Thursday, 20 October 2011

Prodigals, Paradigms, and Proof that Christianity was right all along

Wright starts off chapter four of Jesus and the Victory of God with a re-reading of the prodigal son. Really, he argues, it's a retelling of the story of Israel. The prodigal son is Israel, who went off into exile in a pagan country, ended up a slave, and then returned home. Wright says that lots of Jews in first-century Palestine thought that they were still spiritually in exile: sure, they were back in Israel, but under Roman rule. This wasn't what redemption looked like.

Wright says that the fundamental message of Jesus' ministry was this: Israel is being restored, but it doesn't look the way they expected it to look. It doesn't look like a new political order, kicking out the Romans and putting a new, properly Jewish king on the throne instead of the Romans' puppet rulers. It doesn't look like the restoration of the Temple to its former glory; actually it doesn't seem to involve the Temple at all. Instead, it looks like Jesus: a scruffy prophet from the countryside who hangs out with tax collectors and sinners. Don't like it? Fine, but that puts you on the side of the older son in the parable: the side of the Jews who didn't go into exile and resent the ones who return. It puts you on the side of the Samaritans. Jesus is the homecoming party, and everyone is invited to the feast. Jesus is the one through whom Israel's God is restoring his people.

Wright says that the best test for whether the gospel accounts are true is to see whether it's similar but not the same as the Judaism of the time, and similar but not the same as the early Church. He offers five basic hypotheses:

a) Jesus made sense in the context of first century Judaism;

b) he thought he was regrouping Israel around himself, and that this regrouping of Israel really was the proper return from exile, and as such was a challenge to the Jews who thought that everything was focused on the temple;

c) these ideas were exactly the sort of thing you'd say if you wanted to make everyone hate you: the Pharisees, the Temple authorities, and the Romans;

d) but if Jesus had just been killed, that would have been it: he would have failed. Only if he was vindicated in some way would it make sense to think that he had been right all along and that the Gentiles should be welcomed into the kingdom;

e) if this is what happened, it would make sense for Luke to write the sort of gospel he did in fact write.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The New New New Quest

Don't worry, I hasn't forgotten about my series on N T Wright. We're up to chapter 3 now, woop! This one's all about The Right Way to do biblical scholarship. Wright counts himself amongst what's known as the Third Quest, because he thinks that they're proper historians. They spend a lot of time reading first century sources, especially the Jewish ones, focus on the question of what Jesus did to make himself unpopular (popular?) enough to be crucified, and assume that the early church were actually pretty profoundly shaped by what Jesus said and did. Which all sounds pretty uncontroversial, so you might want to bear in mind the possibility that Wright is treating non-Third Quest scholars unfairly. I'll say this, though: anyone who thinks we can reconstruct not only Q but the stages of the development of Q is an idiot.

Wright says the Third Quest have five major questions, all of which are part of answering the bigger question: how do we account for the fact that, by AD 110, there was a large, growing, diverse and enthusiastic international movement which claimed to have been founded by Jesus? The five sub-questions are as follows:

  • How does Jesus fit into Judaism? Either he's so Jewish you can't imagine how he founded a new religion; so Christian you can't believe he was really Jewish, or somewhere in the middle: Jewish with a twist. Sounds like a flavoured water. So Jesus used Jewish language and ideas to challenge Judaism, and because Judaism at the time was theological, political and social, so was Jesus. Jewish theological expectations were bound up with politics and ideas about the fate of Israel as a political state. It's the politics that give us some idea why Jesus might've been crucified in the end.

  • What were Jesus' aims? Probably something to do with the kingdom of God. But did he intend to die in Jerusalem? Did he intend to found a church?

  • Why did Jesus die? Obviously the Romans were persuaded that he was up to no good. But who persuaded them?

  • How and why did the early church begin? Jesus wasn't the first prophet to end up getting killed. But mostly when the prophet died, their followers, y'know, stopped following them. Why didn't Jesus' followers admit defeat?

  • Why are the Gospels what they are? The gospels are a new, weird genre, not quite like anything that had been written before. Why?

  • There's also, says Wright, a sixth question: what does all this mean for the contemporary church and the contemporary world? However much New Testament historians pretend they're being neutral, there's always some theological position in there somewhere. In addition, contemporary awareness that anti-Semitism means that people are wary of saying anything that might suggest that Jesus was criticising the Judaism of his time. No one wants to do a Mel Gibson.