Jesus in Context – in Conversation with Dr David Wenham

Solas’s Gavin Matthews spoke to New Testament scholar Dr David Wenham.

GJM: I’m very pleased to be speaking to Dr David Wenham, the author of this fascinating new book “Jesus in Context” (Cambridge University Press, 2022). David, it’s really good to speak to you – can we begin with your new book – tell us, why this was a book that needed to be researched and written?

David Wenham:  Cambridge University Press were putting together a new series of books on “Philosophy Religion and Society”, and I was invited by the editors to contribute a volume on Jesus for the series. I thought I could contribute something useful, because of my own Christian faith and journey as a scholar over several decades.

It all started for me with historical questions about Jesus when I was a teenager, questioning things I was hearing and asking what it was credible to believe;  this ultimately led me into a career in Jesus scholarship. I’ve done lots of teaching and lecturing over the years, but at the heart of it all has been the question of Jesus and what we know about him. When I was a teenager it was very hard to find any books that looked at the evidence for Jesus… but that is where it began for me. When I received the invitation from the editors to write this book,  I thought that it could be my last book and that it might an appropriates way to complete my research and writing – taking on a topic that is arguably more important  than any other that I could be asked to write about..

GJM: So, what can we know about Jesus? Some people see Jesus as a distant shadowy figure who we can’t quite access through the mists of history. So can we get an accurate handle on who he really was in history?

David Wenham: Yes, I think we can. I think that the impression that the events of Jesus’ life are so far back in past history that they are just unknowable, is flawed. Of course, a lot of things that happened on or two thousand years ago, we only have very hazy information about. We are in the dark about quite a lot of historical things, but interestingly the story of Jesus took place in the Roman world, and we have a lot of information about the Roman Empire. We have a whole range of sources for this. There are Roman historians who describe that period, such as Tacitus who was a reputable Roman historian and not at all Christian by the way. He refers to Jesus being crucified in his writings even as he describes Christians as being an objectionable sect! So he was not pro-Christian at all, but he knew about Jesus – even though he was living and working in Rome, a long way from the events he described.

Then there is archaeology too. When my wife and I were in Rome a few years ago – amongst the many things we saw there was the ‘Arch of Titus’, which was built to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, just after the life of Jesus. On the arch you can see images of them carrying away the things from the Jewish Temple, such as the seven branched candlestick. In the 1940s in Palestine they found a tablet referring to Pilate, ‘hard’ evidence for a key figure inf the gospel accounts. There is a lot of evidence of that nature, and then there is Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in Palestine in the First Century AD – and his book, “Jewish Antiquities” is an account of that period. It is very interesting to see the way that he refers to things like John the Baptist and his execution, which are also mentioned in the New Testament.

So there is loads of evidence, not to mention the New Testament itself which contains four accounts of Jesus and his life. They were all written within a hundred years of Jesus, and some of them going back to within thirty to fifty years of the events they describe. We also have letters written in the period from people like Paul of Tarsus.So we have loads and loads of information!

GJM: So, in your book you give very short shrift to the theory that what we have in the gospels are much later developments, the result of what used to be called ‘Chinese-whispers’. You look at the way that some people suggest that things changed and changed until the gospels and creeds were finally written down, centuries later. But you don’t accept this idea that Christians today are following a 5th Century fictitious character, rather than a First-century Jewish messiah! Why is that?

David Wenham: Well there are several reasons for that. Firstly there is good manuscript evidence showing that the four gospels were written within the first century. Most manuscripts from the ancient world have rotted away, but a well-preserved fragment of John’s gospel has been found which can be dated from the first half of the second century. There are other very old manuscripts showing that the gospel writings go way back. And then there are things within them that just make so much sense, and fit in with so much else we know about history. The gospels are not the results of theological thinking centuries later but are clearly from the real world of Galilee, with fishing boats and storms on the lake, and interactions with the Roman governor of the time, Pilate and with the Herod family too, all of which make ‘first-Century sense’.

One of the things I think we don’t realise in the modern world is how knowledge was passed on in the ancient world. That’s because when we want to know something, we just go to Google and look it up. But before the internet and printed books, learning and teaching were done by memorisation. Whereas my memory today is useless, in those days people learnt things off by heart, word for word. And in Paul’s writings which we can very confidently date at around AD 50-60, (twenty or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion), he refers to the stories and traditions of Jesus being passed on – in exactly the way people in the ancient world memorised and retained large amounts of very detailed information. In fact, it’s something people in many parts of the world still do today and something we see – for example, in musicians who can accurately recall and reproduce sometimes very complex pieces of music. I’ve recently been watching ‘young musician of the year’ and it is astonishing how much musicians remember on some occasions playing a forty-minute piece and getting every note right.  Paul saw it as a key part of his job to carefully pass on the stories of Jesus. It’s much like some of the Orthodox churches today where in order to be ordained you have to know the New Testament off by heart!

GJM: In the book, you also discuss the question of the authorship of the four gospels. But how much do you think it matters to the reader today, who actually put pen to paper. There is some controversy about who wrote which bits when and why, but how much does it matter who wrote which bits?

David Wenham: In one sense it doesn’t matter, if you are confident that whoever did write it was a good source. None of the gospels tell us by name who wrote them. Headings such as “The Gospel According to Mark” are not in the earliest manuscripts. The authors didn’t bother putting their names on these things because (probably) when they circulated these documents everyone knew who’d written them. And the gospel writers didn’t see themselves as writing about themselves but  about Jesus. However there are more than hints that behind the different gospels, are people who knew what they were talking about. Luke’s gospel is very interesting here, because his gospel is the first part of his two-volume work Luke-Acts, which goes on to describe the earliest days of the church starting in Jerusalem and going out elsewhere into the Roman world. In Acts, about halfway through, he drops into the first-person, saying “we” went here, “we” did that. This suggests that Luke was a companion of Paul, which means that we can confidently in my view date Luke as writing his account very soon after the time of Jesus.

I regard Luke as a very serious historian, who talks about ‘having researched matters carefully’, and there are many good reasons for thinking that he really did know his subject matter very well. When he wrote about Paul and his companions in Corinth, he refers to things that are confirmed by Roman sources such as the names of Roman governors like Gallio, who is also named on a first century inscription. He is no fiction, but real history. So there is a very strong case for Luke being the author of that gospel. He’s generally thought to have used Mark as one of his sources. John’s gospel also claims to have been based on eye-witness testimony, one of the disciples of Jesus traditionally identified as John. And I think there is every reason to believe that that was the testimony out of which John’s gospel was developed.

GJM: So how should someone approach the gospels today, then? If someone is not a Christian, but is a truth-seeker, searching for answers – then should they approach the gospels as a critical historian, or looking for inspiring fables, or seeking mystical experiences – how should someone who wants to find out what this is really all about approach these texts?

David Wenham: The simple answer to that is; with as open a mind as they can manage. Which I suppose is the case with any historical text – except that this isn’t just a historical text because the claims in it about Jesus challenge us in all sorts of other directions. If Jesus was really as the gospels portray him, if he really did rise from the dead, then he challenges us not just historically but personally too. So the answer must be to approach the text open-mindedly and honestly and not with a decision not to believe made beforehand. Mind you, there have been some people who have read it like that and been convinced it was true despite that! They’ve found that their initial disbelieving reading of the text was wrong and that the only credible reason for what the gospels describe is that they have a historical basis. And as a serious academic point, the picture of Jesus we have in the gospels is of a most extraordinary person. If you think just of Jesus’ teaching, his parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son; and the Sermon on the Mount – widely recognised as supremely important teaching – where did all this amazing teaching come from? Are we going to say that people after the time of Jesus invented all this stuff? It’s less convincing in my view to say that various geniuses in later times invented this figure of Jesus and his teaching than it is to say that what created this extraordinary Christian movement was the person of Jesus himself. Equally it’s nonsensical to suggest in that context, that someone inventing this figure would have had him crucified, because that makes no sense whatsoever! Jesus is not a fiction, he’s not a late fable.

