Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

At last, I return to Christian Origins and the Question of God. For those of you who don’t know, this is a series of books by N.T. (Tom) Wright which is he is still in the process of writing. I began in late 2010 by jumping straight to volume 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG). At the time, I wasn’t aware it was a series, but stuck with it at the time. I have since gone back to volume 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG). Now, as I write this review, the next volume, with the tentative title Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG), is due to be completed this summer and should be published in the summer of 2013.

In this volume, as the title suggests, Wright looks at Jesus. In his introduction, he takes issue with those who propose that we can know very little about Jesus himself and propose that there is a stark difference between the ‘Jesus of faith’ and the ‘Jesus of history’. Instead of accepting this proposition at face value, Wright sets out to examine who the Jesus of history was and what his aims were. He proposes that many Christian theologians have, over the years, examined very closely the idea of why did Jesus die, but at the neglect of the question as to why he lived.

The introduction is almost as detailed as that of NTPG and runs on for well over 100 pages. So this is a book for the patient reader, yet it is well worth it. The one drawback to the book, which is highlighted early on, is that, for the most part, the testimony of John’s gospel is ignored. Instead, what we have is a study solely of the synoptic tradition. This may frustrate many readers as it seems as though, in acting as jury, Wright is dismissing one of the key witness statements. Part of the reason given for this was one of brevity, as the book is over 600 pages long (plus bibliography and index) on the basis of the 3 other gospel accounts.

However, hints are given that he will return to the John, along with the other gospels in a later volume in the series. Yet I couldn’t help but think that this hinders Wright’s analysis from the off. I think most readers of this blog are fairly theologically astute (probably more so than me) so will know what I mean if I say that John’s account is more christologically developed than the Synoptics. Yet Wright seems to want to disentangle Jesus from Christology and so, while he often criticises Bultmann and his ‘demythologisation’ Wright seems to be following Bultmann’s footsteps very closely indeed, even if he is looking in a slightly different direction whilst doing so. That said, Wright does outline, at the very end of the book a kind of ‘christology’ thought it is one that is very different from what most churches teach.

An example of this may be found when dealing with the problem any historian looking at Jesus must face: the miracles. Rather than tackle the issue head-on, Wright somewhat sidesteps the issue and instead focuses purely on what the 1st century ‘audience’ would have interpreted by the signs. Yet dodging the historicity and moving straight onto the interpretation is the same approach that Marcus Borg takes to the biggest miracle of all: the resurrection. If you see his 2006 book ‘Jesus’ (not published in the UK until 2011) he says of the resurrection: “Seeing the Easter stories as parables need not involve a denial of their factuality….If you believe the tomb was empty, fine…..And if you’re not sure, or even quite sure they didn’t happen this way, fine. Now, what do these stories mean?” Yet Wright spends a significant amount of space in volume 3 of this series (which was the first that I read) arguing very much for the historicity of the resurrection. Whether Wright went through a significant change of mind between his writing volumes 2 and 3 is unclear, but his approach certainly appears to have shifted.

Wright’s portrait of Jesus is that of a man who understood himself, and was understood by others, as being a prophet, using as his foundation passages such as Mark 8: 27-30 and its parallels. The key theme to the book is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of god” – a topic that I’ve often found glossed over in many different churches, presumably on the assumption that everyone knew and agreed what the referent was, even if it somewhat hazy.

After his “portrait of a prophet” Wright moves on to look at the aims and beliefs of Jesus. Much of this is tied in with what has gone before. It is here that Jesus moves onto the end of Jesus’ life.

In trying to understand Jesus in his historical context, Wright does seem to be missing a very big side of the story. He is keen to stress that in order to understand Christology you must first get “Jesusology” or else risk putting the cart before the horse. But I cannot feel that by focusing exclusively on Jesus’ reformation of the Jewish worldview and ignoring the impact on Gentiles and at any time and place other than 1st century Israel/Palestine, that Wright is painting a portrait of the horse and cart, only without legs and wheels, so that Jesus is so firmly rooted in his setting that he is static and has nothing of relevance to say to 21st century westernised christians. Only at the very end of the book is this problem acknowledged. The proposed solution is that everything changes with the resurrection, so the reader is referred onto the next volume.

This is not the only thing that may rattle those of us who hold to fairly orthodox (note the small ‘o’) beliefs. In in his discourse of Jesus in relation to “apocalyptic” Wright swims against the tide of 2,000 years of theology to deny that there will be a “second coming.” Though hints are dropped throughout the book, the core argument is given in Wright’s exegesis of Mark 13. Rather than consider this a new form of apocalyptic, Wright chooses to read this as a strictly Jewish apocalyptic in exactly the same vein as Daniel.

I realise that this review may sound quite negative, but that is not the impression I want to give. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to christians, jews, muslims and atheists. To understand christianity (and how it relates to Judaism) one has to study the figure of Jesus. And though this doesn’t cover all aspects of Jesus’ ministry and life, it certainly covers a lot and in a lot of depth. It is at once both enlightening and challenging, asking us to look at our worldview in a different light – just as Jesus did in his day.