10 questions with N. T. Wright

Sponsored by BYU Studies—N. T. Wright is a world-renowned New Testament scholar and the co-author of The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Zondervan Academic, 2019).

Welcome! Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first fell in love with theology?

I grew up in a middle-of-the-road churchgoing family—very English, nothing dramatic—and attended Scripture Union boys’ camps in my teens, helping to lead them in my early 20s.

I knew and saw first hand the radical difference that a lively biblical Christian faith could make to individuals and communities, and as I studied philosophy and ancient history the question of how Christian truth fits together and makes sense became, and has remained, utterly compelling.

The letters of Paul became an early focal point for some of the big discussions and that was my ‘way in’, though the more I have studied the world of the first century (see below!) the more I have realized that the church has often approached Paul in ways that don’t enable the full range of his thought to be properly displayed.

How does it make you feel to know your writings are studied across a wide variety of denominations?

Both grateful and anxious!

Grateful, because of course a writing theologian/biblical exegete always hopes for the work to bear fruit in the church at large; and because as an Anglican there has always been the sense of a vocation to stand somewhere in the middle of the world of Christian denominations and help them hold together in some way.

Anxious, because there are huge issues facing the church worldwide just now, and especially the muddled churches of the western world, and I hope and pray that my work will help people to think things through more clearly and not lead them down wrong paths.

Introduce The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians.

I have spent much of the last 35 years writing about the New Testament at various levels—often with my own students in mind, wishing that they could begin with a strong and solid basic ‘kit’ about the world of the first century, how it worked, how people thought and lived, and then be able to read the New Testament within that context.

‘The New Testament in Its World: An introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians” by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.

This book is an attempt to distill all of that 35 years of work into a single user-friendly volume such as any first- or second-year undergraduate or seminarian would be able to find their way through.

There are lots of charts and diagrams, maps and date lines and so forth—and a website and a CD in which Mike Bird and I discuss lots of the issues on camera in the splendid locations of the Middle East, Greece and Rome.

Who is Michael Bird and what makes him a particularly bright theological mind?

Michael is an Australian New Testament scholar and theologian, now teaching at Ridley College in Melbourne, and (as of very recently) an ordained Anglican priest.

He has an astonishingly prolific strike rate in terms of book production: now in his mid-40s, I think he has published as many books as I had done by my middle 50s!

He has a sharp, quick and often witty mind and turn of phrase and is very experienced in communicating complex and tricky historical and theological issues to students.

It has been great collaborating with him.

What three questions enable an “informed reading” of the New Testament?

I want to stress that God can and does speak through the Bible to people of all sorts whether or not they have studied these things academically. God is not constrained by the limitations of our education – which is just as well for all of us.

But I firmly believe that the Bible is not a random book of isolated ideas but that it fleshes out and explains the very specific first-century events concerning Jesus who, in scripture itself, is seen as the human embodiment of Israel’s God, the creator.

His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension took place (as Paul says ) ‘When the time had fully come’, and it is vital, if we are to understand them and their world-shattering and world-making impact, that we understand that time, and what it meant to say that it had ’fully come’, as thoroughly as we can.

So the first question must be historical: to get inside the mind of the peoples of the time, to see what they were hoping for and why, what made them tick, what were the social and political and cultural markers around which they lived their lives – and then to see the ways in which Jesus and his first followers both did and didn’t fit in to that world. This is central.

N.T. Wright on location in the Holy Land while filming video curriculum for his new book, ‘The New Testament in Its World’ (Zondervan Academic, 2019). Credit: Jana Muntsinger.

Then the second question must be literary: to understand the writings of the New Testament in their context, to see why people wanted to write in these forms and how writing like that was designed to ‘work’. This builds on the ‘historical’, because historical study of the writing of the time can give us clues as to what the early Christian writers thought they were doing and also the ways in which they were carving out new paths.

This leads to the third question, that of theology, in other words, grappling with the big issues of God and the world, of the human vocation, plight, rescue and restoration – and of course to the active saving revelation of the one creator God in the person of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.

These questions again must be addressed with full awareness of the historical and literary settings if they are to yield their full glory.

Why might reading the New Testament be frustrating if it is perceived as a “how to” guide for getting to heaven?

Mainly because that isn’t what the New Testament itself says it’s about!

We have a long but very misleading tradition of understanding ‘kingdom of heaven’ or ‘eternal life’ as meaning ‘going to heaven when we die,’ because the western mediaeval church was pushing hard in that direction, leading modern western Christians into what is basically a modern form of ‘middle Platonism’, such as we see in Paul’s near-contemporary Plutarch.

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When first-century Jews spoke of God’s future purposes for his people and the world these were very much what we would call ‘this-worldly,’ looking for a new state of affairs in which the world would be transformed by God’s healing, rescuing, restorative justice.

