The Challenge of Jesus: N.T. Wright Book Review

I think I know own every book N.T. Wright has ever written (at least the ones you can buy at Borders or Barnes and Nobles. The long and short is that really enjoy pretty much whatever the man has written. From his “new perspective of Paul” writings to his views on hell, Wright has proven himself to be a thought-out writer, a compelling author, and a scholar in his own right regarding the New Testament respectively. This book, “The Challenge of Jesus” is one of those books that give us an understanding of the historical Jesus. Wright invites us to read the evidence of Jesus afresh and to know the Son of God in a manner that is both theologically and actively engaging. Seeing Jesus through the lens of this book has opened my mind to receive the words of Christ in a greater way. It is here that I hope to translate that into a thoughtful examination of Wright’s writing.

Jesus was almost bound to appear as the teacher of either liberal timeless truths or conservative timeless truths. The thought that he might have been the turning point of history was, to many on both sides the divide, almost literally unthinkable…the world in which Jesus lived, and which He addressed with His message about the kingdom, was a world in which the Jewish expectation of God’s climactic and decisive action in history was uppermost. It is this, I believe, that has given fresh impetus to the study of Jesus and makes it imperative that we engage in this study (p 23).

This is the first quote in the book that really stuck out to me the most. Who really would have thought that Jesus would have been the turning point of history? Who would have thought that His words would have challenged the world’s leaders and scholars of His day? Who would have thought that He would be seen as one of the most provocative individuals? Here was a man born in a manger (most likely a barn of some form or even a religious booth), seen as a bastard child, and from Nazareth, with a name like Jesus (we could consider this to be like Joshua), and yet His life and ministry has impacted the world through and through. The cryptic language of Jesus, hidden behind His Jewish tradition challenges us to know Him more. We are challenged to understand how He is the Light of the World and the way, the truth, and the life. This is the historical Jesus in which Wright challenges us to know afresh. I can honestly say that I was not prepared to engage with this Jesus when I first began this book. I am truly glad it has made me uncomfortable.

There are six subsections devoted to unearthing the historical Jesus, each having its own chapter. The first chapter sets the tone for the remainder of the book and is vital to understanding the work as a whole. In it, Wright exposes the difficulties and scruples of studying Jesus out of his historical context, namely through Enlightenment or Reformation lenses. After establishing his methodology for studying Jesus, Wright then deals with issues and questions that surround the ministry of Jesus. He then offers his opinion on how first-century Jews and Gentiles would have understood Jesus’ message. Wright focuses on the following issues: Jesus’ proclamation concerning the Kingdom of God, the challenge Jesus presented in relation to Jewish symbols, the realization of the Jewish sacrificial system in Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ deity, and the Resurrection. It is within these middle chapters that Wright adds details to aid the reader in understanding the first-century perception of Jesus. For instance, the reader is encouraged to view Jesus’ mission as extensively political (eschatological) in nature. Wright also draws the parallel of Jesus’ redeeming action to that of Jewish history, particularly the events of the Exile and Restoration. This view, Wright explains, is most certainly how a first-century Jew would have understood Jesus’ vocation. These, among others, are Wright’s attempts to bring the reader as near to first-century Palestine as pen-and-ink can draw.

One of the reasons I believe Wright tackled this issue of Jesus has a lot more to do with where he is from rather than the majority of his audience. Wright is from the UK. For a lot of reasons, which we will not assert in this paper, the issues regarding the church and faith in the UK are less than adequate. The Challenge of Jesus is a challenge not only to you and I as readers and scholars of the Bible, but also to the Church of England, that has pushed Jesus aside. Wright’s book brings the people of the UK face-to-face with Christ. I am not suggesting that is the main purpose of the historical Jesus studies. We owe much to the Enlightenment’s questions and studies of those areas. Maybe it is just my limited knowledge of the Church of England, but in some respects, I see a lot of similarities between the two. Wright asserts,

The Enlightenment notoriously insisted on splitting apart history and faith, facts, and values, religion and politics, nature and supernature…each of these categories now carries with it the minds of million of people around the world an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole (p 21).

Could it be that Wright sees a correlation between the period of the Enlightenment and the Church of England respectively? I am not 100 percent sure. For whatever reason, we must realize the condition in which Wright writes. He is not an American who is looking to spread the latest new book in order to make money. He is a UK native who sees the oppression of Jesus in the Church and has been personally challenged to do something about it. I think that deserves a good paragraph in this paper. Especially since Carson and Moo write from our American perspective of Christ and the Church.

There are some who would say that Wright has no business writing about the Enlightenment period of history. If we were to evaluate Wright’s knowledge of this period, to the importance of this book, it might stand to reason that a lot of effort was placed on this issue when it simply was not needed. This is not one area in which Wright shines in this book. This is probably where I am the most frustrated with regards to his writing. He even states that he is not a “eighteenth-century specialist” and that his premise, regarding such issues of the Enlightenment are assertions from what little he knows about the last five hundred years (pg 18-19). I guess I would have wanted a better response to the issue of the Enlightenment and why he needed to belabor the issue of it if he really was not actively engaged and knowledgeable in this area. The only explanation I can surmise is that since Wright is more engaged with the postmodern era, and that the church is making its way back to that period of time, he attempts to show us where we are going in light of our new ways of faith and church. I guess I shouldn’t be too critical regarding this issue though. It is just a thought that I found to be difficult to shake.

