Bible Scholar and New Testament Professor Ben Witherington III’s perspective on Jesus Christ through the lens of his early and late followers, the various Gospels, and even controversial manuscripts like the Gospel of Thomas.
In the introduction, Dr. Wintherington III lays out in detail the purpose of his book, following the title and subtitle accurately. He speaks about how he’s often faced with questions based on sensationalist ideas about Christ and his followers. His purpose in writing this book is to inform readers so that they can be aware of sensationalist writings and not believe them at face value, to be aware of the “new is true”(Witherington, 3) idea many fall prey to. My favorite quote from the introduction is something his grandmother always said, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out”(2). He also said to be aware of people who write books about Christ with clear agendas against his miracles and powers. He states that many discount the miracles Christ does because, if they included them then their book wouldn’t be scholarly any longer: Witherington states that the possibility of miracles cannot be ruled out by science and so we shouldn’t discredit their existence. He ends the introduction stating that he will spend the rest of the book introducing the readers to Christ’s Apostles and followers; to show that through knowing about those that followed Him, we can begin to understand Christ himself.
The first part focuses on Joanna and Mary Magdalene. Witherington speaks about how in this time women wouldn’t have been disciples of previous Jewish teachers. According to Luke, Christ’s followers included many women who were spiritual giants, something against the beliefs of that time as women were supposed to only spend time with men related to them. He talks about how Joanna followed Christ around Galilee and even supported him financially as she was actually the wife of Herod Antiphas’s steward. Her funds helped Christ and the Twelve Apostles travel around, live, and teach others. The fact that she followed Christ shows how strong of a believer she was, to practically go against her husband’s employer. Witherington cites Luke as evidence for the fact that these women had even been taught by Christ about his death and resurrection. He talks about how they “were the key witnesses to the heart of the later Christian creed, for they were last at the cross, first at the tomb, first to hear the Easter message, first to see the risen Lord, and first to proclaim the Easter message”(18). Witherington makes the claim that Joanna’s actually the ‘Junia’ that Paul talks about in Romans who travels and is even imprisoned with him. He talks about how Paul mentions that she and her new husband were some of the first followers of Christ and that Paul thought highly of them.
Witherington next talks about Mary Magdalene or, as he calls her, Miriam of Migdal who was once possessed by several spirits- he counters the claim that Miriam was immoral previous to this or that she was the woman caught in adultery. He talks about how she takes risks- traveling with Christ and his Twelve from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. How this shows Miriam and the other women’s devotion to Christ and his Ministry: that while many men deserted Christ, the women stayed by his side. He talks about how Christ and Miriam had a teacher-disciple relationship. She’s the first to see the resurrected Christ and the first to preach His Easter message. He then speaks about how the many claims that have been made about her have little to no evidence. He says she was an important early follower and witness of Christ. He even goes as far to say that there is no historical evidence that her relationship with Christ was anything other than a teacher to a disciple.
Witherington next talks about the Gospel of Thomas and the many debates that have been occurring due to its existence. He states that, if the Gospel of Thomas gives us no new information about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, or Christianity during the early to mid first century, then other books afterwards have no chance of having new information to give. He talks about the difference of how it talks about salvation compared to the original canon; that it is only for the elite. He calls it “a gospel for narcissists”(29); it has riddles for no reason. There is also a disconnect from how it speaks about James, the brother of Jesus, as James did not believe in Christ yet during his ministry. Witherington talks about how it was more than likely written in the 100s by someone who admired James. It shouldn’t be considered as a gospel as it does not talk about “the life or death of Christ, no recounting of miracles, and no prophetic signs”(33).
In the next section it talks about Peter and how, overtime, his life has been painted over with adoration, hiding away many of his faults. He talks about how many claimed that Peter was the first Pope of the Christian Church or the primary apostle, but there is no evidence of that fact. But, “He is the only one of the Twelve for whom we have anything like a life history, and he is the only one who is a major player in all four gospels and in the first half of Acts”(56). Witherington’s purpose in this section is to talk about the relationship between Peter and Jesus and so he talks about the two accounts of their first meeting at the Sea of Galilee: found in Mark and John.
He talks about how they first must be made fishers of men before they can actually fish. He talks about how “In listings of the Twelve, Simon is always named first..and he often features prominently as the spokesman for the Twelve”(59). That, according to 1 Corinthians, Simon was the first of the Twelve that the resurrected Christ appeared to. He makes an interesting connection when speaking about the story where Christ asks what people say that he is and Peter answers that he’s ‘the Son of the living God’ that they were standing at the Caesarea Philippi which was “a place where various ‘dead’ gods or non-gods were worshipped”(62)- I just found that fascinating. He then talks about Peter as the Rock and how, in relation to Caesarea Philippi, Christ’s saying that death will not stop the growth of this church and will instead help it. He then talks about how this is Christ’s church, not Peter’s- that Peter is not the only person who established this church.
