Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament (Review)

Christopher J. H. Wright, who is a prominent Old Testament scholar, has written a book entitled “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament”. He has also written extensively on other Old Testament topics with books such as “Old Testament Ethics and the People of God” and “Living as the People of God”, among others. The basic theme of “Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament” is to show us how Jesus sheds light to the Old Testament or vice versa.

This is out of his own conviction that a good understanding of the Old Testament “add new depths” in understanding Jesus. This new depth that Wright contends to us is uncovering Jesus in his “historical Jewish context of his day, and from his deep roots in the Hebrew scriptures.”

In the five chapters that Wright lays in the manner he constructs the idea for the book, from an observation, one can find three basic grinds that actually give structure to the book. The first part which is chapter one, deals with Jesus and the Old Testament story and looks at the grand overview of how Jesus fits in the Old Testament story of Israel. The second part deals with the foundational element that undergirds the Old Testament and Jesus which is the understanding of promise, or better known biblically as covenant theology. Chapters 3 to 5 which looks at how Jesus understood his call, being the third part, which Wright describes in three aspects as to how Jesus understood his identity, mission and values in the light of the Old Testament.

Dr. Wright’s overview of Israel’s story based on the Old Testament which “Jesus completes” is encapsulated in Matthew’s genealogy in 1:1-17. A genealogy which people normally skip reverberate tomes of meaning to Jews reading this gospel. Matthew’s clever way of narrating Israel’s history, one on which entails that “God is doing his ‘new thing’” which speaks of “Jesus being the heir of Abraham and his universal promise is underlined: Jesus the Jew, and the Jewish Messiah, had Gentile blood!”

Israel’s history, which Wright presents in scintillating detail, highlights just the right amount of information for the reader to follow in the story of Israel in chronological order. It is placed as the context of grasping Jesus’ identity as a Jew as well as showing us that Israel’s God has a wider dimension of influence in that he intends to have wider dominion instead of just localized in Israel. The nations are, in fact, very much in God’s mind because they become God’s spectators in what he is doing in Israel.

Many forget this crucial element in understanding the Old Testament; “God’s activity in the history of other nations also fits into” God’s “…wider redemptive purpose.” Wright explains that Israel’s unique history coupled with their unique relationship with God is what Jesus actually experienced and embodied himself. Here Wright asserts that “Jesus embodied that uniqueness and achieved that universal goal”, that being, him having a unique relationship with God mirroring Israel and fulfilling Israel’s universal goal; to bless the nations.

Chapter two looks into how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promise. Before going into detail with this chapter Wright points out that if we are to have a firm grasps on understanding this, one has to understand the biblical concept of some words used to shed light how the scriptures understand them. In this chapter, two difficulties arise that Wright addresses, namely, how we understand biblically words like ‘fulfill’ and ‘promise’. I found that Wright lays out his ideas emphatically because this is a crucial element in connecting the Old Testament message to Jesus. The term ‘Jesus fulfilling Scripture’ is understood not in random proof-texting but in how the events of Jesus’ life somehow corresponds to Israel’s historical narrative, which really captures the understanding of what ‘fulfilling’ scripture means.

The understanding of ‘promise’ according to Wright “is very much at the heart of the word covenant.” A promise in this sense entails a relationship which is conveyed in what we see between Israel and God in which “at a particular time in history God entered into a commitment to a particular man and his decedents, a commitment to a relationship between himself and them which involved growth, blessing and protection.” The promise is not static but engages ongoing levels of fulfillment in the veins of a committed relationship, involving acceptance and that a promise in the biblical sense.

In linking this to Jesus, Wright notes that the promise that God made with Abraham had a wider scope of commitment, namely to humanity as a whole. So, the one in whom the New Testament writers saw as the fulfillment of the OT promise; Jesus, they see God is saving the world through him.

Jesus’ self identity is treated next in chapter three. According to Wright, Jesus’ reading of the Old Testament is where he grew in conviction of his identity. But to get to this, an interpretive method must be explained. This is understood as typology, although, there are ambiguities connected to it. I commend Wright for taking some time to explain the importance of what typology is.

Laying some foundation here clears the air to see how one should treat the Old Testament, not as ‘shadows’ that find their proper fulfillment in the New, but understanding their relationship in the manner that the Old Testament are seen as “patterns or models” in which to convey the “consistency of God in salvation-history.” Thus, the typological method best portrays Jesus’ relationship with God which reflects a continuation of how Israel’s relationship to God was in terms of father and son which was connected to the covenant.

Some questions that I would have liked to be answered here was regarding Jesus’ self-identity. When was Jesus convinced of his identity, during his childhood or when was this conviction finally gripped at this point his baptism as Wright mentions? If we follow Luke’s narrative there are clear indications that Jesus knew who he was. Although I do not see this as much of an issue that would necessarily err some of the contents of this chapter, nonetheless I did wish Wright touch this issue at hand. But nevertheless, I found this chapter well written and most insightful in giving a more realistic picture of how Jesus understood his identity.

