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.

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.