N. T. Wright answers “What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian?”


I’ve been asking biblical scholars at every level the following question: “What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian?” Over the next few years (or longer, perhaps), I’ll be posting their responses every Monday. Subscribe to theLAB and don’t miss a single one. 

We begin with the inimitable Tom Wright. 

For anyone wanting to study the Bible I would say: you are seeking to become a historian, and a historian’s first responsibility is to know the sources as widely and deeply as possible. Not only should you have the New Testament in Greek at easy recall; you should read the Septuagint regularly (as well as the Hebrew scriptures themselves) and imagine the early Christians reading it. And you should know the second-temple Jewish world, and the way it retrieved those scriptures: Scrolls, Josephus, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Philo, and at least the earlier Rabbinic sources. You should try to get on top of at least some of the relevant inscriptions, papyri and coins. You should know the history, from the Maccabees to Bar-Kochba and beyond, with an easy familiarity, and be constantly imagining yourself in that world. A historian’s primary task is to think into the minds of people who think differently from ourselves; that should be your never-ending study and delight.

For anyone studying theology – and it’s hard to see how you can really study the New Testament without thinking about its primary subject-matter – you should become thoroughly familiar with the way in which people in the second-temple period thought about God/god/the gods, the world, humans, ethics, worship and so on: from ‘straight’ paganism (if there was such a thing) through the great philosophies and the Jewish world-pictures, and then into the ways in which the early Christians navigated that world. You should constantly be asking yourself which larger narratives these people imagined themselves to be living in. You should go forwards at least as far as Irenaeus and Tertullian, but beware of the ways in which some later Christian theologians tried to get the same results as the NT (Trinity, Christology, atonement, etc.) but without really grasping the Jewish context (Temple, Torah, the great Jewish narratives) within which the NT statements mean what they mean. Later theology, from Athanasius to Aquinas to Calvin to Barth and beyond, is a rich treasure-house, but since all of the above claim to be in some ways ‘biblical’ this claim needs to be tested and prodded at regular intervals, and challenged when necessary.

I would say all this to anyone be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or even atheist. But to a Christian studying all this I would say: your personal reading of scripture (especially the Psalms), your prayer, your participation in the church’s rhythm of sacramental worship on the one hand and service to the poor (in whatever form) on the other – all this will form you as a person, including (but going beyond) who you are as a thinking person, in ways you won’t see at the time and perhaps not ever. But it will create and sustain a life in which your historical and theological study will be informed and infused with the life of the Holy Spirit; not to make you a perfect or infallible theologian or historian but to guide you in many appropriate directions and, not least, to give you courage when attempting difficult tasks and consolation when you fail (as we all do), as well as humility on the odd occasions you might really succeed.

~Tom Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St. Andrews

Was this article helpful?

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

View all articles
  • As always, N.T. Wright’s response is comprehensive and well put. Tom has walked the talk, engaged and engendered respect from both genuine conservative and liberal Scholars. His debates reflect these principles and when reading his books I detect an rarely matched passion for his research work.

    Excellent scholarly work has come from earnest scholars that claim to be agnostic, from the other major faith groups, or lost those that lost their faith on the way and in a way he acknowledges that. I also encourage these parties to continue with their work.

    For those in the faith embarking on this path Tom gives the best advise ever.What I take away from him and totally agree but deliberately want to rearrange is the non-scholarly components: “Your prayer <…and engagement with God-the source of your study- my addition", your personal reading of scripture (especially the Psalms), your participation in the church’s rhythm of sacramental worship on the one hand and service to the poor (in whatever form) on the other – all this will form you as a person, including (but going beyond) who you are as a thinking person, in ways you won’t see at the time and perhaps not ever.

  • Really encouraging read. Thank you for this project. I’m subscribed and ready for more to come. ????????

  • Tavis,

    Thank you for the new series from those who have been in the trenches of warfare against the enemy.

    I find that Wright’s emphasis on philosophy of history and of personal practice is one that is evident in his own life and works. I like the emphasis on knowing the sources especially in the first-hand accounts in the original languages: OT in Hebrew; LXX in early Koine Greek; and, the NT in mid-later Koine Greek. It is this attitude to know the sources that are enmeshed in his works when he quotes them. He knows whereof he speaks.

    In a paper on Masada in my undergraduate studies, I came across the following quote (Note: I do not remember the source):

    “Philosophy and the Bible can lead to error,
    but History and the Bible will lead to the Truth.”

    I have always understood this to mean that Philosophy and the Bible will lead to ‘heresy” (error); and, that History and the Bible will lead to the Truth, the opposite of error and heresy.

  • Thoughtful and inspiring. Such good insights. For him to emphasize taking care of the poor and reading the scriptures, for personal growth not study, makes me believe he lives what he studies. He appears to be a good man in addition to being an excellent theologian/scholar.

  • And what about respecting the text NT, not making the background the foreground to a point you don’t even recognize Christ atonement on the cross.
    Isn’t that the basis of being a Christian ?

Written by Tavis Bohlinger