Walter Wink died on May 10. The New York Times called him “an influential liberal theologian whose views on homosexuality, nonviolence and the nature of Jesus challenged orthodox interpretations.” He was Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. He wrote a number of books, some of which won awards. He also wrote the foreword for my book The Lost Religion of Jesus, which is his main connection to my life.
Walter Wink was someone who saw the connection between Christianity and real life. An article he wrote for “The Fourth R” describes his life perhaps better than the New York Times obituary. Here is someone who takes his life’s work seriously, seeks to connect scholarship to the real world, and sought to push scholars in that direction, as a lot of people would likely tell you.
What is likely less well known is that he also realized that Jewish Christianity and the Ebionites posed a fundamental problem for historical Jesus scholarship, and sought to connect that to the real world. In trying to get Lost Religion published, I had sent requests to look at my manuscript to a wide variety of scholars (various “Jesus Seminar” type scholars, mostly), with few results from the scholarly world. I approached him mostly on the strength of his ideas on nonviolence, because I do discuss pacifism in connection with the historical Jesus. He read the manuscript and quickly wrote a foreword.
It turned out that, completely unknown to me, he had read, studied, and taught Jewish Christianity in some of his classes. He knew exactly what I was writing about. He was familiar with Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Epiphanius, the Recognitions and Homilies, and all the basic evidence pertaining to Jewish Christianity. (This puts him ahead of about 99% of all scholarship on the historical Jesus.) He said he had intended to someday write a book on the subject, but never got around to it, and was glad that I had finished the task he had once set himself.
I met Walter Wink in person only once, in 2002, at a United Church of Christ conference in Greeley, Colorado. I heard him speak and we had lunch together. He was, alas, not a vegetarian, which I discovered during that lunch. That he wasn’t a vegetarian was good news and bad news for me. The good news was that it demonstrated clearly that the interest in Jewish Christianity was not just a case of vegetarians looking at the historical Jesus evidence and seeing their own reflection. In retrospect, perhaps I should have pushed him a bit harder on this issue, finding out why he wasn’t a vegetarian, but he was a busy guy and seemed already to be aware of the basic issues.
Instead, I asked him what his involvement with the church was, sort of probing to find out if there was a group somewhere that wanted to “shake up” the church, since “shaking up” the church seemed to be one of those tasks which seems on the face of it so easy, since they are so set in their ways, yet no one ever actually got around to doing it. But he said that he was just going around giving workshops, as he was doing that day. There was no great movement, not even a decent conspiracy, to revolutionize Christianity. Too bad.
Actually, there was quite a bit of history behind this lack of a movement. He famously got into trouble in the early 1970’s when in one of his early books he said, “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.” One of the reasons he gives for this bankruptcy is that “Biblical criticism became cut off from any community for whose life its results might be significant.” I don’t see how anyone could really find this conclusion offensive, or even argue with it, whether in 1973 or today. It’s even more difficult to imagine how anyone could possibly get into trouble saying something like this. But evidently he was denied tenure at Union Theological Seminary largely because of sentiment against him on this issue.
Perhaps it was my mistake to ever take historical Jesus scholars quite so seriously.
I’ll let him have the last word, some excerpts from his Foreword to The Lost Religion of Jesus :
Karl Popper reminds us that what we learned in school was not “world history” but the history of power politics. But this is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder, in which some of the greatest criminals are extolled as heroes. . . . These “Jewish Christians” lost, having been successively shattered by the War of Jerusalem, the Bar Cochba revolt, and persecution by both Jewish authorities and gentile Christians. What Popper suggests is that the losers may deserve more serious consideration than the winners. That the keepers of the tradition may have been more faithful than the accommodators to Roman society. That the revelation given by Jesus was not otherworldly or mythological, but an uncompromising ethical demand that asked everything of those who followed.