N. T. Wright answers “What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian?”


I’ve been asking biblical scholars at every level the following question: “What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian?” Over the next few years (or longer, perhaps), I’ll be posting their responses every Monday. Subscribe to theLAB and don’t miss a single one. 

We begin with the inimitable Tom Wright. 

For anyone wanting to study the Bible I would say: you are seeking to become a historian, and a historian’s first responsibility is to know the sources as widely and deeply as possible. Not only should you have the New Testament in Greek at easy recall; you should read the Septuagint regularly (as well as the Hebrew scriptures themselves) and imagine the early Christians reading it. And you should know the second-temple Jewish world, and the way it retrieved those scriptures: Scrolls, Josephus, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Philo, and at least the earlier Rabbinic sources. You should try to get on top of at least some of the relevant inscriptions, papyri and coins. You should know the history, from the Maccabees to Bar-Kochba and beyond, with an easy familiarity, and be constantly imagining yourself in that world. A historian’s primary task is to think into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves; that should be your never-ending study and delight.

For anyone studying theology – and it’s hard to see how you can really study the New Testament without thinking about its primary subject-matter – you should become thoroughly familiar with the way in which people in the second-temple period thought about God/god/the gods, the world, humans, ethics, worship and so on: from ‘straight’ paganism (if there was such a thing) through the great philosophies and the Jewish world-pictures, and then into the ways in which the early Christians navigated that world. You should constantly be asking yourself which larger narratives these people imagined themselves to be living in. You should go forwards at least as far as Irenaeus and Tertullian, but beware of the ways in which some later Christian theologians tried to get the same results as the NT (Trinity, Christology, atonement, etc.) but without really grasping the Jewish context (Temple, Torah, the great Jewish narratives) within which the NT statements mean what they mean. Later theology, from Athanasius to Aquinas to Calvin to Barth and beyond, is a rich treasure-house, but since all of the above claim to be in some ways ‘biblical’ this claim needs to be tested and prodded at regular intervals, and challenged when necessary.

I would say all this to anyone be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or even atheist. But to a Christian studying all this I would say: your personal reading of scripture (especially the Psalms), your prayer, your participation in the church’s rhythm of sacramental worship on the one hand and service to the poor (in whatever form) on the other – all this will form you as a person, including (but going beyond) who you are as a thinking person, in ways you won’t see at the time and perhaps not ever. But it will create and sustain a life in which your historical and theological study will be informed and infused with the life of the Holy Spirit; not to make you a perfect or infallible theologian or historian but to guide you in many appropriate directions and, not least, to give you courage when attempting difficult tasks and consolation when you fail (as we all do), as well as humility on the odd occasions you might really succeed.

~Tom Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St. Andrews

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the editor of Word by Word's Lecture Hall and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger