Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament

Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament CoverIn his book Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright, director of international ministries for the Langham Partnership International, attempts to correct a deficiency he has noticed within the Church: the tendency to “cut [Jesus] off from the historical Jewish context of his own day, and from his deep roots in the Hebrew scriptures.”[1] Believing that the Old Testament is vital to understanding Jesus, Wright has penned a book that examines how Jesus read, understood, and applied them. Although it is not a perfect book, containing several concerning weaknesses, Wright provides an interesting examination of how Jesus viewed himself, his mission, and the Old Testament and a compelling reason for Christians to embrace the Old Testament as part of their own Scriptural heritage.

Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, as a title, is something of a misnomer. The book does not deal with finding Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament so much as how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament, and how he interpreted his own ministry in light of it. Wright desires Christians to see the New Testament as the continuation of the Old Testament rather than the replacement of it, and each of his five chapters uses a different topic to demonstrate that Jesus was in agreement with this thesis.

The first chapter, entitled “Jesus and the Old Testament Story,” develops the idea that “The Old Testament tells the story which Jesus completes.”[2] Wright contends that the Bible tells one story, not two, and using the opening to Matthew’s gospel, he seeks to show that Jesus fits nicely into that story. Wright summarizes Israel’s history leading up Jesus, using Matthew’s introduction as his template. He traces Israel’s history from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and from the Exile to the Messiah, picking up on key themes (e.g., redemption, covenant, inheritance, and restoration) along the way. The point of this review is to emphasize that the Old Testament is not simply a precursor to the New—a list of promises pointing to the Messiah that can be discarded now that Jesus has come. Rather, the Old Testament shines light on God and his story of redemption. Events such as the Exodus do point toward a more complete fulfillment in the New Testament, but that does not negate the real meaning of the original event. However, Wright also is careful to emphasize that the Old Testament, although Judeo-centric, ultimately tells of God’s desire to save all nations, not just Israel. Thus, Jesus, as a Jewish man and the chosen Messiah, is the culmination of God’s plan to save the world through Israel.

Chapter Two deals with “Jesus and the Old Testament Promise.” Continuing in the early chapters of Matthew, Wright highlights five key events in Jesus’ childhood that pointed him out as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. The fact that Matthew uses Old Testament passages that were not typically seen as being Messianic signifies that he saw “the whole Old Testament as the embodiment of promise.”[3] Rather than limiting God’s promises to those which were explicitly declared, Matthew and other New Testament writers saw promises throughout the entirety of the Old Testament (Law, Prophets, and Writings). After explaining the biblical idea of a promise, Wright describes the major covenants that appear in Scripture (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) and how they relate to Jesus, ultimately concluding that the “Old Testament had declared the promise which Jesus fulfilled.”[4]

Wright’s third chapter, “Jesus and his Old Testament Identity,” investigates the Old Testament portrayal of the promised Messiah. Wright argues that Jesus derived much of his self-identity from these depictions, and consequently, for the Christian, “the more you understand the Old Testament, the closer you will come to the heart of Jesus.”[5] Of greatest importance is Jesus’ identity as the Son of God: “The awareness of God being his Father and himself being God’s Son is probably the deepest foundation of Jesus’ selfhood.”[6] It is also in this chapter that Wright advocates for a typological interpretation of the Old Testament, a method that understands “Christ and the various events and experiences surrounding him in the New Testament by analogy or correspondence with the historical realities of the Old Testament seen as patterns or models.”[7] While admitting that this method is not sufficient for understanding the Old Testament as a whole, he insists that it is necessary for understanding Jesus and his ministry.

The topic of Chapter Four is “Jesus and his Old Testament Mission,” and Wright highlights the fact that Jesus’ baptism by John signified that he understood and accepted the Messianic mission laid out in the Old Testament. He focuses on Jesus as Messiah, Son of Man, and the Servant of the Lord, examining what each title meant in its Old Testament context and how Jesus applied them to himself and used them in his ministry. Especially in Jesus’ role as the Servant of the Lord, Wright is “impressed with the continuity and integration of the mission of God’s people, from ancient Israel right through to our own day.”[8] Just as there is one story, there is also “one servant people, one Servant King, one servant mission.”[9]

The book’s final chapter is “Jesus and his Old Testament Values.” Continuing in Matthew’s gospel, Wright uses Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness to show how Jesus’ teachings were deeply rooted in Old Testament, and particularly in the Mosaic Law. He stresses that Jesus’ “attitude to the law … was explicitly not to reject it, but to see its function as relative to the priority of knowing God himself.”[10] He states that Jesus agreed with the Old Testament in emphasizing that obedience to the Law stems from gratitude, imitation, and separateness. Jesus also echoed the Law’s priorities, emphasizing God first, people over things, and needs over rights. Wright also connects Jesus’ economic demands and eschatological description of the kingdom to the similar teachings found within the Prophets.

