Can the Historical Jesus be Made Safe for Orthodoxy?
A Critique of The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington III
Historical Jesus scholarship has blossomed in the last decade. Dozens of general audience books have appeared, many of them by mainstream academics. The number and variety of these portraits of Jesus have created the need for yet more books that survey the field and sift through the issues for lay readers. One such book, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew from Nazareth (InterVarsity Press, 1995), by the prolific scholar-author Ben Witherington III, concisely brokers the Jesus debate for conservative Christians and delivers the reassurance that evangelical orthodoxy has nothing to fear from the historical Jesus.
This essay will deal with three sections of Witherington’s book: 1) his evaluation of recent historical Jesus scholarship, 2) his position on a central issue relating to the historical Jesus, 3) and his own portrait of the historical Jesus. For (1) I will concentrate on Witherington’s critique of one specific book about the historical Jesus: The Five Gospels, which reports the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar on the sayings of Jesus. (I choose Witherington’s critique of this book because I am a member of the Jesus Seminar. Readers can judge for themselves the objectivity of my remarks.)
For (2) I will evaluate Witherington’s claim that Jesus was an apocalyptic figure. This will show how Witherington approaches the problem of establishing the authenticity of specific sayings and how he relates these sayings to Jesus’ self-understanding.
3) In addition to assessing the portraits of Jesus advanced by different scholars, Witherington also presents the one he considers the most accurate historically: his own portrait of Jesus as incarnate Wisdom.
I. Witherington’s Critique of the Jesus Seminar
It is difficult to offer an in-depth analysis of Witherington’s writing because it shows little depth of its own. A critical reader will quickly grow frustrated at the numerous non-sequiturs, instances of special pleading and begging the question, and assertions in the place of arguments. Nevertheless, a careful reading of Witherington can be instructive. An examination of chapter 2 (with the smirky title, “Jesus the Talking Head: the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar”) reveals both poor logic and a careless and superficial reading of what Witherington criticizes. He several times misrepresents or misunderstands the Jesus Seminar, calling into question his professional ethics and/or his competence as a critic. It becomes clear that Witherington’s disagreements with the Jesus Seminar are rooted in his fundamental disagreement with the historical-critical method. While Witherington never makes this disagreement explicit, it is the obvious implication of his assumptions, and his assumptions are not difficult to detect.
Before analyzing Witherington’s criticisms of the Jesus Seminar, we need to see how well he understands what he criticizes. Several of his statements raise serious doubts about how much of The Five Gospels he has read and how carefully he has read it.
• Commenting on the criterion of dissimilarity, he argues that it cannot be used as the “sole determinant of what is authentic among [Jesus’] sayings” (46). Witherington gives no examples of the Seminar using it as the “sole determinant.” Nor would he have found any if he had looked in The Five Gospels, because that is not how the Seminar used this criterion.
• Witherington finds a “decided preference” in The Five Gospels for Luke’s parables (53). He then states, “There is no sound scholarly basis for formulating a general rule that Luke’s form of sayings is more likely to be original than Matthew’s” (54). The Seminar neither formulated nor used such a rule. Witherington goes on to chide the Seminar: “Each saying must be judged on a case-by-case basis” (54). The Seminar did exactly that, as is abundantly clear from The Five Gospels.
• Witherington asserts that “the seminar seems to be overly optimistic not only about the antiquity of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas, but also about its independence from the canonical Gospels” (48). He ventures that “of the sayings in Thomas that have no parallels in the synoptics, a few may be authentic” (49, emphasis original). Ironically, Witherington is more “optimistic” in this regard than the Seminar. Of the sayings unique to Thomas, the Seminar found none that it could rate red and only two that it could rate pink.
• Witherington chastises the Jesus Seminar for its “omissions” (i.e., for “omitting” certain kinds of gospel material from its list of authentic sayings). Among the sayings the Seminar failed to find authentic “are the controversy dialogues and presumably various of the pronouncements in the so-called pronouncement stories” (55, emphasis added). “Presumably”? Why does Witherington “presume” that the Seminar found these to be inauthentic? It appears that Witherington did not even bother to look these up in The Five Gospels. If he had, he would have found a number of pronouncement sayings that the Seminar colored red or pink.
