Michael Bird on The New Testament in Its World, working with N. T. Wright, and the keys to fruitful New Testament study.
Michael Bird has been busy. Among other projects, this prolific scholar was the impetus for the idea of The New Testament in Its World, the first comprehensive 1-volume treatment of the entire New Testament by N. T. Wright. Bird was instrumental in bringing the project to fruition over what would take nearly 10 years and grow to include a full video curriculum and online course.
Now available for pre-order, The New Testament in Its World (November 2019) weaves together N. T. (Tom) Wright's groundbreaking research on Christian origins, new writing from Wright, and input from Bird—all in one new and accessible volume
In this interview, Bird reveals with characteristic wit and candor:
- what makes The New Testament in Its World unique among New Testament introductions
- how you will benefit from reading the book, whether or not you've studied the New Testament before
- how the book will help instructors and students in college and seminary
- what it's like to work with N. T. Wright
- why we should consider "making the New Testament strange again"
Dr. Bird, why do we need to know about the New Testament beyond just a cursory, “basic operating” view?
That's a bit like asking, would you prefer that your doctor has a cursory grasp of a medical textbook, or that he actually knows something about it before he cut you open and did open heart surgery? It's pretty much for the same reason.
In the New Testament, we have a resource for life. We have the words of life. We have a source, we have a path towards transformation. We have the gateway into a new creation. We have the guidebook to God's kingdom. I mean, you don't give that a cursory flick through.
The New Testament is something you want to soak up and absorb. You want to enter into this book . . . live in the same world as this book. That's what I think we should do. You don't want a basic grasp of it, like you may want a rough idea of a Jane Austen novel, or what A Brave New World is about. This is a book you want to enter, because it is a gateway to heaven.
If the doctor performs surgery with only a cursory understanding, there's a lot at stake. What's at stake in the issues you address within The New Testament in Its World?
What is at stake in reading the New Testament? It gives us the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news about Jesus: who he was, what he did, why he died, why he rose, how he ascended, and how he's coming back again. It also gives instructions to the churches of the first century, instructions which are no less relevant to our own day. The fact is we're living in a world that is, I think, becoming increasingly like the world of the first century.
What do you mean by that?
We have our own array of somewhat brutal, totalitarian leaders. We have this intolerant pluralism that's being forced amongst us. If you want to be able to cope with your faith, if you want to have a faith seeking understanding, then you really do need to commit yourself to some serious study of the Christian Bible, in particular the New Testament.
How will The New Testament in Its World equip readers for serious study of the New Testament?
This book (and the lectures that go with it) will give you a great entrance into the world of the first Christians. We're going to look very closely at Jesus, his person, his work. We're going to look at the resurrection. We're going to look at the general background and context of the early church, and then the apostles. Then we're going to proceed, letter by letter, book by book; and hopefully, you'll come away grasping all the big issues associated with interpreting each book of the New Testament. You'll also come away with some sense of what this book means for us today: how we can live out its story in our own particular context.
What problems or issues will this book help readers resolve?
I think one of the distinctive of this book is, it doesn't just give you a random selection of information about each book of the New Testament. It places the New Testament in the context of Jesus and of the story of the early church. I think it's unique in that sense, that we don't follow a canonical order of doing Gospel, Acts, Paul, and then just catholic letters. What we do is we go through the story of the early church: we begin with the wider background, then look, very concertedly, at Jesus. Then we get into Paul. He's the first early Christian theologian, or at least the main one we know, through his letters. Then we get into the Gospels. That's where we see the story of Jesus being retold and disseminated further. Then we look at how the churches in the second half of the first century struggled to undertake their mission: how they suffered persecution, and how they had to articulate their identity in [the face] of adversity.
What we do in this book is enable readers (or those who watch the lectures) to have an understanding of how the books of the New Testament fit into the story of how the church grew and expanded and became what it was.
If I search online for "New Testament," there are already many YouTube videos, websites, and a thousand other books available. What specifically makes you qualified to teach and to write this material?
To be brutally honest, a lot of the time what you read on the Internet is just some guy with a computer and a few crazy ideas. I think what we're offering—myself and Tom Wright—we're teaching the New Testament through our own experience.
For myself, I've been teaching and preaching the New Testament now for on fifteen years. I've written several books along the way, and I still consider myself a student of the New Testament. I certainly don't think that I have all the answers or that I’ve arrived at this pinnacle of academic knowledge that somehow sets me apart from everyone else. Along the journey I've picked up a lot of things. I've had the privilege of working with some great people, like Tom, and listening to some great teachers.
