Book Plunge: What Have They Done With Jesus?

What do I think of Ben Witherington’s book published by Harper Collins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

WhathavetheydoneiwthJesus

Recently, I received an announcement in my email that this book was on sale on Kindle. Unfortunately, it is no longer at the sale price, but I scooped it up as soon as I saw it was. Why? Because frankly, Ben Witherington is one of the most phenomenal scholars that there is. I have been told that he has an excellent memory down to the page numbers of a book that he has read and is quite knowledgeable in many other fields outside of the New Testament.

Yet in this one, he’s talking about the New Testament and taking a shot at the bad history that is often presented. I knew I was in for a treat when the very first chapter was titled “The Origins of the Specious.” This is more of a classical humor that we often see from Witherington. Witherington says we live in a culture that is Biblically illiterate and yet Jesus-haunted. Jesus is seen all around us, and most of us have not done any real study on Jesus and that consists of more than just going to church every Sunday. The way that our culture buys into ideas on Jesus immediately has had Witherington tempted to write a book called “Gullible’s Travels.”

He gives an example of this when he talks about being interviewed by a major network and being asked if it could be possible that Mary was a temple prostitute who was raped and Jesus was the result. That would be why he said in Luke that he had to be in his father’s house. Yes. That was an actual question that was asked and the tragedy is that was his first question asked by this network as was said and not presented apparently as some crank theory to get his take on.

In our culture, too often the culture will ignore the hard facts found in scholarship on the historical Jesus and instead go with the bizarre crank theories that you can find on the internet and the History Channel. Consider for instance how the idea that Jesus never even existed is spreading like wildfire on the internet. People who will demand the strongest evidences for Christians when making their claims will accept the weakest arguments when made in favor of an idea like this.

So how does Witherington deal with all of this? Witherington suggests we look at the primary sources, the Gospels and the epistles, and see what we can determine about the lives of those who were closest to Jesus. He uses the strongest scholarship he can find and also brings out many of the realities of living in an honor-shame culture that too many people are unfamiliar with. (While unfortunately, they are quite familiar with The Da Vinci Code).

Witherington starts at a place we might not expect, with a woman named Joanna. Now I’m not going to give a full look at any argument. That is for the reader to learn when they get the book. Joanna is someone mentioned in Luke 8 and is seen at the crucifixion in Luke 24, yet Witherington also makes a compelling case that she is also the Junia that we find mentioned in Romans 16.

Witherington brings out an amazing amount of information on this woman just by looking at the culture that she lived in and seeing the best scholarship on the issue. We often think of preachers who are said to milk a text for whatever it’s worth. Witherington is not like that. He’s not trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Instead, he is more like a highly skilled detective calling in the person for an interview and asking as many questions to get to the truth and finding the person has a lot more to tell than was realized.

From there, we move on to Mary Magdalene who contrary to popular theory was not the wife of Jesus. As Witherington has said elsewhere, when she sees Jesus in John 20, we do not see her saying “Oh honey! So glad you’re back! Let’s go and get a James Dobson book and revitalize her marriage!” (We can also say in this that she never once asked Jesus to take out the trash.) Mary Magdalene is a woman with many legends told about her, but she’s also a woman with a remarkable story. The culture not being accurate about Mary Magdalene does not mean we should downplay her. This was an amazing woman with a shameful past who is an excellent example of the transforming power of Jesus.

From there, we move on to figures who we have more information on. We go to Peter and how he would have seen Jesus in his time and what information we can gain about what Peter did after the resurrection. Peter was known as Jesus’s right hand man and what he would have to say about Jesus would be of utmost importance. As Witherington goes on and shows James and Paul later, Peter will still play an important role there since if Peter gives the okay to these guys, they must have been doing something right.

After that, we go to the mother of Jesus. Mary is definitely another Mary with many stories built up after her. Witherington points out that we have Mariology, but we don’t have Peterology or Jamesology. Yet while those of us who are Protestants do think the pendulum has swung too far with the treatment of Mary by Catholics, we should realize the Scripture does say that all people will call Mary blessed, and for good reason and realize that Mary is an important witness to the truth of Christianity and who Jesus was and is.

From there, we move to the Beloved Disciple. Witherington has an interesting take in that he thinks much of the material in the Gospel of John comes from Lazarus. I must say that after reading the material, I find it quite fascinating. Still, it doesn’t mean John has no role in this. John could very well have been the editor of all the material and compiled it all together into a Gospel. This is possible and worth considering.

The next look comes from James, the brother of Jesus. James has often got a bad rap as being a legalist of sorts. Witherington argues that James was in fact an expert at how to handle possibly volatile situations. Paul was interested in the question of what Gentiles needed to do to be considered Christians. Did they need to be Jewish. James was wanting to make sure there was no entire cut from Judaism and that Gentiles would be sensitive to Jewish concerns so that Jews would want to remain Christians and was wanting to say that Jews could still follow and observe the Law as Christians and honor their heritage. While there was no doubt some disagreement between the two, if these two were brought together to discuss points of doctrine, there would be more nods of agreement than disagreement.

