setting our sights on the 1st century

This is part of my theology series of 2010.  Previous posts:
putting a label on it

I have been rereading a great book called The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright.  Wright is part of the Third Quest for Jesus movement.  In this post I will explain what that is all about and why I care (similarly to what Wright does in the early part of the aforementioned book.)

To whet your appetite, I'll start with a fun example from the book.  When Jesus says to "repent and believe," what comes to your mind?  If you lived several hundred years ago, you might have thought that you needed to give some penance to the Church (financial or otherwise) to absolve yourself of past sins.  The Reformers through the Protestants of today say that it is an action that takes place deep in the heart.  An action that involves rejecting previous values and invoking an attitude of submission to God instead.

But what did the first century Jews hear when Jesus said this?  According to Wright, it is this... Abandon your current position (eschatological goal) that God will drive away the Romans militarily.  Instead, replace that agenda with my agenda which is God's newly-revealed vision for Israel.

I hope that was as surprising to you as it was for me.  Now let's go back to what this Third Quest is all about.

1st quest = a post-Enlightenment attempt to use historical methods to examine what was and was not true amongst beliefs about Jesus.  The most well-known scholar of this movement is Albert Schweitzer.  As far as I can tell the movement died when people stopped believing that no such truth could be found.
2nd quest (also called the New Quest) = a brief movement in the 1950s which tried to revive the quest for the historical Jesus.  It did not stick.
3rd quest = a modern revival of the quest based on new understanding of first century Judaism.  This understanding arose because of the discovery and availability of documents like the Dead Sea scrolls and other apocalyptic literature of the time.

So why even do this.  We've had theologians for centuries studying the Bible and other ancient documents.  Can we learn anything from this other (some would say secular) approach when the sum total of documents may or may not shed a consistent and comprehensive look at the time?  Naturally, the third questers say yes.

There have been no shortage of theories about who Jesus was, what his goals were, what his sayings meant, etc.  These range from the traditional to the new age (Jesus as moral sage) to the outlandish.  For example Wright mentions "Jesus as liberal hippie born too soon" and "Jesus as a vegetarian guru."  It's pretty easy to dismiss those ideas as revisionistic and anachronistic.

But what of the traditional views?  When did they develop and are they accurate?  Historians like Wright contend that thinking about Jesus in the church is sloppy at times.  Some traditional views are just as out-of-sync with the first century as the obviously wacky views.

A more conservative Christian than I might find this whole business off-putting.  Why should we ask secular historians to inform our religious beliefs.  But I disagree.  I want to learn more about who Jesus the man was.  I want to know what was distinct and interesting about him.  I want to know what is real, what is truth.  If Jesus claimed to be truth, don't I want to know as best I can the truth about him?

With that, we are ready to dig in.  I'll be giving a speech based on Wright's ideas on Tuesday and will produce a blog post from the same notes.  I also have some other books that I'm partway through that will add other perspectives that I will eventually blog about.  In the mean time I'll tackle some other issues such as Biblical inerrancy, the cosmological argument, omnipotence (that will be really fun), maybe gay marriage and abortion if I'm feeling brave and others.  I hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am!