Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament by Christopher J.H. Wright

A Critical Review of
Knowing Jesus Through The Old Testament by Christopher J.H. Wright
            Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright is a scholar of Old Testament ethics (Ph. D., Cambridge).  For five years, he taught at Union Biblical Seminary (1983-1988) and served as Principal of All Nations Christian College from 1993-2001.  Presently, he is the director of international ministries with the Langham Partnership International and he, as an ordained Anglican, is on staff at All Souls Church, Langham Place in London, England.  Wright has also authored dozens of books including Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2007), Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2006), and the subject of this review, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 1992) (InterVarsity Press).  Wright’s central purpose of Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is to stress the importance of the Old Testament as a valuable key to understanding who Jesus was and how Jesus understood himself.

            According to Wright, the Old Testament offers a rewarding illumination of the Messiah.  “In short,” says Wright, “the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus” (Wright, ix).  However, Wright is not making the argument that the Old Testament points to Jesus, but rather, that the Old Testament pointed Jesus to who he was to become.  Upfront, we writes,
For these are the words he read. These are the stories he knew. These were the songs he sang. These were the depths of wisdom and revelation and prophecy that shaped his whole view of ‘life, the universe and everything’. This is where he found his insights into the mind of his Father God. Above all, this is where he found the shape of his own identity and the goal of his own mission (Wright, ix).
In order to point to specific Old Testament clues about the character, authority, mission, and purpose of the Messiah, Wright must first build the foundation upon which he will frame his argument.  This foundation consists of an overview of the Old Testament as the first act of a two-act narrative, or more specifically, “salvation history” (Wright, 30-54).  The stories are not simply children’s Bible stories; they are accounts of real events.  One such key event, according to Wright, is the covenant made with Abraham.  Genesis 12:3 is a focal point of Wright’s foundation, suggesting that all the people of the earth will be blessed through Abraham and by extension, the nation of Israel, and by further extension, Jesus (a Jew), who became the Messiah of the Jews, Gentiles, and all peoples of the earth.  From this covenant with Abraham to David, to the exile, to Jesus, Wright suggests that the genealogy of Matthew 1:1-17 is designed to remind the Jewish reader of the historical story of the entire Old Testament and the original covenants with Abraham and David.  Then, standing on Galatians 3:39, which reads, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (ESV), Wright suggests that this Old Testament narrative is the story of all believers, not simply the story of the Israelites.  “One people, one story,” says Wright.  “The fact is, that whether we read Matthew 1:1-17 in our Christmas carol service or not, that story is our story as much as it is the story of Jesus.  For through him, we have come to be, like him, the descendants of Abraham” (Wright, 54).
            From his foundation, Wright moves to the framework of his argument—the fulfillment of promise.  First, using a horse/motorcar analogy, he suggests that as situations change, the details of God’s promise (or covenant) change; however, the original intent of the fulfillment remains the same.  Then, switching analogies, Wright constructs a model of the promise/fulfillment—promise/fresh fulfillment cycle.  In this model, each promise is partially fulfilled and then a new promise gives energy and amplification to both the original promise and the new promise for a future fulfillment, eventually leading to a total fulfillment in Jesus Christ that needs no additional promise.  “Like some science-fiction, time traveling rocket,” states Wright, “the promise is launched, returning to earth at some later point of history in a partial fulfillment, only to be relaunched with a fresh load of fuel and cargo for yet another historical destination, and so on” (Wright, 72).  A significant amount of ink is then spent reinforcing the frame, explaining the significance of the various covenants to not just the Jewish people, but the entire world, building to the final covenant of Christ that would not need a relaunch (Wright, 55-102).

            Once the foundation is firmly set and the frame is standing, Wright hangs his argument.  Leading up to Jesus’ baptism, contends Wright, Jesus was diligently reading the Old Testament and coming to understand his role as the Messiah.  Defending himself from Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus uses Old Testament scripture.  Sparing with the Phrases, he depends on this scriptural knowledge and understanding.  And most importantly, Jesus the Christ is the fulfilling second act of the story.  He is expanding upon the Old Testament law and bringing greater clarification to the narratives that came before him.  The many similarities of the characters of the Old Testament didn’t foretell of the coming Messiah, suggests Wright, instead they defined him (Wright, 103-252).

            While Wright argues that the narrative started in the Old Testament and completed in the New must be viewed in its entirety in order to grasp who Jesus was (and is), he greatly narrows the scope of the Old Testament.  Understandably, in order to articulate his point and make a case for Christ as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants, Wright must keep a narrow focus; however, because of his narrow approach to the covenants of the Old Testament, he glosses over the other elements of each individual covenant and the specific fulfillments of each for a real people of a historical time.  Wright completely ignores the Noahic Covenant, likely because this promise from God has no need for a future fulfillment in Christ.  And by focusing only on the portion of the Abrahamic Covenant that promises that the nation born of Abraham’s line will become a blessing to all people, Wright pays little attention to the promise of land and the fact that this covenant first promises that the line will become a great nation before it will be a blessing to all people.  Wright gives little attention to the Mosaic Covenant other than that it is a refueling and relaunching pad on the course for the bigger promise.  “Launched from Mount Sinai,” says Wright of the covenant renewal, “the people of promise head for its next stage of fulfillment – the gift of land” (Wright, 73).  The series of “next stages” provides a troubling idea that these promises were merely all one promise, with the details changing as the situation changed.  At the Davidic Covenant launching pad, Wright zeros in on 2 Samuel 7:16, which says, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.  Your throne shall be established forever” (ESV).  But this focus pushes aside the portion of the covenant that promises blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience.  The foundation built by Wright provides strong support of the final completion of portions of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants; yet, the same foundation, which glosses over some of the specific details and fulfillments of the Old Testament covenants weakens his argument that the Old Testament is a book of real people and events that Christians should be reading and understanding.  Indeed, his strong ties that draw today’s believers to the Old Testament narrative, also serve to diminish the importance of the Old Testament Israelite people.  While, this reviewer is somewhat critical of Wright’s foundation, I do believe Wright paints a nice picture of the ultimate fulfillment of portions of the covenants.  In addition, Wright’s approach being neither from a fully dispensational theology or fully covenant theology does provide a fresh perspective from which to view the progression of the promises.

