||Jesus in Context: The Kingdom Movement—A Review of Simply Jesus by N. T. Wright
Title: Simply Jesus: Who He Was, What He Did, Why It Matters
Author: N. T. Wright
Hard Cover: 208 pages
Publisher: HarperOne - 2011
The Context of Jesus
Writing this review during Advent heightens my awareness of the critical role context plays when we approach the topic of Jesus. It is precisely the context of the birth narratives we read this time of year that make significant the many prophecies we see fulfilled in Jesus. The story just wouldn't make sense if the evangelists didn't set the stage with the words from the Hebrew prophets. Jesus isn't simply born "long ago" or "far, far way." Jesus is born at a very specific time in history, in a very specific place in the world. This matters tremendously for the story's impact. Were Jesus to have been born at any other time in history, in any other place, he could not have been Israel's Messiah and therefore he could not be the Jesus Christians worship; he would be neither "Jesus of Nazareth" nor "Jesus Christ."
N. T. Wright further sets the stage of Jesus' story by letting readers into many of the assumptions citizens of first-century Palestine (whether they be Jew or Gentile) would have made about Israel's Messiah due to the development of Judaism up to that point. This insight is critical for understanding Jesus because this is the understanding of the Gospel authors who wrote about Jesus—and the Gospels are our primary source of historical information about Jesus.
[Sidenote: Some observant readers will note my use of the qualifier "historical" in the previous sentence and might begin to question Wright's approach to the study of Jesus. This is to be expected. In recent US evangelicalism, many pages of ink, many pixels, and many mp3s have been used to campaign against any quest for the "historical Jesus". Wright is aware of the misgivings among US evangelicals toward such pursuits, and he is prepared to defend his methodology. For more on this, I'd recommend readers to his essay entitled, "A Grateful Dialogue: A Response" in Jesus & the Restoration of Israel edited by Carey C. Newman. Yet Wright even takes a moment in this book's preface to briefly comment on why we need both theological and historical study of Jesus. He writes,
"…writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we'll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."]
This context which Wright provides is the socio-political-religious atmosphere of Jesus' day. What type of world does Jesus arrive in? Who did Jews expect him to be? Who did Romans fear he would be? These are important questions, without which we can scarcely piece together the story of Jesus, and therefore we cannot know if we are following him correctly.
Imagine I tell you to vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 election, but you've never heard of him or know anything about US presidential politics. You ask me to tell you his story. Now imagine trying to tell the story of Barack Obama's campaign for president in 2008 without mentioning George W. Bush, September 11th, or the war in Iraq. Imagine if you couldn't mention Islamic fundamentalism, conservative evangelicalism, socialism, or liberalism. Would his story make sense? Who would you think Barack Obama was? What about all the many references he makes to the previous administration, to presidents with whom he shares ideals, or to the US Constitution? If you had no clue what he was referring to when he mentioned these people, events, and so on, would you be able to determine what his campaign was all about? Would you be able to say definitively on what platform he ran?
So it is with Jesus. The context into which Jesus of Nazareth enters is a swirling, dangerous ball of energy. Therefore, Wright appropriately and brilliantly utilizes the analogy of "the perfect storm" throughout the book to describe the various pressures that surrounded Jesus. He also uses the analogy to describe the pressures we encounter approaching Jesus today. In both cases, I found this use of the analogy both helpful and memorable.