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Historical Jesus Studies Today

I think we all now accept that Jesus was not only Jewish, but a Jew who, more or less, fitted within first century, Palestinian Judaism.  The trouble is that that opens up so many other options.  What sort of revolutionary was he (if that’s what he was); what sort of a teacher was he?  Was he a healer and so on and so forth. 

There are many, many other issues which now are coming up which we haven’t really, I think, addressed properly within the guild.  So, it’s very hard to categorize and say, well, there are these people and those people and so on.  It’s much more pluriform than that, but within quite a significantly new structure from where it was, say, thirty or forty years ago. 

I think one of the exciting things is that, in some circles—not all—there is a real commitment, which I would share passionately to doing, what I would call the actual history.  That is to say, we can know about, quite a lot about, what was going on in Palestine in the first third of the first century of the Christian era.  We can know what life was like, what sort of social conditions obtained, etc.  We’ve got enough information to go on with that, and then, because of the Gospels being so dense and rich and complex in themselves, we have almost an embarras de richesse, an embarrassment of riches about how we can handle the material about Jesus. 

So there is a possibility for many different hypotheses, but I think, we are—one of the big shifts that has occurred, that again, most, not all, writers today would share, is that Jesus seems to have been focused in a lot of his thinking and work on the temple in Jerusalem and on something that he was doing in relation to the temple.  And that was a great change when Ed Sanders said it twenty years ago, twenty, thirty years ago now.  I think that is conditioned and reshaped quite a lot of recent Jesus research; again, by no means all, you can’t generalize these days.  I would say the question of the temple ought to be put back at the center of the picture because that’s all about who is Israel’s God? What’s he about? Where does He live? What’s he doing?  How is He going to rescue Israel? How is he going to establish his sovereignty over the whole world?  If we see Jesus as relating to that set of issues, with that temple focus which was the focus of some Jewish answers to those questions, then actually I think there’s all sorts of possibilities which open up for fruitful further study.

  • N.T. Wright is professor of New Testament and early christianity at the University of St. Andrews. He is an Anglican priest and former Bishop of Durham. His numerous publications, both academic and popular, include most recently Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).