A Theological Book Critique
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, by Dr. Christopher J.H. Wright, is a thorough analysis of the role the law and prophets had in fully developing Jesus' understanding of Himself. Wright is an Old Testament scholar and the International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership International who has a "passion to bring to life the relevance of the Old Testament to Christian mission and ethics." He appears to write from an amillennialist perspective and rejects any eschatological distinctions between Israel and the church. He is fully convinced that God the Father used every dimension of Israel's history, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, to reveal Christ's identity, mission, and values. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is an exceptionally profitable read in showing the connectivity between Jesus and Israel. However, Wright writes fails to prove that it was the Hebrew Bible and not Christ's divinity that had the greatest impact on Jesus' understanding of His identity, mission, and values. Wright does not wrestle with the difficulty of uniting divinity and humanity in one person and what the limits of each were in the natural maturation process of the Son of Man. At times, the reader wonders if Wright believes Jesus maintained any attributes of God while He was on the earth.
Wright divides Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament into five chapters without an introduction or conclusion. Each chapter presents a plethora of Old Testament verses with a reasonable amount of correlating gospel references with goal of showing the reader the connectivity between the two. Wright's work is very atypical if one has a stereotypical expectation for Old Testament books about Jesus. Wright does not make any attempt to show how Jesus can be found in all the Old Testament books or in the majority of the stories. In fact, Wright finds these typological techniques of finding Jesus in the Old Testament less preferred. He writes "typology is not the way of interpreting the Old Testament for itself" instead it is "a way of helping us understand Jesus in the light of the Old Testament." Dr. Philips Long, writes on the back cover of the book, "This book is not merely a survey of OT Messianic proof-texts lifted out of context, nor is it an attempt to 'find Jesus' on every page of the OT by fanciful interpretations."
Wright begins by showing how Matthew was very intentional in starting his gospel with seventeen verses of names from Abraham to David to Jesus. Based on this premise, he devotes a considerable portion of the text to teaching the reader Israel's history beginning with Abraham. However, before he does that, Wright ensures his reader knows Jesus was a Jew. The text rejects the idea that because Christ fulfilled the promises of God, the Old Testament is of "little value." Instead, Wright emphasizes the "double benefit" that studying the Hebrew Bible brings to the degree one understands the entire Bible.
The idea that the life of Christ is nothing but a series of fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies is rejected by Wright. He writes, "[I]t is clearly mistaken to say that the narratives Matthew tells are fulfillments of Old Testament predictions." According to Wright, "Promise involves commitment to a relationship [and] a response of acceptance." Wright illustrates the manner in which God has fulfilled his promises in Christ as a "historical flight path" from Abraham to Exodus to Sinai to Conquest to David to Exile to completion.
Wright devotes the majority of his energy to showing how God used the Hebrew Bible to reveal Christ's identity, mission, and values. Wright presents Jesus as the son Israel was not, and then he points to Christ's baptism as the greatest event that influenced or confirmed his self-understanding of his identity. Chapter three concludes with "the Old Testament provided the models, pictures, and patterns by which Jesus understood his own essential identity and especially gave depth and color to his primary self-awareness as the Son of his Father God."
The remainder of the book focuses on how the Hebrew Bible influenced Christ's understanding of the mission the Father gave Him and the values He should have as God's Son. Wright discusses the influence in the descriptions of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of Man, and the Servant of Israel. Wright believes that Jesus accepted "that the values, priorities and convictions of his own life must be shaped by the words of Moses to Israel; words in which he heard the voice of his Father God as surely as he did when he stepped out of the Jordan."
The Author's Perspective
Wright writes from a perspective that without the Hebrew Bible and the experience of events like the baptism of Christ, Jesus may have missed His identity and failed to accomplish His mission from the Father. 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. Wright states: "Leviticus 19, in fact, appears to have had a major influence on the teaching of Jesus…" Wright does not explain when this major influence occurred. In another section, Wright believes that the servant pattern presented in Isaiah deeply influenced Jesus. Is he suggesting that the first time Christ read from Leviticus 19 as a boy it influenced him as a boy or is the reader to understand that Leviticus 19 was formative in the development of what Christ would teach? This is a very difficult issue because man does not (and perhaps cannot) understand how the divinity and humanity of Jesus co-existed in the body of Christ. Wright does not explain how Jesus knew the thoughts of man (John 2:24) but needed to read the Torah in order to be influenced by its contents. He does not explain how according to John 6.64, Jesus knew from the beginning those who would betray Him but did not know what He would teach on the Sermon on the Mount (as an example) until He studied the Old Testament. Certainly it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus had to learn like any other child; however, Wright seems to ignore the fact that the boy growing up in the house of a carpenter was the Son of God from birth. Furthermore, Wright does not explain why he ignores the divinity factor or influence.
