Dr. Christopher J.H. Wright’s work entitled “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament” is the focus of the review in this study. The study examines Wright’s work both in light of a first-hand review and through the perspectives of other writers who have reported a review of this book. This study represents a critical assessment of the book written by Wright. Wright is reported as a scholar of the Old Testament and to be the International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership International. Sean Harris, in the Theological Book Critique of “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament” states that from all appearances, Wright appears to write from “an amillennialist perspective and rejects any eschatological distinctions between Israel and the church.” (Collins, 2012)
The work of Collins (2012) on Wright’s work states that much dispute exists among scholars of “various theological persuasions as to the exact messianic content of the Old Testament.” Various claims in clued that much of the prophecies of Jesus Christ “have been read into the Old Testament rather than out of it; that this interpretation was never intended by the prophets who wrote them.” (Collins, 2012) Some of the scripture is reduced by these groups as a form of ‘automatic writing’ however, others emphatically proclaim that the Old Testament is certainly linked to and paves the way for the coming of Jesus Christ.
It is the contention of Wright that the Old Testament is significant and critical in understanding Jesus. Christopher J.H. Wrights states in his work that “the deeper you go into understanding the ‘Old Testament’, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. This has been my conviction for a long time, and it is the conviction that underlies this book.” (1995) Stockdell (2009) states that Wright’s thesis statement “sets the stage for his presentation of the connections between the promises Jesus fulfilled in coming to earth, his identity, his mission and the ethics he taught with Old Testament scripture.”
Five Scenes from the Childhood of Jesus
According to Wright the lack of study of the Old Testament is that which results in a understanding of Jesus that is “often distorted, diluted…” (Stockdell, 2009) This failure to study the Old Testament results in the individual being “cut off from the historical Jewish context of his day, and from his deeps roots in Hebrew scriptures.” (Stockdell, 2009) Wright’s books is not written for scholars alone but instead is written for any individual who desires to gain a deeper and broader knowledge of Jesus.
The approach of Wright in his presentation of the argument that is ongoing to examine specific events in the life of Jesus in addition to selected teachings that draw parallels with themes in the Old Testament to demonstrate how it is that these texts point to Jesus. In his examination of the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus Wright notes the use of the New Testament Gospel of Matthew of the idea of fulfillment in the description provided concerning events in the life of Jesus and most specifically five scenes from the childhood of Jesus including those as follows:
(1) Matthew 1:18-25 – Josephs vision that fulfills Isiah 7:14;
(2) Matthew 2:1-12 – The Birth of Jesus in Bethehem fulfilling Micah 5:2;
(3) Matthew 2:13-15 – The family of Jesus escaping to Egypt during Herod’s purge of Jewish male first-born which fulfills Hosea 11:1;
(4) Matthrew 2:16-18 – Herod’s purge of Jewish male first-born which fulfills Jeremiah 31:15; and
(5) Matthew 2:19-23 – the settlement of the family of Jesus in Nazareth which fulfills the prophets as noted in the Gospel of Matthew.
This concept of fulfillment indicates Jesus as the culmination of the promises of God that began with Abraham and ran through David and ultimately with Jesus blessing all nations through God’s chosen people, the Hebrew Jews.
Jesus – Self-Identification
Wright notes that the presentation of Jesus of his own identity is “firmly rooted in Old Testament scripture and was initiated by God’s direct word naming him ‘my beloved Son’. (Stockdell, 2009) Using this declaration by God as a foundational element Wright presents several connections in the Old Testament concerning the son-ship of Jesus including the following:
(1) Psalm 2:7 – David’s promised son echoed in the Gospel of Matthew 3;
(2) Isaiah 42:1 – the idea of the beloved one; and
(3) Genesis 22:2 – the ideal of the beloved son which Isaac typifies.
(4) In addition Wright is reliant on Isaiah 63-64 and Jeremiah 3-4 in presenting the Father/Son relationship of God and Israel and connects that relationship to the purpose of salvation.
The two fundamental premises in Wright’s work is that a fuller understanding of Old Testament scripture result in a greater comprehension of Jesus and that there is a critical lack of attention given to the Old Testament in contemporary times. This lack of study of the Old Testament is noted by J. Ligon Duncan III in April 2006, and this lack is noted to be generally in all churches.
