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Thursday, March 12, 2020

N. T. Wright says the Bible must be understood in its historical context





To understand scripture, understand its authors, says this scholar
Scripture scholar N. T. Wright says the Bible must be understood in its historical context.
It’s impossible to list all the books that New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright has written in the space allotted on the facing page. His career spans more than 40 years, during which he has published dozens of books—some large, some small, some academic, and some geared toward a popular audience—aimed at helping readers understand the New Testament in a new light through the lens of first-century history.


His new book, The New Testament in Its World (Zondervan Academic), is an attempt to summarize this decades-long career into a single volume accessible to churchgoers, first-year students, and scholars alike. Along with his coauthor, Michael Bird, Wright has compiled more than 900 pages of writing, illustrations, diagrams, charts, and timelines. (As Wright says, “If the 900-page book was all prose, you might think, ‘Heavens, I’m just rowing across the Atlantic. Will I ever get there?’ ”)


The resulting chapters—some of which are based on previous writing and some of which are brand new—are organized into three overarching sections: the New Testament as history, as theology, and as literature. It is vital, Wright believes, to understand scripture through each of these lenses in order to understand both its historical context and what it means to people of faith today.

Why focus on the New Testament as history, theology, and literature?

You need all three lenses to make sure that you’re understanding things correctly. In order to truly understand any text—whether it’s T. S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, or the Bible—you have to know quite a lot about its original context. Otherwise you will inevitably commit massive anachronisms.


History involves probing into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves. One of the great things about being a New Testament scholar is that we know a lot about the first century. We’ve got good source material: coins, inscriptions, the writings of Josephus, and the Dead Sea scrolls. The more we immerse ourselves in this raw material, the more we can tell what scriptural passages probably meant.


A great example is when Martin Luther challenged the typical reading of Mark 1 in the late medieval church. In the scripture Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” Repent was translated as poenitentiam agere in Latin, which means “to do penance.” So people argued that what Jesus meant is that repentance involves saying five Hail Marys. But then Luther comes along and says, “No, Jesus means to have a change of heart.” But in fact, if you understand the first-century context you know that Luther was right, but he didn’t go far enough. People who were saying that kind of thing in the first century didn’t just mean a change of heart: They meant to have a change of politics, a change of policy, a change of agenda. 


To understand the New Testament through literature is to understand the genre. When reading a parable of Jesus, such as the Prodigal Son, it makes no sense to say, “I need to know where the farm was and what the father was called.” That’s not the point of the story. And when we read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, they are very clear that isn’t the point of the story. Jesus is not a fictitious example of some general spiritual principle: This stuff happened, and it mattered.


That may be a trivial example, but it’s helpful to understand how books like those in the New Testament got put together and why people read them in the way they did. It’s important to know things like the function of letters in the ancient world, especially in today’s social media world where people don’t write letters anymore. I grew up writing letters. When I was in boarding school I wrote a letter home every week or I would be in trouble. But people don’t do that anymore.


And then there are books like the Revelation of John. It’s really important to know what sort of book that is, because the theology is obviously the subject matter. So much of it is about God and the world and Israel and Jesus and the church and Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s this kind of grammar to it; it’s not just odd ideas scattered loosely around. Already in the first century early Christians were constructing what we, in hindsight, can call “theology”: There is a coherence to these ideas. It’s their attempt to read the mind of God out of the events concerning Jesus.


The church has always been at least partially defined in terms of what it believes, which means that creeds are important. No other world religion has creeds, but the church is defined as people who believe in this God rather than any others. So theology is the delighted exploration of how people address the big questions of God and the world and Israel and Jesus and us. 


These three realms—history, literature, and theology—all intersect. But each also has its own proper domain. It’s possible and even desirable to examine the three lenses separately before putting them back together again. 



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