We can now take up Witherington’s specific criticisms of the Seminar: its profile of Jesus, its membership, its practice of voting, its use of Q, and its approach to the critical assessment of the historicity of the gospels. Witherington’s objections to the latter reveal his own understanding of the nature of historical Jesus scholarship.
The Jesus of the Jesus Seminar
Witherington concludes that the Seminar’s Jesus is “denuded of his historical context” (42), which seems to mean that this Jesus “does not fit very well into the context of early Judaism” (42), and that this is “a Jesus who is a sage, but not a very Jewish one” (50). What can this mean? The historical Jesus that emerges from the work of the Jesus Seminar is the implied author/speaker of the ninety sayings that the Seminar judged authentic (red and pink in the Seminar’s color code). Therefore to claim that this Jesus “does not fit very well into the context of early Judaism” can only mean that the teacher who told the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, who invoked God as “abba”, and who pronounced blessings on the poor, and so on—that the sage who said these things was “not very Jewish.” Is Witherington claiming that such a sage is not particularly Jewish, or not distinctively Jewish, or anti-Jewish, or what? Why does such a sage “not fit very will into the context of early Judaism”? Witherington’s accusation that the Seminar’s Jesus is not very Jewish lacks specific content and so should be regarded as vacuous.
Stepping back from the polemical intent of this accusation, we can at least tease out an assumption on which it is founded. This assumption is that we know enough about Galilean Judaism in the first third of the first century to be able to recognize what could and could not have been part of it. Unless Witherington wants to own that assumption, his criticism evaporates because there are no secure grounds on which it could be either substantiated or rebutted.
The composition of the Jesus Seminar
In Witherington’s judgment, the members of the Seminar are not a representative sample of biblical scholars. He characterizes the Seminar as “a very carefully self-selected group” (43). But how should a group like this be selected? The Jesus Seminar is open to anyone with the proper academic credentials. It has no way to exclude any qualified scholar who wants to join. Would the Seminar be more credible if its membership was by invitation only? Why would a Seminar with a closed membership be more desirable? If members were not self-selected, who should do the selecting? And what can “very carefully” self-selected mean? A group that accepts all qualified applicants cannot control who joins. “Very carefully self-selected” is a self-contradiction. Criticizing the Seminar because it is “self-selected” amounts to criticizing it for not being elitist.
Despite Witherington’s criticism that the Seminar is self-selected (and thus not elitist), he goes on to assert that the Seminar’s practice of voting is not democratic, but “elitist” (45). (I have given up trying to guess what this means.) In any case, Witherington is against the very idea of scholars voting on the historicity of the gospels. According to Witherington:
|only in a thoroughly democratic society where the assumption that the majority view is likely to be right and to reflect a true critical opinion on the “truth” could the idea of voting on the sayings of Jesus have arisen (44).|
However, as The Five Gospels explains, the Jesus Seminar got the idea, not from American democracy, but from the practice of various translation committees and from the UBS committees that vote on the critical edition of the Greek New Testament. One wonders whether Witherington similarly disdains the notion of qualified text critics voting on whether the long ending of Mark was originally written by the evangelist.
Use of Q
Witherington objects to the Seminar’s finding that more authentic sayings come from Q than from Mark. His objection is purely a priori: Mark has to be more historical than Q because we have a text of Mark but not of Q. Witherington contends that the scholars of the Seminar
|are more confident in their reconstruction of Q as representative of the early Jesus tradition than in Mark’s presentation of sayings material, even though we have a well–established Greek text of Mark, and have no such text for Q. One can only label this approach presumptuous at best (52, emphasis original).|
Witherington’s reasoning here shows a basic confusion: he assumes that there is a correlation between certainty about the text of a document and confidence in its historical accuracy. No such correlation exists, though Witherington states it as if it were self-evident. Not only is his objection a category mistake, it is beside the point. The Seminar did not vote on a reconstructed Q, but on actual sayings in Matthew and Luke.
The nature of the critical study of the historical Jesus
In assessing the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar shouldered a burden of proof: to accept as authentic only those sayings it could demonstrate to be such. This methodological principle is inherent in the critical investigation of the historicity of the gospels. The gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus by people who worshipped him as a divine being and regarded him as the spokesman for their own beliefs and ideals. Texts with such a blatant bias make no claim to be objective reporting, and no critical historian would think of simply assuming they were. This is plain common sense: historians should treat textual material as historical evidence only if they can establish its historicity.
