What Have They Done with Jesus? beyond Strange Theories and Bad History-Why We Can Trust the Bible

By Sweeney, James P. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2007 | Go to article overview

What Have They Done with Jesus? beyond Strange Theories and Bad History-Why We Can Trust the Bible


Sweeney, James P., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


What Have They Done with Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History-Why We Can Trust the Bible. By Ben Witherington III. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006, xxii + 326 pp., $24.95.

Revisionist views of Jesus are common today, both at the popular and scholarly levels. At the popular level, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2003) has done much to popularize the earlier, ill-supported theories of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Bantam Dell, 1983). Ben Witherington's present volume, What Have They Done with Jesus?, joins a growing list of works (e.g. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006] and Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006]) that confront the imaginative speculations too often passed off as learning to the general public.

Witherington, professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary and indefatigable writer, brings to this volume the professional skills and pastoral concern necessary not only to expose the voguish "strange theories and bad history" (to borrow part of his subtitle) but also to help set the record straight, as it were, for general readers. As far as contents, the book contains an introduction followed by seven parts (described below). In a lone appendix, Witherington provides a summary critique of James Tabor's recent book, The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), in which he exposes some of the more glaring presuppositional, archaeological, historical, and exegetical problems with the volume. Witherington employs endnotes of varying length rather than footnotes (pp. 313-30), and there are two indices: Subject and Scripture.

Witherington begins What Have They Done with Jesus? with a brief introductory chapter entitled, "The Origins of the Specious." Here he surveys the current religiouscultural landscape that has made the public more susceptible to poorly-supported, revisionist theories about Jesus. Among the influences he identifies are gullibility, skepticism, biblical illiteracy, deconstruction, and anti-supernaturalism. In response to these alternative theories, Witherington proposes to look at Jesus' impact on his followers through the lens of his earliest inner circle. He reduces this to a reasonably short list, drawn from Jesus' own family circle-Mary, James, and Jude-and key figures outside his family: Peter, the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Paul. These figures provide the framework for the first six of the remaining seven parts of the book. Each part encompasses typically two chapters, except for part 5, which contains three chapters. Part 7 is the conclusion.

In part 1 Witherington looks at women in Jesus' life. He looks initially at Joanna (whom he identifies with Junia in Romans 16) and then Mary Magdalene, whom he describes as a recovering spiritualist (chap. 1). In a subsequent chapter (chap. 2) he examines the post-NT traditions about Mary Magdalene, the material of myth and legend, drawn principally from Nag Hammadi sources. Part 2 is devoted to Peter. Witherington looks first at Peter in the Gospels (chap. 3) and then at Peter in Acts and the Petrine letters (chap. 4). He considers 1 Peter authentic, but views 2 Peter as a composite work, which preserves a Petrine fragment (2 Pet 1:12-21). In part 3 Witherington turns his attention to Mary the mother of Jesus. He focuses first on the birth narrative (chap. 5) before turning (in chap. 6) to other material in the Gospels and outside the Gospels: Acts 1:14; Rev 12:1-6; and 1 Tim 2:13-15. The Beloved Disciple is the subject of part 4 (chaps. 7 and 8). Chapter 7 focuses on the identity of the Beloved Disciple against the backdrop of John 11:1-44; 12:1-11 and chapters 13-21. Witherington suggests the most likely candidate is Lazarus. …

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