, it's been a while. I think I read some Borg, but the other people I only ever came across second hand. I was mostly just trying to present Wright's take on them. That may not have come across very well in the post, and I certainly took the opportunity to vent some of my own frustration with historical criticism in general.

Karin said...

what I've read suggests to me an opening up of the debate, which I've found very helpful.

I've found the stuff approved of by most Evangelicals closes down the debate. Brian McLaren is one of the more open Evangelicals, but even he goes only so far.