Witherington does not directly address the issue of the burden of proof, but his perspective is discernible in his criticism of the Seminar’s use of a critical standard in assessing the historicity of the gospels. He objects to the
|apparent presumption of many members of the seminar that sayings must be regarded as inauthentic unless they are proven to be authentic. This is assumed to be the critical point of view. But in reality it is a perspective steeped in a negative bias, not a neutral or open stance (47, emphasis original). 1|
Apparently for Witherington, a neutral stance is one that suspends critical judgment and takes an ancient writer’s word at face value. This seems to be the moral of the following amazing statement:
|Too often scholars… assume they know better than the early Christians who preserved and collected the sayings of Jesus and composed the Gospels what Jesus was or was not likely to have said. This assumption is founded on hubris (48).|
This makes it clear that Witherington is opposed not only to the specific methods of the Jesus Seminar, but to the historical-critical method in general. And Witherington’s verdict on the historical-critical method is that it is founded on hubris. Rather than accepting the need for a critical sifting of the evidence, he calls on us to submit to the authority of the canonical gospels and defer to their judgment about what Jesus said. Of course, this ignores the problem of which evangelist to trust, since they often give quite different versions of Jesus’ sayings. It also pretends not to notice that Matthew and Luke deliberately modify sayings they find in Mark and Q. Matthew and Luke apparently assumed they knew better than Christians before them what Jesus said. On Witherington’s logic, then, the gospels of Matthew and Luke are themselves products of hubris.
The strangest of Witherington’s criticisms of the Jesus Seminar is one that reveals his own (mis)understanding of the very basis for historical Jesus research. In criticizing the composition of the Seminar, Witherington complains that none of its members are fundamentalists. He states that fundamentalists could not participate in the Seminar because its approach is biased to present a non-fundamentalist portrait of the historical Jesus (44). Actually, fundamentalists could join the Seminar if they wished, but Witherington is correct to think they would feel out of place. For the real issue here is whether historical Jesus research can be conducted on the basis of fundamentalist convictions. And it should be obvious that if we start with the belief in the literal historicity of every verse in the Bible, we rule out, by definition, critical judgments about the historical reliability of anything in the gospels. Witherington’s assumption here that an unbiased approach to the historical Jesus must include the fundamentalist perspective really amounts to a rejection of the very basis of historical-critical scholarship.
For Witherington, apparently, the quest for the historical Jesus does not question the historical reliability of the gospel material, but consists of fitting it all into a harmonized composite. Consider one of his closing comments on the Jesus Seminar. Referring to the Seminar’s conclusion that 18% of the sayings can confidently be traced to the historical Jesus, Witherington objects that the Seminar
|rejects the majority of the evidence (82%)… I will leave the reader to decide whether it is a truly scholarly and unbiased approach to reject the majority of one’s evidence and stress a minority of it (57).|
This statement implies that Witherington accepts all the gospel material to be evidence for the historical Jesus; only on this assumption could he accuse the Seminar of “rejecting” evidence. Without this assumption, one could not say that the Seminar rejects any evidence for the historical Jesus, but rather that it finds only 18% of the sayings to be evidence for the historical Jesus. This is not “rejecting” evidence; it is making judgments about what kind of evidence each saying is: some sayings are evidence for the historical Jesus and some are evidence for early Christians who attributed their own words to Jesus.
Witherington concludes his chapter on the Jesus Seminar with a sweeping dismissal of its work. What is interesting are the reasons Witherington gives for why he believes the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is not historically accurate: “This seminar Jesus will not preach” and “did not come to save” (57). Witherington’s assurance this “this seminar Jesus” cannot be the object of contemporary Christian preaching seems to imply that since Witherington cannot preach this Jesus, no Christian could or should. Whether this attitude is naive narrowness or outright arrogance is irrelevant. The fact is that numerous pastors have responded enthusiastically to the public work of the Seminar because this Jesus is one they can preach. Witherington’s ignorance of this fact is not really the point. The point is that his verdict on the Jesus Seminar shows clearly that his standards for historical Jesus research are not historical at all, but theological. His bottom line for the historical Jesus is that Witherington be able to preach him and that Jesus be the bringer of “salvation” in the distinctive sense that Witherington’s theological tradition understands it.
