New Testament History

By Ben Witherignton III
Grand Rapids : Baker (2001). 430 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
14.1 (Spring 2003) : 136-138

Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written prolifically on NT themes, especially in the areas of “Jesus Research.” (Note especially his The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995]). It is not surprising, therefore, that Witherington often refers to his own publications in this present book, especially his socio-rhetorical commentaries on Mark and Acts.

Inevitably, a book with this title invites comparison with another wellknown work by F. F. Bruce (New Testament History [New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971]). As a matter of fact, I. Howard Marshall mentions this in his laudatory recommendation on the back cover: “I can think of no higher praise than to say that this book may well do for this generation what F. F. Bruce’s New Testament History did for an earlier one.” Since this reviewer was part of that “earlier” generation that profited from and utilized Bruce’s volume often, a comparison is appropriate, especially since Witherington and his publishers chose the same title for this book. Though we should also evaluate Witherington’s volume on its own merits, we should explore the question of whether this volume will serve this generation in the same way as Bruce’s did his.

The book carries readers from the time of Alexander the Great to the reign of Domitian and the exile of John. More specifically he explores the “intertestamental” events (two chapters); the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (three and a half chapters); the apostolic events (eight and a half chapters), and the post-70 events (two chapters).

Bruce’s treatment was more detailed on the pre-John and Jesus history (fully one third of his book). This reviewer thinks that Witherington could have given more detailed coverage of this period, especially the Hasmonean period (only three pages, 40-42), which left such a deep impression on the background history of Second Temple Judaism.

Witherington seeks to explore the geographical, political, social, and religious influences that shaped the leaders and movements of the day. The degree to which he succeeds in doing this is debatable. He seeks to accomplish this purpose by a series of more focused sections he calls “A Closer Look.” In these he gives greater attention, for example, to “The Pharisees” (45 -48), “Time and Calendars in Antiquity” (62-64), “Josephus the Jewish Historian” (84-86), “Zealots or Bandits?” (87-89), “Essenes and Qumranites” (93-96), and “Significance of the Sanhedrin” 148-50). These are some of the most helpful contributions of the book, not only for the insight into these important subjects, but for the insight they sometimes provide into Witherington’s personal views. This can be seen, for example, in “Q and A on Q” (100-103) and “Miracles and History” (120-21).

The fact, however, that Witherington works in his particular interpretation of the data should not be surprising or objectionable in itself. In a very interesting “Prolegomenon” (14-28) he makes a very good case for the statement, “There is no such thing as uninterpreted history” (15). It is obvious that Luke and John were not attempting to be neutral about their subject matter since they provide clear statements that their writing was evidently tendentious (Luke 1:1-4 and especially John 20:31). The question that must be asked about a historical treatment of certain events is whether the facts are illumined or obscured by the presentation.

Witherington appears to affirm that the “historians” who penned the first five books of the New Testament did not obscure the facts, although it would be helpful if he made that clearer at times. For example, while our author seems to argue for the historicity of the resurrection (it is the best explanation of the subsequent changed lives of the apostles and the existence of the church), one wishes that he had attempted to address the charge that the Gospel writers present contradictory accounts of the post-resurrection events.

A few more criticisms are in order. Witherington is too dependent on Hayes and Mandell’s work, The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity: From Alexander to Bar Cochba (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998) and less attentive to the classic work of Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, both in its original and in its revised editions (rev. and ed. by G. Vermes and F. Millar, Edinburgh: Clark, 1973 ). This shows up also in his refusal to see any real “Jewish” commitment on the part of Herod the Great. Anyone attempting to tout H erod as a consistent, God-fearing Jew has a huge task on his hands. Witherington’s rejection, however, of the magisterial work on Herod by Peter Richardson, Herod the Great: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), is disappointing. It is well known that Herod, in addition to building many lasting monuments for his Jewish subjects, most notably the Temple, also constructed some pagan temples, although not in Judea. To conclude that “Herod was not a monotheistic Jew,” as Witherington does (footnote, 53) simply is not warranted by the evidence. Herod was the consummate survivor. He knew whom he had to please to keep his position: the Romans who put him in power and kept him there. His temples in honor of Augustus were simply acts of gratitude to his patron, not indications of his polytheism! These buildings were evidence of his political “kowtowing,” not indications of some religious commitment. Richardson’s evidence of Herod’s many acts of benevolence towards his Jewish subjects also contradicts the charge of his commitment to paganism. This reviewer does not want to be accused of defending the sadistic behavior of Herod, especially toward his own family. Witherington’s rejection of his Jewishness, however, does not take into account all the facts. We simply do not know for sure what Herod personally believed. To imply that he was a polytheist, however, goes far beyond a sober consideration of all the facts that we know about him.

Readers who hold to the traditional evangelical positions on authorship of the Gospels and the literary relationships between the Synoptic Gospels need to know that Witherington believes that only Mark was composed before A.D. 70 (363). He assigns the Gospel attributed to Matthew to the mid to late 70s and denies that the apostle assembled its contents, probably only contributing the “M” material unique to the Gospel, such as Matthew 1 and 2 (381-83). He suggests Luke wrote his two volume work in the late 70s or early 80s and ended the account at about A.D. 64 (Acts 28) because he had gotten too old to bring the story any further up to date (387). Such conclusions seem to be motivated by the author’s commitment to (1) Markan priority, (2) the literary dependence of Matthew and Luke on M ark, and (3) the existence of the mythical “Q” document (100-103, 378-81). Though this is not the place to give evaluations of these positions, let it be said that such ideas were foreign to the patristic writers, some of whom remembered the apostles, and also were foreign to Gospel scholarship for 1,700 years after the apostles!

I do not want to leave the impression that Witherington’s book is without real value and positive contribution. He knows his subject well and has communicated it clearly. I am not ready, however, to have his book replace the classic work by F. F. Bruce on my course reading lists.