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Defending the story

Books | N.T. Wright makes a compelling case for the authenticity of the Gospels

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

N.T. Wright can write. He is controversial for his theological studies of justification, but when it comes to questions of Christ's resurrection and what that means, no one is more persuasive. Wright's new book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008) builds on C.S. Lewis' succinct defense of the faith and takes it to a new level.

Lewis is famous not only for writing great books but for one apologetic in particular: He argued in Mere Christianity that Jesus was liar, lunatic, or Lord; that it made no sense, based on the Gospel accounts, to consider Him liar or lunatic; ergo, Jesus must be Lord. The skeptical response, of course, is that Lewis is assuming the Gospel accounts are honest reporting-but couldn't they have been written decades later by distorting propagandists who churned out fiction and called it fact?

Responses to that include the Gospel stress on the role of women: A propagandist would not show women (then seen as thoroughly unreliable) as the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Another riposte cites the Gospel authors' specific detail: Roman titles were far from standard and writers many decades later would not have known that officials were called tetrarchs in Galilee, politarchs at Thessalonica, asiarchs in Ephesus, proconsuls in Corinth and Cyprus, and protos in Malta.

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Two books recently reviewed in WORLD-Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and Tim Keller's The Reason for God-have bulwarked the defense. Bauckham showed the Gospel writers' use of on-the-spot observers, and Keller noted that Gospel writers, were they not the apostles or those recording what apostles told them, would have been astoundingly inventing a genre of literature unseen until the 18th century.

Wright's new book adds another dimension. He lucidly explains how the Gospel writers, if they were holy fakers, would have had to invent not only a new genre but also a theology completely removed from any Jewish or pagan understandings of their time. First-century believers in various Jewish and pagan doctrines may have expected to see shining or ghostly figures, but no one anticipated meeting someone who would eat a piece of fish.

Wright also explains the key difference between expecting a mass resurrection at the end of time and an individual resurrection. He's so good in discussing theology that his ineptness concerning current events is striking. Wright favors an across-the-board forgiveness of debts run up by the governments of poor countries, and he says that those who oppose such a measure will eventually be seen as equivalent to slaveowners-but his analogy gets things backwards.

Here's why: Forgiveness of debts would help people who live in real democracies, but many poor people are under the thumb of dictators who have enslaved them. If New York merchants before the Civil War had forgiven the debts of Southern slaveowners, that would only have given them the opportunity to buy more slaves. Giving today's dictators a free ride would just encourage them to tighten the screws even more.

Narrative competition

By Marvin Olasky

Robert Webber's Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (IVP, 2008) faces squarely the competition the Gospels face. He traces how in a pagan, Roman world of swirling stories the biblical narrative of God entering the world's suffering to defeat death took hold of the imaginations of millions. The idea that God was in touch with the earthly sphere of life, and that the Incarnation rendered all of creation holy and broke down the distinction between sacred and secular, eventually changed all of Western civilization.

Who Gets to Narrate the World? is Webber's last book-he wrote dozens before dying of pancreatic cancer last year-and is a superlative note on which to leave this life. He pushes Christians to repent of cultural accommodation in the face of secularism and Islam: Christians, he argues, should proclaim the claims of Christ not by emphasizing moralism but by absorbing the biblical narrative of redemption, and then teaching it to others through both word and deed.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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