Chapter four moves on to how Jesus understood his mission according to the Hebrew Scriptures that he read and reflected on. It is stated by Wright that Jews in the time of Jesus had preconceived expectations namely concerning Israel’s restoration and the ingathering of nations following that which have their roots in during the intertastement periods and the Hebrew Scriptures. The movement then focuses on how Jesus fits in as well as deconstructing the Jewish form of expectation at that time.

Wright does this by using designations that were ascribed of Jesus and thus reconstructing some false notion of expectation that the Jewish nation had. For example, Jesus constantly evaded the designation Son of David because of its political overtones but mostly stressed the sevanthood dimension of the understanding of his call and mission. Jesus sought to, according to Wright, show a fuller picture of what the messiah was supposed to be, the servant of Israel and the embodiment of the nation.

This idea expanded from Isaiah 41:8-10, which Wright uses as the text that supports this explanation. It is only in this chapter that Wright offers a reflection on how the church should apply their mission in the manner of Jesus’ very own. Emphasizing Jesus’ embodiment of servanthood as the thrust in propelling Jesus’ understanding of his mission, it should be “characteristic of relationships within the church.” This is true because if one wants to be an effective witness, it starts within the church to show how their conviction in Jesus shapes how they live together as a community. A divided group, no matter how compelling their message, makes no impact if they cannot work with each other.

The last chapter views Jesus and his values which were shaped by the Old Testament. The surrounding text that Wright uses to evoke echoes of the Old Testament is Jesus’ wilderness experience where he was tempted by the devil. According to Wright, Jesus, in all “three of his replies to the devil are drawn from two chapters in the first part of Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:16 and 6:13).”   Wright further asserts that Jesus was “…meditating on the section of Deuteronomy which ‘preaches’ the fundamental attitudes and commitments that God expects from his people as their side of the covenant relationship”, and when this is connected to how Jesus saw the law, it is the “true perspective and the essential point of the law” that he sustains.

Wright also highlights two other Old Testament perspectives that influenced Jesus, namely the Prophets of old and the influence of the Psalms on his understanding. Both hold important elements that influenced Jesus namely the ethical dimension of God’s vision as well as the kingship and rule of God. With the constant emphasis on ‘justification by faith alone’ without its proper context in the Old Testament, Christians often neglect the ethical dimension of what is required of their faith. Ethical values are important for Jesus as what Wright presents in this chapter, not in its legalistic understanding but in how its depths were probed by Jesus in his life. After all, if Jesus was to represent Israel, he was to take upon himself their covenantal obligation, to live in the manner of life in “total orientation of life before God.”

One of the things that I greatly appreciated in the book was that Wright constantly stated that what God was doing in Israel historically is rather a continuation and not utterly something completely new. This actually dispels the contention that some have in saying that the Old Testament is of no use and the only Testament that we are supposed to focus on is only the New. Wright in his book constantly restates this statement all along the book as he goes about to argue the importance of understanding the Old Testament, in that it brings a clearer picture of how God is progressing in his work of salvation.

Another important contribution that the book makes apart from its grasp on God’s continuing work is its overall inarching grasp of what it means when we talk about gospel. The gospel in some understanding of Christians only effects our inner dimensions in that we are save by grace through faith in Jesus and that in turn gives us eternal life. That is true in a sense but if we add the Old Testament understanding of good news and as I have stated above on the continuation of God’s work, the gospel is much more that just personal regeneration. There is actually a big overarching message that the gospel holds namely how we work out as people who take life seriously on a broader scale for example in areas of justice, caring for the poor and in our social works.

I have much praise for the book, but there are just two minor elements that merits some form of mild critique. One of the frustrations I had with Wright’s book is his lack of systematization of ideas. Themes we constantly linked interchangeably all but too often disrupt the progression of thought on a given topic. Another aspect is, although I whole heartedly agree with Wright that the New Testament story has elements of striking continuity with Old Testament patterns, especially when he notes this in Jesus, I think Wright should also make mention of the element of discontinuity of Old Testament as well. In a way this would give balance to readers with regards to distinct New Testament ways compared to the Old, which mirrors in a lot of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian community.

Overall, I have no problem with the book in its scope and what Wright sought to do, which is shed light on the Old Testament on how it relates with Jesus, in his ministry and life as a Jew, born to the people in who God had chosen to bless the nations. The book has a way of deconstructing preconceived thoughts about the Old Testament and laying down proper foundations for the reader in instilling excitement and giving a new appreciation to the very scriptures, which shaped much of Jesus’ understanding and ways.

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