Cover image for The challenge of Jesus : rediscovering who Jesus was and is
The challenge of Jesus : rediscovering who Jesus was and is
Wright, N. T. (Nicholas Thomas)
Publication Information:
Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, [1999]

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202 pages c; 22 m.
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BT303.2 .W75 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Today a renewed and vigorous scholarly quest for the historical Jesus is underway. In the midst of well-publicized and controversial books on Jesus, N. T. Wright's lectures and writings have been widely recognized for providing a fresh, provocative and historically credible portrait. Read his thoughts in this original edition, or get the most recent edition for even more insight with an all-new introduction by the author.Out of his own commitment to both historical scholarship and Christian ministry, Wright challenges us to roll up our sleeves and take seriously the study of the historical Jesus. He writes, "Many Christians have been, frankly, sloppy in their thinking and talking about Jesus, and hence, sadly, in their praying and in their practice of discipleship. We cannot assume that by saying the word Jesus, still less the word Christ, we are automatically in touch with the real Jesus who walked and talked in first-century Palestine. . . . Only by hard, historical work can we move toward a fuller comprehension of what the Gospels themselves were trying to say."The Challenge of Jesus poses a double-edged challenge: to grow in our understanding of the historical Jesus within the Palestinian world of the first century, and to follow Jesus more faithfully into the postmodern world of the twenty-first century.

Author Notes

N. T. Wright is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and was formerly Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. He taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Here, prolific Anglican theologian and historical Jesus quester Wright makes accessible to lay readers the arguments he laid out in his scholarly tome Jesus and the Victory of God. But Wright does more than just rehash old arguments; he adds a discussion of the resurrection, absent from Victory, and addresses the prickly problem of relevance. In the first six chapters, Wright tackles many of the questions of the historical Jesus debate: Did Jesus believe the Kingdom of God was "now" or "later"? (Both, says Wright.) Did He know He was God in the same way "that one knows one is hungry or thirsty"? ("It was not a mathematical knowledge.... It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by those closest to me.") What exactly happened on Easter? (Jesus' body seemed both physical and transphysical.) Wright then addresses how all these historical-cum-theological musings are significant for Christians living in a postmodern world. This superb addition to Wright's oeuvre will prove fruitful reading for neophytes as well as for those already familiar with his approach. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Attempting to provide a fresh look at the Gospel through honest historical study and to produce a firm sitz im leben for Jesus, Wright (dean, Lichfield Cathedral) uses this portrait to motivate Christians to follow a "Jesus-shaped" model of discipleship. He has propounded a new orthodoxy that has caused many of his historical colleagues to call him a "fundamentalist," even as fundamentalists are calling him a "compromised pseudo-liberal." That aside, Wright has produced a work of frankly evangelical faith with strong historical integrity, because both are necessary for serious study, uncomfortable as that may be. While he believes that the quest for the historical Jesus is necessary, he is sharply critical of modern, skeptical scholarship. Wright closes with a rousing call for an active, Jesus-like involvement in the world. A refreshing and inspiring read for those who take both conservative faith and historical scholarship seriously. Recommended for academic and public libraries.--Eugene O. Bowser, Univ. of Northern Colorado, Greeley (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Challenge of Studying Jesus A friend of mine, lecturing in a theological college in Kenya, introduced his students to "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." This, he said, was a movement of thought and scholarship that in its earlier forms was carried on largely in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He had not gone far into his lecture explaining this search for Jesus when one of his students interrupted him. "Teacher," he said ("I knew I was in trouble," my friend commented, "as soon as he called me `teacher'!"), "if the Germans have lost Jesus, that is their problem. We have not lost him. We know him. We love him."     Research into Jesus himself has long been controversial, not least among devout Christians. Several people in the wider Christian world wonder if there is anything new to say about Jesus and if the attempt to say something fresh is not a denial either of the church's traditional teaching or of the sufficiency of Scripture. I want to grasp this nettle right away and explain why I regard it, not just as permissible but as vitally necessary that we grapple afresh with the question of who Jesus was and therefore who he is. In doing so I in no way want to deny or undermine the knowledge of Jesus of which the Kenyan student spoke and which is the common experience of the church down the centuries and across widely differing cultures. I see the historical task, rather, as part of the appropriate activity of knowledge and love, to get to know even better the one whom we claim to know and follow. If even in a human relationship of knowledge and love there can be misunderstandings, false impressions, wrong assumptions, which need to be teased out and dealt with, how much more when the one to whom we are relating is Jesus himself.     