N.T. Wright (So Far) For Everyone
Jerry BowyerChief Economist of Vident Financial, Editor of Townhall Finance, and President of Bowyer Research
- 2020 Apr 21
It lasted roughly one hour. The book is The New Testament in Its World. The authors are N.T. Wright and Michael F Bird. N.T. Wright probably needs no introduction to you, but he is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, which sounds to me like a good job fit for him. I think whoever arranged that kind of knew what they were doing.
He's also a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall Oxford. I have also lectured there, but please don't hold that against Dr. Wright or against the college.
I've been looking forward to reading this book and engaging in this interview since I first heard that this book was in process. That's because, despite the fact that he is one of the most well-known and frequently-cited living scholars of the New Testament, he still needs to be better known. The church needs his insights, and I've found that though most well-read Christians recognize the name, they have not imbibed his ideas. This book is the solution to that problem.
I asked Wright who this book was for.
"The particular target audience is the kind of first or maybe second year undergraduate or seminarian who's never really done much biblical study at any serious level before and just needs to be eased into it, because some people, of course, read the Bible from early age and they read it as a letter from God to themselves and that's fine. It (the Bible, JB) will do a great deal for you on that level but at a certain point, many people who come in that way, and decide that actually I need to know more about why this text was written, about what the original authors had in mind, about the geographical cultural setting, etc. etc. And so this book is written to help people in those sorts of situations and also not just college students and seminarians, but also anyone who goes to church and who hears the Bible read and reads it a bit for themselves, but thinks, 'I'd really like to dig just a little bit deeper and find out some of the background context meaning and all of that.' "
In other words, the book is for people who want to understand the New Testament better (which should be just about everyone), and for those who are not under the illusion that they have no need to learn anything (which should also be just about everyone). So the book should be for everyone.
It also has those little amenities--side bars, etc.--which make books easier to ease into.
"So the book is peppered with charts and diagrams and pictures and dates and so, on almost every other page, there's something like that as a way of saying, 'let's get you into this. Let's ease your way in so that you will actually feel that you are living in the world of the New Testament and you're actually understanding the New Testament in its own terms,' That so for anyone or anyone indeed who studied years ago, and now needs a refresher there will be good for them too."
I think the refresher point merits more focus. We are now living in one of the great ages of New Testament scholarship. The explosion in Biblical archaeology, including, but not limited to, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has functioned as a kind of scholarly 'big bang' out of which has come an explosion of light which is being shed on many problematic New Testament passages.
But when most clergy were in seminary, this stuff was new or had barely registered in seminary curricula, and very few clergy have had the time to keep up with scholarly journals. The New Testament in its World catches the reader up on what's been happening for the past few decades. It's your 'booster shot' for New Testament scholarship.
Wright warms to the medical analogy
"My wife and I are in the process of moving, and one of the things that happens when you move to new places, you sign on with a new doctor. And I was just chatting to my new doctor the other day and doing a general sort of initial checkup. And I was saying, of course people my age grew up some of us being rather suspicious of doctors in the 50s and 60s and he said, "you were absolutely right to be, because the doctor that was treating you in the 1960s probably qualified in the 1930s and probably hadn't studied a whole lot since then and so,' oh my goodness! There has been a lot. So what's true of medicine is certainly true in theology and biblical studies and particularly since the 1970s and 80s when there's been an explosion of studies on the world of the First Century Jews and indeed the world of the First Century Greeks and Romans. We know a whole lot more about the First Century than we did 50 years ago, and it's been really, really exciting as I and many others have been able to put the New Testament into that context and see familiar passages seem to be coming up in three dimensions, and that's what's kept me going as a scholar. It's just a really exciting, been a really exciting time to be alive."
His enthusiasm is, to continue the medical analogies, infectious. It is a great time for a New Testament scholar to be alive. I would add that it's a great time for a reader of New Testament scholars to be alive. I know there's tendency in my tribe, conservative evangelicals, that is suspicious about new scholarship. There's this saying, "If it's new, it's not true. And if it's true, it's not new."
I hear that from fellow evangelicals, but wasn't that the argument which was used against us in the 1500s? We got a bunch of manuscripts and a lot of things changed because they should have changed. If everyone was depending on the Vulgate, a Latin translation, not the original text, with a number of translational problems and suddenly you have the actual New Testament text or even the Hebrew text, then quite a lot of stuff should change, and it did for the better. Well, now we have biblical archaeology and we have the Qumran text and we have simple and more widespread access to previously narrowly available texts which can now be in everybody's hands. So should a lot of things change now? Yes, absolutely.
