Reading Tom Wright’s New Testament Commentary for Everyone

April 25, 2012 | 24 comments
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Writings on the scriptures often comes from one of two perspectives.

1) Devotional-but-clueless, i.e. the author is able to read/write devotionally on a passage because they don’t know any other way to read it. They don’t address context or difficulties or objections or avoid pitfalls, because they’re completely unaware of them. It’s often trite and shallow (and I don’t think you necessarily need length to have depth, lead to reflection, or inspire.) Lest I be misunderstood, it is entirely possible to be devotional and clueless, but still meaningful,  I just think it’s rare and find little value in spending my time to read it. And let us not even speak of the abomination of trying to pass off rhyming poems as “spiritual thoughts.”

2) Knowledge-but-without-faith-implications, i.e. the author doesn’t care about affecting behavior, spiritual experiences, or the implications of the content for faith and doctrine, but is intent on talking about Roman culture, or Hebrew grammar, or Ugaritic history. This also is rare in a Church setting, but is completely valid and normal in other contexts. Some of my favorite authors are such because they neither hide from the difficult questions nor avoid wrestling with their implications for believers.  I do not like my devotional material to be empty spiritual calories, nor do I like my knowledge divorced from all application, meaning, and implication for someone of faith.

Small indeed is the number of authors who can successfully give spiritual meaningful material while in full knowledge of all the context and difficulties of the text in question, devotional-and-academic. N.T. Wright is one who can. He’s written an almost-complete NT commentary for non-specialists, using his non-specialist nom-de-plume Tom Wright. I’ve been reading his series from the beginning and really appreciating it. Here’s a gem I found last night, talking about Matthew 5:27-37, which juxtaposes lust, divorce, and swearing falsely. We usually break these up into individual trees, but Wright is skilled at looking at the forest.

“It is also important to notice that in the present passage the mention of divorce comes between two other issues, both of which are in some ways more basic. It may be stating the obvious to point out that if people knew how to control their bodily lusts on the one hand (verses 27–30), and were committed to complete integrity and truth-telling on the other (verses 33–37), there would be fewer, if any, divorces. Divorce normally happens when lust and lies have been allowed to grow up like weeds and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.
The first answer, then, is clear. Deal ruthlessly with the first signs of lust. Plucking out eyes and cutting off hands are deliberate exaggerations (like leaving an animal for a week at the altar while you go off to be reconciled), but they make the  point very forcibly. Don’t suppose that Jesus means you must never feel the impulse of lust when you look at someone attractive. That would be impossible, and is not in any case what the words mean. What he commands us to avoid is the gaze, and the lustful imagination, that follow the initial impulse. Likewise, determine resolutely to tell the truth, to yourself and to your spouse. These two between them will see off most of the challenges that even a hard-pressed modern marriage will face. If the church had carefully taught these disciplines over the years we would have less of a problem now….

This is not ‘repression’, as people sometimes suggest. It is more like the pruning of a rose, cutting off some healthy buds so that the plant may grow stronger and produce better flowers. Choosing not to be swept along by inappropriate sexual passion may well feel on occasion like cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye, and our world has frequently tried to tell us that doing this is very bad for us. But, for neither the first nor the last time, we must choose to obey our Lord rather than the world.”  Tom Wright, Matthew for Everybody Part I, 47-48.

(Not also his use of “world” there, which is not simply an LDS cultural trait but shared among those who read the NT. Jesus several times draws contrasts between “the world” and Christians.)

Wright also provides his own translation at the beginning of each section, published separately as The Kingdom New Testament. The translation seems to lean in the dynamic thought-for-thought philosophy of translation, resulting in some fresh and thought-provoking language. Note Matthew 5:20, for example-“unless your covenant behaviour [KJV “righteousness”] is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get in to the kingdom of heaven.”

I’m impressed, challenged, and appreciating Wright’s contributions to my own spiritual progression. Highly recommended. Google Books previews.

(And to my Institute students and others interested, I’ll get back to my Genesis blogging soon, and class is over.)

24 Responses to Reading Tom Wright’s New Testament Commentary for Everyone

  1. Cassandra on April 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Amen. Yet to see anything from Wright not worth reading or watching. I keep running “How God Became King” on youtube and learning something new every time.

  2. Julie M. Smith on April 25, 2012 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for this. I have a few on my (virtual) shelf but haven’t picked them up yet–this is motivating.

  3. Chris O'Keefe on April 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    It looks like the above link is to a set of study guides based off of Wright’s writings. An amazon search for “new testament for everyone” will bring up the actual books.

  4. Ben S. on April 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks Chris. I’ve rerouted the link to Amazon. The publisher doesn’t have a page just for this collection.

