N.T. Wright: The New Testament and the People of God


N.T. Wright.  The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992.

In N.T. Wright’s first book in a series of three (with two more projected), the British New Testament scholar gives a full-orbed presentation (535 pp.) on the history, culture, and worldview of the land and the people into which Jesus was born and from which Christianity arose.

Part I introduces the book and the extended project.  He attempts to show that premodern, modern, and postmodern attempts at interpreting Scripture are all deficient, and that a synthesis of premodern’s authority, modernity’s critical eye, and postmodernity’s subjective impulse are needed to rightly understand the Bible.  He procedes to layout a three-fold method for considering the NT–examining its history, literature, and theology, which he unites with studies about Jesus, the gospels, and Paul, respectively. 

Part II picks up these three evaluative lens.  After dealing with issues of epistemology in chapter 2, Wright develops his understandings of history (3), literature (4), and theology and authority (5).  His interpretive grid is that of a “critical realist” (44-46) and he argues that we should understand the Bible according to its meta- and micro- narratives (this is developed further in chapters 13-14: “The Stories in Christianity”).   In his chapter on “Literature, Story, and Worldview,” Wright addresses the problems of hermeneutics, language, and reading.  He suggests a hermeneutic of love and goes on to propose a worldview-informing narrative hermeneutic.  Reading the Bible as an interactive story upholds the immutable Bible and the interpretive challenges of an everchanging world–in this Wright seems to fuse modern and postmodern tendencies.  Chapters 4 develops the view that history is never objective and that intrinsically it should be seen as historiography, history delivered with specific authorial intent to shape the account through selectivity, sequencing, and shaping.  Chapter 5 finishes his introductory section by considering the worldview-shaping effects of narrative theology.

Part III is comprised of five chapters that recreate the world of second temple Judaism (fourth century BC – first century AD).  In Chapter 6, Wright gives an historical account of the Greco-Roman world that dominates the landscape for the Jewish people.  Chapter 7 subdivides the Jewish thoughtlife, societal structures, and political machinations to show the diversity of second-temple Judaism.  While chapters 8-10, unfold the Jewish heritage, highlighting the stories, symbols, and praxis that shape their day-to-day life (8), tracing the storyline that informs contemporary beliefs (9), and referencing the apocalyptic hope that the Jew’s maintained in the face of enemy oppression (10).  

Wright bases much of his findings on the works of Josephus and much intertestamental Jewish writings.  His analyses contravene many historical positions on the 1st Century Judaism, while helpfully demonstrating the variations of Jewish belief at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Nevertheless, it is evident that he is clearing the way for New Perspective teachings on Paul (aka E.P. Sanders and James Dunn), which deny any kind of works-based righteousness–which will redefine justification by faith alone– and promotes a responsive covenantal nominianism (law-keeping)–that advocates a kind of “gracious” law-keeping.  (For a response to this see: John Piper’s The Future of Justification).

Wright juxtaposes the Jews with the oppression of the Roman empire and shows why covenantal markers are so important to the Jewish people.  He articulates that since the zenith of the covenant is dwelling in God’s presence (i.e. in the land and within the Temple), and that when this function is disable or at least inhibited by sin that leads to exile that leads to indwelling opposition in the land, that the Jews recast dwelling with God with covenantal markers (i.e. circumcision, Sabbath, ritualistic days, etc).  The difference between OT and NT is not type and fulfillment, but spacio-temporal, obeying the Torah becomes preeminent to keep covenant.  Entering the covenant is assumed by birthright.   Wright’s emphasis is clearly more corporate, to the detrimental exclusion individuals and their need to be reconciled to God.  While emphasizing the covenantal and corporate elements of salvation (of which he speaks in exodus language, restoration from exile), he minimizes the doctrine of personal salvation.  Moreover, nowhere in his lengthy discussion does he include matters of personal guilt, individual transgression, or need for atonement (cf. Ezek. 18; Leviticus 1-6, 16), leaving essential matters of redemption out of his discussion.   Consequently, he seems to be working with a semi-Pelagian understanding (anachronistically applied to second-temple Judaism, I understand) of the Jewish nations ability to keep covenant.

The value of Part III is its illuminating descriptions of second temple Judaism; the criticisms are clearly the New Perspective emphases which undermine the Reformation doctrines of salvation.

Part IV is the most helpful section in the book.  Chapter 12 begins with a discussion of praxis, symbols, and worldview that informed second-temple Judaism, but more pertinently shaped the first-century Christian community.  Looking particularly at the significance of the Land, the Temple, and the Torah, Wright asserts that all were updated in Christ, so that in the NT they take on metaphorical realities.  His approach in this chapter is overtly cultural-historical-sociological, not biblical-theological.  (This is a trait that runs throughout the book.  Wright devotes most of his energy retelling the story of the people from a sociological angle, not an exegetical outworking of the Biblical canon).  Nonetheless, his typological applicatons to Christ do stress the OT shape of the NT.

Chapters 13 and 14 unfold the message(s) of the biblical authors.  Chapter 13 examines the form and function of the synoptic gospels, the Pauline letters, Hebrews, and the Johannine corpus.  This chapter masterfully displays the wisdom and the logic of the NT writers, who retell the story of Israel in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  For instance, Wright compares Luke’s gospel to the work of Josephus–both of whom are making an apology to the Roman empire–and he goes on to show how the doctor recaptures the Samuel narratives to provide the outline of his Davidic biography.  Moreover, Matthew seems to employ Deuteronomy to construct his gospel, and Mark utilized Daniel as an apocalyptic narrative.  These intracanonical connections demonstrate the NT use and dependence on the OT.  In so doing, Wright argues that this more that simple typology.  It is rather a kind of mindset that sees the history of Israel being recapitulated (my word, not his) in the life of Jesus and the church.  Paul further does this in inviting Gentiles into the story of Jesus, the Israel of God.

Chapter 14 moves from the larger units (NT books) to the contents of those books–Jesus teaching, miracle stories, parables, etc.  He argues that these did not develop over time, but from the beginning they were well-formed.  He explains why this is so, using simply analogous logic, appealing to the ways stories are told and retold.

Finally, Wright concludes with an overarching description of first-century Christianity in “The Early Christians: A Preliminary Sketch” (15).  The take away point is that Christianity’s identity is fully Jewish.  The earliest church was shaped not by the historical events of Jesus life only.  Rather Jesus life and the birth of the church were understood, defined, and developed according to the well established patterns and promises of the OT, so that the life, death, and resurrection–an old testament pattern of exodus–was “according to the Scriptures.”  Without hesitation, this is the most helpful aspect of the book.  It makes the reader more aware of the intracanonical connections by way of appeal to historical-cultural-sociological expectations of the Jews.

The book is long and filled with abberrant teaching about the doctrines of justification and sin, but its Jewish reading of the Scriptures is very helpful and worth perusing.  I look forward to reading, with cautious selectivity, the other books in this series.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

4 thoughts on “N.T. Wright: The New Testament and the People of God

  1. You say, “with two more projected.”

    I thought “Jesus and the Victory of God” was part two and “The Resurrection and the Son of God” was part three?

    Are there other volumes still to come?

  2. In his introduction, Wright alludes to five volumes. I don’t know where his efforts are in this matter today, but that was the original scope.

  3. I am almost through with this one and have greatly enjoyed it. I think the original plan has changed. The volume on Resurrection was originally just supposed to be a chapter in JVG. I guess he had a little more to say ;). In an interview last year, he said he hasn’t started the next volume (Paul) but may have a sabbatical in 09′. Thanks for the review!

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