Wrights technique is stated by Stockdell (2009) to be such that is “engaging, convincing, demonstrating his background as an Old Testament specialist.” Stockdell notes “While the fact that his area of specialty brings with it a natural bias for raising the importance of the Old Testament in the church in our culture and time, he presents an overwhelming case that is clearly supported by the texts.” (2009) The best argument that Wright presents is the example of Jesus who himself pointed to Luke 24 as an example. Wright specifically states as follows:
“…Jesus was not just an identikit ﬁgure pasted together with bits of the Old Testament. He transcended and transformed the ancient models. He ﬁlled them with fresh meaning in relation to his own unique person, his example, teaching and experience of God. So that, for his followers, what began as a shaft of recognition and understanding of Jesus in light of their Scriptures, ended up as a deepening and surprising new understanding of their Scriptures in light of Jesus.” (Wright, 1995)
This book is relevant to the church due to the central idea presented by Wright of the “two-way increase of understanding”. (Stockdell, 2009) Stockdell notes “As a culture, we are more interested in an abridged, bullet-pointed presentation of just about everything rather than the kind of thoughtful, analytical study Wright’s ideas require of us. We want the 30-minute Jesus, rather than the Jesus whose identity, mission, and teachings are more deeply rooted in Scripture that was written in an ancient time and foreign culture. Wright makes a case for this deeper kind of study that is both convincing and engaging, leaving the reader wanting to delve into more depth on his own.” (Stockdell, 2009)
The position of Wright is reflective of what is known as ‘Replacement Theology’ which declares the Church as Israel’s replacement noted in the work of McFarland (2012) to be a view of the early church predating Covenant Theology that is a popular view. This view continues from mid second century A.D. to the present as a consensus among many churches. As well “prominent theological concepts of salvation, redemption and the choosing by God are addressed with both the Old Testament and New Testament promises. McFarland states that Wright “leans toward Replacement Theology, also known as Supersessionist Theology, this is the teaching of both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther who said “The Jews have lost this promise, no matter how much they boast of their father Abraham….They are no longer the people of God.” (McFarland, 2012)
Weaknesses and Limitations in Wright’s Work
According to McFarland, while Wright is “is not as blatant in his statements, his position reflects his belief that Christ chose the Gentiles as His people, arguing against the idea that the Jew remains the Chosen People separated from Christians by their Covenant with the LORD God.” (McFArland, 2012) The views of Wright are effectively presented and the progress of Christ as fulfilling the covenants of God with Israel is developed in a manner that is easily understood. However, there are limitations to the effectiveness of Wright’s presentation in that he fails in his use of references and omits needed footnotes and when a deeper examination of the theology presented is underteaken the reader is forced to reference the Bibliography in order to determine the origination of the opinions presented by Wright.
Also noted as a weakness in the views of Wright is that a fact in application of a ‘Replacement Theory’ effectively removes the original covenants and promises that God made with Israel and the reapplication of those covenants to Christian believers.
Bases for Replacement and Awareness of New Testament Fulfilling Old Testament
An important verse for the replacement system is Matthew 21:43 since it is claimed by theorists that this effectively proves that a transfer of the Chosen people of God was invoked by Christ from Israel to the church. It is critically important to prove this position to establish that this verse means a permanent rejection of Israel and that this ‘nation’ will be given not to the Jews, but instead to the church. It is generally agreed among Theologians that Christ stated a rejection of Israel, there is an overall disagreement of the “length of time this will occur, those who believe it is only a temporary rejection leave open the chance for a future restoration.” (McFarland, 2012)
Matthew 19-28 is used in Wright’s work to show that Christ believes that a future restoration of Israel will take place as Christ speaks with His disciples concerning the thrones, which they would occupy in the judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel. Wright writes that the issue of Old Testament prophecy requires examination “in the light of the total perspective which pervades the Old Testament, namely God’s purpose for the whole of humanity and for the whole earth.” (McFarland, 2012) Wright states that Genesis 1-11 “sets the agenda for the rest of the Bible, presenting us with the basic triangle of relationships witin which the whole of the rest of the Bible’s story lies: the relationship between God, humanity and the earth.’ (McFarland, 2012)