  5. Adam G. on April 25, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I doubt very much that devotional writing is normally meaningless. In fact I know it isn’t. But I still appreciate the recommendation.

  6. DKL on April 25, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    I suppose the basic problem I have with most commentaries — including the strictly academic ones — is that they mostly pretend that the New Testament tells us about Jesus. In fact, the New Testament tells us what several 1st and 2nd century religious groups believed about Jesus.

  7. Jim F on April 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

    DKL: You need to read more commentaries. They mostly tell us what particular texts say.

    Ben: Agreed. Wright’s stuff is great.

  8. Dustin on April 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

    I read Wright’s book “What Paul really said” last December. It was my first experience with him and I found his work quite insightful and enjoyable. I may have to pick up some of this series

  9. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 8:39 am

    The basic problem I have with most commenteries is that they are elitist. That is, they work for only a small group of well educated Persons.

  10. Ben S. on April 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Bob, this one is for EVERYONE. It’s in the title.
    More seriously, there are lay commentaries, pastoral commentaries, and technical/scholarly commentaries. This one falls into the first category.

  11. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    @Ben S.,
    Most people will not or can’t even read the Bible. I would say it would take a fairly well educated person (elite ) to understand this commentary. I mean, how many people understand ” I do not like my devotional material to be empty spiritual calories, nor do I like my knowledge divorced from all application, meaning, and implication for someone of faith”?

  12. Julie M. Smith on April 26, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Bob, I don’t think you are being reasonable. As you can see from the excerpt of the commentary that Ben posted above, any literate person could read and learn from this commentary.

  13. DKL on April 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Jim F, I agree that most commentaries attempt to describe what the text says, but the underlying assumption is that there is something tying them to an historical or traditional figure, when all that one can justifiably assume is that there is something tying them religious movements with beliefs about someone who may or may not have been historical or traditional in any unified sense. Thus, the interpretation of the text is always already immersed in the assumption of a unified origin of Jesus stories.

    The underlying assumption of an historical of traditional Jesus figure permeates the commentaries, so much so that it is even evident in the customary dating of the various books. Even to the extent that commentaries discuss possible motivations for attributing something to Jesus, they’re talking in terms of a context that assumes a common origin. Various authorship theories that decompose Mark, Matthew, and Luke in terms of redactions and a Q source are quite helpful, but they tend to discuss the biases and approaches of each source in terms that suppose the stories to possess some sort of unity at its core, as though the diverse strands within the text all started with a more or less common point of origin — a Big Bang theory of Jesus, if you will. You also see this assumption in arguments about criteria for evaluating historical accuracy, like the embarrassment criterion.

    It’s just as likely that a series of diverse messianic traditions from very different sources were forced into agreement under centuries of pressure from Rome that began in the 2nd century. Indeed, the wealth of non-canonical early Jesus texts points to exactly this sort of scattered belief before centralization began in earnest. Under such a theory, it’s not even necessary that all early Christians believed in the crucifixion (e.g., gnostics, only that the tradition of one such believing group survived the cleansing that occurred during the consolidation of divergent religious beliefs.

    All that the text tells us is what some group or another believed about Jesus. Most commentaries assume more than this, even though they pretend to just tell us what the text says.

  14. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    @Julie M. Smith,
    I guess we are just talking pass each other. Most ‘literate’ people have not even read the Bible. How could a commentary on the Bible be helpful to ‘everyone’? If ‘literate’ people can read the Bible, why would they need a commentary?
    I who (I think is literate), could use a commentary on DKL’s last commentary. :) :)

  15. Julie M. Smith on April 26, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    “If ‘literate’ people can read the Bible, why would they need a commentary?”

    /head explodes

    (Not entirely your fault. scoob had me banging it into the wall already this afternoon, so there were already cracks.)

  16. Ben S. on April 26, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Bob, just how many commentaries have you read? What are you familiar with? Your statements are, shall we say, unusual.

    There’s a multitude of reasons one might need to read a commentary, even if one was literate or educated. You can’t think of ANY? None?

  17. Bob on April 26, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Ben S,
    Commenentary : “A written explanation or criticism or illustration that is added to a book or other textual material”.
    If you need commentaries, then the Bible is a sealed book for most Common Men. Without commentaries, understanding the Bible is not available to them. Yes, commentaries are useful, my commentary is are they needed for ‘everyone’ to understand the Bible?

  18. Ben S. on April 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    That really depends to what degree and what kind of understanding one wants, Bob. Wright is offering a very modern, “how does this apply to me?” kind of commentary that even such educated elites as I am, find very useful. But you don’t need education to read this volume, no knowledge of grammar or text-criticism necessary, and that’s the point. It’s for *everyone*.

  19. Bonnie on April 26, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I really enjoyed this review and know people (including me) for whom this would be a wonderful gateway to critical readings. Thanks for the heads up.

  20. DKL on April 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    Ben S, I don’t find the spiritual insights provided by the commentary to be terribly meaningful. Take the sentence, “Divorce normally happens when lust and lies have been allowed to grow up like weeds and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.”

    Seriously? “Beautiful plant of marriage”? Marriage is like a potted plant? I think I just threw up in my mouth. I know people always want to romanticize the “companionship of marriage” and talk about the commitment required to spend the “rest of your lives together,” but let’s get serious: It only really requires a few hours a day.

    I’ll grant that the sentence sound nice enough, but it also requires a great deal of contortion to extract it from the text in question, it trades concrete language for dime-store pejoratives, and it very likely false.

    Nobody is going to defend lust and lies or claim that they have a fructifying effect on relationships, but divorce normally occurs because of the ease with which humans can learn to hate each other or get bored with each other.

    Sure, the commentary seems reaffirming to the 21st century believer. But it must be admitted that it is also quite contrived. If you start with the conclusion that a book must contain deeply profound spiritual insights, then, sure enough, you’ll find them.

    If you’re willing to let literature be your Rorschach, then you could “discover” deep spiritual insights in pretty much any text that’s captured the enduring attention of humanity, and even many that haven’t. The Iliad, which was altogether authored by a pagan, could be made to offer many such insights. So could Ivanhoe or Pride and Prejudice or For Whom the Bell Tolls or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or many well-written (and not-so-well-written) horoscopes.

    So now I’ve written this, and it sounds all insulting, which it wasn’t meant to be. I’m just trying to explain why you and I disagree about this commentary in particular. I’m not very good at being spiritual anyway. However, I do agree with you commentaries can be very helpful tools for gaining significant insight into Biblical passages.

  21. Ben S. on April 27, 2012 at 8:18 am

    You’re an outlier DKL. I’m ignoring you and writing for the 99%. I may have more of a response later.

  22. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 27, 2012 at 11:44 am

    I have several of Wright’s books. He takes the Bible seriously, not just as a compilation of ancient literature, but also as a vehicle for God to tell us about who we really are from God’s perspective. His book Surprised by Hope is a ringing affirmation of the physical nature of the resurrection, not only of Christ but also ourselves. It was criticized by both Catholics and Protestants for pointing out that the Bible teaches that our eternal destiny is to be immortal physical beings inhabiting a physical earth. The most pointed criticism was that he sounded like a Mormon! Wright responded in the letters column of First Things journal by commenting that the Mormons read the Bible more carefully than some other people.

    Sorry, DKL, the notion that the books of the Nrw Testament wete once free floating narratives about random messiah figures that randomly bumped together and coheted through static electricity into a religous text without any connection with the collective memory of the Christian churches and the continuous dialogue among the Christian fathers of the Second and third centuries looks nonsensical to me. While I believe the common understanding of much of the gospel was altered under the same forces that the apostles themselves struggled against in their own time, denying the essential historical continuity of the Christian traditions is to deny the most well documented phenomenon of its time.

  23. DKL on April 27, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Raymond, funny thing: You say the thesis is nonsense, yet you describe it quite clearly. If we are to suppose that Paul’s writings are the earliest, then we see a Jesus who becomes Christ by virtue of His death and resurrection. Mark, widely considered the earliest gospel, portrays a Jesus who becomes Christ by virtue of the supernatural events surrounding His baptism. If you look at Luke and Matthew, they portray a Jesus who becomes Christ by virtue of his Davidic lineage and the supernatural events surrounding His birth and conception. Funny thing: Galilee was part of the northern kingdom of Israel that broke away from Judah after Solomon’s death. Not only did they lack any interest in Davidic kings at all, but they never adopted the religious tradition of the Davidic Messiah, which was a only a tradition within the southern kingdom of Judah. This is a pretty clear example of how disparate traditions developed in different areas and were aggregated over time into a unified story, frequently by people without much knowledge of the history or geography behind the traditions. There are literally hundreds of others.

    Your assertion that the “essential historical continuity of the Christian traditions” is “the most well documented phenomenon of its time” is palpably false. If you seriously believe that, then you need to read more. The early 1st century is an historical black hole, especially compared to (for example) the Buddha, who lived 600 years later, or Mohammed, who lived 600 years later.

    Ben S, if 99% of the thoughtful readers believe that its accurate, meaningful, or useful to say things like “the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage,” then I’ll be utterly appalled.

  24. DKL on April 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    The last sentence of the 2nd paragraph above intends to refer to the early 1st century history of Christianity, not early 1st century history in general.