Friday, October 05, 2007

N.T. Wright Methodology

Bishop Wright has done a lot of study on First Century Judaism or more broadly Second Temple Judaism (from here on 2TJ). His knowledge is far beyond mine in that area. Bishop Wright makes Second Temple Judaism the centerpiece of his theology. He uses it to frame his questions. Just one example:

Can we, as historians, describe the way in which he might have wrestled with this question within the parameters of his own first century Jewish worldview? (Jesus and the Identity of God)

It is through the lens of 2TJ that Wright redefines Christology as well as other things like Justification, Covenant, etc. Some of objected to his understanding of 2TJ, and they may indeed be right. Again, my knowledge would be far to inferior to even weigh in on that debate. However, I would like to see more time spent on debating whether or not Wright is doing the right thing by framing all his understanding of the New Testament off of 2TJ literature. That seems to me a more basic and more methodological question. Allow me to list several things that I believe need further clarification from Bishop Wright before his redefinition can begin to be debated.

1. Judaism in the First Century was not monolithic, how can one know which framework Jesus fit? Much like Christianity today Judaism had lots of different types and differing understandings. We know of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two could not even agree on what constituted the Bible. First Century Judaism would have embraced both Josephus the Romanized Jew as well as Zealot leader Eleazar ben Yair whose followers committed suicide rather than face being conquered by the Romans. We also know the Essenes would have been in existence adding yet another sect with yet another different outlook upon all the questions that Wright deals with. Which 2TJ framework do we impose on Jesus when we seek to understand how he used the word ‘Logos’ or his view of the temple and of the prophets?
2. Why must we sift the NT through a 2TJ view of the world rather than a Hellenized Jews view of the world? It is true that all of the writers of the Bible were Jews, but were they Hellenized Jews or more strict 2TJ Jews? This seems an important question when it comes down to deciding whether or not to accept a Jewish spin on a word or a Greek spin on a word. Paul, the author with the most books in the Bible, was from Tarsus, a highly Hellenized city whose philosophers and library rivaled Athens. John who five books of the NT seems to be writing to a highly Greek or at least non-jewish audience. He even goes so far to define the word rabbi in John 1:38. This has great import in the reading of the Christological passage of John 1:1-5. Remember that Joseph the earthly father of Jesus spent time in Egypt a place more inclined toward Greek views of life than Judaic views on life. Could that not have played a pivotal role in Jesus’s upbringing?
3. If Jesus is self-consciously divine would not this place him above the discussion at hand. This gets back to my criticism from the last post of assuming the answer in the question, but it is worth mentioning again. Jesus as God could be far above the fray of Judaism as it existed in the first century.

Most importantly is this last and final objection.

****Why should we take a Jewish understanding of Jesus since it was the Jews who misunderstood Jesus, turned him over to be killed, and persecuted the early converts to Christianity.*******
It is a legitimate question to ask if any of these Jewish sources should be used in our understanding of Christ in the first place. Just look at what the Scriptures say on the matter.

John 5:46, "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me."
John 8:39, "Jesus saith unto them “If ye were Abraham’s children ye would do the works of Abraham."
2 Corinthians 3:14, "But their minds were blinded: for unto this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament, which vail is done away in Christ."

The point is this: why do I want to use the First Century Jewish understanding to enlighten the Bible. The First Century Jewish understanding did not understand the Old Testament, let alone the New. Bishop Wright can argue about what 2TJ thought about God until he is blue in the face, because their actions show they did not understand God at all. Bishop Wright has made no reasonable argument to show why the 2TJ should be accepted as a legitimate way to understand the OT or the NT. I hope that in the books that I have not yet read he deals seriously with the verses quoted above and the several more just like them. Until he does, he has not proved anything. Until he does, his methodology must be rejected.

However, I would be remiss if I did not deal with the Scriptural arguments he uses. So next we will turn to those arguments.


Andrew Duggan said...

What else could one expect from someone who flies coach? [Tongue-in-Cheek]

Jay said...

