N.T. Wright, “The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is”

I had enjoyed several of N.T. Wright’s other books, and he himself recommends this book at the end of his Simply Christian. The book was originally published in 1999, and the 2015 edition (by InterVarsity Press) has a new, seven-page introduction by Wright. The “backbone of this book,” says the author in the preface (9), is four lectures “at a remarkable conference” that was convened “under the auspices of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship” with the “twin title: ‘Following Christ/Shaping the World.'” The back cover provides this bio of the author:

N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham in England, is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He also taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford Universities. He has written over thirty books, including Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, Justification and Evil and the Justice of God. His magisterial work, Jesus and the Victory of God, is widely regarded as one of the most significant contributions to contemporary New Testament studies.

Regarding that last sentence, a favorable blurb from First Things on the book’s flyleaf says, “The present book is a generally accessible version of [Wright’s] more academic Jesus and the Victory of God.” But it must have pained Wright a bit to cut down the longer book, since he complains constantly — and, I have to say, a little annoyingly — about his space constraints here. This book is 197 pages of text, plus four pages of endnotes and a three-page index.


This is not my favorite book by Wright, but there is still a lot in it to like. Wright certainly knows his history, and he’s right that good history matters and each generation should do it. It’s nice to read someone who is (by all indications that I see — e.g., 190 TAN 2) politically liberal nonetheless concluding that the text of the New Testament has to be taken seriously.

But I have to say that Wright’s politics do intrude some in this book. And, when Wright speaks of “our world go[ing] through the deep pain of the death throes of the Enlightenment” (16), I think he exaggerates the staying power of postmodernism (chapter 7 is titled, “Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World”), and that he should be more aggressive in defending objective rationality.

Another area of skepticism: In chapter 2 (“The Challenge of the Kingdom”), Wright says that that Jesus was warning the Jews to follow His way of peace — or they would be destroyed. In chapter 3 (“The Challenge of the Symbols”), Wright argues that Jesus wanted Israel to stop seeing itself as isolated and separate. Wright italicizes this (58): “[Jesus’] kingdom-agenda for Israel demanded that Israel leave off her frantic and paranoid self-defense, reinforced as it now was by ancestral codes, and embrace instead the vocation to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.” Wright also says Jesus sees Himself as replacing the Temple (e.g., 116). But whether Wright is correct or not in why Jesus said what He said doesn’t necessarily change very much what Jesus said. That is, His immediate and primary concern may have been to get first-century Jews to reorient Judaism, but that doesn’t mean that His message is different from the conventional view of what people are to do in 2021. I also wonder whether, if Wright’s assertions about Jesus’ motives are correct, why Jesus didn’t Himself voice them more clearly (but cf. 92-93).


Let me now proceed through the book and flag what were, to me at least, some of its highlights.

At the end (33) of chapter 1, “The Challenge of Studying Jesus,” Wright lists the set of five questions he’ll examine:

1. Where does Jesus belong within the Jewish world of his day?

2. What, in particular, was his preaching of the kingdom all about? What was he aiming to do?

3. Why did Jesus die? In particular, what was his own intention in going to Jerusalem that last fateful time?

4. Why did the early church begin, and why did it take the shape it did? Specifically, of course, what happened at Easter?

5. How does all this relate to the Christian task and vision today? How, in other words, does this historical and also deeply theological approach put fire into our hearts and power into our hands as we go about shaping our world?

In Chapter 2, “The Challenge of the Kingdom,” I thought Wright usefully sets out “the three options open to Jews in Jesus’ day” (37), namely to separate themselves completely from the rest of the world (as did the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran), “the compromise option” (taken by Herod) of “get[ting] along with your political bosses as well as you can,” and “the Zealot option” of “fight[ing] a holy war.” Later in the chapter, I liked this (48): “[D]espite much current scholarship, the writers of the Gospels did not feel free to invent all kinds of new sayings to suit their own setting and place them on Jesus’ lips; the church was heavily involved in the mission to the Gentiles and its attendant problems, but we would hardly guess this from the Gospels.”

Chapter 3 is “The Challenge of the Symbols” (quoted in second segment above of this review).

