Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Jesus through the Old Testament

Christopher J.H. Wright's Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is a book written to connect the two halves of scripture, in a way that helps Christians better understand that "…it is Jesus that gives meaning and validity to the events of Israel's Old Testament history."[footnoteRef:0] Wright is an Old Testament scholar -- an Ulsterman whose own parents had been Presbyterian missionaries in Brazil, although he would convert and become ordained in the Anglican church, and now resides in London where he directs an international ministry. His academic background is in historical study of the Old Testament, and his first full-length book was a study of economic ethics in the Old Testament. (He confesses endearingly, but unnecessarily, in the present work that he feels much less at ease with the New Testament as a scholar.) Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament is his second work, first published in 1990 and aimed at a more general readership. But it is, ultimately, a work of serious scholarship, whose goal is to investigate "the full significance of the Old Testament…in the light of where it leads -- the climactic achievement of Christ; and on the other hand, we are able to appreciate the full dimensions of what God did through Christ in the light of his historical declarations and demonstrations of intent in the Old Testament." [footnoteRef:1] [0 C.J.H. Wright. Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 27.] [1: Ibid., 33.]

Wright's book is composed of five longish chapters, each of which examines a facet of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus' fulfillment and completion of its messianic prophecy. Wright offers us not only an invitation to be better Christians reading the Old Testament, he also invites us to consider Jesus reading it. The richness that Wright's reading gives to scripture, while avoiding the pitfall of glib or ghastly typological reading, make this book a work of humane exegesis. Wright breaks down his study of the relation between Jesus and the Old Testament into five basic areas. The first part examines the historical periods of Judaism through the lens of the genealogy depicted at the beginning of Matthew's gospel: from Abraham to David, then from David to exile, then the post-exilic period. Wright claims that "it is the story from which he acquired his identity and mission. It is also the story to which he gave significance and authority." [footnoteRef:2] The second part concentrates on the significance of the promise fulfilled by Christ: Wright thinks the Old Testament "sees Jesus as the final destination of an already recognized pattern of promise-fulfillment."[footnoteRef:3] The third looks at Old Testament narrative for "pictures and models" that would have guided Christ -- it is here that Wright distances himself from an overreliance on typological readings, noting "typology is a way of helping us understand Jesus in the light of the Old Testament. It is not the exclusive way to understand the full meaning of the Old Testament itself"[footnoteRef:4]. The fourth chapter defines Christ's mission in terms of the messiah's mission depicted in the Old Testament, and demonstrates how Christ accepted the terms of that mission: Wright's argument is particularly persuasive in this section, asserting that "mission lies at the very heart of all God's historical action in the Bible. Mission to his fallen, suffering, sinful human creation, and indeed ultimately to his whole creation as well. That is why he called Abraham, sent Jesus, and commissioned his apostles."[footnoteRef:5] And the concluding chapter explore's Christ's reaction to contemporary Judaism, particularly the legalism of the Pharisees, before concluding by noting what he himself hopes that he was able to accomplish in these five chapters: "We have seen that the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completed. It declares the promise which he fulfilled. It provides the pictures and models which shaped his identity. It programmes a mission which he accepted and passed on. It teaches a moral orientation to God and the world which he endorsed, sharpened, and laid as the foundation for obedient discipleship."[footnoteRef:6] [2: Ibid., 27.] [3: Ibid., 74.] [4: Ibid., 116.] [5: Ibid., 175.] [6: Ibid., 252.]

But the central thrust of Wright's study is to look at the Old Testament through Christ, and also through Christ's eyes.In some sense, we could say that Wright'a perspective in this work intends to give the reader a sort of intellectual biography of Christ. Wright to a certain extent presents the book in such a fashion, although he couches it in more personal terms; in his preface, he writes:

In the midst of the many intrinsically fascinating reasons why Old Testament study is so rewarding, the most exciting to me is the way it never fails to add new depths to my understanding of Jesus. I find myself aware that in reading the Hebrew scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artefact could do. For these are the words he read. These were the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of "life, the universe and everything." This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God. Above all, this is where he found the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission. In short, the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus. (After all, Jesus never actually read the New Testament!)[footnoteRef:7] [7: Ibid., ix.]

This is the aspect of Wright's work that is most valuable, and that I myself personally find more appealing. To call his work an "intellectual biography" of Jesus is to understate the real feat in what Wright does, which is to offer readers of the Bible a way in which to approach Christ personally, by inviting those readers to consider Christ's own reading and use of scripture. As Wright puts it:

It was the Old Testament which helped Jesus to understand Jesus. Who did he think he was? What did he think he was to do? The answers came from his Bible, the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship. And in this tapestry, where others saw only a fragmented collection of various figures and hopes, Jesus saw his own face. His Hebrew Bible provided the shape of his own identity.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Ibid., 44.]

Wright then focuses his broader argument on specific readings of scripture. As an example which personally I find theologically quite revealing and persuasive, Wright offers one particular observation about Christ's own invocations of Old Testament messianic prophecy, where he makes a fascinating point based on the evidence of what is not there in the text, in addition to what is; he writes

…it is equally striking that scholars who have studied Jesus' use of the 'messianic' scriptures most closely observe that, of all the figures and titles in the Old Testament relating to the coming eschatological deliverer of Israel, the one that Jesus used least was that of the Davidic, kingly, Messiah. Indeed, although it was used about him, he never used it of himself in his teaching.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Ibid., 145.]

The profound humility of that is astonishing. It is one of the paradoxes of Christ's own incarnation that the status that was his by right to assert is never asserted in the Gospels. This, I think, is a representative sample of the way in which Wright invites us to read the Old Testament, and the New Testament, in this work.

To a certain extent, Wright's own doctrinal position can be inferred from his early doctrinal shift, a child of Presbyterian missionaries who is ultimately ordained as an Anglican. The "broad church" mindset of Anglicanism, which never ceases to be intellectually curious while at the same time refusing to engage in irritable quarrels over points of doctrine, is well on display. The book is intended to give a good sense of how Christ viewed the Old Testament, but reviews seem to reflect the denominational bias of the reviewer. Paul Alexander, a New Covenant pastor from Illinois, recommends the book heartily, claiming that "It can help us avoid becoming practical Marcionites, only ever preaching from the New Testament because we think the Old is an optional introduction at best. If you find yourself hesitant to preach Christ from the Old Testament, Wright will not only show you how to do it -- he'll make you want to do it."[footnoteRef:10] But Alexander upbraids Wright in his review for signing a Yale Div School statement of ecumenical intent toward Muslims, seeing it as a sin against the Trinity. Meanwhile, Dr. David Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, also endorses the book -- it is fascinating to hear a Professor of Old Testament…

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