Review: The New Testament and the People of God

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright512ffv6IEUL

“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 GodThe 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.

Review: The Challenge of Jesus

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is by N.T. Wright

51pF9ZA6D6L

The New Perspective on Jesus

I found this book for $1 at my local library’s quarterly book sale. (application: frequent your local library, and find out when they have book sales. You’re welcome.)

N.T. Wright is famous for his place in the “new perspective” on Paul. That’s really just one grove of trees in the fresh view of the forest that Wright presents. What Wright really does is show us the mind of a 1st century Jew. From there we see Jesus in his actual context, and Paul from there.

“What did Jesus mean by the kingdom of God? That and a thousand other cognate questions are far harder than often supposed, and the place to go to find new light is the history of Jesus’ own time. And that means first-century Judaism, in all of its complexity and with all the ambiguities of our attempts to reconstruct it.” (p. 25)

Wright is extremely well-versed in the literature of 1st century Judaism, but unlike many scholars today, he approaches his task with a belief in and reverence for Scripture. Where other scholars veer off due to their own disbelieving presuppositions, Wright does his scholarship as if the Bible were true, yet interacting with all of the rest and proving his case.

Wright is incredibly stimulating. He has helped to show more depths to Jesus the Messiah than I have ever seen before. He helps the big picture of Scripture come together in ways I have never seen before. I am reading my Bible with fresh eyes and an eager expectation to see more light from the text than I have before. I found myself reading sections of this book aloud to my wife, which doesn’t often happen.

I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s work. I would recommend anyone to start with The Challenge of Jesus. From there, What Saint Paul Really Said will finish your basic introduction, and you can begin delving into the thicker tomes (The New Testament and the People of God, etc.)

Review: What Saint Paul Really Said

What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? by N.T. Wright

51vdgcYB9SL

Read for Yourself!

I have a friend who is really into N.T. Wright. I decided I needed to get caught up and set him straight on a few things, so I printed out the bibliography from The Future of Justification and decided to start with one of the most referenced (and shorter) books, What Saint Paul Really Said. I had my nit-picking glasses on, and a pen in hand.

I didn’t get past the preface before making a note that Wright is, “quite engaging and very enjoyable to read.” All the more need to be careful, of course. Chapter 1 is a history of the last 100 years of Pauline scholarship, covering SchweitzerBultmannDaviesKasemann, and of course Sanders. At the end of this chapter, I felt like I was “all caught up” on the theological situation, had a good overview of 20th century New Testament studies, and a sense of a Wright’s “big picture” theological strategy.  I was also enjoying his writing style more and more. When people say that N.T. Wright is a master communicator, it’s true. His writing is simply a delight to read.

The next 8 chapters are Wright’s brief attempt to show Paul in light of his 1st century Jewish context. He covers Paul’s own Pharisaic background, his encounter on the Damascus road, what realizing Jesus is the Messiah would have done to Paul’s whole theological framework, what that means for pagans. Jews, justification, the future and The Gospel. The final chapter is a critical review of A.N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In the back is an excellent annotated bibliography, including all of the classic works on Paul, the New Perspective (as of 1997), and a good sampling of the classic reformation view of Paul.

My final analysis? I find Wright to be incredibly stimulating, and I find the 1st century context to be shedding fresh light on how I read the Bible and think about theology. There are depths to the message of Christ that are incredible, and in order to dig deeper, we must understand its own actual context, and not read our own (or our favorite theologian’s) back onto it. Wright helps us see the incredible forest, not just our favorite trees.

That said, I think Wright’s portrayal of the forest leaves a few bare patches, justification and imputation being a couple. I’m not ready to go all the way with him here, though I have been stimulated to think deeply again about these issues. There just isn’t space in such a short work to lay out all the groundwork that goes into Wright’s formulation of these doctrines — that’s what his larger books are for. For most, I don’t think this abbreviated treatment will be convincing, but I don’t think it warrants the shrill charges of “heresy” either. To understand Wright, you really need to read further than this.

Wright’s work can be divided into two categories, I think: His massive scholarly work, and his popularizations. This fits into the latter. If you want to understand Wright, I recommend reading the shorter popular works and getting a sense of his general themes before diving in over your head. I would personally recommend The Challenge of Jesus first, then What Saint Paul Really Said, and then dig into his larger works from there. After reading Wright, I am getting more fresh light from the Bible than I have in a long time. I am excited to read the Bible like I haven’t always been. I am seeing depths of who Jesus the Messiah Is that I’ve never seen before.

Don’t just read the reviews, critical or otherwise; read Wright, and see for yourself.