The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright
“Show your work, Tom!”
N.T. Wright has written many popular level books. For a new reader, many of his ideas are very different, and use lines of thought that are completely foreign. Many of them are intriguing, but very often the reader is left saying “that was interesting, but I don’t quite see how he got there.” Or as a 3rd grade math teacher would say, “Show your work, Tom!” In the Christian Origins series, Wright shows his work, and it is rigorous and worldview shaping.
NTPG is the introductory book 1 of a 5 part series: 2. Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of God/ The Resurrection of the Son of God), 3. Paul (Paul and the Faithfulness of God), 4. The Gospels (forthcoming), and 5. Conclusion. In NTPG Wright lays the groundwork for the rest of the series methodologically, philosophically, historically, and theologically. He hints at how the rest will follow, but only offers the briefest of sketches of his later books.
After an Introduction, the second section explores his epistemology – “critical realism” and makes the case for coming at the New Testament material with the integrated lenses of Literature, History, and Theology, rather than an isolated and fragmented “specialist” perspective. This was the most rigorous philosophy I’ve read in awhile, but it gives direction to his project, and was enjoyable to read as only Wright can be.
The meat of the book is found in part 3, “1st Century Judaism within the Greco-Roman World.” He reconstructs the history from 587 BC to 135 AD within which the various strands of “Judaisms” developed. This time period came alive to me while reading this. The revolutions, the various sects, the would-be messiahs. I felt like I was breathing the cultural air that was swirling when Jesus came. This was incredibly helpful.
Wright takes it much deeper though, and this is where your entire paradigm is in danger. He uses Israel’s stories, symbols, and praxis to reconstruct a basic worldview, and then delves deeply into Israel’s beliefs in the climax of this section “The Hope of Israel.” Understanding the worldview, beliefs and hope of a 1st century Jew has opened up the entire Bible in ways I never understood before. Wright knows the Old Testament intimately, a well as the later developments showcased in the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and other literature of the period. It takes effort to work through these sections, but the result is a big picture grasp of the whole Bible in which the various parts fit coherently, not bits and pieces tacked awkwardly together.
It is within this historical and theological setting that Jesus comes, lives dies and rises, and the christian church is born. When set against that backdrop the New Testament explodes with significance. I am devouring my Bible with more enthusiasm than I have had in quite a while.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the big picture of the Bible. If you have read the Bible enough times to be familiar with all of its parts and have wrestled with various hermeneutical structures (covenant theology, dispensationalism, all the inbetweens) this book will do wonders for you. The pieces that never quite fit quite right will fall into place. Even the guys who disagree vehemently with specific details or implications (think “justification”) praise Wright for his big picture of the Bible. This is the book that starts it all off.
I recommend plowing straight through, even the difficult sections. Don’t bother with the footnotes – they will still be there the second time around. It will take multiple readings to fully digest all the details and then the implications of Wright’s picture, but it is envigorating and delightful.