Book Notice: The New Testament in Its World

N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019. 992 Pages. $59.99 (hardcover).

The New Testament in Its World began with Michael Bird’s suggestion to compile N. T. Wright’s series Christian Origins and the Question of God into a single volume, serving as a kind of New Testament introduction. The result of this project is the present volume, which also includes material from Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. N. T. Wright is Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University, and Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College. The authors’ approach to the New Testament is indicated by their title, The New Testament in Its World. In order for us to read the New Testament with proper lenses, they argue, we need to enter into the world of the New Testament, which involves holding three essential elements in creative tension: history, literature, and theology. Their aim on this account is to provide a “fully fledged historical description and theological account of Jesus and the early church” (26).

The book is divided into nine parts. Part 1 introduces the New Testament as history, literature, and theology and serves as a prolegomenon to Wright’s scholarship. Part 2 covers background including the history of the Jews between the Persian and Roman Empires and the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of the early church. In their survey of the New Testament, Wright and Bird take a chronological approach: Parts 3 and 4 address the historical Jesus and the resurrection; Part 5 covers Paul and his epistles; Part 6 returns to the Gospels and Acts; Part 7 covers the Catholic Epistles and Revelation; Part 8 introduces textual criticism and canon; and Part 9 concludes with a chapter on applying the New Testament today.

Wright and Bird convey a wealth of scholarship in a conversational tone, which makes for an enjoyable read. The book is also visually stunning, containing an abundance of supplementary resources. The clear strength of this work is its thick historical description of the background of the New Testament. The chapters on the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of the early church (chapters 6 and 7, respectively) are particularly insightful. The authors also helpfully stress the vital connection between the study of the New Testament and the church’s worship and mission.

While the authors try to maintain the tension between history, literature, and theology, the balance tilts in favor of the historical. While providing a short commentary on each New Testament book, Wright and Bird do not treat a given book’s literary plan or theology in much depth. They also do not take traditional views on authorship for Matthew, John, and Revelation. For these reasons, teachers and students with a high view of Scripture may still prefer to make use of standard evangelical New Testament introductions (e.g., Carson and Moo or Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles) and draw on the present volume as a supplement for its robust historical approach. Overall, The New Testament in Its World serves as an accessible introduction to Wright’s influential work and a valuable resource for students of Scripture.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Jimmy Roh, a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Content Manager for the Center for Biblical Studies.


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