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?