Book Review: Jesus and the Victory of God

I started reading this about a year ago, and finally finished it early in December. N.T. (Tom) Wright has become a book machine over the last few years, sometimes publishing three or four per year. Some of these are popular level re-workings of ideas that he has written about elsewhere, but Jesus and the Victory of God is one of his more massive and academic works. Published in 1996, it is the second volume in his “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series (the first is The New Testament and the People of God, the third is The Resurrection of the Son of God, and the fourth, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, is forthcoming).

The underlying argument of the book is that the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of faith” don’t have to be separated, as they have been in so much recent scholarship. You can do rigorous historical study and end up knowing something about how Jesus presented himself to his contemporaries. That’s not to say that the book is devotional in tone. It is academic through and through. Wright simply says that it is possible to know with some degree of confidence who Jesus believed himself to be, and who his earliest followers believed him to be. This means that he invites criticism from two sides: scholars who think that he is too confident that historical questions have answers, and believers who don’t like historical studies that seek to fit Jesus into a first-century milieu. Wright begins with an overview of Jesus studies over the past 100 or so years. Then he argues that Jesus’ public persona was that of a prophet, and the content of his proclamation was the kingdom of God. Then he looks at what Jesus believed his role was with regard to Israel, and the reasons for his crucifixion. Finally, he argues that Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem was intended to act out symbolically YHWH’s return to Zion.

This is a fascinating book, and well worth the time and effort spent in reading it. Those less academically minded may find especially the initial review of Jesus studies tedious, but those already familiar with the likes of Schweitzer, Wrede and Bultmann will find it interesting. There are things about this book that I love and things that I am not sure about (e.g., that some of Jesus’ parables that the Church has traditionally thought are about his second coming are really about YHWH’s return to Zion as enacted by Jesus). Wright doesn’t talk much about Jesus’ resurrection in this book, but not because he doesn’t think it is important. It is because there was too much material to deal with it in one book, so he wrote The Resurrection of the Son of God over the next seven years. I’d recommend this book to anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of how Jesus fit into first-century Judaism, and especially those who may be either enamored or troubled by proclamations from the likes of the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman.