World’s Leading New Testament Scholar On What Really Happened On The Cross
N.T. Wright has many titles: Bishop, Lord, Doctor, Professor. He tells me that the one that he prefers is ‘Tom’. But what many call him is the most influential New Testament scholar alive today. I concur.
In our age of the ‘thought leader’, the ‘commentator’, the ‘expert’, and all the other forms of intellectual celebrity – Tom Wright stands out from the group as a genuine scholar. For me personally the dividing line between a scholar and these other categories is that scholars possess a deep knowledge of something which few others have been able to master, for example, ancient languages. Tom has spent half a century immersed in the Koine Greek of the New Testament. But he has taken things a level deeper than your standard-issue New Testament Greek instructor: He has immersed himself in the cultural and historical milieu in which the New Testament is found. His written work represents a vast wing span of citations. He routinely makes reference to specific papyrus fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; passages in the Jewish historian Josephus in the original Greek which are compared to the Gospels in the original Greek (see his fascinating discussion of the politically charged word, ‘brigand’ vs. the more generic term, ‘thief’); apocryphal books (i.e. not part of the universally accepted list of books of the Bible are studied and cited; pagan sources, such as Plutarch, set within a thorough understanding of their historical context; classical Greek plays; stoic philosophers; Homer (in the original Doric Greek); occasional quotes from classical Latin, and (increasingly in recent books) the Hebrew quotes.
I’ve been reading theological works for 36 years, and I have trouble thinking of more than a handful of scholars who come close to this breadth of scholarship and even fewer who have not had to sacrifice depth to achieve breadth. My friend and mentor Peter Leithart comes to mind.
But it’s more than just the accumulation of various bodies of knowledge from various specialties which impresses the reader: it’s the ability to draw connections between the specialties which truly separates Wright from the rest of the pack. There are a few professors who teach both Hebrew, and Greek, but usually in different classes, separate isolated silos. Old Testament and New Testament are different subjects in seminaries, taught by professors from different departments. This ‘departmentalization’ shows up in the academic journals in which Biblical studies in general are divided between journals focused on the New Testament and others focused on what Christians call the Old Testament. Then there are the academic journals which are focused on systematic theology, and often give little attention to exegetical foundations. Wright’s ability to ignore the hidden borders between academic specialties is rare and valuable.
Which brings us to Wright’s latest book, The Day the Revolution Began. It appears to this reviewer that this is Wright’s most serious incursion from the world of ‘Biblical Theology’ (theology structured according to the contours of the Biblical text) into the world of ‘systematic theology’ (theology structured according to formal principles of classification). In this particular case, Wright takes on atonement theology (at least the version of atonement theology which has sifted down to the pews) and finds it wanting.
Wright calls into question what he calls ‘the works contract’ view. According to this view: Our relationship with God is largely a matter of moral requirements. Because we all fall short of those moral requirements, we all deserve God’s punishment. His just nature prevents Him from letting us go to Heaven to be with Him, but instead requires Him to send us to Hell. But He loves us, so in this view, God’s justice is in conflict (or at least in tension) with His love. God solves the problem by punishing His son instead of us. His son absorbs His father’s anger so we don’t have to.
This is accomplished by means of a mechanism which theologians have called ‘imputation’. The son’s moral purity is ‘imputed’, that is transferred, to us. Sometimes the metaphor is financial: transfers of debts, etc. Sometimes the language is metaphysical in which abstract categories like righteousness or innocence or guilt are treated as attributes which can be caused to adhere to various underlying substances and persons.
Our sin is imputed to the son. He is punished instead of us and by so doing, God’s wrath is satisfied.
Like many contemporary theologians, Wright has serious doubts about this story which is sometimes called ‘penal substitution’ (though the scholarly version of penal substitution is more nuanced). It’s understandable that people would want to avoid an account such as this one: Our psychologically-attuned age is particularly on guard against a story which could be seen as portraying God as an abusive father, who just has to punish someone in order to purge His anger. Victims of parental abuse have found that theological view repulsive. For pastoral reasons, various theological writers have brought moral arguments against it.
