N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’

I didn’t know what to expect in picking up this book. I believe N.T. Wright’s theology has some serious deficiencies, but I really appreciate  his excellent scholarship on some things (especially on Christ’s resurrection).  But overall, I’m very glad I read it.

The Challenge of Jesus basically addresses the issue of the quest for the historical Jesus (Jesus the man, the historical figure rather than the Jesus of dogma and theology), as well as how this directly and freshly relates how we live our lives today. Wright believes that investigating Jesus in his historical context does no violence to the Faith: Jesus “has his feet solidly planted in first-century Palestine and yet rings deeply true to the resurrected Christ of Christian belief, worship, and experience” (backcover).

I liked the entire premise of the book – that Christians should pursue seeing Jesus as the man of history in his first-century world in order to know God more deeply and learn how to live in our postmodern age. Wright argues that because of God’s glory revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ centrality to Christian mission, and our imperative to pursue truth and loyalty to Scripture, we’re obligated look to the real Jesus of history. I was a history major in college, thus I’m always frustrated by theologians who downplay the importance of history and narrative, instead focusing on the abstractions and philosophical categories of theology. Just because people misuse history to diminish Jesus does not mean we cannot use history to discover more truth about Jesus. After all, the historical Jesus is the same Jesus we worship.

I liked how Wright counter-acted revisionists of the historical Jesus — while at the same time mostly ignoring them! He only occasionally mentioned the “Jesus Seminar” authors, but using the internal character of the Gospels, Second Temple Judaism literature, and other background knowledge, Wright  decisively rebuts their theories. This is a very nice feature and puts a positive face on the book that will make its message and truth appeal to more people (in particular, those who dislike the whole idea of “debate”).

I did learn some valuable things from this book  I did not know before. The contrast between Jesus and the Jerusalem temple was a  powerful and very compelling evidence that Jesus believed himself to be divine. The Jewish self-understanding of exile and Kingdom/Messianic hope was also informative, as was his chapter on the resurrection (not surprising, that being Wright’s forte). Furthermore, he describes biblical and theological truths in an inspiring and rich vocabulary (in contrast to some theologians who seemingly even try to sound  boring).

On the negative side, there was much I honestly didn’t like about the book. While I did enjoy the historical bent Wright took, he uses it to come up with interpretations of Jesus’ parables and other things that virtually no one in church history has taken, and his reasoning for taking those interpretations does not always follow. He lacks tight argumentation. He applies 1st century texts and events to the biblical text and events without giving warrants on why those 1st century backgrounds should be applied in the way Wright is applying them.

Case in point: Wright notes a passage in Josephus’ works where Josephus was telling a brigand leader to “repent and believe in me” to lay down his rebellion against Rome. Wright notes the similarity of the Greek sentence to Jesus’ own teaching of “repent and believe,” and makes the conclusion that Jesus’ kingdom message was one of political bent and against war with Rome. While I find that comparison between Josephus and Jesus’ statements informative and worthy of further study, he makes a big logical jump here.

Wright’s hermeneutics have weaknesses  – he leans toward heavily allegorical rather than plain-literal interpretation. The Bible certainly has many parallels, types, and allegories, but may of his connections are a bit of a stretch, and he’s a more dogmatic on them than he should be. He takes some shots at Premilennialists and to my surprise, brings up some of his “New Perspective on Paul” soteriology into the book, which seemed out of place.

Things like this made many portions of the book less helpful, and I was unsure about recommending it until I came to the last two chapters on applying Jesus to today, especially this postmodern world and the chaotic changes going on. The last two chapters are excellently written, wise, and tremendously inspiring. They alone make me want to buy the book now (I borrowed this copy from a library). Wright is strong on practical, all-encompassing applications, the joy and anticipation of the future, what the historical Jesus can bring through us in ministering to people in the postmodern culture, and connecting  our vocation with biblical truth. It really impacted me and helped my spiritual life this whole week.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book, but  not to a new  believer. If you already have a holistic grasp on the Bible, theology, and hermeneutics will you better appreciate how wonderful and fresh Wright’s insights are… and discern some of his craziness!

Here are some highlights from the book:

“We can categorize the challenged of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to historic Christianity in terms of its  asking a necessary question in a misleading fashion” (19)

“Jesus took his own story very seriously. He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel. He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” (85).

“The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is made known.” (94-5).

“If, therefore, Judaism did indeed have a great incarnational symbol at its very heart, namely the Temple, then for Jesus to upstage the Temple, to take on its role role and function and to legitimate this with Davidic claims, meant that Jesus was claiming that he rather than the Temple was the place where and the means by which the living God was present with Israel.” (111).

“My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding through Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross — and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentered around that point.” (123-4) [very much in the spirit of John 1.18]

“Suppose Jesus’ execution was not a clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax. Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all. Suppose this was, after all, how exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven, how the kingdom was to come.” (162).

“The individual existential angst of the sixties has  become the corporate and cultural angst of the nineties. The human beings who could not pull themselves together in the 1960s have become the human societies that cannot pull themselves together in the 1990s… The Christian answer to it is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is of course love. The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes all postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known…” (170).

“When God does what God intends to do, this will be a fresh act of grace, of radical newness. At one level it will be quite unexpected, like a surprise party with guests we never thought we would meet and delicious food we never thought we would taste. But at the same time there will be a rightness about it, a rich continuity with what has gone on before so that in the midst of our surprise and our delight we will say ‘Of course! This is how it had to be, even though we’d never imagined it.'” (179-180).

“Bearing God’s image is not just a fact. It is a vocation” (183).

“We can and must as Christians within a postmodern world give an account of human knowing that will apply to music and mathematics, to biology and history, to theology and chemistry. We need to articulate, for the post-postmodern world, what we might call an epistemology of love.” (195)

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4 comments

  1. Liam Moran

    Paul,

    Good review. While I would share with your disagreements with Wright, I would also agree that he has a brilliant mind and is a scholar on the historical Jesus. I think that he has some valuable insights into this scholarly discussion.

    Liam

  2. Eric Hockaday

    To find Wrights reasoning for the conclusions he draws in his examination of parables see his other Jesus books. The Challenge of Jesus was written from selections of other books and lectures and is in itself not the complete idea but only part. His other books go more in depth with the language and words used and how the correlate to bible passages.

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