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The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God Hardcover – January 1, 1992
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The New Testament and the People of God introduces a grand multi-volume project carrying the overall title, Christian Origins and the Question of God; but it can stand on its own as a work worthy of close examination. Author N. T. Wright, theologian, historian and at one time Bishop of Durham, mentions here and there that he could not go into full detail in a book of this scope, yet the study is surprisingly thorough in setting the stage for the following volumes. Looking forward, he explains the need to apply three disciplines in the study of the NT: literary, historical and theological, which he seeks to integrate, even as he recognizes that one or another may be the main applicable discipline, supplemented by the other two. Thus, “In a sense, the study of Jesus is first and foremost a matter of history, needing careful ancillary use of literary study of the texts and theological study of the implications.” Or, “the study of Paul is a matter of theology, needing careful ancillary historical and literary work.” And, “studying the gospels in their own right is first and foremost a literary task, but it cannot be done without careful attention to the historical and theological setting, context and implications.”
Before going into the core of the book, the parts dealing respectively with first-century Judaism and the first Christian century, readers would do well to heed Wright’s advice in the preceding section: “Those who are eager to get on with what they see as the real business are, of course, welcome to skip this section, but they must not mind if by doing so they run into puzzles at a later stage.” Here he discusses: the variety and problems of knowledge and his adoption of critical realism as his favored approach; the crucial role of stories as an expression of the all-important worldviews of communities -- worldview being the lens through which people perceive reality; the analysis of narratives (following the work of Griemas); the interplay within worldviews of stories, cultural symbols, social conventions and practice, and the answers to existential questions (who are we, where are we, what is wrong, what is the solution?); the impossibility of “mere history”, all history being interpreted history; and the interrelation of worldview and theology, as he argues that “worldviews are in fact, from one point of view, profoundly *theological*” (author's emphasis). I have selectively gleaned these highlights from more than a hundred packed pages that aim to arm the careful reader with the necessary background for an intelligent reading of the rest of the book.
In the next and longest part of the book, we see all these ideas and elements at play, as the author sketches the history of Israel from the Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, describes the diverse outlooks of first-century Judaism within the Greco-Roman world, and writes with considerable detail of Israel’s beliefs and hopes. He starts by asserting the necessity of the task: “To understand the origins of Christianity, and the terms in which the question of god was posed and answered within it … we must gain as accurate an understanding as possible of the Judaism(s) in which Jesus and Paul grew up, and to which they related in various ways during their active ministries.” As he tells it, worldview takes center stage. First-century Judaism’s main feature was a worldview that encompassed all aspects of reality, with a focus on expectations longed for but not yet realized. As in some of his other publications, Wright insists that most Jews of the period thought of themselves as still being in a state of exile, since the hopeful promises of the prophets had not been realized, and they still bore the brunt of foreign rulers and their surrogates: theirs was a story awaiting completion. (This view has not gone unchallenged by other scholars; the author himself acknowledges early in the book that some of his conclusions may well be provisional or controversial.) He goes over the centrality of scripture as the mainstay of Judaism’s worldview; Israel’s major beliefs of monotheism, election and covenant; and Israel’s hope of complete restoration, the kingship of their god, the renewal of everything, and the age to come. Early Christians shared with Jews the same biblical story; and it is here, Wright suggests, that fundamental continuity is to be sought. But the denouement was different. While Jews waited in expectation for the covenant god’s great act of liberation, Christians avowed that in the event of Jesus this same god had already done that -- though here I have run a bit ahead of the author’s ordered presentation.
Wright thinks that Christianity spread because “early Christians believed that what they found to be true was true for the whole world. The impetus to mission sprang from the very heart of Christian conviction.” Appropriately, then, the opening chapter of his reading of the first Christian century carries the title, The Quest for the Kerygmatic Church. But the quest was and remains problematic because of the paucity of ancient sources and other materials bearing on the subject. The author considers that much of the attempts to write a history of early Christianity using the accepted methods has been speculative or based on false assumptions. He resorts, instead, to studying the elements of the early Christian worldview, which he believes would yield clear impressions and some preliminary conclusions about the movement. His discussion of the praxis and symbols of the community, of questions asked and answered, and of stories told, all as expressions of this worldview, stretches over three chapters. A fifth chapter presents a preliminary sketch of early Christianity. It is impossible to go into the details here (as it is indeed the case for the other parts of the review). What emerges is a Christianity born of the first-century Jewish milieu and expectations -- yet the transformation in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection was radical. The Jewish symbols, which Wright had discussed in the preceding section of the book, provide an example: Temple was now spoken of metaphorically; Torah was reinterpreted to show that through the story of Israel the one god had prepared for the coming of Christ; instead of Land, it was now the whole world; and the Jews' national self-understanding, that they were uniquely the people of the covenant god, became a matter of Jew and Gentile being one in Christ. Such a challenge to the Jewish symbolic world was bound to trigger a response that went as far as the persecution of early Christians. Wright comments: “Once we understand how worldviews function, we can see that the Jewish neighbours of early Christians must have regarded them, not as a lover of Monet regards a lover of Picasso, but as a lover of painting regards one who deliberately sets fire to art galleries -- and who claims to do so in the service of art.” We also get a quick view of the theology and hopes of early Christians, subjects that no doubt will be treated at length in the following volumes.
