Whatever you may think of N.T. Wright, you have to respect the ambitious writing/thinking adventure he has undertaken from which he hopes to author 6 large volume works under the heading of Christian Origins and the Question of God.
- The New Testament and the People of God
- Jesus and the Victory of God
- The Resurrection of the Son of God
I think the next one is on Paul, but I’m not really sure. These are 5-700 page books. I’ve heard him say before that the reason they are so exhaustive is that he tries to deal with all of the anticipated objections to the ideas he puts forth, as he puts forth those ideas. He is dealing w/every exception that he can in order to force the academy to entertain his ideas instead of their objections to his ideas. He is nearly universally considered one of the brightest minds working in theology today. No matter what your background if you are working in New Testament theology you have to deal with N.T. Wright in some fashion.
I did not read one of these huge books, luckily Wright condenses these books into much simpler and shorter books which normal people like me can actually read and at least somewhat understand. The Challenge of Jesus is one such book. Wright is a Bishop in the Anglican Church; I think he’s in Durham. His primary field is Historical study but he’s a New Testament Theology guy as well. He is doing historical Jesus study and working from that to interpret scripture and rebuild some theologies which have been distorted over time because a lack of understanding of the world in which Jesus lived.
He starts with the idea that the typical Jewish person in the 1st century would understand Israel to still be in exile in their own land. 2nd Temple Judaism was concerned with this idea that there would be a Messiah who would come to lead them out of exile. Jesus came as a prophet of the new kingdom, first enacting it and then explaining it.
Wright explains that the typical Jewish person in the 1st century would understand Israel to still be in exile in their own land. Their self-conception was formed around two ideas “election” and “eschatology.” This simply means that God had chosen to reveal God’s self and work about God’s purposes in the world through Israel (election), and that God was bringing redemptive history to a great climax (eschatology). In this climax the Messiah would come to rebuild the Temple and fight a decisive battle against the enemy.
The end of exile will only come after a true confession of sins according the Old Testament. Christ becomes this true confession for Israel. Think of how many times Jesus forgives sins in the New Testament! Each of these cases preceding the actual sacrifice of Jesus. This idea somewhat flies in the face of those who insist God demands a blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus forgave sins as a matter of course – generally without the subject even asking for this! Wright works liberally with several of the parables, I can’t go into detail on these but suffice it to say that in most of these cases he demonstrates how the exile theme is present
Christ died a failed Messiah by most Jewish conceptions. (Messiah was not supposed to be divine in Jewish thought, nor did the terms Son of Man or Son of God connote divinity – son of man was probably just a term Jesus used for himself and as such shouldn’t even be in capital letters; Son of God is a Messianic term, not a term of divinity…remember these are strict monotheists). Jews were not expecting God in flesh.
Wright explains the parables in terms of a return from exile in such a way as to show that Jesus was actually reconstituting the people of God in a new community. He was acting out God’s rejection (think of the Temple scene from Mark) of Israel for her stubborn insistence to travel down the path of violent revolution or strict purity (i.e., the Zealots & Pharisees/Qumran). Instead Jesus would actually embody Israel and respond correctly as Messiah, and eventually be killed for it. In the life of Jesus and his parables, he enacts and explains the reality that God’s presence has left the Temple and is now mobile and actually living in Christ himself. The decisive battle would not be fought with violence, but with self-sacrifice.
When pressing in on the question of Jesus’ self-conception, (e.g., did Jesus know he was God?), Wright insists that the way the question is phrased forces you into categories of thought which can only obscure the truth. Instead of a straight up yes or no, he forces us to take a look at Jesus’ self-conception in terms of vocation. Wright says “He believed he had to do and be for Israel and the world what according to the scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.” He then expounds on that theme and says that our job as 21st century Christians is to do and be for our world was Jesus had done and been for Israel and the world.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of what all Wright covers in this great book. I highly recommend reading it. It’s not that dense of writing, you can just tell he’s trying not to use big words! If you don’t have the patience you can listen to four lectures he gives which basically cover all of the material. Go to this great N.T. Wright page and scroll down to the “Wright Audio/Video” heading. Listen to the first four lectures:
- Jesus and the Kingdom
- Jesus and the Cross
- Jesus and God
- Jesus and the World’s True Light
They are great summaries of the material and are way better than anything I’ve written here. I’m hoping you’ll listen to a couple if not all of these lectures because we can talk about the book even if all you’ve done is listen to these 4 short talks (I think they are all under 40 minutes).