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Book Review: The New Testament In Its World

Book Review: The New Testament In Its World


The book (New Testament in its World) is intended to introduce readers to the New Testament and Wright’s academic works in a new way, with the goal of introducing readers to Jesus, the early church, and the literature that evolved from that setting; “to cultivate a commitment to a specific account of Christian history, literature, theology, and mission” (25). The two theologians incorporate an innovative pedagogic technique as they proceed from topic to topic and New Testament book to book: a series of letters from a hypothetical seminary student to one of his professors inquiring about typical issues that come up from the initial difficulty of examining Scripture critically. The book’s content is separated into 9 parts: Instruction on how to read the New Testament is covered in Part 1 together with hermeneutics, history, literature, and theology. The background information in Part 2 covers the history of the Jews between the Persian and Roman Empires, the Greco-Roman era, and the Jewish setting in which Jesus and the early church developed. Jesus is briefly discussed in Parts 3 and 4, which also look at his passion, death, and resurrection. Following an introduction to Paul, each individual book of the Pauline set is discussed in Part 5. The Gospels and the Catholic Epistles are covered in Parts 6 and 7, and the final two parts explain how we came to have the New Testament and how we make it relevant for today.


“Reading the New Testament” is the first section of the writers’ introduction. The two experts’ enthusiasm for Scripture, theology, and Christ’s church is immediately apparent to the reader. Here’s what the authors have to say about it: “The New Testament, then, is the manual of mission because it is first manual of worship.  We do not worship a distant or remote deity, but the God who made the world and is remaking it.  Our mission is not to rescue souls away from the world, but to bring God’s rescuing love and glory into every corner of creation.” (p. 44) The belief that the world is a corrupt and evil place, and that Christians long to be redeemed from it, is already widespread among Nigerian congregations. It is encouraging to read in this book that the goal of the New Testament is to spread God’s love and glory over all of creation, including the entire planet.

Wright and Bird take the intriguing decision to use the Letter to Philemon as his “launching pad” to establish Paul’s theology in the book’s section on “Paul and the Faithfulness of God.” He makes a strong case for the pastoral nature of Paul’s theology, “in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep an eye out for wolves.” (366). Thus far, the three main focuses of Paul’s theology, according to Wright and Bird, are monotheism, election (as he interprets it), and eschatology (370). They, however, lays out their justifications for what Paul was saying in the section on Romans.

I enjoyed the choice to include a lengthy quotation from Luther regarding his rediscovery of justification by faith in this volume (512). Luther disapproved of the notion that God’s justice in punishing sin was meant by “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. Luther was aware of his own sins and how worthy of God’s wrath he was. This significant verse transformed into a delightful “gateway to heaven” when Luther came to see “the righteousness of God” as the righteousness by which God saves sinners by grace through faith.  Wright seems to acknowledge that while this gift is a result of “God’s loyal, rescuing action,” it is not the passage’s main point to discuss God’s gift of “a righteous status” to individuals (513). As opposed to this, he interprets “the righteousness of God” to mean “God’s own in-the-rightness, his faithfulness to both covenant and creation.”

In Chapter 31 “Letters by Jesus’ Brothers: James and Jude.”  Wright and Bird approach the complex problems involving James 2, They correctly assert that there has been “apparent… tension between James and Paul” (744) and that ” the apparent discrepancy between James and Paul dissipates when we observe what they are each arguing for and against. ” (745). The authors’ assertion that Paul and James can and should be harmonized could lead one to believe that they would end their argument there. Sadly, everything is undone on the following page.  James and Paul concur, according to them (authors – Wright and Bird) (746), that ” the word of truth brings salvation and transformation.” But then they go on: “James and Paul do materially disagree on the significance of Genesis 15:6. Paul employs the passage to prove that Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision; James opts for a standard Jewish approach that read Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22) as the reason he had righteousness credited to him proleptically in Genesis 15:6. Different readings of the same text merely show that Paul and James are part of the richly diverse traditions of Jewish scripture-reading.

Should there be any questions regarding what Wright and Bird are stating, they are answered by Table 31.2: “James and Paul on ‘Faith’ and ‘Works,'” which is directly related to this remark and is located on the same page. James’ alleged ideas on “works” are summed up in the column with the definition: “Loving expression of faith in action. These kinds of works are necessary for justification. In other words, Wright and Bird seems to be arguing that James’ teachings require works as part of justification, not only as proof that someone genuinely has saving faith. 

My view of this Book

The book’s main strength is its in-depth historical research and thoughts of how the New Testament is still applicable in the modern world. I’ve read some of the most easily readable but thoughtful summaries of the historical eras, the Jewish and Greco-Roman background. I like how they discuss each New Testament book separately. Every book has an introduction at the outset that sets the scene. Only after that, with paragraphs summarizing what is found in each portion of the book, arguments and background information are fully discussed. Finally, a bigger picture is presented, relating the book to actual events, for this reason alone, the book is a pleasure to read.

The structure and length of the book are by far its main flaws. The length will put off some people. The book’s opening sections—Parts 3 and 4—start with Jesus, then jump to Paul in Part 5, before returning to the Gospels in Part 6. This is where I feel the most lost. The Pauline section includes the canon of Paul, while the Jesus section is divided from the Gospels.


The book succeeds in appealing to a broad audience. It doesn’t hesitate to tackle more challenging difficulties like authorship issues. It doesn’t read like a textbook though, which would be tedious for the typical reader. Its sections read quickly and are enjoyable. The majority of pages contain a picture, a chart, a map, or—most entertaining—regular “email” correspondences between a teacher and a dedicated pupil. The church now possesses a crucial textbook, a visually spectacular volume, amazing modern pictures of the NT’s historical context, and side galleys of key concepts and ancient authors thanks to this feature.


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