Thursday, May 24, 2012

Completing Witherington's Christology of Jesus

I finished Ben Witherington III's The Christology of Jesus.  In this post, I'll highlight what Witherington says on page 276:

"Material in the Synoptics hints that Jesus had a transcendent self-image amounting to no more than a unique awareness of the Divine.  If, however, one means by divine awareness something that suggests either that Jesus saw himself as the whole or exclusive representation of the Godhead or that he considered himself in a way that amounted to the rejection of the central tenet of Judaism, (i.e., monotheism), then the answer must be no.  Jesus clearly prayed to a God he called abba, which excludes the idea that Jesus thought he was abba.  Jesus' affirmation of monotheism seems clear (e.g., Mark 10:17-18; Matt. 23:9)."

What I expected when I picked up this book was for Witherington to argue via scholarly argumentation that Jesus viewed himself as God.  That would give strength to C.S. Lewis' Lord-liar-lunatic trilemma, which states that Jesus either was God as he claimed, or he was a liar or a madman, and, since the latter two were not the case (since Jesus said and did things that were good and that made a degree of sense), we must conclude that he was God.  But Witherington did not argue that Jesus saw himself as God.  He contended that Jesus may have regarded himself as a shaliach, a person with divine authority; that Jesus viewed himself as a special son of God in the sense that he was the Messiah (for the Davidic kings were considered sons of God); that Jesus believed his death would atone for sins; and that Jesus thought he was wisdom incarnate.  But those were different from Jesus viewing himself as God.

But would the Lord-liar-lunatic trilemma still work, since, even in Witherington's scenario, Jesus had an exalted conception of himself?  That depends on how unusual such a conception was in ancient Judaism.  Jesus was not the only one who was regarded as a shaliach, nor was he the only person who thought he was the Messiah.  Jesus also may not have been unique in believing that his death would atone for people's sins, for there was a belief in ancient Judaism that the death of the righteous could bring vicarious atonement.  Witherington does argue that Jesus was unique in seeing himself as wisdom incarnate, but I don't see why that would be an unthinkable leap from Jesus' other exalted conceptions of himself.  Jesus could have easily gone from viewing himself as the shaliach and as the Messiah, to seeing himself as wisdom itself.  And, just because Jesus saw himself in such terms, that doesn't mean he was accurate, for others in ancient Judaism made exalted claims about themselves.  Were they right?

(UPDATE: I wrote this post a while back, and I've already turned Witherington's book back into the library.  As I think back, I don't remember if Witherington talked much about people who had an exalted SELF-conception in ancient Judaism.  Rather, if my memory is correct, he discussed exalted conceptions that people had about others----that another person could be a shaliach, or could die for others' sins.  My impression is that Witherington still felt that these conceptions were relevant to how Jesus saw himself, however, and that Jesus' exalted self-conception was not unusual in light of these conceptions that were floating around in his day.)

In my posts on The Christology of Jesus, I have mentioned Witherington's conclusions, without really going into how Witherington arrived at them.  Witherington does attempt to establish through scholarly argumentation that Jesus said and did certain things that are recorded in the synoptic Gospels.  My impression is that, most of the time, he does this by relying on a criterion of embarrassment, which states that the early church would not have invented embarrassing things about Jesus, and thus those things were authentic to Jesus himself.  For example, Witherington regards Jesus' claim to have authority over the Sabbath in Mark 2 to be historical, for the early church would not invent Jesus making the blooper that Abiathar was the high priest during David's flight, when Ahimelech was the priest.  That means that Jesus historically believed that he had (an unprecedented?) authority over the Torah.  Witherington believes that Jesus historically saw himself as the eschatological Son of Man, for Jesus tells Jewish authorities in Mark 14:62 that they will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven (I draw here from the KJV's language).  According to Witherington, the early church would not have invented this, for those Jewish authorities technically did not see Jesus on the right hand of power coming in the clouds of heaven.  For Witherington, there is good reason to conclude that Jesus historically had an exalted self-conception, or Christology.


  1. James, thank you for your perceptive and clear reviews of books I have no intention of reading. I met BW-III at St Andrew's in 2006. He too was clear and definitive in his thinking. But - how do we get past the traditions we find ourselves in? I hope you will do this- moving beyond the careful and detailed reception history and traditions you are in. Yes - vicarious suffering is supported in the TNK - particularly in the writings and particularly in the Psalms - Lamentations and Psalms both have an I-we-us singular plural aspect that is obscured by current translations (making gender inclusiveness trump grammar) and although clear in our traditional translations, obscured by the lenses we look through.

    The defining of the divine is a tough project for a human. I am glad to hear that BW-III has done so well. You too are in my prayers that we might come to the razor sharp issue that faced Jesus as he read the Psalms. Look at Ps 102 for example and compare it with Ps 90 in the context of the culmination of Books 1-3 and the lament of Ps 89. How does the human read the failure of monarchy - recognized for what it was by the redactor of the Psalter - and make a move that will heal the governance problems in the world. (The leaves that do not wither are for the healing of the nations.)

    BTW - re what I have written, I long for the precision that does not jump to conclusions, but it is a hard thing for me to find in my own writing...

  2. Forgot to tick email - also came across this link at entangled states - about Rowling and story telling - nice - but the point is in the doing not just the intellectual result. Blessings

  3. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I'll read that link on Harry Potter.


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