...and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Ephesians 4:23).

An online interactive spiritual publication for the strengthening and building up of the Kingdom.

31 May 2010

BR: "The New Testament and the People of God" by N.T. Wright

Very few periods of history engender more dispute and discussion than the first century and the origins of Christianity. The modern scholastic community has spilled unbelievable amounts of ink in various attempts to understand the history, theology, and literature of early Christianity and its relation (or lack thereof) to the world from which it came. In the midst of all the conflicts and disputes we find N.T. Wright and his intended 5 volume series on Christian Origins and the Question of God. The New Testament and the People of God introduces this series and its lofty aim: to present a believable portrait of the origins of Christianity in its first century context. It is thoroughly appropriate that this series will involve something around 2,500 pages; nevertheless, Wright has written a work that is relatively approachable and understandable to those not entirely familiar with the world of Biblical scholarship.

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 Zion from the hands of the pagans. Perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of the book is Wright's understanding of the hope of Israel: he redefines apocalyptic, viewing it no longer in terms of the expectation of the end of the world as much as a change in the world order. He demonstrates rather clearly how this is visible in the understanding of apocalyptic passages like Daniel 7 and in much of the pseudepigraphic and apocryphal literature of the day. Apocalyptic literature is not to be taken literally but provides metaphorical imagery to explain an expected upcoming change of world order. While some of this may not sound too controversial to us, it is in the scholarly community.

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 Israel, and that this message is to be proclaimed to Jew and Greek alike. Early Christians share many of the fundamentals of the Jewish worldview: creational, covenantal, and eschatological monotheists sharing the history of the Israelite people. The great divide, however, is that Christianity believes in the realized apocalyptic hope of Israel in Christ Jesus, while the Jews still await their "redemption". The Gospels all show the substance of the hope in Jesus, and yet all do so through the prism of Judaism that came before: in Matthew, Jesus as the personification of the exodus, conquest, exile, and restoration (flight, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection); in Mark, the hidden message for the believers (even the idea of the Parable of the Sower as an example of apocalyptic literature!); in Luke, the deliberate parallels between Samuel and David with John and Jesus; in John, the Logos and Genesis so intertwined; even in Paul and Hebrews, the same theme develops: the story of Jesus is the fulfillment of Judaism. Again, this may not seem as controversial to us, but it is in scholarship. Other concepts include the recognition that Christians expected Jesus to return, but Christianity did not develop on account of failed hopes of His imminent return; it is not accurate to make strong delineations between "Jewish" and "Gentile" Christianity or Christians, since all seem to share in fundamentally similar worldviews more akin to Judaism then Hellenism; and diversity has always been a part of Christianity in some form, and what is more surprising is the overall unity in worldview than whatever differences may exist.

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
April 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment