Simply Jesus 1

Simply Jesus 1 November 7, 2011

Tom Wright belongs in a line of only a few noble UK scholars who have the capacity to write about complexities with clarity and simplicity, without turning the whole thing into some kind of limp populism. That line of UK scholars includes William Barclay and C.H. Dodd. I’d like to include C.F.D. Moule but I don’t know that he ever quite turned his pen toward the ordinary person. Still, Tom is the current version of the prose of Barclay and Dodd. Yet different, as they too were different.

Tom Wright is proposing that next to our New Testament we should open Virgil’s The Aeneid and Josephus. Josephus is boilerplate for those who want to comprehend the Jewish context of earliest Christianity, but why Virgil? Simply put: Virgil provides the historical grounding myth of the Roman empire. He tells a story that comes to completion in none other than Julius Caesar, Octavian and Tiberius — in effect, the sons of god of Rome.

Here’s one way to put the claim of Tom Wright: to claim that Christianity, or whatever you want to call it, non-political is the worst sort of error. Jesus’ kingdom vision was front to back political, and it was a different kind of political, one that challenged the Roman representative power (Herod Antipas) and the priestly powers in Jerusalem.

So our question for today: What kind of politic did Jesus envision?

Many readers of this blog will know that Tom already has two books on Jesus, one a major tome called Jesus and the Victory of God, and the other one called The Challenge of Jesus. This new book, Simply Jesus (standing alongside Simply Christian) takes those two books, with some of his The Resurrection of the Son of God tossed in, to advance what he has already said and at the same time make those books even more accessible.

Tom Wright’s ruling metaphor in Simply Jesus is that Jesus stepped into a perfect storm.

That storm involved the steely eyes of the skeptical scholars on Jesus, the violent winds of the conservative traditionalist who wants nothing but classic theology, and one trying to write responsible history about Jesus (the tropical storm).  This metaphor then is applied yet again to Jesus in his own world:

The powerful Roman empire with its military might and emperor worship, the classic story of Israel (the Exodus), and Jesus’ own claim that God was now in charge (the kingdom of God) with Jesus as God’s agent of change. The Romans had a retrospective eschatology, one that looked back to a golden age, while the Jews had a prospective eschatology, one that looked forward to freedom, justice and peace — when God stepped in finally to make that happen.

The strange mix in all of this, that made the conflict of Rome with Jews even more intense was Jesus’ peculiar claim that God was now at work. The claim was that God was to be King, God alone. When that God — and here he teases out the vision from sections in the Psalms and the Prophets — became King, a Davidic king would rule for God.

Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey is precisely that moment when Jesus enacted that vision: God became King through Jesus.

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  • I look forward to getting this book. “The Challenge of Jesus” indeed revolutionized my theology around a decade ago.

    I wonder if this political critique is simply present. Something not made an “in your face” sort of manner by the early church since Jesus’ kingdom is something which can’t be brought onto the world’s stage in the same manner as earthly kingdoms such as the Roman empire. Yes, it confronts, but not as another player on the world stage.

  • rjs

    Wright’s books – The Victory of Jesus and The Resurrection of the Son of God – were and still are powerful books for me. The Challenge of Jesus is an excellent and more accessible book. But … I think Wright over does the anti-empire element in both the story of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.

    Was the time only right for the coming of the Messiah because there was an “evil empire” to be overcome? Is this what was meant when it is said that the coming of Jesus was “according to the scriptures”?

    God is at work – this was his Messiah and his culmination. The prospective eschatology is significant. But the “anti-empire” trappings in scripture are only incidental to the story. All of scripture tells a story in a human context, in a time, culture, and place in history. I don’t think the particulars of this human context should be given as much weight as Wright seems to give them.

  • Luke

    the only work of Wright I have gotten into is “suprised by hope”…and I THOROUGHLY enjoy what he has to say….Josephus and Virgil are so dry and I am wondering if i could just get the main points of there work from reading others who have read them…but maybe as time goes on they will make it to my reading list…

    thanks for bringing this article…really good thoughts…praise God for a ressurected savior and new life!!

  • RJS,

    I think he does a better job presenting his anti-empire issues in Simply Jesus than in some of his other books. His focus is not particularly on the anti-empire (Rome) but on the fact of Jesus as the new King and Jewish Messiah. So Jesus cannot be king unless he is doing the things that Jewish kings should be doing (cleansing the temple is a good example of Jesus taking on the role of king).

    I agree that he can over do the anti-empire thing, but it seemed to make much more sense here why Jesus needed to be anti empire.

