Jesus and History

In his Jesus Remembered, James Dunn makes the following, insightful observations about the interplay between the study of Jesus and the study of history:

For those within the Christian tradition of faith, the issue [of Jesus’ relationship to history] is even more important. Christian belief in the incarnation, in the events of long ago in Palestine of the late 20s and early 30s AD as the decisive fulcrum point in human history, leaves them no choice but to be interested in the events and words of those days. For the incarnation, by definition, means the commitment of God to self-manifestation in Jesus at a particular time and place within human history, and thus places a tremendous weight of significance on certain events in Palestine in the years 28-30 (or thereabouts) of the common era. Christians cannot but want to know what Jesus was like, since he shows them what God is like. . . . [T]he new questers of the third quarter of the twentieth century showed that faith could and does have a theologically legitimate interest in the history of Jesus. Honest historical inquiry may be granted insights regarding Jesus which are crucially (in)formative of honest (self-critical) faith. . . . The point of [this historical] otherness of Jesus is, in part at least, . . . the otherness in particular of Jesus the Jew—again something we ‘moderns’ have forgotten at our cost. Without that sense of Jesus ‘born under the law’ (Gal. 4.4), of Christ ‘become servant of the circumcision’ (Rom. 15.8), with historical awareness of what that means in terms of the particularities of history, then the humanity of Christ is likely to be lost again to view within Christianity and swallowed up in an essentially docetic affirmation of his deity. Although the failures of earlier lives of Jesus at this point . . . are now widely acknowledged, the instinctive compulsion to extricate Jesus from his historical context and to assume his [a-historical,] timeless relevance still has to be resolutely resisted (101–102).


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James Dunn
James Dunn

The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986: Interaction

Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright
Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright
Neill’s stated purpose for his book was “to provide a narrative [about the interpretation of the New Testament] that can be read without too much trouble by the non-theologian who is anxious to know and is prepared to devote some time to the subject” (ix). This task he seems to have done masterfully well, with a comparatively frugal use of footnotes to set forth “the necessary apparatus of scholarship” (ix). While this history might have proved tedious, Neill has managed to produce a cogent narrative that, at times, may well carry the interested student into the situation or the time being described.

One of the work’s great strengths is the detail with which Neill and Wright investigate each character and movement included in the narrative. While the level of detail could prove cumbersome, it does provide a valuable opportunity to ‘meet’ some of the giants in the field. As a result, after this perusing this introduction, readers will probably find themselves much better prepared to read, critique, and make use of the positions investigated. Likewise valuable is the even-handed portrayal Neill and Wright give of the various theologians they cover, irrespective of whether they would personally support or object to these theologians’ assertions. For instance, although Neill and Wright are considerably more enthusiastic when writing about the Cambridge trio than when they write figures like Baur, even in this latter case, they do not villanize characters like Baur.

Finally, the book’s summary section tries to encourage continued study of the New Testament. As it says, “The New Testament is concerned with proclamation. It is a Kerygma, the loud cry of a herald authorized by a king to proclaim his will and purpose to his subjects. It is Euangelion, good news, sent to those who are in distress with the promise of deliverance. It is the Word of the Lord—and in the East a word is no mere vibration in the atmosphere, it is a living power sent forth to accomplish that for which it is sent” (448–49; italics original). Thus, the chronicle that Neill and Wright provide in this work moves, in their minds, toward establishing a better understanding of the New Testament’s message, which must be proclaimed and heard in all of creation.


In this post:

Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright
Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright

The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986: Summary

Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright
Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright’s revision of Stephen Neill’s, Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986, attempts a concise, but significantly narratival, survey of various issues in New Testament scholarship during the period in question. To this end, Neill and Wright discuss: (i) the challenge to orthodoxy (1–34); (ii) the New Testament and its relationship to history (35–64); (iii) what the New Testament says and means (65–111); (iv) Jesus and His relationship to the Gospel (112–46); (v) Greeks and their relationship to Christians (147–204); (vi) “Re-enter[ing] Theology” (205–51); (vii) the theory of a gospel behind the Gospels (252–312); (viii) the Jewish background of the Gospel (313–59); and (ix) the relationship between history and theology (360–449).

While examining the challenge to orthodoxy, Neill and Wright concentrate on summarizing the noteworthy, continental contributions to New Testament interpretation from Enlightenment’s early days through the middle 1800s. “The New Testament and History” continues this examination, while giving special emphasis to the work of “the Cambridge three” of Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort. Chapter three discusses developments and issues in textual criticism and exegesis. “Jesus and the Gospel” handles research on the synoptic tradition, especially as relates to the synoptic problem. “Greeks and Christians” mainly investigates the possibilities for and evidence of influence of Greek thought on the development of earliest Christianity. In the chapter titled, “Re-enter Theology,” Neill and Wright concentrate almost totally on Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, Karl Barth’s dialectical theology, and Rudolf Bultmann’s attempt to discover the Christian kerygma—that is, the essence of the Christian faith. Further, Neill and Wright examine the possibility of a written source(s) that may stand behind the synoptic Gospels. The authors also investigate the help that Judaism might provide for interpreting the New Testament. In the final chapter, “History and Theology,” the book explores, in some detail, Ed Sanders’ work in reaction to, for example, the traditional Lutheran understanding of Paul. This chapter also encourages interpreters to exhibit a certain “historical humility” in their work and concludes by restating the relevance of New Testament studies.


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Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright

A Hermeneutic of Love

Communication is hermeneutical; it involves people sending and receiving messages. To make the communication process work, the sender(s) and receiver(s) both have to meet their own particular, communicative responsibilities. Of course, with literature like the New Testament, the people who sent the messages it contains cannot clarify or supplement anything they have already said. So, if communication is to happen, any modern readers, or receivers, must try to understand the text’s own communicative horizon, for all the problems that task entails (see this post for a discussion). On this task, consider the following, insightful comments from N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God:

I suggest, then, that the epistemology which I outlined earlier—that which sees knowledge as part of the responsibility of those made in the image of the creator to act responsibly and wisely with in the created world—results, at the level of literature, in a sensitive critical realism. We must renounce the fiction of a god’s-eye view of events on the one hand and a collapsing of event into significance or perception on the other. Until we really address this question, most of the present battles about reading the gospels—and most past ones too, for that matter—will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure. But, for a start, I suggest a possible hermeneutical model . . . a hermeneutic of love.

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other (63–64; italics original).


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N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright

Simon Kistemaker – Interaction

Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker generally provides balanced, astute commentary on several of Jesus’ parables and parabolic sayings. He attempts to avoid allegorical interpretations, thinking that “in the New Testament we encounter elements of allegory but never a full-fledged allegorical parable” (15). This surface disagreement with Blomberg’s perspective on the parables is mainly an issue of semantics. In actuality, Kistemaker’s point merely reflects the very probable hypothesis that in none of Jesus’ parables do all the details stand for things other than themselves, or stated alternatively, that Jesus’ parables—even the allegorical ones—are qualitatively different from an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the chief benefits of The Parables is how Kistemaker consistently summarizes with simplicity and clarity what he considers to be the main points of each parable. Occasionally, one might well debate some precise points of exegesis. Yet, the work is, overall, engaging and informative, and Kistemaker’s style is coherent and straightforward.


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John Bunyan
John Bunyan
Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker