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29 May 2010

BR: "Jesus and the Victory of God" by N.T. Wright

Jesus and the Victory of God represents the second volume in a multipart series, "Christian Origins and the Question of God," by N.T. Wright, a noted Anglican bishop and scholar. Jesus and the Victory of God follows The New Testament and the People of God (abbreviated NTPG) and flows from the arguments made within the previous work. While Wright in NTPG lays the fundamental groundwork of the entire series, exploring different worldviews and attempting to establish the historical context of the world of Jesus and the early Christians, Jesus and the Victory of God strives to place Jesus within that first century context and to present a historically viable picture of Jesus based upon the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the historical portrait of first century Palestine.

Wright begins, however, by providing a sketch of the history of interpretation of Jesus and His life in the modern world and an overview of the main positions in scholarship today. Wright deftly moves from Reimarus and the early attempts to reconstruct the "historical Jesus" to the main divide between the types of Wrede and Schweitzer (the divide between thorough skepticism and thorough eschatology), the "new quest" of the Jesus Seminar (with special sections analyzing and critiquing Mack and Crossan in particular), and establishing himself somewhere within the "third quest," or the attempt to renew a modified perspective akin to Schweitzer of old. Wright establishes his essential thesis as developed previously in NTPG: Jesus has much to do with the people of Israel and particularly the apocalyptic hope of Israel, although not the "end of the world" conceptualization popular in both scholasticism and many forms of Evangelical fundamentalism. Wright invites the reader to see if anything can really be known about Jesus from the Gospel accounts, and whether the information presented therein can be trusted. The analysis will focus on the main points elaborated upon in NTPG: how do Jesus' words and actions fit, if they indeed fit, in an understandable way, in the story of Israel in the first century? How does Jesus define symbol and praxis? What are His aims and intentions? How does He communicate such things? Wright then sets out the basic questions that he seeks to answer: who was Jesus? What was He doing? How was He perceived? How did He perceive Himself? What is going to occur? The rest of the book seeks to answer these questions.

In part II, Wright begins his analysis of the life and death of Jesus by focusing on Jesus as a prophet. Wright helpfully demonstrates how Jesus can be defined as a prophet (even if He has other hats to wear, so to speak) and fully demonstrates how Jesus fits within the prophetic tradition in Israel. Comparisons and contrasts are made between Jesus and Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and other noted prophets, both in what they did and what they said. Wright demonstrates how Jesus has viewed Israel's history, and more important Israel's current situation, in this prophetic tradition, and how Jesus speaks to the people in familiar language while radically reshaping what is meant. Wright focuses on many of the important symbols of Israel: the Temple, the land, the expectations of the coming Messiah, and demonstrates how Jesus speaks of all these matters using Himself and the Kingdom He proclaims as the new definition. Wright also spends much time demonstrating that Jesus saw the enemy as Satan, not necessarily the Romans, and the implications of this shift in thought.

Part III focuses primarily on Jesus' role as Messiah. Wright demonstrates clearly what the first century Jewish world expected out of their messiah, and how Jesus presents a definition of the Messiah in a way far different than expected yet recognizably Jewish in nature. Wright shows very clearly that Jesus did understand His role as that of the Messiah, focusing particularly in how Jesus saw Himself as the fulfillment of Daniel 7, many of the prophecies in Zechariah, Isaiah 40-55, and many others. Wright also demonstrates that Jesus' death was no accident but perceived as part of the overarching purpose involved: Jesus as living the message which He has preached.

In the end, Wright concludes that Jesus indeed saw Himself as the Messiah, the "son of man" and the "son of God", but radically re-defined what that meant. Rome would not be overthrown; Satan would. The Kingdom would come, but such did not mean the restoration of Jerusalem but indeed its destruction. The vindication of Jesus-- His "coming", so to speak-- is seen in terms of the destruction of 70 CE, demonstrating that Jesus and everything He said are confirmed. Jesus re-defines the Temple and the people of God to focus no longer on Jerusalem, Israel, or the Temple, but upon Himself and the people who will follow Him. Therefore, Jesus is perceived by the world around Him as another revolutionary, not of the same type as the pretenders before and after Him, but dangerous nonetheless. The Jewish authorities want Him executed to preserve themselves and the Temple they cherish; Pilate, despite wanting to contradict the Jews at every turn, is more worried about himself than justice, and assents. Jesus is then executed as a revolutionary, but His death actually represents the final condemnation of Jerusalem. Paradoxically, God has His victory through Jesus' death-- He has died as He said to live, and He will receive His exaltation.

N.T. Wright has done well in Jesus and the Victory of God to present a historically sensible portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century milieu of Palestine. Wright very helpfully demonstrates how Jesus very properly fits into the prophetic tradition of Israel, and yet how He redefines Israel for the purposes of the Kingdom which He proclaims. There is much that Wright establishes in JTVG with which we have already fully agreed (the importance of the destruction of Jerusalem, understanding apocalyptic language metaphorically); there are many other things which make sense and would not be disagreeable to most Christians. On the other hand, while Wright does well at providing a historically viable portrait of Jesus, the portrait painted provides many theological difficulties. While Wright has done well at restoring Jesus' Jewish heritage, one must wonder if he has "over-Judaized," or over-contextualized, Jesus. All the parables seem to have Israel as the main focus, according to Wright, even though Wright will admit in terms of other teachings how Jesus will constantly re-define Israel in His preaching to conform to the concepts of His upcoming Kingdom. Can this not be true of at least some of His parables also? Ideas of individual and collective, the nature of sin and redemption thereof, and many other concepts are defined solely in terms of Jewish understanding in the first century; is it possible that Jesus provides some re-definition of these terms also? Wright seems to entirely discount the conceptualization of Jesus as God the Son during His ministry; while this may suit Jewish sensibilities, based upon all evidence in the New Testament (cf. John 1:1, among others), is it really accurate? Furthermore, Wright's definition of apocalyptic in terms of the end of the current world order and therefore exclusively in terms of the destruction of Jerusalem causes some conflict with that which comes later. Should we believe that later expectations of Jesus' return in terms of individual judgment wholly derive from later Christians and have nothing to do with Jesus' own messages (cf. Acts 17:30-31, Hebrews 9:27-28, 2 Peter 3:9-11; Matthew 25)? We eagerly await Wright's analysis of Paul and other matters in upcoming editions of the series; until then, we are left to grapple with many questions that JTVG poses.

N.T. Wright has done a great service in his attempts so far to divest us of our post-Enlightenment, twenty-first century perceptions and worldviews, and to help us gain a greater understanding of the first century world and how Jesus and the early Christians fit within it. What Wright has done here is exactly the type of thing for which scholarship ought to be known: taking all available evidence to color and inform the Biblical text without feeling compelled to continually undermine it. The historical portrait does bring up many theological questions, and we must grapple with them and ascertain whether the history or the theology require adaptation to conform to the picture presented by the Scriptures. While the questioning may be difficult, we at least have a good basis and a good start, thanks to Wright's work, among others, to help us develop a historically and theologically accurate portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus and the Victory of God provides much worth considering and can help the mature and discerning believer understand the Jesus of history as revealed in the Scriptures, and fodder for many questions that may have no easy answer. We eagerly await to see how the series shall unfold!

Ethan R. Longhenry
April 2007

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