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The New Testament and the People of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 1)

Book Review

N.T. Wright, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992, 560 pp.

This massive undertaking lays the epistemological, literary, and historical foundations for Wright’s projected five-volume series (now stretching into six) entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Breathtaking in its scope and innovative in its methodology, The New Testament and the People of God is a must-read.

Wright begins by grappling with the knotty issue of hermeneutics (broadly defined) and authority, arguing that theology must be worked out in conjunction with history and literary criticism. He recognizes, however, that epistemology must be addressed first. Epistemologically, Wright rejects not only the naïve positivism which imagines that texts and events can be interpreted “objectively,” but also the subjective phenomenalism which undermines public discourse. The middle road taken by Wright is that of critical realism: Whereas initial observation must be challenged by critical reflection, nevertheless it is possible to grasp something of reality. Though not advocating postmodernism, Wright nevertheless, in good postmodern fashion, makes much of stories as windows into worldviews.

The literary analysis Wright uses is a modified version of A.J. Griemas’ narrative analysis, mapping out initial sequences, topical sequences, and final sequences of biblical stories. Using this tool in the context of critical realism, Wright proposes to study ancient worldviews, mindsets, aims, intentions, and motivations. He is quick to add that this is the discipline of historical study, not psychological speculation.

Wright rejects naïve approaches to Scriptural authority, including the terms of the popular debate about which aspects are “culturally conditioned” and which are “timelessly true,” since after all: “All of the New Testament is ‘culturally conditioned'” (p. 20). The model of authority which Wright proposes is best illustrated as “a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost” (p. 140). Acts 1 through 4 include Creation, Fall, Israel, and Jesus; the fifth act is to be worked out ourselves in a way consistent with the first four.

Wright then proceeds to map out the worldview of first-century Judaism (or Judaisms), considering its symbols: Temple, Land, Torah, and racial identity. This worldview is explicated in Israel’s core beliefs of creational monotheism, election, and eschatology, understood in a covenantal context. But what is innovative about Wright’s treatment of first-century Judaism is his starting-point in the political turbulence of the time rather than in abstract questions of timeless truths. Before even attempting a description of the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees, Wright outlines the story ofIsrael’s struggle against imperial oppressors from Babylon to Rome, paying particular attention to the Jewish revolt. He writes:

Any suggestion, even by implication, that Jews led untroubled lives with leisure to discuss the finer points of dogmatic theology must be rejected. Jewish society faced major external threats and major internal problems. The question, what it might mean to be a good or loyal Jew, had pressing social, economic and political dimensions as well as cultural and theological ones….the pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation — from oppression, from debt, from Rome. Other issues, I suggest, were regularly seen in this light. The hope of Israel, and of most special-interest groups within Israel, was not for post-mortem disembodied bliss, but for a national liberation that would fulfil the expectations aroused by the memory, and regular celebration, of the exodus and, nearer at hand, of the Maccabaean history. Hope focused on the coming of Israel’s god (pp. 169,170).

The corollary for our understanding of Torah and “works of Torah” is that the traditional Protestant caricature of Judaism as a legalistic religion is simply wrong. He writes, for instance:

Torah provided three badges in particular which marked the Jew out from the pagan: circumcision, sabbath, and the kosher laws….Debates about sabbath and purity, therefore, occupied an immense amount of time and effort in the discussions of the learned, as we know from the Mishnah and Talmud. This was not, it should be stressed, because Jews in general or Pharisees in particular were concerned merely for outward ritual or ceremony, nor because they were attempting to earn their salvation (within some sub-Christian scheme!) by virtuous living. It was because they were concerned for the divine Torah, and were therefore anxious to maintain their god-given distinctiveness over against the pagan nations, particularly those who were oppressing them. Their whole raison-d’être as a nation depended on it….it was Torah, and particularly the special badges of sabbath and purity, that demarcated the covenant people, and that therefore provided litmus tests of covenant loyalty and signs of covenant hope….the ‘works of Torah’ were not a legalist’s ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity (pp. 237,238).

These observations about the role and function of Torah within Judaism are foundational for Wright’s work on the historical Jesus (volume 2, Jesus and the Victory of God) as well as for Paul (planned for a future volume).

Before sketching out the history of the first-century church in light of this background, Wright argues that Israel’s apocalpytic hope has been grossly misunderstood by many scholars. What Israel hoped for was not an end to this space-time universe, but the end of her exile under foreign domination. Apocalpytic language about the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky are vivid metaphors, not literal expectations. The purpose of the language is not to describe the end of history, but to invest historical events with their theological meaning, to convey the importance of “earth-shattering” events. Regarding the meaning of salvation in this context, he writes:

A word is necessary at this point about the meaning of the term ‘salvation’ in the context of the Jewish expectation. It ought to be clear by now that within the worldview we have described there can be little thought of the rescue of Israel consisting of the end of the space-time universe, and/or of Israel’s future enjoyment of a non-physical, ‘spiritual’ bliss….Rather, the ‘salvation’ spoken of in the Jewish sources of this period has to do with rescue from the national enemies, restoration of the national symbols, and a state of shalom in which every man will sit under his vine or fig-tree. ‘Salvation’ encapsulates the entire future hope. If there are Christian redefinitions of the term later on, that is another question. For first-century Jews it could only mean the inauguration of the age to come, liberation from Rome, the restoration of the Temple, and the free enjoyment of their own Land (p. 300).

The “kingdom of god” in this historical context was not an abstract ethical ideal or timeless truth, but the expected defeat of Caesar, Herod, and every other tyrant by Israel’s god of justice. When Wright turns to his sketch of the early church, he capitalizes on this insight, uncovering anessentialy Jewish revolutionary underpinning for the Christian confession that Jesus, not Caesar, is the real lord.

After surveying early Christianity and the New Testament in this light, Wright turns his attention to proposing a revised theory of form-criticism which turns the Bultmannian approach on its head: longer narrative units, including particularly controversy stories, likely evolved into shorter apophthegms, not vice versa. So, for instance, even though the Gospel of Thomas likely does contain Jesus sayings independent of the synoptic Gospels, nevertheless as a whole Thomas represents a later development from Jesus’ essentially Jewish message rather than an earlier and more accurate reflection of an essentially non-Jewish Jesus.

In concluding his massive work, Wright outlines the implications of his overall approach. Among his conclusions is that the “two-covenant” approach to Judaism and Christianity advocated by Gagerand Gaston is actually patronizing to Judaism. On the other hand, apart from arguing that early Christianity was no more “anti-Jewish” than any other Jewish sect (like the Pharisees and theEssenes), it does not seem to be sufficiently clear in this volume how Wright can avoid asupersessionist position. Nevertheless, no matter where one stands on these issues, The New Testament and the People of God is a formidable work to be dealt with.

Mark M. Mattison

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