N.T. Wright's - Who Was Jesus


This post is a compilation of some quotations I found intriguing and/or valuable, as well as a partial review of some difficulties I had with the book. Either way, you should be able to get a decent flavor of the general message this book provides.

“There was, after all, nothing particularly surprising in ordinary human beings thinking that they might be the Messiah. That of itself certainly didn't mean that the person in question was thinking of himself as divine. One of the most persistent mistakes throughout the literature on Jesus in the last hundred years is to use the word 'Christ', which simply means 'Messiah' as though it was a ‘divine’ title ( as in ‘The Jesus of history’ and ‘The Christ of Faith’, or ‘Jesus Who Became Christ’).

If Jesus thought of himself as Messiah, this is a completely different matter to the possibility…that he might have believed that Israel's God was active in and through him in a unique way. If we can get this separation clear, we will have done the debate a great service.


The transformation Jesus effected within the expectation of the Kingdom, and the hope for a coming Messiah, did not involve giving them up altogether. Rather, it meant radically redrawing them, focusing them on Jesus own suffering and death…Jesus, then, did not think the world would come to an end. If he had, his fellow Jews wouldn't have known what on earth to make of such a crank, since what they were longing for was for their God to act within continuing history, and bring them out on top. Jesus did, however, think that Israel's God was going to establish his Kingdom through his (that is, Jesus) own work. How this worked out in practice remains to be seen.” 
Pg 57-58

“It cannot be stressed too strongly that ‘resurrection’, for Jews of the period, had nothing to do with mere resuscitation. It was not a matter of coming back into the same sort of life. It was a matter of going through death, and out into a new world beyond. In the nature of the case, we don't have much information about this new world. But one thing we do know. The whole mainline Judeo-Christian tradition insists that in this new world people will have bodies. Whatever else true of them, they will still be physical.

These bodies may not be exactly the same as the present ones. Paul, in trying to explain this, uses the dramatic image of a seed and a plant (1 Corinthians 15.35-8). The present body has to die; the new one will emerge from it. ‘Resurrection’, then, is not the same as ‘resuscitation’. Nor is it the same as the immortality, or the transmigration, of a disembodied soul or spirit. It is what the Maccabean martyrs of the second century BC were longing for when they spoke of Israel's God giving them back their limbs and organs after they had suffered horrible torture and death. People who believe that sort of thing would not be prepared to use the word ‘resurrection’ unless something emphatically physical had taken place.

Equally, it must be stressed that first-century Jews were not expecting people to rise from the dead (in this sense) simply as isolated individuals, on a one-off basis, here and there. Herod's remark about Jesus being a resurrected John the Baptist does not represent mainline Jewish belief. ‘Resurrection’, for them, was something that would happen to all dead Jews, and perhaps all dead humans. It would happen on the great future occasions when the True God (who after all was the creator of the world) finally brought history round its last great corner, into the new day that was about to dawn. ‘Resurrection’, in other words was about God’s restoration of his whole people, about his coming Kingdom, about the great reversal of fortune for Israel and the world. It was about the birth of a whole new world order.” Pg 61-62

“If there is anything clear about first century Jewish exegesis of Scripture, it is that nothing is clear about it.” 
Pg 71

“Orthodox Christianity has always insisted that Jesus is as totally human as any of us. If we claim that he is in some sense ‘divine’, that of itself has nothing to do with the supposition that he was conceived without a human father...What about Luke 1.35? There we read that the angel said to Mary: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you; there for the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.' Doesn't this indicate that Jesus divinity was, at least for Luke, somehow connected to the virginal conception? Not directly. ‘Son of God’ in the first century was first and foremost a title for Israel, and then for the true Messiah. It seems as though Paul took this title, which to begin with certainly didn't imply any doctrine of incarnation, and made it one of the focal points for his fresh understanding of Jesus...but ‘Son of God’ didn't get the full meaning that it now has within Christianity until much later... [The incarnation] is not, fundamentally, what his birth narrative is all about. We may therefore safely say that, for the New Testament writers, the virginal conception of Jesus was not a way of asserting that he was, as it were, genetically divine on one side and genetically human on the other. That is a gross category mistake.” Pg 79

“A cautionary note before we address the topic itself. There is nothing to be gained from an attempt to make the truth of Christianity depend on the literal truth of every word of the Bible. Such a view shifts the balance of in Christianity decisively in the wrong direction. For Christians, Jesus, not the New Testament, is the central truth. But one should not, for that reason imagine that historical issues can simply go by the board. Just because we are not fundamentalists, that need not mean that we allow shoddy historical arguments to pass without comment.” Pg 88

“There are a great many things that we don't know in ancient history. There are huge gaps in our records all over the place. Only those who imagine that one can study history by looking up back copies of the London Times or The Washington Post in a convenient library can make the mistake of arguing from silence in matters relating to the first century.” Pg 89

Jesus Within Judaism.

