Baker Academic

Monday, December 16, 2013

Richard Burridge and Jesus: The Burridge Fest 2013--Chris Keith

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I spent most the day last Friday in the beautiful chapel of King's College, London sitting next to Chris Tilling and my PhD student, David Smith, for a special day honoring the work of Rev. Prof. Richard Burridge upon his winning of the Ratzinger Prize from the Vatican.  Burridge is the first non-Catholic to win the prize, so it was quite the accomplishment.  We at the Jesus Blog tip our caps to Rev. Prof. Burridge.

The day broke into four basic sections.  First, Steve Walton and Andrew Lincoln discussed Burridge's seminal What are the Gospels? (Eerdmans new rev. ed., 2004).  Second, Francis Watson and Loveday Alexander discussed Burridge's popular-level textbook Four Gospels, One Jesus? (SPCK Classic ed., 2013), though Alexander also addressed at length his popular-level commentary John (Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998).  Third, David Horrell and Jan van der Watt discussed Burridge's Imitating Jesus (Eerdmans, 2007), which was shortlisted for the Ramsey Prize in 2009.  Fourth, Rev. Prof. Burridge was finally allowed to respond to the discussion of his work after being silent almost all day!

There were several themes that kept coming up throughout the day.  One was Burridge's commitment to making scholarship accessible to the average reader, particularly the average Christian reader.  This included both his publications and his work as a clergyman.  The second big theme was the impact of Burridge's What are the Gospels?, which was originally his PhD thesis at Nottingham.  The discussion surrounding this work was one of the three highlights of the day for me.  Steve Walton (now my colleague at St Mary's University College!!) did a great job of setting the background for Burridge's contribution in the first paper of the day.  Some readers of the blog might not be aware of this background, so it would be useful to offer some brief comments.  In short, if you've ever read an introduction to the Gospels or an introduction to the NT or a commentary on one of the Gospels in the past twenty or so years that said something like, "Scholars now think that the Gospels are a form of ancient biography," you are reading the direct impact of this book.  Prior to Burridge, scholars still tended to see the Gospels as a sui generis, and a not-too-high-cultured one at that.  This assessment was a result of form criticism, which identified the Gospels as Kleinliteratur instead of Hochliteratur, and also identified them as primarily reflections of the communities in which they circulated, not Jesus himself.  This opinion was as "consensus" as anything could have been at the time, and Burridge effectively demolished it and persuasively made the case that the Gospels may be innovative in many respects, but they are a form of ancient bioi ("lives"; i.e., biography) and thus--lo and behold--primarily about Jesus.  It's the type of contribution that every PhD student thinks he or she will make upon admission and only about 1% ever do make.  This isn't to say that everyone agrees with Burridge, but his is the prevailing opinion now; no doubt about that.  As a side note, if you're wondering, "You mean to tell me that NT scholarship is so messed up that it took a groundbreaking, painstakingly-detailed PhD thesis in order to convince scholars that the Gospels are about Jesus?" the answer is, "Well, yes, except that some still aren't convinced."

The second highlight of the day for me was Francis Watson's presentation on Burridge's Four Gospels, One Jesus?  He compared Burridge's book to Wright's Simply Jesus and seemed to favor the former.  Watson highlights that, for Burridge, if readers want to understand "Jesus," they must access the one Jesus through the pluriformity of the fourfold canon; i.e., "Jesus" is found in those four portraits of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In contrast, for Wright, if readers want to understand "Jesus," they must access the historical Jesus in his sociohistorical context; i.e., "Jesus" is the historical Jesus behind the Gospels.  Anyone who has read Watson's recent tome Gospel Writing will not be surprised by this argument, though it would be interesting to hear Wright's response.  Watson clarified that he is indeed interested in the historical Jesus and finds that scholarship significant, but that for NT and early Christian Christology, we must start with the pluriform image of Jesus in the four Gospels, not the historical Jesus.  In this context, he mentioned that Burridge started Imitating Jesus with the historical Jesus.  He said no more, but in the questions, Andrew Lincoln pushed him and asked him whether he considered Burridge's appeal to the historical Jesus in the later text to be a step backward from his approach in Four Gospels, One Jesus?  Watson acknowledged that he did.

Of course, this discussion was interesting to me because it concerned the role of the historical Jesus in Christological and theological discussion.  I was very disappointed to miss the final session when Burridge responded.  Perhaps we can talk him into a comment here on this post!

In light of "memory" being such a hot topic on this blog of late, I should probably add that I think that many of Burridge's original arguments against the form critics prefigured some of the arguments that other scholars eventually made on the basis of media and memory studies.  What Burridge primarily argued against was this idea that Gospels being influenced by their local contexts (which he never denies and, in fact, assumes) meant that they were simply mirrors of those contexts with no concern for the past of Jesus.  I think he's right about this and later research has buttressed his original work on the genre of the Gospels.

The third highlight of the day for me was hearing Jan van der Watt, a well-known South African Johannine scholar who now works in the Netherlands, speak about Burridge's role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.  I had no idea that Burridge played such an important role in moderating and contributing to those discussions.  These filtered into his final chapter in Imitating Jesus, which deals specifically with apartheid.  Clearly, Burridge is not someone who could be accused of never leaving the ivory tower.

As you can tell, there was much to consider in the day, and there were many excellent NT scholars there to partake in the festivities.  In light of the influence of What are the Gospels? I thought it might be interesting to hear from some of the readers of the blog about when they first encountered the book.  I'm pretty sure I first read it during MA/MDiv coursework.

UPDATE (Dec. 17): Chris Tilling gives his summary and some further thoughts at Chrisendom.


  1. Are you going to Tweet this post? I'd love to retweet it!

    1. I just did from @chriskeith7. I'll see if I can get Anthony to tweet it from the blog account. I can't remember the password for that one!!