Witherington was especially focused on Peter, writing two large sections on him and his role. In the second section, he talks about the historical life of Peter after the Crucifixion of Christ: giving “the right hand of fellowship to Paul in Jerusalem”(78), acting as a missionary for Christ to the Jewish people, visiting the Corinthian congregation, and how the trail goes cold after that. To figure out what happened, Witherington looks to 1 Peter to find where he is and gets the options: Turkey and Babylon(having already reached Rome). He talks about Acts 5 and other sections that show that, during this time, Peter was fulfilling his role as a shepherd to Christ’s followers. He talks about the vision Peter has of the ‘unclean’ animals and how, once he understands, he preaches about treating Gentiles well. He goes on to work to help Gentiles instead of just Jewish people like he had before. He talks about Acts 15 and the Council Peter spoke at about circumcision- how Gentiles did not have to be and how it is through God’s grace that Gentiles and Jews are saved. Witherington makes the point that these past few events show Peter as “subject to pressure, and as sometimes capitulating”(88). An interesting take on the idea that I myself don’t agree with in regards to this particular situation, but interesting all the same. Witherington finishes, talking about how Peter spent his life teaching of the things he witnessed and was taught by Christ- that there’s a connection between the Christ before the Crucifixion and the Christ after Resurrection and that we are to follow Him(just as Peter did).
Next Witherington talks about Mary, the mother of Jesus. He admits that there are many gaps in our understanding of her; but over time she began to be venerated and worshipped more than anyone in Jesus’ inner circle. Luke talks about her strength and her ability to cope with all that happens in her life due to her virgin-born son, something not believed from the Hebrew text until it actually happened. In writing about her, they do not try to avoid scandal in logical ways, but just stick to her virginal conception of Christ. Witherington makes an interesting claim that Jesus is not born in an inn(“pandocheion”), but is born in a guest room(“kataluma”(102)) in Luke- that it was St. Francis who originally set up the manger scene(who is also, fun fact, the author of the hymn ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’). Using the little information we have on Christ’s childhood, Witherington states that Mary and Joseph are considered as good Jews, following the rituals necessary. “Mary is portrayed as lacking understanding, but not lacking faith and trust”(108). Overall we learn that her life was filled with scandal and risk.
The next section is on Mary and her role as mother during Jesus’ life. Witherington talks about the wedding feast and the Beelzebul controversy story. Witherington states that Mary turning to Christ for help shows that she knows he can perform miracles and that she “was not above trying to pressure her son into helping…that her intentions were surely good”(116); she trusts that he will help her and he does- he distances himself from her maternal authority in his response, but helps, still being genuine and respectful to her. This story shows that miracles are not just a part of his ministry, but are also a part of his life that Mary knows about. Next, he talks about the exorcism’s Jesus performed and how they were frightening his family. In his disregard of this, Christ is showing how important his ministry is and how his family’s efforts to try to protect him cannot stop his purpose. Many continue to refer to Jesus as the ‘son of Mary’, showing their suspicion of him due to his ‘scandalous’ birth, that this may be an insult to Jesus’ origins. He goes on his ministry while his mother stays at home, not part of his circle. But, he still respects his mother as, at his death, he asks his disciples to take care of her. Witherington talks about how this entire journey has been “one test of faith after another for her, ending in what appears to be a tragedy”(127). After Christ’s Crucifixion, there is not much known about Mary’s life- but she is seen by many as one filled with the Spirit.
The next section focuses on just who was the author of the book of John: John the Baptist, John son of Zebedee, John Mark, John of Patmos? Even more, the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine epistles have no named authors. Witherington rules out that John son of Zebedee wrote the Fourth Gospel as it mentions none of the Zebedee stories he witnessed. All in all, this section of the book is Witherington trying to figure out just who the ‘Beloved Disciple’ is that wrote the Fourth Gospel as it is not stated. He says i’s unlikely that all these documents were written by the same John. In the end, Witheringtion concludes that the Beloved Disciple is neither John of Zebedee or John of Patmos, but instead is a Judean disciple of Christ- so important that it was to him Christ told on the cross to take care of his mother. He would go on to found the Johannine community. All we know is that he was an eyewitness to the climax of Christ’s ministry and his Easter Resurrection. What we do know is that Christ brought him back from the dead, but he is more than likely not Lazarus, Witherington states.
