The problem i wish to address in this book can be introduced with a personal story from nearly fifty years ago. I was in high school, trying with some friends to run a small Christian Studies group. We decided one term that we would do a series of studies about Jesus, each beginning with "Why?" The topics included such questions as: Why was Jesus born? Why did Jesus live? Why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus rise again? And why will he return? (I don't think we had one on why Jesus ascended, though we should have.) Anyway, for some reason I was assigned the task of preparing and leading the second of these: Why did Jesus live?
I soon realized, even as a raw teenager, that I had drawn the short straw. After all, if you were given Jesus's birth, you could talk about the incarnation, about God becoming man. We all had memories of Christmas sermons, and we knew how important it was that Jesus wasn't just an ordinary human being: he was God in person. There was even the whole question of the virgin birth. No shortage of material there.
The same was true too for the person who was to speak about Jesus's death. Even at that tender age we knew not only that it was important to say "he died for our sins," but to push a little bit farther and ask how that happened, how it made sense. For myself, that is, so to speak, where I came in: my earliest memory of personal faith was when, as a very small boy, I was overwhelmed, reduced to tears, by the thought that Jesus died for me. What the cross says about the love of God has always been central and vital for me. I don't think we schoolboys quite grasped the range of what is called "atonement theology." But we knew there were some important questions to look at and some important and central beliefs to grasp hold of.
So too with the resurrection. And, indeed, the second coming. Again, I'm not sure we went very deep or even necessarily explored the most helpful biblical passages. But these were thrilling topics. There was plenty to talk about, plenty to chew over, plenty to make us not only think hard, but also celebrate the excitement of believing in Jesus and of trying to live as a Christian.
But what about that question in the middle-my question? Why did Jesus live? What, in other words, about the bit between the stable and the cross? There were, after all, Christmas carols and other hymns that took Jesus straight "from his poor manger to his bitter cross." Did it matter that, according to the four gospels, he had a short period of intense and exciting public activity at the latter end of his life? What truth could we learn from it? Why did it have to be like that? Does it matter that he did all those things, that he said all those things, that he was all those things? Would it have made any difference if, as the virgin-born son of God, he had been plucked from total obscurity and crucified, dying for our sins, without any of that happening? If not, why not?
I realized then, and have realized increasingly in recent years, that many Christians read the gospels without ever asking those questions. Adapting a phrase from a well-known book on management, The Empty Raincoat,* such readers experience the four gospels as an empty cloak. The outer wrapping is there-Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection. But who is inside the cloak? What did Jesus do in between? Is there anybody there? Does it matter?
Now comes the frustration. I have absolutely no idea what I said in that teenage talk. I don't know what sense I tried to make of why Jesus lived. It's possible that somewhere, deep in a dusty box, I have some scribbled notes from that early attempt to answer the question that has haunted me all my life. But at least I remember the fact of being puzzled. And that is part of the point of this book. It wasn't an accident that I was puzzled. It wasn't that most Christians knew the answer and I just hadn't grasped it yet. I had stumbled, without realizing it, on a weak spot in the general structure of Christian faith as it has come to be expressed in today's world-and, I suspect, for a lot longer than we might imagine. Here is all this material in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Why? What are we supposed to make of it all?
The Puzzle of a Lifetime
Come forward about fifteen years from that early experience. In my late twenties, out of the blue, I was asked to give a Bible exposition to the student Christian Union at Cambridge. I don't know who inspired the question or what they expected me to say, but the title I was given was "The Gospel in the Gospels."
Preachers and indeed theologians may well recognize the problem posed by that subject (quite apart from the challenge of addressing such a vast topic in fifty minutes, not to mention the fact that my research was in those days on Paul, not on the gospels). I now realize, though I don't think I did at the time, that this problem is quite close to the puzzle I had faced as a teenager. Let me unpack it like this.
When C. S Lewis wrote his famous History of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, he naturally included a section on the writers of the English Reformation, not least the great translator William Tyndale. Writing for a nontheological audience, Lewis had to explain one point that had obviously puzzled other readers. When William Tyndale, one of England's earliest Protestants, a disciple of Martin Luther, wrote about "the gospel," he didn't mean "the gospels"-Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He meant "the gospel" in the sense of the message: the good news that, because of Jesus's death alone, your sins can be forgiven, and all you have to do is believe it, rather than trying to impress God with doing "good works." "The gospel" in this sense is what the early Reformers believed they had found in Paul's letters, particularly Romans and Galatians-and particularly Romans 3 and Galatians 2-3.
Now, you can explain that "gospel" in Paul's terms. You can make it more precise, fine-tuning the interpretation of this or that verse or technical term. But the point is that you can do all of that without any reference whatever to "the gospels," to the four books that, along with Acts, precede Paul in the New Testament as we have it. Thus in many classic Christian circles, including the plethora of movements that go broadly under the label "evangelical" (and we should remember that in German the word evangelisch means, more or less, "Lutheran"), there has been the assumption, going back at least as far as the Reformation, that "the gospel" is what you find in Paul's letters, particularly in Romans and Galatians. This "gospel" consists, normally, of a precise statement of what Jesus achieved in his saving death ("atonement") and a precise statement of how that achievement could be appropriated by the individual ("justification by faith"). Atonement and justification were assumed to be at the heart of "the gospel." But "the gospels"-Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects.
