The New Perspective on Paul: Who is Jesus?

Who is Jesus?  Any Christian might easily answer this question by reaching for her Bible and turning to the gospels. But advocates of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) would be quick to caution against such a naïve response.  “Oh,” they might say, “you can know something about Jesus from reading the Gospels but you won’t know what the gospel writers intended for you to know.” Now, we might cock our head in wonder. We would ask, “What does that even mean?” And the answer would not be long in coming.

For example, N. T. Wright, an advocate of the NPP, would say, “Jesus’ actions make sense within his Jewish context, and within the socio-cultural world of Galilee in particular…”[1] Now, there is a sense in which the cultural context of a passage can be hermeneutically helpful.  However, that is not what Wright is saying.  According to Wright, Jewish context and the socio-cultural world of Galilee, or to put it succinctly, Second Temple Judaism is necessary to a correct understanding Jesus.  Jesus only makes sense when looked at through this lens.  Thus, it is necessary for the reader of the Gospels to put on these historical, socio-cultural and theological lenses in order to read the Gospel properly – in order to “make sense” of Jesus. Or to put it negatively, no longer is Scripture the primary interpreter of itself – Second Temple Judaism is!

Intrigued, our evangelical friend asks Wright the next question.  Who was/is Jesus? To this simple question, Wright responds, “He [Jesus] believed, in short, that he was the Messiah.”[2] Now, Bible believing folks are going to ask the obvious when talking to someone like Wright. They are going to ask, “But what do you mean by that? Is Jesus divine? Is Jesus the second Person of the Trinity?” To which Wright will reply, “Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus,…forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus.”[3] What? To believe that Jesus believed that he was the second person of the Trinity is “pseudo-orthodox,” “arid reductionism” and “unthinking?”

Now, at this point our evangelical friend is looking for the nearest exit. He’s likely had enough of this nonsense. But curiosity gets the best of him and he probes further. This time he asks, “Mr. Wright, what did Jesus think of his own work?”   To which Wright would reply, “My proposal, then, as the way of making sense of all the data before me, is that Jesus believed it was his god-given vocation to identify with the rebel cause, the kingdom cause…”[4] Not willing to allow that to stand our friend again presses further, “But what does this mean?”  Wright continues, “Jesus…appears to have believed that victory in the real messianic battle would consist in dying at the hands of the Romans, dying the death of the rebel on behalf of the rebels.” 

Again, our friend asks the next question in order to get to the heart of the matter, “Do you mean that Christ was punished for sinners – and that God’s wrath, intended for sinners, was poured out upon or imputed to Christ instead that we might be forgiven for our sins?” At this Wright would likely say in exasperation, “Once again we must stress: in its first-century context, this (i.e. ‘forgiveness of sins’) denotes, not an abstract transaction between human beings and their god….Matthew is not suggesting that Jesus’ death will accomplish an abstract atonement…”[5] In fact, Wright would continue, that the “angry God punishing Jesus interpretations” are a “paganizing” of Christianity.[6]  Therefore, says Wright, we must forget about the idea of double imputation when speaking of Christ’s death and instead think of his suffering on the cross “in deeply symbolic terms.”[7]

Now, it is our friend’s turn to be exasperated.  He asks, “But, Mr. Wright, did Jesus believe that he was making atonement for sin?”  At this Tom Wright might look at us with a mixture of sympathy and disgust and say, “[He] must have known that he might have been deeply mistaken.” And after a sigh, “It was, after all, a huge gamble.”[8]

So, who is Jesus?  Well, we have a choice. At the end of this short article we are confronted with the Jesus constructed by Wright and those like him and we have the Jesus we receive from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  For whatever it is worth, I’ll be sticking with the latter four.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.


[1] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 149-150.

[2] Ibid., 481.

[3] Ibid., 653.

[4] Ibid., 596.

[5] Ibid., 561.

[6] N. T. Wright, The Day the Rebellion Began (NY: HarperCollins, 2016), 234.

[7] Wright, JVG, 611.

[8] Ibid., 609.

 

Jeffrey Stivason

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