120 Things ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NBC Won’t Tell You About Jesus and the Bible – Part 1
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. Craig Evans, Dr. Ben Witherington; ©2001|
|Recently ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX have featured programs about Jesus. Inevitably, two things come up: the only information we have about Jesus is in the Bible, specifically the 4 Gospels, and we can’t trust hem; Jesus was (if he existed at all) certainly a great man, but no more than that. We don’t think either of these assumptions is correct. Dr. John Ankerberg spoke with two biblical scholars to learn what they had to say about the Bible vs. other classical literature, interpretive assumptions, and Jesus – His deeds and His claims about Himself.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Dr. Ben Witherington
- 2.1 1. Christians do have a firm foundation for believing in Jesus.
- 2.2 2. It is not necessary, even in our day and age, to reject miracles out of hand.
- 2.3 3. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote very good history.
- 2.4 4. “History” and “Theology” are not necessarily opposites.
- 2.5 5. Ancient history should be judged by ancient history standards.
- 2.6 6. Classical history frequently had a “theological” bent.
- 2.7 7. Early Church creeds (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed) are based firmly on the Old and New Testaments.
- 2.8 8. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean discrepancy.
- 2.9 9. The four Gospels do not present radically different pictures of Jesus.
- 2.10 10. Paul did not create the Messiah.
- 2.11 11. “Tradition” as used by the Apostle Paul does not equal “Catholic Tradition”.
- 2.12 12. Paul did not invent Christianity.
- 2.13 13. Some of the earliest statements of Christian beliefs predate Paul.
- 2.14 14. Paul makes statements in Philippians 2 that clearly indicate he thought Jesus was God.
- 2.15 15. Jesus can forgive sins. He proved it.
- 2.16 16. If the Bible is true, then one day Jesus will judge your life.
- 2.17 17. Jesus thought His death was significant and necessary for dealing with the sin problem in the world.
- 2.18 18. There are rules to interpretation. But you don’t get to make up your own.
- 2.19 19. We can tell you that Jesus is the Son of God. And we have evidence to back up our faith.
- 2.20 20. There really is no mystery to why the “legend of Jesus” would spread so far and so fast.
- 2.21 21. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection was strong enough to convince even hardened skeptics of his own time.
- 2.22 22. Something very remarkable had to happen to change James from thinking his brother Jesus was mad to thinking he was the Messiah.
- 2.23 23. Paul did not want to believe in Jesus.
- 2.24 24. There’s more to the New Testament than the Gospels, and others add to the claim of historical reliability.
- 2.25 25. Paul, Peter, James and others became convinced that Jesus was more than just a man.
- 2.26 26. Jesus was more than a social reformer.
- 2.27 27. Compared to other figures from 2,000 years ago, we actually have quite good evidence concerning Jesus.
- 2.28 28. Archaeology has helped confirm the historicity of the New Testament.
- 2.29 29. The Gospel accounts are not hopelessly contradictory and different.
- 2.30 30. The four Gospels were each written for a different audience and for a different purpose.
- 2.31 31. The Gospel writers were either eyewitnesses or close associates of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life.
- 2.32 32. The Gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life.
- 2.33 33. The information in the Gospels is reliable.
- 2.34 34. Presuppositions can lead to mishandling of data, and therefore, incorrect conclusions.
- 2.35 35. The views expressed by scholars from the Jesus Seminar do not represent the majority of biblical scholarship.
- 2.36 36. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
- 2.37 37. The “historical Jesus” is the same as the “Jesus of faith”
- 2.38 38. Jesus claimed to be God.
- 2.39 39. Jesus knew he would die, and that his death would be significant.
- 2.40 40. Christianity was not copied from the mystery religions.
- 2.41 41. The “Kingdom of God” is more than a mere political statement.
- 2.42 42. Jesus died for reasons far beyond any political process.
- 2.43 43. Jesus himself taught that his death was a factor in recovering a right relationship with God.
- 2.44 44. Jesus performed miracles.
- 2.45 45. Jesus’ own family didn’t believe in his ministry—until something changed their minds.
- 2.46 46. There’s far more to Jesus’ touching the lepers then merely “bringing hope to the common man”.
