N. T. Wright on The New Testament in Its World, vocation, and how Jesus still challenges our worldviews today.
N. T. Wright spoke with us about The New Testament in Its World, his first comprehensive one-volume treatment of the entire New Testament. The project was ambitious, spanning nearly 10 years and growing to include a book, a full video curriculum, and an online course.
Now available for pre-order, The New Testament in Its World (November 2019) weaves together Tom Wright's groundbreaking research on Christian origins, new writing from Wright, and input from scholar Michael F. Bird—all in one new and accessible volume.
In this interview, Wright discusses:
- what the New Testament summons us to do
- how Jesus challenged first-century (and twenty-first-century) worldviews
- the real source of Christian hope
- what excites Wright about his vocation, and about The New Testament in Its World in particular
Dr. Wright, what drew you to The New Testament in Its World project?
Throughout my career as a teacher and working in the church, I've been aware that there are a lot of people who think they have an idea of what's in the Bible, but actually their idea has been filtered and squashed down through maybe generations of miscellaneous ideas that have come down to them—that Jesus was just a good teacher, or whatever it may be. And when they're confronted with something about what the Bible actually is saying in its historical context—what it was like in the first century, just how far it was to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee, or for Paul to go by ship from Caesarea to Rome, all those sort of things—people suddenly say, "Oh my goodness, does that mean such-and-such? And how would that play out in this context?"
To watch those lights go on in people's faces is has always been exciting to me, both in the clergy work that I've done, and as a teacher in the university. So The New Testament in Its World book and lectures are designed to open people's eyes to the bigger picture of what the New Testament really was in its original context, how it works, why it came to be like that, what the original authors were trying to say. [With that kind of background], I've found that people can then make the connections: both the connections between different parts of early Christianity, and the connections between early Christianity and who we are and what we're supposed to be doing today. So for anyone at any stage, there is always room to learn much more, and my hope is that this book and these lectures will help them do exactly that.
For the person who has gone to church their whole life but has never really explored the New Testament’s origins, how will this book shift the way they read the New Testament?
My hope is that when people really get to grips with the material that we've got here, all sorts of new insights will come to them, because the churches in the West and even colleges in the West often just go with the flow of our culture in which the kingdom of God often simply means going to heaven when you die. When they're confronted with the fact that it's about something that happens here and now as Jesus said, "On earth as in heaven," then that comes as quite a shock. Or in Paul's letters, people often again assume that Paul is telling them, "What do I need to believe in order to get saved and how do I then behave?" And the idea that Paul is pastoring communities that are facing all kinds of social and cultural tensions, and that what we think of as the theological or spiritual meaning is absolutely bound up with who they are as a community.
Some people may be afraid of thinking like that, but for many people, this opens their eyes to the holistic nature of what it meant to be a Christian in the first century, and that then joggles our elbows as to what might it mean to be a Christian in the twenty-first century.
What gaps will this fill in a reader’s understanding of the New Testament?
All of us have got gaps in our understanding of the New Testament. I have specialized in certain bits, and I'm eager to get into some of the others that I know a bit, but not nearly as much. And from knowing lots of people at different levels of education, and of church experience, we all have plenty to catch up on. And this is the case even with the bits [of the New Testament] we do know. Because as scholarship advances, and as new archaeological artifacts come into the public domain, we suddenly think, "Oh, that's what that bit was about. That's what that word meant. That's how we should read this passage." So even the bits you thought you knew well, there are almost certainly going to be fresh insights—and for the bits that you only had a nodding acquaintance with, then, [further study can lead to] a whole new world.
Why should people read this book? What’s at stake?
I and others for many years have been banging on about the fact that the Christian hope in the New Testament is for new heavens and a new earth. Many or perhaps most Western Christians still haven't come on board with that, and they're still thinking with the old Western dualist idea of leaving this world and our souls going to heaven when we die. That, of course, is a middle Platonic idea from the first century; it's not a specifically Christian idea. And so if people don't come to grips with this kind of thing, then Jesus and his first followers become simply teachers of a religion, a spirituality [about] offering an escape hatch to heaven at the end.
And I would love to think that The New Testament in Its World will have the impact [of opening] people's eyes to the real Christian hope. Not just because it's good to know what the ultimate hope is, but because this hope was launched when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. For so many Christians, the resurrection is just the happy ending after the very sad story of Jesus' crucifixion, or it's just a proof that there is life after death or something like that . . .