“What did it mean to be a first-century Palestinian Jew... it meant a setting for of mounting expectation... some hoped, in a fairly ill-defined way, that God would send a great King who, as Messiah, would lead them in victory over their enemies... this hope was enacted by all sorts of festivals, liturgies, and readings from sacred books. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Passover time, in particular, was a dramatic celebration and reenactment of God's deliverance of his people from their old foes, and hence a constant reminder that you would do so again... no more Romans, no more Herod, no more corrupt chief priests, simply God, a Messiah, and an Israel devout, holy, and above all free. Those who thronged the holy city at these times were celebrating basic Jewish theology, not as a set of abstract ideas, but as the reality which gave meaning to their puzzling lives. There was one God, the Creator of all and this God had chosen Israel to be his special people. Soon he would show His covenant-faithfulness by rescuing Israel from her enemies, these great mythical monsters who came from the sea to attack her in the guise of pagan armies. Israel would be like Daniel rescued from the lion’s den, the human figure snatched up from among the wild beasts. And when this happened…it could be nothing short of cosmic renewal. God's exaltation of Israel would be the moment when the whole chaotic world would be brought back into order. Therefore, many believed, God would raise from the dead at that time all the great saints of old. All Israel, past and present, would be physically raised to a new life. The nation, and the world, would be reborn.” Pg 94-95

Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

“If you had been a Galilean peasant, working in your smallholding, your impression of Jesus would have been that he was a prophet was announcing that God was now at last becoming King. This can only mean one thing: Israel was at last going to be redeemed, rescued from oppression. God's ‘Kingdom’ wasn’t a state of mind, or a sense of inward peace. It was concrete, historical, real. Twentieth century Western Christians need to shed a few ideas at this point. When people downed tools for a while and trudged off up a hillside to hear this Jesus talking, we can be sure they weren’t going to hear someone tell them to be nice to each other; or that if they behaved themselves (or got their minds round the right theological scheme) there would be a rosy future waiting for them when they got to ‘heaven’; or that God had decided at last to do something about forgiving them for their sins. First century Jews knew that they ought to be nice to each other. In so far as they thought at all about life after death, they believed that their God would look after them, and eventually give them new physical bodies in his renewed world. (The phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, which we find in Matthew’s gospel, does not mean a Kingdom-place called “heaven”.’ It is a reverent way of saying ‘the Kingship of God’.) There is no sign that first century Jews were walking around gloomily wondering how their sins were ever going to be forgiven…If Jesus had only said what a lot of Western Christians seem to think he said, he would have been just a big yawn-maker. What he in fact said was so revolutionary that it woke everybody up. It was so dramatic that Jesus seems to have adopted a deliberate policy of keeping to the villages, always moving quickly on, never getting into the big Galilean towns like Sepphoris, just over the hill from Nazareth, or Tiberias, down by the Sea of Galilee, just south of Magdala.” Pg 97-98

[Israel in the first century]

“Israel was called to be the light of the world, but the light was turned inwards on itself. Israel was called to be the peacemaker, but she was bent on violent revolution. Israel was called to be the healer, but she was determined to dash the pagans to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Jesus saw the judgment coming, and realized that it was not just from Rome, but from God. His first aim, therefore, was to summon Israel to ‘repent – not so much of petty, individual sins, but of the great national rebellion, against the creator, the covenant God. Failure to repent would lead her inexorably towards disaster.” Pg 101

This last segment of this post is a look at a few difficulties I had with the consistency of his Christological communication. While granted, this particular work is not an exhaustive treatise, he communicates enough to represent his perspective on the matter. There are numerous examples where I noticed some conflicts (specifically, if defined strictly by New Testament speech). In this book, he addresses various past scholarly works pertaining to Jesus. He cites various popular opinions in regard to Biblical use, and even clarifies his intentions by saying that

“the texts will speak for themselves once we have cleared away the basic misconception” pg 75.

If we are to limit ourselves exclusively to Scriptural prose (i.e. that which we have laid out for us in the NT), we then come to a slight impasse (doctrinally speaking); for we will not find the Trinitarian formulae until much later in Church history. Although Wright’s treatment of the subject is not intended to be done with a blatant or declarative Trinitarian slant, his statements and implications cannot possibly be interpreted in any other way.

Certainly those who are involved in these fields of study are well aware of the specific Texts called into question, but that is not discussed here in any sort of critical fashion. Mr. Wright throughout, is explicit in separating Jesus as a 

full-blooded human being pg 51

apart from any sense of him being able to be considered “divine”.

He emphasizes that the virginal conception of Jesus, (i.e. his birth narrative) and with what regard he is the “Son of God”, has no divine merit. On the other hand, however, Wright is perfectly comfortable claiming that Gal 4:1-7, (mentioning the birth of a woman) among other texts, is an example of Trinitarianism in its “early stages,” pg 53.

Wright explains his view of Jewish monotheism (of which I cannot due proper justice here), but in essence is a denial that Jewish monotheism is about a numerical value or 

“what God is like on the inside”

but rather a 

“polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations” 

who worshiped false gods and idols, pg 49. While there is a certain amount of this to which I can subscribe, monotheism in its Judaistic understanding cannot be so casually brushed aside and reinvented. When the God of Israel says He is the only One and there are no others that strikes me as numerical.

Still, Wright retains an attribute of a numerical property by saying that God is indeed one (of course which he means numerically; not two or three Gods), 

“but that One True God had revealed himself, so to speak, irrevocably threefold” pg. 53.

With that said, how can we (with New Testament definition, apart from any later developed homoiousian or hypo-static union rhetoric) take a “fully human” Jesus who is not divine (in that sense, as Tom himself pointed out) show him as separate from God (ontologically speaking, birth, miracles, resurrection, etc.) and say that he (the historical Jesus) is part of this “one God”, 

“not to say that there were now two, or three, different Gods” pg 53.

He contradicts his own view of “God” in a later statement referring to the Jewish expectation of the Kingdom:

“…no more corrupt chief priests, simply God, a Messiah, and an Israel devout, holy, and above all free” pg 94.

He puts “a Messiah” outside the parameter of God. Another place, in one paragraph we get both of these statements,

“The Christian doctrine of the incarnation was never intended to be about the elevation of a human being to divine status. That’s what, according to some Romans, happened to the emperors when they died, or even before.” 

Then immediately following he tells us: 

“the Christian doctrine is about a different sort of God – a God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human in, and as, the man Jesus of Nazareth. To say that Jesus is in some sense God is to make a startling statement about Jesus” (pg 52). 

In his first statement of the paragraph (if the doctrine of the incarnation is correct) Jesus was never fully human, unless he was like a Roman emperor? If the incarnation was not about deity, when did he stop or start becoming or return to the pre-existent God status? If he was “full-blooded human being” (pg 51) what then about the incarnation, and the virginal conception, as having admitted it has no divine significance? His second comment can only be defined by the Trinitarian formulae. You cannot speak of the Father (who is called YHVH in the Hebrew Scriptures), also become the “son”. If this is the case, it is no longer Orthodox Trinitarianism, but rather Sabellianism or more recently called Modalism, or simply no longer monotheism (John 17 is not dealing with ontology).

I have high respect for N.T. Wright. I find myself feeling along the lines of what C.S. Lewis penned in his book “The Great Divorce” pertaining to something he regarded as a “disastrous error” by another author,

“this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant.” 

N.T Wright like all of us is subject to contradiction and error. 

Why is it (generally speaking) more of a taboo to disagree on matters of Christology or Trinitarianism than matters of what some deem to be of less importance such as eschatology or ecclesiology? I am usually informed at this point that it is significant because it is a soteriological issue, to which I strongly disagree on the basis that it cannot be effectively substantiated without major textual distortions.

Lastly, I am also not ruling out the possibility that I have misunderstood or failed to accurately and in a balanced manner represent his claims and opinions for which he strove. This specific book is from the early 90’s as well, and he is not necessarily constrained to holding the same opinions for eternity.

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