- 2.47 47. If you want to come to the right conclusion about Jesus, you have to come to the evidence with an open mind.
- 2.48 48. After Jesus died on the cross, his body was buried in a tomb.
- 2.49 49. The disciples truly believed they saw Jesus alive again after his death.
- 2.50 50. No current naturalistic explanation for the resurrection works.
- 2.51 51. Paul was not predisposed to believe in Jesus.
- 2.52 52. Jesus certainly had more than just 12 supporters.
- 2.53 53. Jesus knew he was going to die when he went to Jerusalem for the Passover.
- 2.54 54. When Jesus cleansed the temple, it may have been a prophetic sign that the Temple would be coming down.
- 2.55 55. The Jewish priests and Pilate both had reasons to want Jesus dead.
- 2.56 56. Some kind of Jewish religious trial of Jesus makes sense.
- 2.57 57. The trial(s) of Jesus would not have been particularly private.
- 3 Notes
Recently ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX have featured programs about Jesus. Inevitably, two things come up:
- the only information we have about Jesus is in the Bible, specifically the 4 Gospels, and we can’t trust them;
- Jesus was (if he existed at all) certainly a great man, but no more than that.
We don’t think either of these assumptions is correct. Dr. John Ankerberg spoke with two biblical scholars to learn what they had to say about the Bible vs. other classical literature, interpretive assumptions, and Jesus – His deeds and His claims about Himself.
[Dr. Ben Witherington earned his Ph.D. from University of Durham, England; currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Jesus Quest, The Christology of Jesus and Jesus the Sage.]
Dr. Ben Witherington
1. Christians do have a firm foundation for believing in Jesus.
Dr. John Ankerberg: The Jesus Seminar [a group of scholars frequently quoted by various media] says that much about Jesus remains obscure, so much so that we do not have a firm foundation to believe in him. What do you think?
Dr. Ben Witherington: Well I guess part of it depends on how you evaluate the evidence we have. I mean, if we take the evidence on prima facie value, we’ve got lots of evidence. We’ve got four Gospels, we’ve got quotations of Jesus’ sayings in Acts and Paul. We’ve got some extra biblical help as well. There’s a lot of evidence, the question is, how fine are you going to sift this evidence, and what are you going to do with it?
Now the truth of the matter is that if you apply criteria to sift the evidence that sifts it so fine that you have only a distinct minority of the evidence that you think actually points to Jesus, of course then at that point you can make Jesus look like almost anything if you only take a distinct minority of the evidence.
2. It is not necessary, even in our day and age, to reject miracles out of hand.
Witherington: Another quote that the critics give, they say they do not think that the worldview that’s reflected in the Bible can be carried forward in this scientific age and retained as an article of faith. What they’re saying is that you’ve got to jettison the miraculous.
Well, you know the thing that’s interesting to me is we live now in what is called a post-modern culture, a culture that’s very open to the supernatural of all kinds and in all descriptions. Basically, the critique they are offering is the sort of enlightenment critique: we live in a rationalistic age, in a naturalistic age. It’s quite impossible in such a scientific age to believe in the supernatural.
The thing that I find most odd about that is that they’re about a generation and a half behind what the philosophers and even some of the scientists are saying about these particular issues. They’ve bought the assumptions of the enlightenment and they haven’t been enlightened beyond them.
And so I find it odd they insist that that’s the case. Now of course, it’s true that there were beliefs that ancients had that we would not share: not every fever is caused by a demon; not every common cold is caused by some nefarious supernatural force. Of course that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that the larger issues, whether there really is supernatural evil and supernatural good, whether those issues could be adjudicated in such a way that we could say, yes, fundamentally, we accept and believe the same kind of world view as they do. And I think fundamentally that’s true.
3. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually wrote very good history.
Ankerberg: Did the Gospel writers know how to do history, or was it impossible for them to do history because of their worldview?
Witherington: I think it’s unfortunate that there are those who want to caricature first century people as strictly pre-critical, they couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and they couldn’t tell the difference between myth and reality. Bless their hearts, they were just pre-critical people who lived before the scientific era and they had just no powers of critical sifting.
Well, that’s absolutely untrue, because, if you actually study ancient historiography, there were good historians and there were bad ones. There were people like Thucydides who was very rigorous and sifting whether this or this did not get said, and this done. And so you have to look at it from a broader perspective than that. It’s not true that all ancient people were simply naïve and gullible.
4. “History” and “Theology” are not necessarily opposites.
Ankerberg: The criticism comes to New Testament Gospels from modern scholars this way: that because there was a little bit of theology, or they would say a lot of theology you can’t take it as historical in any shape or form. But, is that true?
Witherington: Well, let’s take an example, a clear example. It’s one thing to say “Jesus died on the cross.” Any kind of person, an atheist or a believer of any kind could accept that statement. When you make a statement: “Jesus died on the cross for my sins,” you are making a theological interpretation of an historical event. Now it’s true that not everybody could accept, or would accept that theological interpretation. That doesn’t make it true or false, it’s just the fact that some come at it with certain kinds of presuppositions about history: “History can’t be about the activity of God, it’s about the activity of human beings. If there is a God he doesn’t interfere in the affairs of human beings, and therefore, theological interpretation of human events is going beyond the bounds of evidence.” Now that is the typical sort of secular historicists approach to the issue.
What Christians would say is we need to be more open-minded than that. It could indeed be the case, and we believe it to be the case, that God is active in human history, and if God is a player in human history, then necessarily there needs to be theological interpretation of human history.
5. Ancient history should be judged by ancient history standards.
Ankerberg: Place these Gospels in the context of 2000 years ago. You’ve got Roman historians writing, you’ve got Greeks, you’ve got Jewish writers. How did they go about it? What was expected to give some kind of accurate report?
Witherington: Here’s where it gets to be very interesting. The part of the problem that has been characteristic of scholars since the rise of critical study of the New Testament at the beginning of the 20th century, is that they’ve brought 20th century assumptions about what history could look like, or what an ancient biography ought to look like. They’ve brought modern assumptions about what a biography is, or what history is, to the study of the Gospels, and said, well, it’s clear this is not a biography, or this is not a work of history that we can give any credence to. Well, now the problem with that is that the genre of history writing in antiquity and the genre of biography writing in antiquity was not identical with the kind of markers of what a modern work of those two kinds would look like.
Let me give you an example. A modern biography normally would be a sort of womb-to-tomb description of a person’s life, early childhood development, this that and the other. Ancient biographies didn’t necessarily work that way at all. What they wanted to do was take salient episodes from a person’s life that revealed that person’s character. They wanted to show what kind of person that person was, and they could leave out huge chunks of a person’s life to do so. So it’s not true that you have to write a sort of exhaustive womb-to-tomb story to tell the story of Jesus in a biographical fashion in first century A.D. Similarly with ancient historiography. Ancient historians were able to do their task without feeling that they had to deal with all of the minutia that modern historians would have to deal with, whether we’re dealing with a modern study of the Civil War by Shelby Foote, or something else.
Ancient historians were perfectly satisfied that, if they had shown by chronicling what were the significant connections of history, going from Point A to Point B what were the historic events, not all of it historical events, but what were the historical events and how were they interconnected, they had done their job. And so the criterion to determine what was good history-writing and what was bad history-writing in antiquity and what was good biographical writing and bad biographical writing in antiquity is not the same as what it is today, and we need to be aware of the differences.
6. Classical history frequently had a “theological” bent.
Ankerberg: Isn’t it true that whether you’re reading Homer in Greek or whether you’re reading Tacitus from the Romans, the fact is that they also had a bias or a theological bent that showed up in their writings with their history?
Witherington: Of course. There is no such thing as value-free history writing. There is no such thing as value-free biographical writing. I mean, it is the modern myth that a person comes to their task of writing as a sort of neutral observer of things. Of course that’s not true. Everybody has a point of view, or a perspective. It’s the wise writer that takes into account his own biases and points of view as he goes into the writing and tries to correct for that. Now in antiquity there were people who were very well aware of what their own point of view was, and they took that into account when they wrote. I mean, Tacitus was a very excellent Roman historian. I put my money on him far more quickly than I would someone like Livy, who simply reports all the kinds of things that he heard without much critical sifting. And the same is true with the Greek historiographical tradition. There were those who were very good at it, and there were those who were poor at it.
