The New Testament in Its World
Wright, N.T. and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World. London: SPCK; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019. $59.99. Hardcover. 987 pp. ISBN: 978-0-310-49930-5.
When the name of N.T. (Tom) Wright appears on a new book, biblical cognoscenti stand up and take notice. What’s he got to say now? To this point, he’s said a lot! The book jacket asserts that Wright has produced over eighty books, while his co-author Michael Bird has written or edited more than thirty! And that’s not including their combined scholarly articles and essays. Few, if any, books emerge from careers with such a combined output. Wright has now “retired” to Wycliff Hall, Oxford, UK; Bird is academic dean and lecturer in theology and New Testament at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia.
How did this joint effort come about? As they explain in the Preface, Bird took on the task of condensing and editing Wright’s massive project, “Christian Origins and the Question of God” (four volumes to date with two more planned). The present volume includes excerpts not only from this series, but also from sections from popular-level books such as Surprised by Hope and his New Testament for Everyone commentary series. Those familiar with his Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision and some of his other works will hear echoes of his views on other crucial theological topics.
Beyond condensing, Bird adds his own twists at various points (and tempers or challenges some of Wright’s views). Bird selected, condensed, and supplemented what Wright had written. Together they decided how to present the results. They assure us that “Wright has been involved at all stages, directing its planning, writing new material, editing, offering manifold suggestions, and affecting the construction of the volume from beginning to end” (p. 26). In some ways, the book is a “sampler” of his writings. And yet Bird has done a thorough re-write to suit it for a more popular audience–hence the parallel Zondervan products: a workbook, online course, video and audio lectures, and a church-based video curriculum. Here’s the whole package.
Besides presenting Wright’s views in a more accessible format, what do the authors seek to accomplish? Again, in their words, “we aim to provide the scaffolding for a fully orbed and fully fledged historical description and theological account of Jesus and the early church. We want to cultivate a commitment to a specific account of Christian history, literature, theology, and mission” (26). They seek to keep together in this New Testament (NT) introduction the account of the past (history), the literature of the NT (the text), and its theology to represent faithfully the divine intent of Scripture. And, it’s all to be lived out (mission).
The volume itself is visually very appealing. Pictures, boxes, side-bars, maps, and tables are sprinkled on virtually every page. The list of illustrations records approximately 225 plates (some black and white but many in full color), eleven figures, twenty-nine maps, nineteen tables, eleven text grids, three timelines, dozens of boxes or panels (side-bars), and outlines of each book in the NT. They help both to illuminate and to break up the text on each page.
Part I provides the reader an introduction to a study of the NT (based on Wright’s book, The New Testament and the People of God). This part raises issues that are crucial for their enterprise, namely, history, literature, and theology, showing why all three are required. Part II introduces readers to the world of Jesus and the early church–its history leading up to the NT era, the Jewish context for Jesus and the church, and the Greco-Roman context into which the church was born. Part III unpacks Wright’s volume Jesus and the Victory of God, including a chapter on who Jesus thought he was. Part IV grows out of Wright’s The Resurrection and the Son of God, which engages the views of the afterlife in the ancient world, as well as how both Paul and the Evangelists portray Jesus’ resurrection.
Part V draws from Paul and the Faithfulness of God covering Paul’s life and ministry as well as all the letters traditionally attributed to him–yes, they make the case for the Pauline origin of all thirteen. Wright and Bird devote Part VI to surveys of each of the Gospels covering each with an introduction, contextual and critical matters, their portrayal of Jesus, and how each fits into the big picture, the grand narrative of the Bible. To the case of Luke, they add Acts to their discussion at this point, and how Luke-Acts fits into the big picture. That part ends with an appraisal of the gospel genre, including their take on the synoptic problem.
Part VII takes the reader into the world of the early Christians and God’s mission to reach the world with the message of Jesus. Here we find their coverage of the remaining apostolic letters in this order: Hebrews, James and Jude, 1, 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation. Following a tack like the Gospels, they discuss each letter in this way: introduction, contextual and critical matters, the book’s argument, and the big picture. In Part VIII we are introduced to the science and practice of textual criticism and the process of canonization. Finally, Part IX seeks to put it all together for readers, showing how we can live the story of the NT in our day. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and indices. While Wright’s books on prolegomena, Jesus, and Paul consume about 700 pages of this book (Parts I – VI), the authors cover the epistles and Revelation (Part VII) in 175 pages (about 20% of the book). Parts VIII and IX comprise about fifty pages.
Familiar Wrightian themes and views emerge. For example, readers will observe the authors’ defense of Wright’s “critical realism” approach to bridging the gap between fideism and skepticism. In discussing the Pharisees, the authors assert, “Jewish laws were not designed as a legalist’s ladder up which one might climb to heaven; they were the boundary-markers for a beleaguered people” (126). Paul wrote Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians from prison in Ephesus (not Rome) during the years AD 55–56. In Romans 1, the “righteousness of God” is God’s creation-restoring justice and covenant faithfulness that is displayed in the gospel message of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and universal sovereignty (503, 513). At the same time, either Wright has shifted some of his views, or Bird has persuaded him to moderate some of his former ones if they are to jointly author the book, or both. The result is a satisfying read.
The authors are excellent communicators. Those who have heard these authors in person or read their prior works will agree, and this book exemplifies their joint skills at presenting a wide array of materials so winsomely. The book will serve well beginning students who want the best of these authors’ views of the state of NT scholarship in one (thick) volume. It’s decidedly evangelical (in the theological not political sense used in the US today) in its conclusions. Its “British-Australian” tone is at times evident without being a distraction for readers who live between the big oceans. The visual appeal of the book will impress readers; it’s masterfully engineered to achieve maximal clarity. The clever device of emails from a mythical student to a Professor Schuler at various points raises questions that typical students might indeed puzzle over when they read the NT or seek answers to sticky problems. The side-bar “blasts from the past” provide useful color commentary to issues in the text itself. Admittedly, this book presents the Wright/Bird take on things; but that proves to be a good one.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament