I just finished the longest book I’ve read since college: The New Testament and the People of God (I’ll call it NTPG) by N. T. Wright, one of my favorite theologians and scholars. Wright is a former Anglican bishop (now retired) who is generally associated with more conservative views on the New Testament, Jesus, and Paul. About two years ago I decided that I was going to read everything that Wright published. His writing is balanced, well organized, and highly challenging for me. NTPG is the 500 page opener of his massive series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Here’s a (hopefully) quick summary:
“So as to be understood, read within appropriate contexts, within an acoustic which will allow its full overtones to be heard. It must be read with as little distortion as possible, and with as much sensitivity as possible to its different levels of meaning. It must be read as stories, and the Story, which it tells can be hard as stories, not as rambling ways of declaring unstoried ‘ideas.’ It must be read without the assumption that we already know what it is going to say, and without the arrogance that assumes that ‘we’–whichever group that might be–already have ancestral rights over this or that passage, book, or writer.” (6)
The stated purpose of Wright’s first volume, therefore, is to suggest a reading of the New Testament that does justice to these demands.
In Part Two, Wright goes on to criticize contemporary readings of the New Testament which usually fall into the positivist (seeking to find the ‘true’ or ‘real’ meaning of the text and assuming it exists), and phenomenalist/deconstructionist (no real meaning actually exists). Wright instead argues for a critical-realist reading that takes into perspective of the reader, but also assumes that there are texts different from the reader which have meanings both potentially independent of their author and potentially independent of their reader.
Wright then builds a case for an epistemology and how a critical-realist reading of the New Testament that affects three areas: literature, history, and theology. He argues for a narrative approach in these three areas, and then proceeds to outline the setting and story (from the Babylonian exile to the reconstruction of Judaism following the Jewish War of 70AD) of Jews in second-temple Judaism, showing how in order to understand the NT, we have to understand the mindset of Jews that lived in the first-century in terms of what kind of stories were they telling.
Part Three is a summary portrait of first-century Judaism in the Roman world. After a chapter outlining the vast varieties of Jewish diversity, Wright outlines the common points on which most Jews agreed in story, symbol, and praxis (behaviors). He then goes on to outline specific Jewish beliefs of the time period relating to monotheism, election, covenant, and eschatology. Jewish monotheism was creational (meaning they believed God created the world), covenantal (meaning they believed that God had entered into covenant with his people), and providential (believed that God would fulfill his promises). From there, Wright visits the same areas related to early Christians, what they’re worldview was, and what the stories they were telling were all about. He then writes of Israel’s hope, or eschatology, claiming that God was working to bring His people Israel out of exile and to restore them to their rightful place and establish His kingdom in the world. The Jews believed that heaven was not somewhere you go when you die, but rather than God was going to become King once again and they as a people group would be re-established, and that the world would be made right.
Finally Part Four attempts to dissect the early Christian mindset, at once both similar and distinct to first-century Judaism. Wright believes the Gospel writers all are attempting to write both histories that appeal to commend themselves to the wider Hellenized audience as ‘history,’ but also as direct attempts to show how in Jesus God had acted decisively in human history and that in Jesus God was establishing His kingdom on earth, albeit in a way Israel didn’t expect. Thus, another major role of the early Christian story-tellers was to show how Jesus was a direct continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel, the story of how God became King. It is only when we read the Christian stories including the Gospels and Paul in light of the bigger Israel story can we fully appreciate and understand the early Christian message.
The book was exceptional but daunting, to say the least. It also uniquely challenged and exposed me to several sources (Jewish apocalyptic and apocraphic writings) that I hadn’t read before. It gave me a lot of context for revisiting the story of Jesus in a new light. While some of Wright’s arguements remain unconvincing for me, I generally agree with his critical-realist approach, as well as his emphasis on ‘story’ and ‘worldview.’
For most this book will be boring and irrelevant, but if you are a history/theology nerd (like me), if you’ve got a lot of free time, or are a hopeless insomniac (like me), feel free to give this book a shot, but make sure you have a pocket dictionary for biblical studies or something. I found myself having to look up a lot of words and concepts I’ve forgotten since college. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to brave Wright’s complex case that he lays out, it will enrich your understanding of how to read the New Testament and what its original world was like immensely.
Looking forward to the next volume on Jesus called Jesus and the Victory of God.