N.T. Wright & Michael F. Bird, “The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians”

This is a great big book:  889 pages, plus another 96 pages of bibliography and indices.   Amusingly, the interlibrary loan slip accompanying the book had handwritten on it, “* Caution:  heavy*.”

The length and scope of this book require that I begin this blogpost by spending some time simply describing just what the book covers.  After that I’ll turn to why I liked it (with a caveat or two), and then simply list (it’s a long list) some of what I found to be of particular value in it.


The authors are N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.  The book jacket describes Wright as a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, “the award-winning author of over eighty books and hundreds of articles,” who “has been called the most prolific biblical scholar in a generation, perhaps the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C.S. Lewis.”  Bird is described as an Australia academic, “a leading scholar in New Testament studies and Christian theology,” and the “author or editor of more than thirty books.”

The book jacket describes the tome this way:  “Bringing together decades of Wright’s groundbreaking research, writing, and teaching into one volume, it presents the New Testament books as historical, literary, and social phenomena located in the world of Second Temple Judaism, amid Greco-Roman politics and culture, and within early Christianity.”

Here’s an outline of the book, listing its nine parts and thirty-seven chapters (an outline that also has the headings within each chapter can be read here):

1. Beginning Study of the New Testament
2. The New Testament as History
3. The New Testament as Literature
4. The New Testament as Theology
5. The History of the Jews between the Persian and Roman Empires
6. The Jewish Context ofjesus and the Early Church
7. The Greco-Roman Context of the Early Church
8. The Study of the Historical Jesus
9. The Profile and Praxis of a Prophet
10. Who Did Jesus Think He Was?
11. The Death of the Messiah
12. The Afterlife in Greek, Roman, and Jewish Thought
13. The Story of Easter according to the Apostle Paul
14. The Story of Easter according to the Evangelists
15. The Story ofPaul’s Life and Ministry
16. A Primer on Pauline Theology
17. Galatians
18. 1 and 2 Thessalonians
19. Philippians
20. Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians
21. 1 and 2 Corinthians
22. Romans
23. The Pastoral Epistles
24. The Gospel according to Mark
25. The Gospel according to Matthew
26. The Gospel according to Luke and Acts of the Apostles
27. The Gospel according to John
28. The Making of the Gospels
29. Introduction to Early Christian Letters
30. The Letter to the Hebrews
31. Letters by Jesus’ Brothers: James and Jude
32. Petrine Letters: 1 and 2 Peter
33. Johannine Letters: 1, 2, and 3 John
34. Revelation
35. Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament
36. The Canonization of the New Testament
37. Bringing It All Together
Scripture and Other Ancient Literature Index
Subject Index

From the preface (26):

This book is unique in several ways. First, it is something of an N. T. Wright “reader” or “sampler,” written up in the genre of an introduction to the New Testament. Several sections of the Christian Origins volumes are directly incorporated, as are various paragraphs from Wright’s popular-level books like Surprised by Hope and the New Testament for Everyone commentaries. The present book thus serves as an introduction not only to the New Testament but also to Wright’s corpus; we hope it will function as a gateway to explore his wider academic and popular works.
Second, this volume is a robust and user-friendly introduction to the New Testament, complete with a derivative workbook, online course, video and audio lectures, as well as a church-based video curriculum. A large proportion of the book has been freshly written for this very purpose. What is more, the volume is distinctive in that it aims to introduce the New Testament within the context of the study of early Christianity. Our primary purpose — which we cannot express forcefully enough — is not merely to add knowledge to the things that readers already believe about the New Testament. Rather, we aim to provide the scaffolding for a fully orbed and fully fledged historical description and theological account of Jesus and the early church. We want to cultivate a commitment to a specific account of Christian history, literature, theology, and mission.
Third, the book seeks to avoid some of the standard problems with a “New Testament introduction.” There is so much to teach, so many debates to explain, so many charts, pictures, and titbits of background a teacher wants to include, that the task might appear endless and the book impossibly cumbersome. We have tried to be reasonably thorough, but in the most precise and pictorial way possible. The chapters that discuss each individual New Testament book proceed by means of a quick thematic introduction. They then discuss critical and contextual matters, provide an outline of the book, offer a miniature commentary, and finish off with some thoughts about application and suggestions for further reading.