I believe, in fact, that the historical quest for Jesus is a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship and that we in our generation have a chance to be renewed in discipleship and mission precisely by means of this quest. I want to explain and justify these beliefs from the outset. There are, however, huge problems and even dangers within the quest, as one would expect from anything that is heavy with potential for the kingdom of God, and I shall need to say something about these as well.     There are well-known pitfalls in even addressing the subject, and we may as well be clear about them. It is desperately easy when among like-minded friends to become complacent. We hear of wild new theories about Jesus. Every month or two some publisher comes up with a blockbuster saying that he was a New Age guru, an Egyptian freemason or a hippie revolutionary. Every year or two some scholar or group of scholars comes up with a new book full of imposing footnotes to tell us that Jesus was a peasant Cynic, a wandering wordsmith or the preacher of liberal values born out of due time.     The day I was redrafting this chapter for publication, a newspaper article appeared about a new controversy initiated by animal-rights activists, as to whether Jesus was a vegetarian.     We may well react to all this sort of thing by saying that it is all a waste of time, that we know all we need to know about Jesus, and there is no more to be said. Many devout Christians taking this line content themselves with an effortless superiority: we know the truth, these silly liberals have got it all wrong, and we have nothing new to learn. Sometimes people like me are wheeled out to demonstrate, supposedly, the truth of "traditional Christianitu," with the implied corollary that we can now stop asking these unpleasant historical questions and get on with something else, perhaps something more profitable, instead.     Some, however, react by reaching for equally misleading alternative stereotypes. A defense of a would-be "supernatural" Jesus can easily degenerate into a portrayal of Jesus as a first-century version of Superman--not realizing that the Superman myth is itself ultimately a dualistic corruption of the Christian story. There are several Jesus-pictures on offer that appear very devout but that ignore what the New Testament actually says about the human being Jesus of Nazareth or what it meant in its original context.     I do not intend to encourage any of these attitudes. I repeat: I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if in the present age we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know and understand all there is to understand about Jesus, who he was, what he said and what he did, and what he meant by it all. But since orthodox Christianity has always held firm to the basic belief that it is by looking at Jesus himself that we discover who God is, it seems to me indisputable that we should expect always to be continuing in the quest for Jesus precisely as part of, indeed perhaps as the sharp edge of, our exploration into God himself.     This, of course, carries certain corollaries. If it is true that Christian faith cannot preempt the historical questions about Jesus, it is also true that historical study cannot be carried out in a vacuum. We have been taught by the Enlightenment to suppose that history and faith are antithetical, so that to appeal to the one is to appeal away from the other. As a result, historians have regularly been suspect in the community of faith, just as believers have always been suspect in the community of secular historiography. When Christianity is truest to itself, however, it denies precisely this dichotomy--uncomfortable though this may be for those of us who try to live in and to speak from and to both communities simultaneously. Actually, I believe this discomfort is itself one aspect of a contemporary Christian vocation: as our world goes through the deep pain of the death throes of the Enlightenment, the Christian is not called to stand apart from this pain but to share it. I shall say more about this in the concluding chapter. I am neither a secular historian who happens to believe in Jesus nor a Christian who happens to indulge a fancy for history. Rather, I am someone who believes that being a Christian necessarily entails doing business with history and that history done for all it's worth will challenge spurious versions of Christianity, including many that think of themselves as orthodox, while sustaining and regenerating a deep and true orthodoxy, surprising and challenging though this will always remain.     Let me then move to the positive side. What are the reasons that make it imperative for us to study Jesus? The Necessity of the Quest The most basic reason for grappling with the historical question of Jesus is that we are made for God: for God's glory, to worship God and reflect his likeness. That is our heart's deepest desire, the source of our deepest vocation. But Christianity has always said, with John 1:18, that nobody has ever seen God but that Jesus has revealed God. We shall only discover who the true and living God actually is if we take the risk of looking at Jesus himself. That is why the contemporary debates about Jesus are so important; they are also debates about God himself.     