on 9 February 2004
Having joined the journey a few years ago, I discovered that the train had left the station some years back and had already gathered a good head of steam.
This book, and in fact the series to date, has been a personally enlightening discovery for me. To find someone doing such a thourough job to hand me a clear picture of life, thinking and history at the time of the new testament was nothing short of amazing. As Wright pieces together not only the times, but ways to understand those times and make good sense of the data, I find myself with the tools needed to know and discover the Jesus that I had previously only experienced intangibly.
The beginning on such a massive task feels much like starting out to write a tale as grand as the Lord of the Rings. But this is one hughed in different tones and devices. The story goes on by clear and balanced scrutiney rather than narrative and description. But is none the less compelling to read.
As someone unused to such academic books, I devoured this and couldn't wait for more. Which thankfully there was, and plenty of.
on 5 September 2000
Is this a work of literary hermeneutics, historical epistemology, New Testament/Biblical theology, history of religions, worldview analysis, or simply a prolegomenon to Wright's following work on Jesus, Paul, et alia? The answer has to be that it is all these things. Moreover, it is all these things in a most impressive, magisterial way. This is one of the few occasions when 'tour de force' does not seem like hyperbole.
Wright has helpfully (for a reviewer at least) divided his work into five parts: an introduction, 'Tools for the Task', 'First-Century Judaism within the Greco-Roman world', 'The First Christian Century', and a conclusion.
'Tools for the Task' is the hardest section with which to know what to do. Recognising the difficulties in simplistic accounts of human knowing, Wright skilfully avoids the nihilism that claims that one cannot know truly anything external to oneself. He advocates what has become known as 'critical realism', a term which has become known to New Testament scholars primarily through the work of the late Ben F. Meyer (to whom Wright refers frequently and with approval). The forms of knowing in which Wright is most interested, for obvious reasons, are literary and historical knowledge. With regard to literature he asks, "Is anybody there?" a significant question given the solipsism of much recent literary theory. He explores Greimas' structuralist analysis of story, best known by Richard B. Hays use with regard to Paul (in his 'The Faith of Jesus Christ'). With regard to historical knowledge, he claims that real history will seek to get on the 'inside' of events. By this, he seems primarily to mean that the historian will seek to explore the intentions and beliefs of the actors in events. In short, the historian is interested in worldviews. To this end Wright developes a poweful grid for the analysis of worldviews, one that takes into account symbolic acts, defining stories, and praxis.
The rest of the work may be seen as an application of the tools explored in the first part. He explores the multiform world of second-Temple Judaism. It will come as no suprise to those familiar with Wright's work on Paul that he draws here on the ground-breaking work of E. P. Sanders (yet differing significantly in certain areas). While recognizing that Second-Temple Judaim was not a simple monolithic entity, Wright eschews the atomism that can speak only of 'judaisms'. It is here that we find the fullest and most sustained argument for Wright's well-known, and controversial, thesis that Jews of the Second Temple era regarded themselves as still being in exile and were awaiting the new exodus promised by the prophets. Wright's mastery of the primary literature is impressive. He displays all that one has come to expect from him: appreciation of the literature's national hopes, alertness to allusions, and razor-sharp wit.
He opens his section on 'The First Christian Century' with a reference to Albert Schweitzer's seminal 'The Quest for the Historical Jesus'. He claims that there is a need for someone to do for the history of the early church what Schweitzer did for historical Jesus research: deflate its pretensions and expose the tendentious nature of its argumentation. Although Wright does not allow this the space it needs (we perhaps may expect that later in the series), he makes a notable start. His most significant thesis is that obsession with the parousia and its imminence or delay is much more a phenomenon of modern scholarship than first century Christianity. This is a well-argued and welcome dose of common sense. As with Second-Temple Judaism, Wright begins to lay out the worldview of early Christianity. He does this in much less depth, however, for two reasons. First, Judaism forms the background from which Jesus, Paul, et alia come. Second, his exploration of 'Christian origins and the question of god' will necessarily flesh out his preliminary sketch here.
In his conclusion, Wright makes some bold and audacious statements. Most fundamental is his claim, repeated elsewhere, that the word 'god' is not univocal, hence his unusual habit of writing the word with a lower case 'g'. We do not necessarily know about what we are talking when we speak of the deity. He therefore takes on some enlightenment 'commonplaces', such as Neusner's attempt to claim that Christianity and Judaism (together with Islam) should be held apart as separate religions, but who worship the same god and should respect their shared humanity. He is not afraid to draw the necessary conclusion that either Christianity or Judaism can be right; they cannot both be. (Although, of course, they can both be wrong).
Although it would be utterly mistaken to classify Wright's work as an apologia for Christianity, as if he were a latter-day Justin Martyr, Wright does raise the questions that such a work would have to address. These are the ultimate issues of truth. Moreover, it should not surprise the reader that Wright explores those questions in relation to Jesus and the New Testament. He never preaches, and yet (depite himself) is one of the most eloquent defenders of the faith against its cultured despisers.
