Review of Christopher J. H. Wright’s book “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament”

th Christopher J.H. Wright succeeds in his book Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament by giving us a better understanding of just exactly who Jesus Christ was and is in light of the Old Testament. He begins his work by using the example of the average carol singing Christian at Christmas time. He reflects that many Christians do not fully understand Jesus in the proper light of his Jewish identity. Many probably don’t even care to. I think Wright is mostly correct in assessing how often times the average western Christian has divorced Jesus from his heritage and pictured him as a blonde haired, blue eyed westerner. In the following pages I wish to show how Wright reconnects Jesus to the Old Testament in a mostly proper and balanced way. I have personally been blessed by reading and studying this book as it has given me new insights into just exactly who Jesus Christ is and what he came to do.
After Wright has finished with his fitting “Christmas Carol” example he begins his objective of introducing us to Jesus Christ as revealed in the Old Testament. He quickly gives a cautionary note that it is not his desire to artificially stuff Jesus Christ into every page and passage of the Old Testament but rather show how we can know him better by studying the Old Testament. I think Wright is quite right in stating that many Christians consistently undervalue the Old Testament. They often times simply see it as “What happened before Jesus”. While this statement is somewhat true it also reflects a profound misunderstanding of what the Old Testament is. Wright over and over again reminds us that all orthodox Christians have affirmed it’s place in the canon and for good reason. So, if the Apostles and the church fathers saw the greatness and necessity of the Old Testament, shouldn’t we as well?
One of the first points Wright covers is the Jewish identity of Jesus. Sadly, many Christians have westernized Jesus to the extent that he is almost like the caricature presented in Jesus Christ Superstar. Wright does his best here to emphasize that Jesus Christ was a Jew in the fullest sense of the word. Not only did Jesus look Jewish and dress and eat like a Jew but he was weaned on the great truths of the Old Testament just as all Jews were. This was for me a favorite section of the chapter as reacquainting myself with the Jewish Jesus helped me to realize that Jesus was a real historical person with a real ethnic identity. He is not some mythological demi god life Hercules or Thor but a real man who was God at the same time. Wright also discussed some of the perceived problems with the genealogies with ease, which I thought was interesting, and also emphasizes Jesus’ link to King David and that he can rightly be called the King of the Jews.
Continuing in the first chapter Wright discusses how Jesus can shed light on the Old Testament and how the Old Testament can shed light on Jesus. This to me is the high mark of the chapter and the most interesting as Wright shows how the person of Jesus Christ brings the New and Old testaments together to make one unified whole. Wright shows us how it is impossible to appreciate the saving work of Christ without seeing how God was pointing to Jesus Christ the whole time in the Old Testament. Jesus did not merely show up on the scene unannounced but rather he is the very culmination of God’s work in the Old Testament. Furthermore, we can better understand the saving work of Jesus Christ by seeing the parallels in many Old Testament narratives. Wright focuses on the Exodus in particular and talks of how God was delivering his people not only from a very literal kind of slavery but a spiritual one as well. God truly redeemed his people in the Exodus but the work was completed in the person of Jesus Christ.
Probably the last truly major point that Wright emphasizes is God’s hand in the history of the Hebrew people. Wright does not contend that God was not actively working in the lives of the other nations but rather he was molding the Hebrew nation for a special purpose. He was setting them apart from their wicked pagan counterparts and turning them into a righteous people. A righteous people that would bless the whole world. The kind of people that could father the Messiah who brings salvation and redemption to the whole world. Gentile and Jew alike.
Wright in his first chapter impressed me especially with his observation on how Jesus Christ and the Old Testament are to be taken in tandem and how both shed light on each other. This point reinforced my belief in the importance of the Old Testament. Also, his view of the unfolding of history brings to light an oft forgotten truth even in Christian circles. It was God’s intention to bless the world through the Jewish people all along. This blessing is Jesus Christ and we as Christians should thank God daily for his people and the blessing he brought to us through them. Sadly, many Christians have often succumbed to the pull of antisemitism and this is a tragedy. A proper understanding of the Old Testament and Jesus’ Jewish identity would put to rest this movement at least amongst Christians.