The second reason why I engage in serious historical study of Jesus is out of loyalty to Scripture. This may seem deeply ironic to some on both sides of the old liberal-conservative divide. Many Jesus scholars of the last two centuries have of course thrown Scripture out of the window and reconstructed a Jesus quite different from what we find in the New Testament. But the proper answer to that approach is not simply to reassert that because we believe in the Bible we do not need to ask fresh questions about Jesus. As with God so with the Bible; just because our tradition tells us that the Bible says and means one thing or another, that does not excuse us from the challenging task of studying it afresh in the light of the best knowledge we have about its world and context, to see whether these things are indeed so. For me the dynamic of a commitment to Scripture is not "we believe the Bible, so there is nothing more to be learned," but rather "we believe the Bible, so we had better discover all the things in it to which our traditions, including our `protestant' or `evangelical' traditions, which have supposed themselves to be `biblical' but are sometimes demonstrably not, have made us blind." And this process of rethinking will include the hard and often threatening question of whether some things that our traditions have taken as "literal" should be seen as "metaphorical," and perhaps also vice versa--and, if so, which ones.     This leads to the third reason, which is the Christian imperative to truth. Christians must not be afraid of truth. Of course, that is what many reductionists have said, as with apparent boldness they have whittled down the meaning of the gospel to a few bland platitudes, leaving the sharp and craggy message of Jesus far behind. That is not my agenda. My agenda is to go deeper into the meaning than we have before and to come back to a restatement of the gospel that grounds the things we have believed about Jesus, about the cross, about the resurrection, about the incarnation, more deeply within their original setting. When I say the great Christian creeds--as I do day-by-day in worship--I mean them from the heart, but I find that after twenty years of historical study I mean something much deeper, much more challenging, than I meant when I started. I cannot compel my readers to follow me in this particular pilgrimage, but I can and do hold out an invitation to see Jesus, the Gospels, ourselves, the world and, above all, God in what may well be a new and perhaps disturbing light.     The fourth reason for undertaking the study of Jesus is because of the Christian commitment to mission. The mission of most Christians likely to read this book takes place in a world where Jesus has been a hot topic for several years now. In America particularly, Jesus--and the quest for him--has been featured in Time magazine, on television and elsewhere in the media. And the people whom ordinary Christians meet, to whom they must address the gospel, have been told over and over by the media, on the basis of some recent book or other, that the Jesus of the Gospels is historically incredible and that Christianity is therefore based on a mistake. It simply will not do to declare this question out-of-bounds, to say that the church's teaching will do for us, thank you very much, so we do not need to ask historical questions. You cannot say that to a serious and enquiring person who engages you in conversation on a train or to someone who wanders into a church one Sunday and asks what it is all about. If Christianity is not rooted in things that actually happened in first-century Palestine, we might as well be Buddhists, Marxists or almost anything else. And if Jesus never existed, or if he was quite different from what the Gospels and the church's worship affirms him to have been, then we are indeed living in cloud-cuckoo-land. The skeptics can and must be answered, and when we do so we will not merely reaffirm the traditions of the church, whether Protestant, Catholic, evangelical or whatever. We will be driven to reinterpret them, discovering depths of meaning within them that we had never imagined.     One of the reasons why we had not imagined some of the depths that, I believe, are actually there to be found lies in our own historical and cultural setting. I am a first-century historian, not a Reformation or eighteenth-century specialist. Nevertheless, from what little I know of the last five hundred years of European and American history, I believe that we can categorize the challenge of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion . The divide in contemporary Christianity between liberals and conservatives has tended to be between those who, because they saw the necessity of asking the historical question, assumed that it had to be asked in the Enlightenment's fashion and those on the other hand who, because they saw the misleadingness of the Enlightenment's way of asking the question, assumed that the historical question was itself unnecessary. Let me speak first of the necessity of the Enlightenment's question and then of the misleading way it has been addressed.     