Wright, on the other hand, has gone deeper. He has drawn the connection between the ‘works contract’ theory and pagan stories about angry pagan gods who are propitiated by innocent substitute victims. Wright goes through extremely intricate exegetical detail to show that the specific passages which are often pointed to as slam-dunk arguments for the pop Penal Substitution story don’t actually fit that view very well at all.
Wright goes on to re-build, from the textual foundation up, a different story, a story grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and in 1st Century Jewish cultural context. Jesus’ initial hearers were not waiting for an emissary of God who would be punished in their stead so that they could go to Heaven. They were looking for someone who would end the exile from full, free nationhood for Israel. Large numbers of Jewish commentators saw the Roman occupation as a punishment for sin dating back to the Babylonian Captivity. They thought of the exile into Babylonian as having never really ended, which means sin had never been forgiven. Israel had been swallowed by a big fish (Babylon) and then that fish was swallowed by a bigger fish (Persia), etc. until Israel ended up in the belly of Rome. In that context, Jesus’ references to the forgiveness of sin would not be seen mainly as referring to an individual’s place in heaven. Instead, it would be seen as mainly about release from exile. And beyond that, they would interpret it as a fulfillment of the promise of a restored Israel fulfilling its destiny of becoming a kingdom of priests to the nations of a world which is in right relationship with the God of Israel. This would be the natural response most of the original readers of the Gospel would have to the language of sin and forgiveness, especially coming from the lips of a prospective messiah.
In contrast, we atomized and inner-focused modern readers see words like ‘sin’ and we think mainly about guilty feelings and personal after-life anxieties. The problem is that most of the New Testament was written by 1st Century Jews who didn’t think like we do.
By looking at the New Testament through the lens of 1st Century Jewish thinking, we are able to see in the New Testament as a bigger gospel than the one we see by our own cramped post-enlightenment eyes. Yes, we can still see personal salvation there and the reward of heaven, and freedom from feelings of guilt. But there is also national and global restoration. Heaven… And then a new heaven and new earth. Not just a renewed heart, but a renewed everything else coming out of that renewed heart.
Tom Wright spoke to me across a Skype line from his home in Scotland recently to talk about The Day the Revolution Began, as well as his new venture into online education. Some people find Wright easier to listen to than to read, so the release of video-based distance learning on his work is a welcome expansion of his copious literary output. As of this writing the course on The Day the Revolution Began is half price. You can listen to our fascinating discussion here and read a partial transcript below (both are edited for clarity):
Jerry Bowyer: I’ve looked forward to this interview for some time. I have read and reread this book over the past couple of months. It is by N.T. Wright, one of my favorite authors. The book is “The Day the Revolution Began”.
Bishop Wright is probably the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He is a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the School of Divinity, at the University of St. Andrews. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him in the past, but it’s been far too long.
Tom, thank you so much for joining us today.
N.T. Wright: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.
Bowyer: The day the revolution began was what day?
Wright: Well, I have said in this book the day the revolution began was Good Friday, the day that Jesus died. You could make another case for saying that it actually began on Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead. But part of the point of what the early Christians say is that the reason Jesus rose from the dead, and thereby launched the whole project of new creation, was that something had happened when he died, as a result of which death itself was defeated, though, of course, nobody realized that until three days later.
Bowyer: Tell me if this is a correct formulation of the Wrightian view regarding Good Friday and Easter. Good Friday was the day when he was enthroned. Good Friday was the day he became the King. Easter was the day that that declaration was proclaimed, made official, vindicated by the Father that this is indeed my son, because in the trial of the crucifixion, the resurrection is the verdict. So he was King already, but this is when the Father said to the world: just in case you didn’t notice it, my son is the King.
Bowyer: Is that right? Is that right, Wright?
Wright: I think that’s all right; I’m not sure it’s the whole story, because the gospel is very clear when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin John, that the Father then said something pretty dramatic, which was quoting from Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42, and which implies this is already the King. I’ve often said that Jesus, during the course of his public career, is rather like King David in the Old Testament, when he’s been anointed by Samuel, but nobody except David (and perhaps his brothers) and Samuel realized that he’s actually the king-in-waiting, if you like.
