The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. David Lanier's New Testament I: Jesus and the Gospels class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume Two, by N. T. Wright, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 741 pages. Reviewed by Christopher Krycho.
Few books can claim to represent a substantive entry in both apologetics and hermeneutics, yet this is precisely what N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God accomplishes. In this book, the second in Wright’s massive work on Christians origins,1 he treats the question of the historical Jesus via a thorough survey of the modern history of interpretation and the contents of the synoptic gospels themselves. The result is a telling well within historic Christian orthodoxy, though often at sharp angles to current historical approaches to Jesus. Along the way, he also marks out a fruitful interpretive path for Christians reading the gospels. The picture he paints of Jesus—a first-century prophet-Messiah who saw himself standing at the capstone of Israel’s history, fulfilling Yahweh’s plans for his people, but in a way no one in his day seemed to expect—is both apologetically compelling and spiritually illuminating.
Wright begins with an introduction designed to orient the reader to the basic challenges confronting any would-be interpreter of Jesus in the modern era. Critical issues abound, and it is impossible to return to a pre-critical reading of the text. But though the historian must deal with any number of problems in interpreting the person of Jesus, these problems are not specific to him; they are endemic to the task of history.
Wright therefore begins by establishing his criteria for evaluating interpretations of Jesus’ person and program. Any such theory must account for the transition from Judaism to Christianity; it must therefore present Jesus, the lynchpin of that transformation, as not only dissimilar to both worldviews, but also similar to both (132). Jesus must have made sense to his Jewish contemporaries, but also profoundly theologically innovative, to create an entirely new community with its own theology and practice. Wright argues Jesus accomplished this via a program in which “[the] symbolic world of first-century Judaism has been rethought from top to bottom, even while its underlying theology (monotheism, election, and eschatology) has been retained” (218)—with Jesus himself at the center of the plan of Israel’s god, uniquely embodying a father-son relationship with YHWH.
He argues this thesis in two major parts, one focusing on the work and teachings of Jesus as a messianic prophet, the other focusing on the Jesus’ aims and beliefs as he carried out his program. Along the way, Wright examines a wide and representative sample of Jesus’ reported deeds and teachings. In each case, the data fits the thesis: Jesus was retelling Israel’s story in a new way, with himself at the center of God’s plan to end his people’s long exile. By the end of the volume, Wright can thus conclude:
[Jesus] believed himself called, by Israel’s god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH’s return to Zion, and the somewhat more nebulous but still important traditions which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH’s return. (651)
This is not a simple restatement of typical Christian belief, though of course it accords with it. It goes further, making sense of Jesus’ words and deeds in a way that meets Wright’s criterion of double dissimilarity and double similarity. The thesis passes the test.
Wright’s volume has much to commend it: its historical method, its thoroughness, its broad engagement with opposing views, even its style. Its most significant contributions, though, fall under two basic headings: a challenge to many modern (atheological or even anti-theological) re-readings of the gospels, and a challenge to many current evangelical interpretation of the gospels. Both of these are successful in large measure because of Wright’s care (and flare) in dealing with the material and with other (contrary) treatments of the same data, but it is Wright’s ability to build cogent arguments with that material on this scale which makes this more than a tedious summary of data.
Against secular, demythologizing, and materialist interpretations of the text, Wright mounts a serious and substantive case for a traditional (though not uncritical) assessment of the historical reliability of the synoptics and their picture of Jesus. Many critics suppose that the picture of Jesus painted by the gospellers must be anachronistic, ideologically-driven or situationally-motivated, or inflated by faith in contradistinction to history. Such readings of Jesus paint him as any variety of figures: a sadly-mistaken apocalyptic prophet; a Stoic philosopher in first century garb; a preacher of progressive ideas of love and tolerance; the author of a new, non-Jewish religion; a preacher of Jewish (or timeless) verities. One suspects, with Wright, that many of these readings find their source not in the text but in the prejudices or preferences of the commentators. Wright’s argument, by contrast, is far more credible than any of these—and not simply because it aligns with the historic confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Rather, his picture of a distinctly Jewish apocalyptic prophet makes the best sense of the actual evidence from the earliest texts, including not only the synoptic gospels but also the early epistles and even the non-canonical literature like the Gospel of Thomas.
The second major value of the book is its (usually, but not always, quiet) challenge to many Christian readings of the gospels. Wright accurately notes that many Christian interpreters, perhaps especially in the Protestant tradition, have struggled to make sense of the gospels. Many evangelical readings of the gospels find little or no connection between what Jesus said and did and his crucifixion and resurrection. Indeed, no few of the commentaries this author has read sturggle to make much of the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ mutual hostility toward Jesus without reducing them to caricatures, or to make sense of many of the parables or their role in Jesus’ ministry. The interpretation Wright proposes accounts for all these issues, and provides a helpful hermeneutic for untangling many of the otherwise perplexing passages in the gospels.
Wright’s work thus walks a helpful middle ground between misinterpretations on either side. Anachronistic tendencies among both secular and Christians interpreters lead both astray. He was not a modern progressive, nor an unfortunately mistaken apocalyptic street preacher, nor a teller of timeless ethical truths, nor a preacher of a new religion of grace oddly disconnected from Judaism. Rather, he was a Jewish prophet going about the business of offering a subversive interpretation—though one deeply in touch with the Law and Prophets—of YHWH’s promises to his. This is unsurprising. After all, this is precisely how the gospels present Jesus: dissimilar in certain ways from both the Judaism that preceded him and the Christianity that followed him (again: Wright’s criteria of double dissimilarity). Any telling of the historical Jesus must provide an explanation for the transition from Second Temple Judaism to Christianity, and do so on historically plausible grounds. So must any right interpretation of the gospels for Christian piety. Wright’s theory accomplishes this handily.
Perhaps even more important is the way in which Wright’s work strikes at a kind of nascent docetism among many Christians. While Jesus’ full humanity may be an article of faith for orthodox believers, many fail to think of what exactly that means. Jesus was not merely as a divine mystery speaking timeless truths and then fulfilling a cruciform commission strangely disconnected from his parable-telling, paralytic-healing ministry. Rather, he was a man standing at the conclusion the line of Jewish men who had called Israel back to faithfulness and proclaimed that Israel’s God was about saving the whole world. Not only does Wright have a Chalcedonian Christology, he is more orthodox than many believers: the Jesus painted in this portrait is no less human than divine. Jesus’ sense of vocation, his real temptations and struggles to fulfill that vocation, and even his not-rare, but unconventionally-embodied, claim to Messiahship were the actions of a first-century Jewish man. To see this clearly is to see exactly what the Fathers meant in their confession of “our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and manhood, truly God and truly man… consubstantial with us according to the Manhood, in all things like unto us, without sin…”2 To miss it is to risk missing the humanity of Christ in all its glory.
Application and Conclusion
Wright’s work is to be commended on a number of levels. Its scholarly depth makes it a formidable resource when discussing the historical Jesus, particularly with those who reject the gospels’ claims to present Jesus accurately. Wright’s enjoyable wit makes the length of the work far more manageable. His proposed hermeneutic, though it can be pressed too far, provides a helpful tool for interpreting the synoptics. Most of all, his reminder of the real and true humanity of Jesus is a sharp rejoinder to the functional docetism all too common in evangelicalism. The book is therefore very helpful for both apologetics and exegesis. Whatever their other differences with Wright, pastors and teachers would do well to digest Wright’s work here.