What we [Wright and Michael Bird] are trying to say, among many other things in the book and lectures, is that the resurrection of Jesus began the new creation, which God had long planned. The evil in the world was in principle defeated on Good Friday, enabling new creation to be launched with Easter. And then the summons of the New Testament is to take part in, to share in that new world, and to become part of it for oneself. So many Christians, I think, are just vaguely trundling through life without really having that sharp attention to what the early Christians believed. And I hope that this book, and these lectures, will enable people to turn around and face full-on the glorious reality that the New Testament is actually about.
What makes you qualified to write this book, and why should readers pay attention? There are a thousand YouTube videos on the New Testament, there are a hundred books published on it every year already . . .
I often say to friends that I'm one of the lucky ones. I've been able to spend most of my adult life doing stuff I really love and getting paid for it. And that's particularly researching and teaching the New Testament, whether in the academy or in the church.
I started out in my early twenties doing a PhD on Saint Paul, and I quickly added to that a lot of teaching about the Gospels and about who Jesus really was. And I got more and more excited about that, both in the academy and in the church. And so I've had the good fortune to work with some of the great scholars of this lost generation. People like Martin Hengel in Germany, people like Ed Sanders—controversial figure, but a very interesting and stimulating thinker. And many other people in church life.
And I've had a sense of how the church is developing and what the problems are, on both sides of the Atlantic and in other parts of the world. And I've had a sense of where the pressure points are. For instance, in what is sometimes called "the third quest for the historical Jesus" and the "new perspective on Paul" or "new perspectives on Paul"—I've been, as it were, a guilty bystander in some of those movements. So I've been wrestling with those issues most of my adult life. And I hope I've come to the point where I can see how [different perspectives] fit together, and particularly, how the thing that is fit together can make a real transformative difference in the way people at the scholarly and the popular level read and engage with the New Testament for themselves.
What made you travel down this path so early in your career?
I knew from quite an early age that God was calling me to be ordained. There were lots of clergy in my family and that was kind of a natural thing for a young boy to think: "Wow, just like my grandfather or my great-uncle or whoever, I'd like to do that." I could see that as a wonderful thing to do. And the more I learned how to pray, to sense God's presence in my life, the more that became what I wanted to do. Then in my late teens, to my surprise, I found myself getting really attracted by the academic life, particularly by philosophy and theology and biblical studies, all within the context of ancient history, which was my favorite subject at school. And so I began to think, "My goodness, maybe as well as being ordained, I have to do this stuff."
The more I studied the New Testament, I just thought, "Please, can I go on doing this? I don't want to stop," and that's why I signed on to do a PhD—much to the chagrin of my parents who saw me being a perpetual poor student for years and years and years. I think eventually they came around to the idea that it was worthwhile, a good thing to do. So from an early age, I knew I was going to be working in the church and teaching for the church, and then that blossomed into the academic world, and I've spent the last forty-five years doing my best to hold those together.
Let's talk about one of the main premises of The New Testament in Its World. Why is understanding first century worldviews important? And how have worldviews changed between the first century and now?
In the first century, many, many Jews, the Jews of Jesus and Paul's day, were living within a great long narrative which said, "Sooner or later our God is going to fulfill his great promises; He's going to set us free. It will be like a new exodus from Egypt, except this time from the slavery under Rome, and then we will be free and in our own land. We'll be able to love God and keep his law."
Then Jesus comes along and says, "Actually, the kingdom of God is like this . . ." and is doing things and teaching things which break open that world and say, "What you've been waiting for is happening, but it's not like you thought it was." Jesus has to say that to the disciples as well as the crowds.
Now, the wider Greco-Roman world, the world of Greece and Rome, wasn't living in that kind of a story at all. It was living in many different philosophies, particularly Stoicism [a classic form of pantheism, in which] there was a divinity inside you and you just had to get in tune with it. Maybe you would lapse back into the regular paganism of going to shrines and offering sacrifices. There was another philosophy, Epicureanism, which wasn't very popular because you had to be rich and elite to practice it. But that has become the dominant philosophy of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in the Western world. That worldview says, "If there is a god, he's a long way away somewhere and we don't know if he cares about us or if he intervenes, and our world just goes on, rumbling along all by its little self and there's not much that we can do about it. We just go with the flow if we can." And that, of course, is totally different from both what the Jews of the first century thought and what the Stoics of the first century thought, and particularly what Jesus and the first Christians thought.
So we've got a big challenge on our hands, because so many people in our world, not least Christians, have tried to express Christian faith with Epicureanism. And then they imagine, "Because we're Christians, we believe there's a God up there, and [we] ourselves have to find [our] way to go and live with Him one day, and we have to figure out what that means in the present." And that's not a good way to do being a Christian.
Instead, what we have to do—and what I hope The New Testament in Its World will help people do—is think as if we lived in the first century. We have to "think first century-ly."
We have to think back into the world of the first century in order to say what happened then changed the world forever. The events of Jesus are not an example of something else; they're not simply a different way of teaching vaguely about religion or something. They're certainly not just a new helpful way of going to heaven. They're saying, "God's kingdom has been launched and you're invited—not only to benefit from it, but to take forward that project until Jesus comes again." That involves a clash of worldviews, ancient and modern, and that clash is the cutting edge of where the church should be today.
Where specifically do people get tripped up in their study of the New Testament? And how have you addressed that in this book?
I think [readers] routinely—especially if they come from some kind of a Christian background or even from a culture which sort of knows about Sunday school and Mary and Joseph and the wise men and all that—[readers] get stuck because they're fitting what little they know into a normal Western worldview, which is often dualistic, thinking of a God who's miles away up in the sky, and maybe he sent his son, and maybe we go there to live with him one day, and so on. And to all that, I just want to say, "No. Stop. Actually read the New Testament within its own world and then you'll see that your worldview itself, which is the thing that's tripping you up, is the thing that's got to be challenged now."
And the great thing is, of course, Jesus was constantly doing this kind of worldview challenge. His parables are about that: here's a story which will break open your view of the kingdom of God, and give you a better one. My hope is, that will be the effect [of the book and lectures] again and again, not just in studying Jesus' parables, but the whole New Testament.
Tell us about the flow of The New Testament in Its World. How do you proceed through the material?
The book and lectures follow the line of the big project that I've been working on for many years, the book series called Christian Origins and the Question of God. So the book starts with looking at the New Testament in its whole context. Its historical context: how do we do history? How do we read the literature of the first century? How do we think theologically in such a way as to understand what the New Testament is doing? And then particularly, how do we understand the historical context of first-century Judaism and of the Greco-Roman world within which the Jewish world was set? Because if we don't understand that world, we will be making all kinds of anachronistic assumptions on large and small scales. But then obviously the New Testament focuses on Jesus, and so the book and course move to look at Jesus, who he was, what he did, why he did it, what he thought and taught that his death was going to be all about.
We look historically at the period of Jesus' public career and try to see it in three dimensions. What did Jesus' career mean to Jesus? And particularly, what did he mean by saying the kingdom of God is at hand, is breaking in right now? And then how did his death on the cross, both from his point of view and seeing it later, how did that affect the kingdom? How did it defeat the powers of evil? How did it make the way for the new creation to be launched at Easter? That brings us from Jesus to the Easter event itself, the resurrection of Jesus on the third day.
Many people inside and outside the church don't understand what the word “resurrection” itself was actually all about. Resurrection wasn't just a fuzzy word for life after death; it was all about people who had been thoroughly dead and buried coming back to life in a bodily form. And then we explore how that was described by Paul, the first writer about it, and how he's wrestling with Israel's Scriptures to show what the resurrection of Jesus really was and is—and then how the Gospels, written later but preserving the early traditions, tell the story and what [the Gospel writers] mean by it.
Then we move from the resurrection to Paul himself. Paul is working busily in the 40s and 50s and probably dying in the early 60s. Having an extraordinary impact, probably one of the most significant public intellectuals of all time and yet being persecuted, and stoned and shipwrecked, and going sleepless, and hungry, and being thrown into jail, and being misunderstood by many of the people in his own churches. What was his life about and why did he write those letters to those churches in that way, and how do we put together the package of his thought?
Then we move to the Gospels. The Gospels which are about Jesus, but which were written, most likely, around the time that Paul was killed (at the earliest), and then quite possibly over the next two or three decades. And so we are asking the question, why are people telling the story this way? What is Mark doing with his story? Matthew with his, and so on? How do we see these four Gospels contributing together to the early Christians' growing understanding of who Jesus is—and not just as a historical reminiscence, but how did he launch the kingdom of God of which we are then parts ourselves?
