Post image for Article of the Week (Part II): “Jesus’ Self-Understanding” by N. T. Wright

Article of the Week (Part II): “Jesus’ Self-Understanding” by N. T. Wright

by Stephen Hebert on Friday - 2 February 2007

in Articles, Biblical Studies, New Testament

I love any article that has four introductions. In all seriousness, N. T. Wright’s 2002 article “Jesus’ Self-Understanding” is both beautiful and flawed.

The Flaws

Let’s get the dirt out of the way, and then move on to the good stuff.

Those who study Christology tend to study what later writers said about Jesus, and then try to find some way through the maze to arrive at an understanding of what Jesus thought about Jesus. I am prone to agree with Käsemann who showed that there is a historical barrier between us and the historical Jesus. I think its fun and occasionally worthwhile to consider “the historical Jesus,” but, in reality, the interpretations are far too varied. Everyone comes out with the Jesus that they wanted.

The biggest flaw in Wright’s argument is his assumption that we can say anything about Jesus’ self-understanding. As he correctly points out, we can’t psychoanalyze a figure that lived 2000 years ago. So what do we do? In light of the fact that we can’t get into a first century Jew’s mind (though, Wright seems to think we can), what does “self-understanding” mean?

The Beauty

The beauty of Wright’s argument can be summed up in one sentence: “[W]hat was thinkable for the early Jewish church must have been thinkable for the early Jewish Jesus” (p. 55).

This is a stunningly simple, yet important concept. Wright notes that so much of this quest for the historical Jesus has been focused on the Jewish-ness of Jesus. If it was possible for an early, mostly Jewish Jesus movement to conceive of Jesus in a way that we would characterize as “high Christology,” why is it difficult for us to believe that Jesus could have thought in this way? It’s (un)common sense.

From here Wright launches into a discussion of Jesus in light of Temple and Torah. I am onboard with this direction. Wright’s analysis of Jesus’ movement as anti-Temple is quite interesting, and I am inclined to agree. He refers to Jesus as the “Tabernacling Presence,” meaning that Jesus was “acting as a one-man Temple substitute” (p. 57) by offering the forgiveness of sins and restoration—Temple functions.

Wright’s discussion of Jesus in light of Torah/Wisdom is a bit more nebulous, shorter, and seemingly out of focus by comparison.


N. T. Wright makes a much-needed, simple statement—Jesus’ humble roots do not preclude Him from a higher christology. Further, moving in the direction of Jesus’ self-understanding being rooted in Temple and Torah feels like the way to go. However, the question of how we can really talk about a historical figure’s self-understanding is still open for discussion.

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