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.