Sunday, May 14, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 7)

(Be sure to read the previous parts of this essay: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.)

3.2. Fitting into the Story

N. T. Wright goes on to apply this philosophical method to historical Jesus study. In studying history we must recognize that all attempts at understanding history involves a subjective element. “All history is interpreted history.”[1] Wright applies this to reading the gospels. Yet, just because the evangelists wrote about events from their own perspective, a perspective of faith in no way necessitates the conclusion that the events themselves did not take place.[2]

Moreover, in order to appreciate the aims and intentions of Jesus we must understand the story of which he thought he was a part.[3] Wright goes on therefore to reconstruct the expectations and hopes of second Temple Judaism.[4] Instead of trying to authenticate each and every saying of Jesus, Wright attempts to place what we know about Jesus into the larger worldview and community in which he lived. The best reconstruction of Jesus is the one that can make the best account of the data.[5] In this, Wright takes aim at the methods used by Reimarus, Meier and other historical critics which have to dismiss much of the data in an attempt to make sense out of a smaller amount of the tradition (e.g., Jesus apparent expectation that eschatological events were imminent).[6]

The approach of Wright will no doubt be controversial to those who hold to historical reconstructions such as Reimarus’. Moreover, there are certainly problems with Wright’s understanding of some aspects of Second Temple Judaism.[7] Nonetheless, Wright’s careful attention to philosophical method is significant for Jesus scholarship. Through his Critical-Realist approach Wright allows more of the data regarding who Jesus was and what he taught to be accounted for in a historical scheme. Furthermore, this view provides a place for theological reflection about Jesus’ life, thus enabling Jesus studies to be more than just historical investigations. Jesus studies in this view can truly be “christological” in the theological sense.
[1] Wright, New Testament, 88.
[2] Wright, New Testament, 91.
[3] Wright, New Testament, 109-12.
[4] Wright, New Testament, 147-338.
[5] Wright, New Testament, 109.
[6] Wright, New Testament, 101: It is at this stage… that some New Testament scholars have evolved highly sophisticated ways of getting of the horns of the dilmena posed by [the criteria of the need to account for the data in a simple way]. If parts of the data do not fit the simple hypothesis… then we have ways of dealing with the recalcitrant data: there are several tools available which purport to show that it comes, not from Jesus, but from the later church.”
[7] I have laid out some of these misconceptions in another, yet to be posted, essay. One of the most glaring is the redefinition of exile in terms of Roman oppression.


Deep Furrows said...

Please correct me where I err.

If "classical realism" is naive, then "critical realism" is cynical. Since reality cannot be known, one settles for coherence: fitting in to the Great Story, a story that is understood to be the product of (merely) human understanding.

Sacred tradition, however, claims to mediate not only the Great Story, but Jesus Christ himself. Realism, then, is only naive if one has not yet encountered Christ in the Church.


eddie said...

Within a critical-realist perspective, reality can be known, but this knowledge is always a product of the knower. But this does not mean that the knoweldge does not correspond to the thing known.

All human understanding takes the form of hypothesis and verification. We look at the data and form an explanation of it, we then judge whether this explanation is adequate in terms of how it handles the data. Whether the explanation (hypothesis) is coherent, makes sense of most if not all the data, and does so in a simple way. And how it achieves these in relation to other rival explanations.

If the fear is that the Christian faith is merely a prodcut of human understanding, and hence does not have the certainty that a body of "sacred tradition" might, then one may simply point to the fact that one can only accept a sacred tradition on the basis of hypothesis and varification. And if an encounter with Christ is key one still does not escape this, as how one interprets this encounter will depend on whether one judges that the sacred tradition offers the best explanation of the encounter.