To understand why the Enlightenment's historical question was necessary we need to take a further step back to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The protest of the Reformation against the medieval church was not least a protest in favor of a historical and eschatological reading of Christianity against a timeless system. Getting at the literal historical meaning of the texts, as the Reformers insisted we must, meant historical reading: the question of what Jesus or Paul really meant, as opposed to what the much-later church said they meant, became dramatically important. Go back to the beginning, they said, and you will discover that the developed system of Roman Catholicism is based on a mistake. This supported the Reformers' eschatological emphasis: the cross was God's once-for-all achievement, never to be repeated, as the Reformers saw their Catholic opponents doing in the Mass. But, arguably, the Reformers never allowed this basic insight to drive them beyond a halfway house when it came to Jesus himself. The Gospels were still treated as the repositories of true doctrine and ethics. Insofar as they were history, they were the history of the moment when the timeless truth of God was grounded in space and time, when the action that accomplished the timeless atonement just happened to take place. This, I know, is a gross oversimplification, but I believe it is borne out by the sequel. Post-Reformation theology grasped the insights of the reformers as a new set of timeless truths and used them to set up new systems of dogma, ethics and church order in which, once again, vested interests were served and fresh thought was stifled.     The Enlightenment was, among many other things, a protest against a system that, since it was itself based on a protest, could not see that it was itself in need of further reform. (The extent to which the Enlightenment was a secularized version of the Reformation is a fascinating question, one for brave Ph.D. candidates to undertake rather than the subject for a book like this. But we have to do business at least with these possibilities if we are to grasp where we have come from and hence where we may be being called to go to.) In particular, the Enlightenment, in the person of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), challenged unthinking would-be Christian dogma about the eternal son of God and his establishment of the oppressive system called "Christianity." Reimarus challenged it in the name of history--the same weapon that the reformers had used against Roman Catholicism. Go back to the beginning, he said, and you will discover that Christianity is based on a mistake. Jesus was, after all, another in a long line of failed Jewish revolutionaries. Christianity as we know it was the invention of the early disciples.     I believe that Reimarus's question was necessary. Necessary to shake European Christianity out of its dogmatism and to face a new challenge--to grow in understanding of who Jesus actually was and what he actually accomplished. Necessary to challenge bland dogma with a living reality; necessary to challenge idolatrous distortions of who Jesus actually was and hence who God actually was and is, with a fresh grasp of truth. The fact that Reimarus gave his own question an answer that is historically unsustainable does not mean he did not ask the right questions. Who was Jesus, and what did he accomplish?     This necessity has been underlined in our own century, as Ernst Käsemann saw all too clearly. Look what happens, he said in a famous lecture in 1953, when the church abandons the quest for Jesus. The nonquesting years between the wars created a vacuum in which nonhistorical Jesuses were offered, legitimating the Nazi ideology. I would go so far as to suggest that whenever the church forgets its call to engage in the task of understanding more and more fully who Jesus actually was, idolatry and ideology lie close at hand. To renounce the quest because you do not like what the historians have so far come up with is not a solution.     But the Enlightenment's raising of the question of Jesus was done in a radically misleading manner, which still has profound effects on the research of today. The Enlightenment notoriously insisted on splitting apart history and faith, facts and values, religion and politics, nature and supernature, in a way whose consequences are written into the history of the last two hundred years--one of the consequences being, indeed, that each of those categories now carries with it in the minds of millions of people around the world an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left with the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole. Again, so much debate between liberals and conservatives has taken place down this fault line (history or faith, religion or politics and so on), while the real battle--the challenge to rearticulate a reintegrated worldview--has not even been attempted. But there is a deeper problem with the Enlightenment than its radically split worldview. The real problem is that it offered a rival eschatology to the Christian one. This needs a little explanation. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE CHALLENGE of JESUS by N.T. WRIGHT. Copyright © 1999 by N. T. Wright. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 9
1 The Challenge of Studying Jesusp. 13
2 The Challenge of the Kingdomp. 34
3 The Challenge of the Symbolsp. 54
4 The Crucified Messiahp. 74
5 Jesus and Godp. 96
6 The Challenge of Easterp. 126
7 Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern Worldp. 150
8 The Light of the Worldp. 174
Notesp. 199