N. T. Wright is undoubtedly one of the most important New Testament scholars of his generation. For anyone who has followed his work, this collection of essays will be a must-read. In 2010, Wright and nine other prominent biblical scholars and theologians gathered at Wheaton University to discuss Wright’s body of scholarship. Jesus, Paul and the People of God represents the fruit of those discussions. As the title indicates, about half of the monograph is dedicated to Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and the other half to Wright’s treatment of Paul and Pauline theology. Unlike many books of its kind, the quality of the essays is remarkably even across the board—a testament to the editorial efforts of Richard B. Hays and Nicholas Perrin, both of whom are respected scholars in the field as well.
After each chapter, Wright offers a brief response to the criticisms and suggestions raised. In a few instances, I was hoping for a more extensive and in-depth response, but one can only expect so much from a single author: Wright also contributes two stand-alone essays as the concluding chapters of each major section of the work. While the dialogues between Wright and other scholars are fascinating and illuminating, in my view, Wright’s “capstone” chapters constitute the heart of the book. These pieces display Wright at his finest, harnessing years of studious effort on the lives of Jesus and Paul along with his characteristic wit to produce seminal essays that map out fruitful areas for future research in New Testament studies. Moreover, as is his habit, Wright consistently relates his insights to the life of the Church, which imbues his writings with a certain urgency sometimes lacking in technical scholarship.
Although space constraints prevent me from providing a full preview of the book, a few highlights are worth mentioning. In a chapter entitled “‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God,” Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh ask if Wright has taken seriously enough the radical nature of Jesus’ economic teachings. Wright answers “yes,” with the qualification that “Jesus’ kingdom command—repent and believe the good news—has to be translated into proposals that will commend themselves, not just to keen individuals but to numbers large enough to effect real change” (91). Markus Bockmuehl contributes an essay entitled “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?,” which challenges Wright’s “conviction that an affirmation of the bodily resurrection necessitates a denial of the traditional Christian belief that the faithful ‘go to heaven’ when they die” (213). In his response, Wright complains: “I did not fully recognize the presentation of my views in Markus Bockmuehl’s paper,” adding that “‘going to heaven’ is fine as a description of what happens when the faithful die” as long as we keep in mind that “it isn’t the final destination” (231-232)—the final destination being the resurrection of the body in a renewed creation (a point that Bockmuehl and Wright both affirm).
From my perspective, the contributor who most persuasively presses his criticisms is Richard Hays. In short, Hays challenges Wright to reconsider the way in which his quest for the historical Jesus frames the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. As indicative of Wright’s framework, Hays points to a passage from The Meaning of Jesus: “The Jesus I know in prayer, in the sacraments, in the faces of those in need, is the Jesus I meet in the historical evidence—including the New Testament, of course, but the New Testament read not so much as the church has told me to read it but as I read it with my historical consciousness fully operative” (51). In Hays’ view, “‘The church’ here seems to offer chiefly an oppressive and misleading hermeneutical framework that obscures the real Jesus. To discover that real Jesus we must bracket out the church’s received traditions about him and reread the New Testament with a fresh (modernist?) historical consciousness” (ibid.). Somewhat surprisingly, Wright simply absorbs Hays’ jab, asserting in his rebuttal that “[t]he Great Tradition has seriously and demonstrably distorted the gospels” (63). In unpacking this claim, Wright argues that fourth century Christological speculation effectively obscured central Gospel themes such as the kingdom of God.
Obviously, a book review is not the place for fully adjudicating such a disagreement. Nevertheless, in brief, I would say that Hays has at least pointed out an area in which Wright’s work could benefit from further development. My own suggestion might sound overly simplistic, but I wonder if Wright might advance his cause by making a distinction between “small-t” tradition and “big-t” Tradition. From a Catholic perspective, theologians and biblical scholars are free to call into question certain traditional modes of interpretation as long as these reside outside of the bounds of what the Church has dogmatically defined. Instances of dogma, in contrast, are non-negotiable (though theologians, of course, remain free to explore the full implications of such truths). From this perspective, some of Wright’s assertions—“I believe in the creeds. But I believe in the Jesus of the Gospels a good deal more” (64)—operate according to a false dichotomy.
Properly understood, the creedal tradition represents not a burden to be cast off, but an indispensable guide for reading the Bible “with the mind of the Church,” as Yves Congar sometimes put it. As just one example, the Chalcedonian affirmation that Christ was both fully human and fully divine was precisely about safeguarding the truth that Wright believes “the mainstream dogmatic tradition” has screened out—namely, that Jesus “is Israel’s God in person coming to claim the sovereignty promised to the Messiah” (134; emphasis mine). The danger of bracketing Tradition is that we risk falling into the same errors that the Church has already flagged as incommensurate with an orthodox understanding of Jesus’ person and work. Furthermore, without getting into the technicalities of the matter, none of us reads Scripture apart from tradition. Thus, the question is not, “Will we or won’t we read the Bible with the lens of tradition?” but, “What tradition will we adopt, consciously or not, as our guide?”
Again, my brief comments cannot do justice to the complexity of this discussion, and a large part of my disagreement with Wright likely has to do with the difference in our respective ecclesial locations. In conclusion, I will say that there is very little that Wright claims to have uncovered or rediscovered about the historical Jesus (or about Pauline theology, for that matter) that I would consider antithetical to “the Great Tradition” as it has been transmitted in the Roman Catholic Communion. As I mention above, this collection of essays, as with Wright’s entire corpus, significantly advances New Testament scholarship on a number of fronts. The guild can only hope that this book is the first of several theological dialogues about Wright’s scholarship.