992 pages, $38.00 in hardback, plus DVD and Workbook. This is not the first time we’ve had a kind of NT Introduction from Tom Wright. But this one is clearly the largest, most comprehensive, and most attractively produced one (kudos to Zondervan. All the pages are printed on photo quality paper in the hardback edition). In this first post, we will have a dialogue with Michael Bird about the book, and his role in its emergence.
BEN: It would appear that this Intro is unlike any other one I’ve seen, as it seems to be a condensation of various previous Wright works, plus some additions and subtractions, and I gather you were the condenser???
MIKE: Yes, at one level, it is something of an N.T. Wright sampler, but it is far more than that. Lots of material has been updated, augmented, and freshly written for this book. For example, historical Jesus studies has changed since the 1990s and Tom hasn’t written much on the Catholic letters. So there was plenty of work for me to do to fill in some gaps and keep the discussion conversant with contemporary scholarship. So it is a mix of vintage Tom and some fresh materials for today.
BEN: Whose idea was it to do this project, and how long did it take, including the filming for the DVD?
MIKE: I initially gave the idea to SPCK for someone to work with Tom to create a NT Intro from his many works. Phil Law, editor at SPCK, was elated at the idea and suggested that I do it. I was like, “Well, if Tom’s happy with it, okay.” Tom said he was happy to work with me and we kind of went from there. Then Zondervan came on board, and it exploded in scope into a big color 900 page book, two DVD series, work book, instructor guide, with a few more things still in the pipeline. We did the filming on site in Israel, Greece, and Rome, so much fun, was a great experience for me, had never been to these places before. I can tell you that if Tom’s career in biblical studies doesn’t work out, he could easily get a job as a tour guide in Jerusalem or Athens. The brother knows places from the Acropolis to Zion. Overall, it took just under 10 years to plan, write, and publish this project.
BEN: Unless I’m mistaken this is the first, or one of the first times Tom, and perhaps you as well, have ever done a project with Zondervan. What prompted the decision to go with them?
MIKE: The Zondervan/SPCK partnership has been terrific. Both publishers were committed to this project with high grade publishing and production values. Zondervan has a terrific library of images, charts, maps, and visuals. Plus, they have an Oscar-worthy video production team that is amazing. Zondervan obviously knows the American scene the best and were able to promote the book beyond anything I have seen before in terms of letting scholars, pastors, students, and church workers know about the book. We had a wonderful publicist in Jana Ford Muntsinger who helped us connect with various media places. Tom was on TV, radio, endless podcasts, interviewed by the Atlantic, and wrote for TIME magazine. I did a few podcasts, wrote for the Washington Post, and was interviewed by KBY97 – The Appalachian Moonshiners Network. The Zondervan/SPCK synergy was great and I’m indebted to both publishing houses for the most amazing publishing experience of my life.BEN: Who do you see the audience being for this almost 1,000 page Intro? Scholars? Seminarians? Pastors?
MIKE: Well, it is at different levels. For any Tom Wright fans, this is obviously something of a reference work, a kind of Wrightian encyclopedia. But otherwise, we are hoping that this book will be picked up by colleges, seminaries, and church groups. Yes, it is big, but that is because it is amazingly pictorial, lots of charts, art work, maps, tables, and inset boxes. Every chapter about a NT book begins with a kind of brief intro on why this book is important and ends with suggestions on how we can put it into practice today. Let me add, we don’t want to just add to a student’s knowledge, we are ambitious, we want to change the way people read the NT. We want them to wrestle with the historical, literature, and theology of the NT, how to get inside the big story of the early church, and then work out how to live out that story. I think there is something in there for everyone!
BEN: Would you say that you and Tom basically agree on the various views reflected in this volume on a host of subjects, or was your task to faithfully represent Tom’s oeuvre, and leave your disagreements for another context?
MIKE: Yes, we are in overwhelming agreement on 99% of things. In a few areas, we might haggle over topics like bits of Pauline chronology or the synoptic problem, on those points I deferred to Tom’s judgment with him as the senior partner. In some places I came around to Tom’s way of thinking. For example, I used to say that justification has vertical aspects (we are righteous before God) and horizontal aspects (we are equal in the church if justified by faith). However, I’ve become convinced that Tom’s categories of eschatology (judgment day) and covenant (inclusion in the church) are a better way to describe justification by faith in Paul’s thought.
BEN: Is there a part of this Intro that you think turned out the best of all the chapters or sections? Which bit would you see as most helpful to the beginning student of the NT?
MIKE: Hmm, that’s hard. I think the opening chapters on the NT as history, literature, and theology will be very informative and even mind-blowing for some people. There’s two great chapters on Pauline chronology and theology which is a great summary of Paul’s life and thought. Also, the final section on how to live out the NT will be a fresh reminder that biblical studies is not for ivory tower theologians but is meant to be part of the church’s mission and our lived experience of faith.