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.

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