Wright gives us a great example,
"I'll give you one very sharp-edged example: We have excellent modern editions of the historian Josephus. Now, Josephus is widely known, has been for years, and older clergy used to have an English translation of Josephus on their shelves, and so on, but I remember when I first read Josephus through in group being really struck because, at one time when he's talking about his own younger life, he talks about going up to Galilee in the mid-60s of the First Century and confronting a brigand leader who was into violent revolution against Rome, and so on, and Josephus says something in the Greek which literally means 'I told him to repent and believe in me.' Now when I when I first read that I remember thinking, oh my goodness, this is Joseph was writing about something that happens (at the time of, JB) Mark's gospel which is pretty certainly written in the middle, maybe late, 60s and when Mark tells us that Jesus came into Galilee saying, 'Repent and believe the gospel,' well, guess what? This is the sort of thing that you'd say to confront people who were hell-bent on going the wrong direction politically as well as religiously telling him to quit turn around and follow me because I got a better idea now. I think Jesus meant a lot more than Josephus but did not mean less. And so things like that, suddenly, when you read them in their context, they shed a flood of light on the fact that the New Testament isn't just what we would think of as a religious book. It is a book about the whole of life confronting all the ways in which we behave, think, live, plan, etc. And God claims that life in and through Jesus and says the whole thing has to change from top to bottom."
Wow! 'Repent and believe in me.' This example really lifts the veil of religion-only readings of the Gospels. And of course even the word 'Gospel' itself in context is intensely political. It referred both to the announcement of a new emperor by the Roman authorities and also of the coming of God's chosen King, the Messiah, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The writers of the Gospel texts, and certainly the scholarly Paul, would be quite aware of the political and civilizational overtones in the word that they chose to use to describe the life and message of Jesus.
I've long wondered when N.T. Wright started to see what he saw, what were the early mental breakthroughs which led to his body of work.?
"I think I can't be too sure. I think it was around late 1980s some time. I know it's after I'd come back from Canada which was '86, but probably while I was still in Oxford that time round, which was '86 to '93. And I remember it well because I actually took that little volume of Josephus on a plane to with me to America and I was reading Josephus sitting on the plane and I nearly fell off my seat. Oh my goodness! Look at this! And suddenly, as I said before, you see everything in three dimensions, but before you'd only seen in two, and that's the real excitement of doing genuine history: finding that you are really in touch with, well, as the book says, the New Testament in its world. What was that world? Like that's the really exciting things."
I like to say that the Bible is like one of those children's pop-up books. You open it up and it comes up through all the layers of life, the psychological, the sociological, the economics and the politics of day. I'm an economist. I see economics on every page. I can't unsee it. I can't squeeze myself back down into devotional-only mode. Jesus is talking about money a lot.
Was the 'repent and believe in me' moment in Josephus the earliest of those pop up moments for Wright? Is that when he left devotional-dimension-only Flatland and popped up into other dimensions of understanding? No, there was an earlier 'aha!' moment with Josephus.
"I mean, Josephus has done this for me before when I first read Josephus through, and…you know how it is when you read the Bible, each time through you see things you didn't see before…and that same thing happens each time I read Josephus. I see things I haven't seen before, but the first time I read Josephus which is in the late '70s, I remember suddenly realizing with a start that one point is describing in great detail all the factional fighting and so on that was going on in Jerusalem in the '50s and early '60s and I remember suddenly thinking, 'Oh, my goodness, that is when a strange character called Saul, aka Paul, turned up in Jerusalem having been round the world and back again telling people about Jesus. And no wonder there were riots, because look what Josephus is saying about what the key issues were.' And I realized the key issues were not, 'Do I have to do good works or not so that I can go to heaven when I die?' That's not the agenda at all. The key issue is, 'When is Israel's God going to do what he promised, to get rid of these pesky Romans and make us free in our own land?' And that will be the revelation of God's righteousness, His covenant faithfulness, when God actually does that and I remember realizing, Oh, my goodness, here comes Paul back from the mission field saying, 'Yeah. Guess what, the Gentiles are coming in and God doesn't want them to be circumcised.' And this creates a firestorm unlike anything and it's because once you realize what actually made the Jews of that day tick, then you put Paul in that world, and I've been doing that for the last 40 years and it's been great fun."
It's been great fun to read it too.