The first chapter (“Beginning Study of the New Testament”) concludes (48):

…[A]n informed reading of the New Testament, especially for a believing audience, will involve pursuing three main questions.  First, the historical one:  how did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape that it did?  Second, the literary one:  why did the early Jesus-followers write the way they did, and what does this tell us about their world-view?  Third, the theological question:  what did the early Christians believe about God and the world, and about humans in general and Jesus in particular within that, and what kind of sense might their beliefs make?  This volume will not answer all those questions in full.  But, as we survey the New Testament writings, the present book offers a first guiding step on how to think about them.

The preface makes clear that the two coauthors performed different duties.  In a word, Wright’s lifetime corpus is the basis for much of the book, and Bird was responsible for compiling and editing this work.  But there is plenty of new material, too, and both authors have been very much involved in the construction of this volume.

By the way, I found a joke (447) related to the book’s coauthorship:  “There was nothing wrong with being a citizen of Rome, just as there is nothing wrong with being a British or even Australian citizen.”

Two more items from the preface (27):

  • Wright acknowledges “the many writings … that have have deeply shaped the formation and composition of the book as a whole and its several sections,” noting “the erudite works of Richard Hays, Martin Hengel, Morna Hooker, Luke Timothy Johnson, James Dunn, Richard Bauckham, David deSilva, and Ben Witherington.”
  • And this:  “[The New Testament] remains the greatest and most important book ever produced.”


So that’s what the book is.  Now, did I like it?  You bet.  This is a valuable book, and I admire in particular its thorough scholarship and scrupulous evenhandedness.  It’s also very reader-friendly, with plenty of sidebars, pictures, and the like.

One caveat:  My sense is that the authors and publisher are hoping that the book will, among other things, be used as a textbook.  Now, I don’t know what the ground rules are for textbooks in seminaries, but I have to say that I wonder if the book is perhaps too insistent on its interpretations, however well-founded, for that.

On this, let me give an example or two of some of Wright’s hobbyhorses that he may ride a bit too hard.  He frequently says Israel’s resurrection implies human resurrection.  Thus, the book’s section of “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” ends with this paragraph (293, emphasis in original):

What we can say with some confidence is that when Jews in this period [i.e., the first century] really did believe in “resurrection,” it had two basic meanings:  (1) the restoration of Israel (“resurrection” as metaphor, denoting socio-political events and investing them with the significance that this would be an act of new creation, of covenant renewal); and (2) the reconstitution of dead human bodies into new bodily life (“resurrection” as literal, denoting actual re-embodiment).  Importantly, the two go together:  resurrection was about the restoration of Israel on the one hand and the newly embodied life of all YHWH’s people on the other.  The act of re-creation was the great event that would bring the “present age” to a close and usher in the “age to come.”  All of this was premised on the twin belief in YHWH as both the creator and the God of justice.  Without the goodness of creation, divine justice might remake humans in some quite different way.  Without justice, the sorrows of the present creation would be unrelieved.  Creation and justice go together.  The martyrs would be raised:  Israel as a whole would be vindicated.

Likewise, in Wright’s work he is largely all about Jesus’ kingdom coming right now.  In this regard, his section titled “A Precis on the Prophet Jesus” (213-15) is important.


Here are some items in the book I noted, which of course I think are noteworthy per se, and which may give some you some flavor of the range and variety of the book’s valuable content:

  • Page 88:  “By the time of the first century, in fact, there were three times as many Jews living outside Palestine as in it, and their main language was Greek, not Hebrew.”
  • Page 128:

Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees came about not because he was an antinomian, or because he believed in “grace” and “faith” while they believed in “justification by works,” but because his kingdom-agenda for Israel demanded that Israel leave off its frantic search for national purity and regional hegemony, reinforced as it now was by ancestral codes, and embrace instead the proper vocation to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.