By examining the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Old Testament, Wright has provided Christians with volume well worth reading, if for nothing else than this unique perspective. It would have been nice if Wright had interacted more with other New Testament books in addition to his dependence on Matthew, but as Matthew’s introduction provides such a natural transition form the Old Testament, it is understandable why the first gospel takes such a predominant role in his book. Nevertheless, a greater usage of Pauline passages that comment on the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New and between Israel and the Church would have been particularly useful. As a strictly-observing and well-educated Jew, Paul had a perspective on Jesus and the Old Testament that perhaps should have been explored more deeply in this volume.

There were also some theological aspects of the book that weakened its overall strength. Firstly, Wright’s emphasis of Jesus’ identity as a first-century Jewish man at times causes him to deemphasize Jesus’ divinity. While some of this might be credited to a simple problem of neglect due to the book’s subject, at various points throughout the book, it appears to be a conscious decision on Wright’s behalf. Jesus’ status and identity are described as being shaped by reading the Old Testament,[11] and his early life is presented as a journey of self-discovery, in which reading the Hebrew Scriptures helped him come to terms with who he was. Wright describes him as being overwhelmed by this realization[12] and experiencing a “whirling confusion” in his mind.[13] It’s almost as though Wright sees Jesus’ coming to an understanding of who he was as a sort of second puberty, complete with periods of awkwardness and anxiety. He depicts Jesus more as a superhero struggling with his powers than as a deity voluntarily taking on humanity. Some balance is found, in the discussion on Jesus’ adoption of the title “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, but even here, Wright only admits to “an air of divinity.”[14] As good a job as Wright does in examining Jesus’ relation to the Old Testament, by neglecting Jesus’ divinity, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament allows the reader to only know a part of Jesus rather than the whole Jesus.

A second potential cause for concern is Wright’s advocacy of replacement theology,[15] or supersessionism, a view which holds that “Israel as a national entity no longer holds a place in the kingdom of God,”[16] having been replaced (or superseded) by the Church. Wright correctly argues against a “Two-Covenant Theory,” which holds that the Jews are already in covenant relationship with God, and thus, do not need to be evangelized,[17] even if he does perhaps over-exaggerate the prevalence of such a view.[18] Pitted against this theory, his contention that the Church is “organically and spiritually continuous with the original people of God”[19] seems like the better choice. However, he fails to acknowledge or interact with a view that would uphold Israel and the Church as two distinct bodies, both historically and eschatologically, while rejecting the two-covenant belief that present-day Jews do not need to be evangelized and brought into the Church. Such a view was common in the early church, is supported by the importance of Israel in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and conforms to a natural reading of the Old Testament rather than a figurative hermeneutic that reads “Church” whenever it sees “Israel.”[20] Yet Wright ignores this view and focuses his discussion only on the Two-Covenant Theory and supersessionism. Wright also is quick to point to the olive tree illustration that Paul uses in Romans 11 (where Gentiles as olive branches are grafted into the root, which is Israel) as proof that the Church and Israel are one, yet he fails to mention that Paul leaves open the possibility of the nation of Israel as a whole returning to God’s favor.[21]

In addition to rejecting a distinction between Israel and the Church, Wright also rejects the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.[22] Those expecting such fulfillment “make the mistake of taking literally what the Bible always intended figuratively even in its original form.”[23] While he goes on to suggest “the potential of different and progressively superior levels of fulfillment,”[24] it remains unclear as to how Christians today can know which promises were literal, which were figurative, and which should be expected to be fulfilled in a different and progressively superior manner. While a wooden literalism might not be the best method for interpreting Old Testament promises, Wright’s alternative seems to be not only an admission of ignorance, but a denial of the possibility of knowledge.

Furthermore, as pointed out by Stanley M. Horton, Wright also makes “concessions to liberal higher critics.”[25] This is seen most notably when he places Isaiah among the exilic prophets,[26] nearly two centuries after the traditional date. If Jesus came to an understanding of his identity by reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew Scriptures incorrectly identified the author and date of Isaiah, a book that contributed much to that identity (e.g., the Servant Songs), why should one assume that Jesus correctly discerned his role and mission?

