It is uncontroversial to say that Tom (N.T.) Wright is the favorite modern historical Jesus scholar of most conservative Christians. This is because Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth is roughly that of the Council of Nicea. Although he doesn't like to pigeonhole himself in some of categories of Evangelicalism, Wright's Jesus is, in the end, God's chosen servant, King, Messiah, the Second Member of the Trinity. He will come again in glory. Wright's Jesus is an orthodox Jesus who fits into conservative Christianity pretty much perfectly.
Wright is a theologian, historical scholar, and retired Anglican Bishop. He writes both scholarly and popular level books, and has commentaries on each book of the New Testament. He is a prolific author and speaker.
For this post I will look at his Simply Jesus, a popular level book in which he essentially lays out his view of who Jesus was as a historical figure. For a very deep dive, check out his The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.
In his Introduction, Wright lays his theological cards on the table:
"...writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."
Again, Wright isn't a pure historian. He writes self-consciously for the confessing Church. As he says, there is no such thing as neutral historical study, but knowing that he is first and foremost a churchman at least gives a hint at the flavor of his work. This doesn't mean he can't be right, but it let's you know where he's coming from.
Outlining Wright's Jesus isn't overtly straightforward as he often avoids simplified labels and tends toward highly nuanced and poetic descriptions. In Simply Jesus, Wright begins by overviewing three historical realities and then showing how Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God fits into and addresses those realities. He ends by discussing Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension as well as addressing how the church ought to live out its call to help "bring the Kingdom" today. To get a feel for his reconstruction, it is probably best to overview the three major sections of this book.
Part 1: Rome, Judaism, and God
The most obvious political reality of Jesus' time and place was the Roman Empire. Before Jesus' birth, Rome transformed from a loose republic into a unified state with an emperor. Julius Caesar led to Augustus Caesar who led to Tiberius Caesar. Each emperor was considered "divine" and was seen as the bringer of a new age of prosperity to the world.
"…the new age, for which we have waited for a millennium, is now here at last through the peaceful and joyful rule of Augustus Caesar. The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: 'Good news! We have an Emperor! Justice, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!'"
The title "Son of God" would have been immediately recognizable to Romans. Who was the son of God? The "son" of Julius – whoever was on the throne.
The second historical reality that Jesus stepped into was that of the Jewish people. The Jewish people lived in the story of their Scriptures. They were the people of God – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After having their own "golden age" during the time of the Davidic monarchy, Israel had sinned against their God and been led into exile in Babylon as punishment. Although they had "returned from exile" (as Babylon was conquered by Persia and the Jews were allowed return to their land) and rebuilt their Temple, the Jewish people were still oppressed. They still lived under foreign, pagan rule, and looked forward to the culmination of their story, when they would once again enter a golden age of independence through the power of their God. This hope was very alive in the world which Jesus was born into, and sometimes expressed itself as a "messianic hope" – the search for a messiah who would usher in the "rule of God."
Finally, Wright cites the reality and unpredictability of God as the final circumstance of the times. Although the Jewish people had their own hopes and dreams for the nation, God was not bound to fulfill their expectations, but represented an unexpected Force, a free agent who could surprise.
"To understand this great cyclone, this tropical hurricane, you have to understand, as I said before, something about the ancient Jewish vision of God. This always was the highly unpredictable element within the Jewish story itself. God remained free and sovereign. Again and again in the past, the way Israel had told its own story was different from the way God was planning things. The people, no doubt, hoped that the way they were telling their own story would fit in comfortably enough with the way God was seeing things, but again and again the prophets had to say that this was not so. Often God’s way of telling the story cut clean against the national narrative. And Jesus believed that this was happening again in his own time. God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The Jewish people always hoped that this would simply underwrite their national aspirations; he was, after all, their God. They wanted a divine hurricane simply to reinforce their already overheated high-pressure system. But the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, had always warned that God’s coming in power and in person would be entirely on his own terms, with his own purpose—and that his own people would be as much under judgment as anyone, if their aspirations didn’t coincide with God’s."
Thus, according to Wright, Rome, the hopes of the Jewish people, and the reality of God form the major historical backdrop which Jesus walked into in 1st Century Palestine.
Part 2: The Kingdom Come
In Part 2, Wright shows how Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God addresses his historical circumstances.
First, Wright is clear, Jesus' message was summed up in his announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. "The kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus says. "Repent and believe the good news!" Wright, paraphrasing Jesus’ message, says:
"So where does the story lead? It leads straight to the announcement that Jesus was making: 'God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!'"
Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is here, and God is now in charge. Wright then spends much of this section of the book detailing characteristics of the Kingdom, drawing from the synoptic gospels.
According to Wright, the Kingdom of God includes:
A New Exodus
"But this was the story that sustained the Israelites for the next thousand years and more, up to the time of Jesus—and, of course, sustains the Jewish people to this day. This was the story Jesus knew from boyhood. This was the story—the tyrant, the leader, the victory, the sacrifice, the vocation, the presence of God, the promised inheritance—within which it made sense to talk about God taking charge. This was the story about God becoming king. This was the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last. Since we have reason to believe that Jesus was one of the greatest communicators of all time, we must assume that this was the story he wanted them to think of. He must have known what he was doing, what pictures he was awakening in people’s minds. When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus."
