N.T. Wright – The Challenge of Jesus

The Challenge of Jesus
Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is

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).

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  • thanks tim, again. i’m checking it out, and am always hungry for more viewpoints, more ideas more concepts for me to deal with…good stuff!

    a young hungry mind/soul

  • What a great book! For me this book was more about discovering who Jesus was and is instead of rediscovering. There are so many paths that I could head down but one of the things that Wright impressed upon me was the human element of Jesus. So often we focus only on his divinity and messiahship that we forget he was human. Wright questions why we don’t think of Jesus as a highly gifted, reflective and creative theologian. That question alone will keep me thinking for a few days.

  • Hey Scott,

    Have you listened to those podcasts yet? They were really great for me in terms of reviewing the book and letting N.T. sort of highlight the larger themes. Glad you read it.

    I’m blown away by the New Exodus theme in Wright. I know this is sort of his thing that he’s pushing in his new theology but it is really interesting how much of that theme would have been perceived by the 1st century church, who would’ve been the orignial audience for the gospels. Because we do not think like 1st century Jews, we have a hard time realizing much of the symbolism present in the actions of Jesus. It’s really fun to begin to perceive these things at a much deeper level.


  • Tim,
    I just finished listening to the podcasts and haven’t had a chance to review the notes I took. The New Exodus theme in the book really had me thinking quite a bit too. I was trying to relate the message to current 21st century western Christianity. I’m wondering if it is metaphorical for our time. We are living in personal an corporate exile from the God. The exodus for us is following Christ. Whether we wander for 40 years or not, by following Jesus we end up in the promised land. I know it is a bit simplistic but it is the first bite at the apple.

  • Hey Scott,

    I’m not an expert on N.T. Wright’s approach, but here’s my take. It seems to me that he’s saying that one of the major themes in all 4 gospels and in Paul is this idea that part of the vocation of Jesus was to reconstitute the people of God – form a new Israel that we call the church of Christ or the New Community. Israel had failed to be the people of God for the world and was heading down the path of a violent clash with the Roman Empire. Jesus proclaimed a new way of bringing about the Kingdom of God but the Hebrew people would ultimately reject that way and kill Jesus.

    Wright says that we can understand that Jesus actually did bring about a new exodus and, in fact, the early church was this “newly constituted people of God.” The vocation of the new community would be that they would now be “God’s people for the world,” in place of Israel. Israel went on to fight and lose violent revolution against Rome and in AD 70 the Temple was destroyed.

    What I was not aware of previously is that the nature of much of the new testament language is exodus language picked up from the Old Testament. One of the major critiques of Wright is that he makes too much of the “new exodus” theme. I think it’s pretty convincing.

    I’m not sure what I think about the 21st century church being in exile. I think what Wright would contend is that we are actually living in the time of the New Exodus. Fleshing that out is a serious task which is the current task of the church.

    If you are interested in it. I know that Rob Bell’s church up in Grand Rapids was doing a series earlier this year on the New Exodus. I’ve not had time to listen to it, but I think I will try and listen at some point. Rob Bell is a pretty serious practical theologian and pastor and they have a couple of really great minds on their staff who help with theological/biblical scholarship. You’ll probably have to poke around to find the messages.

  • Tim,
    I’m curious, when you say WE are living in the time of the New Exodus to whom you are referring to? I agree with your assessment that we are currently living in it now butI may be incorrect as to my understanding of who WE are. Along with that question would you say that 21st century Israel is still in exile?

  • Hey Scott. thanks for the post. The “we” in my comments refers to the new testament church, the church universal. Does that make sense? As far as Israel being in exile currently here’s how i view it right now (i’m not sure i’m right on this one, though).

    I think the gospel writers all proclaim that Jesus came to end all of the distinctions such as Jew/Gentile which create divisions and keep many people from being able to worship God.

    Part of why Jesus judged the 1st century Jewish leadership was precisely because they were not willing to be God’s people to the world but held a posture of exclusion.

    Think of Jesus as he curses the temple. The part of the Temple he was in when he kicked out the money changers was the “Court of the Gentiles.” It was the only part of the Temple where the Gentiles could come to worship YHWH. In other words, this was the place where the Hebrew people could BEST be God’s people to the world. If YHWH’s presence was in the holy of holies, then this was as close as the Gentiles and the rest of the world could get to God. The leadership had filled this court with commerce and usery and now the Gentiles had no way to approach God.

    Because of that attitude, Jesus came with a whole new way and changed everything. Now there will be no exile for those who area part of the body of Christ.

    I’m not sure if that means exile is a good metaphor for lostness, though sin is often referred to as “bondage” which is an exilic term.

    hope that helps to clarify.

  • Tim,
    I also enjoyed the times when Wright discussed some of his views on ‘Kingdom of God’. I’ve done some reading on this topic and was wondering if you might have a good source for further reading.


  • ‘Christ died a failed Messiah by most Jewish conceptions.’

    What about the conceptions of the people he had spent 3 years teaching? Did Jesus manage to break through the conceptions of the people who had thrown up everything to follow him?

  • Hey Scott,

    Thanks for the post. I think the answer is “yes” he was able to get through to his disciples – though clearly not right away, (see the story of the road to Emmaus and Mark 16:8). But I think to focus on that misses the point Wright is making.

    Wright is saying that Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees and especially the Sadducees, Jewish council who condemned him and the chief priests (Sadducees as well), was about the WAY the Kingdom of God would come. Their agenda was either to get in bed with the Romans and see if they could gain measures of independance, fight them in a head-to-head war, or to become so holy by observin the law to the tee that God would once again bless Israel. Jesus took exception with those approaches. His agenda was to see the kingdom come through a radical new community of believers. Jesus told them their way was doomed, and history played out that way (the temple was destroyed in a war with the Romans in AD 70 and any Jewish influence in the Roman Empire was essentially gone).

    But I would defend Wright’s comment you quoted…Jesus was considered a failed messiah by the Jews, and though many Jews came to faith – the fact is most did not. It was not that long until Steven (a Gentile) was stoned and most of the Christians (Jewish and Gentile alike) in Jerusalem took off for the Diaspora. There they began ministry in earnest with the Gentiles (see the Apostle Paul), and that was where the real growth in the Church was. In fact the consensus among historians is that Jewish Christianity had disappeared by 400-500 AD. At that point Christianity was a totally Gentile church.

    I think this brings up a really good issue. There is a common conception in American Christianity that Jesus clashed with the Pharisees because they were “white-washed tombs,” – they were hypocrites. The word Pharisee is synonymous with hypocrite in our vernacular. There are two things about this reality which seem important to me.

    1. Our word hypocrite is not really a great translation of what Jesus was calling them when he called the religious elite hypocrites. Transliterated it is “hupokrites” which does not mean that your actions are not in line with your intentions (as is our common understanding), but it means that God has a particular standard which your practices move against. When he deals with the Pharisees one generally doesn’t know if their intent is good, it’s not really explored. Intent doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus. Jesus is concerned with actions, doing something with ones whole pattern of activity. Their actions (whether violent revolution or outward holiness) moved against the standard Jesus preached.

    2. Though they were called hypocrites, I think Wright is correct to say that Jesus’ major issue with the religious elite was their stubborn adherence to their way of bringing about the Kingdom of God – not the fact that they were only cleaning the outside.

    Wright does a masterful job of explaining those two points as well as the history around the conflict and I think he’s got some important insight.