Searching for the Historical Jesus
The study of Jesus Christ and the far-reaching, immense impact of Christianity is a legitimate topic for study within the academy.
That was one of the themes from N.T. Wright when the noted New Testament scholar visited Princeton University during the fall as part of a Veritas Forum entitled, "Searching for the Historical Jesus."
Wright termed it "strange" to suggest Christ is off limits for scholarly inquiry at universities when many other historical figures are not. Rather, by many accounts, no figure in the entire world has influenced recorded history as much as Christ.In his prolific writings, the longtime academic challenges believers to embrace a serious study of Jesus in a historical context.
Scholars and theologians recognize Wright, author of The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, for providing a provocative but historically credible portrait of Christ.
The narrative running through Scripture points to Jesus as the fulfillment of God's divine plan to redeem creation, Wright told students when he appeared before a packed audience in McCosh Hall on November 18.
The retired Anglican bishop spoke at the invitation of Princeton's Office of Religious Life and several campus ministries, including Aquinas: Catholic Campus Ministry, Athletes In Action, Baptist Student Fellowship, Episcopal Church at Princeton, Faculty Commons, Hallelujah!, Lutheran Campus Ministry, Manna Christian Fellowship, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, Princeton Faith and Action, Princeton Graduate Christian Fellowship, Wesley Foundation at Princeton, and Princeton Presbyterians. Princeton Faith and Action is a leadership development ministry supported and resourced by Christian Union.
Wright, a research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, previously taught for 20-plus years at Cambridge, Oxford, and McGill universities. He earned a doctor of divinity degree from Oxford University.
Mark Catlin, Christian Union's teaching fellow at Princeton, said Wright drove home the point that consideration of Christ's resurrection belongs in academic settings.
"This argument is rooted in the fact that, whether one is of the Christian faith or not, we all come from a perspective. No one studies a text from a neutral position. Thus, the Christian and the non-Christian alike bring a perspective," Catlin said. "The question is which perspective best explains the available evidence."
During his appearance at Princeton, Wright emphasized that a review of the historical evidence points toward Jesus living, dying, and rising from the dead, as outlined by the New Testament. Such a perspective is the only convincing explanation for the accounts of Jesus and the rise of early Christianity, Catlin said. If the resurrection is true, "then this event changes history itself. It makes the resurrection and historical Jesus not only a viable option for study, but the starting point for understanding history itself."
During his appearance at Princeton, Wright emphasized that a review of the historical evidence points toward Jesus living, dying, and rising from the dead, as outlined by the New Testament.
"If a goal of the university is to provide a framework and the tools for understanding the world we live in, it seems that the historical Jesus and resurrection would be of the utmost importance."
Among his key points, Wright said the accounts found in the four gospels of the New Testament show Jesus unequivocally believed He was the long-promised messiah. Likewise, the Savior believed He was establishing God's kingdom on earth via His suffering and death, an antithetical approach to one expected by Jewish authorities.
The fulfillment of God's promise to bring His kingdom to earth did not "look like people thought it would look like," Wright said.
As for the central question of whether Jesus rose from the dead three days after He was brutally beaten and hung on a cross, Wright steadfastly maintained literal resurrection is the only conclusion that makes sense in light of historical evidence from the first century and beyond.
"Otherwise, it's very, very difficult to make sense of Christianity and everything else that took place," he said.
Wright said he arrived at his conclusion after examining alternative theories, including one that Christ's followers simply experienced postmortem visions of their teacher. "I tried to examine all of the theories out there," he said.
Other messianic movements of the era quickly faded away after the demises of their appointed leaders, often from violent causes.
As students consider the place of Christ in history, Wright told them to avoid the practice of compartmentalizing the spiritual arena from academic endeavors.
Ultimately, Jesus staked His life on His belief He was God incarnate. "The one bore the sins of the many," Wright said. Christ's resurrection "doesn't make sense in the old world, but as the focal point of the new creation."
At Princeton, Catlin said Wright's appearance has opened doors for follow-up conversations with students about the ultimate meaning and implications of Christ's resurrection. "Many students who brought friends reported their friends were now thinking deeply about Christianity in ways they had not previously," said Catlin.