World-renowned British theologian N. T. Wright learned first-hand last week that he has a real fan club among BYU and BYU-Idaho religious faculty and other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The respect for Wright, a former Anglican bishop, extends to Latter-day Saint apostles, three of whom have quoted him in the church’s international general conferences since 2008.

On Wednesday, June 12, a contingent of about 20 Latter-day Saints traveled from around the country to Houston to meet with Wright, who has written more than 80 books and is now a senior research fellow at Oxford University. They also attended Wright’s annual summer “intensive,” a four-day set of lectures on a single book of the New Testament sponsored by Baylor University.

If there was any doubt what those in the room thought of Wright’s work, it was clarified succinctly by Thomas B. Griffith, a Latter-day Saint and former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“I’m a junkie. I’m an N. T. Wright junkie,” Griffith said to Wright. “I can think of no scholar of the New Testament who’s helped me to better understand what its authors experienced and what they call us to do than Professor Wright. They had experienced the (life of) Christ, and they were dedicated to help his work of new creation right here, right now. That message resonates with Latter-day Saints ... Your work inspires us to build community in Christ so that we can help bring about the work of reconciliation that Christ’s new creation calls us to do. We’re thrilled for what you have done.”

N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright | Tad Walch/Deseret News

BYU and BYU-Idaho religious and humanities faculty told Wright that they regularly assign his writings to their students. For example, Gaye Strathearn assigns “The Quest for the Historical Jesus Christ” to her students at Brigham Young University because she finds his believing, religious scholarship to be important for them.

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“He also sees the importance of God’s plan and looking at the whole plan and not just parts divided up from each other,” Strathearn said. “I think he’s important because he also sees the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, and being the seed of Abraham is really, really important to us. This idea of covenant is the same thing that President Russell M. Nelson is emphasizing for (Latter-day Saints) now.”

She also appreciates Wright’s position that Christianity be rooted in things that actually happened in first-century Palestine.

“If we believe in the Bible, we can’t just believe in it,” Strathearn said about Wright’s teachings. “We’ve got to study it so that we know it really well and know what the Bible actually says. Instead of (Latter-day Saints) putting all of our emphasis on, ‘as far as it is translated correctly,’ maybe our emphasis should be ‘We believe the Bible to be the word of God,’ even though there’s some difficulties with it. He’s paid the price to do that.”

The 'sweet spot' where Christian minds meet

The three Latter-day Saint leaders who have quoted Wright in the church’s semiannual international general conferences are:

  • President Jeffrey R. Holland, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, called Wright an “esteemed New Testament scholar when he quoted Wright in 2008: “The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, does not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write,’ but (rather) ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.’”
  • Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve quoted a Wright sermon in April 2019: “God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged rightly by a man whom he has appointed — and of this he has given assurance to all by raising this man from the dead. The facts about Jesus of Nazareth, and especially about his resurrection from the dead, are the foundation of the assurance that the world is not random. It is not ultimately a chaos; that when we do justice in the present we are not whistling in the dark, trying to shore up a building that will ultimately collapse, or to fix a car which is actually bound for the scrap-heap. When God raised Jesus from the dead, that was the microcosmic event in which the ultimate macrocosmic act of judgment was contained in a nutshell, (the) seed … of the ultimate hope. God declared, in the most powerful way imaginable, that Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah. … In the greatest irony of history, [Jesus] himself underwent cruel and unjust judgment, coming to the place which symbolized and drew together all the myriad cruelties and injustices of history, to bear that chaos, that darkness, that cruelty, that injustice, in himself, and to exhaust its power.”
  • And Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve quoted Wright in April 2023: “We should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts. … This is our greatest festival. Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity.”

The question-and-answer session, which lasted a bit longer than half an hour, included topics ranging from Wright’s own Bible translation to interfaith relationships and which New Testament event, other than the Resurrection, Wright most would have liked to witness personally.

The questions were gathered from the BYU and BYU-Idaho religious faculty by John Esser, executive director and founder of the Kaine Ktisis Foundation, which made a $20,000 donation to the Wisconsin Center for Christian Studies, which is devoted to taking Wright’s work to the world. Questions and answers have been edited for length.

John Esser: Do you recommend certain translations of the New Testament, including your own? Is there a certain text you use or prefer for translation work?