II. Jesus and Apocalyptic
Witherington maintains that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, but an exceptionally odd one: one who wasn’t sure whether the End was imminent. According to Witherington, Jesus preached that the End might be coming soon. Furthermore, Witherington’s Jesus understood himself in terms of the Son of Man in Daniel 7, who, apparently, might or might not be coming soon.
1) The first leg of Witherington’s case is that the gospel sayings about the future Son of Man all come from the historical Jesus. He offers three reasons for this position: a) they meet the criterion of double dissimilarity; b) they are presupposed in the sayings where the Son of Man is a present figure; c) there is multiple independent attestation for this kind of saying.
a) Witherington argues that the future Son of Man sayings meet the criterion of dissimilarity because (i) there was no Jewish expectation of a coming of the Son of Man, and because (ii) the coming Son of Man was not part of early Christian theology. The first claim denies what the most famous Son of Man text in the OT (Dan 7:13) explicitly describes: “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.” A few pages later, however, we learn that Daniel 7 “seems to speak of a Son of Man going up into the presence of God, not of a Son of Man coming down to earth” (97). On Witherington’s own terms, then, it seems that Jesus himself misunderstood Daniel 7.
As for (ii), Witherington’s claim that the coming Son of Man is not part of early Christian theology is based on the fact that this concept is not found outside the gospels. This assumes, however, that the gospels themselves are not evidence for what early Christians believed. As bizarre as that assumption will seem to readers familiar with the critical study of the gospels, it is a cornerstone of Witherington’s approach, because for him the gospels are evidence for what the historical Jesus said and thought and did, not for early Christian interpretations of Jesus. Witherington either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that this begs the entire question of the historical Jesus. It coheres perfectly with his assumption that the quest for the historical Jesus is compatible with fundamentalism (see above).
b) A problem in understanding Son of Man terminology is that the gospels use it not only to refer to a future apocalyptic figure, but also as Jesus’ self-designation in the here-and-now of the narrative. So if Jesus saw the Son of Man as one who will act in the future, how could he describe his own activity as that of the Son of Man? Simple, says Witherington:
|[Jesus] saw God’s eschatological activity already occurring in and through his ministry… Thus even in the “present” Son of Man sayings, the context of Daniel 7 stands in the background (95).|
Forget about the plain sense of the texts: even when Jesus is talking about the present he’s supposedly thinking about the future. All it takes is the belief that Jesus actually said everything attributed to him in the gospels and the confidence that you can read Jesus’ mind.
c) Contrary to Witherington, an obstacle to tracing the future Son of Man sayings to the historical Jesus is that they are not multiply attested. Some occur in Mark and some in Q, but none of the sayings are attested in two independent sources. Witherington sidesteps this problem by taking the sayings as a group: the future Son of Man sayings “as a general category meet the criterion of multiple attestation” (96, emphasis original). It’s hard to know what to make of this. Apparently, Witherington believes that although the sayings themselves are not multiply attested, they should be taken as authentic because the general category is. One repeatedly gets the impression that Witherington is not out to determine which sayings or deeds go back to Jesus. To his mind, they all do. His only real challenge is to find the arguments that point to this preordained conclusion. And since he obviously writes for those who believe as he does (for who else would be persuaded by his arguments except for those who share his assumptions?), any argument will do.
2) The second leg of Witherington’s case for the apocalyptic Jesus takes us into strange territory. It starts with Witherington’s consideration of Mk 13:32: “As for the exact day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor even the son, no one, except the Father.” Although this saying is not attested independently of Mark, Witherington believes it is authentic. His reason: “It is quite unbelievable that the early church would have fabricated this” (96). 2 Unbelievable to Witherington, perhaps; but for others it is quite believable that early Christians might well have invented this saying as a way of explaining why Jesus had not been more precise in his predictions, or as a way of taking out insurance on his credibility, just in case the End proved tardy. Be that as it may, Witherington’s conclusion is stunning:
|[Mk 13:32] can only mean one thing: Jesus did not proclaim that the end was necessarily imminent. At most he could only have spoken of its possible imminence, something which I believe he did do (96, emphasis original).|
Jesus’ message, then, was: “the End is near, maybe.” Or, to rewrite Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message (Mk 1:15): “The time is fulfilled (maybe), and the kingdomof Godhas (perhaps) come near; so (just in case it has) repent, and believe in the good news (though I’m not saying it’s necessarily true).”
