This is a report on a paper presented by Prof N. T. Wright as a keynote address at the 1st St Andrews Graduate Conference for Biblical and Early Christian Studies, 15 June 2011. The conference theme was “Authoritative Texts and Reception History”. The programme of the conference is available here.
Wright’s paper addresses what he views as the most contested and problematic moment in reception history: “The moment when those first-century Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord began to re-read their scriptures with this belief as the controlling filter.” The paper is a re-presentation of the main issues examined in Wright’s book, Scripture and God’s Authority. As is suggested by the title, Wright emphasizes that the authority of scripture is not in the text itself; rather, the authority of God is somehow mediated through the text. Yet it is difficult to discern precisely how this authority is worked out. How are Christians to receive the Bible and discern how God’s authority is mediated to them through the text?
Wright seeks to illustrate the problem by presenting case studies on two issues which are treated differently in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: monogamy and observance of the Sabbath. While the Hebrew Bible, for the most part, is not concerned with monogamy, the NT assumes that the time of polygamy and polyamory is now over. Views on the Sabbath appear to go the opposite direction. In the Hebrew Bible, the Sabbath is vital, central and non-negotiable, while in the NT it appears to be largely irrelevant.
Wright suggests that if Christians wish the understand the whole Bible as authoritative in some way, it is necessary for them to read the Bible not just as a narrative, but as a multi-layered story. In keeping with his well-known advocacy of the New Perspective, Wright cautions against reverting to a law/grace antithesis of the Old Perspective, arguing that these case studies demonstrate that there is not simply a shift from legalism in the Old Testament to a loose era of grace in the NT. They also show that employing a rationalist formula to the Bible does not do justice to it as a multi-layered narrative, since this approach treats the Bible as though it were merely a book of true information or proverbs. Rather, Wright says, people are energized by scripture to build God’s kingdom. Yet how is how is this worked out? How is God’s authority mediated through scripture and how should scripture be received and interpreted by the faith community?
Wright uses the analogy of a five act play to illustrate how the various ‘acts’ cause a shift in interpretation of the multi-layered narrative of scripture. Wright posits the five acts as: Creation, Fall, the covenant with Israel, Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the Spirit-driven church. Wright admits that this is a two-testament reading and that a Jewish reading would look very different. There is a good deal of debate as to whether the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Chronicles should even be read as an overarching narrative at all. Wright suggests, however, that the NT writers believed that Israel’s ancient scriptures formed a narrative in search of a climax and that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension provided this climax to Israel’s story.
Using this model to conceptualize scripture’s authority, Wright argues that monogamy is viewed as essential in the fourth and fifth ‘acts’ because of the NT writers’ belief that the new creation being launched calls for a re-inhabiting of the principle of Genesis 2: one woman and one man united for life. Similarly, while divorce, according to Mark’s rendering of Jesus, was once permitted under the Mosaic law ‘because of the hardness of your hearts’ (Mark 10), Jesus is assumed to have a cure for hardness of heart which indicates that the era in which divorce for any number of reasons was permitted by the Mosaic law is now over. The last scene of the Book of Revelation which is the marriage of the Messiah to his bride, Wright says, envisages a reality which not only affirms, but transcends the notion of monogamy by the using creational symbols of Genesis 1 and 2. Monogamy points to the cosmic truth that the creator’s purpose is not ultimately to divide heaven and earth but to bring them together in a costly, but enriching unity.
In his case study on the Sabbath, Wright says that the weekly observance of Sabbath constituted a set of signposts which pointed to the time when God would come and give rest to his people and free them from slavery. The NT writers posit Jesus as the eschatological fulfillment of the Sabbath, thus removing the need for this specific signpost. Just as from one perspective Jesus is the new Temple (the new kind of sacred space), says Wright, so Jesus and the time of his public career are similarly the new Sabbath (the new kind of sacred time).
Wright concludes by once again emphasizing that it is God’s authority mediated through scripture, for Jesus tells his followers that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him, not the texts his followers would eventually write. However, just as it will not do to reduce the Bible to a conglomeration of true statements or proverbs because this leaves out the multi-layered narrative of scripture, so it would be inappropriate to conceive of Jesus’ authority as simply telling people what they can and cannot do. Rather, Wright says, “To say that Jesus has authority, an authority then put into practice through scripture in the life of the church and its mission to the world, is to say something about eschatology, particularly about the fulfillment of the ancient creational purposes in Jesus, so that old signposts such as Sabbath are now not needed and old permissions such as polygamy and divorce are now inappropriate.”
Wright intentionally chose case studies on less controversial subjects in order to avoid distracting listeners from focusing on his method. It would, however, be interesting to see what Wright’s approach would look like when applied to topics on which there is less agreement among Christians worldwide. Seeing Wright’s model used to approach such issues would certainly support one of Wright’s basic assertions that it is difficult to discern how God’s authority is mediated through scripture. Nonetheless, Wright’s paper is not intended to emphasize in a discouraging way the difficulties of scriptural interpretation, but to acknowledge the complexities and offer a way of addressing them. Though Wright’s theses might have been strengthened by looking at tougher issues, he appropriately affirms that in spite of interpretational difficulties God still discloses his person and purposes for the world through scripture.
University of St Andrews