Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament

Posted: January 19, 2012 in bible, books, exegesis, Jesus, old testament, review, sonship, theology

In Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright leads readers on an incredible journey through the rich history of Israel contained in the Old Testament, bringing to light the many streams of thought and practice that ultimately prepared the way for the advent of Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. As Wright masterfully demonstrates, it is only through a study of the Old Testament that believers can fully grasp the person and work of Jesus, Lord and redeemer of the world.

Thesis

Wright opens his book noting that reading the Old Testament “never fails to add new depths to my understanding of Jesus” (ix). This perspective is absolutely correct and a much needed correction to many Evangelicals’ approach to the Old Testament, which is often characterized by moralistic interpretations at best and complete avoidance at worst. Wright’s most complete and forceful statement of his thesis actually comes at the end of the book, where he writes that “without the Old Testament, Jesus quickly loses reality and either becomes a stained-glass window figure – colourful but static and undemanding, or a tailor’s dummy that can be twisted and dressed to suit the current fashion” (251). He rightly notes that the history of Israel “is where [Jesus] found the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission,” and thus believers would be foolish to disregard its serious study (ix). This is a message that the American church needs to hear.

Structure

Wright structures his book thematically in five chapters that cover Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament story, promise, identity, mission, and values. Each chapter builds upon those that came before, although they all cover a unique set of concepts relating to the history of Israel. Wright’s focused goal of highlighting some of the major Old Testament themes that directly relate to Jesus and his identity as Israel’s Messiah prevents him from getting bogged down in the complex and multi-faceted world of the Old Testament. Although he does a great job summarizing the many key Old Testament trajectories related to Christ, he doesn’t really cover any of them extensively. However, those interested in digging a little more deeply into a specific topic can consult the helpful (if abridged) bibliography appended to the end of the book (253-256).

Interpretive Approach

Fundamental to his approach to reading the Bible is Wright’s belief that each testament should be used in interpreting the other. He writes that “the Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes,” and that “This means we need to look at Jesus in the light of the history of the Old Testament, but also that he sheds light backwards on it” (2). This Christological approach to the Old Testament rightly embraces Jesus’ own view, evident in Luke 24:27.

However, Wright is clearly nuanced in his reading, finding the most significant Christological meaning in reading the Old Testament texts as historically situated documents (28-29). One does not find allegorizing tendencies in Wright’s portrait of Israel’s history. Conversely, Wright does not deny that Christ’s advent does shed additional light on the Old Testament, at times even enhancing specific texts’ meaning and significance. He writes, “We may legitimately see in the [Old Testament] event, or in the record of it, additional levels of significance in the light of the end of the story – i.e. in the light of Christ” (28). In a related vein, it is evident that Wright appreciates the progressive nature of God’s revelation concerning his plans for worldwide redemption through Israel. He does not force “one-to-one” correspondence in connecting Jesus to Old Testament promises.

Key Strengths

Knowing Jesus has many strengths worth mentioning, but space constraints will only permit me to name a few. One of the most important is Wright’s accessible prose. He is masterful in his presentation of the material, writing in such a way as to provide nourishment for the layperson and scholar alike. Although summarizing vast amounts of material, he still manages to remain interesting and engaging. I am thoroughly convinced that every Christian could benefit from Knowing Jesus and would recommend it to anyone interested in deepening their awe and love for their Lord.

Another related highlight was Wright’s summary of the Old Testament storyline, what he calls “the story so far” (9-26). His account, following Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ genealogy, was perhaps the most enlightening (yet succinct) summary of the history of Israel I have ever read. Within each section of seven generations, Wright briefly touches on significant themes crucial for a full understanding of Israel’s story (i.e. election, covenant, exile, etc.). He continually connects the various events, figures, and situations to God’s overarching plan to redeem the whole world from sin and death through Israel.

Another great feature of the book was the author’s constant emphasis on the global significance of the history of Israel in God’s plan to bless the nations. He is right when he concludes that “the Old Testament itself quite clearly intends us to see Israel’s history, not as an end in itself or for the sake of Israel alone, but rather for the sake of the rest of the nations of humanity” (36). God ordained Israel as “a particular means for a universal goal” (38). However, in saying this, Wright is careful to nuance his words by noting that this universal end does not negate Israel’s unique place in God’s redemptive purposes (175-177). In his sovereign plan, God chose to manifest his salvation in a historically situated man (Jesus), belonging to a historically situated people (Israel).

Finally, the last key strength that I will mention is Wright’s treatment of typology (110-116). He notes that these “images, patterns and models…for understanding [Jesus]” are scattered all throughout the biblical text, highlighting significant concepts and themes important for a full understanding of Jesus’ person and work (110). He also reminds readers that typology is the study of paradigms, precedents, and analogies, and that there is consequently “nothing fanciful about typology” (111). Despite the way Old Testament typology has been misunderstood and abused, Wright walks a moderate position in arguing that it is an important part of the biblical witness deserving careful attention.

Weaknesses

Despite all its strengths, Knowing Jesus did have a few minor weaknesses. First, despite the author’s obvious pride in writing a book without the use of any footnotes, I found this omission less than ideal (x). It would have been extremely helpful to have direct access to other materials that have shaped his understanding of the Old Testament, especially with regard to the foundation it lays for the coming of Christ. Although he does provide a bibliography at the end of the book, the lack of footnotes makes it extremely difficult to trace the genealogy of a particular idea, concept, or interpretation.

The one other weakness of the book was the lack of a strong concluding chapter or section, summarizing the book’s major concepts and themes. I believe that the inclusion of such a section would have been extremely helpful, especially for the lay reader, for tying together the diverse and multifaceted strands of Old Testament theology woven throughout the book. The scope of the book and the amount of information covered would seem to demand more than the two concluding paragraphs Wright offers (252).

Conclusion

Knowing Jesus is a wonderfully rich exploration of the Old Testament, properly focused on ultimately connecting all that is written to the person and work of Jesus. However, in reading the text Christologically, Wright is careful to nuance his approach, respecting the text as a historical document given to a particular people at a particular time. Wright is a skilled writer who knows how to keep his readers interested and engaged. It is rare to find a book that so skillfully marries both content and form, especially in the field of biblical and theological studies. In light of this accomplishment, Knowing Jesus is a book I would eagerly recommend, especially to those unfamiliar with (or unappreciative of) the Old Testament and its integral connection with Jesus. Wright is correct when he says that it is a book “for people who want to deepen their knowledge of Jesus and of the scriptures that meant so much to him” (x).

Related Resources:
Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament (Christopher J. H. Wright)
Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (Christopher J. H. Wright)
A New Testament Biblical Theology (G. K. Beale)
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
 
(edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson)
The Message of Sonship (Trevor Burke)
Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament (edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer)

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Comments
  1. […] Wilkening, Kevin. “Book Review;” Huiothesian: Adopted as sons. Entry posted January 19, 2012. https://huiothesian.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/book-review-knowing-jesus-through-the-old-testament/ (accessed April 19, 2012). Wood, D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. […]

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