A serious problem for Witherington’s thesis is that, just two verses earlier, Mark reports that Jesus unequivocally announced that the End was imminent: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mk 13:30) — where “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man. Witherington doesn’t address this muddle here, though in passing references to Mk 13:30 elsewhere (pp. 100, 133, 210), he asserts that this saying refers to the end of the temple, not to the End itself. He gives no reason why we should believe that 13:30 refers only to the end of the temple, while 13:32 refers to the End of the cosmos. There are no grounds whatsoever in Mark’s context to distinguish what Jesus is talking about in 13:30 from what he is talking about in 13:32.
Witherington’s problems are generated by his own theological commitment to the historical truth of the gospels. Since for him the gospel tradition all comes from Jesus, the only real challenge is to figure out how all the pieces can fit together into a coherent mosaic. A big problem, however, is that the gospel material can be stubbornly inconsistent with itself. Considerable ingenuity is needed to explain away such inconsistencies, especially in cases (like this one) that require the harmonizer to ignore or contradict the clear meaning of the text. Critical scholars who are not intent on harmonization take these mismatches as evidence that the words and deeds of Jesus were given new meanings by early Christians or that early Christians differed among themselves over the meaning of Jesus’ words, deeds, and identity. But for Witherington all the gospel material is evidence for the historical Jesus.
Witherington’s premises are flawed, but his logic is valid. If Mark 13:32 (which refers to the End) comes from Jesus, it follows that he could not have proclaimed with confidence that the End was near (even though he does in 13:30). Elsewhere Jesus speaks of the End and the coming of the Son of Man without such reticence; but since 13:32 has to fit into the mosaic, Witherington has to imagine Jesus crossing his fingers as he preached: even when he says the End is near, he only means it might be near. Unfortunately, Jesus was unable to convey this nuance effectively, because just a few years after this death, some of his followers were anticipating the End within their own lifetimes. But Witherington explains that the future Son of Man sayings led “some Christians to the erroneous conclusion that Jesus had spoken of a necessarily imminent end” (97).
The conclusion that some early Christians misunderstood or deliberately changed what Jesus meant is not unusual among critical scholars. Tracing out the modulations in the meaning of sayings as they function in Jesus’ own context, in the context of this or that Christian preachment, and in the literary contexts of the gospels is a traditional cottage industry in historical Jesus scholarship. That different sectors of the Jesus movement reinterpreted (or misinterpreted) the teaching of the master (e.g., by making the parables refer to Jesus himself) is a standard working hypothesis. However, it is surprising for Witherington to take this position: earlier in his book when he criticized the Jesus Seminar, he protested that it was an act of “hubris” for modern scholars to think that they understand Jesus better than his ancient followers.
3) The third facet of Witherington’s discussion of Jesus and apocalyptic has to do with Jesus’ self-understanding. Not only did Jesus predict the (possibly) imminent coming of the Son of Man, he believed that he himself was that Son of Man. According to Witherington, Jesus recognized himself in the apocalyptic scenario of Daniel: “The Daniel 7 material was foundational for Jesus’ understanding of who he was and what God wished him to do and proclaim” (97). Witherington does not say how he knows this, nor does he so much as advert to the methodological leaps entailed in claiming to know such a precise detail of someone’s psychology without autobiographical evidence. For the sake of argument, however, let’s grant Witherington his assertion and notice what it entails.
