The New Testament Story
A review of Ben Witherington's, "The New Testament Story," by Dr. William Klein.
Ben Witherington, III, The New Testament Story. Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2004. Pap./ x + 283 pages. $18.00 [£12.99]. ISBN 0-8028-2765-9.
The author is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. His scholarly output is prodigious, and his appeal to popular audiences and readers is also well-known. He is the author of dozens of volumes. Here he writes what he calls Ã¯Â¿Â½an introduction in miniature.Ã¯Â¿Â½ That is, he proposes to treat the issues usually covered by books in the New Testament introduction genreÃ¯Â¿Â½but much more simply and brieflyÃ¯Â¿Â½and to include what they typically leave out: its overarching storyline and the stories within the New Testament (hereafter abbreviated NT). Appropriate for a more popular readership, the book includes helpful exercises and questions for further study at the end of each chapter.
In the first part, the story of the NT, Witherington uses the first chapter to address the level of the texts themselvesÃ¯Â¿Â½where the content originated and how it was committed to the original texts. He discusses writing in the ancient world, the nature of epistles, and how the writers used existing and preexisting materials (in the case of the NT writers, this included what we call the Old Testament [hereafter OT] as well as creeds, hymns, confessions, prayers, et al.). We learn about speeches and sermonsÃ¯Â¿Â½several occurring in Acts, and what it means that the NT arose within an oral culture. Chapter two engages what NT scholars call the traditions about Jesus including collections of JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ sayings (such as the hypothesized Ã¯Â¿Â½QÃ¯Â¿Â½Ã¯Â¿Â½to which he gives a surprising amount of space for a miniature introduction), stories, and Passion narratives. How did all these, arising as they did in this oral culture, come to be written documents? Witherington defends the historicity of the Passion stories against the likes of Crossan (and others in the Jesus Seminar) who opine that they are largely fiction, that is, early Christians merely invented the accounts of JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ passion based on their readings of OT texts. Chapter three investigates the NT epistles (excepting the Johannines) and the role of letters in an oral culture. He gives a few pages to the unique traits of each of the epistles (grouped together in a few places). Chapter four explains the Ã¯Â¿Â½gospelÃ¯Â¿Â½ (good news) and the Ã¯Â¿Â½Gospels.Ã¯Â¿Â½ How were the Gospels like and unlike biographies? Giving space to each of the four, Witherington covers their unique features and messages. After treating John he covers the three epistles and Apocalypse also associated with that name. That gives Witherington the chance to give some space to apocalyptic as a genre. He believes that the same person probably did not write these five Ã¯Â¿Â½JohnÃ¯Â¿Â½ documents, though their authors were related in some ways. Chapter five takes up the issue of canonicity: in the end, how did the NT come to include the twenty-seven books in it?
The second part of the book also includes five chapters. Its objective is to engage the stories in the NT. We see in chapter six that many of the stories originated in the OT, but not without adaptation in light of the early ChristiansÃ¯Â¿Â½ understanding of the significance of Jesus. Witherington shows how those stories play out, again, in the various genres or sections of the NT. The stories (mini-biographies, to the extent that the NT data allow) of the main figures Paul and Peter comprise chapter seven. Chapter eight investigates the members of the Ã¯Â¿Â½holy family.Ã¯Â¿Â½ Witherington sheds light on Joseph, Mary, and James in a refreshing way; often they are neglected altogether or given short shrift in standard works. And, in another nice departure from typical approaches, in chapter nine Witherington addresses some of the canonical traditions about Jesus outside the gospels. Professor Witherington surveys those accounts in Paul, the sermons in Acts, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Finally, chapter ten engages the stories of Jesus found inside the four GospelsÃ¯Â¿Â½those Jesus told about himself and ones that others told about himÃ¯Â¿Â½in the order of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. In this way Witherington introduces the reader to the unique aims and tactics of each writerÃ¯Â¿Â½s portrayal of Jesus. The book ends with two appendices dealing with chronology (Acts and Paul), a table of units of weight and measure, and three maps. Several hand-drawn illustrations of various features in the NT add a welcome touch.
All in all this is a neat treatment that should help non-scholars better grasp how the NT came to be and what its essential message is. The whole works well; it introduces the NT in a fresh way. Dr. Witherington weaves together an explanation of the main stories and the key figures in the NT so that readers see how they all really do fit together. Witherington is a capable guide through the intricacies of many complex issues. He does not simply repeat traditional solutions to issues nor does he fall prey to some of the latest fads within the scholarly guild. He often goes in his own direction in creative and credible ways. For example, Witherington thinks that the Ã¯Â¿Â½Beloved DiscipleÃ¯Â¿Â½ was the source of much of the Johannine material in the NT, but was not one of the sons of Zebedee, even though his name may have been John (p. 83). And, John the Seer, author of the Apocalypse, was likely not the Beloved Disciple (p. 91). In opposition to many readings of JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ interchange with Peter in John 21:4-23, Witherington sees a difference in meaning in the use of the verbs agapao (unconditional God-given kind of love) and phileo (love as of a brother) [pp. 170-72]. Witherington believes that all four Ã¯Â¿Â½prison epistlesÃ¯Â¿Â½ were written by Paul and from Rome in AD 60-61 (pp. 64-66). He believes that the apostle Peter wrote 1 Peter, but that 2 Peter is a composite document originating near the end of the first century AD (p. 67). The Pastorals were probably written at or shortly after PaulÃ¯Â¿Â½s death by Luke or another faithful companion of Paul (pp. 69-70). As can always be said, readers will not agree with him at each point; but they will see that Witherington has seriously engaged the data to arrive at his positions, and he presents them winsomely.
But I do wonder to whom this book is targeted. It is not technical enough to serve the needs of seminarians. For that role most profs will rely on DeSilva; Carson and Moo; or Achtemeier, Green, and Meye Thompson. At the other end, those who want a more popular entré to the NT may find here more than they are interested inÃ¯Â¿Â½perhaps even feeling that the book bogs down in places. The exercises and questions at the end of each chapter raise important issuesÃ¯Â¿Â½not only of the content of the book but also implications for life and ministry. But I wonder if the material will sufficiently appeal to average churchgoers. This may be more a commentary on what many Christians today want to read in a Ã¯Â¿Â½religious bookÃ¯Â¿Â½ rather than the value of this particular one. No doubt thereÃ¯Â¿Â½s a niche somewhere, and into that one this book fits.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament