N.T. Wright on The Importance of Context
“John F. Kennedy is perhaps one of the best-known Americans of the mid- twentieth century. His presidency was of course cut short by his sudden and violent death, a death that had, and perhaps still has, iconic significance for many Americans and others around the world. Those of us alive at the time all still remember where we were when we heard the news. Now suppose we had four books containing very detailed accounts of what Kennedy did and said during his three-year presidency, with only a brief glance at what went before. Suppose it was quite clear that these were put together by people who believed that what Kennedy had done and said had lasting importance for their own day. But suppose as well that, instead of the overwhelming multitude of sources we actually possess for the decades before his day, we simply had a history book written in the early years of the twenty-first century (i.e., forty years after his death) plus a scattering of other material—a few letters, tracts, coins, souvenir artifacts, that kind of thing—to help us reconstruct the world within which what Kennedy did and said made the sense it did at the time, and particularly to get some idea of why some thought him a hero and others thought he had to be killed. One can imagine all the theories—the reconstructions of the Cold War mentality, the social and cultural tensions of 1960s United States, the state of the main political parties at the time, the dynastic ambitions of Kennedy’s father, and so on. There would be plenty of wiggle room for interpretation.
That is more or less our challenge with the historical evidence for Jesus. We have the four “gospels,” written later by people who believed passionately that what Jesus had done and said, coupled with his death and what happened afterwards, were of massive ongoing significance. The gospels are highly detailed; one of the problems of writing the present book has been trying to decide what to leave out. They are clearly written from particular (pro-Jesus) points of view. But, unlike today’s historian studying JFK in his actual context, we have simply a history book written forty or fifty years later (by Josephus, an aristocratic Jew who went over to the Roman side in the war of AD 66–70) and a scattering of other material, bits and pieces, tracts, coins, letters, and so forth. Out of these very disparate sources we have to reconstruct the setting in which what Jesus did and said made the sense it did, so much sense that some thought he was God’s Messiah and others thought he had to be killed at once. If we don’t make the effort to do this reconstruction, we will, without a shadow of doubt, assume that what Jesus did and said makes the sense it might have made in some other context—perhaps our own. That has happened again and again. I believe that this kind of easy-going anachronism is almost as corrosive to genuine Christian faith as skepticism itself.”
(Wright, N.T. , Simply Jesus, HarperOne, 2011)