Essays on the Gospels
- ISBN: 9780310098645
- Published By: Zondervan
- Published: July 2020
Interpreting Jesus: Essays on the Gospels is a collection of N.T. Wright’s most important and influential essays on Jesus and the four Gospels. The volume includes essays that were precursors to Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 1997) and papers that have attempted to address the countless conversations that have emerged in connection with that publication.
The collection of detailed, incisive, and stimulating essays covers a variety of topics: the study of the historical Jesus, Jesus in his complex Jewish context(s), Q and the resurrection, the origins and use of Christological titles, the use of the Old Testament in the Gospels, Jesus and political theology, and the convergence of exegesis and theology. All essays are preceded by brief introductory comments by Wright, which serve to situate the writing of each essay in its context and to stress the place and importance of the essays within Wright’s colossal corpus.
Each essay in this volume stands on its own, and therefore, I will focus this review on two chapters of particular interest. First, in a chapter titled “Jesus,” Wright attempts to set Jesus within his complex and diverse Jewish context(s) by exploring four broad contextual categories: politics, “apocalyptic” writing, “wisdom” teaching, and martyrdom. Concerning Jesus and politics, Wright argues that Jesus was indeed a political figure, but not in the violent revolutionary sense of the word (70). In regard to Jesus in his “apocalyptic” Jewish context, Wright argues that if Jesus saw his own work as bringing about the climactic moment of the story of Israel so that it could be explained in “apocalyptic” language, then Jesus fits well within the actual social vision of many first century Jews (73). Wright suggests that Jesus’ “apocalyptic” context is not juxtaposed to his Jewish political context, but belongs closely with it (73). The contextual category of “wisdom” focuses on Jesus’ teaching style, sayings, and message, which can be placed in the context of other Jewish wisdom books, notably Ben-Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Wright contends that Jesus’ subversive wisdom is connected to the “apocalyptic” context to the point that “Jesus the sage” is “Jesus the prophet” every step of the way (75-76). Lastly, connecting Jesus and martyrdom, Wright argues that Jesus envisaged his death as the climactic moment of Israel’s exile, through which the creator God’s great plan of redemption would transpire (77).
Second, in “Kingdom Come: The Public Meaning of the Gospels,” Wright addresses what he sees as a large problem in Christendom: the entire western church has based itself on the epistles, and as a result, has failed to properly understand the meaning of the gospels. Wright argues that the four gospels, each in their own way, are about God in public, specifically about the inauguration of the kingdom of God in and through both the public career and the scripture-fulfilling death of Jesus (141). To better understand the meaning of the gospels, Wright offers an integrated approach to the gospels that includes three dimensions: (1) an integrated reading of the narratives told by the canonical gospels to bring together what has been divided in both popular and scholarly readings—Jesus’ social program with his salvific program (so called “atonement theology” and so called “political theology”); (2) a reading of the gospels in deep and radical integration with the Old Testament to affirm that in and through Jesus, the creator God is completing his rescuing project that was promised in the Old Testament narrative; and (3) a reading of the gospels in close integration with genuine Christian hope, which is precisely the hope in the renewal and coming together of heaven and earth, the consummation of the creator God’s rescuing project that was inaugurated in the public career of Jesus and never to be abandoned (142-144). Wright believes that his integrated approach to the gospels will inform and direct the church’s witness to “the rulers of this world” (145).
Interpreting Jesus merits praise for its selection, combination, and presentation of the primary source materials. The broad range of essays is presented chronologically, which allows the reader to trace the progression of Wright’s views but also showcases the sophistication of Wright’s academic work. Additionally, readers will appreciate the brief introductory reflections that precede each essay, especially those readers who are unfamiliar with biblical studies. No research is done in a vacuum, and therefore the situational context of each essay proves to be paramount for a fuller understanding of the material presented. The essays also deserve recognition for their relevance to today. Wright has an unprecedented ability to combine rigorous scholarship with perceptive contemporary points of application.
Opposition to the book is likely to come from those who ascribe to the Jesus Seminar, as Wright critiques and ultimately dismantles the Seminar’s flagship volume, exposing it for not doing real “history” at all. Moreover, disagreement will come from those who find themselves on the extreme edges of the political spectrum. Wright does not back down from his correction and redirection of those who tend to over-emphasize (from the progressive left or the religious right) one aspect of Jesus studies to the neglect of other essential matters. Further criticism will likely arise from those who find Wright to be too “hitched” to the Old Testament. Wright’s commitment to advocating for the connection of Jesus of Nazareth to the Old Testament will surely cause frustration to a growing number of American evangelical pastors who chastise the modern Church for its incessant habit of reaching back into Old Testament traditions, sayings, and stories.
Interpreting Jesus is an excellent introduction to the academic writing of one of the most prolific biblical scholars of this generation. Although Wright is known for his expertise in Pauline scholarship, the essays in this volume demonstrate his uncanny ability to traverse academic terrain outside of his speciality and produce solid contributions to the field of Jesus studies. Wright’s engaging writing style, insightful reflections, and thought-provoking questions are sure to capture the attention of readers from inside and outside the field of religious studies. What readers will glean from Wright’s work is that any honest interpretation of Jesus may lead to a response of devotion. Simply put, interpreting Jesus may challenge readers to follow the Jesus they study.
Brandon F. Babcock is an independent scholarBrandon BabcockDate Of Review:June 14, 2021