Review of Ben Witherington's The Christology of Jesus
In The Christology of Jesus (Augsburg, 1990) Witherington sought to determine the self-understanding of Jesus using standard historical-critical methodology, focusing mostly on Q and the Gospel of Mark. More specifically, Witherington sought evidence that Jesus thought of himself as more than an ordinary human being (Witherington 1990, 1-2, 29-30).
After an introduction on methodology and criteria for authenticity, Witherington sought to determine who Jesus was though Jesus’ relationships with John the Baptist, the Pharisees, revolutionaries and his disciples. With regard to John the Baptist, Witherington concluded that while Jesus had a normal historical consciousness, Jesus thought of himself as bringing about the eschatological blessings promised by Isaiah and may have even seen himself as the embodiment of divine Wisdom (Witherington 1990, 54-55).
With regard to the Pharisees Jesus thought of himself as one who was not only above the Pharisees, but above the Torah itself (Withrington 1990, 80). While Jesus lived in a time of revolutionaries, he was not a revolutionary, though his messianic ministry had political and social implications (Witherington 1990, 117).
With regard to his disciples, Jesus chose 12 men symbolizing Israel and pointing to Jesus’ view that he was the final apostle and shepherd of God who was called to implement the final eschatological re-gathering of Israel (Witherington 1990, 128, 142-14).
Witherington also discussed the Christology of Jesus with regard to Jesus’ actions and words. Jesus’ actions showed that he was an apocalyptic seer who called his audience to repentance in view of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, and expected his hearers to respond to his works in faith and repentance (Witherington 1990, 175-176). Jesus’ words seem to indicate that he thought of himself as a messiah, though not one that most expected. Jesus believed that it was God’s will that he die as a ransom for many. Jesus expected, however, that he would be vindicated after his death, coming in the clouds of heaven as indicated by the Danielic Son of Man vision, and would judge the world (Witheringon 1990, 262). While Jesus would not have fully understood the question, Are you God?—since that would have meant Are you the father in heaven?—nevertheless, had he been able to read the Gospel of John, Jesus would have had no trouble accepting its view of Jesus’ identity (Witherington 1990, 275-277).
Witherington provided one of the best analyses of Jesus yet in print. Carefully following the methodology of critical scholarship, Witherington demonstrated that Jesus not only viewed himself as the Jewish messiah but believed his mission was to die as a ransom for many and to return to judge the world. Furthermore, Jesus would have agreed with assessment of his divinity found in the Gospel of John.