Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Witherington on Jesus as Wisdom

On page 204 of Jesus the Sage, Ben Witherington III states:

"What is especially daring about the idea of Jesus taking the personification of Wisdom and suggesting that he is the living embodiment of it, is that while a prophet might be seen as a mashal or prophetic sign, no one, so far as one can tell, up to that point in early Judaism had dared to [suggest] that he was a human embodiment of an attribute of God----God's Wisdom. Indeed, as M. Hengel has remarked to me, no known person in early Judaism other than Jesus between the time of Alexander and Bar Kokhba was identified with the personification of Wisdom. Some explanation for this remarkable and anomalous development must be given, and the best, though by no means the only, explanation of this fact is that Jesus presented himself as both sage and the message of the sage----God's Wisdom."

According to Witherington, there are parts of the Q source in which Jesus identifies himself with wisdom, as when Jesus affirms that he is greater than Solomon, to whom a lot of wisdom literature was attributed. Witherington believes that the association of Jesus with wisdom (which is different from simply saying that Jesus said wise things) could very well go back to Jesus himself, for others in early Judaism did not identify themselves with wisdom, and Q had to get from somewhere the idea that Jesus was that particular attribute of God. I wonder why one couldn't just say that Q decided to associate Jesus with wisdom. The question would then be why it chose to do so. What was it about Jesus that led some people to conclude that he was more than a mere holy man, but was actually wisdom itself, or even a divine sort of being? And, if Jesus claimed that he himself was wisdom, what are the implications of that? Are we placed in a variant of C.S. Lewis' trilemma: that Jesus is who he says he is, or he is insane, or devilish? Not many sane people, period, make the grandiose claim that they are the actual embodiment of wisdom, and such a claim would probably have been even more revolutionary or extraordinary in first century Judaism.

In his chapter on the hymns about Christ that are in certain New Testament books and epistles, Witherington says that wisdom helped people who were seeking a way to conceptualize Jesus without violating monotheism. In wisdom literature, wisdom was a hypostasis or attribute of God, and hymns about Christ try to conceptualize Jesus' pre-existent state in terms of that. At the same time, Witherington argues that the hymns do not necessarily adopt the whole ideology of wisdom literature, for wisdom literature tended to regard wisdom as created, whereas Witherington appears to believe that the pre-existent Son was begotten, not made. Consequently, Witherington interprets the statement in Colossians 1:15 that the Son is the firstborn of creation to mean, not that the Son was the first to be created, but rather that the Son is pre-eminent over creation. Similarly, when God in Psalm 89:27 promises to make the king his firstborn, he's referring to the king's pre-eminence, not his origin before all things.


  1. I found Witherington a bit withering if asked a question that he deemed ill-informed. It's not a style that I find encouraging. I also doubted whether one could believe a man with a III after his name. These are my prejudices. Nonetheless, I still raise questions and still offer answers even after his withering rebuke to me in 2006. (I forget what my question was). Right now I am wrestling with Christ and Jesus - theoretically - Is it Jesus who is 'pre-existent'? I don't much like that term 'pre-existent' because it presumes that we understand time in a linear model. And our science today does not make this presumption. Or is it Christ - the Anointed - who is pre-existent? And the Spirit - the Anointing (for God, the One who Anoints, is Spirit) elects Jesus prior to the birth of Jesus - before he was in his mother's womb - as the son, the new Adam, God's beloved (Ps 127), the apple of his eye (Ps 17). This Anointing, this One who Anoints, this Anointed therefore, I find in TNK without question.

    I wrestle - not theoretically - with this God, HaShem, who is for me, One, where I am not, yet he finds me in him, having come to where I am.

  2. I can understand being leery about a writer after being rebuked by him. That's one reason I've not commented on David Marshall's blog, even though (on-and-off) I've been blogging through his books.

    On your question, those issues are usually in my mind, but I'm not always careful in expressing those nuances. Technically, it's not the pre-existence Jesus, but he was Jesus when he was a man. And my guess is that it's not pre-existent Christ, either, for Jesus was Christ while he was a man, and thereafer----though you may be right that he was elected to do that before his birth. I've said God the Word who became Jesus Christ, but that's John, and so I can't use that terminology when discussing. Writing can be hard! :D

  3. Certainly by the time we get to the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, and Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today and for ever, we have identification of HJ with Christ and the Spirit of God with the Spirit of Christ, the Lord the Spirit, and so on, all the identifications of the mystery of the threefold manifestations of the One in the NT. Christ = Anointed = Messiah has become title rather than action from God the Spirit towards his beloved and his elect. I think we should be careful not to forget the engagement HaShem has with the elect of all ages. I think Christendom has often forgotten and also individuals within the scope of historical Christendom.

    Thanks for the interaction on this. Remember also that I am not a trained theologian, just one to whom a measure of knowledge has been given.

  4. Oh and BTW, I don't hold W's w'ing remarks to me against him personally.

  5. That's good that you don't. I probably would hold it against him personally!


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