If some books are difficult to market, I would suspect The Challenge of Jesus might fall into the marketing department category for “nightmare.” For one thing, it is a serious book written by a serious thinker who intends to make his readers think. (Just what the average busy Christian is dying to dig into next.) Second, it is written for evangelicals by a scholar whose work has been part of what is often referred to as “the quest for the historical Jesus.” (A research project which most evangelicals have been happy to ignore, if not disdain.) And third, it argues that some of the ways evangelicals interpret the New Testament texts concerning Christ are, in fact, wrong. (Oh, yeah?) Not precisely a book designed to become an evangelical best-seller, and that is sad, because N. T. Wright is someone we need to listen to with care.
In the February 8, 1999, issue of Christianity Today, Tim Stafford profiled five “new” theologians (new in the sense of replacing an older generation of scholars in top academic positions) who have something of importance to say to the church: Richard Hays (Duke Divinity School), Miroslav Volf (Yale), Kevin Vanhoozer (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Ellen Charry (Princeton), and N. T. Wright, (Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey). They “signal a discernable and surprising shift within the fields of biblical studies and theology,” Stafford says. “They certainly do not represent the majority of their peers. Yet their work—articulating an unapologetically orthodox faith—is highly regarded in the academy.”
Dr. Wright’s primary work is found in two massive books of scholarship, Jesus and the Victory of God (700 pages) and The New Testament and the People of God (500 pages), the first two in a projected series of six volumes. The Challenge of Jesus, written for a lay audience, is both a good introduction to this keen thinker and an examination of Jesus within the historical context of the first century—which is guaranteed to send us back to the Scriptures for further study.
If you are like me, The Challenge of Jesus will cause you to rethink your reaction to the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus. Wright’s single-minded insistence that Christians need not fear the truth is bracing, as is his conviction that the best response to historical scholarship which ignores the Scriptures is not to withdraw from scholarship but to do better scholarship.
If you are like me, you will also find The Challenge of Jesus challenging reading. Not because it is so academic as to be incomprehensible, but rather because it forces us to reconsider how we see and understand Jesus, and how we interpret the New Testament. “The more I take part in the quest for Jesus,” he says, “the more I am challenged by it both as an individual and as a churchman. This is not because what I find undermines traditional orthodoxy, but precisely because the rich, full-blooded orthodoxy I find bubbling up from the pages of history poses challenges to me personally and to all the congregations I know. These challenges are extremely demanding, precisely because they are gospel challenges, kingdom challenges.”
I hope you are up to the challenge of The Challenge of Jesus. Few books have so stimulated my desire to study the New Testament or to know Jesus better.
Those who wish to listen in to the scholarly conversation around Wright’s work will be interested in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel. Twelve scholars, not all evangelicals, respond to aspects of Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
SourceThe Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1999) 197 pp.+ notes.
Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God edited by Carey C. Newman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1999) 288 pp. + notes.