When you read the New Testament, do you intentionally try to think like a first-century Jesus follower to capture the visceral excitement of the early Christians? What was the first-century understanding of the kingdom of God? What is the real meaning of the resurrection in its original context? As 21st-century people, how do we recover the adventure of what it was like to live as Christians in the first or second centuries in the world of Second Temple Judaism amidst Greco-Roman politics?
In this Q&A, N.T. Wright (@profntwright) and Michael Bird (@mbird12) talk about their book, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Zondervan, 2019).
Before we get into specifics of the New Testament, how would you describe the grand narrative of Christian theology?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: Christian theology is storied theology. It tells the grand narrative about God and God’s relationship with the world, from creation to new creation, with Jesus in the middle. The narrative concerns a creator and his creation; humans made in this creator’s image and called to perform certain tasks; the rebellion of humans and the dissonance of creation at every level; and particularly about the creator’s acting, through Israel and climactically through Jesus, to rescue his creation from its ensuing plight. The story continues with the creator acting by his own Spirit within the world, to bring it towards the restoration and new flourishing which is his intended goal.
A great deal of Christian theology consists of the attempt to tell this story as clearly as possible, and to allow it to subvert other ways of telling the story of the world, including those which offer themselves as would-be Christian tellings but which, upon close examination, fall short in some way or other.
On top of that, this story also constitutes a worldview, a way of understanding the realities and relationships in the world as we perceive them. Worldviews are the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen (a ‘worldview’ is not what you look at but what you look through). It generates a blueprint for how one should live in the world, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are. The New Testament thus provides the basis for a theology and a worldview in which we can explain and enact, under the guidance of the Spirit, several things universal to human experience: justice, spirituality, relationships, beauty, freedom, truth, and power. A Christian worldview tells us what those things mean, what to do with them, how to enjoy them, and how not to abuse them. A Christian worldview, focused on such topics, will enable us to engage in authentic worship, enact the Christian vocation, and promote the flourishing of humans, individually and together.
How does the New Testament matter today?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: In several ways. The New Testament, of course, holds out a faith to confess. It makes alarmingly specific claims about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It provides clear and bracing teaching about how to live. But none of this should obscure the fact that the truth of which the New Testament speaks is always deeply personal: indeed, it is a person, Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord, the one in whom God’s truth is incarnated and his purpose accomplished. Biblical truth is not, in the last analysis, simply a series of propositions to be put in their logical order. It is a story, a story that climaxes in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, and finds its ultimate resolution in the final new creation. Unless we know that story and know how the New Testament authors are rehearsing it and retelling it, we will never quite grasp what the early Christians were wanting to say.
Doing biblical theology, therefore, is not just a matter of knowing the facts about the faith and organizing them through the correct system. Christian theology is about knowing the story, its plot, the characters, the protagonist, the villains, the struggle, and the resolution. And then – most of all – knowing the church’s place, and one’s own place, within that story, the ongoing act of the divine drama. Doing biblical theology means learning your lines, playing your part, and discovering a new way not only of viewing the world but of acting within the world.
Why was the New Testament put together in the first place?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: The New Testament canon was shaped and developed, in the first three centuries, because the leaders of the early church were determined to keep alive, and present afresh, the news that in Jesus the one true God was setting up his kingdom on earth as in heaven.
The development and ultimate authorization of the New Testament canon, the list of the 27 books we know today, came because the early church was determined to be loyal to Jesus himself. That meant that it had to make available to the next generations the books through which the God of creation and covenant, of new covenant and new creation, would be worshiped, and his will would be done in mission and service, on earth as in heaven. Some suspicions remained, some decisions were still debated, but there was strong central consensus among the churches of east and west that the 27 books of our New Testament constituted the true testimony of the apostles to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, expressing the faith of the new covenant people and shaping and directing their mission.
What’s the most helpful way to read the New Testament?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: The New Testament, we suggest, must be read so as to be understood. It isn’t the kind of “magic” book that simply bypasses the mind. Admittedly, there is a good deal of poetry in the New Testament, and poetry regularly achieves its effects on several different levels; but even then, if we are to avoid mere subjective impressions, the poetry itself must be understood as what it is. All this means that the New Testament must be read within appropriate contexts, both the ancient contexts of its original setting and helpful and supportive contemporary contexts today. It must be “heard” within an acoustic which will allow its full overtones to stand out.
