Over the next couple of months I will be splitting time with Daniel James Levy as we review the above mentioned book chapter-by-chapter (see the schedule below). The book is split into two parts: one of Wright’s work in historical Jesus studies and one covering his work in Pauline studies. We will begin where the book does in historical Jesus studies.
Marianne Meye Thompson, “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John”
The first chapter was written by Marianne Meye Thompson and it is titled “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John”. In this paper she covers three topics related to Wright’s book Jesus and the Victory of God (henceforth, JVG):
(1) “…the relative absence of the Gospel of John from the pages of JVG“.
(2) Comments by Wright elsewhere that seem to allow for room to discuss the Jesus of the Gospel of John with the Jesus of JVG.
(3) The “noteworthy features of JVG‘s presentation of Jesus” with special emphasis on Jesus seeing himself as “replacing the temple of the temple system.”
Thompson notes that John “is not a source, or not explicitly a source, for JVG” (p .22) making JVG ”a portrait of the Synoptic Jesus; that is, the threefold and not fourfold Gospel canon.” (p. 23) While Wright has acknowledged that John is “at least as much like the Synoptics as unlike” (p. 23) he chose not to use John because ever since Reimarius it has not been kosher to do so. Also, “in JVG the ‘history’ of this ‘historical Jesus’ ends on Good Friday, and his aims are essentially accomplished there.” (p. 25)
For Wright, according to Thompson, John retells Jesus’ life with post-resurrection insight. Obviously the Synoptics do this as well, but it is less blunt. Since Wright tried to reconstruct a historical Jesus in the setting prior to the resurrection it seemed to him that John wasn’t very valuable.
Yet Wright has opened the door to a “Johannine Jesus” elsewhere. When Wright speaks of Jesus as the one who “believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.” (p. 28) According to Thompson this sounds a lot like the Johannine Jesus.
Similarly, there are many elements of John that seem “to have a ring of historicity about them” (p. 27) that pair well with Wright’s project. Is there one area where it would be safest to build a bridge between the Johannine Jesus and the Wrightian Jesus? Thompson suggest Jesus’ temple actions would be the place to do so.
According to Thompson, “John is the only canonical Gospel to identify Jesus explicitly as a temple.” (p. 33) Since Wright has emphasized Jesus’ temple cleansing as a prophetic declaration that YHWH would destroy the temple, and since both John and Wright tie Jesus’ anti-temple movement with John the Baptist (p. 34), we may have common ground. Yet Thompson sees Wright and John as parting ways on this very point.
Thompson isn’t sure how to reconcile Wright’s statements that Jesus bring the end of exile with Jesus’ sayings that see the temple as doomed, which seem to indicate further exile. After discussing this subject some more Thompson finds that “John and JVG would get along quite well; at times, even better than the Synoptics and JVG.” (p. 37)
Thompson adds that “…the question that John poses to JVG is how Jesus is known.” The “quest for the historical Jesus” has been based on two assumptions: (1) the historical Jesus can be found behind the gospels and (2) that the facts discovered behind the gospels should give us one, singular Jesus. (pp.37-38) Yet Thompson argues that “…to know Jesus, one cannot bypass the memory and witness of those who followed Jesus.” (p. 38) Therefore, she concludes that there may be more to giving the canonical gospels, especially John, the respect they deserve than is often acknowledged in historical Jesus studies and even by Wright himself.
Wright says, “…the strangest thing to me in Marianne’s paper: her supposition that John and JVG part company on the temple theme.” Wright points to the Prologue, “the word became flesh, kai eskenosen en hemin, ‘and tabernacled in our midst.’” So for Wright “JVG and John converge when it comes to Jesus-as-temple upstaging the Jerusalem temple. And since I think that is the clue to John’s incarnational Christology, then yes, JVG does arrive–by a quite different route–at something like the Johannine solution.” (p. 39)
Furthermore, Wright sees a place where his own project and the Gospel of John come together in a way that “the Great Tradition” seems to miss: “Reimarus, of course, couldn’t put together the kingdom and the cross, but then nor could the rest of the Great Tradition he was reacting against. John, like the Synoptics, does it effortlessly.” (p.40) For Wright both his project, and the Gospel of John, make some sense of Jesus’ life in a way that the “he was born to die” theology of many Christians misses.
I was surprised by Thompson’s suggestion that John and JVG part ways over the temple. That did not seem to be the biggest chasm between the two. I think the major difference is perspective. If JVG wants to talk about Jesus from a pre-resurrection perspective then it will share less common ground with John’s gospel which is not content to see Jesus that way. For John it is Jesus as fully understood that informs everything that came before his resurrection. This theological Jesus is the historical Jesus.
Wright’s project is worth engaging, but it must be done with the understanding of what he was trying to accomplish as well as a realization of how the Synoptics may have been more useful at various points. Nevertheless, I think we may find that John contributes more data on the pre-resurrection Jesus than what we have traditionally acknowledged. One area to watch will be the “John, Jesus, and History” group at SBL who is investigating this very subject.
Schedule for this series:
06/01: Marianne Meye Thompson, “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John” (Brian LePort)
06/08: Richard B. Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth” (Daniel James Levy
06/15: Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” (Brian LePort)
06/22: Nicholas Perrin, “Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet” (Daniel James Levy)
06/29: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Brian LePort)
07/06: Edith M. Humphrey, “Glimpsing the Glory: Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness, and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright” (Daniel James Levy)
07/13: Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies” (Brian LePort)
07/20: Markus Bockmuehl, “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died? (Daniel James Levy)
07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Brian LePort)
08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Daniel James Levy)