Now of course at one level "the gospels" contain this "gospel," simply because they tell the story of the death of Jesus. Without that-if someone were to suggest, for instance, that this "Christ" of whom Paul speaks never lived at all or never died on a cross-Paul's whole "gospel" makes no sense. That, indeed, is what some people in the second century tried to say, offering instead a "Jesus" who was simply a teacher of spirituality. But is that all? Is "the gospel in the gospels" simply a matter of the bare fact of Jesus's death, which Paul and others would then interpret as "good news" even though nobody saw it like that at the time?
That, I think, is the problem to which I, in my invited address at Cambridge, was supposed to offer an answer. Sadly, once more, I can't remember anything about what I said. Perhaps it's still in a file somewhere, but to be honest I haven't looked. There may even, for all I know, be a tape recording-though cassette tapes (remember them?) were still in their infancy in 1978, the year I gave the address.
I might, though, hazard a guess at some of what I said. There are of course the famous passages, such as Mark 10:45: "The son of man . . . came to be the servant, to give his life 'as a ransom for many.'" Ah, think readers, there we have it: a reference to Daniel 7, coupled with a reference to Isaiah 53:5, the famous passage in which the "servant of the Lord" is wounded, bruised, and killed "for our transgressions" and "for our iniquities." That sounds-to some!-as though Mark had after all been taking lessons from Paul. That's enough-there is our "atonement theology" in a nutshell, right there in Mark.
There is a problem, though. Matthew has the same line (20:28), but when Luke has an opportunity to reproduce it, he appears to leave out the crucial element (22:27, where Jesus simply says, "I am with you here like a servant"). Some have even claimed, because of this and other features, that Luke has no "theology of the cross," no doctrine of "atonement," at all. I regard that as a grievous misunderstanding; I will explain why later. But, even if Luke had reproduced Mark's phrase exactly, it doesn't look as though the gospels really make "atonement," in the sense the church has come to use that word, their main theme.
When it comes to "justification," there is one passage in Luke, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14), in which the sinner is said to be "justified" in something like a Pauline sense. After all, he confessed his sins and trusted solely in God's mercy, unlike the self-righteous Pharisee.
And there are several sayings in John's gospel, not usually discussed when people talk about "justification," that might be regarded as relevant to the topic. There is, above all, the well-known John 3:16: "This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God's new age." But how does that saying fit into the story John is telling? How does it prepare for the final cry of Jesus on the cross, tetelestai, "It's all done!" (19:30)? Many preachers have turned to that verse for a statement of "atonement" theology, making the point that tetelestai was what ancient Greeks wrote on a bill when it had been paid: "Finished!" "Done with!" "The price has been paid!" There are many ways in which you can extract a "Pauline" resonance from all that.
But is that enough? Is what we mean by "atonement" something John was really interested in, and if so how does he express it? Or, to put it another way, what were the main themes John was exploring, and how does his understanding of the cross and its meaning fit into those, rather than into the scheme of thought that we have devised and inherited?
In any case, these passages and a few others like them have to be, as it were, prized out of their context. It is assumed that that context-the actual story that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell, in their different ways, of what happened to Jesus after his birth and before his death-is not actually "the gospel" in the same way as the saving death of Jesus and the Pauline doctrine of justification are "the gospel." That, I think, is the problem to which I, in my Cambridge address, was supposed to offer an answer. And it is the puzzle, I now realize, that has been a major theme of my lifetime. The puzzle of Jesus's lifetime-what was his life all about?-has crept up on me and become the puzzle of mine.
Come fast forward again, another twenty-five years. In 2003 I attended a conference where a well-known Christian leader from another continent requested some time with me. He had been reading my book Jesus and the Victory of God* in the weeks before the conference and was intrigued by it. He wanted to know how it all made sense in terms of "the gospel" that he believed and taught. We had a cup of tea (some British and Anglican stereotypes don't change) and talked for an hour or so. I tried to explain what I thought I was seeing: that the four gospels had, as it were, fallen off the front of the canon of the New Testament as far as many Christians were concerned. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed, let alone integrated into the larger biblical theology in which they claimed to belong. This, I remember saying, was heavily ironic in a tradition (to which he and I both belonged) that prided itself on being "biblical." As far as I could see, that word was being used, in an entire Christian tradition, to mean "Pauline." And even there I had questioned whether Paul was really being allowed to speak. That's another story.
We got to the end of our hour. It was time to stop.
"Well, Tom," he said, summing it all up. "I think what you're saying is that I'm insufficiently biblical."
I gasped inside. That was quite an admission.
"Yes," I replied. "That's exactly what I'm saying."
And if that was true of him, it is true of a great deal of the Western Christian tradition (I can't speak about Eastern Orthodoxy): Catholic and Protestant, liberal and evangelical, charismatic and contemplative. We use the gospels. We read them aloud in worship. We often preach from them. But have we even begun to hear what they are saying, the whole message, which is so much greater than the sum of the small parts with which we are, on one level, so familiar? I don't think so. This is the lifetime puzzle. It isn't just that we've all misread the gospels, though I think that's broadly true. It is more that we haven't really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. I want in this book to allow them, as far as I can, to speak for themselves. Not everyone will like the result.
From How God Became King: The Forgotten Stories of the Gospels. Copyright © 2012 by N.T. Wright. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.
*Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat (London: Hutchinson, 1994).