I finished Ben Witherington III’s Jesus the Sage. I have two items:
1. Are the Gospels fiction, or are they historical? Witherington says on page 154:
“I have argued elsewhere that the ancient popular biography provides us with our closest analogies for the genre of the Gospels…There are certainly many other options besides pure fiction and photographic recall. For instance, it is possible the Gospel writers have used material of some historical substance and a broad historical outline of the life of Jesus, coupled with their selection, editing, and arrangement of various pericopes according to their various theological purposes.”
On the TV program, Faith Under Fire, Witherington said that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, and that the testimony is reliable (even though the Gospels were written about forty years after the events that they clam to narrate) because the Mishnah states that disciples were able to remember vast amounts of material that their teacher taught them. Witherington notes that Luke claims to draw from the testimony of eyewitnesses, and that both Matthew and Luke carefully use the sources that they have, such as Mark, showing that they were responsible historians. For Witherington, there is a good chance that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and that Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke, even though these Gospels are formally anonymous, for the second century church would not attribute Gospels to non-eyewitnesses or to non-apostles unless those figures actually wrote them (and Mark and Luke were not apostles). Regarding Matthew, Witherington does not claim that Matthew the apostle was responsible for the Gospel of Matthew’s final form, but he does suggest that the Gospel contains traditions going back to Matthew the apostle. And, if my impression is correct, Witherington appears to believe that John wrote the Gospel of John, and he notes that the end of the Gospel says that it represents eyewitness testimony. You can watch or listen to Witherington making his points here and here.
Is this consistent with what Witherington argues in Jesus the Sage? I’d say yes and no. In both, Witherington maintains that the Gospel authors used sources, and he is confident that these sources, on some level, reflect the historical Jesus. At the same time, I think that Witherington in Jesus the Sage is more sensitive to the fact the the Gospel authors had ideological and theological agendas and were not simply recalling what actually happened. He criticizes scholars for unjustifiably (at times) preferring Luke’s forms of sayings over how other Gospels’ present them, and he attributes that to the scholars’ attraction to Luke being less Jewish and apocalyptic in his presentation of the sayings (page 215). Witherington also proposes to uncover what is authentically Q by peeling back the layers that obviously reflect Matthew and Luke (and one can see the characteristics of Matthean and Lukan interaction with sources by looking at their use of Mark). Witherington affirms that Matthew softens Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as dense in their failure to understand Jesus, and he also discusses differences between the synoptic Gospels and James. For example, Witherington notes that James does not really talk about the inbreaking Kingdom of God through Christ.
Regarding John, Witherington does not believe in Jesus the Sage that the Gospel of John goes back to John the Galilean son of Zebedee, for there is not much in that Gospel about Jesus’ Galilean ministry or the sons of Zebedee. But Witherington does acknowledge that the Beloved Disciple could have been a Judean eyewitness to Jesus as well as the source of traditions that made their way into the Gospel of John (whose present form came from someone other than the Beloved Disciple, according to Witherington). This is similar to what Witherington said about Matthew on Faith Under Fire. Another point: In Jesus the Sage, Witherington says that Peter in the Gospel of Matthew is given a scribal authority to bind and to loose. Does this imply that there were written sources going back to the original disciples of Jesus, according to Witherington?
I think that the passage with which I opened this item, the one from page 154, is a reasonable way to see the Gospels: they are not a photographic recall of events, but rather they are the result of a process of using sources and composing a work that accords with the ideologies of the Gospels’ writers. Some, or even many, of these sources may go back to eyewitness testimony. But a significant part of uncovering the historical Jesus is sifting what is ideological in the Gospels from what is historical—-though it is possible that the ideological can overlap with the historical, as Witherington seems to believe when he regards the Gospels of Matthew and John to be accurately depicting Jesus as one who claimed to be wisdom itself.
2. On page 353, Witherington says: “Kings were often said to have miraculous births in antiquity, and Jesus is no different.” In my opinion, this differs from Witherington’s defense of the historicity of the virgin birth in his blog post, The Virginal Conception—-Miracle on Nazareth Street, where he argues that the virgin birth is historical because (1.) Matthew and Luke had to get the idea from somewhere, and there were no true parallels in the ancient world, and (2.) the story was embarrassing within that honor and shame culture, so it was most likely not made-up. Based on what Witherington says on page 353 of Jesus the Sage, I can argue that early Christians could have attributed to Jesus a miraculous birth to show that he was like other kings (even if other kings were not said to be the products of a virginal conception).