Insights from N.T. Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: Left-Brain Epicurean Thinking Dominates Biblical Studies

Last night I had the opportunity to listen to Professor Tom Wright (a.k.a. N.T. Wright) give his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity here at the University of St Andrews. Professor Wright has actually been at the university a year now and has previously given major public addresses here, but I guess this one is more official.

I share here my notes from the lecture. Please be aware that the following is based on rather skimpy hand-written notes, and so does not do justice to Wright’s elegant and precise handling of the English language, but I hope I have preserved the thrust of his arguments.  The speech was entitled:  “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in early Christianity.”

Wright begins by outlining how the four Gospels are remarkable documents that are still largely unknown to us. We are failing to understand the thrust of the Gospels. We need to apply our imagination and look beyond the boundaries of the various philosophies that guide our views.
(Wright will present a fresh thesis about the Gospels)
The Gospels all tell the story of Jesus as “how God became King.” They are talking about the setting up of a theocracy over the world. Westerners react strongly to the idea of a theocracy, but this is what is meant by the talk of the “Kingdom of God” in the Gospels. The idea was that the kings of the worldly nations would be replaced with God as king. The notion of the Kingdom of God does not relate to a heavenly kingdom alone, as some have thought — we remember Jesus’ desire for things to be “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
Wright suggested that we should understand that the Gospels are biographies and that they do describe life in the early Church, despite the continued claims of some to the contrary. The story of Jesus doesn’t come out of thin air, but is the continuation and climax of the story of Israel. There is narrative continuity here — history may be cyclical, but it is also moving progressively toward an end — the Messianic age. Many Second Temple documents reflect this idea, including Ezra and Daniel. In Daniel, we have the expectation of the coming of the Messiah after 490 years. Different groups had different ways of calculating this. The Essenes expected it to coincide with the time of King Herod’s death. The Rabbis had a different, later calculation.
The Gospels follow Israel’s story line, with Jesus as the fulfillment of the millennium-long narrative. They each go about explaining how this works out in their own way, going back to the Psalms, Isaiah, etc., to show how Jesus fulfills expectations. John goes back to Genesis to show how Jesus completes God’s plan from the foundation of the world. Jesus is the expected anointed ruler of the world, but in a different form than the world expected.
The Jews expected their God to return — Ezekiel had said that the Glory of God had left the temple before it was destroyed, but that it would someday return. But where was the “sudden appearance” of the Lord in his temple that was expected by Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi, and others? We are never told that this has happened. The Second Temple Jewish literature is always looking forward to it as a future event. But this is the message of the Gospels — that Jesus is the Glory of God come back. The Glory is revealed through Jesus. The reason that Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans is because they did not recognize their God when he came back.
Wright suggests that we now need to move away from the theories of low Christology in the early Church (historical Jesus, Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, etc.). What the early Christians saw in the mission of Jesus was that through him, Israel’s God had become king of the whole world. This is what they had been expecting (Psalm 2, 110; Zechariah 9-14, etc.). The Gospels tell a story that parallels Augustus’ royal history (whether intentionally or not). Augustus saw history as repeating itself cyclically, but progressively until it culminated in his imperial reign, which would be a reign of peace over all the world. Israel had also expected such a ruler and reign of peace, and Christians saw Jesus fulfilling this role, instead of Caesar. Luke, in Acts, has Paul going to Rome to declare Israel’s God as king. We also read of the centurion who, at the cross, recognizes Jesus (instead of Caesar) as Son of God, a title reserved in the Roman Empire for the emperor.
Biblical scholars have worked hard in the past to try to push away these ideas, but this is because their underlying assumptions are flawed. Rudolph Bultmann, for example, is often hailed as an especially objective commentator. However, he was admittedly biased, influenced by the events surrounding WWII and its effects on thinking in Germany. Bultmann projected onto early Christian communities an abhorrence of empire/kingdom/nationalistic thinking, arguing that these communities told stories of Jesus to help their own communities with their various needs, with no thought of any political kingdom. Hans Frei rightly complained that the biblical “narrative” has become eclipsed in our study of biblical literature.
The historical timeline that we have come to accept for the Christian era is that it had a good beginning, a dark middle, and then a burst of light that redeemed it (Reformation/Enlightenment). Any idea of continuity in the historical narrative is rejected. This is due to Protestant influence.  In a related way, the idea of continuous narrative throughout the whole of the Bible has been shunned. Westerners follow an Epicurean philosophy — that God is removed, far from the created world, and that there is little divine influence at work here. The field of biblical studies was born into this societal paradigm. We are Epicureans by default. In this world, the Enlightenment can’t be challenged — and this is a poor framework for attempting to understand the Bible.
We need to be able to get inside the heads of people that lived in biblical times. Epicureans simply cannot understand Judaism and Christianity. Protestant society moved away from Jewish traditions and way of thinking, emphasizing the separation of Church and secular life — not the proper framework needed to understand the world of the early Christians. The Enlightenment perspective imagines the biblical stories as relating the invasion of the supernatural into the natural, but this is the wrong paradigm. This perspective has lead to the dichotomy between the liberal view of the “historical Jesus” as opposed to the conservative “divine Jesus”, but these views are not appropriate to the time.
There is a radical difference between the ancient Jewish and Epicurean worldviews. For Jews, God was present in the world. His departure from the temple was temporary — he would return to be constantly present.
Biblical scholarship has made all the wrong categories. Lutherans, apart from all their great contributions, have traditionally held to a “two kingdoms” view — the worldly kingdom of Rome verses the heavenly kingdom of God. Caesar and Jesus simply don’t mix. The kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with kingdoms of the earth. Therefore, Paul, for example, can not be seen as having viewed Jesus as the Messiah the Jews expected (royal messiah/world ruler).
The problem is one of the left brain overcoming right brain thinking in biblical studies. The left brain deals with analyzing, calculating, organizing. The right brain deals with imagination, story-telling, and intuitive thinking. The way the brain is supposed to work is that the left brain is supposed to gather the information, analyze it, and then turn it over to the right brain to make sense of it. The right brain is supposed to be the master. However, in today’s society, we see see an emphasis on left brain thinking to the exclusion of the right brain’s duties. Because of this, we see a loss of the broader picture, the coherent overview, and a substitution of information gathering for real knowledge.
It becomes clear that this has happened to our institutions today, including the field of biblical studies. We see a strong tendency towards the microscopic analysis of details, but the facts are only part of the whole. A return to the  use of metaphor, imagination, and narrative is needed. This is what the Gospels give us. For our students, it is too easy today to do a left-brain doctorate. We need studies that involve both the left and right sides of the brain.
We have assumed that Christianity felt that it had to jettison Judaism. But Paul did believe in the Jewish messianic expectations. He didn’t drop the idea of God’s divine plan for Israel, but emphasized that all nations would be subject to Israel’s God. The communities in which Paul taught didn’t use the same symbols that were characteristic of Judaism, so he had to find a way to communicate Israel’s God to all people. He had to develop a strong Christian theology, a creative leap from pagan traditions and Jewish nationalism (based on temple, law, land).
The Gospels show us God’s way of doing “power.” The purpose of telling the story of Jesus was not mere historical anecdotage or faith promotion, but to show how Jesus set up the Kingdom of God on earth.
The left brain gives us details, facts, but not meaning. One of the reasons Wright was excited to come to St Andrews is because the right brain, the imagination, is taken seriously here in relation to the study of Theology. Wright wants to help move the field of biblical studies forward in this direction.
The Gospels are central to the mission of Christianity, and that mission is central to Christian action. The vision of the Gospels should guide our actions and help determine what impact Christianity has on the world today. 

