Book Review of NT Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God”

I finished it! It was long, difficult, but very stimulating. There is so much one can say in a book review of “Jesus and the Victory of God” (JVG). There are some real gems, insights, and positive material that ought to radically change the way many evangelicals read and preach the gospels. NT Wright (NTW) asks the RIGHT questions, even if some answers are found wanting. Possibly he goes overboard at a few points. This book is not the last word, but the opening up of a very important conversation concerning the question of the identity/life/mission/message of Jesus of Nazareth. Read on for more…

This is a tough book to read. NTW has attempted to write more palatable summaries of what he is on about (eg: “The Challenge of Jesus”). Firstly, this is a book about history. NTW writes as a historian. This is a historians approach to Jesus. That doesn’t mean it has no theology. In fact the key metaphor NTW uses is that history has been the prodigal child for too long, it is time for him to return home. But will the older brother of “orthodox theology” rejoice in his return? Here’s how NTW puts it:

The wastrel son, representing the Enlightenment, has rejected traditional Christian orthodoxy, and has set off for the apparently far country of historical scepticism. The elder brother, representing the would-be ‘orthodox’ Christian who has never troubled much with history and has never abandoned traditional belief, is both angry and suspicious. But supposing the younger brother suddenly comes home again? Supposing – even more shocking – that there is to be a celebration of his return? (p9)

Obviously this is not an exegesis of Luke 15 – it reflects NTW’s colorful and readable language. JVG is book two of a wider multi-volume project, entitled: “Christian Origins and the Question of God”. I haven’t read volume one yet (“The New Testament and the People of God” – NTPG) because JVG captured my interest too early. NTW is interested as a historian to ask the question: how do you solve the historical puzzle of what happened between pre-Christian Judaism and the second century Christian church? (from Herod the Great to Ignatius of Antioch – p90) The answer lies in understanding Jesus. But you need to ask the right questions! Here are Wright’s questions: How does Jesus fit into Judaism? What were Jesus’ Aims? Why did Jesus die? How and Why did the Early Church Begin? Why are the Gospels what they Are? NTW masterfully weaves through the great liberal post-Enlightenment Jesus scholars (eg: Schweitzer, Bultmann etc), while drawing on some of their strengths, I think he ultimately runs rings around them and reveals how empty and unsatisfying they are. This is different to the normal theological gun blazing evangelical critique of say, Bultmann. NTW really seems to understand these guys and critique them at their own game, namely history.

NTW as historian will immediately grate some conservative readers. Typical historian, he is fascinated (*cough* obsessed *cough*) with method – so proposes his own theoretical paradigm for reading history, called ‘critical realism’. Readings must make sense within Judiasm, but not predictably so. Similarly it must be distinguishable from the early church’s teaching, but related enough to show the development – he calls this double similarity and dissimilarity. He explains in detail what constitutes a “worldview”. He helpfully discusses at length the link between history and theology and similar matters. Much of the material draws on NTPG. As a historian, NTW draws on a huge variety of sources, Old Testament, inter-testamental literature, Josephus, New Testament, NT apocrypha, 2nd century Christian writers. In the end the synoptic gospels are his core sources, they are well treated. At first I was annoyed by his lower case g talk of ‘god’ all the time. This is not irreverant, but merely an attempt to help the reader think inductively, as one listening to the gospels in light of the first century pantheon of gods, and to help the reader not project too much into that capital g. All this amounts to a helpful new ruleset to the game of “Jesus scholarship”. NTW’s presentation of them is compelling.

NTW the historian gives many insights. He reads the gospels in light of Old Testament so very well. He really shines in this area. Possibly overstated, his big concept is that the context of Exile dominates the worldview of the first century Jew and of the gospels themselves. Here is a choice quote:

Would any serious-thinking first century Jew claim that the promises of Isaiah 40-66, or of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Zechariah, had been fulfilled? That the power and domination of paganism had been broken? That YHWH had already returned to Zion? That the covenant had been renewed, and Israel’s sins forgiven? That the long-awaited ‘new exodus’ had happened? That the second Temple was the true, final and perfect one? Or – in other words – that the exile was really over? (page xiii)

Surprsingly, I found many methodological parallels with NTW and the biblical theology of Don Carson. Both vocally shun reading texts atemporally (or “ahistorically”), but rather advocate reading them in their historical, which overlaps with biblical theological, context. Both use insight from the 1st century world to help understand the biblical text, and also to understand the events in light of the storyline of the Old Covenant people of God. Both are careful not to project systematic theology onto texts but to be inductive. I guess these approaches are common in many scholars, but I haven’t really encountered a scholar since Carson who excels so well in these areas. Of course there are differences also: Carson is an exegete-theologian, NTW writes as a historian. But of course history begets biblical theology – “texts matter, but contexts matter even more” (p489). This book made me want to go back and read that part of the Bible that I know the least about – the prophets. It made me want to understand the exile better, and know that part of the Bible’s storyline better. JVG made me hungry to know my Old Testament better.