I think I've also learned some things, often the hard way, about how we can apply these books to our own lives. How the message of Romans, or Hebrews, or the Gospel of Mark, or the book of Revelation—how [those books] address us in our own day. I think, myself and others, are able to set that forth in a way that will really, really sing and sting and connect with readers.
What sent you down the road of biblical studies?
My entry into biblical studies is fairly surprising. In high school, I was what you would call a “B” student. I was above average, but only a little bit. In fact, I couldn't even get into college when I finished high school. The only courses I qualified to do were animal reproduction and meat works inspector. Now I can't imagine doing either of those. Animal reproduction: encouraging animals to mate. Meat works inspector: "Yep, that's definitely lamb, no doubt about it."
The next thing I did was join the army, travel the world, meet interesting, exotic people—and try to kill them. Even that was not all it was hyped up to be, and I adopted very quickly an army lifestyle, which is what I describe as Cartesian alcoholism: “I drink, therefore I am.” I engaged in that for a while, trying to be bit of a party lad; but even that I found very meaningless, and I began to think there was more to life than that. [I wondered], was there more than just going around partying? It was then that a guy I worked with in the army invited me to church.
I have to tell you, I have a non-church background. Growing up, everything I learned about Christianity, I learned from Ned Flanders [of The Simpsons television show]. That's basically what I knew about Christ and the church. I went to church, and I was expecting a bunch of moralizing geriatrics, who were afraid that somewhere, somehow, someone was smiling. When I got there, the church was radically different. These people were normal. There were doctors and teachers and secretaries and people working in manufacturing. They were nice, but they were not just nice; they were weirdly nice, they were supernaturally nice. They treated me very wonderfully.
It was there, in that church, that eventually I heard the good news of Jesus, his death, and resurrection. How he died for me and rose for my justification. It was at that point I became a Christian. That's where I felt myself to be reborn, and I suddenly saw the world in a whole new way. That was the point where I wanted to serve God. I initially thought I might do something like army chaplaincy; but as I went through seminary, it became apparent that my gifts were more in the academic sphere. I excelled in my studies, and some of my professors said maybe I should consider going on. I was able to get a scholarship to do my doctorate.
I was then able to land a position, early on, in a wonderful college in the north of Scotland; and I liked writing. I had so many ideas . . . I started writing books, and people started reading them, so they told me to write more; and that's basically how I got to where I am.
What was the genesis of this book, The New Testament in Its World?
The idea of this book is very simple. There's lots of New Testament introductions out there, and they're like taco trucks on the highway. I looked on this highway, and I said, "Where's my taco truck?
More seriously, this book began with me having a conversation with Philip Law from SPCK. Wonderful, great chap, despite being English. I was sitting at a bar with him in a restaurant, and he said, "Mike, do you have any ideas for books with me?" I said, "Look, I'm already booked up like Engelbert Humperdinck singing in Nashville. My dance card is pretty full."
"But I've got a good idea," I said. "You should get someone to work with N. T. Wright, and see if you could somehow take a lot of his works and somehow rework them, and create a one-volume . . . like, an N. T. Wright reader. Or even better yet, something like the writings of N. T. Wright in the genre of a New Testament introduction. Take that massive, brilliant, epic series he's got, Christian Origins and the Question of God, and turn it into a one-volume introduction to the New Testament."
At this point Philip said, "That is a brilliant idea . . . You should be the one to do it." I said, "Well, I don't know about that." I knew Tom a little bit from meeting him at conferences; I'd written a book on the Apostle Paul, trying to persuade my Reformed friends that Tom Wright is not the Antichrist—that he has a lot of good resources we really should consider for reading Paul and thinking historically about him. After some conversations and speaking to Tom, he was very happy with it; and I was delighted. It's been incredible working with him to create this book and these lectures done. I think it's a career highlight for me.
I think we've produced something that is really going to be one of the best textbooks around . . . and a delight to read.
What happened after you talked to Tom about the project?
During those years [working on the book], several things happened. Tom kept producing more works for us to utilize and incorporate into this. We had more conversations, more thinking about what we're going to do, how we're going to configure this book. We went on a tour through the Holy Land, Greece, and Rome—and that was fantastic. I mean, having Tom Wright as a tour guide through the Holy Land, it's like going through Gillette Stadium with Tom Brady. It is a fantastic experience, and this has been a fun project working with Tom. I feel like I'm the Robin to his Batman.
I've often said that Tom is to the broad, evangelical, orthodox church, largely what Rudolf Bultmann was in a previous generation to that mainline Protestant church of Europe in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I think Tom has given the church a new way of approaching the New Testament, a new way of understanding the coherence, the story of the New Testament. He's reminded us all about the importance of Jesus, given us new lenses for looking at Paul. It's been a delight to work with him these last several years. I think we'll be able to share that with others as well.