In chapter two of the book we move into even more fascinating material. Wright spends a great deal of time discussing Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Wright specifically wants us to view the fulfillment of these prophecies as God keeping his promise with his beloved people. He indicates that we must see a difference between a promise and a simple prediction. He quite deftly shows how a promise requires a relationship while a prediction can be quite cold and unfeeling and require no relationship. I found this concept to be incredibly enlightening and probably one of the finer points in the whole book.
Wright begins to discuss the issues of fulfillment and promise by using the book of Mathew as a springboard. This is probably a very wise choice as Mathew is the most Jewish of all of the Gospels. Even a cursory reading of the Gospel gives us the strong idea that the intended audience is Jewish. Mathew at appropriate times emphasizes Jesus’s Jewishness as well as the Old Testament prophecies (or should we say promises) that Jesus Christ fulfilled. While reading the text I noted that Wright seems to have a bit of an Apologetic touch at times. While he rarely goes into great detail and almost never runs a rabbit trail he does deal with some common criticisms of the Gospels by modern day critics. This is certainly welcome in a day when books by Bart Ehrman sell millions of copies. The criticism that he deals with in the second chapter is that perhaps Mathew is simply lifting Old Testament texts to suit his theological needs. Many critical scholars have asserted this claim and it deserves a good reply. Wright asserts that if Mathew was simply trying to get his points across by taking Old Testament references out of context it is far more probable that he would have used quotes that were far more sensational. Wright indicates that the only one example that Mathew cites requires real hard evidence for support. This is the prophecy in the book of Micah that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. The rest of the examples clearly imply the need of a Savior (and he is Jesus Christ!) but they are not taken out of context by Mathew.
Wright also spends a great deal of time connecting the concept of a promise and a covenant. His own words on the matter state. “A promise is different. Because it involves personal relationship and commitment, it has a dynamic quality that goes beyond the external details involved.”. Essentially, Wright is saying that a promise implies a future in the relationship as well. Without getting too carried away we could say that because of the relationship more promises are on their way. Perhaps it is best to discuss some of the covenants in a little bit of detail so that we can better understand what Wright is really getting at. Although it would be beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all of the covenants I do think we can get the idea of what Wright is trying to get across from the covenant God made with Abraham. When God made the covenant with Abraham he promised that his line would continue and prosper and that he would make of him a great nation. This promise implies that God would continue to work in the lives of Abraham’s descendants. Although the time the people of Israel spent in Egypt was mostly bleak God used this time to multiply the numbers of the Hebrews greatly. It is clear God was active in their lives as he kept his promise to multiply and deliver them. We also see God continuing his work in establishing the law covenant as well as the Davidic covenant. We could go on but I think the point has been made. The covenants must be seen as a chain and the New covenant, brought about by the work and person of Jesus Christ, is the next in line. The New Covenant also implies further promises as well! What a glorious thought that is!
I was really impressed by chapter two as a whole. I thought the concept of promise as explained by Wright was very interesting and thought provoking. It truly demonstrates that God is not a cold and distant magician but rather a loving father who intimately deals with people in supernatural ways. This chapter serves as a ready argument to those Christians who lean towards deistic interpretations of God the Father. I was also impressed by Wright’s understanding of the covenants. They always implied a further and unending relationship. Again, this does much to shatter a deist’s understanding of our world. In the future I hope to possibly use this material in some of my teaching. The material discussed in the chapter is deep but ultimately rewarding if you are willing to respond to it with an open mind.
The third chapter goes into great detail about the very identity of Jesus. Wright frames the discussion in terms of Jesus’ identity in relation to God the Father. Wright spends a great deal of time emphasizing the fact that Jesus is really and truly the Son of God. He understands himself that way and the Father understands him that way. Wright is very wise in spending a chapter on this topic as many people have misunderstood Jesus identity and denied his divinity because of their lack of understanding. This chapter is helpful in clearing up some of the perceived problems with Jesus nature. Wright uses the baptism of Jesus as a springboard for the entire chapter. He believes that Jesus’ baptism was a pivotal point in his life as it revealed his mission and identity. When God said “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased” he was making a bold statement about who Jesus was. Jesus was not merely a great prophet or teacher but rather he was God’s only begotten son. No other person ever has, nor ever will, enjoy such a station.
