Two views of Jesus


N. T. Wright’s critical realism


Wright argues that all humans are affected by their worldview in how they think. A worldview is a characteristic way of thinking involving stories and symbols and providing meaning. Different cultures have different worldviews. A worldview forms a lens through which individuals and cultures perceive the world and its meaning/significance.

European culture has been affected by the Enlightenment worldview to prioritise reason over religion. This causes a separation of history and religion, where history is seen as a public discussion based on reason and religion is seen as private and based on faith. Faith is thereby separated from history. For Wright, the consequence is that religious people are forced to live in the “attic” of a faith, where they keep their faith to themselves.

The worldview of the New Testament is radically different. It portrays a God who is firmly and publicly connected to history and the world. He establishes a covenant with his people. History and faith are not separated.

Critical Realism

“There is no such thing as a point of view that isn’t anybody’s point of view” – Wright.

Everyone has their own worldview, their own lens through which they perceive the world, which informs, frames and biases their perception. “Realism” refers to the idea that there is a real world that we can perceive and understand, “critical” refers to the idea that we understand the world from our own evaluative perspective.

The enlightenment worldview holds that we can understand the world scientifically or historically without being influenced by a worldview. It claimed that we could use reason, experience and scientific/historical evidence to gain knowledge without the influence of our worldview. Reason and experience come before worldview. Wright disagrees. He thinks that worldview comes before experience and shapes the experiences that we have by being a lens through which we perceive the world. The approach of a critical realist is to accept that our viewpoint might be wrong, to dialogue with those who have different views in order to confirm, change or abandon our view.

This takes faith in Jesus out of the “private attic” of faith, and places it into a public discussion about history.

The Bible, Jesus and History 

Jesus was a Jewish prophet who was announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and starting a movement to encourage and prepare for it. The culture of the Jews at the time was “on tiptoe with expectation” for God’s plan regarding the Messiah. Jesus acted as if he were the Messiah, the one who came to push God’s purpose forward. He sacrificed himself on the Cross. To traditional Judaism, that was a sign that he was not the Messiah because they believed the Messiah would defeat Israel’s enemies.

However, Wright claims that actually Jesus’ life involved a re-interpretation of that traditional view of what it meant to be the Messiah. For example, the crucifixion seems to fit with Jesus’ own teachings of rejecting violent behaviour and drawing on Jewish traditions of suffering enabling redemption. Finally, Jesus’ resurrection confirmed that he was the true Messiah. The Gospel writers recorded these events because they believed that they were historical events which they presented in a public context as real history.

The story of Israel is the acting out of exile and restoration. “In Jesus’ day many, if not most, Jews regarded the exile as still continuing.” For Wright, the gospels are historical stories with theological significance. Theology and history are linked in the study of the gospel. “What united early Christians, deeper than all diversity, was that they told, and lived, a form of Israel’s story which reached its climax in Jesus and which then issues in their spirit-given new life and task.

So there are elements in Jewish tradition – exile and restoration, suffering leading to redemption, which fit with what came to be the Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection.

Wright uses the criterion of double similarity which argues that if historical material fits with the old Jewish history and also fits with the new Christian history, then that makes it likely to be accurately historical. The reasoning is that if you have two competing ideologies each trying to claim they are right, and yet there is something they both agree on, then that thing is probably a historical fact. Agreement between two disagreeing ideologies cuts through that ideology.

So, Wright rejects the idea that the resurrection alone proved that Jesus was the Messiah. That would only be counting the new Christian history. We must take into account the old Jewish history of Messiahship and view the resurrection as validating that old idea and confirming Jesus as the Messiah. This achieves double similarity.

So, Wright thinks that investigating the historical Jesus is not antithetical to faith but actually is part of faith and supports it.

John Dominic Crossan’s view of Jesus

Crossan’s approach to the Bible is to study the historical Jesus from three sources:

  • Cross-cultural anthropology. An understanding of the ancient world, especially Mediterranean culture and agrarian society. Jesus was a Mediterranean Jewish peasant.
  • Jewish and Greco-Roman history.
  • Literary and textual study of the New Testament and other non-canonical texts.

