Apr 2008

Ben Witherington is a very well-known and prolific Biblical Studies scholar based at Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky. In this interview with MBCDS's Andy Cheung, Dr Witherington discusses his writing, theology, and outspoken views concerning the highly controversial James Ossuary, which has been the subject of wide coverage in, among others, the Biblical Archaeological Review.

Andy Cheung: Please tell us a little bit about your personal background

Ben Witherington: I was born in North Carolina and I attended the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and I did a degree in English literature and then I studied in New Jersey at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, after which I did a DPhil at the University of Durham, England with C. K. Barrett. I currently teach at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky but have also taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Duke Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell.

To many of us interested in Biblical Studies, we know you best as a very prolific writer. Tell us something about how you go about writing.

I've been a writer since I was a child and so writing is not onerous or difficult for me. In a given day if I'm not written something, I sometimes feel as though there is something wrong! Writing comes quite naturally for me. God has blessed me with a very good memory and mind. My wife says I have a photographic memory but I would say some of it is underdeveloped and some of it is overexposed! I have an ability to remember very well what I have read and how to find it later so I have this system of reading and writing as I go along. I'm not one of these people who reads everything on a subject and then sits down to write.

One of the things that's true of my own Methodist tradition is that we have not had a history of people doing a lot of commentaries on the New Testament in particular so I set myself a goal of writing a commentary on every book of the New Testament and 25 years later, I'm nearly there. I have had particular interests especially Jesus and Paul studies and also the theology and Christology of the New Testament but all along I felt as an evangelical Methodist to present resources for the church in my faith tradition that would be solidly biblical.

But you have written a book that's critical of various perspectives such as Calvinism and dispensationalism but also including Arminianism.

Oh yes, I've been critical of all of them and my view is that everything has to be sifted by the word of God and so theology is a second order task. You don't start with your theology and then do exegesis, you start with exegesis and you construct or deconstruct a theology as necessary. But yes, my book Problems with Evangelical Theology does a critique of all the major evangelical traditions and what was interesting to me in that study is that those traditions are weakest at the very point where they are distinctive.

For example, the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification or perfection is exegetical weakest at that part of the system. In Calvinism, the weakest point has to do with the perseverance of the saints and irresistible grace: those ideas are hard to find and thin on the ground in the New Testament. So the very places where evangelical protestant tradition tries to say something unique is precisely the place where they are exegetically weakest. That's true of Pentecostal theology, dispensational theology and others too.

What's unclear to me is that on the one hand, you criticise a Methodist Arminian theology yet you also write commentaries that you say are in that tradition.

Well, I hope that the commentaries are in a biblical tradition. It's just that in my view if you were to lay out Calvinist and Wesleyan theology and asked which one is closer to what the biblical text says exegetically, I would say that in seven out of ten times, the Wesleyan reading is closer to what Paul or Jesus had in mind. So I'm not interested in doing the commentaries in their particular tradition, what I'm saying is that some traditions are more biblically faithful than others and easier to find support for.

Most of the commentaries you've written include in the title the words, "socio-rhetorical" so can you explain what you mean by this?

There are various definitions of this term but let me give you mine. The socio-side of it has to do with reading the New Testament in the light of (a) social history and (b) modern sociological models. The rhetorical side of it has to do with reading the New Testament text in the light of ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric which was actually practised at the time of the New Testament and lo and behold, New Testament writers use this method to persuade others about Jesus.

Why do you concentrate your efforts on commentaries from the socio-rhetorical perspective rather than write more general commentaries?

The reason for that is that I think it produces far more light on the text than a traditional commentary. For example, the NT books were written in an oral culture and so these documents we call New Testament texts were not in fact, in the modern sense, texts at all. The great problem for us in the 21st century is anachronism – reading our own assumptions into a text – I would stress that these texts are oral texts. Let's take the letters: some of these are not letters at all, they are sermons, for example 1 John is a sermon. I'm trying to evaluate the New Testament as a historian on the basis of historical categories that actually existed in the first century.

You have some commentaries that are not titled 'socio-rhetorical' though.

There are two commentaries that I had done that have a different approach because I think that's required. They are the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew and both of these I have read in the light of early Jewish Wisdom literature and I don't think they are rhetorically informed; I think Mark and Luke are but John and Matthew are different.

Tell us something about your socio-rhetorical commentary 1 & 2 Peter that has just come out.

