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N.T. Wright Quotes

The New Testament and the People of God (Vol 1 of "Christian Origins and the Question of God")
Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992


(p 350) The third fixed point, though he has not always been regarded as such, is Ignatius of Antioch.  It is historically certain that Ignatius traveled from Antioch to Rome to face martyrdom in the latter years of the reign of Trajan, and that the seven letters now normally ascribed to him were written during this journey.  Ignatius offers a wealth of material about the Christianity of his day ...

History and Objectivity

All history involves selection, and it is always human beings who do the selecting. (84)

According to one popular 'modern' view, it is only in the last two hundred years that we have discovered what 'history' really is, while writers in the ancient world were ignorant about these matters, freely making things up, weaving fantasy and legend together and calling it history.  There is a high irony about this view, since it is itself a modern myth, legitimating the cultural imperialism of the Enlightenment without having any basis in the real history of the ancient world.  In fact, the contemporary historians of the ancient world knew what history is as well as we do, and often a lot better.  They were under no illusions about merely observing facts and recording them. (84)

Like all the major historians in the ancient world, Herodotus knew the difference between History proper and mere horography, the attempt to record 'what happened' from one day to the next.  AT the same time, he knew as well as we do that there are such things as actual events, and that it is the business of the historian to write about them, discounting ones which he thinks incredible. (84)

The fact that a human mind has to organize and arrange the material does not 'falsify' the history.  This is simply what 'history' is.  At the same time, Thucydides and the rest were every bit as aware as we are of the historian's solemn duty to strive towards intellectual honesty and severe impartiality.
    It is not the ancients who were deceived about the nature of history, living in a pre-modern age and not knowing what critical thought consisted of.  It is we who, in the Enlightenment's rejection of reliance on auctores, 'authorities' in a multiple sense, have come to imagine ourselves to be the first to see the difference between subjects and objects, and so have both misjudged our forebears and deceived ourselves.  Inventing 'history' be a backwards projection of ideology is as much if not more a modern phenomenon as it is an ancient one.  It is something from which New Testament scholars themselves are not exempt. (85)

On the other hand, no modern historian has escaped the inevitable necessity of selection, and selection cannot be made without a point of view.  No point of view, in turn, can be held without being selected, at least subconsciously.  (85)

It is therefore chasing after the wind to imagine that anyone, ancient or modern, could or can 'simply record the facts.' ... To imagine, therefore, as some post-Enlightenment thinkers have, that we in the modern world have discovered 'pure history', so that all we do is record 'how it actually happened', with no interpretative element or observer's point of view entering into the matter--and that this somehow elevates us to a position of great superiority over those poor benighted former folk who could only approximate to such an undertaking because they kept getting in their own light--such a view is an arrogant absurdity.  It would seem odd even to have to refute it, had it not had such a large influence in precisely the area of our chosen subject-matter.
    All history, then, consists of a spiral of knowledge, a long-drawn-out process of interaction between interpreter and source material. ... This process of interaction is not a strange or unusual phenomenon, but a perfectly ordinary human one.  Every time I pick up a telephone and hear a voice I form a judgment, a hypothesis, as to whose it might be.  (85-86)

... some accounts are closer to the events they purport to describe than are others.  All accounts 'distort', but some do so considerably more than others.  All accounts involve 'interpretation'; the question is whether this interpretation discloses the totality of the event, opening it up in all its actuality and meaning, or whether it squashes it out of shape, closing down to actuality and meaning. ... The historical analogue for this is the account which not only describes 'what happened' but which, as we shall see, gets to the 'inside' of the event. (92)

Jewishness and History

(p 397)  Second, therefore, the fact that the evangelists believed themselves to be bringing the story of Israel to its great climax, the turning-point from which at last the long history of the world would change course, means inescapably that they believed themselves to be writing (what we call) history, the history of Jesus.  This was not something they might conceivably have been doing as it were on the side, while doing something else as their 'real' concern.  History was where Israel's god must act to redeem his people.  The whole Jewish creational monotheistic tradition revolts against the idea that when the decisive event happens it should be a non-event, or that the 'significance' should consist not in events in the external world but in 'principles' or other timeless things that can be deduced from them.  Jewisih monotheism has been used in recent years, illegitimately in my view, as an argument against an early high christology.  What it really cuts against at this point is the dualism that separates Israel's god from his world as though he were not its creator and redeemer.  If we are to think Jewishly, and to see the evangelists as doing so too, we cannot but conclude that they intended to refer to Jesus and his historical ministry. 