Crossan claims that Matthew, Luke and John all used Mark as a source. This means that they should not be considered four different testimonies, but one. Crossan thinks that is not good enough for them to count as historical evidence. Furthermore, Crossan claimed that the closer that scripture was written to the events it describes, the better historical evidence it is. He suggests only using materials dating between 30 and 60 CE.

Apocraphal Gospels were written between the 2nd and 4th centuries and are considered non-canonical by the Church. Crossan believed in using apocraphal gospels because he believed they may contain some themes which came from sources predating the four gospels

The Gospel of Thomas is an apocraphal Gospel. It is a sayings gospel, meaning it is just a collection of Jesus’ statements. It makes no mention of the birth or resurrection narratives.

Matthew and Luke have many similarities of the kind which support the view that they used Mark as a source. Some New Testament scholars, including Crossan, propose that Matthew and Luke had not only Mark as their source, but an unknown sayings Gospel which is given the name “Q” or the “Q source”. Crossan claims that there is evidence in the sayings gospel of Thomas that both Thomas and Q have an earlier source.

While there are multiple sources for the sayings of Jesus, there is therefore only one source for the birth and resurrection narratives, because the later gospels copied the earlier ones.

Crossan concluded that the birth and resurrection narratives were not historical events, but were parables which were added later, for the purpose of expressing the significance of Jesus. Additionally in the case of the resurrection, for the purpose explaining that God’s justice was on the side of the crucified Jesus, and for the purpose of establishing the early Church and its leadership after Jesus’ death. During the post-mortem appearances, Jesus tells his disciples, especially Peter, to continue his movement and take care of his people.

Jesus as a social revolutionary. Without viewing the birth and resurrection narratives as historical events, Crossan claims the Bible gives us a very different view of Jesus; as a social revolutionary. He thinks this explains the power of Jesus’ movement in continuing after his death.

Jesus intended a social revolution. Jesus seemed to begin as an apocalyptic preacher, like John the Baptist, but unlike John Jesus did not live in a desert as an ascetic calling for God’s judgement on the world. Jesus’ life was involved with people and with spreading his message.

Jesus advocated a lifestyle for everyone, even peasants, that would challenge various forms of inequality (like gender) and bring about an equal society. For example, ancient Mediterranean culture was that who you eat with depends on social boundaries. Jesus wanted to eat with everyone, implying he wanted to remove social boundaries. He was gossiped about in this regard: ‘look at him, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Matthew 11:19). Jesus would invite people off the street to eat with him, regardless of their social status.

The miracles stories of Jesus healing people, Crossan suggests we should view as Jesus’ acceptance of those who were considered impure and socially ostracized.

Crossan claimed Jesus could be compared to the Cynics, which was a Greek philosophical movement which rejected social boundaries and materialism in favour of a simple life in tune with nature and reason. Cynics were individualistic however, whereas Jesus wanted to grow a community.

Crossan points out that the Christianity that became the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine, bore little resemblance to the original Jesus movement. Roman culture was about power, dominance and social status.

Crossan and the atonement. There were many injustices people suffered around Jesus’ time such as high taxes and land seizures. While some Jews wanted to rebel violently, Jesus called for nonviolent resistance and justice.

Jesus was crucified by the Romans because he was a threat to their power, not to save us from our sins, Crossan says. He criticises that traditional view by arguing that it would amount to God bringing about salvation through violence, the implication of which is that violence can be morally good in some situations. It’s that assumption that leads to religiously inspired violence like suicide bombing and invading other countries to spread democracy, Crossan argues.

The human need for violence is so profound, Crossan thinks, that the authors of the New Testament mixed some in amongst the facts when writing. Crossan thinks this can be seen by noticing the trend of Jesus beginning non-violent at the start of the New Testament while later in the book of Revelation he’s leading armies through heaven to kill evil people. The result is that the New Testament is a mixture of fact and fiction. “Christianity both admits and subverts the historical Jesus”

Crossan is not Christian. Crossan claims that Jesus didn’t perform any miracles, rise from the dead nor die to save us from our sins. Crossan sees the importance of Jesus in the life that he lived instead. Critics of Crossan argue that he can hardly be a Christian. William Lane Craig says that Crossan is “literally an atheist”.

