Tuesday, August 07, 2007

N.T. Wright Wrecked My Life

Once upon a time the Christian faith made sense to me. There were some things that I did not understand or some things that did not seem to fit perfectly, but overall the whole thing worked pretty well. Then I started reading N.T. Wright and my whole world crashed down around me.

See, I read somewhere that you ought to pick one author and read as much of their writing as you can so that you can interact in depth with their thought. This was well before I started seminary, back when I did not care a whit about scholarship. I decided to read Wright after first encountering him in a "Life of Jesus" class at church. We had read through the little book The Life of Jesus, and even though it was not that impressive I felt Wright had more under the surface than I had been able to garner from this little volume. He seemed to be a highly regarded Jesus scholar, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

So I went to the library at our local Catholic college where I found and checked out his two massive works, The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God. I also picked up The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, in which he and co-author, Marcus Borg, defend and critique one another's historical reconstructions of Jesus. I began with The Meaning of Jesus, since it seemed the most accessible of the three, and I started to get hooked. But it was when I moved on to The New Testament and the People of God that everything I believed was shaken.

The problem is that it was not a frontal assault. In fact, I stood behind N.T. Wright as we took the liberal onslaught from Borg in The Meaning of Jesus. But as Wright prepared to deliver an uppercut of historical scholarship to Borg, I moved in to see things more closely and got elbowed in the face. I have spent the past decade trying to recover from that injury.

What is this great injury? Simply this: to understand the New Testament, we must read it in light of the world of first century Judaism, which is a lot more alien to us in the twentieth century than we like to think. It is especially rooted in the apocalyptic genre, especially in Daniel. Specifically, Daniel 7 is a particularly important passage for understanding early Christianity and the message of Jesus: the Son of Man is enthroned beside the Ancient of Days as the Kingdom of God is ushered in.

The book of Daniel represents in a microcosm the locus of most of my theological problems. Was it really written by Daniel or was it actually written centuries later during the Maccabean period? Scholars can make a good case for the latter, which even Wright accepts. Why should we even accept Daniel as scripture? It is not enough to say that we accept it because Jesus accepted it, since this whole examination of Daniel was prompted because it is the linchpin which holds together the New Testament. The book of Daniel (and the Old Testament as a whole) provides the entire foundation for the New Testament. As I see it, if Daniel falls, so does the New Testament.

The book of Daniel presents the primary OT basis for belief in an end-time resurrection of the dead. If it was written just to encourage the faithful that were being martyred by the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanies, then what reason do we have to believe it? Would we not have warrant to judge that it was just wishful thinking? ...that as the Jews looked around at the injustices against their people, they speculated that there must be a resurrection to put things right? Wright himself proposes that this sort of eschatology (God will one day make all things right) arises from the combination of the doctrine of monotheism (God is in control), election (He has chosen Israel), and reality (Israel is suffering). Am I to believe in the resurrection of the dead because there was a pogrom against the Jews over two millennia ago? Please forgive me if this is a bit of a stumbling block in my faith.

Finally, even if I can get past all of this, the message of Daniel looks very different from the gospel I received. The gospel I know says you can be forgiven for your sins if you trust in Jesus, but if you do not, you will be damned for eternity. The message of Daniel is much more intuitive: that even when the bad guys seem to get away with it in this life, they will not in the end; and even if the good guys seem to get screwed in this life, they will ultimately be vindicated. It is a much more 'pluralist-friendly' message than orthodox theology seems to allow.

N.T. Wright does a fine job of making the New Testament seem historically plausible, but only at the expense of making its message seem utterly implausible.

O Dr. Wright, why tormentest thou me?


Noah said...

"...Daniel was prompted because it is the linchpin which holds together the New Testament. The book of Daniel (and the Old Testament as a whole) provides the entire foundation for the New Testament. As I see it, if Daniel falls, so does the New Testament."
I guess I fail to see how Daniel falls if it is written later or edited later. To me, this seems to be an exageration. Please forgive me for being critical. I too struggle continually with hermanuetics and interpretations, but I agree with Wright in saying that our interpretations on Scriptures are through the lense of the post-Enlightenment and we must exchange that lense with 2nd century Judaism. I think it is pretty harsh to say that N.T. Wright wrecked your life. If anything he chalenged you to think critically instead of blindly accepting what you have always believed. I hope you dont take offense at this posting from a stranger. God bless you in your search for the truth.

