The sheer scale of the work is daunting, and Wright rises to the challenge. He everywhere demonstrates a formidable command of not only the primary sources-- the Old Testament, Jewish apocryphal/pseudepigraphic literature, Jewish and pagan historical works, the New Testament and subsequent works-- but also the wide range of secondary literature encompassing the historical, literary, and theological aspects of the story. The presentation he displays is by no means without controversy, yet is manifestly more holistic and comprehensive than many others put forth.
Wright is, of course, a good Anglican, and exhibits no intentions of departing from it. His investigations into Christian origins are for the purposes of understanding and not for restoration; at many points it seems that Wright would consider any aim of restoring the New Testament church to be misguided. While he is more conservative than many in scholasticism he still seems to hold to viewpoints regarding the inspiration and authorship of much of the New Testament that differ with many of our own. Recognizing these differences, and some others brought out in the book itself, we can nevertheless gain much from this man's wide knowledge and reflections.
The New Testament and the People of God is broken down into five parts. In part one, Wright begins to explain the questions and therefore the difficulties involved in the investigation: how have we reached this point in our understandings of early Christianity? What are the main theories involved, what are their underlying assumptions, and can they really claim to represent first century realities? What are the history, theology, and literary studies of early Christianity? What relationships, if any, do these three aspects have? These are the questions that will begin to be explored in this volume and will continue in future volumes.
The second part is entirely devoted to establishing the necessary tools to engage in this study. Here Wright challenges modern post-Enlightenment worldviews and the projections thereof onto the past. Wright analyzes positivism (post-Enlightenment objective rationalism) and phonomenalism (postmodern subjectivism), the dominant worldviews competing in our own day, and demonstrates where each is lacking. He then posits the concept of critical realism: understanding that we as humans are imperfect in our understanding but can understand things beyond ourselves. In critical realism, something is perceived, challenged in critical reflection, but often will survive the challenge and be understood as being real.
Wright also demonstrates in part two how story is the dominant vehicle of understanding and communicating worldviews; we all understand the world in terms of story, and such was no different for the first century Jew or Christian. Literature articulates these stories and promulgates them. Likewise, Wright tackles the nature of history and ascertaining "what happened" in history, demonstrating that history is more than just a set of facts but the explanations of aim, intent, and meaning of events. Wright also investigates the nature of worldviews, and the critical aspects of worldview: symbols, stories, and praxis. These aspects can lead us to an understanding of the theology of a group of persons. We can understand how people identify themselves in terms of God, how they understand the world and events in terms of themselves and their God, and so on and so forth. Wright then shows that these disciplines, far from being separate, must be understood together if a realistic portrait of the first century will be understood: early Christians believed that their God acted in specific ways through Jesus of Nazareth in the public sphere and proclaimed His story.
In part III, Wright goes into great detail describing the Jewish landscape of the early first century, providing a starting point to understanding early Christianity. Wright describes the events leading up to the first century, the delineation of the different Jewish sectarian parties of the first century, yet how most Jews shared fundamentally similar worldviews. Wright strives to describe the worldview of the "Jew on the street". Many relevant details can be ascertained: Jews viewed themselves as creational, covenantal, and eschatological monotheists, believing in the one true God who would redeem them from their exile, and free
Part IV turns to early Christianity and the attempt to understand the early church. Wright starts with some fixed historical events in the church from Jesus' death to Polycarp's martyrdom in the middle of the second century. He then turns to understand the beliefs, praxis, and symbols of early Christianity in an attempt to understand early Christian worldviews. He then analyzes the New Testament to discover the stories of early Christianity, and then pulls it all together in the end. What Wright discovers is a group firmly rooted in the tradition of Judaism (against the rampant Hellenism so often assumed to be the source of much of Christianity): people who believe in the God of Israel, that He has acted definitely through Jesus to redeem
Part V represents a conclusion, establishing that the first century is complicated. Jesus is seen to be of great importance, and we cannot believe the first century Christians saw Him as a detached part of their religion; the New Testament must be respected as a book by Christians about their beliefs and the historical basis of them; the question of God is rather acute, one not very open to ecumenicalism, and of the utmost importance to life and death in the first century.
Such only scratches the surface of the depth and explanatory power present in The New Testament and the People of God. While there are certainly many points of disagreement, nevertheless, much can be gained from Wright's analyses and discussions. Wright's work represents a powerful means to understand and define early Christians and the New Testament in its own worldview and context, and should provide an excellent starting point for all future discussions. The New Testament and the People of God certainly compels you to want more, even if it means another 500 pages!
Ethan R. Longhenry