Paul for Everyone – The Pastorals (N T Wright) 3/5
Another highly readable volume in this series from Tom Wright. The books of 1 Timothy and Titus have a lot of practical teaching in them which he highlights nicely. In a volume this size, he doesn’t have space to argue the case for his interpretation of some of the gender-specific commands, but gives a brief defense of his egalitarian reading of them. For 2 Timothy, I prefer Stott’s BST volume, which better emphasises Paul’s passion for the safe handing over of the gospel. As one would expect though, Wright does an admirable job of highlighting some of the subversive use of vocabulary (e.g. good news, saviour) that challenges the claims of the Roman empire.
The Message of Psalms 1-72 – The Bible Speaks Today (Michael Wilcock) 3/5
There is a lot of material for a book of this size to cover, so don’t expect a verse by verse exposition. Given this limitation, Michael Wilcock devotes a surprising amount of space to discussing the historical situation behind the writing of each psalm. In most cases, of course, this is guesswork, but he makes some good cases for the links he proposes. The remainder of the space allotted to each psalm is spent considering the structure of the psalm, with general comments on each section. Another useful feature of the book is that during the early Psalms he highlights key words and phrases that will reoccur throughout the Psalter and provides definitions for them.
The Message of Thessalonians – The Bible Speaks Today (John Stott) 3/5
As with many of the BST volumes on shorter books, this one is more like a standard commentary with comments on almost every verse. Stott sees the overriding theme of 1 Thessalonians as Paul’s preoccupation with the gospel – its proclamation to the world and implications for the church. There is a useful and balanced discussion of the Parousia and rapture. Stott characterstically takes pains to differentiate between Paul’s apostolic gifting, which in his view is no longer available, and our current situation with the canon of Scripture complete.
The analysis of 2 Thessalonians continues along similar lines, with more teaching on the second coming and the problem of the antichrist to deal with as well. Again, Stott links Paul’s apostolic authority with his mandate to write Scripture which gives him an yet another opportunity to vigorously champion an evangelical commitment to the Bible.
Jesus and the Victory of God (N T Wright) 5/5
This substantial work, volume 2 of Wright’s “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series is widely recognised as a hugely important contribution to the “third quest” for the historical Jesus. Wright begins by surveying the recent trends in historical investigation into the life of Jesus. He takes the opportunity to provide a robust critique of the Jesus seminar’s findings (something that he has also done admirably elsewhere in various papers). He then proposes a method for examining the various accounts of the life of Jesus (the four canonical gospels, and the gospel of Thomas) with their stories and sayings and coming to an informed conclusion as to “what really happened”. Rather than, as many scholars favour, taking individual sayings and asking “did Jesus say that?” – which rarely leads to any kind of certain conclusion, he approaches it from a different angle. He looks at some of the key themes running through Jesus’ life. Celebratory meals, riddles, symbolic actions, remarkable healings, kingdom sayings and so on are to be found in “triple tradition” which gives us confidence that Jesus did actually do these type of things.
Wright shows how Jesus through symbolic praxis and subversive riddles predicted the downfall of the temple cult, effectively replacing the temple and Torah with himself. To answer the charge that many sayings or miracles of Jesus were simply invented by the early church to prove various points, Wright introduces the criteria of double similarity and dissimilarity which
he uses to gain strong historical footings in each of the categories he examines.
Having examined the teaching and praxis of Jesus, Wright slowly builds up his picture of what Jesus’ own sense of vocation was – arguing that we can determine this without needing to psychoanalyse him. He does this by working through the material that gives us insight into Jesus’ own worldview. The book closes with an examination of the reasons for Jesus death – moving backwards from the Romans’ intention to the Jews and then to Jesus himself. Finally Wright considers the question of the return of Yahweh to his people. Forgiveness of sins for first century Jews meant a real end to the exile – something that they believed had not happened yet. The pagan forces would be thrown out and the temple would be the focal point of God’s presence. But Wright argues that Jesus saw himself not just as a prophet announcing that return, but that in himself and through his suffering he was actually bringing that forgiveness – the end of the exile and a new kingdom where the temple was superceded.
This is a tremendously valuable book for gaining a stronger understanding of Jesus’ own sense of identity and calling, as well as appreciating the first century culture in which he lived. Many of the parables, “apocalyptic sayings” and symbolic actions (such as the cleansing of the temple and the last supper) will take on a new light as a result of his careful analysis. He ably demonstrates that we can approach the gospel records without prejudging them to be either infallible or full of myths and discover that they contain a great deal of reliable material purely on the basis of level-headed historical investigation. The extreme skepticism of many liberals is shown to be unwarranted.
The subject of the resurrection is reserved for the third volume in the series, which I hope to tackle soon (it has taken me over a year to read this one). There is a lively discussion group on Yahoo that talk about Wright’s writings, so ifyou read this book and have any questions you can ask them there. The fourth volume (probably on Paul) is eagerly anticipated, but due to his new role as Bishop of Durham it might be a while in coming.