For at least three of us, the series of books by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, Nicholas Thomas Wright, called “Christian Origins and the Question of God” have been absolutely foundational to our understanding of the world behind the New Testament, as well as to how we understand Jesus and his relation to the Gospels. It has also considerably helped us understand where Paul is coming from (his next book in the Series will be on Paul).
So far the Series includes, in order: “The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG),” “Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG),” and “The Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG).”
In NTPG, N T Wright sketches the world of Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul. He quotes extensively from original sources which include heavy doses of Josephus, Philo, and the many pseudographs from the period.
In JVG, he provides a picture of the so-called “Historical Jesus.” In incredibly creative ways Wright weaves together his picture from NTPG and the Gospels, revealing a Jesus that is both strange and more alive.
In RSG, he takes 800 pages to speak to the understanding of “resurrection” in the OT, the larger Greek/Roman world, intertestimental Judaism, and in the NT and other early Christian writings such as the Apostolic Fathers.
I would hardily recommend all of these books for serious study by anybody who wants to get in touch with the foundations of the New Testament. If you would rather try out a more accessible version of two of these books first, Wrights “The Challenge of Jesus” is based on JVG, and “Surprised by Hope” is an elaboration built off of RSG. Both worthwhile reads for the non-scholar. At first they are a rather daunting read, each book gets longer and more detailed, yet I cannot overexagerate how profoundly these books have shaped my (our) understanding of Jesus and the NT.
Here is a link to a site where a young scholar, Andrew Perriman gives a rather fantastic synopsis of each of the chapters for all three books. If you feel that you do not have the time or ability to read the originals, or you just want to brush up on the ones that you have read, this site is invaluable.