(p 427)  To begin again with Jesus:  Jesus was born, lived, worked and died within a Jewish environment.  This world was, as we saw, permeated with Hellenistic influence, but that is not a reason to marginalize the deep and rich Jewishness of his context.  Further, a good geal of Jesus' teaching, on almost anybody's showing, had to do with the coming kingdom of Israel's god. . . But the case needs to be spelled out for seeing the whole of the first generation of Christianity as essentially Jewish in form, however subversive of actual Judaism it was in content.  If Jesus was Jewish, and thought and acted within a world of Jewish expectations and understandings of history; if Paul did the same; if the synoptic evangelists and even John retold the Jewish story so as to bring it to its climax with Jesus; and if even in the second century, even out of the pagan world, Christianity still bore the same stamp--then it seems highly likely a priori that the early tellings of stories about Jesus would also carry the same form.

The Gospels and History

(p 398)  Narrative analysis of the synoptic gospels as wholes thus makes it clear that, so far from their telling the Jesus-story as a retrojection of their own Christian experience, that very experience included, as a vital point, the sense of dependence upon unique and unrepeatable events which had taken place earlier.  The evangelists were not--of course they were not!--trying to narrate 'bare facts' without interpretation.  As we saw in chapter 4, that positivist dream, nowhere realized because in fact totally unrealizable, must give way to the more sensitive account:  their intention was to tell stories about events which really took place, and to invest those stories with the significance which, within their total worldview, they irreducibly possessed.

(p 401)  They told Israel-stories about him, stories whose form and style, as well as whose detailed content, shouted that this was the dramatic climax of Israel's whole history.  In doing this the early Christians were of course legitimating the sort of movement they perceived themselves to be part of.  They were also, of course, undergirding their own personal religious experience.  But in so doing they were also, necessarily, telling stories about Jesus of Nazareth.  In order, then, to articulate 'resurrection faith', with the meaning which it had--the only meaning it could have had, granted the worldview out of which all the early Christians came--it was necessary that they should tell stories about Jesus, stories which represented events that actually happened, stories which by their form and content explained that Israel's history had been brought, in this way and no other, to its god-intended climax.

(p 421)  A third misunderstanding concerns the belief of many early form-critics that the stories in the early tradition reflected the life of the early church rather than the life of Jesus, in that the early church invented (perhaps under the guidance of 'the spirit of Jesus') sayings of Jesus to address problems in their own day.  The main problem with this assumption is that the one fixed point in the history of the early church, i.e. Paul, provides a string of good counter-examples, which work in two directions.

I sum the following points here:

  1. Paul refrains from quoting Jesus when it would have been helpful to him, much less make up sayings.
  2. Paul provides evidence of many kinds of early church disputes which do not appear, or are not prominent, in the synoptics (e.g. circumcision, tongues [Mark], justification & Gentiles, apostleships, geographical priority, etc.)
  3. The synoptics provide material which is not especially relevant to the later church:  Jesus' attitude to women, concentration on Israel

Resurrection and Deity

(p 399)  Fifth, a strong argument may be mounted on the basis of the significance that was attached by the early Christians to the resurrection. . . . In the ancient Jewish world, as in the modern Western one, for someone who had been certifiably dead to become visibly alive again would mean that the world was indeed a stranger place than one had imagined; it would not at all justify a claim that the person to whom this odd event had happened was therefore the saviour of the world, the 'son of god', or anything else in particular.  If, coming closer to the topic, one of the two lestai crucified along with Jesus had been raised to life a few days later, we may suppose it very unlikely that he would have been hailed in any such way, or that anyone would deduce from the event that Israel's fortunes had now been restored, that the kingdom of Israel's god was indeed inaugurated, and so forth.  This forces us to ask:  could the belief that someone had been raised from the dead, whatever precisely was understood by that, have produced the results it did--unless certain things were known, and continued to be known, about the one who had thus been raised after having been crucified?

(p 400)  The resurrection thus vindicates what Jesus was already believed to be; it cannot be the sole cause of that belief which sprang up around it.  . . . The gospel of the early church, of Paul, of the evangelists, is that the promises of the Jewish scriptures had come true in the resurrection.  That is why Paul and others keep insisting that Jesus' death and resurrection happened 'according to the scriptures', or in fulfillment of them.

Three-Story Universe / Apocalyptic Language

(p 425) There is, in fact, an essential irony to Bultmann's analysis of the material the gospels. . .  he was wrong to imagine that Jesus and his contemporaries took such [apocalyptic] language literally, as referring to the actual end of the space-time universe, and that it is only we who can see through it and discover its 'real' meaning.  This is the mirror-image of the mistaken idea that the stories about Jesus, which are prima facie 'about' Jesus himself, were really, in the sense described above, 'foundation myths' and nothing more.  Bultmann and his followers have read metaphorical language as literal and literal language as metaphorical.  . . . To fail to see this--to imagine, for instance, that the New Testament writers were the prisoners of a primitive, literalistically circumscribed supernaturlist worldview--is simply a gross distortion."

