Witherington’s latest work is an 800 page masterpiece. In order to help me keep track of my thoughts on this book, and in part to showcase more of the book than a review, I am posting ‘reflections’ on each chapter.
I like Witherington’s James and he does a great effort in showcasing Jude. In doing so, he creates a commentary with both the background and a small effort applied to the Greek, bringing out both to detail the uniqueness of each letter.
One thing on his exposition of Jude which strikes me as odd, is that while he willingly allows for echoes or direct thought quotations from the Deuterocanon, he singles out Jude’s use of Enoch as something different. Instead of aligning himself with nearly every other scholar, Witherington instead allows for that a unity between Jude and not necessarily 1st Enoch, but the oral tradition behind that section of 1st Enoch which it and Jude has in common.
Witherington goes far into bringing Jude from a virtual New Testament Apocryphal status into a rather useful light for understanding the theology of apostasy.
Launching into James with almost anti-Lutheran fervor, he quickly declares the ‘strawry epistle’ for what it is – the New Testament’s conclusion to the Wisdom literary tradition. Connecting this ‘back of the book’ epistle, as he did with Jude, to the words of Christ, the picture emerges of just how close the New Testament documents are to Christ and the Gospel tradition. Witherington does something most do not when look at James – he skips Paul as the primary point of comparison, and lets the work be measured squarely against the Gospels.
Scholars have called the Epistle of James a Christian revision to a Jewish work, but Witherington moves beyond that and provides evidence that this epistle is drowning in Christology, explicitly such as James 5.6 (which connects to the Righteous One in Wisdom 2.1-20) and implicitly to the whole of Jesus’ teachings in various and diverse ways. He provides a short commentary based on this theory, and paints the picture well.
One thing about this work which at once intrigues me and off puts me a little is the author’s reliance upon his previous works, especially in dealing with his writings on rhetoric in the New Testament. Seemingly, and if not knowing Witherington’s views here, one would think that he sees the New Testament as nothing more than various collections of rhetoric. This is not a downside; on the contrary, this should engage the reader into exploring this facet of the New Testament writers as more educated than previously believed.
BW3’s handling of the works-faith issues which often times surround those who interpret Paul and James is done well, although at times, it seems like he is forcing the two together without really examining dissenting opinions. Granted, this is not always necessary, and Witherington does is to present his own argument for the unity of the New Testament writers by using social-linguistic tools instead of theological.
He closes our James and Jude, before moving on to 1st Peter, with a summary and some additional points, one of which is to consistently cast James in the light of a Jewish(-Christian) sage not letting the reader forget that the author of this epistle is the brother of Christ.
In taking 1st Peter as actually written by the Apostle Peter, Witherington draws comparisons between Christ, James, Paul and the old fisherman in drawing out sapiential rhetoric. In what is characteristic of BW3’s style, he gives a short commentary on several key aspects of 1st Peter, more notably the first chapter. Keep a bible near you, opened, as you read with Witherington, or you will miss what he is trying to tell you. At this point, the author states something rather personal,
The longer I work with the New Testament, the less and less satisfactory it seems to me to divide theology and ethics from one another, as if they are discrete subjects. (314)
Witherington’s right, you know. Ethics is not about legalism, and just knowing about God and Christ is simply not enough. There has to be a moment in your life when you realize just what knowing about God and Christ entails and requires. Some call this ethics; others call this holiness; still others call it legalism. No matter, theology and ethics, as BW3 so rightly puts it, is centered upon Christ.
One thing that I have noticed, except in dealing with the facets of human sexuality and duty to Empire, Witherington doesn’t delve into the required ethics, although in his discussion of 1st Peter he starts to. He begins to discuss community ethics – relationships between husband and wife, believer and non-believer, and slave and master. He makes an excellent point that by addressing the wife and the slave, it immediately elevates them into a human position unlike other literature at the time which refused to address the subordinate. In doing so, he brings to light the biblical ethic of the choice of the individual to either obey or not obey. Because 1st Peter addresses the cultural subordinate, the author feels that this begins the process of equalizing genders and social positions. He makes a solid point which I hope will be addresses in the second volume.
1st Peter is by far the best of the work so far. It goes deep into Witherington’s own thought world, dealing with ethics and the theology upon which the ethics were based. Not only is Christology covered, slightly, but so is the theology of empire, community, and interpersonal relationships.
Go. Buy. This. Book. Please.