That leads us towards the end of the first Christian generation in which the early churches we see in some of the so-called little letters or the catholic letters (Hebrews; James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, 3 John; and Jude). How are they facing the challenges of the end of the first generation [of Christians] and the transition into the second generation? Were they expecting false teachers? What were they going to do about them when they arose? What happens when people from within the fellowship start teaching things very different from what they themselves had been originally taught? How do we then grasp the challenge of church unity, of church love, of church mission when facing these challenges both from outside and in?
That all leads to the last great book in the New Testament, the Revelation of Saint John, which is one of the most breathtaking pieces of writing ever. Whether or not we'll ever get our minds around it, it's a book we have to grapple with. It's as though at the end of all of the New Testament canon, and actually the Christian Canon as a whole, Old and New Testaments come together. Here is the vision of new creation, which corresponds to the original creation at the beginning of Genesis, but which has seen the story through, and has seen the story now focused on Jesus, the Lamb of Judah, who is the Lamb who was slain.
So in and through it all, we are left with the question: what are we to do with this New Testament? And we wrestle with how the New Testament was transmitted through all the different manuscripts with all their differences, and how it was put together into what we call the Canon. We wrestle with how there were other books which some wanted to get in [the Canon], and some books that people weren't quite sure should be in. When people are working on all of that, we see the beginning of our task as well: to live with this text so that we become the people of God, in and for the world of our own day. So we move from “Why the New Testament?” right at the beginning of the book, to the New Testament and the mission of God through His church in the world, at the end of the book. And when we make that journey through these amazing books [in the New Testament], we find that our sense of worship and mission is reoriented and refreshed and we hope [made] fruitful.
How does The New Testament in Its World relate to your other projects, especially the Christian Origins and the Question of God series?
When I started writing about the New Testament in a serious way in the late 1980s, I realized that there were so many things going on in the world of scholarship and church that they needed cleaning up and sorting out. And I found myself, to my surprise—I had thought I was writing maybe two books, one about Jesus, one about Paul—and I found myself writing five books . . . and who knows, maybe more, because there are so many different interlocking parts to this project. But I'm well aware, looking at those books on the shelf, that an awful lot of people, including people who like reading big books, may find this quite a lot to swallow, and particularly at the level of [New Testament] introduction.
So I think it's wonderful that we've been able to boil these down and bring them into a single volume format so that the basic insights and the basic key points of this larger series will be accessible. Of course, my hope would be that having [read] The New Testament in Its World, people might think, "I'm going to get those big ones and work through them as well." But this is a way in, both for people who will do that, and for people for whom that would be unrealistic.
We covered how your book will help readers. How will this book help instructors, in particular?
I've been teaching in universities and colleges on and off for nearly half a century and I've seen again and again, students who may start off as very interested and then quickly get bored, or start off as bored and must be made interested from the beginning. Likewise, I've seen students who think they know it all in advance and are very wary of any fresh ideas that this strange instructor may be giving. So I know perfectly well what it's like to be faced with a classroom in which you have quite a mixed bag of students and my hope is that this resource, both the book and the online course, will provide the instructors with perspectives—different angles of vision—on things they may be used to teaching one particular way. It may give them good ideas for a new way into this lecture, or to this section of the course—particularly with all the visuals we've got, with all the extra bits and pieces, with timelines and maps and charts and diagrams and so on. [View a sample.]
It seems to me this is an ideal resource. To be honest, I wish something like this had been available when I was a teenager, when I was in my early 20s, because you look at a picture and it's worth a thousand words. You look at a map and it's much easier to see what's going on than somebody describing a travelogue in prose, and so on. So this is an extraordinary multifaceted resource designed to help the instructor get a spring in her or his step as they go back to class one more time and say, "Now guys, look at this. This is actually going to change the way we read this text." I would encourage instructors to get hold of an examination copy of this book as soon as possible because I think you'll want to recommend it to your students. You will want to use it as the basis for your teaching. It'll give you a whole new lease of life.
Learn more and order your copy of The New Testament in Its World at NewTestamentWorld.com. To hear more about the inspiration for The New Testament in Its World, check out our interview with Michael Bird.
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