At the end of this section, I had a new respect for James and still do. It left me thankful that there were Christians like James who were put in very difficult situations and had to learn how to walk a line very finely to keep an early church together, and James did this without an instruction manual or without even having access to a New Testament. He also had no doubt had to rely on people like Peter a great deal for information on Jesus since James was not a disciple beforehand. That Peter let James lead the Jerusalem church shows what a remarkable amount of trust Peter had in James’s understanding of the Jesus tradition.

Also, we have a brief look at Jude. Jude is one of the shortest books in the Bible, but it is still a book of utmost importance and the look at Jude, one of Jesus’s brothers, will show the importance that Jude would have played in the society and how this little book contains big information on Jesus.

Finally, we get to Paul. We too often can see Paul as the originator of Christianity. This would not explain Peter and James approving of the work of Paul. It also misses the radical change that Paul had in his life, something Witherington brings out well. I have been at men’s study groups before where Paul came up and people have said they want to have faith like Paul. I have reminded them that if they want to have faith like Paul, they need to see the change Christ brings to the world like Paul did. We often do not see that.

Paul was a first-rate thinker highly educated and was the one who really first saw the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus, even beyond that which Peter saw. This is remarkable since Paul was not part of the inner circle or even part of the twelve at the time of Jesus. Witherington gives a detailed look at the life of the Apostle to the Gentiles and how he changed the world in a way that it has never been the same since.

What do all these people have in common? It would take something miraculous to get them to do what they did. It would have to be an utter life-changing event. Witherington sees no other way to explain the rise of the church. As Witherington says:

“Here we are able to reach a major conclusion of this study. None of these major figures who constituted the inner circle of Jesus would have become or remained followers of Jesus after the crucifixion if there was no resurrection and no resurrection appearances of Jesus. The church, in the persons of its earliest major leaders, was constituted by the event of the resurrection, coupled with the Pentecost event! The stories of these figures, especially their post-Easter stories, are the validation of this fact. There would be no church without the risen and appearing Jesus”

I wholeheartedly agree with Witherington. The best explanation for the rise of the Christian church is the one that the church itself gave. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is the Messiah and the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. Jesus is the one who is bringing the Kingdom of God to man. By His resurrection, God is reclaiming the world for Himself and inviting us to take part in it.

I conclude with saying that this is a book that should be read entirely and its ideas grasped. The people around Jesus will not be seen in the same light again. Readers will also get great clues as to the dynamics that exist in an honor-shame society and what a radical difference that makes to our understanding of Christianity.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Rest of Life

therestoflife

What do I think of Witherington’s work on life in the kingdom? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Ben Witherington certainly is one of the greatest biblical minds out there and in looking through his books, I was intrigued to find one called “The Rest of Life.” In it, Witherington deals with issues not normally talked about explicitly in sermons and how they relate to the Kingdom. We are often told that we are to work hard at what we do, but are we told that we need to play? Witherington says we do. We are told we need to sleep, but what about rest, which Witherington says is different? How is it that we are to study? What about eating and drinking? And of course, we are told about sexual ethics at times, but do we have anything on the role of sex in the kingdom?

(Okay. Now with that last one I know I got the attention of every guy reading this blog.)

It is amazing we have so little on these when they so much dominate our time. Americans live a life where we can easily get enough food to satisfy us. How ought we to live in response? We have several entertainment options before us. Is it wrong for us to take the time to play when we could spend that time “serving the Lord” or “Doing Bible study”? What role does sex play in the kingdom of God, especially if there will be no need of it in eternity?

Witherington takes us through each of these kinds of areas and in the end of each writing, I definitely had a greater sense of how I wanted to live my life in response and take them more seriously. It is amazing that for so many of us in years of theological study, we never really take the time to consider the concepts of activities that we like to do every day.

For instance, let’s consider play. I have been a regular gamer all my life and is there any place for that in being a devout Christian? Absolutely. Play gives us a chance to unwind and release a lot of tensions. Of course, like anything else, done excessively it is a problem, but play is also pointing to the full realization of the Kingdom. It is pointing to a time where we do not have to worry about the world. We can enjoy something in the moment itself.

What about sex? Witherington certainly deals with the myth that many people have bought into about Christianity (Including people like Carrier) that for Christians, sex is only about procreation. Witherington tells us that it is also for the purposes of unity and pleasure, but any sexual relations for a Christian will be in a relationship that all things being equal, would be capable of reproducing were everything in full working order. He also shows us that this is in the context of marriage and that sex is not simply a physical act but an act meant to unify persons together in a bond of unity.