GJM: Another issue you grapple with in the book is that some scholars have taken a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ approach, not taking (for example) Luke in its entirety but saying, ‘this bit looks authentic, but this bit isn’t’. But you are quite sceptical of that approach most famously adopted by the ‘Jesus Seminar’. So why don’t you see that as a legitimate way of handling these accounts of the life of Jesus?

David Wenham: I think that is because again and again when people have tried to dissect the text into what the regard  as ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ sayings of Jesus, it is a very, very subjective exercise. You’ll find that one scholar says one thing, another scholar says another thing. The Jesus Seminar was a largely American group of scholars who went through the sayings of Jesus and voted on whether they thought it went back to Jesus or not. They tried to be ‘scientific’ but what they ended up with was firstly very little confident information about Jesus and second a Jesus figure who looked rather like a modern liberal American of the 1970s/80s! Their subjective reading of the story actually left them with very little. I am just one of many scholars who have concluded that that is just a hopeless approach. However if you are to approach these texts as a whole, given what we know about the context, the archaeology and Judaism of the time from which Jesus came – the big picture the gospels present makes sense and has force. Whereas, weighing one tiny verse against another is a fruitless, tear-jerking process that doesn’t get you anywhere.

GJM: So the Jesus who emerges from the text – if we take it seriously as you suggest – is he a surprising figure, if you paint him onto the backdrop of 1st Century Judaism and his context? I’m thinking about things such as his emphasis on the Kingdom of God. Is he what you’d expect?

David Wenham: The answer is “yes and no!” Many of the Jewish people were looking forward to God intervening and saving them. They were of course, at that time under the colonial rule of the Romans. And observant Jews were looking forward to God coming and doing something about that, and about the corrupt priests who were running the temple at that time too. And many of them, as they looked forward – hoped for a messiah who would come and drive The Romans out of the land and bring political autonomy and freedom to the Jewish people. Then Jesus comes, and he’s very exciting and you can see their expectations rising that Jesus is going to accomplish this. You see this amongst Jesus’ own followers when they say things like “Jesus – when you establish your kingdom, we want top places in your government.” And when Jesus went up to Jerusalem, expectations got very high – that he was going to be the sort of king they wanted. But Jesus is hugely surprising. He’s positively surprising because of the extraordinary things he did, he was a famous healer of the sick for example. He was also extraordinarily compassionate and cared for the outsiders, not fraternising with the elites but reaching the poor and the outcasts. I called my book on the parables “pictures of revolution” because his relationship to the poor and the needy was revolutionary and it was those sorts of people, not those in power who responded most positively to him.  Those invested in the status quo found Jesus very uncomfortable and threatening in fact. So Jesus is surprising because he was not the sort of messiah they had been looking forward to. But when Jesus taught they were constantly taken aback by his authority, “who is this?” they would ask.  He evidently had a unique relationship with God as ‘Father’ – a word he uses so much famously in the “Lord’s Prayer”. That was something very striking about Jesus, this intimate relationship with God that was not typical of religious leaders. Then Jesus went to Jerusalem where he evidently knew he was going to be killed. No-one expected the messiah to come and get crucified. There were all kinds of other popular movements around at the time, but when the leader got killed, that was the end of it! But with Jesus, it was followed by the disciples and the followers of Jesus saying, “Actually, he’s alive and his announcement of God’s kingdom and rule didn’t come to an end with his crucifixion.” So obviously what motivated the early Christian Church in a quite extraordinary way as they went around the Roman Empire proclaiming this crucified Jesus – was their conviction that Jesus was alive and that into this world of death, hopelessness and religious confusion, Jesus is alive and brings hope and meaning in a way that nobody has before.

GJM: Now obviously in this interview we can only touch on a few of the things in the book, which also examines things such as the cultural context, the Old Testament background, John the Baptist, the path of Jesus’ life, his teaching, his ethics, what it means to follow Jesus, through to his death and resurrection and the consequences of that – and more! But one thing I did want to focus on for a moment is this. Most religions teach that what matters is their founder’s teaching and that is doesn’t really matter who delivered it; the emphasis is on the wisdom, ethics teaching, or prophecies of their faith – not primarily about the person who delivered those, it doesn’t so much matter who he was. But the Jesus who emerges in the history you present – it seems to really matter who he was. His identity and knowing him seems to be up front and central alongside his teaching, parables, prophecies, ethics and so on. Why is the identity of Jesus so significant?

