N. T. Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, a New Testament scholar (particularly of Paulâ€”see his commentary in the New Interpreters Bible), andâ€”as Mormons are wont to sayâ€”the author of many books and articles. On the recommendation of a friend, this week I’ve been reading one of his books that I think more Mormons should read before we start the New Testament Sunday School lessons next year, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press, 1999).
Wright divides the contemporary discussion of the historical Jesus into three camps, which he designates by the names of their first proponents (page 28):
(1) William Wrede: we know little about Jesus, but he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah and “the Gospels are basically historical fiction.”
(2) Albert Schweitzer: “Jesus shared the first-century apocalyptic expectation of the end of all things, and though he died without it having come about, he started the eschatological movement that became Christianity,” and the Gospels are, more or less, correct about what Jesus taught.
(3) Martin KÃ¤hler: “The quest for a purely historical Jesus was based on a mistake since the real figure at the heart of Christianity was the preached and believed Christ of the church’s faith, not some figment of the historian’s imagination.” (Note: To take this position is not to say that Jesus was not an historical figure. It is to say that who Jesus really was is not accessible to the discipline of historical scholarship.)
I’ve thought for a long time that I am in the third camp. However, reading Wright’s book and having a conversation with some Mormon historians and others this week has made me think again about my position. Wright’s statement, “If we really believe in any sense in the incarnation of the Word, we are bound to take seriously the flesh that the Word became,” struck me as true. Indeed, it not only struck me as true, it struck me as at the very heart of Mormon agreement that Jesus is the Messiah, born of the virgin Mary, crucified for the sins of the world, and resurrected on the third day, after which he ascended to his Heavenly Father. As Wright correctly observes, movements that either lessen the importance of the incarnation or deny it tend toward one kind of Gnosticism or another. (I love it that he identifies getting in touch with our real selves as a contemporary form of Gnosticismâ€”page 24.)
Of course, thinking about the Book of Mormon seems also to divide into something like these three camps: (1) the Book of Mormon isn’t an historical document, but it is uplifting and to be valued for its insights in spite of the fact that it is a fiction (of course most non-LDS would deny the second compound clause); (2) it is what it claims to be and the tools of disciplines such as history, archaeology, and anthropology will help us understand it; and (3) it is what it claims to be, but it cannot be understood from outside the divine work of which it is part and the narrative which that work generates.
The people I know fit into a bell curve for those three positions: a few people I know are members of the first camp, most of my friends are in the second camp, and a couple of people (perhaps me and one other person) are in the third camp. But the curve is shifting on me.
Unlike some, I’ve never thought that the FARMS crowd is evil. (I know Dan Peterson too well to think that, and I’ve listened to Louis Midgley too much to think that. I respect Noel Reynolds and Andy Skinner too much to think it.) I’ve admired the intellectual abilities of those who work at FARMS (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I’ve published some things with them). I’ve admired their tenacity. I’ve admired their faith. I’ve admired their willingness to do difficult and often thankless work. Though sometimes they’ve let themselves get drug too far into a shouting match, I’ve not thought their work was unscholarly (because I don’t think, as some in the academy do, that “believing scholarship” is an oxymoron). In spite of that, I’ve never been particularly interested in what they do. Since I have believed that the reality of the Book of Mormon is not accessible to historical scholarship, I haven’t been able to figure out what the point of historical research on the Book of Mormon is.
For Wright, New Testament research is about understanding what Jesus really believed and taught in the first century by understanding the first-century context in which his teachings and acts made sense. And the point of understanding what he really believed is to make us reassess our understanding of him, a reassessment that is identical with continuing faith. Wright says that the Enlightenment has generated in contemporary Christianity “patterns of belief and behavior that saw Jesus as a demigod, not really human at all, striding through the world as a divine, heroic figure, untroubled by human questions, never wrestling with vocation, aware of himself as someone from outside the whole system, telling people how they might escape the wicked world and live forever in a different realm altogether” (page 24). That is a mistake, a mistake that forgets Jesus’s embodied, fleshly, historical existence–a mistake that historical research, looking for the historical Jesus, can help remedy.
I’ve always believed that careful reading of scripture is, by itself, enough to bring me up short, to reveal that I do not yet understand what the Gospel teaches as I should and, so, to help me understand it anew. Now I see better that history can do the same thing, whether it is New or Old Testament history, Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, or FARMS research on the Book of Mormon.
I think I’ve known that all along, but somehow it makes more sense this week than it did before. (We shall see what happens next week.)
PROCEDURAL NOTE: This isn’t about hating or loving FARMS. It isn’t about whether the Book of Mormon is true. It isn’t about any of the other tangents and hobby horses that some may want to talk about. It is about the relation of history and scripture. Please stick to the topic.