N. T. Wright: Translation is quite fun, actually, because obviously, to translate you have to get deep into the original text, but you also have to think that if I was saying that to a friend or to a family member or to somebody on the street, how would I express that? And often that isn’t in, word for word, it’s in larger units. I’ve tried to be idiomatic in English. My principle is this: If you translate the New Testament, and make it boring or flat, or awkward, even if it’s technically right, word by word, it’s wrong because the New Testament is not boring or flat or awkward. If you translate Paul in such a way as to make him either tedious or incomprehensible — well, incomprehensible, occasionally, possibly (laughter) — Paul is not tedious. Whoever translated Romans 8:18-28 in the King James Version wasn’t interested in the cosmic renewal Paul is talking about there, so it comes out very stilted and awkward. When I was in pastoral ministry as a student chaplain, there was some of my senior colleagues who would occasionally volunteer to read lessons in chapel, and there was one in particular who was very insistent on — he wanted to read the King James version. So I tried to give him passages like Romans 8 to read, knowing that he would say to me afterward, “That was harder than I thought.” Well, you wanted the King James.

John Esser, N. T. Wright, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Jeni Holzapfel pose for a photo on June 11, 2024.
John Esser, founder of the Kaine Ktisis Foundation, stands with renowned British theologian N. T. Wright, Elder Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Jeni Holzapfel after a question-and-answer session between Wright and religious faculty from BYU and BYU-Idaho at the Houston InternContinental Hotel in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. | Tad Walch/Deseret News

I enjoyed doing the translation as a way of wrestling with the text. It forced me to think through all sorts of things which I mightn’t have done had I not been going word by word and phrase by phrase through the text. In Oxford, we have thought for a long time now to use the NRSV as the primary English text for students. We try to get them to read the Greek and the Hebrew, but the NRSV is a kind of a good rough-and-ready translation. It sometimes lets you down, hopelessly; in First Corinthians 15, for instance, when it uses from the RSV the phrase “spiritual body,” which most people hear it in the Platonic-sense idea, i.e., a non-physical body, and I’ve heard people again and again say, “Well, Paul says it’s a spiritual body, so it doesn’t matter whether there’s an empty tomb.” No, that’s definitely wrong. (The Greek) does not mean spiritual in that sense. It means something that is filled by or animated by this (Spirit), which is totally different from “made of the Spirit.” So there’s some basic flaws, but of course, one can say that about any translation, and no doubt people could say it about mine.

Esser: What advice would you give to us as a community to better work in an interfaith way with other denominations?

N. T. Wright: We make the distinction between ecumenical discussions, which are specifically between different ideas or Christian groups, and interfaith discussions, which would be, say, Christian with Muslim or Christian with Buddhist or Christian with Jewish, but whatever you are doing, I would say the primary thing is making friends. We Anglicans tried to do dialogue with the Romans by having theologians sitting around discussing dogmas, and of course, the first thing that happens is, “We believe this and you believe that,” the clashing. But actually, the best way of doing it is what I did as bishop in Durham, which was I got my opposite Catholic number and we played golf together, and then we got our clergy and we had a Catholic-Anglican golf game, which was great. Then we’d go out for dinner and have a pint of beer. At the end of the day, you’ve created a context within which other conversations are going to be much more healthy.

And I would say the same about working with a Buddhist group or a Jewish group or Muslim group. We say, particularly in our country at the moment, about Muslim communities that who knows what the next flashpoint is going to be globally or locally. It’s vital that, say, the Anglican vicar of the parish gets to know the local Muslim representative so that if there is something really bad that happens, they can appear on the street linking arms and saying, “Not in our name.” Doesn’t mean they’re agreeing about everything; they’re not. It just means they’re sending a signal to the community that we ought to be working together on this. So friendship.

Esser: As a disciple-scholar yourself, what are your recommendations or advice for disciple-scholars in integrating faith and scholarship?

N. T. Wright: When I was very young, somebody suggested in my hearing that for clergy in training, etc., you should have one Bible for your academic studies and one Bible for your personal devotional reading. That was a piece of advice, as soon as I heard that, I knew it was wrong. I just thought, “No, that can’t be right,” because that is setting off to bifurcate yourself and sooner or later, that’s going to be a problem. I use the same Greek Testament when I’m working at the desk on an academic article that I use when I’m saying my prayers in the morning. And there’s an easy confluence for me between the two, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, partly because I sometimes find that the times when I am most drawn into the text and most led to prayer and praise is when I’m actually writing an academic article or preparing a lecture or whatever, just like sometimes the time when I get an idea which is basically a what you might call an academic idea, maybe when I’m saying my prayers in the morning, something suddenly strikes me, and I think, “Oh, my goodness, I wonder what so-and-so said about that in their commentary,” or “maybe I should try and work that one out,” and make a little note and then come back to it. So for me, there’s always been that crossover.