8 thoughts on “Insights from N.T. Wright’s Inaugural Lecture: Left-Brain Epicurean Thinking Dominates Biblical Studies

  1. I am a great admirer of Wright. Let me throw out an idea that may be completly off the wall.

    How do Joesph Smith’s ideas about the political kingdom of God, the council of 50 and all that compare to what Wright sees as Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom of God??

    Maybe we will be better able to answer that question when and if the minutes of the council of 50 are released through the joseph Smith Paper’s project.

  2. John,

    You know, the exact same thing went through my mind as I was listening to the lecture.

    I am not sure of the full answer to that question, but I believe Wright sees what Jesus was doing during his ministry as literally setting up the Kingdom of God on Earth with his church as the organization.

    Exactly what would be the interaction between God’s kingdom and kingdoms like that of Rome, in Wright’s opinion, is not so clear to me. I’ll have to read more of his material!

  3. I have a ton of respect for Wright but his comments (as you report them above) about Epicurean thinking and left brain vs right brain stuff needs to deal seriously with Lucretius as both brilliant poet (I will take de rerum natura over the Aeneid any day) and a lucid philosophical thinker. To use Epicurean thought as a slur and as coded language to dismiss the liberal academy is pretty lame and hackneyed–Christian apologists of the 2nd century were already formulating something similar (and of course they were just recycling anti-Epicurean polemics from the previous 500 years).

    Or perhaps Wright is just pushing back against all the very recent love that Lucretius and Epicureanism are getting from Stephen Greenblatt–nothing says liberal academic like essays in The New Yorker and pieces on NPR.

  4. David,

    I have been writing about Karen Armstrong elsewhere. I have only gotten through the parts I disagree with. But actually, she says many things I can appreciate.

    One of her ideas that I do agree with is the idea that we need to see religion and the Gospel in a less literal way.

    My disagreement with Armstrong is that she then seems to plow right into a fully non-literal approach to religion, which I think is the same mistake in reverse.

    I perfer the Mormon doctrinal approach to religion, that God gives us what we are prepared for and line upon line and precept on precept.

    For example, God will tell us about Eternal Heaven and Hell, and well imagine it a certain way. Only later, when we are ready for it, does it explain that it was all literally true, but more complicated than what we imagined, so (for example) Eternal is a name for God and Hell is really a state of being. And then later he’ll tell us about degrees of glory, etc.

    The original concept of heaven and hell was neither fully literal nor ‘only metaphoric and symbolic.’

    This is how religion ultimately really works: it’s both literal and symbolic. It becomes more literal as more is revealed. The end result will be all literal, of course. But it will be different (but better) than what we imagined.

    I wrote some about this concept in this post.

  5. David, good to have you blogging once in a while again.

    I find that we tend to have a problem with something similar to this in the Church. We tend to over-apply Nephi’s concept of “likening” the scriptures to ourselves. In doing so, we miss the ancient concepts behind them, and end up losing key symbolism, concepts, teachings, and perhaps the very power behind the teachings in the scriptures. As you know, that is one of the main things I try to overcome in my blogging the Gospel Doctrine class through the eyes of the ancients themselves.

    In the past, you and I have discussed Melchizedek as the Malchi (King) of Salem (Peace) and Zedek (Righteousness). Noting the teachings in the Bible (including the JST), and ancient pseudepigrapha, we had interesting discussions of Melchizedek being El/Yahweh. Such a concept is strange to most Christians (and many Mormons), but fits in perfectly with the ancient Jewish concepts of the Great Angel/Messiah, and also the ancient view of Christianity’s Jesus, as described by NT Wright, Margaret Barker, and others.

    Hopefully, with the help of great, open-minded and thorough scholars like NT Wright, we may help Christians get to the real root and power behind the real Jesus and the Kingdom of God here on earth, when man will return into the presence of the Lord.

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