It's part of a series of three large commentaries I've done for Inter-Varsity Press. Two of them are titled Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians. The commentary on 1 & 2 Peter is the second of those volumes. The third volume is Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians which is Hebrews, James, Jude and that's the biggest of the three. They all take a socio-rhetorical method of analysing the text.

Where do you stand on matters of disputed authorship such as 2 Peter, Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles?

I think Paul is ultimately responsible for the whole Pauline corpus. I do think that Luke wrote the Pastoral epistles for Paul but Paul was still alive so he is the voice behind the writing but the style, grammar, syntax and vocabulary is closer to Luke-Acts then it is to the earlier Pauline documents.

You have some books with the term "rethinking" in them. They deal with subjects such as baptism and the Lord's Supper. Does the word rethinking imply that you have a new, unique or different approach?

What I'm trying to do is suggest that there are features of Protestant sacraments that you might not have thought about before and probably do need to talk about. What I'm urging people to do is to have a fully orbed, more biblically and theologically sound investigation of the texts that are relevant to this.

So how would you sum up your views on baptism for instance?

I don't think there's a problem with baptising infants and in Church history we have plenty of evidence that this was going on in the second through seventh centuries and by the Middle Ages it had become the dominant practice in the church. What I do think is that the New Testament is mostly about what I call 'missionary baptism'. It's not trying to ask or answer the question about what you do with the children of Christian believers because what we have is first-generation documents that were produced from the missionary movement. So it's not a surprise that the second century questions were not asked or answered in first century documents.

Before we finish, I'd like to spend some time talking about the James Ossuary. For the benefit of those who don't know, perhaps you could briefly describe what this controversy and debate is about?

The James Ossuary is a burial box and it has an inscription on it that says "James son of Joseph, his brother is Jesus." All who have examined the inscription found it to be genuine and so do I. Right now, it's embroiled in the controversy surrounding the trial of its owner, Oded Golan, so were waiting to see how that turns out.

Haven't the Israel Antiquities Authority declared it to be a fake?

Well let's be clear about this. First of all, the Israel Antiquities team that first investigated it declared it to be authentic. Secondly, the chief epigrapher of the IAA again said in January [2008] that it was authentic. People who are saying it's inauthentic would be the head of the IAA, Yuval Goran, and Shuka Dorfmann. So it's not every one in the IAA and those who are most expert on inscription say it's genuine, including those who work for the IAA.

It would appear that among the popular press at the least, the majority consider it to be a fraud. Are you saying that view is wrong?

Absolutely but I don't think that is the majority opinion of the press. I continue to be asked about this by the BBC, NBC, ABC, CBS and others. Their response to the James Ossuary has been very different to, say, the Talpiot Tomb (the so-called burial tomb of Jesus). The media has come to the conclusion that the Talpiot Tomb discussion is not worth continuing because the evidence is so strongly against it being the tomb. But the issue of the James Ossuary is that ever since the beginning in 2001, so many heavyweight scholars from all kinds of different persuasions have weighed in and said it was a genuine ossuary with a genuine inscription.

Do you think there's a political aspect to the IAA and their declaration of the ossuary being fake?

There's no question there is. The IAA have a genuine concern with forged and stolen antiquities and I understand that. But the way to deal with those concerns is not to declare any unprovenanced artefact as a fake or forgery.

The Geological Survey of Israel have also declared it to be fake too though.

Well, the GSI is a subheading under the IAA and their two leading experts both claimed it was genuine to start with. Under pressure, they were forced to retract what they said but they did not repudiate their findings. Now that's a whole different ball game. It's one thing to talk about a retraction; it's another thing to talk about the repudiation.

Do you think there will be a resolution on this within the next few years?

Yes I would say there will be some resolution, but let me say why this is such an important issue. The James Ossuary is an indirect testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. The reason I say that is you don't brag about being related to Jesus if the last thing that happened to him was that he died on a cross – that was the most shocking way to die in antiquity. So the fact that this ossuary reads, "James the son of Joseph, his brother is Jesus" is very clear that this person is claiming to be related to Jesus and he wouldn't be claiming that if Jesus died on the cross and there was no resurrection.

Finally, do you think that this has anything to do with the IAA claiming that the James Ossuary is fake?

Of course! In fact, Shuka Dorfmann said as much when he said, "we don't want this ossuary used for a fundamentalist Christian agenda."

Dr Witherington, thank you for your time.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Ben Witherington III is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. His web site  can be found at www.benwitherington.com


The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics.