The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
"Knowing Jesus: Faith and History" chapter 2 (by N.T. Wright)

I predicted that I would be more sympathetic with Wright than Borg, and I did not disappoint myself. Wright brings up many of my objections to Borg's way of investigating Jesus, and proposes a more defensible strategy. At its heart is an hypothesis – not an axiom, but an hypothesis – that "we know about Jesus in two ways: history and faith" (15). In academese, one Jesus is the common referent of both scholarly historical enquiry and the knowledge that comes through faith.

This may sound like Borg, but there is an important difference. For Borg, one way knows Jesus in only the pre-Easter stage of his life; the other only knows Jesus in the radically discontinuous post-Easter stage. For Wright, because public history and ecclesial tradition claim to be speaking of the same Jesus, they are dialogue partners whose conversation is not cut off a priori:

History ... prevents faith becoming fantasy. Faith prevents history become mere antiquarianism. Historical research, being always provisional, cannot ultimately veto faith, though it can pose hard questions that faith, in order to retain its integrity precisely as Christian faith, must struggle to answer, and may well grow strong through answering. Faith, being subject to the vagaries of personality and culture, cannot veto the historical enterprise (it can't simply say "I don't like the Jesus you write about, so you must be wrong"), but it can put hard questions to history, not least on the large topic of the origins of Christianity, and history may be all the better for trying to answer them (26-27).

That sounds more like the Jesus of the creeds – not a "composite Jesus" but one person who is the subject of conventionally historical claims ("he suffered under Pontius Pilate") as well as theological claims ("he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Virgin Mary"). It also sounds like the Jesus of the Gospels – even Borg's favored Gospel of Mark, which begins, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God" (Mark 1:1). Historical investigation and confession do not reduce to each other (to put it in my own terms, they are different discourses for different uses), but that is not an excuse for them to talk past or avoid each other.

After all, if my wife gets a letter from the IRS addressed to Taxpayer ID XXX-XX-XXXX and calls out, "You're busted, dude," it is quite clear that "XXX-XX-XXXX" and "dude" refer to exactly the same person, not "the civil Telford" over against the "the spousal Telford". When the taxpayer gets audited, the husband gets cranky. When the taxpayer is imprisoned, the husband is unavailable. Likewise, Wright knows something that Borg seems to wish away: Debunk the historical Jesus and you don't just get to keep going to church and saying the creeds and the rest of the liturgy as before (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-20).

Wright's project is first to see whether the data of history support a picture of Jesus with coherence, explanatory power, and predictive power. These are the confirming tests of scientific adequacy. Here science is operating in its proper sense (not in the materialistic or naturalistic senses that have gained ascendency in our materialistic, naturalistic scientific culture). For Wright, every event of Jesus' life, including his resurrection, is open to scientific inquiry precisely because truly scientific historiography refuses to draw boundaries in advance for what counts as evidence (22).

Second, Wright wants to see whether the data of faith cohere with that same picture and thus confirm his overall hypothesis. We would be relieved to find out that the Jesus we believers experience (and sometimes miss) in church matches the historians' picture of the man who walked the shores (and waters?) of Galilee. We cannot guarantee this conviction beforehand, nor can we rule it out; but we can test it.

By the way, 'first' and 'second' do not mean that one picture is radically prior to the other. Wright is forthright that he is intuiting and proposing pictures informed by his faith – and for that matter his Englishness, his schooling, his gender, and all the rest. The test is how well the picture serves, not where the picture came from. After all, no scientist I know is troubled by the fact that the discovery of benzene's chemical structure originated in someone's dream of a snake biting its own tail, or that the Big Bang theory came from a Catholic priest who didn't buy Aristotle's conviction of the constancy of the physical universe. Why should we be dismayed, or even surprised, if belief turns out to be a helpful source of intuition?

(This is equally true of Borg's proposal, as Wright admits (24). While Borg's dichotomized Jesus comes from a world that set its rationality over and against Christian tradition, that does not automatically discredit his proposal beforehand. It just discredits his methodology, in which Borg's picture of Jesus is a methodological assumption rather than a hypothesis.)

Wright is (or at least claims to be) rigorously critical of the assumptions that would constrict either "no-holds-barred history" or "no-holds-barred faith" (18). That means not assuming a documentary history of the New Testament writings that rests on a prior conviction of what the early church must have been like (20-22). It means being willing to break the taboos of earlier modern life-of-Jesus-research – the many methodological orthodoxies that dominate in biblical critical circles far more confidently than they should. Wright delights both in catching these tenacious little pests and in identifying the source of the whole infestation:

The guild of New Testament studies has become so used to operating with a hermeneutic of suspicion that we find ourselves trapped in our own subtleties. If two ancient writers agree about something, that proves one got it from the other. If they seem to disagree, that proves that one or both are wrong. If they say an event fulfilled biblical prophecy, they made it up to look like that. If an event or saying fits a writer's theological scheme, that writer invented it. If there are two accounts of similar events, they are a "doublet" (there was only one event); but if a single account has anything odd about it, there must have been two events, which are now conflated. And so on. Anything to show how clever we are, how subtle, to have smoked out the reality behind the text (18).

The rhetoric here is a little disingenuous. We scholarly types all love being clever, and Wright is obviously no exception. Let the one without sin throw the first copy of Augustine's Confessions. But take it from me: Wright is not exaggerating the problem. Biblical criticism really does get this silly. And he is not being ad hominem in suggesting ulterior motives behind the moves. At least some of my guild's willingness to go along with these axioms is scholarly responsibility, and at least some of it is unbelief.

So Wright proposes a corrective: let the paranoia of unbelief make suggestions, but also let the knowledge of faith. Let it too criticize the practices of academic history, and let academic history explore the object of faith's knowledge. (By the way, Wright offers a vibrant account of faith's knowledge on pages 24-26 that rings true to my communities' experience.)

Barring no holds also means questioning the taboos of mainstream Christian theology – such as its Augustinian doctrine of the end-times, which I predict Wright will want to dislodge. Above all, it means refusing to take easy ways out to resolve the tensions that inevitably arise between historical proposals and Christian faith claims when both are being formulated and brought into mutual contact (17-18). Christians really have little choice, for we claim to worship a real human being who lived, died, and rose again. Constructing partitions between those three verbs ruptures the narrative of their common subject. It leaves us telling a different story than the one we have insisted on telling through the centuries.

I am not sure I would call Wright a "traditionalist" as Camassia does; he does not defer to tradition simply because it is tradition. Methodologically, he reminds me of Jim McClendon, the Baptist whom I read, cite, and assign often. Wright, like McClendon, is faithfully fearless in subjecting the faith itself to fair scrutiny. Yet at the level that really counts, I think he (like Jim) really is traditionalistic: his career is a long test from within of historic Christianity's bedrock conviction, that Jesus is Messiah and Lord:

The more I find out about Jesus historically, the more I find that my faith-knowledge of him is supported and filled out. These knowings are indivisible. I see why some people find themselves driven to distinguish the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, but I do not think the early Christians made such a distinction, and I do not find the need to do so myself. This Jesus of whom I speak still comes to meet us, sometimes bidden, sometimes not, sometimes despite the locked doors of an enclosed epistemology, always recognizable by the mark of the nails (26).

Is Wright's work foolproof? Nah. It is always possible that Wright has still managed to edit and craft everything to fit a circle that is too neat and too small to be more than a new source of undisturbed consolation. We human beings possess no guarantee against such a development. But it is also possible that he is, simply, right. Touch the scars and maybe you will feel readier to judge.

Is Wright critical enough of the criteria that establish what counts as data? I hope so, but I am not yet sure. There is no prior limit to what are the relevant facts of Jesus' story. The ones he chooses to examine depend of course on the hypothesis, which depends on the assumptions and intuitions of the hypothesizer. For instance, should we count his possibly fabulous flight into Egypt as a child? His preincarnate involvement in the arraying of the heavens? How about his appearance at CA during Communion last Sunday? How about appearances alleged to have happened to latter-day saints in the Americas?

Philosophy has been getting at this problem for some time; it need not paralyze good-faith inquiry. Wright could have nuanced his chapter with appeals to Kuhnian paradigm shifts and Quinian webs of belief and all the rest. While the excursus would have driven off much of his audience, I hope it would not have changed his argument in any material way. I suppose we shall see.

Passion surges through these pages. Wright is calling both the historical and confessional communities to a quest that trades the empty comfort of convention for the satisfying discomfort of trust – not because he is a modern hero striking out bravely on his own, but because he is a follower who has gone ahead and found the land a good one. That kind of passionate confidence is infectious. It looks like the passionate confidence of Jesus that God was with him even in the crunch. It looks academic in its proper sense, and apostolic in its proper sense. I want to follow him and see where it leads.