7. Early Church creeds (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed) are based firmly on the Old and New Testaments.
Ankerberg: You’ve written a whole book on the creeds and dogma and things like that. We hear a lot about that, disparaging words today by modern scholarship. And they way they say it is that the creed and dogma that traditional Christianity has held through the years can no longer command the assent of those who look at the historical Jesus so that this was created after, and the historical Jesus is another story. Is that true? Have we been wrong to connect those two? Did the creed come from Jesus? Or is it just the creation of the church?
Witherington: Well, first of all, I would want to say that there is a trajectory from the historical Jesus to the church that is continuous and ongoing. I don’t think that you can just sort of radically separate the historical Jesus from the earliest followers of Jesus. And I don’t either think that you can separate what was the case about Jesus and what Jesus affirmed about himself from what was affirmed about him by his earliest followers. You would have to argue that the earliest followers forgot what Jesus was like, didn’t remember what he said, were not all that clearly impressed by the actual impact of his life and his work, and therefore decided to predicate something else of him altogether.
Now historically that seems highly unlikely just for a starter, to say the least. When we’re talking about the creeds, let’s for example let’s take for example the earliest creed, the so called Apostle’s Creed: ” I believe in God the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth¼” and so on. Now, every one of the articles in that creed is in fact grounded in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. It’s not early medieval platonic philosophizing about the nature of Jesus or the nature of the trinity or anything like that. It’s basically one-liner statements taken straight out of either the Old Testament or the New Testament. So if you have a beef here, it can’t be with the early medieval church that is composing this high Christological view on Jesus. And the earliest followers of Jesus were nothing like that. You’re beef actually has to be with the Bible itself, not the later formulations of the creed, because the essence of those early creedal statements is found right in the scriptures themselves.
8. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean discrepancy.
Ankerberg: Talking about the historical documents, the Gospels, Paul and so on. A lot of times the scholars will say that different accounts mean discrepancy, disagreement, cover-up, or creativity, not another objective viewpoint. Talk about the methodology that’s going on here and give us an illustration of, when there are differences, it actually could show accuracy.
Witherington: Well, let’s take an example from the world of art. There is a famous series of painting done by an impressionist painter, Monet, of Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day, when light was shining on the cathedral at different times of the day. He did 8 or 10 of these paintings. It’s early morning, mid-morning, middle of the day, early afternoon. And of course, the colors in the painting, same object, exactly the same cathedral, clearly the liniments of the cathedral are clear, the same in each case, but different hues, different tones, different colors. Are these paintings different? Of course they are. But we wouldn’t begin to talk about discrepancies between these paintings, because they are presenting the same object, the same very real object, from slightly different points of view. The differences are largely accounted for by the differences in point of view. It’s not a matter of this one is right and that one is wrong. They could all be right, because the reality was much larger than any one point of view could convey.
Now I think that when you are actually dealing with the four portraits of Jesus in the New Testament we’re dealing with the same kind of phenomena by and large. Of course there are always some historical problems to wrestle with. That’s why we’ve been doing this scholarly work for so long, trying to deal with that. But the truth of the matter is that most of the differences between the Gospels can be accounted for on the basis of the different points of view that the first four Gospel writers had.
Ankerberg: I think one of the illustrations that is used against Christianity and the New Testament documents being accurate is how many women came to the tomb Easter Sunday morning. And they’ll say, look each of the writers give us a different number of women, so therefore, that’s a mistake. The fact is they were making it up, or it was in conflict. Somebody is wrong. It’s not an accurate report. How do you unscramble that?
Witherington: Well, there’s several ways to deal with that. In the first place, if you’ve got one account that has two women, and another account that has three women and another account that has four women, if the two women are the same in all three or four accounts, then we don’t have a discrepancy, here, because there wasn’t a proviso statement at the beginning of any accounts “By the way, we’re telling you ALL the people who ever went to the tomb. And we know for sure that there was only two here.” It’s an argument from silence to say, well this account has two, and this account has three, and this account has four¼. Obviously, the one’s with three and four are wrong because the one with two was the earliest¼. And so on. I mean, there are a lot of assumptions going on, and a lot of argument from silence when we deal with an issue that way. To really have a discrepancy, you would have to say, this account says these two women went—Mary and another Mary went to the tomb ONLY. But this account says in fact that it was the wife of Cleopas who went to the tomb and Joanna ONLY. And then you’d have a discrepancy. Then you’d have an issue to actually deal with.
