catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 10 :: 2003.05.09 — 2003.05.22


Historical Jesus

Christians remember Jesus every time communion is taken in church, on official days of remembrance, Lent, Christmas, Easter, Sunday Worship Services, and on many days in between. But who are we thinking of as we take the bread and cup? Who are we worshipping? What sort of person do Christians claim to follow when proclaiming faith in Jesus? Is he the Christ of the Trinity? The kind-faced, lamb-toting personal friend who comes with a calming presence at times of prayer and devotion? The scraggly, bearded revolutionary who calls for his followers to buck the system and offset the status quo?

Realizing that Jesus is often "wheeled in to give support to social or political programmes of one persuasion or another, to undergird strict morality here or to offer freedom from constricting regulations there", N.T. Wright asks who Jesus really was in the second volume of Christian Origins and the Question of God, a series of books written to deal with issues of faith from a historical perspective. Wright understands that faith and history have not been on good terms for quite some time. Historians have tried to debunk the faith of orthodox Christians with scientific proofs and disproofs of Jesus and his resurrection. And orthodox Christianity's valuing of faith over science is evident in its own chosen picture of Jesus, in its preference for the ambiguity of the religious icon over the specificity of the historical portrait.

Wright refutes those who say history "can take us only so far; we have to travel the rest of the journey by faith." This is a misconception of the relationship between faith and history, Wright suggests, since history itself is a movement of faith that, involves imaginative reconstruction, in order to fill the gaps in the story the historian is trying to tell. Wright offers a more fruitful, and more exciting, relationship between the two in the second book of his series, Jesus and the Victory of God.

The really interesting relation, then, is not between "history" (conceived positivistically as a provable series of events, a collection of mathematically certain data) and "faith" (conceived as a leap in the dark over the gap where such data is not available). It is between real history, in all its complexity of hypothetical reconstruction, and real faith, in all its glory as the constant exploration of, and trust in, a god whom Christians believe to be, among other things, intimately and passionately involved in the historical process itself.

Wright prefers to see history as the prodigal son returning home after rejecting the father and squandering his resources in the far-away lands of historical skepticism. The elder brother, the Christian who has never bothered with history, and who remained faithful to orthodox belief, might indeed be suspicious or even angry when history returns, but Wright hopes the elder will welcome his younger brother when the prodigal comes back to the father's table.


Wright paves the way for history's return by painting a portrait, in Jesus and the Victory of God of Jesus within his own historical time. Wright seeks to see Jesus in his own time and place among Jewish leaders, in the middle of Roman rule, before the fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD, rather than through the lenses of the early and later Christian church. In order to do this, it first becomes necessary to map the first-century worldviews of the Jews and early Christians. This map, which is the task of the first book in Wright's series, The New Testament and the People of God, allows Wright to separate the Christian story from that of first-century Jews, making it possible to view Jesus in a manner more consistent with that of Jews who lived in the time of Jesus. Wright operates on the assumption that a people's faith is evident in the story/stories they affirm as their own, so looking at the stories of a certain people can be very fruitful for understanding their worldview. Understanding the Jewish story from the writings of their past as well as those documents leading up to and following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD enables Wright, then, to see Jesus in a manner more similar to that of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries.

Understanding the perspective of Jews in the time of Jesus is one thing, but Wright goes even further in Jesus and the Victory of God when he tries to comprehend the mindset of Jesus himself. Who did Jesus think he was? is the question Wright boldly pursues in the second book of his series because it is often one Christians neglect to ask. Modern day Christians take for granted the formulation of Jesus? identity as the Christ?the second person of the Trinity (an invention of later Christianity), and assume God merely took a deep breath, plunged from heaven?s clouds into the body of a baby in order to found the church for the Gentiles. No more questions asked. Wright suggests that this scenario makes more sense in the worldview of later Christianity, but confuses the issue of Jesus? own understanding of himself and his mission.

Drawing from the Jewish story instead, Wright offers an alternative view of Jesus that takes Jesus' own self-understanding into account. Being able to detect Jesus' self-understanding is possible, Wright suggests, by looking at his own public ministry. Though many theologians are quick to give all the credit for the completeness of Jesus' ministry to the Gospel writers, Wright insists Jesus knew enough of the Jewish scriptures to put together his story himself, that the Gospel writers needed only to record the acts, the miracles, healings, sayings and use of geographical locations, which contributed to the story Jesus was trying to tell.