What is at stake for the still-in-exile people of God is the liberation of Israel and the fulfilment of OT hopes. The means of achieving this was debated. Zealous Jews had violent ambitions, Josephus had his own ideas about how the hopes would be fulfiled, and Jesus came offering an unexpected means, shunning violence. He was “articulating a new way of understanding the fulfilment of Israel’s hope” (p176). This means end of the exile – this means three things: eschatology, eschatology and eschatology! The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 looms as hugely significant in NTW’s reading of Jesus. That is, Jesus predicted (prophesied?) the coming judgement on Jerusalem, if she rejected Jesus and embraced violent revolution. Many classical “second coming texts”, such as Mark 13, are rather read in light of AD70. The “coming” of Jesus has more to do with his coming into heaven, not his coming from heaven. While possibly over done, I think he is on the money here – if you take the ascension as a serious part of the gospel. Having said this he is unjustifiably sceptical about seeing “second-coming” theology from Jesus (eg: the “fourth” paragraph on page 635). If you push this all the way then much of Jesus teaching would have little relevance to a post AD70 Gentile.

NTW has very stimulating insights on the gospels. What does “son of man” mean? What does “son of God” mean in the first C? What does “kingdom of God” mean to a first century Jew? His answers are grounded in an Old Testament worldview. I found his linking of parable and Jesus symbolic actions (eg: temple table turnings etc) very helpful. He expounds not just the concept of “kingdom of God”, but also has a hearty exploration of the biblical theme of kingship. These are intertwined but distinct themes. As an aisde, how disappointed I was recently to see the otherwise excellent IVP Dictionary of Biblical Theology has “see Kingdom of God” under the entry for “King, Kingship”. NTW’s theology of kingship based on themes from the Psalms, Zechariah, Ezekiel and Isaiah is fantastic. If you are longing for something deeper than a few prooftexts to explain “according to the Scriptures” of Luke 24, then NTW serves up a tasty meal. His approach also exposes how unpalatable a “titles of Jesus” approach is.

NTW’s exegesis of gospel passages in light of the first century worldview informed by the Old Testament is mostly very refreshing. My observation is that evangelicals are not reading and teaching the Old Testament enough, such that their teaching of the New Testament lacks the appropriate backdrop and worldview that its authors assume. His understanding of the Old Covenant themes of suffering then vindication shed clear light on the nature of Jesus messiahship (eg: p465). What exactly does it mean for Jesus to ride a donkey into Jerusalem? How many contemporary sermons have totally misunderstood this even because of a lack of knowledge of the Old Testament allusions? This is where NTW is most helpful. Althought there are some more questionable interpretations: eg: Luke 12:4-7 as talking about fearing Satan (p455). At some points I find myself cheering (eg: his call to not detach Isaiah 53 from the rest of the book, p588), and at other times I am disturbed that he appears so very anti-atonement theology (eg: p561). Forgiveness of sins cannot just be a code-word for “return from exile”, but surely it actually has something to do with forgiving sins!

Surprisingly for me, the massive weakness of this book is that it lacks a clear exposition of the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus. Of course, this comes in the next volume of the series: “The Resurrection of The Son of God”. But the book doesn’t allude to this much. What exactly is the victory of God which the title refers to? Is it the cross? Near the end he suggests that the cross is the vindication and arrival of the kingdom (p651), but on the same page he also says it is “the way to the victory of God”. Which is it? If Jesus embodied/enacted YHWH’s return to Zion, then what happens when Jesus dies? What happened to the Danielic hope of the Messiah sharing the throne of YHWH (p624)? NTW speaks of Jesus’ death and vindication (eg: p610) but doesn’t spell out whether he sees resurrection at the heart of the vindication. How exactly does one death, even that of the messiah, mean a victory over evil? Is AD 70 the victory of God? I hope to find these answers in volume 3, but I was surprised he didn’t leave more hints or talk about this gap in understanding (there are some clues in the final section, pp659-660).

As I said earlier, this is not the last word. With such a inductive textured approach, I’m sure there are many more Old Testament insights, missed biblical theological themes and reorganising of material left to be done. But as it stands, NTW is an exciting challenge. His attempted task is that of “cleaning away layers of paint superimposed by well-meaning piety” (p613). There are several approaches evangelicals could take to this book. Robert Gundry (in his Christianity Today review) cautions us to read NTW carefully and not let him become too popular as a conservative academic superhero. But my impression is that evangelicals, if anything, are still not giving Wright enough credit. I think he deserves to be read as an orthodox Christian who as a historian is seeking intellectual integrity. Even if you disagree, don’t write him off. Whether you see NTW as a good guy or a bad guy, his challenges and insights deserve a hearing.

Related links:
Paul Barnett’s 1999 article on “Christology Today” contains a long review of
JVG. His main criticism of NTW is that it is hard to get from the book to “the Christ of faith” or even the Christ of the NT epistles. Barnett’s solution is to not just look at the public face of Jesus but the private face (eg: his private teaching to the 12). I think the proper solution is to wait for the extra volumes in the series which will connect directly with the epistles. Not even volume 3 was published when Barnett wrote this review.

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