Crossan disagrees. He claims he is “trying to understand the stories of Jesus, not refute them”. Crossan says “I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than nonviolent resistance to violence … I cannot imagine a bigger miracle than a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square”.

Crossan claims the story of Jesus’ resurrection was intended to be a parable by the early Christians, not an actual fact. The meaning of the parable of Jesus being resurrected was that God’s divine justice was on the side of the crucified one.

Bishop Barron thinks that the resurrection story is not credible as a mere parable, because unless Jesus really did rise from the dead, then “Rome won”.

B Witherington argues that Crossan has popularised a theology that people like because it is less demanding, but fails to tackle real and serious questions like whether Jesus was the son of God and whether he came to bring salvation. Witherington thinks Crossan is trying to promote a non-supernatural Jesus and thinks it simply doesn’t work: “if you have a problem with the supernatural, you have a problem with the Bible. It’s on every page.”

The question is why the supernatural events described in the Bible came to be written down. We can’t just assume that they are a historical record of events which happened because we have evidence from all religions that miracle stories get written about important human figures. In the ancient world that was simply how people expressed their culture’s belief in a person’s spiritual importance. Witherington assumes that the only options are to take the supernatural at face value or to reject the Bible – but that ignores the possibility of having an alternate account of the reason the supernatural is in the Bible. Crossan suggests it could be parable. Alternatively, Bultmann suggests it could be expression of human interaction with the Kerygma.

Another criticism of Crossan is that he had simply projected his views on the negativity of the British empire he gained by growing up Irish onto the Bible story. That’s why the reading of Jesus as a revolutionary standing up to the empire of Rome stands out to him. Crossan rejects this criticism, claiming he grew up after hatred of the British empire had lessened. He also claims that while the British did terrible things to the Irish, if the Irish had the power they would have done the same. This suggests he doesn’t think any group is inherently worse than any other, only power causes a group to act worse.

However arguably this response fails because it doesn’t quite address the topic of whether he has lingering negative feelings towards empire which influenced his interpretation of the Bible. He might indeed acknowledge it’s only power which causes those in an empire to act badly, but he might still feel negatively towards empire and power.

Against the use of apocryphal Gospels is the argument that there is simply is no direct evidence for the Gospel of Thomas before the 2nd century. We are on much more certain historical ground accepting the Gospels and there is no mention of the Gospel of Thomas in the earliest discussions of the canon – this is evidence that it simply didn’t exist at that time.

However, Crossan would question if it is indeed true that we are on certain ground with the Gospels. Weren’t they written long after Jesus’ life? Aren’t there enough differences between them to question if they provide a straightforward account of Jesus life?

In contrast the argument from N. T. Wright might say that we do indeed have four different Gospels and their differences are precisely what we would expect of people looking at the same event from their own points of view. The early church recognised that these accounts stem from eyewitnesses and were trust worthy. No historical doubts are expressed about the four Gospels in the earliest discussions about the canon.

Another challenge to using the apocryphal Gospels as sources has to do with their date. All of them are dated from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, much later than the books of the New Testament – this should caution historians from the outset. Furthermore, many of these ‘Gospels’ are merely fragments, or quotations in the later writings of the Church Fathers; why would we turn to them as sources for Jesus’ life rather than to the earlier and more complete work of the four Gospels?

However, in support of their use Crossan raises several points. Even though these Gospels are dated after the writings of the New Testament, they may contain traditions that are independent of the New Testament. Therefore, they shouldn’t be overlooked simply because of their date.

Furthermore, not all of these sources are fragments. The Gospel of Thomas is a complete document of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Even though the Gospel of Thomas is from the 4th century, there is direct evidence that it existed in earlier versions. The discovery of fragments (some from the early second century) of portions of the Gospel of Thomas, suggest that this Gospel circulated widely.