Book Plunge: The Jesus Quest

Where does Ben Witherington see the quest going? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

In The Jesus Quest, Ben Witherington surveys many of the latest writings (at the time) on the historical Jesus by scholars and critiques them. Rarely does he make a statement about his own view. He interacts with all sides, but he does seem to have more non-Christian scholars being critiqued rather than Christian ones.

The book starts with a quite brief explanation of the first two quests that could be read in about ten minutes or so. This gets us then into the third quest, which is of course the meat of the work. The start before looking at the various views of Jesus is looking at the views of Galilee.

As Witherington says, the quest for the historical Jesus is also becoming the quest for the historical Galilee. We cannot separate Jesus from the time and the culture that He lived in and understanding this has been an essential step in looking at who the man was and the way He saw Himself and the way His contemporaries saw Him.

At this point, Witherington does his readers a great service by familiarizing them with many aspects of the culture of Jesus that would not be known by most. For instance, he gives a brief explanation of an honor/shame culture and what it means to say a society believes in limited good.

The next chapter goes into looking at the Jesus Seminar and their methodology. Witherington points out that a minority of fellows on the voting panel could think Jesus did not say something and yet it will still show up in the results that Jesus did not say it despite it was the opinion of a minority. Also of course, there’s the troubling aspect that the group had a bias against miracles and did not represent members from leading educational institutions or even other countries.

So now we get into more specific looks. Witherington’s first group is the cynic sage group which consists of Crossan, Mack, and Downing. Next are the ones who see Jesus as a man of the Spirit, which includes Borg, Vermes, and Twelftree. (Twelftree being the first Christian being reviewed) For Jesus as an eschatological prophet, the views critiqued are that of Sanders and Casey. Next is the prophet of social change where Witherington interacts with Theissen, Horsley, and Kaylor. In the seventh chapter, there’s a look at the Jesus as the Wisdom of God, though from a different perspective, the feminist scholarship of Fiorenza. It is in this chapter Witherington goes into the most detail of his own view of Jesus as God’s Wisdom. Finally, he reviews the idea of Jesus as a marginal Jew and as a Jewish Messiah. Knowledgeable readers should recognize John Meier for the first view. For the second, Witherington critiques Stuhlmacher, Dunn, De Jonge, Bockmuehl, and finally, N.T. Wright.

Witherington’s book provides an excellent read. Witherington is known to have a fascinating memory and is a fair critiquer. He points out benefits made from the views of others and is dismayed that some people will not read their books due to their wild ideas. He treats the Christian authors just as critically.

I was dismayed at Witherington’s arguments when it came to eschatological passages like Mark 13. For instance, Witherington says that passages like Mark 14:62 and 13:26 are not about vindication as Wright says since Casey says that the events of God’s judgment take place on Earth but not in Heaven. I do not think Wright would disagree with this! It is the point that earthly events are a sign of what is going on in the Heavens. I am under the impression that Witherington sees 1 Thess. 4 and the Olivet Discourse as referring to the same event, when I do not see that at all. After all, if the Olivet Discourse is the same as 1 Thess. 4, it strikes me as odd that the resurrection would be left out of that.

In spite of all of this, a reader wanting to learn about the quest for the historical Jesus and about interacting with the scholarship on the quest will be benefited by reading Witherington. My concerns after all are about a secondary matter and do not drive away from the value on primary issues that this book addresses. For those who want to know about leading scholarship in this field, I recommend it without hesitation.

In Christ,
Nick Peters