The next section also focuses on the Beloved Disciple and his legacy. He talks about how, after Christ’s Resurrection, all the disciples went out to preach based on ethnic groups- Paul to “Gentile God-fearers”(157), Peter and James to Jewish Christians in Pauline, and the Beloved Disciple did as well. Through studying the life and preachings of the Beloved Disciple, Witherington concluded that we learn that, to him, there is no difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus spoken about in Christianity; that Jesus understood himself as the Messiah. The Beloved Disciples’ words show how an eyewitness was affected by being around Jesus and his wisdom- even further that it took him time to be able to conclude all that he did about Jesus. “the view of Jesus as both human and divine, is found in this eyewitness testimony as it is found in…the letters of Paul”(166). He focuses on Christ’s death and Resurrection as the events that changed history. Wihterington concludes that the eyewitness of the Beloved Disciple is powerful in testifying of Christ.
Next he focuses on James and what a study on him can tell us about Jesus. He talks about how James was an important figure to the early Christian movement due to his Jewish devotion and faith towards the Torah. That he was “something of an ascetic”(183), devoted to the Old Testament ideas of Naziritic vows, often spending time in the temple meaning he stayed in Jerusalem to be near it. In Acts 12, “he is clearly the leader of the Jerusalem church”(184) He is the center of that church. All of this, though, hangs on the fact that “None of these major figures who constituted the inner circle of Jesus, including jesus’s own brothers, would have become or remained followers of Jesus after the crucifixion if there had been no resurrection and no resurrection of Jesus…There would be no church without the risen and appearing Jesus”(184). This is a crucial point of Witherington’s book; what the book and Christ’s followers actions hinge on really. James’ life counteracts those who see Christ as more of a philosopher than a religious teacher- if James wanted to follow his brother, then why would he go such a different route?
The next part also focuses on James and how he was a Jewish man, but was devoted to Christ as the Messiah. He was the first person who wanted to include Gentile into the religious movement while the Jewish would stick to the Law of Moses. Acting as a compromise between the two differing beliefs, James worked and focused “on the hearth of the Law, indeed the heart of the Ten Commandments, which demand abstaining from idolatry and immorality”(205). In preaching to Gentiles, he just wants them to turn away from their pagan religion and idols that they used to follow. This makes him very similar to Paul- though unlike him, he did believe that Jews needed to continue following the Law of Moses. He spent his life teaching in Jerusalem and helping the Jesus movement there. As a Gospel writer, James has a strong power of revelation and wisdom from God, praying often just like his brother. He was not worried about a kingdom established on earth that Christ was supposed to bring, instead he saw the kingdom as up in heaven- that things in this life were short and nothing compared to this. So he “in the end submitted to martyrdom without violence, as his brother had done before him”(208).
The next chapter is also on James- on his martyrdom and demise. In the 60s, Peter, Paul, and James were all martyred, leaving a large gap of leadership in the new religious movement- in the 70s the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, moving the center of the Christian movement. All of Christ’s followers were for “a Christological reformulation of Jewish monotheism with the premise that the Old Testament was God’s good revelation for God’s people, including his Christian ones”(224). Jude taught us that he knew of his brother’s religious words. He believed firmly that Jesus would return one day with eternal life for the World. He saw people like Enoch as apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. He saw the historical Jesus and the Risen Jesus as one and the same, even when he had known him since his own birth, seeing him as both human and divine.
The next section focuses on Paul and the changes he went through to become who he did. Paul focused much on the implications of just what Christ had done and what it meant for Jews and Gentiles- what each should do to properly follow Christ. He pushed the idea of each individual needed to change to truly follow Christ, just as he had. His knowledge of Christ is secondhand, though, having not been there during his ministry. But, he truly did understand “the radical implications of his teachings, life, death, and resurrection more clearly than any of the other members of the inner circle of Jesus, or at least he understood these things sooner than the rest of them did”(249). Paul didn’t support the ideas found in the Q community based on the Q sayings or on the ideas found in the Gospel of Thomas. Witherington states that Paul wasn’t an outlier from the other apostles who put stock in writings like these and so one should not group them all together.
The next section is also on Paul and his identity based on the events of his life. To truly understand Paul, Witherington states, you must look at his Jewish lifestyle, his Roman citizenship, and his Christianity. It’s hard to truly understand his life, as in his writings he is more focused on the gospel and Christ rather than the details of his own life. The one he talks about the least is his Roman citizenship, focusing more on the religious aspects of his life. Much of Paul’s understandings were based on those he was surrounded by- the communities and religious people he knew. His focus was on persuasion; trying to create change in the societies he wrote to. He was an incredibly learned man and well-respected in society, often going down and helping those who were less fortunate than him. The center of all his writing is the Crucifixion and the importance of Christianity in his life. As Witherington states, “It is ironic that the last of the inner circle to become a follower of Jesus was the one who was to have the largest impact on the shape of the Christianity that came after him”(271). Paul was the one who set the Jewish religion to become a World Religion. Paul was constantly trying to imitate Christ- and through him, we can see Christ due to his admiration for Him.
