Book Review: The New Testament In Its World, by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird

May 15, 2020 |

The New Testament in Its World: an Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians
by N.T. Wright and Michael Bird | Zondervan Academic Press, 2019 (988 pp).

The last time a theologian made the New York Timesbestseller list was Pope Benedict with his Jesus of Nazareth series ten years ago, so seeing NT Wright’s The New Testament In Its Worldon the bestseller list got me curious.  NT Wright is a well-published professor at Oxford University, specializing in the Letters and theology of Saint Paul, with works ranging from the scholarly to the popular.  He is a major proponent of the New Perspectives on Paulmovement in theology and scripture study.  What’s more, he is a bishop in the Church of England.

When my Kindle Reader said that it takes the average reader forty hours to read The New Testament in Its World, I said, “Yikes!” but I can say that is has been worth it because I have learned so much.  This is much more than a Bible Study course.  Yes, Wright covers each book of the New Testament individually, but first he covers a lot of material to help you understand the Jewish society, Roman society, the politics, and the religions of the Ancient World.  He has not written this book for scholars, but for regular people who want to learn more, but by the end of each section you will have learned so much you will be a scholar – yes, he goes that deep.  To give you an idea of what Wright covers, here are the titles of each Part:

  1. Reading the New Testament
  2. The World of Jesus and the Early Church
  3. Jesus and the Victory of God
  4. The Resurrection of the Son of God
  5. Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  6. The Gospels and the Story of God
  7. The Early Christians and the Mission of God
  8. The Making of the New Testament
  9. Living the Story of the New Testament

It is not until Part 5, when we are already over 300 pages into the book that he first examines a New Testament book (e.g., 1 Thessalonians), but by then we are ready to understand the circumstances that led to the writing of that particular book or epistle, all the issues inside that book or epistle, and what that book or epistle is trying to accomplish.  The centerpiece, though, of this book is Chapter 16 (in Part 5, about 400 pages in) entitled “A Primer on Pauline Theology.”  Yes, this is Wright’s specialty, but it is also the center of every Christian theology (e.g., St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Rahner, or Joseph Ratzinger).  If you really want to understand Christianity, read and maybe reread Chapter 16. This chapter is superb!

Yes, the book can go deep, but on the lighter side NT Wright inserts ‘Emails from the Edge’ which are emails that he has received asking basic questions and his answers to those questions.  Then there are hundreds of really interesting photographs throughout the work.

Do I recommend this book?  It is a rather lengthy book, and I think the 40 hour time estimate is an underestimate because you will need to put the book down to read the Epistle or Gospel that Wright is talking about, or just to think about what he wrote.  Whether you read a little of this book or read a lot, you will benefit and your faith life and spiritual life will grow. Besides, it did make the NYTimesbestseller list so people are buying it and presumably reading it.

Available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/New-Testament-Its-World-Introduction/dp/0310499305

Gregory Houck
Fr. Gregory Houck, O.Carm., is currently on sabbatical and studying Communications and studying Spirituality at Loyola University Chicago. He has a Carmelite preachers blog at http://fathergreg.com .
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