The New Testament and the People of God, by N. T. Wright

May 10, 2011 at 14:14 (Book Reviews, Classical, Historical, Theology) (, , , , , , )


N. T. Wright’s first objective in this book seems to be the teaching of a course on how to study literature, whether ancient or modern. His intent is to rebuild biblical hermeneutics from the ground up; consequently, he has very little to say about the New Testament or the people of God for the first few hundred pages. He is intentionally exhaustive for the duration of this foundational discourse, which means he meticulously retravels the same ground repeatedly, hammering away at any protrusions and making trebly sure that he has left no stone unturned. The proclivity to dreariness is plain; but it would be impossible to argue that Wright has been at all pedantic or redundant in his efforts. He earns deserved commendation for his attention to detail, though not necessarily his readers’ affections.

Despite Wright’s willingness to address issues of controversy (he is remarkably dogged, for instance, in his prosecution of the Q Source of the synoptics, or in his denunciations of both hyper-literalism and some bastions of postmodernism), it is noticeable that he makes a sterling effort to have this book treated firstly and foremostly as an academic work, not (in its primary sense) as a theological treatise. He makes surprisingly few attempts to address avenues of even key theological importance (the historicity of the biblical and extra-biblical books, or more particularly the veracity of any of these) preferring to view the whole from his chosen eyrie of textual criticism and historic anthropology. Of course, that is his chosen subject: not whether Jesus was who he said he was, but what Jesus actually said, and what people in the first few centuries believed that he said. His subject in its entirety is the painting of a series of beliefs, as if from outside; and while he accomplishes this so readily, it is a little perplexing to see what is essentially a thorough and hefty commentary on the New Testament, so bereft of personal feeling, in the mould of the great biblical commentators of the past. Any reader expecting to find the Wright of Simply Christian or Surprised by Hope will leave slightly puzzled.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this book is that although Wright makes perfect sense, and builds a comprehensive, utterly coherant and very clever picture of the early church; although he sets up hypotheses like dominoes and builds a deeply interesting hermeneutical structure, there are no moments where he appears to score decisive victories against his detractors or against other schools of thought. The proximate scholar, he will occasionally confess that he naturally feels inclined to disagree with so-and-so (Koestner is a frequent target); but he seldom sketches out and convincingly demolishes other schools of thought. When he does so, it is usually a single opposing viewpoint that he treats, and then only because it intrudes across his chosen path. Some of the vim and vigour of an old-time pamphleteer is missing here: as is the readiness to forward not only his own agenda, but his readiness to defend it to the death.

For these weaknesses, the book’s occasional timidity and its slightly sanitised feel of a scholar’s shelf-book, The New Testament and the People of God is a majestic piece of work, and its methodology and conclusions deucedly tempting. Wright describes the early church with all the familiarity of one who has lived in their midst, and all of the humility of a man who hasn’t. His methodology and reading of Old and New Testaments is neat and well-trimmed, and makes a frightening amount of sense, and his understanding of the manifold genres of ancient writing–and their meanings, interpretations and intentions–is second to none, and an indispensible tool for the biblical scholar.


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