A key paragraph in Chapter 4, “The Crucified Messiah,” concludes (85, where Wright quotes his own book, Jesus and the Victory of God):

My proposal is that Jesus took his own story seriously. He would himself travel down the road he had pointed out to his followers. “He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be Israel for the sake of Israel.” He would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.

Chapter 5 is “Jesus & God” (quoted in second segment above).

Chapter 6, “The Challenge of Easter,” is powerful. In addition to its concluding paragraph (149), I liked this passage (146):

… The resurrection narratives of the Gospels, for all their puzzling nature and apparent conflicts, are quite clear on three points.

First, the sightings of and meetings with Jesus are quite unlike the sort of heavenly visions or visions of a figure in blinding light of dazzling glory or wreathed in clouds that one might expect in the Jewish apocalyptic or mystical traditions.  They are not, that is to say, attempting to describe the sort of thing one would expect if what he or she wanted to say was simply that Jesus had been exalted to a position of either divinity or at least heavenly glory. The portrait of Jesus himself in these stories does not appear to have been modeled on existing stories of “supernatural appearances.” It was not created out of expectations alone.

Second, the body of Jesus seems to be both physical, in the sense that it was not a nonmaterial angel or spirit, and transphysical, in the sense that it could come and go through locked doors.  As I read the Gospel accounts, I have a sense that they are saying, in effect, “I know this is extraordinary, but this is just how it was.” They are, in effect, describing more or less exactly that for which Paul provides the underlying theoretical framework: an event for which there is no precedent and of which there remains as yet no subsequent example, an event involving neither the resuscitation nor the abandonment of a physical body, but its transformation into a new mode of physicality.

Third, the accounts are quite clear that the appearances of Jesus were not the sort of thing that went on happening during the continuous existence of the early church.  Luke did not suppose that his readers might meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  Matthew did not expect his audience to meet him on a mountain.  John did not suppose that people were still liable to come upon Jesus cooking breakfast by the shore. Mark certainly did not expect his readers to “say nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I liked Wright’s observation in the Easter chapter that nobody dreamed of having Jesus’ half-brother James — “the anchorman in Jerusalem while Peter and Pal went off around the world” — replace Him as the Messiah (139). Wright also notes that Jesus’ tomb “was not venerated in the manner of the tombs of martyrs” and that Jesus’ burial would normally have been “intended as the first part of a two-stage burial; had his body been still in a tomb somewhere, someone would sooner or later have had to collect the bones and put them in an ossuary, and the game would have been up” (147).

Chapter 7 is “Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World” (see second segment above).

Chapter 8, “The Light of the World,” is the book’s climax (see, e.g., its first three paragraphs on pages 174-75, and pages 188-89). Here’s one key passage (178, emphasis in original): “…[T]he church, the followers of Jesus Christ, live in the bright interval between Easter and the final great consumption. Let’s make no mistake either way. The reason the early Christians were so joyful was because they knew themselves to be living not so much in the last days, though that was true too, as in the first days — the opening days of God’s new creation.” And here’s another important passage (186-87):

If you are to shape your world in following Christ, it is not enough to say that being a Christian and being a professional or an academic (to address these worlds particularly for a moment) is about high moral standards, using every opportunity to talk to people about Jesus, praying for or with your students, and being fair in your grading and honest in your speaking. All that is vital and necessary, but you are called to something much, much more. You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways that declare that the powers have been defeated, that the kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled, and to be prepared to tell the story that explains what these symbols are all about. And in all this you are to declare, in symbol and praxis, in story and articulate answers to questions, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; that Jesus is Lord and Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are not; that Jesus is Lord and neither modernity nor postmodernity is. When Paul spoke of the Gospel, he was not talking primarily about a system of salvation but about the announcement, in symbol and word, that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, the true light of the world.

C.S. Lewis is cited on page 193 as Wright says, “‘[N]ext to the sacrament itself, your Christian neighbor is the holiest object ever to be presented to your sight, because in him or her the living Christ is truly present.”

Wright ends the book (197) with a poem he’s composed.


Transitional/roadmap passages: 39 (before break), 73 (last paragraph), 95 (full paragraph, focus of next two chapters), 131 (first full paragraph).

I had enjoyed