Ankerberg: And that’s what modern scholars are doing. They’re reading in the word “only.” He was ONLY talking about so many.
Witherington: Let’s take an account like I think is one of the earliest accounts of the appearance of the risen Jesus, the account in John 20 to Mary Magdalene. Now what’s interesting about that is that this is a biography, so he’s going to home in like a laser beam on the person of Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus. Now in that account the focus is clearly only on Mary Magdalene. She comes to the tomb, she weeps, she looks in, she doesn’t see Jesus, she sees some kind of angelica presence, and so on. What’s interesting about that is that even in that account that’s been edited in such a way as to focus just on Mary Magdalene, is there are little telltale marks that the author knew there was more than one woman that went to the tomb. “We don’t know where his body has been laid,” says Mary Magdalene. She is speaking, not just for herself, but for other women. So there are there are these little telltale marks that show that what the issue here is editing, not lack of historical knowledge.
Ankerberg. Pick another one. What did God really say about Jesus at his baptism? The accounts seem to differ.
Witherington: If they do differ, they differ because the different writers had different apologetic purposes. The earliest Gospel, Mark, tells us that the voice from heaven was a voice that came to Jesus in sort of an apocalyptic visionary fashion, and the voice said, “You are my beloved Son.” You, singular, are my beloved Son. This is a word of confirmation to Jesus himself, which sets him on his way, on his course of ministry. He’s being confirmed in the fact that he has a special relationship with God and God has given him a special task to do. He is imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit, he goes forth into Galilee and does his ministry.
Okay, that’s what Mark says. Now Matthew is writing a much more public account. He’s writing an account that’s for a time in Christian history where there’s going to be a lot of evangelism. And he wants to make it a public statement. So instead of “You are my beloved Son,” he has “This is my beloved Son.” It’s a public statement. Now, what you have to come to grips with is, yes, there was a certain freedom of editing the material so as to present it in a persuasive way to that audience that Matthew had, and opposed to the audience that Mark had. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t differences in the accounts. The question is whether you can account for them in terms of the larger theological purposes of the writers, and I believe you can.
9. The four Gospels do not present radically different pictures of Jesus.
Ankerberg: Somebody did, I think, a statistical study and suggested that 80% of the four Gospels, the material that’s used, agrees. You’re only dealing with about 20% that gives you extra information or something else. What would you say about that?
Witherington: I don’t know what the exact percentages are, but I would say that the majority of the materials that we’re talking about, that there is agreement in all the Gospels on. We don’t have radical different portrayals of Jesus. I mean, for example, we don’t have a Gospel that say, by the way Jesus spent three years evangelizing the Egyptians. We’ve got the same milieu, the same setting—Galilee and Judea—the same outcome, the passion narrative—Jesus dies on the cross, the same kind of teachings—Jesus teaches in parables and in aphorism. That’s what the synoptics all tell us. Now the Gospel of John is different on that score. But nonetheless, we have three Gospels that are very closely interwoven with each other in terms of the way they want to present Jesus, and present a very similar portrait.
10. Paul did not create the Messiah.
Ankerberg: You are also an expert on the Apostle Paul. And a lot of people have said that Paul was the one that really created Christ, the Messiah, the God-man, if you want. What would you say to those folks?
Witherington: Well, if Paul was a person operating 50, 60, 70 years after the time of Jesus, that could be a reasonable historical argument. We could actually debate that. But the truth of the matter is that Paul was converted within three or four years of the death of Jesus. And Paul himself tells us that among the other things that he did, he went up to Jerusalem and he consulted with the pillar apostles. Galatians is very clear about this. He talked with Peter, James and John. And you may be sure that they didn’t talk about the weather. They talked about matters of theological and ethical importance. Missionary strategies: who was going to go to the Gentiles, who was going to go to the Jews. I mean it’s the height of naiveté to suggest that Paul could have invented a Gospel about Jesus as the Christ, or as the son of God, not run it by the pillar apostles in Jerusalem, and gotten away with it. I mean, the truth of the matter is that there weren’t millions of followers of Jesus in first century A.D. Rather there was a rather tightly interwoven group of Christians in various parts of the empire and all of them had as their touchstone the original Christians in Jerusalem: Peter, James and John and the original followers of Jesus.
