Home > Christianity, Christology, Criticism, Eschatology, Hermeneutics, History, Judaism, Study of Judaism, Study of the New Testament, Theology > Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God

Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God

  • Title: Jesus & the restoration of Israel: a critical assessment of NT Wright’s Jesus and the victory of God
  • Author: edited by Carey C. Newman
  • ISBN 10: 0830815872
  • Published: 1999
  • Format: PDF


Part of this book’s importance is purely derivative. It rides the crest of the wave created by N. T. Wright’s audacity. He has proposed a sbc-volume series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, that treats (1) method and background, (2) the historical Jesus, (3) the resurrection, (4) the Gospels, (5) Paul and (6) the early church. Not since Rudolf Bultmann has anyone attempted the fill hermeneutical, historical, literary and theological task. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God thus merits a sustained evaluation not afforded by normal reviews or review essays simply because of the potential importance of the series and the crucial role that Jesus plays in the series. Simply stated, if Wright fails in his reconstruction of the historical Jesus, then the whole series is in serious jeopardy.

While compiling a list of issues to be treated was fairly straightforward, selecting contributors was a bit trickier Most of the rime scholarly conversations are rather insular, taking place within (and not among) different disciplines and theological perspectives. Since Wright willingly takes on all parties in Jesus and the Victory of God, regardless of discipline or theological stripe, it seemed best to be as inclusive in providing critique. Therefore, in what follows readers viral find essays by historians of Second Temple Judaism, Scripture scholars, systematic theologians and philosophers. This volume intentionally widens the scholarly conversation about the historical Jesus beyond the normal confines of discipline and perspective.

Consequently, this volume pulls no punches. Readers will find contributors who deem Wright’s overall approach preferable to other options, even if they feel compelled to identify major and serious problems Wright has yet to resolve. Other contributors finally reject Wright’s agenda, even if they find large parts of his argument quite convincing. Thus, ironically, many of the endorsements of Wright’s work arc given be grudgingly, while most of the criticisms are levied With reluctance. This too makes for a very interesting read.

DEVOTED to the Study of the historical Jesus, and not just to Jesus as some disembodied theological idea, stands as a literary monument to his enduring power to attract and fascinate, inspire and command. He won’t go away because we won’t let him, and he won’t go away because, finally, he won’t let us let him .”

The debate about the historical Jesus taking place today, however, is quite different from that of just two or three decades ago. The question that drove research throughout the middle years of the twentieth century and was fiercely argued and typically answered in either minimalist or maximalist ways is this:

What can be assuredly known about the historical Jesus? Today, however, the question has been reformulated: Which Jesus should be remembered?

This new question does not reflect a more sanguine opinion on the nature of historical reconstruction (in general) or of the canonical Gospels (in particular). Quite the contrary. The profiles of Jesus spawned by Q, Thomas or some combination of Other real (or reconstructed) documents are now regularly pitted against- and most often preferred over—those generated by the canonical Gospels. Suspicion (of the canonical Gospels) has found a new best friend in openly revisionist historiography.”

The debate remains as intense as ever, if not more so.

Ignoring proverbial wisdom, N. T. Wright willingly takes on all parties in his Jesus and the Victory oj’ God (often abbreviated ^sJVG).’* With those who vanish to lay claim to the mantel of Enlightenment historiography (but against those who think that the theological concerns associated with Jesus somehow insulate them from serious, historical study), Wright concurs that the question of the historical Jesus cannot be avoided. With those who believe something can be known about Jesus (and against those who hide behind a skeptical, Enlightenment epistemology), Wright avers that investigations of Jesus are no different from historical studies of other figures of antiquity and, thus, that the major historical questions (who was Jesus? what were his aims? why did he die?) not only are fair game but are, in principle, answerable. And with those whose first line of appeal is to the canonical Gospels (and against those who privilege later or non-extant sources), Wright seeks a reconstruction of Jesus that, on the one hand, is grounded in first century Judaism and that, on the other, can explain the nature and shape of Christianity. Wright’s Jesus charts a third way.

Wright divides the almost seven hundred pages of substantive text that compose Jesus and the Victory of God into fourteen chapters, arranged in four parts. Part one clears the deck. After a whirlwind tour of the last one hundred years of Jesus research (chapter one), Wright focuses his attention on the last twenty years.

Here Wright strategically deploys the figures of William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer to highlight the two dominant approaches in the study of the historical Jesus—the wide and oft traveled road of Wrede’s “consistent skepticism” (chapter two) and the narrow gate of Schweitzer’s “consistent eschatology” (chapter three). Having decided to go the way of Schweitzer, Wright then previews his own hypothesis and its associated problems (chapter four).

Part two profiles the mindset of Jesus against the worldview of Second Temple Judaism. This entails an investigation of the prophetic praxis characteristic of Jesus (chapter five), the story (or stories) of the kingdom that Jesus implicitly invoked and explicitly told (chapters six through eight) and the way in which his words and deeds challenged and ultimately undermined the cherished symbols of Judaism, a subversive posture that consequently placed Jesus on a collision course with the temple authorities (chapter nine). To conclude part two, Wright examines the way in which Jesus’ prophetic deeds and kingdom preaching provide coherent answers to the major questions of any worldview (chapter ten).

Part three concentrates on discovering the aims and beliefs of Jesus. According to Wright, Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, a vocational calling that included prophetically enacting in himself Israel’s long-awaited return from exile (chapter eleven), intentionally dying to achieve the defeat of Israel’s true enemy (chapter twelve) and announcing, symbolizing and embodying Yahweh’s return to Zion (chapter thirteen). Finally, in part four (chapter fourteen), Wright briefly draws together the major strands of his research.

Jesus and the Victory of God can only be understood as the second installment in Wright’s planned six-volume series devoted to Christian origins and the question of God. The first volume. The New Testament and the People of God (often abbreviated as NTPG)^ heralds the way for this one. (The extensive cross-referencing in JVG to NTPG proves the connectedness.) There Wright described and defended the methodology for his entire project. By blending the epistemology of critical realism, the narratology of A. J . Greimas and a sophisticated notion of worldviews, Wright articulated an approach that symphoniously unites the polyphonic and many times discordant disciplines of literature, history and theology. Wright also applied the critical realist epistemology and narrative analysis to an extensive study of Second Temple Judaism and thereby painted the religious and cultural backdrop for his full scale portrait of Jesus in Jesus and the Victory of God.

While these two books enable readers to anticipate where Wright vA\[ ultimately go, four volumes remain to be written—fiJl studies of the resurrection, Paul and the Gospels, and a concluding volume. The six volumes, when taken together, seek to chart the ways in which Christians began to understand their role in the unfolding purposes of Israel’s God (and thereby to redefine Israel’s God).

The sheer audacity of the projected six volumes is only exceeded by the copious, sophisticated and nuanced arguments contained within the first two already in print. The sovereignty with which Wright moves through both primary and secondary sources is breathtaking. The reader senses that Wright has read and dissected absolutely everything relevant to the subject and most everything that is tangential. Wright’s prose is lively, metaphorical and clever. More often than not, his critique of others is as winsome as it is devastating.

But it is Wright’s apologetic and prophetic tenor that is most striking. Apologetically, he proposes and defends a completely new historiographic paradigm— an educated, coherent and consistent framework for reconstructing a historical portrait of Jesus. Prophetically, he boldly announces the presence of this new hypothesis, challenging and inviting others to adopt it and all the while warning of the dire philosophical and theological consequences of languishing in the mire of other historical explanations.

The essays in this volume assess whether or not we should heed Wright’s prophetic call to repentance. Craig Blomberg’s opening essay not only provides an overview of Wright’s eclectic methodology but also serves as an excellent road map for finding a way through Jesm and the Victory of God. Paul R. Eddy examines in detail the three categories that, in Wright’s reconstruction, work together to constitute the vocational aims of Jesus. Klyne Snodgrass probes Wright’s strategic use of parables as windows into the message and mission of Jesus. Since the return-from-exile theme figures so prominently in the pages of Jesm and the Victory of God, Craig A. Evans compiles the most complete inventory of evidence that a restoration eschatology was indeed a significant feature of first-century Judaism. The essays by Darrell L. Bock (on the death of Jesus) and Dale C. Allison Jr. (on Jesus’ eschatology) can be read in tandem. Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his talk of vindication, and vindication cannot be separated from his use of apocalyptic language to invest history with its full theological significance. Richard B. Hays investigates the ethical implications inherent in Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ preaching—it was a call for Israel to be Israel and not some timeless ethic. The essays by Alister E. McGrath, C. Stephen Evans and Luke Timothy Johnson should be read together, for they reflect different takes on the relationship between historiography and theology in Jesus and the Victory of God. The two responses by Marcus Borg and Wright himself point up disagreements and issues that need clarification. Finally, my concluding remarks point the way toward the church’s Christology.

If, according to Schweitzer, at the beginning of the century Jesus came to us as one yet unknown, then, according to Wright, the situation has changed little by the end of the century. Jesus is still largely misunderstood, and herein lies the justification iox Jesus and the Victory of God. Despite all the effort that has gone into the study of Jesus, Wright can say,

I have come to believe that these questions are vital, central, and as yet not fully answered; and that a clearly worked out historical method, and a fresh reading of first-century Judaism and Christianity, will point us in the right direction. [JVG xiii, emphasis original)

This book, edited by Carey C. Newman, offers a multifaceted and critical assessment of N. T. Wright’s work, Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright responds to the essayists, and Marcus Borg offers his critical appraisal.

Jesus and the Victory of God proposes to take us in the (W)right direction.

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