David Wenham: Very good question – you are quite right, that Jesus’ teaching is not secondary and unimportant – but that even more important than that, is Jesus himself. Paul (who I have also written a book about!) was a very intelligent, critical person and initially a rabid opponent of Jesus before he had his famous Damascus Road conversion. Now, when Paul had that experience he already knew all the arguments against Jesus being the messiah, but in that moment he realised that Jesus really was the person his followers had been claiming. And Paul says, very pertinently that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christians might as well shut up shop and go home. That is because Jesus himself is at the heart of things, because as the disciples realised – God had come amongst them in an extraordinary sense and revealed himself to them in this person. It was not just in his brilliant teaching, but that here God was among them. Matthew’s gospel picks up the Hebrew name Immanuel, meaning “God with us” and applies it to Jesus, saying that God has revealed Himself uniquely in Jesus in whom he offers us this relationship of children to a heavenly Father. Jesus had this unique and extraordinary relationship with God, which they could observe – but Jesus goes further and says to them, ‘if you follow me and put your faith in me, you too can be members of the heavenly family and children of God’. So the person of Jesus is very important, and whether these things in the gospels did or didn’t happen, and whether he really is risen from the dead or not, really matters.

Another of my heroes in the New Testament, is a man sometimes referred to as “Doubting” Thomas. One of the striking things about the gospels is that Jesus’ followers who went on to be leaders in the early Christian movement appear in the narrative as having all sorts of problems and doubts and getting a lot of things wrong! So Peter, the first major leader of the Christian church denied knowledge of Jesus when he was under pressure. Thomas was the one who said, “I’m not going to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead just because you other disciples tell me, I actually want to see and touch Jesus for myself!”  I like Thomas because he relates to my own journey of faith, because I want evidence – and Thomas is given that evidence. And when Thomas was given that he didn’t respond by saying something like ‘thankyou Good teacher” but “My Lord, and My God!” His relationship with Jesus is of God showing himself to us – or in the language of John’s gospel he is God’s “word” to us, God communicating to us. And Jesus is the one who supremely communicates God to us human beings with all our faults. So, if we had the remarkable teaching of Jesus without the person of Jesus, we could dismiss it. But actually while his teaching was unique, it’s the person of Jesus that is ultimately significant.

GJM: Well, there so much more in the book we could talk about- we haven’t even begun to look at Jesus own view of himself, or his view of how the world would end. So if people want to explore that- they will have to get a copy! So – who did you aim this book at? What kind of audience is it written for?

David Wenham:. Well it’s suitable for students, and I suspect that the  Cambridge University Press primarily had their American market primarily in view and  the college student studying religion: you can’t really study religion without including Jesus in your reading. But it’s certainly not only for students, but for any interested, intelligent reader who wants answers, who wants to know about Jesus. I do try to give a balanced picture of what different scholars have been saying and to represent all viewpoints fairly. And I had to do all that in a comparatively short book with a strict word limit but which provides a glimpse into who Jesus was and some of the historical evidence.

GJM: So it seemed to me that it would be accessible to someone who was comfortable reading a broadsheet style newspaper, not only for people with a professional or degree level interest in theology. It nicely lays out where the field is, as well as your own conclusions on the subject in a very helpful way. So what did you gain from researching and writing it.

David Wenham: I gained a lot. Although have studied this for decades, I spent much of lockdown studying other people’s work and all kinds of sources. I was delighted, for example to study the work of the German scholar Rainer Riesner, who has a major book on Jesus. Reading extensively and then being compelled to summarise things in a systematic way, was wonderful for me. I learnt things about Jesus and was very pleased to be able to write the book, should anybody read it!

GJM: So where can people get their hands on it?

David Wenham: Well, most people get their books from Amazon or Waterstones, but most bookshops can get hold of it from Cambridge University Press.

GJM: Well, that was fascinating – thank you for speaking to us and for sending me a copy of the book before we spoke.