People who read The Rest of Life will be blessed for it. It will enable your life activities to be seen in a whole new perspective. Also, the chapters will work great if you want to read them in a small group setting or a church setting and have them be open for discussion.

And I have no doubt our churches would be blessed if we read more of Ben Witherington and others like him and far less of people like Joel O’Steen.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Deeper Waters Podcast 12/7/2013: Christmas Beginnings

What’s coming up this Saturday on the Deeper Waters Podcast? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Christmas is coming and so it’s time to have a series of shows where we’re going to talk about just Christmas! As has often been said about stories, the most important part of them is to begin at the beginning. Thus, we’ll start with looking at the birth narratives!

But aren’t those confusing? Look at what’s in them? We have the slaughter of the infants at Bethlehem that is recorded by no other historian at the time! We have these genealogies that can’t even seem to get themselves straightened out! What on Earth is going on with this census here? Can that be historically verified in any way? And of course, all of this centers around a virgin birth! What’s going on with that?!

And to discuss such issues, we need a scholar who really knows his stuff. Fortunately, I have just such a guest. Now he’s only able to give an hour of his time and that will be the second hour of our program, but what a guest we have for you!

My friends, Ben Witherington will be our guest for the Deeper Waters Podcast!

Ben Witherington is one who has contributed much to biblical scholarship and is a force to be reckoned with. Mike Licona has in fact told me that Ben Witherington has an excellent memory for the many materials that he has read. Of the books that I have read by Dr. Witherington, they are lively and engaging. He has well surveyed the field and has a serious devotion to Christian truth.

As something that makes it especially important with me, Witherington is very well familiar with the social context that the NT was written in and many of his writings have been centered around looking at the NT from a socio-rhetorical perspective. It is my understanding that this is in fact what he talked about at the recent ETS conference that was built around the topic of Inerrancy.

For those who are not familiar with the work of Witherington, I hope this will surely open your eyes to a scholar who is someone that you must read in the field. The birth narratives are an excellent way to demonstrate this as these are some of the accounts that are the most challenged in the life of Christ. Our look at these chapters will be brief and cannot be exhaustive, but I hope it will give people a little taste of how the Christian can answer the challenges that are given.

The show will be at our usual time from 3-5 PM EST on Saturday, December 7th. Our call-in number is 714-242-5180. As I’ve said, Dr. Witherington will only be joining us for the second hour of the program so I ask that if you do decide to call in tomorrow, that you try to be as brief as you can as we have much to discuss and little time to do it in.

I hope you will join us!

The link can be found here.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: What’s In The Word?

What do I think of Ben Witherington’s Book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

“What’s In The Word?” is a short approach for laymen to starting to understand what is going on in socio-rhetorical looks at the NT. Ben Witherington is most certainly an authority in this field having spent decades studying it and having written numerous commentaries on books of the NT along the lines of this view point.

What is it? It’s looking at the NT in its social setting and seeing the writings for their strong rhetorical value realizing they are in many ways, oral writings. These were not meant to be read privately and silently as we often do today, but meant to be read publicly and quite likely, by someone who knew how to read them the way the author wanted them to be read.

This kind of look has serious ramifications for how we approach the NT. Witherington shows us that the writers of the text took from the social background of their time, including the use of rhetoric, and wrote their information in a style to be engaging with the audience and draw their attention and form a powerful argument.

This also has an impact on the idea of forgery. For someone to do a good forgery they would have to know how to write to a specific audience concerning a specific problem and do so in a way while avoiding the audience knowing who they really are. Witherington considers this possibility highly unlikely in the light of socio-rhetorical studies. Of course, he knows that this did happen in the ancient world, but many of these writings were general treatises and not dealing with specific situations by specific people. He notes also that there is no knowledge we have of “schools of Paul and James” where someone would learn to write in their style to honor them like one would write in the style of Pythagoras.

Witherington also deals with biblical passages that are highly misunderstood. For one example, consider Galatians 3:28. Is this a passage saying that there are no distinctions in Christ whatsoever? No. We are all in Christ and we are all still male or female, but that does not change that we all have the same entry to Christ. Note also there is something much greater going on.

Paul is writing in a situation that is all about making distinctions, such as between Jew and Gentile and what one must do to be seen as in the covenant. If there is no Jew or Gentile, then this would mean that Gentiles do not have to become Jews to be saved. This becomes about a whole lot more than just all of us realizing we’re equal. This is about breaking down the boundaries that had always separated Jews and Gentiles, something quite monumental.

Also, readers who get this book will get a good basic education on the importance of oral tradition and how it impacted the world of the time and the role of memorization in it. This is an important subject we have to grasp as it is a constant refrain of the opponents of Christianity.

In conclusion, I highly endorse this work as giving an important outlook on the socio-rhetorical world at the time and think that for the person who is wanting to get a start in looking at this world, then Ben Witherington’s book is an excellent way to go.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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