Moving into the first chapter of the volume, a substantial chapter in a very substantial volume, Witherington begins to examine the center point of theology and ethics in the New Testament: Jesus Christ. Acknowledging that the Gospels as lacking ‘Jesus Papers’ he nevertheless holds to the credibility of those works as eyewitness testimony to the life and work of Jesus Christ.
The author does make the point, building on his previous prologue, that to know the thought world of the New Testament, one must not see it only through the eyes of later theologians, but through the very Jewishness of the community. He sets about to established the messianism of the time predating the Christ event, and indeed, draws out the stark separation between the Old and the New in regards to heaven, hell, satan, demons, and the Messiah himself.
It is agreeable to note that Witherington rests within the current scholarship of Second Temple Judaism, and I since perhaps some New Perspectives as well. He brings in Qumran and the Wisdom Literature (sapiential) of the Deuterocanon. Further, he moves past the usual story of Christ to focus a little bit on Christ’s ‘teasing of the intellect’ in regards to salvation. Ending this subsection, the author explores the connection between Christ and the Wisdom corpus (Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, etc…) and the Messianic Titles of the period (Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, etc…).
It is clear that in the first chapter, Witherington is setting the stage. He explores the cultural complexities of the thought world of Christ, trying to get his readers into the audience. Tackling several parables, he is able to briefly explain how an audience may have perceived it and what it might have meant to the ethics of the day. Further, while he explores the usage of ‘Abba’ for God by Christ, he tries to bring a certain insight, albeit Christian, into the mix showcasing why it is important that Mark alerted his readers to the usage of this word.
In presenting sections on the Son of Man and Jesus as the Wisdom of God, Witherington is not producing anything ‘new’ although for many unfamiliar with Wisdom literature, or uneasy with using deuterocanonical material, it may well be. I for one found his usage of Sirach and Wisdom as a solidification of my desire to see them used more. He doesn’t comment on their canonical status, which I assume as a Protestant he may object too, yet he is well versed and skillful in application. He remains orthodox Christian, even if he is borderline Protestant, in this area.
I am drawn to the author’s viewpoint because he is able to present it based on historical Christianity without ignoring critical issues of scholarship. He supports his thesis, namely that Christ is divine, not with ancient creedal formulas or long winded theological precepts, but simple, easy connections between the Gospels and various supporting works. In laying theology and ethics at the feet of Jesus, Witherington doesn’t mince words in describing the importance of having Him as a starting point for the discussion of NT ethics. I find his take on the Gospel writers somewhat refreshing in that he allows them to rest squarely within Christian Tradition while moving past the ‘Bultmannian assumptions’ which he labels as extreme (p127).
Witherington’s ethicizing, and theologizing, on the beatitudes is rewarding, and should push the reader to further in-depth study of this section, which the author insists is the most used portion of sacred text by early Christian writers. From his point of view, it is an ethical mosaic, weaving in the Mosaic Law with Christ’s ability to loosen, tighten, and fulfill with revelation, mercy and grace. The one issue which I is in his own translation. For example, he translates Matthew 5.28 in a much different way that I have seen, but doesn’t provide support for his own translation. This is not always needed, but when the translation is radically different – producing a different mindset – then something should have been added to the footnotes. Further, his take on the ethics of divorce in this chapter is by far the most controversial which I have read. He takes the position that one translation over another is valid because of the reaction of the audience and that a traditional view would make Christ more lenient (p142) than other teachers of the time. His logic here is faulty and generally unsupported in his work.
His gougings on Christians are often unappreciated. For example, after a discourse on the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6, he asks the Christian to think that when closing a prayer, and appending the name of Christ to said prayer, to see it as having Jesus sign off on said prayer. He then gouges the Christian by suggesting that the person pray in such a manner, and think in such a manner, as to have a prayer which Christ would sign-off on (p150).
Witherington ends his discourse on the sayings of Christ commonly known as the beatitudes with a fine summary and reminder of who Christ was and who is audience was. This section is nothing less than a sermon speaking a great wealth of knowledge and focusing in on the ethics of the followers of Christ.
Moving into the political ethos of Christ, Witherington again intends to upset apple-carts with his understanding of Mark 12.13-17 and while the author leaves his audience with some finality and support for his argument, he fails to do when he examines the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. He aligns John 2.19 with 1st Enoch 90.28-30, attempting to explain what the speaker meant in the former by the latter, but fails to take into the Gospel writer’s assigning of meaning found in John 2.21-22. I find it incomparably interesting to examine the New Testament writings in light of Second Temple Judaism, but I believe that sometimes in doing so, we ignoring the answers already contained within the Christian writings.
In his summary, Witherington affirms his stance on the self-identification of Jesus which may go against current trends in biblical scholarship (although seemingly not by much), but is affirmed theologically. He does so, however, almost by ignoring the Fourth Gospel but comparing the Synoptics with matter from 2nd Temple Judaism. Further, the author makes use of the eschatological worldview of the time, in which nearly everything was done in accordance with viewing the Present (then) and the Last. I would agree in spirit with his assessment on p168 that if a person fails to understand the ‘way sapential literature works, one will not understand this ethic,’ meaning the pattern established by Christ for a wife life. In this, he draws the two concerns together, theology and ethics, together in that our life devoted to God is enabled by the ‘saving work in Jesus.’ He ends with the reminder that the central figure in New Testament Theology and Ethics is indeed, Christ.