However, despite these concerns, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is still a book that contains much value for any Christian who is serious about understanding the cohesiveness of Scripture and the context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Wright is adept at identifying the key themes present in the Old Testament and connecting them to the life and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Regardless of whether one agrees with Wright on every fine point of theology, this volume provides a thorough introduction to the various issues surrounding the synchronization of the two divisions of the Bible. While the casual Bible student, who might not have the theological background to discern Wright’s weaknesses, might be better served by one of the alternatives (e.g., Walter Kaiser’s The Messiah in the Old Testament),[27] any serious student should make this book a part of his library.

As an introduction to Jesus’ historical and biblical context, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament does what Christopher Wright intended it to do: connect the New Testament to the Old, show that the Bible is a cohesive whole rather than two opposing parts, and hold Jesus up as the culmination and fulfillment of God’s one story and one plan. Anyone who has every wondered about the importance of the Old Testament, whether it is worthwhile for Christians to study, or how it relates to the New Testament and the Church will find the book to be a helpful volume in understanding God’s redemption story. While Wright does not lay out a systematic compilation of Old Testament Messianic texts and his approach does have some weaknesses, his placement of Jesus, his mission, and his teachings in the context of their Old Testament background and first-century world makes the book worth reading.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Horton, Stanley M. “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (June 1997), 287.

Klein, George L. Zechariah, Vol. 21B of The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2008.

Mounce, Robert H. Romans, Vol. 27 of The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.

Thielman, Frank. “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament.” Christianity Today 40, no. 3 (March 4, 1996), 58.

Wright, Christopher J. H. Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.


[1]Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), ix.

[2]Ibid., 2.

[3]Ibid., 63.

[4]Ibid., 102.

[5]Ibid., 108.

[6]Ibid., 117.

[7]Ibid., 116.

[8]Ibid., 174.

[9]Ibid., 175.

[10]Ibid., 194.

[11]Ibid., 108.

[12]Ibid., 105.

[13]Ibid., 184.

[14]Ibid., 152.

[15]Stanley M. Horton, “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (June 1997), 287.

[16]George L. Klein, Zechariah, Vol. 21B of The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 67.

[17]Wright, 176-77.

[18]“There are powerful voices arguing…” Ibid., 176.

[19]Wright, 175.

[20]Klein, 67.

[21]Robert H. Mounce, Romans, Vol. 27 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 224-25.

[22]Horton, 287.

[23]Wright, 76. (emphasis mine)

[24]Ibid., 77.

[25]Horton, 287.

[26]Wright, 21-22; 144; 159; et al.

[27]Horton, 287; Frank Thielman, “Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament,” Christianity Today 40, no. 3 (March 4, 1996), 58.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament”

  1. Wright’s use of the early chapters of Matthew to show Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament emphasizes God’s one story of redemption, promise, sonship, servanthood, and law. The story behind the genealogy of Mt. 1, however, is not so much one of redemption as of judgment. While Abraham and David (and their covenants) point to a promise of redemption (on a higher scale), and are emphasized in the summary of the genealogy in Mt. 1:17, the other emphasis in 1:17 is the exile, which is God’s judgment on most of the descendants of David, who reign by “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (common phrases in O.T. summaries of many of those kings). The climax of the genealogy is the Christ, but he is born “from Mary” (a shift from the father and son list). Jesus’ sonship is, unlike that of his “forefathers,” from heaven, from the Spirit.

    When Jerusalem and its rulers oppose this new king, they follow the story of Israel that has mostly rejected God. And Jesus in the desert is the son that obeys his Father, in contrast to Israel in the wilderness. Indeed, Jesus is faithful to the suffering servant role (of Isa. 42:1), upon whom is the Spirit, and who teaches God’s righteousness/justice to all the nations, in a way that only the prophets of Israel foreshadowed (through the Spirit speaking through them, often words of judgment against the “story” of Israel). When Jesus emphasizes his new kingdom of (and from) heaven, he is not restoring the kingdom of Israel but inaugurating a new kingdom of disciples (among all the nations). And his law is contrasted with important aspects of Moses’ law (in Mt. 5–“you have heard it said, but I say to you”).

    So yes, the O.T. is important in order to understand Jesus, but that is because of its discontinuity with Jesus as well as its continuity. Of course Paul points this out in various ways (and Hebrews focuses on this); yet Jesus, even in Mt. 1-5, also does so.

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