In conclusion, I whole-heartedly recommend this work to anyone who is interested in the Bible, theology, or even hermeneutics. Whether you come as a student seeking to find their way round the confusing world of second-Temple Judaism or looking for a readable introduction to the literature of the new Testament, or as a scholar looking to engage with one of the most exciting minds working in biblical studies at the present time, you will not be disappointed. Some one I know described Wright as "one of the brightest stars in a not particularly dazzling firmament of contemporary British New Testament scholarship". Even were the firmament more dazzling, Wright would still shine as one of the brightest stars to have risen to date.
on 1 July 2011
The book was something of a revelation (if you'll pardon the pun) as it is the longest introduction I have ever read. Wright spends about the first third of the book (which is 500 pages long - and they ain't exactly small pages in large print) discussing his methodology and setting out his stall in meticulous detail. I know this may not be of particular interest to readers who want to get the Wright's summary of Judaic and early Christian history, but it is well worth it, I think, as it demonstrates the level of care needed to approach this topic.
Having set himself up, Wright then proceeds to give a summary history of Judaic thought roughly from the time of Judas Maccabeus through the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. He acknowledges that this is a summary rather than a detailed analysis and does provide plenty of references for the interested reader to follow-up on. At times, it is a bit dry and it took me a while to go through; I would readily admit to not being having taken it all in.
From here, Wright gives what is, in my opinion, the most fascinating chapter: an overview of Christianity from roughly A.D. 30 to A.D. 125. Wright acknowledges the difficulty in trying to study the history of the church given the scarcity over the contemporary sources, and their reliability (e.g. not trusting what Eusebius had to say without at least a pinch of salt).
In both his sections on Judaism and early Christianity, he looks at what they did (praxis), believed and hoped for. The reader should always be aware that this is an introduction, so Wright brushes on topics he intends to look at in much more detail later on. It serves as a useful appetiser and I can't wait to get going on Jesus and Victory of God.
There were points in it where I was not convinced by Wright's arguments, though these tended to be on comparatively minor areas. Overall, it is a work of immense integrity and scholarship. It will of interest to anyone who is interested in how historical and theological research is carried out by the best scholars in their field, to those who want to find out about the history and beliefs of the early Christians and the world in which they lived and will be of immense value to all who read it.
on 16 April 2014
I first read this some years ago, so this review is for the original Fortress paperback edition, but as this is a reissue,perfectly valid. . N T "Tom" Wright is I believe the most pre-eminent New Testament scholar alive today. He is "sound" in that he is a devout Christian and extremely articulate. He was the Bishop of Durham before retiring and taking up the post of Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary's College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland. And what a loss to the C of E. . . . Now, addressing this book. This is the first in a -to say the least- ambitious series "Christian Origins and the Question of God". I believe this was meant to be the first of five volumes, but now six volumes are planned:
The first four are:
-The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God 1, Augsburg Fortress, 1992.
-Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God 2, Augsburg Fortress, 1996, ISBN 978-0800626822.
-The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God 3, Augsburg Fortress, 2003.
-Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Release Date: Thursday, 24 October 2013 (UK) and Friday, 1 November 2013 (USA).
Wright's second volume "Jesus and the Victory of God" is a close as you can get in the academic theological field to a best seller, and was widely praised on it's publication.
I have to say that although quite a dedicated reader, it took me the better part of a year to finish "The New Testament and the People of God". This was partly because I was reading other books at the same time, but also because there was so much to take in. Wright tends o favour footnotes rather than end-notes, and whilst I prefer these, as very often one cannot be bothered to go to end of chapters/end of book to read the notes, footnotes tend to draw one to read them-obviously the point. And some of the points make it necessary to re-read and reflect. A "labour of love" however. I attended a lecture of Wright's some time back, he is such an engaging speaker, he has an immense command of his subject. This first volume concentrates -as the title suggests- on the "new testament world" of Jesus, and a lot of attention to detail is spent on Judaism and Jewish sects at that time. Far be it for me to summarise Wright's thinking, but as I understand it, as Jesus was incarnated as a Jew into a Jewish world, it is not possible to fully understand his life and teachings without some understand of what was "going on" around that time. Wright then more than provides this information.
As a practising Christian, what I like most about Tom Wright is that- as I mentioned above- he is "sound" in his teachings. Christians need not fear they are going to be led astray by some controversial theory or other, reading Wright will reinforce your faith.
on 28 December 2011
The other reviewers cannot be bettered in their assessment. The content is breathtaking.
As brilliant as the book is, however, the quality of the print is a huge disapointment. It looks as though it has been photocopied on a very poor, old photocopier. The print is uneven, heavy, blotchy and at times is difficult to read. The footnotes in particular, being smaller font, come out particularly badly. Shame that such a brilliant book should receive such shabby treatment from so called printers.