It must be read with as little distortion as possible, and with as much sensitivity as possible to its different levels of meaning. It must be read so that the stories, and the Story, which it tells can be heard as stories, not as rambling ways of declaring unstoried “ideas.” It must be read without the assumption that we already know what it is going to say, and without the arrogance that assumes that “we” – whichever group that might be – already have ancestral rights over this or that passage, book, or writer. And, for full appropriateness, it must be read in such a way as to set in motion the drama which it suggests.
In what way are history, literature, and theology the best starting points to help understand the New Testament?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: These three elements comprising history (‘the past’), literature (‘the text’), and theology (‘understanding God and the world’) are all sewn together into the fabric of the New Testament. And yet, what we find as whole cloth in the text – a historically situated discourse about God and the world, in various literary forms – can be violently torn asunder by readers who are afraid that too much history, or too much literature, or too much theology might prove that their mighty edifices of scholarship and piety have been built on a foundation of sand.
It has been all too easy for some interpreters to highlight one of the trio: history or literature or theology – and to discard the rest. It is better, though riskier, to see history, literature, and theology as belonging together. The New Testament is history and literature and theology, all at once, and we should not try to reduce it to any one of these at the expense of the others. A close reading and thick description of the New Testament will necessarily involve the messy business of history, the hard work of literary criticism, and the arduous task of theological reflection. As such, an informed reading of the New Testament, especially for a believing audience, will involve pursuing three main questions:(1) On the historical side, how did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape that it did? (2) The literary turn: why did early Christian writers decide to write these kinds of books, and how does understanding their genre and intention help us to appreciate their message? (3) The theological dimension, what does Christianity believe, and does it make sense?
How do most people use the New Testament?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: For some people, it seems to function at the level of car maintenance or gardening tips, or even first-aid: it’s a book to turn to when you need to know about a particular issue or problem. (‘What does the Bible teach about x, y, or z?’) For some, it’s like a dictionary: a list of all the things you’re supposed to know and believe about the Christian faith, or an atlas, helping you to find your way around the world without getting lost. This is what some people mean when they speak of the Bible being the ultimate ‘authority,’ and so they study it as you might study a dictionary or atlas, or even a car manual. Now that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s better to start there than nowhere at all. But the puzzle is that the New Testament really doesn’t look like that kind of book.
If we assume, as I do, that the reason we have the New Testament the way it is is that this is what God wanted us to have – that this is what, by the strange promptings of the Holy Spirit, God enabled people like Paul and Luke and John and the others to write – then we should pay more attention to what it might mean that this sort of a book – or rather these sorts of books, because of course the New Testament contains many quite different books – is the one we’ve been given. Only when we do that will we really be living under its ‘authority,’ discovering what that means in practice.
Why should we study the New Testament?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: Jesus insisted that we should love God with our minds, as well as our hearts, our souls, and our strength. Devotion matters, but it needs direction; energy matters, but it needs information. That’s why, in the early church, one of the most important tasks was teaching. Indeed, the Christian church has led the way for 2,000 years in making education in general, and biblical education in particular, available to people of all sorts.
A good many of the early Christians were functionally illiterate, and part of the glory of the gospel then and now is that it was and is for everyone. There shouldn’t be an elite who ‘get it’ while everybody else is simply going along with the flow. Jesus’ first followers taught people to read so that they could be fully conscious of the part they were to play in the drama. That’s why the New Testament was and is for everyone.
How does the New Testament draw us in and challenge us to get involved in the story?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: From very early on, the followers of Jesus discovered that two things were happening. First, when they read these books they were drawn into a life of worship and prayer. The books are self-involving: like plays and poems they say, ‘This is what’s going on, these are the many dimensions that are drawn together; now come up on stage, learn your lines, and join in.’ And the first thing to join in with is worship, the worship rooted in the worship of ancient Israel, not least the Psalms, but now reworked around Jesus and re-energized by his spirit.
When we worship the true God, with that worship shaped by the story of Jesus seen as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, we find that we are being made into image-bearers, called to reflect God’s love and purposes into the world. The first letter of Peter speaks of us being rescued from sin and death so that we can become ‘a royal priesthood’ (2:9), an ancient biblical way of summarizing the whole human vocation. We are to reflect the praises of creation back to the creator in worship; that’s the ‘priestly’ bit. We are thereby becoming polished mirrors, set at an angle so as to reflect the powerful and healing love of the creator back into the world. That’s the ‘royal’ bit.