One of the first aims Wright asserts involves maintaining historical accuracy concerning the study of Jesus, and this goal has, for the most part, has been met. Wright makes use of recent discoveries- such as the Dead Sea Scrolls – to support his arguments, and when confronted with the evidence he presents, it is difficult for one to deny his stance. That is not to say that he overlooks other scholarly opinions, though. Perhaps one of the strongest parts of his work is Wright’s willingness to confront tough issues head-on. In fact, he acknowledges that the questions raised by other scholars in this field (Schweitzer, Reimarus, and Crossan, among many others) are even necessary and denies, therefore, the inflexible dogmatism that characterizes many Christians. Wright’s evenhanded position on most issues found in the book lends the reader to believing that he is getting an unbiased opinion toward an authentic historical description. This is indeed a rare thing. His efforts intended to cut through Reformation and Enlightenment theology do not go unnoticed and, at least for this reviewer, are much appreciated even though, as we have already examined, is not the most important and/or well-thought out section of this book.

Sometimes it takes the words of someone else to actively aid in one’s consideration of the text. Wright, throughout several points of this book does that for me. Wright states, “He would not rebuild the Temple in a physical sense. He would become the place and the means whereby that for which the Temple stood would become a reality. He would be the reality to which the sacrificial system had pointed” (90). To think that we should be engaged with Jesus as the Jewish people were engaged with the temple presents a new challenge for me. I have learned over the years that there weren’t any chairs in the Temple because there was always work to do. In fact, we need to hear that more often than we do. Wright paints a picture of people bypassing the material Temple and coming to The Temple and offering a sacrifice of praise and atoning for the their sins. And, though it does not require of us to bring a goat or a lamb to be sacrificed, we must not come in an attitude of pride or arrogance. The price is far too great to come to The Temple in that manner. We must actively engage with who this Temple was and is today. With that in mind, we must also struggle with some other issues in which Wright asserts.

Jesus knew – he must have known – that these actions, and the words which accompanied and explained tem, were very likely to get him put on trial as a false prophet leading Israel astray, and as a would-be Messiah; and that such a trial, unless he is convinced the court otherwise, would inevitably result in his being handed over to the Romans and executed as a (failed) revolutionary king (91).

I am not sure Jesus had to have known what He shared would have put Him on trial or not. Though, I know Jesus knew He was going to die for the sins of the world, I am not sure I would ran as hard as N.T. Wright does in this manner. I can only state that Jesus knew who He was and knew that His profound words would impact the world and upset a lot of people (not because He was trying to but because the words He spoke were not easy to hear). This would enviably land Him in a trial in which He would be crucified. That is something I have been thinking about a lot lately.

The final aspect of Wright’s writing I would like to explore is his section on The Road to Emmaus and his look at two very unique Psalms and this story found in Luke. These two poems found in the book of Psalms. The psalmist is far from God geographically (away from the Temple). The psalmist longs for God. People who oppose God also surround the psalmist. The disciples are distressed by the events that just occurred in Jerusalem concerning Jesus. It is a time of shock, and disequilibrium. They are living out the distress of Psalms 42 and 43. They are longing for answers that they cannot find the answers to and long for God’s redemption to be near. Then Jesus appears to disciples. They recount the story of the last few days. Jesus then shares with them His story, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets. As evening approaches, Jesus is invited to stay with these two disciples. Jesus graciously assumes the role of host and breaks bread with them—we cannot help but notice the Lord’s Supper, and then the disciples see that it is Jesus. In good pietistic form, the disciples then recount, “didn’t our hearts burn within us as Jesus opened the Scriptures?” The longing has been satisfied. The despair has been lifted. “As the deer pants for water, so the soul longs” after the one who made heaven and earth. The experience the disciples have is by far one of the more unique experiences. This brings us, in a very short sense, to the issue of Easter, or as I would rather call it, the day of Resurrection. Easter is not just dry ancient history. Easter is an event that continues to move into the future, into our lives, into our world. We proclaim Christ is raised. The despair of Psalms 42 and 43 break into shouts of hope and joy. This is the beauty of the resurrected Christ today. We must passionately embrace the story of Jesus in His resurrected presence.

The final aspect of this book deals with how we can take this information to the world. This is by far the most important chapter of the book. What good is information if we cannot engage with it and do something with it that is encouraging and edifying to the body of Christ? Wright challenges you and I to take this information and go to the world with it. We are encouraged to continue our pursuits of knowing Christ and knowing God. Though there were always be opposition to the body of Christ and the work of God in this world, we must not allow those things to dictate our active pursuits of know Christ. This is what makes this book so unique from any other book I have been asked to read for this class or others. In closing, I will quote Wright. “The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulation in story and music and art and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way into the post-postmodern world with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and truth wisdom” (196). It is to this end that we are called to the challenge of Jesus. It is my hope that we will meet the challenge head on with boldness and certainty. For the sake of the Church and our faith, we must successfully accomplish this goal. The challenge has begun.


2 Responses to “The Challenge of Jesus: N.T. Wright Book Review”

  1. benji Says:

    great book in that it challenges one to inspire others and to be a disciple of Jesus Christ

  2. Evan Lassen Says:

    From all that I’ve learned thus far, N.T. Wright digs the 1st Century with his heavy duty World View Shovel to discover the” Historical Jesus”. The formula being to define World View as : The stories, the questions, the symbols and praxis (how all these are lived out in the culture). So, by discerning the World View of the 1st Century Jew, one should be able to find and understand the historical Jesus.

    One last point I choose to add, that he (N.T. Wright) in no way subordinates other physical science efforts to “unearth” the Historical Jesus, but is in agreement all of such efforts. Wright, I believe endeavors to add ” flesh to the bones”,

    The World View tests also apply to The Modernist/ Post Modernist world View that effects such matters and gives rise to his discussion about these influences and how society is affected,specifically with the Body of Christ as it is being scattered around in the world. My image of this is we are in the same situation as the two running down the road away from Jerusalem.

    Wright challenges us to find our companion on our road who asks to walk with us and who makes such an impression that we too can turn back running to the city to tell everyone who we’ve seen.

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