November 13, 2005

The New Testament and the People of God, by N.T.Wright

Some things are simply common sense, and should be obvious to anyone with the wit God gave a goose. One plus one, for example, equals two. We often use this as the canonical case of a statement that simply must be true. One plus one equals two: it's just common sense.

If you're a pure mathematician, though, that simple statement hides a world of peril and uncertainty. Vast are the swamps the student of math must cross, stepping from axiom to axiom, proof to proof, theorem to theorem, before he can demonstrate unequivocally that indeed, one plus one really does equal two. And the mass of his acquaintance greet his joyful shouts with, "Of course one plus one equals two. What else could it equal? So what?" The student of math is unbowed. Now he not only knows the basic fact; now he also knows why one plus one equals two.

That's kind of how I feel about this book. The first volume in a series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God, it strikes me as nothing so much as a detailed defense of common sense in the field of New Testament studies--a field in which, to judge from the author's sources, common sense has often been distinctly lacking.

The book lays the foundation for the other volumes in the series; consequently it begins with a lengthy survey of the epistemologies used in New Testament studies over the last century or so, combined with a criticism of most of them. This is followed by Wright's own epistemology, which he terms "critical realism"; in his view, the New Testament cannot be approached as simply historical, or simply theological, or simply literary, but requires the union of all three. He then goes on to examine the world view of the Jewish community in which Christianity arose, and then uses this world view in a preliminary look at the gospels and the earliest Christians.

And all the way along, he's disposing of popular but absurd readings of the New Testament. I do not have the time or the learning (this is an exceedingly scholarly book, albeit a lucid one) to go into all of them, but here's an example. It has become popular in certain circles to claim (largely on the basis of an early date for the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas) that the earliest Christianity was a Hellenistic movement--that Jesus, in fact, was a Cynic. Later on, goes the claim, a Jewish veneer was added; it is this we see in the canonical gospels. Wright examines the world view displayed in the gospels, and in particular in the smaller stories told and retold within them; he also examines the praxis of the earliest Christians so far as it is known. And he concludes, persuasively, that the Cynic theory is all wet--it is much more likely that Christianity should begin as a Jewish sect and retain aspects of its origin at a later time than that it should have begun as a Greek philosophical movement and unaccountably have Jewish language and symbols grafted onto it.

Reading this book has been a long, involved journey; and though I end up with familiar conclusions I feel rather like the student of math I describe above: I can now feel comfortable that common sense really does make sense.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 13, 2005 01:49 PM