  • Page 151 (emphasis in original) (chapter on “The Greco-Roman Context of the Early Church”):

…. This “ancient religion” was not set apart from the rest of ancient culture.  On the contrary:  it was its beating heart, with every part of the body politic related to that heart by active and throbbing blood vessels.  If the world was full of gods, the world was therefore also full of religion, full of cult; full of god-soaked culture.

So when someone like Paul arrived in Thessalonica or Ephesus with his message about the one God and his crucified and risen son, we was not offering an alternative way of being “religious” in the sense of a private hobby, something to do in a few hours at the weekend.  He was offering a heart transplant for an entire community.

  • Page 161:  “The very genres of the New Testament, biography (gospels), historiography (Acts), and epistles (Pauline and catholic letters), have all sorts of echoes of greco-roman [sic and, hereafter, sic — for some reason the book doesn’t capitalize this] literary forms, even if their contents have been shaped by the Old Testament and Jewish traditions.”
  • I also like the paragraph that immediately follows (also on 161), regarding Paul, John, and Stoicism (footnotes — all citations to Paul’s letters, except a cite to the famous logos passage in John 1:1-18 — omitted):

On the whole, the apostle Paul shared the Jewish critique of greco-roman religion and the behavior-patterns that went with it.  His rejection of the central symbols of paganism was sharpened by what he believed about Jesus.  Yet Paul lived and breathed the cultural air of the greco-roman world.  As a speaker and writer, he exhibited tell-tale signs of rhetorical training, even while claiming not to have preached with rhetorical elegance or proclaimed his message with specious and self-serving reasoning.  Furthermore, Paul’s thought has often been seen as having affinities with Stoicism, especially in ethical theory, even while he warned of the dangers of “philosophy.”  The gospel of John tells the story of Jesus in thoroughly Jewish and messianic terms, but when John calls Jesus the logos (“the Word”), he is not only echoing an important biblical theme (for example Ps. 33.6; Isa. 15.11, and elsewhere) but also borrowing an idea initially developed by the sixth-century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus, subsequently taken up by Stoic philosophers to describe the rational principle by which the universe came into being and by which all things exist.  The Logos, as the personified “idea,” becomes the one through whom the invisible God interacts with the corporeal world.  The notion of Logos was adopted by Jews like Philo of Alexandria, and Christians like the second-century apologist Justin Martyr, employing the philosophical tools of antiquity to explain their beliefs about God.  To what extent this development was compatible with John’s own intended biblical allusions remains a matter of debate.

  • Page 305:  “Romans 5-8 is perhaps the most majestic set-piece Paul ever wrote.”
  • Page 510:  The section on “The purpose of Romans” concludes this way:

In sum, Romans is a gospel-based exposition and exhortation; a masterpiece of missionary theology, christological exegesis, pastoral care, and artful rhetoric — all designed to win over the many strands of early Roman Christianity to Paul’s gospel, to lend practical support to his mission in Spain and moral support for his immediate visit to Jerusalem, to draw Jewish and gentile Christians in Rome closer together, to strengthen them in their faith despite the perils of Roman culture.  All this is woven together into a powerful symphonic form, whose fast pace cannot hide its theological depth and power.

  • Page 569:  “Psalm 110, perhaps the most important scriptural text for early Christians, redefines who the Messiah is, and with that who God himself really is.”
  • The book also reasons that, since the Resurrection is central to Paul’s, and all early Christian, theology, therefore it must have (really been believed to have) happened.
  • I found Wright’s discussion of “The Jesus-Tradition” especially interesting (694-99).  Thus, for example, on page 696, he places side-by-side what Paul, citing Jesus, says about divorce, remuneration, and the Lord’s Supper with what the Gospels quote Jesus saying about them, noting (695),

This is as good evidence as any that Jesus’ words were remembered, transmitted, and regarded as authoritative.  However, Paul, as we have seen, was concerned not simply to spoon-feed his hearers with “correct answers,” or even “words of Jesus,” addressed to current problems.  He wanted them to learn to think for themselves from the first principles of Jesus’ completed kingdom-work, focused on his cross, resurrection, and ascension.