Even in the Old Testament itself Wright states that there was “an awareness that the fulfillment of prophecies that were made in terms of the concrete realities of Israel’s life and faith would actually go beyond them.” (McFarland, 2012)) Wright states that prophetic material can not always be handled in the cartegorization of ‘prediction’. At the time prophecies were originated they would have been seen as part of the promise according to Wright rather than viewed as predictions. Wright states an immense difference existing between prediction and promise. Promise is stated by Wright to presuppose or to initiate or sustain and prediction does not. Therefore the fulfillment of a promise may “take a quite different form from the material termss in which it was made, yet still be a true fulfillment inasmuch as its purpose was bound up with the relationship, not the objective form of words used.” (Wright, 1995)
Wright holds tahta Jesus was aware and even affirmed himself as fulfilling Isaiah 61 in the book of Luke 4:16-21. Wright notes that the number 12 is dominant in both the Old and New Testaments and states that this number is inherent of symbolism that is intention. In addition, Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and a doing away with the ‘old’ as in came the ‘new’ which culminates in the ‘New Covenant’ and the interpretation of the sacrificial death of Jesus. Wright focuses the most of his energy on demonstrating how God made use of the Hebrew Bible to reveal the identity of Christ, the mission and values of Christ. Jesus is presented by Wright as being the son that Israel refused to be and states that the baptism of Christ is the most definint and influential event indicating the self-awareness of Jesus of his own identity providing “depth and color to his primary self-awareness as the Son of his Father God.” (Harris, nd)
Harris (nd) writes that Wright’s work comes from a perspective that in absence of the Hebrew Bible and the knowledge of the events such as Christ’s baptism, that Jesus may well have missed gaining the knowledge of his identity and experienced failure to realize his mission from the Father. (paraphrased) Harris writes that the divinity of Christ “…does not seem to factor into Wright’s perspective. He emphasizes the synoptic gospels and fails to explain the John 1:1 perspective of Christ with his frequent use of the word “influence” throughout the text to communicate his understanding of what happened when Christ read from the law or prophets. According to the review reported in the work of Harris (nd) Wright claims that “Leviticus 19, in fact, appears to have had a major influence on the teaching of Jesus…” however, Harris notes that Wright fails to explain the timing of this major influence. In addition, Wright fails to explain how Jesus hds knowledge of the thoughts of man (John 2:24) “but needed to read the Torah in order to be influenced by its contents.” (1995) Wright also fails to explain how Jesus knew from the start who would betray him (John 6:64) but simultaneously did not know what He was going to teach on the Sermon on the Mount until the Old Testament had been studied. (Wright, 1995) Wright goes on to ignore the fact that Jesus grew up on the house of a carpenter but was even so God’s Son from the moment of his birth.
There is a great deal of information left out on the New Covenant and Wright fails to properly address the tenets of this New Covenant between God and the Gentiles. The New Covenant is related by Wright as one that will be made by God with the house of Israel and the house of Judah however, he goes on to state that God is fulfilling these promises presently through the church. There are various confusing issues in the work of Wright that require the reader to undertake theological study so that they can disseminate the information presented by Wright in his study on Jesus and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies by New Testament events in the life of Jesus. ‘Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament” contributes greatly to biblical academia and might well serve to encourage the Jewish individual to research whether perhaps his Jewish ancestors might have been mistaken and missed the identity of Jesus as the long waited for Messiah.
Collins, Kenneth (2012) Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Retrieved from: http://www.kencollins.com/bible/bible-p4.htm
Duncan, Ligon. “Preaching From the Old Testament.” Together for the Gospel 2006. Louisville, KY: Together for the Gospel, 2006. http://sgm.edgeboss.net/download/sgm/teaching/t4g2006/a2235-03-51.mp3.
Harris, Sean (nd) Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. A Theological Book Critique. Retrieved from: http://pastorseansblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/knowing-jesus-though-old-testament.html
McFarland, Kathy L. (2011) Book Review – knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Guided Bible Studies for Hungry Christians. Retrieved from: http://www.guidedbiblestudies.com/?p=164
Stockdell, Ken (2009) A Review of Knowing Jesus Trhough the Old Testament. Covenant Theological Seminary. 9 Apr 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.letmypeopleread.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Book-Report-Knowing-Jesus-Through-the-Old-Testament.pdf
the Gospel, 2006. http://sgm.edgeboss.net/download/sgm/teaching/t4g2006/a2235-03-51.mp3.
Wright, Christopher J. H. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Chris Wright, “A Christian Approach To Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel,” P.W.L.Walker, ed.,Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God. Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992. Pbk. ISBN: 0951835610. pp.1-19