In my tradition, usually the Eucharist is the main Sunday service, and there’s always a Gospel reading which leads into the Eucharist. Quite early on in my ministry when I was preaching regularly, I knew from my reading in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the majority of New Testament scholars would go through and say, “Well, Jesus never said that,” or “Jesus probably didn’t do that,” or “this bit was made up by Luke 50 years later or whatever,” and I knew instinctively that you don’t go into the pulpit and say that, not because I believe in two levels of truth, one for the scholars and one for the ordinary folk, but I have a great respect for the integrity of the folks who show up on a Sunday morning or who go to weekly Bible studies in a church, partly because I come from a family where people weren’t academics but they would show up to church on a Sunday morning, and I would know. If you want to say there’s a real problem about this text, probably the time to do that is not in the pulpit, but the time to do that might be in a group of folk on a Wednesday evening or whatever. So I realized that if I was going to preach from the Gospels regularly, I had to get up earlier in the morning, literally, and do my homework on Second Temple Judaism and look harder at the context and think about what it meant to think of Jesus doing and saying these things in the first third of the first century AD, and again and again and again, I found that it made a huge amount of sense. It wasn’t a sense that my tradition had taught me, so I was being forced to wrestle.

I mean, nobody preached about the Kingdom of God when I was growing up, or if they did, they simply meant going to heaven when you die. And that is not what the kingdom of God meant in the first century at all. So there was a huge amount of relearning, unlearning and relearning. During that time, there were quite a few things which I was just puzzled about for years, particularly when I was getting to know more about Jesus in his historical context. The question then: If you put Jesus back in his historical context, you risk making him seem irrelevant. For me, then, the breakthrough was John 20, when Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Ah, so everything we’re learning about Jesus in historical context translates into the mission of the church, and that was a kind of sigh of relief: “I see. Now, let’s work on that.” So there were moments like that.

I was fortunate in being able to grow slowly through some of that, and I found that there’s a lot of ways in which you just can’t hurry your own theological development. Sometimes you can speed up a bit, but a lot of stuff, you have to wait until you gradually come around the corner and you say, “Oh, why didn’t anybody tell me that 20 years ago?”

Esser: Would Paul or Jesus be concerned with the ecclesiology? You had mentioned that with the Atonement, he didn’t give a theory, he gave a meal. Can the same thing be said about ecclesiology? (Ecclesiology is the study of the structure and function of a church, from the Greek ecclesia meaning “church.”)

N. T. Wright: Well, I mean ecclesiology begins with Abraham, really. You see that in the gospels, you see it in Paul, you see it in Hebrews. In other words, it’s about the family of God called to be the people through whom God rescues the world from its environment, its effects, and then the twists and turns of that in the Old Testament, through monarchy and division, exile and restoration and so on.

When John the Baptist is saying, ‘Come down to Jordan and be baptized,’ and when Jesus goes and gets baptized, they’re not saying, ‘We’re starting something totally new.’ This is a new moment within a very old movement. Ecclesiology is really the old movement in its new phase, but it’s gone through new phases already. It’s not as though it’s always been identical, and now there’s something radically new. It is radically new, but this is a longer story, and all good stories have radically new moments in them, not in order to say that the previous bit of the story didn’t matter, but to say, “Now guess what?” In a sense, they don’t have to give a theory about the church again, they have to do it, and the doing of it is of course what, say, Paul spent his life doing, which was making disciples and then shepherding them and teaching them and then bashing their heads into one another when they were getting into trouble. That’s practical ecclesiology. You call it pastoral work or teaching or whatever, but it’s doing church on the ground.

I love that speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts, when Paul says, “Remember that through those two years, night and day, I didn’t cease to admonish you with tears, and I went from house to house.” That’s doing church, as it is also in Philippians 4 to say, “I appeal to Euodias and Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” Fancy being Euodias and Syntyche and being saddled for 2,000 years with being the ones at loggerheads, but I’m glad they were, because this is practical ecclesiology.

One time when I was in the student ministry, there were two female students who were both studying classics and both very bright but quite different personalities, and they had the misfortune at one point, as happens with undergraduates, both to fall in love with the same young man. One of them just got in a total panic, and the other one had been quite, “Well, this is how it is.” The one who got in total panic, I think she called her parents and they came and picked her up and took her away from Oxford for a week or two. I remember saying to the congregation, this is a church project; we are not going to rest until they are reconciled. And it was about two weeks later, she was back and we were able to have the Eucharist and watch them (reconcile). That’s doing church.

Esser: About the ecclesiastical structure, do you think a congregational or episcopal/hierarchical (structure) is preferred?

N. T. Wright: I believe in accountability. I’ve seen quite a few churches whose independence has allowed leaders to be unaccountable, and I’ve seen the disasters that can happen. Now we have disasters, too. Accountability doesn’t prevent disasters, but I’m broadly in favor of accountability.

As I said, there are friends. I’ve done a lot of Roman Catholic dialogue for various reasons, and some of the friendships made there have just been wonderful, and you realize that, that which we have in common is far more important than that which divides us, which is something that nobody in the 1880s or 1890s was prepared to say. We’ve come a long way in 150 years.

Esser: Today you said in one of the lectures, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we as Christians could build off of the one faith and the one baptism. What would you envision as the next step?

N. T. Wright: Again, I would say start with friendship locally, as far as possible. Sometimes it’ll be possible, sometimes not, but within the context of friendship, work and pray towards being able to say something about the differences of your history and the possible points of convergence and then at a certain point, to raise the difficult issues where traditionally we have disagreed. I’ve done that with Roman Catholic friends.

In the context of friendship, you can have those conversations and then at a certain point, you can move out beyond that, and then at a certain point, the churches, the groups can say, should we get together with 10 of us from each side, if you like, or maybe in three or four or five different traditions and say, “Let’s raise some key questions. Let’s talk about Christology,” and let’s go for the big ones. I mean, Walter Casper, who was the cardinal in charge of the ecumenical desk of the Vatican for many years, when he retired he produced a book called “Harvesting the Fruits,” where he pulled together the Catholic-Baptist dialogues, the Catholic-Anglican dialogues, the Catholic-Orthodox dialogues, lots and lots of dialogues, and showed, “Look, guys, we all believe in the Trinity, we all believe in Jesus as fully divine, fully human, we all believe that he was raised from the dead. These are the fruits of our dialogue, and these are the big central things that Christians ought to agree on. So if we do, then” ... he didn’t quite say, “What’s the big deal about the other stuff?” but there was that sense of, “Please, could we actually do something with this instead of just waving at each other from a distance?”


Of course, then the problem is that local traditions are anchored in the fact that most of the people who attend this church are people whose parents were in that tradition, grandparents, and they would feel very awkward to step outside it as I would have had I been called to leave the Anglican Church and go elsewhere. I would have felt very awkward about that. The great thing we say about this ourselves, the great thing about being an Anglican because we don’t have any doctrine of our own, it’s just that if something is true, Anglicans believe it. (Laughter)

Esser: What one other event, in addition to the Resurrection, would you want to witness or view if you could, out of the New Testament?

N. T. Wright: Oh, presumably Paul on the road to Damascus. I would love to (have) been there. ... But actually, of course, I would love to be padding around Galilee with Jesus. The trouble is, there were a lot of people who are padding around Galilee with Jesus who didn’t get it, who didn’t see the point. So there’s something very strange about that. We all think, ‘Wouldn’t it be marvelous to be there, but well, actually, there were quite a few who dot-dot-dot. Nice question. I’ve never quite thought of that question like that. You know, people have often asked, ‘If you can meet one figure from history, who would it be?’ Well, I do have some questions of Paul. I suspect he would have considerably more for me. (Laughter)

Read more Wright:

  • In 2020, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote about the pandemic and quoted Wright about the need to “recover the biblical tradition of lament,” an expression of solidarity both with fellow humans and with God himself.
  • Before Easter 2023, Wright spoke to another Times columnist about the Resurrection: “The Resurrection brings its own worldview with it and says, if you’re going to understand the way things are, you start with this and work out. If Jesus really has been raised, then everything is different,” he said. He added, “The gift of the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus within your heart. But the truth of the Resurrection is a truth about something that actually happened in history.”
  • This March, Wright again wrote about the Resurrection before Easter: “A true understanding of new creation, instead, starts with the Easter message about Jesus’ new bodily life, and the powerful gift of his spirit. It flows out into creative, healing, and restorative work in God’s world — including, of course, political and public life. That insight slices through our present culture wars, where bits of half-remembered ‘religion’ get muddled up with bits of half-understood ‘politics.’ It’s time to reset the terms, both of debate and of action. Get resurrection right and political priorities, including wise voting, will rearrange themselves. That is the hope. And, in the New Testament, ‘hope’ doesn’t mean ‘optimism’ or ‘always look on the bright side.’ It means Jesus.”
Can you read the New Testament like a disciple and a scholar?
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