"No point putting the world right if the people are still broken. So broken people will be healed: paralytics, epileptics, demoniacs, people with horrible skin diseases, a servant on the point of death, an old woman with a high fever, blind men, deaf and mute men, a little girl who’s technically already dead, an old woman with a persistent hemorrhage. And so on, and so on. Matthew lets the list build up until we almost take it for granted: yes, here’s a person who’s sick; Jesus will cure her."
"But it wasn’t just healings. It was also parties—celebrations. Jesus, to be sure, often spent long times alone in prayer. But he was also deeply at home where there was a party, a kingdom party, a celebration of the fact that God was at last taking charge. And, as is well enough known but not always fully understood, he seems to have specialized in celebrating God’s kingdom with all the wrong people. Tax-collectors (always disliked; doubly so when they were working for Herod or the Romans or both) were a breed apart, and Jesus went out of his way to meet them, to eat and party with them, to call one of them to be part of his inner team."
"There are many interesting features to the passage—notice, for instance, the way in which Simon, the Pharisee, is mentally criticizing Jesus for not knowing what sort of a woman this is, whereupon Jesus shows that he knows what’s going on, not only in the woman’s heart, but in Simon’s too. But we focus here on forgiveness itself. Jesus, as usual, tells a story to explain what he is doing. This time it’s about a man who had two debtors, one owing him a huge sum and the other a small sum. Neither could pay, so he forgave them both. So, he asks his host, which of the two will love him the more? Clearly, comes the answer, the one for whom he forgave the greater debt. Precisely so, says Jesus, explaining that this is why this woman had poured out love so richly upon him—unlike the host, who hadn’t even begun to show Jesus any love at all. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can tell that this woman has been forgiven, has indeed been forgiven a great deal. She knows, deep inside herself, that she’s been forgiven. That’s why there’s so much love coming out of her. And if she’s a forgiveness person, perhaps that shows that she is already enjoying the fact that God is becoming king, whereas people who aren’t forgiveness people don’t believe it."
"So what is Jesus saying? That some people are simply permanently unclean—namely, all those who find these things bubbling up in their hearts? Hardly. There wouldn’t be too many 'clean' people around if that were his point. No, his point is that when God becomes king, he provides a cure for uncleanness of heart. Again and again it comes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), on the edge of one remark after another. When God becomes king, he will come with a message of forgiveness and healing, and this is designed not just to remove old guilt or to cure old disease, but to renew the whole person from the inside out."
A Battle Against Satan
"The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. Whatever we think of this theme, it was clearly centrally important for all the gospel writers, and we have every reason to suppose it was central for Jesus as well..."
A Redefinition of Temple
"And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up—but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living."
A New Creation, On Earth
"...it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people 'how to get to heaven.' That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave 'earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on 'earth'; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality."
Thus Jesus is the King who brings the Kingdom in which God reigns. For Wright, Jesus embodies what God is supposed to do – set the world right.
"Jesus not only believed that this was another of those moments where the true, prophetic vision of the divine hurricane would clash with the current national mood. He believed, it seems—the stories he told at the time bear this out quite strikingly—that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory."
In regards to the Roman background, Jesus is King which means Caesar is not. In regards to the Jewish hope, Jesus is indeed restoring Israel, but in an unexpected way. Not by defeating the pagans militarily, but by establishing "a spiritual kingdom" around himself. For those with eyes to see, God is indeed becoming King through the ministry of Jesus.
Wright here also accepts the historical crucifixion, bodily resurrection, and ascension (although he sees this story as highly "metaphorical") of Jesus. In these events, Jesus' identity is confirmed and he is now "enthroned" (through the resurrection and ascension) as King.
Part 3: Already, but Not Yet
In Part 3, Wright essentially argues that, although Jesus is already enthroned, it is up to us, the church, to help continue to realize the Kingdom of God on Earth as we wait for his return.
"We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’s sovereign rule over the world—a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, he must reign until 'he has put all his enemies under his feet,' including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, 'the son himself will be placed in proper order' under God the father, 'so that God may be all in all.' I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom 'will have no end.' That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah. We cannot, in other words, agree with Billy that this reign is postponed to the second coming. That, on the contrary, is when it will be complete. In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him 'from above' (John 19:11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds!—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account. Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection, and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not. The calling to account has, in other words, already begun—and will be completed at the second coming. And the church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second. What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work."
Wright, treating all material in the synoptic gospels as essentially historically accurate (even if, at times, poetic), finds on their pages the orthodox Jesus. Jesus is King, the Messiah, he "embodies God" – "doing what God is supposed to do." He was crucified, buried, raised, and will return again in glory. And for those who wish to join the Kingdom, he sets us to task to bring the Kingdom to earth today, as a pre-figuring of what is to come at the final consummation.
The following audio is as good a summary of Wright’s thought as I could find. In this lecture, you can get a good sense of what he believes about the historical Jesus, as well a taste of his poetic style. The lecture was given at Calvin College in 2012.