Wright connects this point to the Old Testament by showing us how important the Father and son relationship was in the Old Testament. In the modern day our understanding of fatherhood is blurred as we are often more accustomed to neglectful, and abusive parenthood. Fortunately the Biblical model, and the Old Testament model in particular, stand in stark contrast to the modern understanding of being a father. Wright uses abundant scriptural references from both the Old Testament and the New Testament and he mostly accomplishes his goal of painting an accurate picture of Jesus Christ’s identity.
For me, this chapter had many good insights like the previous ones. However, I disagreed with Wright a little on his understanding of Jesus. I want to emphasize the word little as I did not disagree with him on a major point of doctrine. Really, my disagreement stems from one statement. “It was the Old Testament who helped Jesus to understand Jesus”. I think I grasp Wright’s point in that Jesus was versed in the Old Testament scriptures but to me this statement does not recognize Jesus’ implicit understanding of who he was and is. To me it almost sounds like Wright is arguing that Jesus discovered a bit of himself in the Old Testament. I find this problematic. Perhaps this is not what Wright is saying but I do think the statement could have used some clarification. The concept of Jesus being fully divine and yet learning is difficult to understand but I think we must recognize the fact that when people heard Jesus speak they said he spoke with unique authority. We must recognize that he spoke with authority because he was God not because he was simply better studied than the other rabbis.
In Chapter Four Wright contends that we must understand Christ’s “mission” in light of the Old Testament. He asserts in the first page of the chapter that Jesus understood that He was sent of God the Father to complete a mission. On the matter Wright says “One thing that is very clear about Jesus is that he knew he had been sent. He was no self appointed savior, no popularly elected leader. He had not just arrived. He was sent.”. This point is important. In the Old Testament the presence of God and being a person sent of God added divine significance to an event no matter how great or small. That Jesus is fully divine and yet sent of the Father gives us a good idea of the weight of his purpose in the land of Israel.
One of the more interesting facets of this chapter was Wright’s discussion of inter testamental literature. This broad collection of literature constituted writings by religious Jews who produced their work sometime between the roughly three hundred years of silence that took place between the writing of Malachi and Mathew. Again, it must be stated that these books covered a great many topics but many of them focused on the coming Messiah. Wright tells us that many of these writings portrayed the coming Messiah as a man who would restore the national greatness of Israel and lead them to independence and military might. The thought of a spiritual Messiah was probably a foreign concept to many of these writers. In fact we can see in the Gospels that even many of Jesus’ followers did not understand what he had come to do. Reading this reminded me of an important truth. We can be sure that God is actively working in our world. The Old Testament attests to this time and again. But we should not assume that God will necessarily work in the way that we desire nor in the way we even think most likely. He certainly did not act within the expectations of many Jews at the time of Jesus’ coming but his plan was perfect nonetheless.
One of the more interesting aspects of this chapter is how Jesus understood and used the term Messiah. Wright brings up a very interesting point here. One that I had virtually no familiarity with before reading this but now see it as almost obvious. Wright points out that Jesus almost never referred to himself as the Messiah and when others proclaimed him as such he told them to keep quiet. This is remarkable! Was Jesus denying who he was? Some have suggested that this is a major problem in the Bible because as we read different Gospels we get a very different idea of who Jesus claimed to be. Wright offers the interesting solution that Jesus eschewed the Messiah title because it’s meaning had been greatly corrupted by the writers of inter testamental literature. This is indeed a very interesting assertion that seems to solve some problems in understanding how the Gospels portray Jesus. Now that we have learned that Jesus preferred other titles than Messiah, what other titles did he use?
The title that Jesus probably used more often any other is the title the “Son of Man”. This is interesting as we see this title in the Old Testament but not in the inter testamental witness. I believe that Jesus was doing this so that it was clear that his identity and mission were grounded in the God breathed literature of the Old Testament rather than the sensationalism of the inter testamental writers. But what does the term “Son of Man” mean. Well, Wright contends that Jesus took an Old Testament term found in Daniel and Ezekiel and imbued it with new meaning. As a student who has just begun his seminary studies I really appreciated this section of the chapter. I have read a lot of different views about what this term means and have not been able to come to a satisfying conclusion. Wright’s demonstrates how this term can act as an umbrella term to demonstrate Christ’s authority over sin and death, his person as a sacrifice, and his future glory with the Father. It was very helpful to see how this term could encapsulate many meanings instead of forcing you to see it as having only one function or dimension.