Throughout his book, Wright makes reference to the significance of John the Baptist's baptism of Christ and refers to it as a climatic event. Wright suggests that it was not until Jesus was thirty years old that He received a "full confirmation of his true identity and mission from the mouth of his Father." Wright does not explain why Jesus insisted that John the Baptist needed to baptize Him if He was not completely sure of His mission in life until He heard from the Father. Wright also contends that Jesus "accepted John's baptism." He does not explain what He means by "accepted." According to John chapter 1, Christ's baptism was a sign to confirm to John the Baptist that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Later in Jesus' ministry, a voice speaks from heaven and Jesus makes it clear that the voice was not for His sake but for the sakes of all those who could hear the voice (John 12:20). Furthermore, Wright does not address how the boy Jesus is conversing on a very adult level at a young age with the Doctors of the Law in Luke 2. Shepard in The Christ writes, "Theologians have speculated as to when Jesus first became conscious of the fact that He was God's son in a peculiar sense and of his Messianic mission. We turn to these words as the sole. clear, self-revelation of Jesus in His boyhood years." However, according to Wright, it takes about eighteen more years of living and a voice from heaven to fully confirm His identity as the Son of God. Wright believes "Jesus understood his own identity and mission through reflection on his scriptures." Pentecost would sharply disagree with Wright's interpretation; he writes, "There never was a time when Jesus did not know who He was, who His Father was, and why He had come into the world." Pentecost clearly implies here that Jesus did not need to read the Hebrew Bible to discover or be influenced as to his identity, mission, or values.
Although one must always be careful in attempting to put a scholar in a particular theological box, Wright seems to subscribe to a type of replacement covenant theology. Wright does not make any significant distinctions between Israel and the church. He states, "Israel had been redefined and extended, but the Jewish roots and trunk were not replaced or uprooted." The reader of the text needs to be aware that there are those who would disagree with Wright's understanding. Wright correctly encourages the reader of the necessity to witness to the Jew; however, he does not believe, as some theologians, that God temporarily "put Israel aside corporately." From Romans 11, dispensationalist theologians like John MacArthur would certainly make reference to the corporate blindness that God has put Israel under until such a time in the future as God returns His focus upon Israel. Wright does not even consider such a distinction.
Finally, Wright needs to write with a greater clarity concerning the implications and importance of the New Covenant. Wrights states that the new covenant is one God will make "with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" yet later in the text he suggests that God is fulfilling these promises to Israel presently through the church. This can only be possible if Wright does not believe that when God said "house of Israel" he was referring to the corporate body of Jews and not a combination of saved Jews and Gentile believers. Wright believes that the new covenant is primarily for a "restored Israel" Wright contends that this restoration occurred when Christ was resurrected but this is not a universally held position; Thomas (and others) suggest that Peter's message that Jews needed to repent so a period of refreshing could occur (Acts 3:19-21) shows that the Apostles were not convinced Israel had been restored.
Wright does not speak to the degree to which Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophesying about a future New Covenant. The opening sentence in the sub-section on the New Covenant speaks of ceremonies of covenant renewal. In another section Wright states that Jesus "was claiming to inaugurate the new covenant." Yet Wright refers to Jesus as the Servant King—the servant king does not claim to do anything—He does it. The prophet Jeremiah does not see the religious deterioration of the society around him and determine that there is a need for a new covenant. According to the Apostle Peter "holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 1:21). The Spirit of Christ indwelling individuals in the New Covenant is perhaps that which make the New Covenant more radically different than the other four covenants found in the Hebrew Bible, yet Wright makes no reference to the promise of the Holy Spirit to those in the New Covenant. However, he is very thorough in explaining many of the other dimensions of the covenant.
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is a profitable contribution to a biblical academia. However, it certainly would not fall into the must read category for a new student of the Word of God. The primary value of Wright's work is to show that benefit of studying the Old Testament to enhance one's ability to understand and teach the especially Jewish portions of the New Testament. Wright's failure to even consider any distinctiveness between the church and Israel and his choice to ignore the potential influence Christ's divinity must have played in His life as the Son of Man limits its value. Christians who are grounded in their understanding of uniqueness of the God-Man, their eschatological persuasion, and the New Covenant are the right target audience for Wright's work. All others should approach with caution. Pastors and Bible teachers will find Wright's work a good refresher in Hebrew history, as well as a better understanding of Matthew. Finally Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament has great potential in the evangelism of Reformed and Orthodox Jews; Wright's emphasis on Hebrew Bible and the manner in which he establishes the connectivity between the New Testament and Old Testament has the potential of influence a Jew to reconsider whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and his forefather missed it.
The depth of Wright's knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and his ability to convene this is what makes Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament a unique analysis of how one can find Jesus in the Old Testament. Wright's thoroughness in most areas and depth of instruction is commendable. The correlation Wright establishes between the identity, mission, and values of Jesus in relationship to that of Israel significantly reinforces the reality that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah the Jewish nation should not have rejected. The substantial degree to which Christ's words and works synchronize with Jehovah's message in the Hebrew Bible, as demonstrated by Wright, prove that Jesus was not just another great teacher—He was the Son of God. Perhaps evangelicals who see a clearer Scriptural separation between Israel and the church with regard to the rapture, the millennial kingdom, and the fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham and David would be less reserved in promoting Wright's work if he would have been more forthright with his bias or more balanced in his approach. Finally, in a period of time when the deity of Christ is still being attacked more emphasis on Jesus as God is needful. Wright's overemphasis on the humanity of Jesus as it relates to the influence the law and prophet could have had on Jesus is not proven effectively enough—especially considering his failure to explain how John 1:1 and 1:14 align with his thesis. Wright should have anticipated that mainstream conservative evangelical pastors and scholars would question how he reconciles the deity of Christ and the significant emphasis he places on how the Hebrew Bible and Christ's life events factor in influencing Jesus. Another chapter addressing this issue would considerably increase the value of Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament.