I Met N.T. Wright Once, and You’ll Never Guess What He Told Me
I’ve been seeing too much Upworthy in my Facebook news feed lately! Apologies for the sensational blog post headline.
But I really did meet N.T. Wright once. And you might actually guess what he told me, when I tell you what I asked him. I introduced myself to him briefly after a message he delivered a Calvin College worship symposium, and asked him how to improve my Greek. He said, “Read the text, read the text, read the text.”
He told me to really get the feel of the language. I shouldn’t think of Greek just as a one-to-one code for English; I should get into the Greek itself. I asked him what he thought about reading with a diglot, but he encouraged me to check the English translation only after reading an entire Greek paragraph, and then, only as necessary.
It’s challenging, but I’ve benefited from that advice multiple times.
The For Everyone Series
Over the years I’ve made occasional use of his For Everyone Bible commentary series. Written under the name Tom Wright, the series brings Wright’s extensive knowledge of the biblical text and history to a general audience. Anyone wanting to know more about a passage–whether they are preaching from it or reading it in their personal devotions–would benefit from the series. It’s decidedly non-scholarly, but even scholars will find useful information here (if a bit simplified at times). Here is how Wright introduces the series:
But the point of it all is that the message can get out to everyone, especially to people who wouldn’t normally read a book with footnotes and Greek words in it. That’s the sort of person for whom these books are written.
Though Wright is a prolific writer of scholarly works, he writes well for a general audience–a rare combination. Throughout the series Wright puts key terms in bold, which the reader can then look up in a corresponding glossary (e.g., Gehenna/Hell, Covenant, Age to Come, Law, Faith, Son of Man, and more).
A Refreshing (One-Man) Translation
Wright splits each biblical book up into manageable passages. His original translation does a good job of striking the balance he seeks of faithfulness to the original and readability. Here is a passage in Wright’s translation:
Abraham’s Faith—and Ours
18 Against all hope, but still in hope, Abraham believed that he would become the father of many nations, in line with what had been said to him, ‘That’s what your family will be like.’ 19 He didn’t become weak in faith as he considered his own body (which was already as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old), and the lifelessness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise. Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised. 22 That is why ‘it was calculated to him in terms of covenant justice’.
23 But it wasn’t written for him alone that ‘it was calculated to him’.24 It was written for us as well! It will be calculated to us, too, when we believe in the one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, 25 the one who was handed over because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification.
Wright explains, “The older language, ‘it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, gives off so many different messages now that it’s hard for us, hearing it, to think the thoughts Paul had in his head.” His translation is fresh, yet is not a paraphrase (like Eugene Peterson’s Message, for example).
“Come to Him, by Whatever Route You Can”
The For Everyone series, though divided into discrete passages, shows a literary sensitivity so that the reader can see how a given section connects to the larger flow of the book. For example, of the above passage, Wright writes:
The last verse of the chapter anticipates something Paul is going to do throughout chapters 5-8. He rounds off every stage of the argument in this long section with a reference to Jesus. This isn’t a mere pious gesture, smuggling in a mention of Jesus in case we thought he’d forgotten about him. It shows, rather, what the whole argument is all about. It brings us back home to the source and power of Paul’s thought.
Though preachers are not the target audience, the series is a good one for preachers to have on their shelves. There is not the same sort of explicit homiletical guidance that Feasting on the Word offers on every passage under consideration, but Wright is not short on practical application. For the Romans passage above, he concludes:
Do we share Abraham’s faith? Do we look in love, gratitude and trust to the creator God who promises impossible things and brings them to pass? Have we learned to celebrate this God, and to live as one family with all those who share this faith and hope?
Listen to the whole story, Matthew is saying. Think about what it meant for Jesus to be the true king of the Jews. And then—come to him, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.
This application comes after Wright succinctly answers who the Magi were, what the “star” they saw might have been, and what Old Testament passages are at play in the Epiphany narrative.
In Conclusion (So Far): One of the Best Reading Guides
Wright’s style is conversational, engaging, highly readable, and stimulating on both an intellectual and devotional level. As I make my way through more of the series, I’ll post more about it (with screenshots of how it looks in Logos for computer and iOS). But so far I’m a big fan of what I’ve seen. The Luke volume was a frequent reference as I preached through parts of Luke this fall.
If you’re reading through the Bible, and want to have a substantive yet concise reading guide for the journey, Wright’s For Everyone series is hard to top.