  • Mary Fisher

    RJS. I think you need to look very carefully at apocalyptic literature, the intertestamental literature as well as going back to Exodus amd Daniel to see that a contra – empire view is indeed dominant in Scripture. It appears to me you still are reading through the privatized lenses of post Enlightenment concepts of religion.

    To Scot thanks again for your blog…so much good material.

  • The book shelves in that photo look like a serious party. I think I espy the Loeb classical editions on the bottom right shelves.

  • T

    While I think that the anti-empire lens was too strong in Colossians Remixed (a book by his students), I felt that Wright’s own emphasis was mild compared to how deep and widespread was the ignorance of that theme in Western Christianity. Jesus’ message was political (the reign of God), his titles are political (the son of God & Lord & Messiah & Christ), and his cross was the most powerful tool of Roman political propaganda in that day. I, for one, was totally unaware of the strong way God was using the symbol of Rome’s power, the cross, to become the symbol of God’s power in Christ, just like he used the symbols of Egypt’s gods to become footstools for God to announce his glory and power to the surrounding world.

    The fact that in the two great salvation narratives of the OT and NT respectively, both contained a human superpower’s central symbols of power as stepping stones for God to display his glory and victory to the whole world are tremendously significant to me, and I have to thank Wright for pointing out the echo. As much as the cross is “religious” in terms of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, his resurrection from it was also, intentionally, a strong statement about who really has power in that day and any day, if we hear it (w)rightly. The story of the Jewish Messiah rising from the dead from a Roman cross (the gospel!) is the story that invites people to change their ultimate allegiance, due in large part to a change in what and whom they believe has life-and-death power. It is also a reminder to the kings of the world that they are in a distant, distant second place on that front. He alone deserves ultimate worship, loyalty and fear. Ironically, it is the story that Jews wanted to hear (of God’s power, in and through the Christ, overcoming Roman power), just not in the way they expected. To answer the question, the first feature of the “politic” that Jesus envisions is one where ultimate loyalty lies with Christ because he can overcome any weapon of this world; that he alone is to be the organizing center because the instruments of human power have been overcome by him. Like a parent speaking to his child who is being led astray by another child, whether by intimidation or otherwise, God gives us the basis to ignore the other children and their worldly threats or promises by showing his power over them all. He gives us reason to give God alone our ears and eyes. In a nutshell, I think feature #1 of Jesus’ politic is the Jesus Creed, powered by his resurrection.

    It’s tough to limit my appreciation to one comment. Wright showed me how Christianity’s biggest day really was resurrection day. The resurrection was not just a fortunate add-on for Jesus’ sake, but that’s what it seemed like to me after 20+ years in evangelical Christianity, until I read Wright. He brought Jesus (and his kingdom) down to earth for me, and not just locked away in the distant past, future, or spiritualized present.

  • abs

    What kind of politic did Jesus envision?

    I don’t know whether Wright over-emphasizes anti-empire or not, but it seems to me that Jesus was not merely anti-empire, but subversive to Empire in an entirely new way, particularly for the Hebrews/Israel/1st cent. Jews. All throughout their history, their rebellion to God was met with disicpliine, through the rule/oppression of some empire, (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and ultimately Rome). In history, there was perhaps no greater empire than Rome, so it makes sense that Jesus life would be mingled there. Yet his subversion of the empire, is not a revolt and conquering as occurred throughout the OT for Israel. Rather it was subversive in self-sacrifice, and the birth of the church.

    Ironically, if we track the movement of the church (some fisherman, women, and other misfits as the starting point) juxtaposed with the Roman Empire, with its Julius Ceasar, Nero, etc., we see clearly, that only one is left standing.

  • Did you hear him at Willow this weekend?

  • rjs

    Adam (#4),

    I haven’t read Simply Jesus yet – and don’t know when I will be able to get to it unfortunately. I am interested to see what Wright has to say here – I didn’t think it was overwhelming in The Challenge of Jesus, but thought it became a bit too strong in some of his later material. I really enjoyed listening to a challenge and defense of his anti-empire theme in a recording of an SBL session, but I must admit that the challenger convinced me more than Wright’s response.

  • rjs

    Mary (#5)

    reading through the privatized lenses of post Enlightenment concepts of religion“?