The New Testament is therefore designed – designed, I would say, by the Holy Spirit! – to be the book which, when we read it, shapes and energizes and directs us not only for worship but also for mission. Worship and mission go hand in hand. Reading and studying the New Testament is the vital and non-negotiable means by which both are given their pattern and their power.
In what way is hope the purpose of Scripture?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: The purpose of Scripture, Paul says in Romans 15:4, is so that ‘we might have hope.’ He was speaking, of course, of Israel’s Scriptures, but with hindsight the same applies to the early Christian writings. If that is so, then a prominent purpose of New Testament study ought to be to explain and illuminate the substance of that hope. In fact, we could even say that the mission of the church is to share and reflect the future hope as the New Testament presents it. Hope is, in fact, the foundation for the daily workings of a church.
Faithful Christian ministry will often take Jesus’ followers to places where hope is in short supply. The message of Jesus and his death and resurrection comes as good news from a far country, news of surprising hope. 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.
How does the New Testament offer people a new way of relating to one another?
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: It’s a way of kindness, a way that accepts the fact of anger but refuses to allow it to dictate the terms of engagement. It is based four-square on the achievement of Jesus. His death has accomplished our forgiveness; very well, we must then pass that on to one another. We must become, must be known as, the people who don’t hold grudges, who don’t sulk. We must be the people who know how to say ‘Sorry,’ and who know what to do when other people say it to us.
It is remarkable, once more, how difficult this still seems, considering how much time the Christian church has had to think about it and how much energy has been spent on expounding the New Testament where it is all so clear. Perhaps it is because we have tried, if at all, to do it as though it were just a matter of obeying an artificial command – and then, finding it difficult, have stopped trying because nobody else seems to be very good at it either. Perhaps it might be different if we reminded ourselves frequently that we are preparing for life in God’s new world, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus, which by baptism constitute our own new identity, offer us both the motivation and the energy to try again in a new way.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
N.T. Wright: I LOVE Psalm 2. It draws together so much of the biblical narrative: the world in a mess and threatening God and his people, God’s action in exalting his chosen king, God summoning the nations to a new obedience. Many Jewish writers drew on this Psalm to express their ongoing faith and hope (a good example would be the Wisdom of Solomon); Paul and other early Christians drew on it to celebrate the exaltation of the crucified and risen Jesus and to explore what it meant that he was now the Lord of the World. Acts 4 uses it as the heart of a prayer when the church is threatened . . . I could go on!
Michael F. Bird: Hmm, hard one: there’s so many. I’ve always loved Psalm 77 which is about remembering God’s faithfulness in the past as you face trials in the present. It’d be hard not to mention Galatians 2:19-20, those famous words, “I have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” The discourses of John 5 and 6 have a special place in my faith and spirituality too. Of course, if I had to choose just one passage, it would have to be Mark 15—the story of the crucifixion. Half of Mark’s usages of the word for “king” occur in this chapter alone. It’s here where we see the climax of Jesus’s mission. This is where the kingdom of God comes with power, there in the midst of weakness, powerlessness, and suffering. That’s the king we worship!
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
N.T. Wright: Anything that gets people of all sorts studying the Bible, thinking about the Bible, learning the Bible, understanding its great sweep of narrative and its small but fascinating details—it’s all good.
Michael F. Bird: Yes, I use Bible Gateway all the time. The website is fantastic for accessing heaps of different translations in nearly every language. Bible Gateway is a great resource for Christians wanting to study the Bible in the information age.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
N.T. Wright: The key to it all is the combination of HISTORY and PRAYER. We need real historical knowledge about the first century to be sure we’re not just projecting our own ideas back on to Jesus and his first followers. But we need constantly to be praying for wisdom that as we take the first-century message of the gospel and think about what it means for us and our contemporaries today we’ll be led into healthy and creative and kingdom-bringing paths, not down the rabbit-holes of our own imagination.
Bio: N.T. Wright, one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, is the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. Featured on ABC News, The Colbert Report, Dateline, and Fresh Air, he is the award-winning bestselling author of many books, including Simply Good News, Simply Jesus, Simply Christian, Surprised By Hope, How God Became King, Scripture and the Authority of God, Surprised by Scripture, and The Case for the Psalms, as well as the translation of the New Testament The Kingdom New Testament (read it on Bible Gateway) and the much heralded series Christian Origins and the Question of God.
Michael Bird is Academic Dean and lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of several books including Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, Romans: The Story of God Bible Commentary, What Christians Ought To Believe, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, and An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. He also runs the popular theological studies blog called “Euangelion.”
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