And then, of course, the real paradox is that the crucifixion looks like anything but a royal enthronement. But all four gospels insist that Jesus dies with the words “King of the Jews” above his head. And they seem to be saying that actually this is the truth whether or not people realized it at the time, which of course they didn’t.
And so I think I want to avoid nailing things down too precisely because, as usual, the story the gospels tell is quite nuanced and with many twists and turns. And, you know, I want to say the baptism of Jesus is really significant, but his death obviously is the moment when he does the royal thing, the messianic thing, which is he defeats the ultimate enemy, which turns out not to be a political or military enemy, but death itself.
Bowyer: Well, it’s funny; as we were talking about this, and you said that he was already king in some sense, I thought about the story of Samuel and David.
Bowyer: And some of the reform theologians in the past — I think of Samuel Rutherford — make much of the fact that David was anointed king-in-waiting long before he was inaugurated regent.
Bowyer: So for what it’s worth, I think that’s right, that the baptism is in parallel with the anointing. So in some sense he’s Christ earlier than he’s king in some sense. He’s anointed before he’s actually inaugurated.
Wright: Well, yes. Yes. I mean, when does somebody become king? We have a monarchy in the UK as you will know, and there are people who talk about William as king-in-waiting, or even now his little boy as a future king-in-waiting.
Bowyer: Oh, I see, king-in-waiting is different. Okay. So let me switch my language and be more consistent with British monarchy.
Good Friday is the day of the enthronement.
Wright: The coronation, even. And I think the gospel writers are saying that, because of what’s happening, from the Roman point of view, is that the Romans are doing to Jesus what they often did to victims of crucifixion, namely mocking them, saying oh, a king, that’s what you want to be, is it? Okay, we’ll give you royal status. Here you are; have a crown. And the gospel writers are saying that they are doing more than they realize. Like John says about Caiaphas when he said let the one person die rather than the whole nation. And John says, he didn’t say this on his own authority; Caiaphas is just being an old cynic. But in fact, that was the truth.
And I think all four gospels are saying that what the soldiers did, and what Pontius Pilate did, though they intended it as a mockery, was, in fact, a public statement of the truth, which then the early church, of course, realized after the resurrection.
Bowyer: As I was reading your book ‑‑ the section about Caiaphas saying that, the gospel says that he’s acting as a prophet — even unknowingly acting as a prophet, presumably unknowingly.
Bowyer: And it occurred to me it’s probably also significant the he’s the high priest.
Wright: Oh, yes.
Bowyer: The high priest defines the nature of the offering. So if the high priest is saying that this man is dying for the whole nation, then that, in some sense, is an official declaration of a corrupt high priest, but nevertheless, in the office of high priest that he is, in fact, defining the nature of the sacrifice.
Wright: Yes. It’s like a sort of performative declaration. Yeah, yeah. I think that could be said. And clearly they do have a high theology of the high priest, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way of reading that text, yeah.
Bowyer: Yes. And I suppose there’s two high priests, in some sense, functioning there. Jesus has his high priest prayer in John 17.
Wright: Well, right.
Bowyer: And Israel during the Herodians was known for having more than one high priest at a time, I guess because of the corrupt practice of appointing high priests.
Wright: There were corrupt practices, and the Romans had a hand in it as well as Herod. But then, of course, it rotated around the family, which is why in Acts 23, when Paul is before the high priest, the high priest doesn’t wear a badge saying I am the high priest this year. And Paul doesn’t realize, when the guy tells the bystanders to strike him on the mouth and Paul rebukes him, Paul doesn’t realize that he’s the high priest, because though Paul presumably knew the people in the Sanhedrin reasonably well from his earlier contact with them, he didn’t know which of these graybeards standing before him was actually holding the office at that moment.
Bowyer: Interesting point. There’s almost a satire there. It’s like I didn’t recognize the high priest, there’d been so many of them. High priest was supposed to be a lifetime appointment. Who can keep track of all the high priests, right?
Wright: Right. Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Originally published on Forbes.