N.T. Wright on Jesus' Self-Understanding

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David Wayne (Jollyblogger) has an excellent post on N.T. Wright, specifically on Wright's views of Jesus's divinity and of Jesus' self-understanding of his divinity. Wright holds to an orthodox view of Jesus' divinity but then suggests that Jesus was not aware of his divinity in any propositional way. He knew he had a calling, and he fulfilled his calling, without realizing the implications of what his calling meant for his own divine nature. I guess it's something like that anyway. The post is worth reading if you think these are issues worth thinking about. I believe I agree with everything David says.


Is not Jesus' proposition: "Before Abraham was, I Am", a self-conscious statement of divinity? It was taken that way by the theologians who heard, evidenced by their desire to stone him for blasphemy. In fact, it was this blasphemy that moved them to falsely accuse and murder him, according to the the Gospel of John. How does Wright read?

Once again, hermeneutics rears its ugly head.

I'm still confused by Wright. Your comments on the post have been helpful. It seems to me that Wright only wants the self-understanding of Jesus to be informed by his "2nd temple Jew" setting without letting his divinity inform his self-understanding. Wright is very helpful in many other areas but is really confusing on this one.

Jan, last I had heard Wright wasn't dealing with John, at all. His standard response was that he didn't know what to say about that gospel because he hadn't worked through it yet and was waiting until he had the chance to do that once he finished other projects. I don't know if he's still saying that now, but that's the dodge he used when I saw him speak about ten years ago and someone raised that exact question.

David, that's exactly what I'm saying. It's as if the only things that could inform how Jesus thinks of something are the understandings of those he was supposed to have been revealing God to in the first place, which makes the revelation of God in human form out to be nothing more than (1) a revelation of what a morally good person would do and (2) an act of redemption that stems from Jesus' being God in a way that Jesus himself never caught on to despite the seemingly obvious statements the gospels have that do seem to indicate exactly the kind of self-understanding Wright doesn't think a first-century Jew, even a divine one, could have.

And to boot . . .

I'll need to go back to the comments on my own blog, but it seems to me that one of my commenters suggested that Jesus knew he was God the same way we know things about God - by faith. I don't think Wright is saying this, and I hope not. That would take the issue to a whole new level, and not a good level, IMHO.

Oh, and one more thing. I touched on John 1:1-5 in my sermon yesterday and a similar thought to Jan's ocurred to me. How did John know that the logos was the pre-incarnate Christ? Is it reasonable to assume that John knew this and Jesus didn't?

Using hermeneutics from Narrative criticism we could construe, or miscontrue, the statements of Jesus as "history-like" (Frei) but not necessarily "fact". Postmodern hermeneutics says there is no history, only its interpretation, a half-truth at best. With these presuppostions "authoral intention" is very hard to come by. We then fall hard on the readers response for meaning. In today's mileu, it is difficult to "prove" what Jesus knew simply by what John said.

Personally, I have found faith the only answer. That is, faith that what I read is inspired by God and a reliable testimony by which I can make an informed judgment.

I'm not familiar enough with Wright's hermeneutics to say for sure, but what little I've read sounds like a heavy influence from the historical- critical school, given the weight he puts on extra-Biblical history. As we know, the rules we read by determine our understanding.

(Just a note: Coady's "A Philosophy of Testimony" (Oxford) has helped me, indirectly with hermeneutics and John's Gospel)

Thanks, Jeremy and David, for the thoughts.

I have a hard time seeing postmodernist hermeneutics as anything other than intellectual suicide. Narrative criticism can actually be an excellent tool for seeing an author's intention, but that totally undermines the purpose put to it by postmodernist hermeneutics.

I agree, Jeremy.

Being in the UK (Wales), I can feel the University of Sheffield's strong influence in Narrative Criticism.

Andrew T. Lincoln's book, Truth On Trial, is in part a narrative critic of forensic elements in the Gospel of John. Yet, he takes the "history-like" approach, which is disappointing and distorts some otherwise great work.

Culpepper does a sadly similiar thing in his seminal narrative studies on John, as does Mark Stibbe, to a lesser extent. Davies goes so far as to deny the divinity of Christ in her narrative work on John. (Some of these and others are listed on my blog's Book page, near the bottom third).

I too have benefited from a narrative approach and favour it now, yet following one that takes a conservative evangelical view of revelation and inspiration. But I see it as dangerous ground, especially for young theology students. It can be beguiling.

I remember Carson critiquing some narrative specialist in his John commentary. Would that have been Culpepper, or was his work later?

I was speaking of Culpepper's "Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design" (Augsburg Fortress, 1987) ISBN: 0800620682

As Culpepper and Carson have written numerous books, I can't be sure of Carson's critique, though I'm familiar with his commentary on John. I would imagine he did reference Culpepper's work, since it has become a standard in Johannine studies.

You might find Paul Duke's "Irony in the Fourth Gospel" a good read. ISBN: 0804202427

By the way, I referenced C.A.J Coady's book by the wrong title in the comment above. It should be "Testimony: A Philosophical Study" (ISBN: 0198235518). I plead middle-age memory loss for the misquote.


you should really go through Wright's New Testament and the People of God. Wright spends quite a lot of time discussing hermeneutics and history. I honestly haven't seen any other NT scholar digging quite as deeply into the philosophical issues surrounding studies of Jesus as history as Wright does there. The term he uses for his own method there is "critical realism", but you'll have to go through it to see what he means by that.

Also, a book I found very helpful on some related issues is AKM Adam's What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism. Adam is a very good and clear writer and the book is pretty much an extended annotated bibliography of the title subject. I think the pomo's have some things to contribute to historical study, even if they aren't always right and good.

Thanks, Paul. I'll have a look at Wright and Adams.

I've been interested in a hermeneutics of testimony for some time, though not in the philosophical vain of Paul Ricoeur. This came out of my studies in the gospel of John.

I'm at the age in life where I want to do so much more than I did when I was young, but no longer have the time :)

There's a good paper on the philosophical issues of testimony (as in when it is reasonable to believe it) in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy by Tom Senor that relates to this. He takes its starting point from whether it was reasonable to believe Lucy's outlandish tale. It (deliberately, judging by what I know of Tom) has direct application for the kind of apologetical issue raised by testimony and historical issues such as Wright is dealing with.

Thanks, Jeremy. I see you and Paul are going to give me more than I can handle :) I've added both recommendations to my Amazon wishlist so I won't forget.

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