Jesus redefined the hope of Israel but NOT in a ‘platonic’ direction, i.e. he didn’t go around saying ‘never mind putting this world right, what you need is to go to heaven’.

He taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come ‘on earth as in heaven,’ and went about showing, close up and personal, what that might look like—and he died and rose again to deal once and for all with the ultimate power of evil and death so that, with his resurrection and spirit, the new world could be born.

The New Testament explains all this and shapes and energizes the church for its mission which is to continue this work – as we see in Acts.

What is lost when one studies the text of the New Testament but not its history and theology?

It is fatally easy to commit what we call ‘anachronisms’—that is, to imagine that the first Christians were just like us (only without electronic toys).

I’ve just mentioned what they meant by ‘kingdom of God’; the same would be true of Paul discussing ‘the law,’ which for him meant emphatically the Jewish Torah according to which Jews and Gentiles were carefully separated, especially by their symbolic actions to do with food, the Sabbath, and circumcision – and by their relation (or not) to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many modern Christians think of ‘the law’ in the vague terms of a modern ethical system which then produces some odd and even dangerous ideas (as when people say that because Paul seems to bypass ‘the law’ that means we can sit light to the ethical imperatives which—in fact!—Paul himself emphasized!).

History also shows us things like what ‘kingdom-of-God’ movements looked like in the Jewish world, how such movements regarded their leaders (including their supposedly ‘anointed’ leaders, i.e. messianic claimants).

We need to ground our understanding in that world rather than assuming that the later periods of Christian history ‘got it all right.’ As Luther and the other reformers insisted in the sixteenth century, they didn’t—but then even Luther and the others didn’t go all the way.

Every generation has to do the history and theology afresh in order to be obedient to the scripture-formed call of God to the church in our own day.

Did the recipients of Paul’s letters have the philosophical fluency to understand him, or did his writings sometimes go over their heads? What tips do you have for laymen today who want to better understand Paul?

Almost all great writers put more into their writings than the first audience would get out of it.

Shakespeare was hugely popular in his own day because people could ‘get it’ about the basic plot-lines, and pick up the jokes and so on—but there was much, much more going on under the surface and wise listeners and readers would want to go on probing.

The early church had ‘teachers’ whose job it was partly to teach people to read (many in those days being functionally illiterate), partly to read Israel’s scriptures (quite a challenge for non-Jews particularly), and partly to explain the extraordinary things that Paul and the rest were writing.

Anyone today who wants to get inside the mind of Paul should read some of the basic texts of the first-century Jewish world, such as Josephus’s Jewish War or the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran—both available in good modern translations.

They describe parts of Paul’s world which we will otherwise miss, not least the ways in which Jews of those days were reading their scriptures.

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Many people in his world were familiar at least in outline with some of the philosophical questions of the day, with a street-level Stoicism being quite popular: philosophy wasn’t an ‘elite’ subject then as it is now, but was very much about real people in real communities.

Paul’s writings would have their impact right there, though again it would take work on the part of the church’s teaching ministry to probe deeply into what he was saying and bring it out clearly.

But the basic points he was making—that the crucified and risen Jesus is the true ‘lord’ of the whole world, and that following him means being incorporated by the Spirit into Jesus’ family in which God’s worldwide promises to Abraham were being fulfilled, with all the practical and ethical consequences.

Such points were not arcane or only for the ‘inner circle.’ Everyone could get hold of them, particularly because the early church was doing its best to live as a ‘family’ with its own mutually supporting and mutually instructive networks.

N.T. Wright on location in the Holy Land while filming video curriculum for his new book, ‘The New Testament in Its World’ (Zondervan Academic, 2019). Credit: Jana Muntsinger.

What would Paul’s Twitter account look like if he were alive today?

I’m not the person to answer that because I am careful not to get involved in Twitter!

But when he speaks in 2 Corinthians 11 about the daily anxiety he has over the state of health of all the Christian communities around the Mediterranean world, I think we can get a sense of what was uppermost in his mind and heart.

And, lacking electronic communication, he would always wait eagerly for news from Corinth, or Ephesus, or Philippi, or even Jerusalem.

If you could go back in time and observe any New Testament event, what would you most want to witness?

The Transfiguration.  I heard a sermon about it once entitled, ‘On a clear day you can see forever.’

Of course, the people who were there didn’t know what to make of it at the time and I suspect that if I were able to join them I would be similarly dazzled and puzzled.

But it is one of those moments in which past, present and future, heaven and earth, all come rushing together, with Jesus at the middle of it all.

Come to think of it, that last sentence also describes the regular worship of the church, especially the Eucharist . . . and perhaps that’s part of the point. When we worship in the way Jesus commanded us to, we are ‘going back in time’ to those days. And then ‘we are witnesses of these things. ‘

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies. 

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