First, it entails a curious lacuna in Jesus’ self-knowledge: according to Witherington, Jesus knew he was the Son of Man who was going to return to earth on the clouds, but he didn’t know when. Second, it means that Jesus’ self-understanding was based on a mistake. Daniel 7 does not portray the “one like a son of man” as an individual human being; it presents this figure as a symbol for the whole people ofIsrael, just as the horrific beasts that precede it represent conquering kingdoms. This is not a modern exegetical opinion; this is how Daniel 7 itself explicitly interprets its own symbolism (see Dan 7:17-18, 23-27). Witherington maintains that when Jesus read Daniel 7 he believed that he was reading about himself. For Jesus to think that the one like a son of man could be an individual person (i.e., Jesus himself) would be to misinterpret Daniel 7. That is not Jesus’ only mistake, however. According to Witherington, the Son of Man in Daniel 7 does not come to earth on the clouds, but rather goes up to God on them. Yet if one takes Mk 13:26 as an authentic saying (as Witherington does), Jesus understands the Son of Man to ride the clouds from heaven to earth. In short, Witherington’s Jesus comes to his self-understanding with a combination of ignorance and error. That Jesus made mistakes and didn’t know some important things is, obviously, not a problem for historians nor for Christians who believe in Jesus’ full humanity. However, as we shall see, Witherington maintains that the historical Jesus, in addition to being the coming Son of Man, was also the incarnation of divine Wisdom. For incarnate Wisdom to manifest such ignorance and error about his self-understanding is, to say the least, incongruous and unseemly.
III. Wisdom Incarnate
In The Jesus Quest Witherington analyzes the works of some twenty scholars, treating his own previous work within this format. We thus have Witherington’s own summary of his views on Jesus, entitled “Jesus the Sage, the Embodiment of Wisdom” (pp. 185-196). Witherington begins by pointing out that Jesus’ primary mode of discourse is in wisdom genres (riddles, parables, aphorisms, etc.). That Jesus was a teacher in the wisdom tradition is non-controversial. According to Witherington, however, Jesus not only taught wisdom; he was Wisdom itself.
Witherington makes his case by reading several of Jesus’ sayings as indirect self-references. According to Witherington:
• When Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Mt 11:19), he was referring to himself. Witherington argues that some of the “deeds” that vindicate Jesus as Wisdom are his meals with outcasts, which show that Jesus was acting out the part of Wisdom holding a feast for unlikely guests (187).
• In the “foxes have holes” saying (Q 9:58), Jesus articulates his own experience “in light of what happened to Wisdom according to the late wisdom material in 1 Enoch 42” (188). Witherington claims that another text that influenced Jesus’ formulation of this saying was Sir 36:31 (“Who will trust a man that has no nest, but lodges wherever night overtakes him?”). Witherington overlooks or ignores the fact that Sirach here is critical of the itinerant.
• In Q 13:34-35 (the lament overJerusalem), “Jesus saw his rejection byJerusalemas the rejection of God’s Wisdom” (188). Here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen.
• Q 10:21-22 (“No one knows who the son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the son”) expresses Jesus’ relationship to God in terms that resemble Wisdom’s relationship to God. In addition, “Jesus’ use of abba indicates that he believed he had a unique relationship to God” (189). Witherington does not explain how this squares with Jesus’ instruction for all to address God as father (Q 11:2) or his inclusive use of the term “sons of God” (e.g., Q 6:35, Mt 5:9)
• When Jesus quotes Wisdom (“The Wisdom of God said…”) in Luke 11:49, he “may have identified himself directly as God’s Wisdom” (189).
In discussing these four sayings, Witherington gives a one-sentence argument for the authenticity of Q 10:21-22, and no argument whatever either for the authenticity of the other three sayings or for his assertion that in these sayings Jesus portrayed himself as Wisdom. It’s not as if Witherington is unaware of the need for arguments. When discussing Lk 11:49 and Mt 11:19, he explains that these sayings would confirm his view that Jesus saw himself as Wisdom if their authenticity could be demonstrated. But Witherington does not claim to have demonstrated this, only that “the arguments I advanced… go some distance toward validating their authenticity” (189). This uncommon reticence is mooted, however, by the fact that the “arguments” Witherington refers to are bare assertions and not arguments at all. But no matter: his “case does not need to rest solely on such explicit statements” (189).
Witherington then goes on to explain how numerous Jesus sayings are sapiential in form, content, and style (189-190). He offers no arguments at all for the historicity of any of these sayings. But, what is more bewildering, he seems to think that Jesus’ traffic in sapiential material somehow supports the conclusion that Jesus saw himself as Wisdom incarnate.