  • In at least some instances, a Christian epistle’s reference to God’s “elect” may simply indicate a Jewish audience (761).
  • Page 882:  A Christian worldview “rejects as the whole truth all partial analyses, such as those of Marx or Freud, which elevate half-truths to the status of the whole truth.”
  • The last part of the book is “Living the Story of the New Testament,” with a chapter, “Bringing It All Together” (thus, “Making the New Testament matter for today”) that concludes (889) with this paragraph:

The church, because it is the family that believes in the new creation, a belief constantly reinforced by the New Testament, should stand out in every city, town, and village as the place where hope bursts forth. Not just hope that something better lies in “the hereafter”; rather, a belief that God’s new world has been sown, like seeds in a field, and that it is already bearing surprising fruit. The life of the new world has already been unleashed in the present time, and what we do as a result of that life, that spirit-given direction and energy, is already in itself part of the new world that God is making. Where this hope takes root, the story told by the whole New Testament comes to life again and again: through Jesus, and by his spirit, the new world has been born.  All that we do in the present, in working for justice and beauty, in searching for truth in every sphere of life, above all in speaking cheerfully and wisely of Jesus, is rooted in the scriptures, both of Israel and of the early church, and is designed to produce hope. When that hope is present, it will thus reinforce, for communities and individuals of every sort, the message which the New Testament proclaims on every page.

  • In that chapter, I also liked these two earlier paragraphs (887, emphasis in original):

….  There are rules, of course.  The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never go to law against a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give away money cheerfully. Don’t be anxious. Don’t judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn’t so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice.

I made a note to myself recently along these lines:  “Saying that belief gives you eternal life may be both normative and descriptive.”


I was particularly interested in what the book had to say about the authorship of the various New Testament texts.  It was interesting and (to me) reassuring) that in only one case is the traditional attribution of authorship clearly rejected (I’m going to count it as “traditional” to consider John the Elder rather than John the son of Zebedee as the author of the five Johanine books).

Thus, regarding the Gospels, John Mark is indeed the “best candidate” for Mark’s author (557); “Luke the physician” is the “most viable” candidate for Luke (612); and the book “cautiously conclude[s]” that John the Elder is “behind the gospel” (659) — and my sense is that, if it’s not him, then the book’s second choice would be the other author favored by tradition for the fourth Gospel, namely John the son of Zebedee.  As for Matthew, the book’s discussion (581-82) is rather opaque, but I interpret it to ascribe authorship either to the Apostle Matthew himself and/or to those in his subsequent circle.

Turning to Acts, “attributing the authorship of Luke-Acts to Luke the physician remains the most viable hypothesis” (612).  And as for Revelation (814, footnote omitted), “In the end, we may allow that John’s gospel, epistles, and Revelation all come from the same circle, but that different authors are responsible for them.  Neither John the son of Zebedee nor John the elder is the ‘John’ of Revelation.  To distinguish him, we will call him ‘John the Seer.'”

There is no rejection of Paul’s authorship of any of the letters attributed to him (although, to be sure, the case for authenticity is more airtight for some letters than for others).

That leaves the non-Pauline epistles.  Here only Peter II is really doubted, and even in this case it is ruled to be in the form of a literary “transparent fiction” (764) rather than a forgery.  (Hebrews, of course, has no clear author, and the book agrees that authorship by Paul would be “grossly improbable” (713).)


A couple of other notes.  First, I liked this (182, footnote omitted) quotation of Richard Burridge, saying that the Jesus Seminar “produced a Jesus who is not Jewish in his teaching, but more like a Greek wisdom teacher or philosopher, and he’s against sexism, imperialism and all the oppressiveness of the Roman empire.  In other words, he’s a Californian.”

Second, I’ve noted in my other discussions on this blogsite of Wright’s work that it is refreshing to have someone who is not necessarily conservative politically nonetheless take the the text of Scripture seriously.  In this regard, I noted the following regarding Wright’s politics:  “page 54/last line of carryover paragraph/’drunken celebrations of diversity’; pages 458-59/hard to pigeonhole his politics; page 888/long paragraph/litany neither Left nor Right.”