The concluding part of the book includes a brief discussion of Jesus, then the NT and its authority. But the crux of the chapter deals with the question of god, which brings us back to where this review started. This is not the end, of course, but the start of a great effort by a distinguished scholar to answer two unavoidable questions that he has put forth: “(1) How did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape that it did? and (2) What does Christianity believe, and does it make sense?” Of the ongoing project, volumes on Jesus, the Resurrection, and Paul have followed this one; yet to appear are a study of the gospels and a concluding volume that presumably would summarize and tie everything together.
Wright is possibly the most significant New Testament scholar of his generation, and whether or not you agree with him on everything, you should read everything he has written.
In this first work he tackles the issue of Christian origins and the New Testament.
The book is broken up into five parts.
I. An introduction to the issues and the task at hand.
II. Tools needed for the task – i.e. – how do we do history? Here Wright argues for what he calls a critical realism when it comes to looking at the study of history. Avoiding overly subjective post-modernist views as well as the post-enlightenment positivist nonsense. We can look at the text, while being aware of our own biases and influences, yet still come to sound conclusions about what the text means and what the authors originally intended.
III. 1st Century Judaism in the Greco-Roman World. I found this to be an extremely informative section as I had some large gaps in my knowledge about exactly what type of worldview Christianity came out of. While there were certainly variations within Jewish thought – Wright identifies a few foundational issues regarding Jewish stories, symbols and practice as well as three key points in their beliefs:
1. Creational monotheism – one God created all that there is. There are no other gods and hence, polytheism, henotheism and pantheism are all false.
2. Providential monotheism – God is intimately involved in His creation to include acting within history. Hence the idea deism doesn’t fly.
3. Covenantal monotheism – God has selected one special group of people to be His own that He will use to bring His creation back to its intended purpose and ultimately bless the whole world through them.
IV. The 1st Christian Century. Here Wright goes into great detail as to how the early Christians saw the world and it came entirely out of a Jewish perspective. He politely dismantles the lunacy that came out of the German higher critics like Bultmann, Bauer, Schweitzer and the rest of their ilk. Good riddance to them. The Gospels themselves are all in the form of Greco-Roman bioi adapted to tell Jewish History as coming to its fulfillment through the Person and Work of Jesus. The notion that there were two separate types of Christianity – one Jewish and one Hellenistic - is also demolished. The New Testament writers saw God fulfilling His promises to liberate Israel and bless the entire world as coming through Christ. Luke’s arrangement of his Gospel where John the Baptist prepares the way and baptizes Jesus as parallel to that of Samuel anointing David King.
V. Conclusion. Wright sums up this first volume by pointing out that 1st Century Jews looked forward to a great public event, the liberation of Israel and that in doing so God would reveal that He wasn’t just a god for the Jews, but rather that YHWH was the God of all Creation and that the ends of the earth would see that He had vindicated His people. The early Christians proclaimed that event is exactly what happened in the person of Jesus. But not in national liberation, but rather Jesus being vindicated by His Resurrection and the beginning of a new Nation – one made up of all people who owed their allegiance to the true King.
While this is not an easy or short read (500 pages) – it is something every serious student of the Bible should make time to work through. Highest possible recommendation.
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Having set himself up, Wright then proceeds to give a summary history of Judaic thought roughly from the time of Judas Maccabeus through the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He acknowledges that this is a summary rather than a detailed analysis and does provide plenty of references for the interested reader to follow-up on. At times, it is a bit dry and it took me a while to go through; I would readily admit to not being having taken it all in.
From here, Wright gives what is, in my opinion, the most fascinating chapter: an overview of Christianity from roughly A.D. 30 to A.D. 125. Wright acknowledges the difficulty in trying to study the history of the church given the scarcity over the contemporary sources, and their reliability (e.g. not trusting what Eusebius had to say without at least a pinch of salt).
In both his sections on Judaism and early Christianity, he looks at what they did (praxis), believed and hoped for. The reader should always be aware that this is an introduction, so Wright brushes on topics he intends to look at in much more detail later on. It serves as a useful appetiser and I can't wait to get going on Jesus and Victory of God.
There were points in it where I was not convinced by Wright's arguments, though these tended to be on comparatively minor areas. Overall, it is a work of immense integrity and scholarship. It will of interest to anyone who is interested in how historical and theological research is carried out by the best scholars in their field, to those who want to find out about the history and beliefs of the early Christians and the world in which they lived and will be of immense value to all who read it.