Takeaway: The search for who Jesus is, is important for every generation, not because Jesus changes, but because we do.
I honestly cannot express how disappointing it is that when listening to the introduction (this was an audiobook) I find that this book is based on a series of lectures that NT Wright gave while in Chicago speaking to seminary students and others for a conference put on by Intervarsity in 1999. Because I was in Chicago, and was a seminary student in 1999, and I had no idea that this conference happened.
Wright is searching after a historical Jesus, but very differently from the Jesus Seminar. His careful research, using many of the same tools as the members of the Jesus Seminar, uses very different assumptions.
The first big area is Jesus’ teaching. His parables and calls to repentance should be understood not just as stories or only at spiritual teaching. While they may have some of those characteristics, Wright suggests that we need first explore what the original hearers would have understood. So he suggest that the Prodigal Son would be understood primarily as a exile narrative, exactly what many under Roman rule would want to hear. Even more controversial he suggests that Jesus’ call to “repent and believe” is not primarily about personal repentance, forgiveness and personal acceptance of a number of intellectual beliefs about God. His basis is that Josephus, a near contemporary of Jesus used very similar language in his own books and when Josephus used that language he had a very specific and political meaning. And even if Jesus meant more than what Josephus meant, he beliefs that Jesus would not have meant less than what Josephus meant. Jesus was asking people to give up their desire for a political/military overthrow of their Roman rulers. And while Jesus clearly did want people to give up their sins (his forgiveness of sins makes this clear) Wright wants us to think about the political message as tightly bound the the message.
There is a significant section on the kingdom of God and the temple and what Jesus saw as his work before the crucifixion. In many ways I think this is very important, but not as revolutionary as some of the other parts of the book. But Wright thinks that this section is much more important because we are adapted to the idea of God not connected to the particular people of Israel and the particular place of the temple. So the radical nature of Jesus’ message is somewhat lost on our understanding because we are not first century Jews.
Another interesting segment is about Jesus as messiah and God. Wright separates the discussion of this because he says that almost no one at the time thought that the messiah was going to divine as we understand it. But that leads to a later discussion about the divinity of Jesus. This is what I think most people will have a problem with. This not a simple yes or no answer. This is a long answer about what it means to be divine, especially for first century Jewish readers. (Wright does not have a simple answer, but his complicated answer leaves no question that Jesus is God.)
One of the interesting things that comes out of the discussion of Jesus’ divinity is a translation issue. Wright spend lots of time, both here and in other books, discussing issues of translation and trying to get to the meaning of the original work. But when the Hebrew was translated into Greek to create the Septuagint, there were nuances that were created and diminished just like for all other translations. One of those nuances is that when God promises David that he will ‘raise up’ from David’s seed a ruler, the Greek has a sense of resurrection that did not exist in the original Hebrew. But the concept fit into what Wright says was a first century concept of resurrection. And when early Christian writers discuss Jesus’ resurrection and divinity, this passage is used. I find it interesting that issues of translation exist even in scripture, not just with those of us later generations reading scripture.
The end of the book has two chapters that address the “so what does this mean to us questions?”. For Wright the primary issue is addressing the current reality of a post-modern world. He is not anti-post-modern, in fact he believes that it is not really possible. Instead he assumes we are living in a post-modern world and then takes the story and understanding of Jesus as bring in the kingdom of God as inspiration for trying to bring about the kingdom of God in our own world. This should be modest, but real. This is not nearly as political as the suggestions that were in Surprised by Hope, but the political suggestions were there. I really appreciate that all of his writing that I have read includes sections like this that attempt to show how we can take the historical, theological understanding that he is sharing and make it present in our day to day world. I often do not agree with the suggestions, but I do understand how he gets there.
I think long form theological descriptions of biblical material like this is very important to the church. One the one hand it is fairly disturbing to me that scripture needs this much explication. On the other hand, I hear people spout off inappropriate understandings of scripture all the time. So without something like this to point to as expert it can be difficult to draw people back to better understandings of scripture. I am mixed a bit in my understanding of the role of pastor after reading books like this. The role of pastoral care and the role of teacher are very mixed in our modern conception of the role of the pastor. But only rarely does a single person have the gifts of pastoral care, teacher, administrator, etc. that we really expect for our pastors to have. Part of the answer is in Eugene Peterson’s book The Pastor (my two reviews). But the other part is that I do think that the specialization that larger churches can do, while it introduces some additional problems, does solve some of the problem of gifting. I think it makes sense to have teaching pastors and pastoral care pastors and administrative pastors.
Regardless of whether you attend a large or small church, the investment in deeper background to scripture is worth the effort.