Tyrel said...

I must agree with Noah above, though I am another stranger still. As a Catholic, I find Daniel to be a fascinating text, but one which under closer examination, ought perhaps to be understood as a text which has evolved within the context of a covenantal community. To my memory, the substantive portion of the book we today call Daniel from Ch. 1-6 is actually written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and only in Chapter 7 does it revert to Hebrew. Notice also that if you were to read chapters 1-6 without a heading "Daniel" on every page, you would never conclude it was written by him rather than written about him. Chapter 7 constitutes the beginning of a new book (just as our convenient break at Ch. 10:1 might constitute another one still). The fact that the texts which eventually get put together in what we today call 'Daniel' may not all have been written by him on no grounds challenges our faith. In fact, the fact that Ch. 1-6 (and perhaps 13 and 14) were written likely much later, does nothing to take away from even the most unabashed position on inerrancy.

Finally if I may, I find it difficult to imagine that Daniel did not write 7-12 himself, and even if he didn't I don't see any theological problem necessarily, so long as the visions are truly a reflection of that which Daniel received and passed on as revealed. As a Biblical book though, Daniel holds a special place in my heart as a Catholic precisely because it testifies to a people so moved by Daniel that they couldn't stop writing or thinking about him - that the book itself is the product of Daniel's resounding echo throughout the entire Jewish community.They felt compelled to write a prologue to his prophetic visions which itself was as long as the sum of all his visions - something not done for any of the other prophets.

To my mind, Daniel stands quite well on its own.

Tyrel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tyrel said...

sorry - apparently no way to edit.

Further, the Old testament testifies to resurrection other than in 2 Maccabees 7, for instance in Isaiah 26:19.

However, the fact that the whole Jewish world expected a resurrection at a time much closer to the coming of Christ much more clearly than times previous seems to me simply an affirmation that Christianity is not an a-historical religion, but one in which God progressively reveals himself to the Jewish people over time, culminating in the climax: Jesus's resurrection.

The fact that belief in the resurrection may be explained in terms of historical situations in which the Jewish people found themselves is no more an argument against the truth of the belief than it would be in the case of belief in the supernatural.

Finally, I think what you call 'the Gospel you know' is a little distanced from the Gospel in the Bible, at least in the sense that it doesn't accord with what Daniel says. The Gospel is the 'How' to Daniel's 'What'.

Kabane52 said...

NT Wright is right on a lot, but dead wrong on Daniel:



For a good preterist reading of the book, see James Jordan, "The Handwriting on the Wall."

The Rusticated Classicist said...

I gather it's important to your point here to say that N.T. Wright subscribes to the common belief that Daniel is a 2nd-century BC prophecy after the fact. But I'm pretty sure this is a misreading of yours (unless he contradicts himself in his different books). Rather, he seems to see it as an earlier, legitimately prophetic text, that was taken in Antiochus' time to refer to his abominations and was used by Jesus to refer in similar terms to a coming crisis.

The proof of this is this quote from Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 351: "This passage [Daniel 9:22-27], as we have seen, was read in the second century BC as referring to Antiochus' desecration of the Temple (though what Jews of that period would have made of the cutting off of the anointed one [9:26a] is not easy to guess)."

The Rusticated Classicist said...

Picking up on my "unless he contradicts himself..."

Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) p. 113: "The immediate context of the passage [of Daniel] is martyrdom: the martyrdom which occurred during the crisis of the 160s (see 1 and 2 Maccabees)..." and 113n121: "On the specific historical referent of Dan. 10-12 cf. e.g. Goldingay 1989, 289, 292-306. See further NTPG 157-9, and other literature there." (Second-hand report says Goldingay sees Daniel as authored in 160's, at least up to 11:39 is "predictive history," an apparent euphemism for vaticinium ex eventu.)

Was he being weaselly in 1996, or did his views change between then and 2003? I wish I knew.