The MG Theory

... the first goal of any hypothesis, must be achieved by treating the evidence seriously on its own terms.  A literary text must be treated as what it is and not as something else.  The present debates about the genre and intention of the gospels are particularly germane to this. (105)

(p 397-398) It is perfectly conceivable, and it certainly happened in the case of some inter-testamental novelettes such as Judith and Tobit, that stories with the regular Jewish form and basic content could be told and written without having an actual or necessary historical referent. . . . But if all Jewish stories were fictions, and known to be fictions (in the normal, popular sense of 'fictions'), the whole worldview would collapse upon itself.  If someone in, say, AD 75 were to tell a Jew a fiction (in the same sense) and to claim that in this very story the long hope of Israel had finally been fulfilled, the response would have been not just that he was a liar, but that he had not understood what the Jeweis worldview was all about.  . . . If, then, the gospels are deliberately telling how the story of Israel reached its climax in the story of Jesus, they are either intending to refer to historical events, or they are saying that creational monotheism was wrong after all, and that the Platonist world of abstract ideas, divorces from space and time--which epitomized the paganism against which the Jews had struggled--had been the true world all along.

(p 398-99)  Further, we have now uncovered a solid reason for the evangelists' wanting to give their readers actual information about an actual historical person. ... If they were telling the story of Jesus as the climax of Israel's story, there is every reason, over and above biographical curiosity, why they would have intended that their stories should have a clear historical referent.

(p 402-403)  The gospels, then, were written to invite readers to enter a worldview.  In this worldview, there is one god, the creator of the world, who is at work in his world through his chosen people, Israel. . . . The evangelists' theological and pastoral programme has in no way diminished their intent to write about Jesus of Nazareth.  It actually demands that they do just that.  If they do not, they deceive, promising the reader a worldview which they do not in fact deliver.

(p 471)  If we read the New Testament as it stands, it claims on every page to be speaking of things which are true in the public domain.  It is not simply, like so many books, a guide for private spiritual advancement. . . . It offers itself as the true story, the true myth, the true history of the whole world.

SSEC - Oral Tradition

(p 422-423)  First, unless we are to operate with a highly unlikely understanding of Jesus and his ministry, we must assume some such picture as we find in Gerd Theissen's brilliant work, The Shadow of the Galilean.  Jesus was constantly moving from place to place, working without the benefit of mass

media.  It is not just ikely, it is in the highest degree probably, that he told the same stories again and again in slightly different words, that he ran into similar questions and problems and said similar things about them, that he came up with a slightly different set of beatitudes every few villages, that he not only told be retold and adapted parables and similar sayings in different settings, and that he repeated aphorisms with different emphases in different contexts.  Scholars of an older conservative stampe used to try to explain varieties in the synoptic tradition by saying cautiously that 'maybe Jesus said it twice.'  This always sounded like special pleading.  Today, once a politician has made a major speech, he or she does not usually repeat it.  But the analogy is thoroughly misleading.  If we come to the ministry of Jesus as first-century historians, and forget our twentieth-century assumptions about mass media, the overhwelming probability is that most of what Jesus said, he said not twice but two hundred times, with (of course) a myriad of local variations.
    Second, those who heard Jesus even on a few of these occasions would soon find that they remembered what was said.  We do not even have to postulate a special sort of oral culture to make this highly likely; even in modern Western society those who hear a teacher or preacher say the same thing a few times can repeat much of it without difficulty, often imitating tones of voice, dramatic pauses, and facial and physical mannerisms.  Moreover, when there is an urgent or exciting reason for wanting to tell someone else what the teacher has said and done, a hearer will often be able to do so, in summary form, after only one hearing; then, once the story has been told two or three times, the effect will be just as strong if not stronger as if it had been heard that often.  This is a common-sense point, which would not need spelling out, were it not so often ignored.  When we add to this the high probability that Palestinian culture was, to put it at its weakest, more used to hearing and repeating teachings than we are today, and the observation that much of Jesus' teaching is intrinsically highly memorable, I submit that the only thing standing in the way of a strong case for Jesus' teaching being passed on effectively in dozens of streams of oral tradition is prejudice.  The surprise, then, is not that we have on occasion so many (two, three, or even four) slightly different versions of the same saying.  The surprise is that we have so few.  It seems to me that the evangelists may well have faced, as a major task, the problem not so much of how to cobble together enough tradition to make a worthwhile book, but of how to work out what to include from the welter of available material.  The old idea that the evangelists must have included everything that they had to hand was always, at best, a large anachronism.