Review: Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

Wright JVG

[Note: the following is from an old seminary paper of mine from 2011, which I just recently re-discovered buried in an old Google Drive folder. I present it here in its original form, though I can see now that it could have used a bit more editorial finesse!]

N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 2). Fortress Press, 1997.

Wright’s Audience

Wright directs this book to three primary audiences: those who portray our knowledge of Jesus as an icon, as a silhouette, and as a portrait. Wright describes the iconic view as seeing Jesus simply as an object of devotion. They see little need to discover the Jesus of history and instead dwell on Him primarily as a theological figure. The silhouette view, on the other hand, contends that the Gospels are largely inaccurate and we can only construct a rough outline of who the historical Jesus was. Finally, Wright describes the portrait view as those who believe we can and should recover much about the historical Jesus from His first-century Jewish context.

First, we will look at the roots of the icon view, which developed during the Reformation. According to Wright, the reformers had little use for the historical content of the Gospels but read them for timeless theological truths like the ones found in the Epistles (13). For the most part, says Wright, this is the view of modern orthodox Christians, who often regard quests for a historical Jesus as unnecessary. Such Christians believe it is important to know why Jesus died but often cannot explain why He lived or “the purpose of Jesus’ ministry” (14). Jesus’ benefits are considered more significant than His story as a first-century Jewish man (15). They often accept the Christ of faith apart from the Jesus of history for the purposes of theology, making Him into an icon or an object of devotion (16). While Wright agrees that Christ’s theological significance is important, he argues that knowledge of the historical Jesus is vital and must be understood within His first-century Jewish context (16).

Wright’s second audience holds the silhouette view of the historical Jesus. Herman Reimarus was one of the first to hold this view (16). Like the reformers, they often neglected Jesus’ Jewishness, but now in order to portray Him (or tame Him) as a mere teacher of timeless truths (20). William Wrede claimed that we can know very little about the historical Jesus and that the Gospels largely portray the views of the early church (21). The Jesus Seminar and the modern critical movement are the main proponents of this view today. They inherited from the Bultmann school this minimalist posture toward Scripture and portrayed Jesus as a social reformer with a timeless ethic. While Wright affirms their desire to do historical study, he believes that their historical method is flawed; more can be known about the Jesus of history than they acknowledge, and Jesus must be studied within His distinctly Jewish context (20).

Wright’s third audience, consisting of the portrait proponents, was brought to the fore by Albert Schweitzer. He believed that one could accurately recover the historical contours of Jesus’ life (21). Schweitzer saw the historical Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish and apocalyptic figure (21). To him, Jesus was similar to His portrayal in the Gospels and the early church, though ultimately Jesus failed in His mission to usher in the end of the age (21). Ernst Kasemann (within this view) argued against Bultmann and his students, insisting that study of Jesus must be rooted in real history, not merely theology (23). Wright sees himself as part of this view, arguing for a Jewish eschatological Jesus as opposed to the “thoroughgoing skepticism of William Wrede” and liberal Protestantism (28). Wright sees contemporary proponents of this view as a diverse collection of  scholars, including Sanders, Witherington, and de Jonge (84). However, to Wright eschatology does not entail a literal “end of the space-time universe” (81). He affirms that we can know a great deal about the true Jesus of history, but he believes that Jesus was entirely successful in His mission (123).

Wright’s Method

In appealing to this critical audience, Wright does not assume the inerrancy of Scripture. Some will too quickly dismiss his work because of this, but if they read on, they will discover that Wright does have a very high view of Scripture. It is not that he doubts its accuracy, but rather that he doesn’t take it for granted. He often comments on the likelihood that Jesus actually said some particular saying, but he presents evidence in each case to show that the saying is likely to be genuine, even if scriptural inerrancy is not assumed.