    I am not trying to privatize religion at all … I am saying that God’s work in the world is much larger, more global, and more cosmic than the “rinky-dink” dealings of a local empire. Rome was a blip in human history. So yes, Jesus used images and imagery known and understood by his contemporaries. But the purpose isn’t to overthrow Rome or any other empire – the purpose is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    RJS @2,
    I got into Wright by reading his “What St. Paul Really Said.” I believe his counter-imperial theme is fundamentally important for two reasons.
    First, the titles that the NT, and Paul in particular, ascribe to Jesus — Savior, Son of God, Prince of Peace, etc. are ones that directly challenge the claims of the Caesars to those titles. I see this as a direct political confrontation.

    Second, I see the imperial narrative as the set, backdrop, or stage on which the Jesus and gospel narrative are acted and lived out. Previous to encountering Wright, I did not much read Paul because most of his rhetoric appeared to be little more than metaphysical blather and invented terms. By setting the King Jesus gospel against this backdrop, Wright breathes historical life into Paul, the apostles and the evangelists. That is what makes them good news.
    Randy G.

  • rjs


    What do you mean by anti-imperial?

    The good news is not that God opposes Rome and sent Jesus to make this clear. Sure, the imperial situation is a backdrop or stage for the NT … and putting this into an understanding of the language used by Paul makes things more concrete… but the message is so much more than Rome is going down. It is a positive message going forward not a reaction to a local human situation.

  • EricW

    Wasn’t Jesus more attacking the “empire”/domain of Satan and taking it back for God than that of Caesar?

  • Steve


    “but the message is so much more than Rome is going down. It is a positive message going forward not a reaction to a local human situation.”

    Of course it is. I have no doubt that Wright would agree with you 100% on that. Wright points out that Jesus (and Paul’s) message was anti-imperial, but he never LIMITS it to that. It was that AND MORE.

    Wright’s point is often that people have completely forgotten or neglected the anti-imperial aspect of those two messages. In retrospect, is that possibly why some people find it to be ‘too strong’ in Wright’s teachings, simply because it’s not been pointed out too often.

    I thought Scot did a good job of handling some of these ideas in the last couple of pages of One.Life, honestly.

  • Steve

    My apologies if my reply comes off poorly. Just looked back at it and realized I could have done better by myself had I gone through another round of editing. Apologies and meant no offense.

  • TJJ

    Wright probably does “overdo” some of the application and working out of his majors ideas in these books. But none the less, the big picture ideas he makes are excellent.

  • Dana Ames

    T, well said.

    RJS, what Steve said in #15. If Jesus’ redemption is indeed cosmic, it must hold up something like a mirror to all human institutions, in which those institutions get a true view of what they are without God – with only human (or human/demonic – see below) “energy” driving them – and what they were meant to be under the True King.

    Eric @14,
    fundamentally, yes; but the “empire/domain of Satan” is manifest most profoundly in and through human beings, just as is the Kingdom of God. Not saying that “the unseen” isn’t a part of it too, but- well, it’s just that – unseen. It has no meaning if it’s no more than some conceptual spiritual “cloud”. Reality = invisible (“heaven”) + visible/tangible (“earth”).


  • Jeremy


    Do you know where to find the recording of that SBL session?

  • rjs


    From this site here scroll all the way down in the post – it is the last one Theme: Paul and Empire. I originally found it through the NT Wright Page

  • rjs, in light of above comments would appreciate your thots on two things. First, it seems that there’s no way to launch a cosmic movement other than the particular and local rinky dink place and time of Jesus. Am I missing the point on the contrast between the two in the posts above?

    Second, I don’t quite see how the “inauguration of the kingdom of God” can do anything BUT overthrow “Rome or any other empire”?

    If we’re not privatizing religion, are we spiritualizing the kingdom? And if not, help me get the point!

  • rjs


    If Jesus is king of course Caesar is not. But there is a difference, in my mind at least, between being pro church, pro Kingdom of God and being anti-empire.

    Do you think the early Christians met to discuss how to overthrow the empire – and used language that revealed this intent?

    Or do you think the early Christians met to follow Jesus, and with hope to see the establishment of the kingdom of God through the power of God?

    A consequence of the establishment of the kingdom of God is the overthrow of empire. But it seems to me that the emphasis on anti-empire rhetoric is a reactive negative view rather than a positive proactive view.

  • Thanks, and thanks for coming back to a day old thread. I agree with your distinction, was just cautious about hardening the distinction into a false dichotomy. I do think that outside of places like this blog, it would be almost impossible to over emphasize the anti-empire implications of the coming of the Kingdom, as I find us evangelicals almost completely co-opted by the American empire and its caesars. Perhaps a necessary tactical over-emphasis?