Bill's Reviews > The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is

The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright
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's review
Jul 25, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: commentary-bible, theology, extended-review
Read in May, 2011

I finally tackled an NT Wright book! (Had to write a 1000 word review for Bible College.) This book is a introduction to NT Wright's work on Jesus (and doesn't realy touch on his controversial views about Paul) and I found it to be excellent. His big issue is that Jesus must be considered in the context of 1st Century Judaism. (This seems like a natural fit with Biblical Theology -- Jesus as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament.) He's frustrating at times because he refuses to use familiar labels and categories, and the chapter on the cross wasn't very satisfying. But his strength is clearly the depth of Old Testament background for Jesus' ministry, along with the detailed comparison with the ideas Jesus was rebutting in contempory Judaism. This context really was helpful in growing my understanding of Jesus' ministry as a whole and also shed some light on a few obscure passages.

Here's the full text of the review I wrote for my NT class:


The Challenge of Jesus is a popular introduction to N.T. Wright’s extensive work on Jesus. Wright’s fundamental demand is that Jesus be considered in the historical context of first century Judaism, and as he examines a series of major topics from the life of Jesus, Wright is concerned both to rebut those who he considers to have projected their more modern worldviews back onto Jesus, and to re-examine each topic through the lense of first century Judaism.

In reformed circles, N.T. Wright is most well known for his controversial views on Paul and justification, and as a result all of his work is often regarded with suspicion. The existence of an entire book by influential author John Piper which argues against Wright’s views on justification , for example, may have prevented many from engaging his work regarding Jesus. This suspicion is not universal and may be changing , which would seem to be a good thing given the many constructive and encouraging contributions Wright makes to our understanding of Jesus and the gospels. Whilst he certainly offers challenges to some of our familiar portraits of Jesus, there is little evidence, in The Challenge of Jesus at least, of views which contradict orthodox evangelical theology.

Wright explains in the introduction that this is a popular and non-academic book, and on the whole he makes good on his promise. While there is constant reference to his longer works and many disclaimers concerning the briefness of various discussions, he generally manages to achieve his goal of communicating the core of some quite complex historical and theological issues without sliding into overlong and detailed explanations. His tone is warm and engaging, he several times anticipates common objections and responds helpfully, and throughout the book he manages to be quite balanced when rebutting differing positions. His summary statements which regularly follow the various extended passages of argument are an excellent feature.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of reading The Challenge of Jesus is Wright’s steadfast refusal to use familiar terms and categories in his descriptions of Jesus, for as Piper comments, “he has recast the old definitions and the old connections”. This is likely because he wants to avoid recalling some familiar and popular views about Jesus with which he is taking issue. However, this does make his work less accessible and more difficult to engage with, as he is building his terms and definitions from the ground up, and it has probably contributed to the unease with which many from the reformed tradition regard his work.

Wright begins in Chapter One with a brief history of the three ‘Quests for the Historical Jesus’ and a popular apology for the need to study Jesus using historical methods. We must study the historical Jesus, he claims, 1. Because Jesus reveals God, 2. Out of loyalty to scripture, 3. Because of the Christian ‘imperative to truth’ and 4. Out of a commitment to the ongoing mission of Jesus. He argues that rather than perpetuating the Enlightenment’s separation of history and faith, our challenge is to “articulate a reintegrated worldview”.

Wright begins to explain the heart of his picture of Jesus in Chapter Two as he deals with Jesus and the Kingdom of God. His approach is characterised by constant and detailed attention to the Old Testament precedents which Jesus evoked, and the usually contrasting ways in which first century Judaism viewed them. Wright describes throughout the book Jesus’ ‘doubly revolutionary agenda’, which contradicted on one hand the leaders of the Jewish establishment who had compromised with the Roman occupiers, and on the other hand the zealous militant revolutionaries who looked for a military overthrow of the invaders. Jesus, says Wright, announced both the end of exile for God’s people and the call of a renewed people of God. Chapter Three continues by examining the symbols of Judaism (temple, nation and land, family, food, Sabbath) and the way in which Jesus claimed them as being fulfilled in himself. Wright’s picture of the Kingdom of God is convincing and compelling, and sheds fresh light on several of the difficult passages which he discusses, not least those usually thought to describe Jesus’ second coming.

In Chapter Four Wright turns to the crucifixion, and on this topic his new definitions and categories are most obvious, contrasting as they do the clear and categorical theological terms historically used to describe the significance of the cross. Wright account of Jesus’ understanding of his own crucifixion relies largely on cultural hints and symbols and is not particularly satisfying to the first time reader. He acknowledges that many will find his explanation “strange and peculiar”, and points to the necessary complexity of engaging the world of first century Judaism in explanation. None the less, he appears to arrive at orthodox theological conclusions, and certainly the chapter’s conclusion regarding the centrality of the cross in the life of every Christian is inspiring and encouraging.

Chapter Five asks, “Was Jesus God?”, and “Did Jesus know he was God?” Wright does not turn to the familiar proof texts on the topic, and even includes a rebuttal of C.S. Lewis famous Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemna as too simplistic. Instead he argues convincingly that at the whole picture of Jesus’ life and ministry can only make sense if Jesus believed he was God. He surveys the five defining symbols of interaction with God in Judaism (presence, law, Spirit, word and wisdom) and examines the way Jesus redefined all five to point to himself. Wright then offers a firm historical defence of the resurrection in Chapter Six, and his arguments and language on this topic are more mainstream and familiar than in previous chapters.

In the final two chapters Wright applies of the challenge of Jesus to contemporary society. Chapter Seven is an examination of post-modernity and a warning that Christians must anchor themselves not to modernity or post-modernity but to Jesus himself. Chapter Eight closes the book with an encouragement to live out the challenge of Jesus within today’s society.

Reading The Challenge of Jesus was both exhausting and invigorating. Because of the complex and unfamiliar arguments Wright develops, not to mention the caution prompted by any prior suspicion of his work held by a reader, the book is intellectually demanding to read. Yet the picture of Jesus that emerges, with a great depth of cultural context in the Old Testament and first century Judaism is satisfying and plausible. The Challenge of Jesus is a helpful and encouraging book which ought to contribute greatly to any reader’s understanding and worship of Jesus.

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