The Christology of Jesus

Written by Ben Witherington III Reviewed By Royce Gordon Gruenler

This study might be viewed as an exegetical tour de force in that it works within mainstream methodology and is published by a press not known for its evangelical leanings, yet notwithstanding it manages to make a mild and inferential case for the messianic self-understanding of Jesus. This approach reflects the model of C.K. Barrett, the author’s principal mentor, and accordingly presents a cautiously conservative analysis of the synoptic material (largely Mark and Q) as it affords hints of Jesus’ authoritative claims. The author follows a ‘most scholars’ consensus methodology, utilizing the criteria of multiple attestation and dissimilarity centred on the priority of Mark, and largely bracketing the data of the fourth gospel.

This approach enables the reader to reflect on the grounds upon which more radical exegesis, using the same consensus criticism, rejects Jesus’ messianic consciousness and self-asserted authority. The intended audience appears to be the mainline academy, and the fact that Fortress would publish the volume attests its scholarly nature and the willingness of the author to be concessional on matters of basic methodology. The value of the study, accordingly, is not that bold new approaches to gospel criticism are adduced but that old methodologies are pressed for their positive implications in respect of Jesus’ authoritative posture. While some innovative evangelicals on the right, such as John Wenham, and Bultmannians on the left, like Helmut Koester, are not listed in the index of modern authors (reference to others such as J.A.T. Robinson is also wanting), it is noteworthy that the author’s sympathies are with general evangelical assumptions. He approvingly cites David Wells’ distinction (in The Person of Christ) between Jesus’ psychological self-consciousness and his cognitive self-understanding, largely limiting his study to the latter (pp. 25f.), although at points he toys with the possibility of tracing Jesus’ developing psychological religious experience, especially in view of the parables (pp. 206–210).

Before accumulating evidence for Jesus’ claims to authority the author disclaims affinity for the early Christian prophets school, with its heavy emphasis on later churchly redactional creativity, and leans rather toward early preservation and translation in the ad 30s of Jesus’ sayings and the stories about him. ‘Significantly,’ he notes, ‘those New Testament scholars in the modern era who have been the most well-versed in both Aramaic and Greek have tended to draw rather conservative conclusions about the state of the sayings material as we find them in the Gospels’ (p. 11). A different and less modest book could have been written had Witherington pursued a more direct course of exegesis, based on this conservative assumption. As he notes, however, the purpose of the volume is to address those who do not share this optimism, hence the study ‘will not presume the authenticity of the material with which we are dealing …’ (p. 11, note). Yet the introductory section, ‘Methodological and Historical Considerations’, is for the most part conservative and challenges more radical critical tradition: ‘Thus, the alleged chasm between the speech event of the historical Jesus and the post-Easter speaking about Jesus probably never existed’ (p. 15).

In light of such statements, readers will differ as to whether the cautious style of the book is altogether warranted. What is offered on the one hand with conservative forthrightness in regard to Christian origins is softened on the other hand with concessions that may in the end cause the study to fall between two stools, as too conciliatory for conservatives and too conservative for those of more liberal persuasion. A case in point is the elimination of data from the fourth gospel: ‘I will not be dealing with material such as the “I Am” discourses in the Fourth Gospel because it is difficult to argue on the basis of the historical-critical method that they go back to a Sitz im Leben Jesu’ (p. 30). Yet on the last page of the book he quotes approvingly from Raymond Brown: ‘… I have no difficulty with the thesis that if Jesus … could have read John, he would have found that Gospel a suitable expression of his identity.… The affirmation that Jesus had knowledge of his self-identity … is not meant to exclude a development in his existential knowledge of what that identity implied for his life’ (p. 277, Brown’s emphasis). But this approach raises two questions: (1) Can the scholar on critical grounds really trace a development in Jesus’ existential self-consciousness, and has not this enterprise already been eschewed by Witherington, as noted above? (2) If Jesus would have found the fourth gospel ‘a suitable expression of his identity’, on what grounds does one argue that the Johannine sayings do not represent an accurate historical account of his self-disclosure? What reliable criteria are available for distinguishing between authentic sayings and later Christological redactions, given such an assumption?

Following the chapter on methodological and historical considerations, Witherington turns to the question of ‘Christology and the Relationships of Jesus’. Here, psychological speculations such as ‘Could Jesus have obtained his idea about forgiveness of sins from John?’ (p. 38; cf. p. 55) may be compared with the author’s favourable citation from R.T. France, ‘I have found no instance where Jesus expects a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy other than through his own ministry, and certainly no suggestion of a future restoration of the Jewish nation independent of himself’ (p. 44), a quotation which would suggest Jesus’ independent self-sufficiency as interpreter of the new age dawning in his ministry. Since, however, Jesus is seen as sorting out his own sense of identity and mission before a hostile audience, it is not surprising that biazetai and biastai in Matthew 11:12 are interpreted as passive (‘the kingdom of heaven is suffering violence and the violent take it by force’) rather than as middle (‘the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it’, so niv, in view of Mt. 12:28f.). The chapter contains good overview background material on Josephus, period revolutionaries, and Jesus’ relationship with religious authorities and disciples, though debatable is the view that Jesus did not symbolically identify himself with Israel or operate with Isaiah’s notion of a remnant (p. 129).

Chapter 3 focuses on ‘Christology and the Deeds of Jesus’, in which the theios aner school is rejected and a generally astute analysis of Jesus’ works is presented. This is followed by an extensive chapter 4, ‘Christology and the Words of Jesus’. Here Witherington centres first on ‘Amen, I say’, David’s Son or David’s Lord?, and the Dominion (basileia) of God. The author is unclear as to whether Jesus embodies God’s reign, and if so, why it cannot be entered during his ministry (p. 206). In the parables (meshalim) discussion which follows, the author entertains the psychologizing suggestion that Jesus heard the parables from God and thus learned and discerned his own mission in life; accordingly we may view the parables as at the very root of Christology in the sense of Jesus’ growing awareness of who he was and what he was to do (p. 210). One might observe that while the parables evidence Jesus’ self-understanding that he is inaugurating the reign of God through his words and works, it is questionable that they tell us anything about his developing religious self-consciousness, an area that would appear inaccessible. Abba, Wisdom and Son of Man are next discussed for their Christological content, the Son of Man material being particularly well researched except for the rejection of ‘the dubious theory of corporate personality’ (p. 247), to which some may take objection.

The book concludes with a brief ‘Afterword and Conclusions’ in which Wrede is taken to task and the rather radical idea set forth that ‘Mark was a conservative editor of his source material, not the creative author many redaction critics claim.… Thus, we should not stress the idea that Mark is a creative writer; he is often more a collector of diverse traditions.… He did not, by and large, give free reign to his imagination in his handling of this source material’ (p. 264). One could wish that this and other similar appeals in the study could have been pressed with more vigour and guidelines articulated to restructure the basic assumptions and methodology of gospels exegesis. If indeed the author is correct that selected inferential exegetical data in Mark and Q convincingly attest Jesus’ messianic self-concept and give rise to later Christological development, then the question that requires attention is whether the interpreter can confidently distinguish original from later in the gospel tradition as a whole.

Royce Gordon Gruenler

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts