Tom Wright (aka N. T. Wright)
This little volume had just been stocked at the Christian bookstore as a new arrival and it was the only one on the shelf so I purchased it to see Tom Wright’s treatment of this subject. The subject is our Lord and how Tom Wright described Jesus in context would reveal much about the author.
I have not read any of Tom Wright’s books before this one but am familiar with him and some of his writings only in excerpt-form quoted by others on various subjects. N. T. Wright is one of the premiere New Testament scholars of our time. His scholarship and output is impressive. He uses plain speech and a conversational tone in this small book as the title implies. The thoughts and materials are, however, quite advanced as he places Jesus in a historical Jewish context (more about this later in critical form). The author displays acute familiarity with primary non-Biblical sources surrounding the time of the Messiah’s first advent.
A note about this review is appropriate here as this reviewer has gifted the book to others and is writing from memory without the benefit of notes. I hope to read this compact volume again, notate it, and expand the review. The book left a distinct impression on me and it took me more than several days to read and ponder the author’s case.
Initially, the book deals with how readers understand the words of Scripture about Jesus. Tom Wright identifies a common fallacy with many today who try to apply their reading of the Bible to their everyday life. Sometimes Christians attempt to make the Bible more relevant than it truly is and read the text anachronistically. This means they wrench the historicity of the account and think about it only in their own context of 21st century thought. This is a valid and clearly recognized problem of our Christian society’s attempt to be practical at the expense of the historical settings. Christians have been guilty of anachronism through the ages and is somewhat typical when reading about ordinary believers in church history. This is much less true of Biblical scholars historically since they recognize both the language and cultural contexts and will be more sensitive regarding relevant application.
What Tom Wright proposes is to contextualize the account into an historical Jewish setting to understand the words and actions of our Lord. This, I believe, is only less than half of the solution. Christian educators have long been aware of their students’ tendency to “read into” the Bible the issues that are affecting themselves and to seek a remedy by applying verses in a seemingly haphazard way. The standard solution of educators generally has been to recommend familiarization of the whole Bible especially the Old Testament in any study of Jesus, His fulfillment of prophecy, and His teachings to the disciples. This, by far, is the need for almost any understanding of the Christian experience. In other words: Christ should be contextualized from the whole revelation in the Bible and not solely from the immediate Jewish historical setting.
Jesus did not come primarily to 1st Century Israel in their recent context of the last 400 years but in the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah throughout earth’s history. He is the One who would crush the serpent’s head sustaining injury to His heal in that He is forever enthroned as a Lamb slain (Rev.7:17, 13:8) which God had promised Adam and Eve in the garden after their fall (Gen.3:15). To look upon Jesus as a Jew in Jewish history, I believe, is very incomplete since He is much, much more. This, in my view, is the major failing of Tom Wright’s “Simply Jesus.”
Additionally, in the last section of the book, Wright tries to show what the fulfillment of The Kingdom looks like by saying the spiritual lives of the disciples now empowered with the Holy Spirit references the phrase in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Tom Wright is saying that the overcoming life of Christians is God’s Kingdom manifest here on earth. While there may be aspects of Kingdom life in today’s members of the future Kingdom of God, this doesn’t constitute the promised coming Kingdom of our Lord on earth. Notice what the Apostle Peter says during his address to the crowd after healing the man at the Temple in Acts3:19- “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out,20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you – that is, Jesus.21 This one heaven musts receive until the time all things are restored, which God declared from times long ago through his holy prophets.” (NET). Here Peter was used to heal a man through the Spirit, and two thousand people were also added to the church yet Peter speaks of a time of refreshing after Jesus returns and restores what was promised to Israel: the literal, physical earthly Kingdom of the Messiah. While Tom Wright mentions a future aspect and even a “snatching away” (Rapture), the revealed Kingdom promises, especially from the Old Testament, is almost completely minimized for the view of a present fulfillment of “Thy Kingdom Come.”
Further, Wright describes John the Baptist’s feelings when he sent his disciples to Jesus asking if Jesus was the One who was to come or if they should look for another. He has the Baptist wondering why he sits in prison and not delivered and standing next to King Jesus. This is not what the Baptist expected since his earlier witness portrays Jesus as “Look,the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”(Jn.1:29bNIV). He sees Jesus in the larger role of sacrificial substitution for all mankind. Only once is it recorded that John the Baptist says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Mt.3:2 ESV) Jesus was the King but the Baptist seemed to emphasize his eternal nature “because he was before me” (Jn.1:30c ESV) and His giving of the Spirit in the New Covenant along with a future judgment. I believe John the Baptist wanted to ask Jesus why He had not yet provided atonement for the world’s sins since He was spending years teaching the disciples and personally going from village to village. Tom Wright cannot explain or prove why the Baptist should expect Jesus to rescue him in His kingly role since John knew Jesus also had to fulfill His Priestly mission of atonement.
Also, this may be a quibble, but Wright chides the Medieval cartographers at least two times saying they had an erroneous idea of Israel and Jerusalem centered at the “heart” of the earth when they drew their maps. Perhaps Dr. Wright is not familiar with Ezekiel 5:5 where God states His design to place His nation in the center of all the nations at that time in history presumably as an outreach along the busy trading routes directly in the middle of the fertile crescent: “This is what the sovereign Lord says: This is Jerusalem; I placed her in the center of the nations with countries all around her.” (NET). Today, of course, in the age of the Spirit, God’s witness is in believers, as promised in Jeremiah 31.