Witherington does not think that Jesus’ self-understanding was innate. It was something Jesus had to discover and Witherington believes that he knows how Jesus did it:
|[Sirach 24] sees Torah as the locus where wisdom exists on earth… It was not a far step from this to identifying a particular person instead of a thing with God’s Wisdom… Jesus took this step, in concert with his belief that he was God’s divine agent, God’s apostle or sent one, endowed with a divine commission, an intimate knowledge of the Sender’s mind and purposes (192).|
Jesus may have found additional support for this self-understanding in other texts:
|Jesus may have seen the Wisdom hymn of Proverbs 8 or Sirach 24, even Wisdom of Solomon 8-9, as the clue to his own career and its outcome (193).|
This kind of reasoning is vintage Witherington. If he can see a connection, he asserts it as if it were obvious to all, either unaware or unconcerned about how others may look at it. His claim that “it was not a far step” from believing Torah to be the locus of wisdom to identifying a particular person as Wisdom in the flesh is a perfect example. Torah was the word of God, the holiest and most precious object Jews could see, revered for centuries. To suggest, therefore, that believing Torah to be the locus of wisdom is almost the same as thinking that an itinerant carpenter fromNazarethis Wisdom incarnate is wondrous audacity. Witherington doesn’t even break stride. A page later he suggests that Wisdom incarnate, who has “an intimate knowledge of [God’s] mind,” had to read wisdom literature to pick up clues about his career!
For the sake of the argument, assume Witherington is correct and Jesus truly did believe he was Wisdom incarnate. If Jesus was right about himself, what does this entail? For one thing, it entails that the personification of Wisdom in the late wisdom literature is not simply a literary device and that the story of Wisdom is no mere myth. It is a metaphysical reality. It turns out that there actually was a supernatural being named Wisdom, a being distinct from God that came to earth in human form.
In Witherington’s view, Jesus believed himself to be something more than a human being. He goes so far as to assert that Jesus understood himself to be a divine being (“God’s divine agent”), Wisdom personified. At the end of an earlier book, The Christology of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1990), 3 Witherington posed the question: “Did Jesus think himself to be divine?” (p. 275). Witherington answered that Jesus did not use the word “God” for himself; that is Christian language. However, Witherington (quoting Raymond Brown) speculated that if Jesus could have read the Gospel of John, “he would have found that Gospel a suitable expression of his identity” (Ibid., 277). Remember that in the climactic scene in John’s gospel Thomas addresses Jesus as “my God” (John 20:28). Witherington, then, believes that Jesus would have agreed with Thomas that he was God. Since Witherington insists (rightly) that the historical Jesus must be understood squarely within the context of Judaism, the divine being/God whom Jesus believed himself to be can only have been Judaism’s God, none other than Yahweh himself, the creator of the universe. How could a Jew believe this about himself? How could this thought even arise in a sane Jewish mind?
Such a farfetched claim about the historical Jesus makes the apologetic purpose of Witherington’s scholarship transparent. It also clearly reveals Witherington’s understanding of the task of biblical scholarship, namely, to provide exegetical cover for the truth of his own theological tradition. Witherington’s position that Jesus thought he was a divine being puts him at the extremist fringe of historical Jesus scholars. However, in my view, this is not the most bizarre position Witherington takes. Once he combines his view of who Jesus believed himself to be (Wisdom incarnate) with his view of the nature of Jesus’s apocalyptic message (that the End was possibly imminent), Witherington gets a Jesus who is self-consciously divine Wisdom (with “an intimate knowledge of [God’s] mind and purpose”) and whose message to humanity was that the End of the world might be coming soon. What is boggling here is not so much the sheer implausibility of this christological scenario, but the stunning triviality of what divine Wisdom has to say. “The End might be coming soon” is a statement that is equally true at every moment in history, logically equivalent to statements such as “next month you might get a raise.” Statements like this are always true because no subsequent state of affairs can possibly prove them wrong. In the nomenclature of contemporary philosophy, such statements are “trivially true” because they tell us (literally) nothing about the world. If Witherington is right that this was indeed at the center of Jesus’ message, then Jesus had nothing important to say. And if Witherington is also correct that the Jesus who preached this “message” was indeed divine Wisdom come to earth, then God has played us all for fools.