Witherington’s first statement in the conclusion is, “It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. It might be better to say that experience is the mother of invention”(277). Through seeing the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, the inner circle of Apostles and followers were created. This is true in the case of Peter and Mary, Joanna, Mary Magdalene, James, Jude, and Paul. Many, like Mary, only joined after Christ’s death on the cross while others, like Peter, had followed him from the beginning, but after his death stepped back until the Resurrection. As he stated before, none of this- the church or the growth of Chrsitianity -could’ve occurred without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, proving just who he truly was- the Divine Son of God. Witherington shows in the books that more people than just Jesus’ twelve helped in and spread His message. He writes, “that Chrsitianity spread in various ways and places and often without the help of apostles or the Twelve”(279).
The teachings of Gnostic gospels are completely different from the teachings of the original inner circle of Christ. Witherington states that there is no true central organization in the original church- there are different communities started by different followers of Christ. The connection is that all New Testament documents can reach back to Christ’s inner circle- that is the center of the different communities; they all agree on the idea of Jesus the Messiah. He says that there are mortal and divine prophecies about Christ in Gentile and Jewish belief systems, all tracing back to His inner circle. He concludes that there is no gap between the historical Jesus and the faith-based Christ- that they are one and the same to the members of the inner circle and his early followers- completely when they saw and heard about the risen Lord. They knew what Christ was like and through their writings, we can come to know who He is. They were writing about a man who had changed their lives with complete honesty and sincerity, not making and collaborating stories to create their own truth as seen by the similar truths found in each of the writings even though they had no central organization. It’s through their writings that we can come to truly know and understand Jesus Christ.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the structure and depth of this book. Dr. Witherington gives a clear and detailed analysis of many of the members of Christ’s inner circle and his other early followers. His words and ideas flowed together well. I could easily see all the research he had done through the scriptures he referenced, the clarification of words based on the original Greek and how that changed the meaning of a section of the Bible, his descriptions of the lives of the followers of Christ. His book was well structured- starting with the women that followed and believed in Christ down to the Apostles and followers who were witnesses of Christ, to his own brothers, and lastly to a man who was not an eyewitness of Christ, but who had been changed by Christ and learned from the other Apostles about just who Christ was, this person being Paul. I felt like this book gave me a deeper understanding of the Bible and the people who I have spent my life reading about in the Bible and yet who I never truly understood in terms of their personal ideas, beliefs, and lives.
I really enjoyed learning about the place and role that women like Joanna and Mary Magdalene had in Christ’s ministry and the continuous and important role they played. I also loved learning about the two brothers of Jesus, James and Jude, as I have never truly learned about them before. This book had an overwhelming amount of strength and credibility to Witherington’s statements. As for weaknesses, I am honestly struggling to find anything that could be considered one. There were some points in the book where I wished he had gone more into depth about the connections he was making- such as with Joanna being Junia spoken about by Paul and his statements about the conversation between Mary and Jesus during the wedding scene where the miracle of turning water into wine. I got confused during the chapter on who wrote the Fourth Gospel, John, as I felt I did not have enough background understanding of just who all the John’s he was referencing were. Along with that, I also felt lost when Witherington spoke about Christology and about the different Gnostic documents and others such as the Q sayings- but that is affected by just who he is seeing as his audience, probably more religious people who are in his field of work and know about these things rather than a simple University student. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and feel like I learned so much more about the Bible, seeing these figures I have always learned about as real people with their own thoughts and beliefs on Christ and His gospel.
About the Book’s Author
Ben Witherington III is a Bible scholar and a Professor of the New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary; he’s also on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He’s taught in many schools such as Vanderbuilt University and Duke Divinity School and has lectured at many churches, colleges, and biblical meetings around the World. He’s written over 50 books, many of them highly-respected religious books. All this information adds not just to the book’s credibility, but also to the author’s. Seeing the titles and successes of his life in doctrinal studies, this is a man who has spent his life studying the New Testament and, therefore, knows much about Christ, his ministry, and his own Apostles and followers.
“Dr. Ben Witherington”. 2012. Accessed November 24, 2021. http://www.benwitherington.com/
Witherington, Ben. What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History — Why We Can Trust the Bible. New York: HarperOne, 2007.