12 January 2012

simply Jesus 1

N. T. Wright. Simply Jesus. (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

The latest work by noted scholar and theologian, known here as The Bishop, is an incredible book about Jesus.  Yes, Wright has written two significant books about Jesus, and yet has decided to offer another.  As he quipped during a recent speaking engagement, "Jesus hasn't changed, but I have" - thus he has once again entered the world of Jesus scholarship and takes the reader on a powerful journey to a better understanding of who Jesus was (and is), and the context in which he came with his message of kingdom.

There are times when you run across a book that so resonates with your own belief systems that you feel almost as though you could have written it.  For me, this is one of those books (not to sound as though I consider myself on par with The Bishop).  What I mean to say is that I so appreciate and enjoy the manner in which Wright has succinctly introduced Jesus and his first century context, that there was a resounding 'Yes!' on many pages of the book.

I want to take a series of posts to briefly review and summarize what Wright presents in Simply Jesus.

The book is divided into three parts.  In Part One Wright sets the table with his key questions and the context of Second Temple Judaism as the world into which Jesus came.  He briefly touches the question of the Gospels but is more interested in discussing Jesus than historical reliability - that he can point to other works which have made the case.  Telling in what the reader will find in this book, Wright says at the outset of Chapter Two, "Jesus is mysterious because of what we do know - what our evidence encourages us to see as the core of who he was and what he did - is so unlike what we know about anybody else that we are forced to ask, as people evidently did at the time: who, then is this?" (9, emphasis in original).

Wright strives to make the case that we must do much work in order to enter into Jesus' world, that time, space and thought are quite different now than they were then (and there).  But all of this brings about "the perfect storm" that characterizes Jesus, his identity, and his world.  Before getting at this, however, Wright takes a few pages to dispel the two major and opposing myths about Jesus - conservative and liberal.  All of this lends to Wright's overall premise that Jesus is very much unlike us today, even though most people seem to cast their own experience back into their understanding of Jesus.

What made the first-century storm?  Chapter Four outlines the factors that came together to make Second Temple Judaism and (by definition) the person and work of Jesus what the Gospels are trying to tell us.  There is the Roman storm (28-31) and the Jewish storm (31-35) which placed the confrontation of imperialism and God's covenant with his people at odds.  The hope of Israel was that God, not the Roman caesars would be king over the earth and would reign through his people Israel.  "The God who brought order out of chaos and who brought his enslaved people out of Egypt would do it again" (33).

This, according to Wright, all gave way for the great hurricane (Chapter Five) of Jesus coming into the world.  Mounting within the Second Temple period was the belief that it was time for God to become, once and finally, the one king (41).  The prophecies and prayers of Israel repeat this refrain, and the book includes a good number of such passages.  The people of God were waiting for God to be enthroned through his people, that justice and righteousness would be established on earth, and that the nations would be brought into obedience.

Of course, the biblical story is that those who were appointed to fulfill this task initially - the 'shepherds' of Israel (Ezekiel 34:2-16) - were a failure, thus leaving the story for God alone to fulfill the task of redemption and restoration on behalf of his people.  This leads to the question, ". . . would YHWH actually appear, visibly and in person, to take charge?" (50).  Further, when God does appear, it is noted that it will not look like the power struggles familiar in the imperialism of the Roman Empire (or Babylon, Persia, . . .), but with the establishment of the covenant kingdom upon the whole world (cf. 53).

Also included here is the promise of a Davidic king (2 Samuel 7), who was now expected to come and rise to the throne of Israel and establish the rule of YHWH.  When bringing this context to the life and ministry of Jesus Wright raises two questions: 1) "First, why would anyone say this of Jesus, who had not done the things people expected a victorious king to do?" and, 2) "Second, what on earth might it mean today to speak of Jesus being 'king' or being 'in charge,' in view of the fact that so many things in the world give no hint of such a thing?" (55).

These are the initial steps in Wright's approach to understanding Jesus.  Thus far he has done well to establish the preliminary context of the world into which Jesus came.  And, as I have seen time and again, getting a better grasp on Jesus' context already enlightens one to the things he said and did.  There is more contextual work in Part Two, but Wright begins to move toward a discussion about Jesus' own actions as well.  All in the work to answer the two questions of why he was considered to be Messiah, and what his present rule means for the world today.

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