IV. Witherington’s Audience
Witherington shows (to his own satisfaction) that rigorous scholarship (as he construes it) can establish that the historical Jesus believed himself to be a pre-existent divine being come to earth. It will be obvious to all who read Witherington that he does not believe that Jesus was wrong. One way to see Witherington’s book, then, is as a kind of gospel, inasmuch as its “message” is intended to be good news. And then it will be useful to ask a question that we routinely ask about the ancient gospels: who is its implied audience? That is, who would be persuaded by Witherington’s case that Jesus proclaimed himself to be Wisdom incarnate, and for whom would this be good news?
My hunch is that the only readers who will concur with Witherington that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnation of a divine being are those who start the book with this conviction. Those for whom this is “good news” are those who believe, not only that Jesus saw himself this way, but that Jesus was right about himself. Witherington’s implied audience, then, are Christians who believe Jesus is divine but who also want to believe that biblical scholarship can demonstrate that the historical Jesus believed this about himself.
While most Christians traditionally have believed that Jesus is divine, it has only been in the last few years that the need has arisen for assurance from biblical scholars that the historical Jesus shared this belief. Why so? Because only recently have Christian believers been disturbed by biblical scholarship that emphasizes the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Biblical scholars have long questioned (or denied) the historical reliability of the gospels; but only in the last decade have some of them communicated this directly and without equivocation to the American public. Previously, fundamentalists enjoyed a virtual monopoly over public discourse on the Bible, with the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell being the only “experts” on the Bible in the public eye.
That Witherington’s book is published by InterVarsity Press is not incidental. The evangelical-to-fundamentalist believers who comprise InterVarsity’s market have been made aware of a number of television documentaries about Jesus (such as those in the series “Mysteries of the Bible”) and popular books (some of them bestsellers), along with the talk show and press interviews with their authors, in which a professor of New Testament (or even a bishop) has told the American public that the historical Jesus was a far different figure than the one portrayed in the canonical gospels. This experience cannot but be disturbing to many conservative Christians. Although these troublemaking scholars have been denounced from the pulpit, this no longer seems quite enough. What is needed are champions of the faith who can defend orthodoxy from within the scholarly guild. Witherington’s book fills this bill exactly: he analyzes all the important new books, commends them when they support orthodox views, exposes their deficiencies and errors when they do not, and proposes his own historical Jesus that is perfectly compatible with evangelical theology. In short, Witherington delivers the goods for orthodoxy. He writes to reassure those persons troubled by the likes of Borg, Crossan, or Funk and their notorious fellow travelers in the Jesus Seminar. According to Witherington, these scholars have misread the texts, ignored the evidence, and made judgments based on prejudice or ideology. So not only are these skeptics wrong religiously in that they deny the Christian faith (about which they seem to care little), they are wrong intellectually and thus have failed as scholars (about which they care a great deal).
Readers outside of Witherington’s implied audience will detect a certain irony in the “quest” and “search” terminology of the title of his book. There is no real doubt about where Witherington’s “quest” will end because this quest is not one to discover who the historical Jesus really was. For Witherington (and other scholar-apologists who share his approach) the outcome is determined, not by historical research, but by theological affirmation: the historical Jesus is the divine figure of traditional Christian belief. The “search” is not for the correct understanding of Jesus because this was never “lost”; it was there all along in the creed.
Yet there is a quest in The Jesus Quest, namely, the quest for scholarly support for a historical Jesus who is also the Christ of the creeds. This quest knows where it has to end up; the only question is how to get there. This apologetic quest, whatever its merits, is not a critical enterprise. Indeed its purpose is the very opposite. For Witherington’s audience the success of this quest is judged not by the cogency of its argument, but by the orthodoxy of its results. It should come as no surprise that The Jesus Quest was acclaimed “best book on the Bible in 1995” by Christianity Today (which is subtitled, “A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction”), whose founder and chairman of the board is Billy Graham.
1 Witherington distorts the Seminar’s procedures here, by implying that it used an either/or approach to the historicity of the gospels. In fact, as is clear to anyone who actually reads the introduction to The Five Gospels, Seminar members had the option of voting “undecided” (by voting “gray”), and a very large number of sayings are colored gray in The Five Gospels. Gray material is regarded as neither authentic nor inauthentic because the evidence is not decisive one way or the other.
2 If Witherington were more forthcoming, he would have owned up to a presumption that any attentive reader will have noticed: for Witherington, it is unbelievable that the early church would have fabricated any saying of Jesus.
3 See my review in CBQ 54 (1992): 810-811.