We talked about how this book will help general readers. By contrast, how will this book help instructors?
Every semester, I work with students. I know the deficiencies in their knowledge, the gaps in their understanding, and what we need to fill in. What we've tried to do in this book is largely answer some of those critical issues you have to get through as an instructor. Things like authorship, background, and the like. We've also been able to come up with a miniature commentary on every book of the New Testament, and then explain why each book of the New Testament matters.
This book is not just some accumulation of information and data and archaeology and context that's just being data-dumped on students. We are very concerned with the questions, "So what? What does this mean? How is this going to affect the way I eat my grits or my corn flakes in the morning?" I think that will give students a good resource and free up instructors, so they can cover in class the things that they are passionate about: whether that's getting into the text, or the themes, or the theology, or offering their own narration of the text. We're covering all the bases that need to be covered. The book will be very satisfactory for professors in their own pedagogy, and it will be very satisfying for students.
Did you two essentially write a textbook that you've always wanted to use?
I think we've been writing the textbook that I know I've desired to use: one that covers all the meaty topics of background, that studiously engages in the New Testament contents as well, but also looks at those questions of, “So what? What does this mean for us today?”
In your experience, where do you see students get tripped up in their study of the New Testament? And how have you accounted for that in this book?
There's a number of areas where students can get tripped up. One is understanding the importance of historical context or historical background. Some students seem to have this idea that the Bible just kind of floated down out of the sky, bound in leather, with the words of Jesus in red, written in ye old English, complete with Scofield footnotes. You have to explain, that's not exactly how we got the Bible. That is not the Bible of the early church. It comes from them; but ten minutes after Pentecost, they weren't walking around with their NIV Study Bible, or their ESV Study Bible.
They were working with the Old Testament, and then [the New Testament writings came] out of the conflicts they faced—and out of their own desire, their own missional imperative to tell the story of Jesus to the churches, to warn against error and compromise. Those writings then morph into our New Testament. That's what I find students lack. It's like they understand the New Testament in a somewhat atemporal or decontextualized way.
We have to do two things [in our study of the New Testament]. We have to historicize the first Christians’ understanding—put it in its historical context. I know this is paradoxical, but then we have to almost de-familiarize [the first Christians], because students may have a certain way of understanding the New Testament, based on their own culture, their own tradition, their own denomination. In a sense, we've got to make the New Testament strange again, so people can rediscover it. That's certainly what I hope we're doing in this book.
What specific features of the book help readers accomplish those goals: to understand early Christian thought in its historical context, and to “make the New Testament strange again”?
There's a number of things we do. Most sections, particularly those that discuss each singular book of the New Testament, open with a general description of why you should be interested in the book—giving you a basic summary of its contents, announcing its major themes. Then we explain all the critical issues connected to the book, those things about authorship and date, that kind of thing. We provide a mini-commentary on the book as well. At the end, we provide some suggestions for reflection, or for how this book can really impact churches and Christians today.
Along the way, we add a lot of background information. We also talk a little bit about the history of interpretation. [In the book’s feature called “Emails from the Edge”] we even present a dialogue—a fictitious dialogue—a series of emails, of exchanges between a professor and a student, about some of the things the student is wrestling with. They're typical student questions; and hopefully, pretty good answers. This book will have a different feel, a different texture, a different vibe than most New Testament introductions doing the rounds.
How, in your opinion, is The New Testament in Its World going to relate to Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God (COQG) project?
This volume is certainly genetically connected to Tom Wright's Christian Origins and the Question of God series. In many ways, it's a condensed summary of the arguments he put forward in those volumes, certainly on Jesus and the Resurrection, and the Apostle Paul. Some blocks from those books will appear in this New Testament intro. In other cases, there's some arguments that are summarized and some other bits and pieces from his various writings that are also spliced in where relevant. [There’s also new writing that hasn’t been seen before.] A singular and coherent narrative emerges.
I think this book is ideal for someone who wants to have a COQG in miniature, if you like, a précis of the whole [series]. Or if you know people who would benefit from reading Wright's Christian Origin series, but don't have the time to read all of the volumes, this might be a good interim step. It might be something of a gateway drug to get into the Wrightonian corpus.
What about people unfamiliar with Wright's work, why should they read this book?
You will come away with a solid and suitable grasp of the New Testament writings in their historical context . . . with a with a renewed understanding of Jesus, the Apostles, the early church, and the writings that make up the New Testament.
Let me add something to that one.
If you look at this book without buying it, angels might cry. There we go.
Learn more and order The New Testament in Its World at NewTestamentWorld.com. Instructors, request a free exam copy. Want to hear more about the genesis of The New Testament in Its World? Check out our interview with N. T. Wright.
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