Book Plunge: Who Was Jesus?

Is Wright right and Spong wrong? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I am an avid fan of N.T. Wright and try to read absolutely anything that he writes. My latest read of his came from reading “Fabricating Jesus” where Evans dispenses with people like Barbara Thiering yet says N.T. Wright has written a response to her in “Who Was Jesus?”

That’s enough to get me looking for that on my next library visit!

Thiering is not Wright’s only target. Wright has other chapters on A.N. Wilson and John Shelby Spong.

It’s hard to read this book without thinking that seeing N.T. Wright go after these guys is like watching a tank be used to squish an ant.

Wright’s book starts off with a brief summary of Jesus studies to this point, largely by looking at what Schweitzer did. He goes on from there to say where the studies have led us and then brings out Thiering, Wilson, and Spong as examples of how not to do these kinds of studies, all the while still commending some good points that can be found in them.

Reading Thiering, it’s a wonder how such a work as hers got published. Thiering’s idea is that practically everything in the gospels is code and the way to understand the code is by looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls. As Wright points out, Thiering is quick to dispense with her idea of a code whenever it is convenient for her to do so. Based on her reading, Thiering has dates on when Jesus escaped death, married Mary Magdalene, later left her and married Lydia of Philippi, (Seriously. I’m not kidding), and eventually died.

Yes. Wright takes the time to dispense with such a bizarre theory as this. One cannot help but imagine the reaction these three authors might have had knowing who was critiquing their work.

A.N. Wilson comes from another angle. For Wilson, Jesus was a Galilean holy man, but Paul came along and messed everything up! Wilson does have more right than Thiering (Granted, not much of an accomplishment), but there is still too much that is wrong. Wilson does not interact with the latest of scholarship on the issue and gives the impression of being stuck in works from the 1960’s. Amazingly, some parts of his writing are quite accurate and had I not known they were from him, I would have thought they were from a conservative Christian.

One of Wilson’s great weaknesses is his idea about seeking unbiased sources. As Wright points out, they don’t exist. Everyone wrote with a motive. No one is neutral on the Jesus question and it is a mistake to think anyone is. Yet as Wright has said elsewhere, even if the sportscaster has a bias for which team he thinks is the best and wants to win, that doesn’t mean you must doubt the score he reports.

Furthermore, if we wanted an unbiased work, it would not be Wilson who makes it clear he has a hammer to use against anything that is religious. As usual, it is the ones who are claiming the most to have no bias who in fact do have the most bias.

Finally, we come to Spong, who has a hang-up over the virgin birth. Wright is just perplexed, as am I, over the idea that Spong has that we today know better. As Wright points out, they might not have known as many details about sex as we do, but they certainly knew what it took to make a baby. That’s why Joseph sought to divorce Mary at first. He knew what it took to make a baby, and he knew he hadn’t done it.

Spong also has a vendetta against literalism, which I can understand, but yet praises the Reformation and goes against the ECF. Yet it was the ECF who were more pron to going with an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures and the Reformers who wanted to return more to a literal interpretation.

Spong also includes a comment about what Midrash is, an account that Wright thinks is nonsense, and that scholars of Midrash would disagree with. Like the other writers, Spong can sound impressive on paper and the notes and bibliography of the books Wright comments on can make them seem scholarly, but it is only a veneer. The real heart of the works is anything but.

As with any Wright work, I do recommend this one. Wright gives an excellent example of how to deal with so much misinformation in the popular culture. It is a shame more people will read Thiering, Wilson, and Spong, but never get around to Wright. I am thankful for Wright and thankful indeed that Wright is right and Spong is wrong.

In Christ,
Nick Peters