The Gospel writers, then, were dependent on Jesus' own story, which, according to Wright, proclaimed "Israel's history is turning its long-awaited corner; this is happening within the ministry of Jesus himself; and those who oppose it are the enemies of the true people of God." Wright claims Jesus understood himself to be the last of the prophets to Israel, the long-awaited Messiah who would die as an apparently failed revolutionary (thus warning Israel of the destruction that was to come if they chose to fight Rome by military means), but who would be vindicated by God in the end, thus displaying God's dominion over all the earth. Jesus saw himself in the context of Jewish history and prophetically proclaimed himself to be a major contributor to that story, an agent of God who had come to take the place of the temple, and whose ministry would be seen as validated in the end.

Wright's analysis makes sense of many oddities in the life of Jesus, particularly the secrecy of his ministry, his cryptic sayings and the use of mysterious parables. According to Wright, Jesus was careful not to give it all away too quickly so as to avoid the wrath of the Jewish and Roman leaders until he had completed all the parts to the story he was trying to tell, i.e. the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and the symbolic destruction of the temple which was prophesied by Isaiah and others. Wright's account of the historical Jesus also explains how a Jew from Nazareth could understand himself to be the son of God and act accordingly within history, that is, within "the richly woven fabric of praxis, story, symbol and question which make up real life." Jesus himself drew together many passages throughout the Jewish scriptures (Daniel 7, Zechariah 9-14, the Psalms, Isaiah 40-55), Wright claims, in order to carry out a ministry (beginning with God's seal of approval described in Mark 1:9-11) defined by a series of symbolic acts having full significance in the context of Israel's larger story.

Wright's historical Jesus is not just an interesting contribution in the field of theology, though. The study of Jesus has implications for history as well. Looking at Jesus in the manner that Wright suggests opens our eyes to the many dimensions of history and is not limited to written accounts of events in the past. History continues to make itself because people's practices are directed and informed by the stories in which they find themselves. As Wright concludes in Jesus and the Victory of God, people act out sequels to the stories they feel they are a part of. For example, the most influential figure of the historical Jesus movement, Albert Schweitzer, described Jesus as a man of action who called his followers to engage in tasks. Such a view of Jesus led Schweitzer to become a medical missionary. Theologian Rudolf Bultmann, however, was a man of words, Wright reminds us, and urged people to think, to examine the teachings of Jesus. Not surprisingly, Bultmann's contribution to history was a "New Testament Theology" that seeks to present the true ideas of Jesus over and against the false ones. Wright's Jesus, then, lives in the same reality Schweitzer and Bultmann found themselves in, one where people's practices are informed by the stories and symbols that have significance to them.

Jesus and the Victory of God lays the groundwork for understanding how Christianity, the second of the worldviews examined in The New Testament and the People of God, responded to the ministry of Jesus. If people act out sequels to the stories in which they feel they are a part, what in Jesus' story led to Christianity and the formation of the church? This appears to be the major question in Wright's newest book of the series, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which was recently released by Fortress Press (May, 2003).

Wright claims that the early church would not have believed so strongly in Jesus if he had not been raised from the dead. Staying true to his pursuit of the history of Jesus rather than a "leap in the dark" faith, Wright says the resurrection makes more historical sense than any other theory offered. Wright examines the views and beliefs of the people involved, both Jews and Gentiles, about the relationship between body and soul and the resurrection. He assures us that resurrection would have been as great a shock then as it is now. Nevertheless, the resurrection as historical fact is the best explanation for the foundation of the church and the spread of Christianity throughout history.

The newest installment in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series continues to challenge Christians to think about their own history. As Christian believers perform the rituals and practices of daily life, they take certain beliefs and understandings about what it means to live a life of faithful obedience for granted. N.T. Wright's ongoing series challenges unquestioning belief and forces us to ponder who it is we actually remember when we remember Christ in the 21st Century and in centuries to come.

Discussion questions:

  1. Who are the People of God?
  2. Who did Jesus think he was?
  3. What in Jesus' story led to Christianity and the formation of the church?


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