            There is little biblical evidence that disputes Wright’s claim that the Old Testament scriptures and songs not only shaped Jesus character, but also helped him understand who he was.  In fact, the Luke 2 story of Jesus as a boy in the temple lends more support to his argument, specifically verse 52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (ESV).  If Jesus is increasing in knowledge, it only makes sense that some, if not all of this knowledge would be in the scriptures.  Wright spend considerable time expanding on Jesus’ use of scripture—in thwarting off Satan’s tempting efforts, in explaining who he is, in teaching, and in expanding and simplifying the law.  However, Wright’s argument allows for the challenge that Jesus may have merely studied the scriptures and fit the pieces together in order that he may become the Messiah and fulfill the prophecy.  (Although this challenge would struggle to stand against the various miracles, healings, signs, and resurrection of Christ.)  In addition, this challenge could assert that the writers of the New Testament crafted Jesus’ life to fulfill the Old Testament covenants.  Although clearly not his intention to suggest the authors inappropriately drew connections, Wright himself suggests that the New Testament authors contrasted what they witnessed to what they knew before recording the Gospels.  Wright states,
So, when the writers of the New Testament witnessed God’s climactic discharge of that commitment to humanity in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, they checked what they had experienced with what they already knew through their Hebrew scriptures. They looked at all the events surrounding Jesus, and they understood them, illuminated them, explained and finally recorded them, all in the light of the whole sweep of Old Testament promise (Wright, 102).
In addition to paving an avenue for critical attack, Wright’s efforts to demonstrate that Jesus was a real man, specifically a Jewish rabbi, in a real time, flirts dangerously close to stripping the deity from Jesus and leaving him an ordinary man.  For example, Wright states, was the Old Testament which helped Jesus to understand Jesus.  Who did he think he was?  What did he think he was to do?  The answers came from his Bible, the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship.  And in this tapestry, where others saw only a fragmented collection of various figures and hopes, Jesus saw his own face.  His Hebrew Bible provided the shape of his own identity (Wright, 108).
And only a page later, Wright says, “Here we have an adult man, at one level indistinguishable among the crowds of those who flocked to John for baptism and in any case otherwise unknown except as a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, who takes upon himself a staggering identity with awesome personal consequences” (Wright, 109, emphasis added).  From other passages, it would seem that Wright does indeed believe Jesus is the Son of God, yet some of his wording, intentional or unintentional, suggests Christ was more ordinary man than God. 

However, Wright’s effort to show the importance of the Old Testament provides an outstanding demonstration of Jesus’ knowledge and use of scripture.  Academic discussion may center on whether or not the Old Testament scriptures shaped Jesus’ self-awareness; but in the practical arena of ministry, it is clear that Jesus knew and used the scriptures.  Jesus himself points to Deuteronomy 8:3, which states, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD(ESV, emphasis added).  Pastors and teachers should be in agreement with Wright regarding Jesus’ example, and therefore teach that Christians should learn from Christ’s example and feast on the Word of God. 

            Of the few reviews of Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament this reviewer found (none of which are academic, but rather commercial in nature), most, if not all were in complete agreement with Wright; although a couple including one by Brian Tubbs (2007) focus on Wright’s meandering through his argument, “taking longer than necessary to make some of [his] points” (  This reviewer agrees.  Additionally, most articles regarding Jesus and Old Testament scripture argue something similar to the typology that Wright argues against (Wright, 114-116).  If they are not arguing a typology, they remain focused on the same prophecies that Wright argues Jesus used to shape who he was.  Michael Rydelnik’s “What Does the Hebrew Bible Say About the Coming Messiah?” serves as a good representation of all of these kinds of articles with one exception—like Wright, Rydelnik points to the Hebrew bible in its entirety rather than simply as specific scriptures treated as stand-alone narratives (Rydelnik 2007, 1351-1352).  

             In conclusion, this reviewer found Wright’s purpose—“the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus” (Wright, ix)—compelling.  His intent is encouraging.  However, the foundation and framework of his argument are built on a narrow focus, which leads to a challenging premise of the progression of Old Testament covenants from the Lord.  In addition, Wright’s detailed work demonstrating Jesus’ use and knowledge of the scriptures is outstanding; however, I struggle to fully agree with Wright because his argument all but suggests that the Old Testament didn’t foretell the coming of the Messiah, but instead shaped the very character of Jesus as the Messiah.  
Reference List
InterVarsity Press. “Christopher J. H. Wright.” (accessed February 21, 2009).

Rydelnik, Michael. 2007. “What Does the Hebrew Bible Say About the Coming Messiah?” In The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith Ed. Ted Cabal, 1351-1352. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers.

Tubbs, Brian. “Jesus and the Old Testament A Review of Christopher J.H. Wright's Book on Jesus in the OT” 2007. (accessed February 20, 2009).

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

*I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.