At the moment I am going through the second two volumes of N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Part of what I’m doing in reading the books is giving a review and summary of each chapter of both books. I thought I might as well contribute them here, so occasionally over the next few months I’ll continue to post chapter-by-chapter sections reviewing Wright’s corpus. Here is my overview of the first chapter.
Wright sets out, first of all to define the aim and methodology of his study of the historical person of Jesus. He notes at the outset (p. 4) that the very attempt to write an account of the person of Jesus has become a task which more and more theologians are hesitant to do, instead opting to discuss the shape of the early Christian community. Wright argues, however that a portrait of Jesus in his historical context is possible, and may very well be a point of reunion and convergence between critical historical study and theology. He notes that there are at least two “jigsaws” which need to be fitted together in putting forth such a historical study of Jesus.
The first jigsaw is a “historical one” (p. 5). Wright notes that what we have to say about Jesus from a historical point of view will be definitively shaped by what we have to say about “the first century as a whole” (p. 5). The relationship between pre-Christian Judaism, John the Baptist, Jesus, the earliest church, Paul, and the other New Testament writings are all part of the “jigsaw” which must be carefully fitted together in such a way as for us to have an accurate or at least plausible understanding of the historical person of Jesus.
In laying out this “jigsaw”, Wright explores and critiques Schweitzer and Bultmann for their particularly different ways of failing to properly place Jesus in his Jewish context. Bultmann ended up making Jesus into nothing more than a “preacher of existentialist decision” (p. 7), something that would have been utterly unintelligible in the first century. Schweitzer, likewise, though attempting to place Jesus in his historical context more thoroughly ends up saying virtually the same types of things about Jesus in terms of his relevance for today through a problematic understanding of “Jewish apocalyptic eschatology.”
This issue – that of the relevance of Jesus for today – is the “second jigsaw” which Wright is seeking to address in his work. Wright argues that “rigorous faith” and “rigorous history” belong together and can be a source of mutual enrichment, rather than mutual antagonism (p. 8). It is with that central presupposition in mind that Wright puts forth his analogy that guides the argument of the book, that of the parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal (critical historical study) demands his inheritance, scorning his father and goes into the far country in defiance while his older brother (orthodox belief) stays home, hurt and angry. However, Wright appeals to “the older brother” that, should the prodigal come home, he should be welcomed back rather than excoriated for his foolish and antagonistic youth. It is on this basis that Wright moves forward with his exploration of the previous two “quests” for the historical Jesus, and the ways in which they have been predatory on orthodox Christian faith, and seeks to move beyond them to a portrait of Jesus that is at once more historically situated in first century Judaism, and more theologically potent on the very basis of that historicity.