And so, if Paul affirmed these things, you may be sure that he affirmed them in agreement with the earliest apostles.
Ankerberg: Yes, in 1 Corinthians 15 he says “whether it was we or they, this is what we all preached.”
Witherington: And this is what we all believed. And he says that this was handed down a sacred tradition.
11. “Tradition” as used by the Apostle Paul does not equal “Catholic Tradition”.
Ankerberg: A lot of people do not understand the importance of the word “tradition.” There may even be some Christians who think that is a bad word. Okay? That’s not how we’re talking about it. Define it for us.
Witherington: Well, tradition, when we are talking about religious tradition, we’re talking about the oral and written sources of the materials that are now part of our holy Scriptures. That’s what we’re talking about. The truth of the matter is that what Scripture contains is those sacred traditions. So there’s not a fundamental contradiction between tradition and Scripture. Normally when that battle is fought, has been fought down through the Christian ages, it has to do with tradition that was invented later than the time of the apostles.
Ankerberg: So “tradition” here is “the authoritative message that needed to be passed on,” right?
12. Paul did not invent Christianity.
Ankerberg: Alright, now fit that into the context of 1 Corinthians 15. Take us through what Paul is saying in terms of transmitting this oratative message that was held by the Christians. Now we’re talking about the early apostles, going right back to Jesus. Weave that all together.
Witherington: Let’s set the setting just for a second. Paul’s writing to a largely Gentile group of Christians, in a bustling metropolis called Corinth.
Ankerberg: About what time?
Witherington: Somewhere in the mid-50’s A.D. Within 20 or 25 years of Jesus’ death. Now he’s writing to an audience of people, a congregation, that was highly pneumatic. They had what we would call charismatic gifts. They spoke in tongues, they prophesied. The spiritual gifts were really high on their wish list of things they wanted to have and do in their worship service. And traditionally speaking, whenever you’ve got a sort of charismatic approach to Christianity, traditions play less importance. There’s not a lot of focus on being well-grounded in the past. You’re looking forward to the experience of the moment or the future things that God’s going to prophesy and that sort of thing.
Now what Paul tries to do in 1 Corinthians is ground those pneumatic Corinthians Christians in the sacred traditions that Christians elsewhere believed. And he wanted them to be a form of Christianity that comported with the other forms that were out there. So, among other things that he does, is he deliberately cites some of the specific sayings of Jesus, for example Jesus’ teaching about no divorce (1 Cor. 7). In 1 Corinthians 11 he says “I’m passing on to you what I have received, that on the night that Jesus was betrayed He took bread, broke it, and said, take, eat, this is my body¼.” And in 1 Corinthians 15 of course he says the same thing, “I have passed on to you already that which I myself received.” Now this is technical early Jewish language for the receiving of the Sacred Tradition that needs to be preserved and passed on intact. It’s so important it needs to be memorized, and memorable.
Ankerberg: Not only that, but Paul said he got it from somebody else.
Witherington: Exactly. It comes from the earliest Christians.
Ankerberg: How do we know that he got it from somebody else, or who is it that he got it from?
Witherington: Well, the best perspective on that I would say is that probably his earliest Christian teaching that Paul himself received was in Damascus. We will remember that after his conversion on Damascus Road, or his dramatic close encounter of the first kind, he was taken to Damascus and was with Christians in Damascus, and it surely must have been there that he received his first Christian instruction. Later, of course, he went up to Jerusalem and talked with the pillar apostles as well, but his basic, nodal Christian instruction must have come in Damascus from some of the early Christians there, such as Ananias, who laid hands on him.
Ankerberg: Alright. Take us back to 1 Corinthians 15 and what Paul was saying.