Wright’s primary means of commending the historical reliability of various scriptural accounts is his criterion of double dissimilarity and double similarity (131-133). Wright uses this criterion to convincingly argue that the recorded words and actions of Jesus fit perfectly within their own context and explain what followed. The stories of Jesus do not make sense except within His first-century Jewish context, but He also challenged that context in radical ways. Additionally, the stories about Jesus are contextually distinct from the teachings of the early church (for example, the early church did not face the same sort of political pressure to conceal Jesus’ messianic identity as did Jesus Himself), but they also are necessary prerequisites to later developments of Christianity.

In an additional effort to appeal to the skeptics in his audience, Wright makes little or no use of the Gospel of John. Many critical scholars would be put off by attempts to use John because they see it as historically unreliable. Wright meets these skeptics where they are, leaving the battle over John for another day, saying, “I hope I shall be able to explore [John] in due course” (xvi). This exclusion has both strengths and weaknesses, but at least Wright seems aware of these (xvi).

Wright proceeds to develop a reconstruction of Jesus that plausibly fits within the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. In supporting his hypothesis, he makes no claims of objectivity, arguing that pure objectivity is actually impossible (54). Rather, he attempts to show that his proposed historical reconstruction fits the data, is the simplest explanation for that data, and sheds light on other areas of study (367). According to these three criteria, Wright indeed builds a convincing case, which offers challenges to all three camps of his audience.  

Evaluation of Wright

A fundamental pillar of Wright’s project is his Christology “from below” (to borrow a term from Donald Macleod’s The Person of Christ). That is, Wright builds his portrait of Jesus not primarily on the post-Easter theological reflection of the New Testament and the early church, but rather on the historical foundations of Second Temple Judaism. The Jesus that emerges from this approach is very historically-rooted and very much in touch with the longings and expectations of his Palestinian Jewish contemporaries. Wright’s Christology does not necessarily stand in direct opposition to a Christology “from above,” in which Jesus is viewed first as the eternal Second Person of the Trinity, in all the fullness of Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy; nevertheless, differences between the two approaches are quite apparent, and sometimes problematic.

Now it should first be noted that Wright’s Christology from below will appeal to critical scholars who do not share a high view of Scripture, and there is something to be affirmed here. Wright is to be commended for his apologetic effort to build bridges with those who do not start with theistic presuppositions. In a certain ironic way, Wright mirrors the very Jesus he presents to us. This Jesus begins with the worldview of his Jewish contemporaries, but He radically subverts their values and expectations through a message that is simultaneously familiar and fresh. Similarly, Wright himself begins with the historical-critical worldview of his secular colleagues, but he subverts their conclusions through a method that bears both commonalities and differences to their own. The end result is a picture of Jesus that stands apart from both the myriad messianic pretenders of first-century Judaism and the revisionist reconstructions of Jesus in our own day.

Unfortunately, Wright’s picture also stands apart from the Jesus of traditional Christian orthodoxy in a number of troublesome ways. In particular, we would contend that Wright’s Jesus seems to suffer from a case of cultural and historical myopia. While this Jesus is keenly aware of the realities of first-century Palestine, he shows little awareness of the broader implications of his message. Wright is quite intentional about this, being careful to avoid a Jesus who proclaims “timeless” moral and theological truths (what Wright calls the “docetic” Jesus of orthodoxy, 659), and instead favoring an apocalyptic Jesus who is almost exclusively concerned with the end of Israel’s exile and the arrival of God’s kingdom. The problem with this picture of Jesus is not that it is false, but that it is reductionistic. It also forces Wright to see this return-from-exile motif behind every tree in the Gospels, as in the parable of the prodigal son (125-131). But should we not expect a more trans-cultural message from the incarnate Logos, who came to accomplish God’s plan of redemption for the whole human race? The Jesus of the Gospels—and especially of John’s Gospel—seems much more conscious of His own divine identity (contra Wright, 653) and the broader impact of His life, teaching and work than is allowed by Wright. In other words, we do not believe that the “icons” and the “portraits” of Jesus have to be mutually exclusive.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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