By the time I began to read chapter five of Wright’s book I was wondering how much more information about Jesus’ identity in the Old Testament I could still stuff into my brain. The book is loaded with interesting and sound information. Finally, when it came time to write the paper on this book I was wondering not what to put in but what to leave out. The final chapter is called “Jesus and His Old Testament Values”. I thought this was an interesting topic to complete this volume with. However, I think the reason for Wright’s choice is that it is his desire to emphasize just how strongly Jesus relied on the word of God in his ministry. At the time of his ministry on Earth the New Testament was not a reality yet. For Jesus, his Bible was the Old Testament. From the Old Testament the Jews derived their morality and their understanding of what was really important in life. Jesus affirmed these teachings for they are necessarily apart of his nature. Wright uses the classic example of Jesus being led into the wilderness and being tempted by Satan. What is fascinating about this account is that Jesus could have responded however he wished to Satan’s temptations and yet he responded with selections from the book of Deuteronomy. Anything Jesus would have said could have carried divine authority. From this we can see just how much the Jewish scriptures meant to Jesus.
For me, reading this point about Jesus’ love for the Old Testament led to feel a deep sense of conviction. Although as a Christian I have always held the belief that the Old Testament is inspired I have often thought of it as having only secondary value to the Christian. How wrong I was! As Christians I think it is high time we reclaim the law and recognize it as the foundation for our values as well. Jesus apparently thought the Old Testament was important enough to memorize and proclaim it and therefore as Christians we should do the same.
Speaking of the law, what exactly was Jesus attitude towards this system? It is true that Jesus came to bring in the New Covenant of grace but does that mean the Old Testament law is no longer relevant. The obvious answer by now should be absolutely not! Jesus himself stated his view of the law in Mathew chapter five. Jesus made it plain that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Although as Christians we are no longer condemned by the law we are now better able to live by it’s precepts. With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we can live out the law in precisely the way God meant for us to. Jesus summed up the law quite simply “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself”. Simple words with much power. What better standard could we ever hope to live by?
It has been said that more sermons have been based on the book of Psalms than any other. Many Christians since the days of our Lord have uses the Psalms as their hymnal. To Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries they were absolutely essential expressions of worship to a holy God. In many ways the Psalms were an incredible link to the past for the Jews. Many of the Psalms were written by David and one was even written by Moses himself. Jesus affirmed the Psalms in what they taught and the God they spoke of. Even while Jesus was dying on the cross the words of the Psalms could be heard on his lips. The Psalms were truly the expressions of the very deepest portion of the Jewish soul. The Psalms affirm through stately poetry much of what Jesus believed and taught. For a mostly illiterate society the memorizing and singing of Psalms was probably very important because of all the doctrinal truths they contain. The Psalms affirm the greatness, goodness, mercy, faithfulness, and long suffering of God. We can be sure that as a Jew the Psalms were an important part of the Jesus spiritual makeup. The Psalms declared the very truths that he wanted the world to know about God the Father. If Jesus had a hymnal of sorts then it would have been the Psalms.
And so starting with the example of the “carol singing Christian” Wright brings his work to a fitting end by finishing with a few more examples from that Psalms and brings us full circle back to the illustration of the “carol singing Christian”. And so we are left with the question of how do we as “carol singing Christians” respond to Wright’s message about Jesus? Does Wright teach a radical and new view of Christ that would not fit in mainstream Christian circles? Perhaps in some, but Wright introduces to us a Jesus that is fully God and fully man. He is the same humble carpenter who loved children and helped those who could not help themselves. However, Wright presents a Jesus that is unfamiliar to many Christians because he is rightly connected to his Jewish identity. Many Christians might also be surprised just how much they can come to know Jesus better by reading the Old Testament. To separate the two is to do incredible damage to the message that God intends for us to understand. In his final words Wright sums up his premise by stating “We have seen that the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completed”. After completing Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament I have come to the conclusion that we can only fully appreciate the person of Jesus Christ and the Old Testament if we take them together. They both shed light on one another and leave us more knowledgeable about God’s plan and his very nature. While I enjoyed many of the insights the book offered the very best part of reading it was coming to a better knowledge of who my Savior really is. I know this year when I sing Christmas carols with my lovely wife and my new born daughter (just listening of course) I will be thinking of a divine, loving, caring, human, sacrificing, and certainly Jewish Jesus Christ, who affirmed the Old Testament while ushering in the New!


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