Witherington: Well, the key phrase here is “I passed on to you that which I received.” Notice this is technical early Jewish language used by Pharisees, non-Christian Jews as well as Christian Jews. And the language here is the language of the careful transmission of sacred beliefs, sacred traditions. And what he is passing on, he says he himself received. Now what did he himself receive? It was the tradition about the death, the burial, the resurrection and the appearances of the risen Lord. He gives us this long grocery list of appearances, with himself being the last of all. And so you may be sure he’s added something to the list, namely the appearance to him, but otherwise, this was received tradition that was believed, not just by him, but believed by the other early church Christians, and it was transmitted in various congregations. And he’s trying to get that Corinthian congregation to conform to the form of early Christian belief that’s found elsewhere in early Christendom.
Ankerberg: Yes, this is a flag that’s planted in the ground around 55-57 A.D., in essence, which is 25 years after the time Jesus passed off the scene.
Ankerberg: And Paul is saying he got that information, which the community of Christians already holds, and is teaching other places, and the fact is, he got it from someplace else. How early did he get it?
Witherington: Well, again, it seems to me that since everywhere in Paul’s letters the essence of the matter is “Christ, and him crucified,” and “the risen Lord,” it seems to me only logical to conclude that this was some of the very first teaching he received.
What most scholars would say is that the earliest tradition that probably received a written form, the earliest continuous narrative, was the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was probably the earliest part of the Gospel that was put into written form as a continuous narrative. It’s very possible that at some point Paul had read such a narrative. What we know, though, that he had contact with some of the eyewitnesses that actually experienced these things, and he could consult with them.
13. Some of the earliest statements of Christian beliefs predate Paul.
Ankerberg: Take me back to some of the creedal statements that precede the writing of the New Testament. That which was being preached that will show up in the book of Acts, and why are some of those important?
Witherington: Well, let’s take probably the earliest confession that Christians’ made: Jesus is the risen Lord. We find this in various places in Paul’s letters. He says, this is what you’ve got to confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is the risen Lord. Well, that seems to have been the very earliest distinctive Christian confession.
Ankerberg: Why do scholars hold that? I mean, how do you guys figure that out?
Witherington: Well, if you go back to the actual stories of the visit to the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus, what is it that the women go and tell the male disciples? “He is risen! He is risen indeed.” I mean, this is actually going back to Easter morning itself. This is the original proclamation. This is the proclamation that Mary Magdalene made to the male disciples, even though, initially, they scoffed at it. And so, we’re talking bedrock here. This was the most primitive confession. It distinguished Jewish Christians from non-Christian Jews.
14. Paul makes statements in Philippians 2 that clearly indicate he thought Jesus was God.
Ankerberg: What about Philippians 2? The critical scholars accept Philippians as a Pauline epistle. What do they do with Philippians 2?
Witherington: Well, now that’s a really interesting one. Because what we’ve got in Philippians 2 is what I would call a “Christ hymn.” If you are a student of Greek you will know that this is in a sort of rhythmic cadence. It’s a sort of poetic form; it has a V pattern. There’s a three-point sermon here about his pre-existence, his earthly existence, and his existence in heaven beyond his time of his earthly career. So it’s a kind of V pattern, he came down, humbled himself to the form of a servant, even to the point of death on the cross. Because of this God has highly exalted him. Now what we know is that when we compare Philippians 2 to John 1, when we compare Philippians 2 to Colossians 1, we’ve got these V pattern hymns about Christ in various different document of the New Testament which suggests to most scholars that this is an early Christological hymn. Predating Paul in terms of his own performance of this particular hymn in Philippians 2, predating the writing of the Gospels. So what we know, and what Martin Hengel and other scholars have stressed, is that these Christological hymns show that a high Christology was a very early Christology.
Ankerberg: What does a “high Christology” mean?
Witherington: Well, it means that it’s a Christology that affirms not only the true humanity of Jesus, but also his divinity.
Ankerberg: Where did that come from, then?
Witherington: Well, it came from the assessment of the impact of the Christ event. You see, what a person is, what a person claims to be, and what others claim about him can all be different things. No Christian scholar that I know of is denying that the early Christians ascribed to Jesus, or said about Jesus, more than Jesus said about himself. The question is, is that “more” grounded in who he actually was, or not? It’s not so crucial whether Jesus actually claimed this or not. The question, was he, indeed, the son of God? Was the one that God sent from heaven to redeem the world or not? The earliest Christians all believed that was certainly the case. And they believed that was grounded in who he actually was. So this confession, this Christ hymn goes back to the earliest Christians and what they believed about Jesus.