I haven't read it, but I think that NT Wright's "The New Testament and the Pepole of God" is in large part devoted to explaining both his methodology and his background in Second Temple Judaism. It's 475 pages of small font writing. I'm afraid one would have to read the whole thing before rejecting his methodology. Having read a summarized version in "Jesus and the Victory of God," I can tell you that he definitely discusses the fact that Judiasm in the First Century was not monolithic, and suggests reasons why it's better to read Paul and the gospel writers as more Jewish than Hellenized.

Also, if the question is whether Jesus was self-consious about his divinity, it sounds like you're the one assuming the answer in point 3. Aren't you just saying "assuming Jesus was self-consiously divine, he wouldn't have been constrained by the worldview of First Century Judaism"? In any case, if the evidence we have about Jesus' self-knowledge was written by non-divine first century Jews, don't we still have to understand what they meant from a human perspective, before we get to Jesus' divinity?

I think NT Wright's general approach is well-summarized in this passage from his article "The Resurrection as a Historical Problem" (available online). "My theme for the moment, then, is to present the historical argument that results from looking at first-century Judaism on the one hand and first-century Christianity on the other. We find ourselves, so to speak, contemplating two pillars on either side of a wide river. By studying them both and their relation to each other, we should be able to work out what sort of a bridge might actually join the two together. Christianity emerged from Judaism, but how did this happen? How did we get from the one riverbank to the other?" The point is not to trust 2TJ completely, it is to figure out how the people who wrote the New Testament went from 2TJ Jews to first generation Christians.

That's all for now. Looking forward to more posts.

Lee said...

I will have get that book. It is on my, 'when I get rich and have lots of free time' list. As for point three it is mainly there to say that if Wright is wrong on his Christology, then his entire methodology for studying Jesus is destroyed. I wonder if he would admit that.

"if the evidence we have about Jesus' self-knowledge was written by non-divine first century Jews, don't we still have to understand what they meant from a human perspective, before we get to Jesus' divinity?"
I am not sure what you mean here. The evidence we have is from Scripture, which is divinely inspired. Thus, I don't think we ought to depend on outside sources to try and understand the divine source. I think it perfectly understandable without a deep knowledge of 2TJ.

Your quote from N.T. Wright illustrates one of my complaints. I don't think First Century Christianity emerged from First Century Judaism. In fact, I think a good case can be made that Christianity was a repudiation of First Century Judaism. Christianity emerged from Old Testament Judaism, but that is not the same as First Century Judaism. Jesus often spoke poorly of the Judaism of the First Century. Look at the Sermon on the Mount and how often he refutes 'You have heard it said' or John 6 and 8 where strong disagreements with First Century Judaism occur. This is his theme, but I am not sure it is a valid one.

Jay said...

I'm surprised there aren't more discussions of NT Wright's methodology. It seems to me that his methods are the true source of many of the doctrinal controversies surrounding him.

My statement about evidence was poorly written. I think we can agree that the evidence we have about Jesus is contained in the New Testament, and that the New Testament is divinely inspired. But I'm not sure why it follows that we shouldn't "depend on outside sources to try and understand the divine source." The fact that the New Testament is divinely inspired doesn't mean it is outside of time, that it can be understood by anyone in any age without knowledge of the context in which it was written. At a bare minimum, we today need translators, who have to rely on "outside sources" to know what the Greek words mean in English. It also matters, I think, that John was writing to a Greek audience, or that Paul was writing to a particular church. Understanding the concerns of the audience can illuminate the author's meaning, without making that meaning any less divinely inspired. By the same token, understanding the author's own background and perspective (e.g., Paul was from Tarsus, a Hellenized city) gives further insight into his meaning. So, NT Wright says (I have read this book), recognizing that Jews in the first century believed in bodily resurrection at the end of the age helps us understand how first century Christians were both the same (they too believed in bodily resurrection) and radically different (they believed that Jesus was raised bodily first, innaugurating God's kingdom on earth).

To put it differently, it is impossible to look at early Christians in a vacuum. Virtually all of them were first century Jews. They rejected many elements of their Jewish beliefs, but they still believed they were worshipping the same God. If we don't understand the beliefs of those around them, we won't fully grasp the way that they were contrasting Jesus' teachings with what others believed, explaining why Jesus was different.

Anyway, I'm not saying that it's all a mystery until you know more about 2TJ, but I do think that, as with all things, the more you understand about the context, the better you can understand what is being said.