Ankerberg: Okay, it goes back to Christ himself. Does it go back in the sense that Jesus himself actually taught it?
Witherington: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the Christ hymn itself goes beyond some of the things that Jesus taught directly. But there are indirect indications in the teaching of Jesus when he says, you know, “I’ve come not to be served, but to serve and give my life a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45. Some of the implication of his use of “the son of man” phrase in Mark 14:62, “you’ll see the son of man coming on the clouds.” It’s clear that he’s implying that he’s more than a mere mortal or that you should evaluate him in the categories that Daniel 7 evaluates the son of man in. So what is implicit in the teaching of Jesus becomes explicit in the Christological hymns and the teaching of the early church.
15. Jesus can forgive sins. He proved it.
Ankerberg: Take Mark 2 where you have a day in the life of the Lord Jesus, an early account, and Jesus shows up in front of the religious leaders in Capernaum, or they are there at his meeting, and a man is let down through the roof, a story that I think almost everybody was told in Sunday School. But it has great significance in terms of what happened. Jesus didn’t say to the man first “be healed.” What did he say, what was the significance?
Witherington: Well, he said “your sins are forgiven.” Now, he doesn’t say, “I forgive your sins,” he says “your sins are forgiven.” Now at the very least that means that he knows something about that person that only God should know—whether or not he’s been exonerated for the sins that he’s committed. And of course the crowd, or the Jews who were there react negatively “How in the world could he know this?” How could he¼ I mean he’s not been to the temple, he hasn’t offered a sacrifice, he hasn’t heard the pronouncement by the priest, “Your sin’s are absolved.” How could Jesus know that? How could Jesus say that? How would he dare say something like that?
Well, at the very least the Markine narrative is saying that Jesus believed that he had the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins. What kind of person had that kind of authority?
Ankerberg: Yes, they called that blasphemy.
Witherington: Exactly, which is the bestowing on yourself prerogatives that only God should have.
16. If the Bible is true, then one day Jesus will judge your life.
Ankerberg: He also in Matthew talked about coming back at the end of the world. What do the scholars make of that passage where he says he’s going to determine the eternal destiny of every man, woman and child that have ever lived?
Witherington: Well, most non-traditional scholars would say, “Well, Jesus never said that. I mean, he did talk about himself having a future beyond death.” The odd thing about that, when you make a sort of categorical statement, well, Jesus couldn’t have talked about himself in this way, is that when you actually study what early Jews said about themselves, we know, for example that the Pharisees all believed in the resurrection. That is, they believed they had a destiny beyond death, and that they were going to participate in the coming of what we would call the kingdom on earth, when the lion lies down with the lamb and the Holy Land is back in it’s original Edenic state, and all God’s people are together and happy and there’s a messianic banquet, and that sort of stuff.
Now if early Jews of a non-messianic bent could believe about themselves that they had a future beyond death, and that they had a role in what’s going to happen in the people of God beyond death, why should Jesus not think this? If Jesus was some great prophetic or messianic figure, it seems only logical if he believed in resurrection, that beyond death he would play a significant role in the coming of the kingdom. And so in that regard, it just comports with what we know about early Jewish beliefs in life after death.
17. Jesus thought His death was significant and necessary for dealing with the sin problem in the world.
Ankerberg: Did Jesus really say at the Passover ceremony, where he had communion “This is my body”? That seems to be in contention. Is there any reason for that contention?
Witherington: Well, of course, the reason is that, if he said something like that he must have had some kind of atonement theology that referred to the salvific significance of his own death, and you know, there are various scholars who want to avoid that conclusion. But the truth of the matter is that even if you left all the Gospels out of the account, we still have Paul, a witness from 20 some years after Jesus died saying, “Well, this is what was said.” And not only does he say this in 1 Corinthians 11, he says this is the tradition he received from the earliest Christians. Now it seems to me straining credulity to the breaking point to say, “Okay, we know that Paul affirms that ‘this is my body, this is my blood’ stuff. We know that Paul says that he received it from earlier Christians, but he couldn’t have received it from the eyewitnesses who were there with Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. He must have received it from Chr