I had a bone to pick in the past year ( † & ‡ ) with Ben Witherington (W), one of the most active and best known conservative apologist cum scholars living. I have absolutely nothing against the man personally. I just have a low tolerance for bad history that tries to disguise itself as authorative. I have been listening to a series of podcasts from an Australian radio show in which the issue of the historicity of Jesus is discussed from varous perspectives. One of the episodes features Mr. W being interviewed by the host, a man named Cameron Reilly. True to form, the good professor waxes decisive and infallible on things that have been openly contentious in academia for centuries.
During the course of this interview, he says a few things that are so untrue that it saddens me. It saddens me to hear them coming out of the mouth of someone who is seen as a respectable expert in his field by the many students under his tutelage, who naturally assume he is being honest. Now, I'm not talking about contentious matters such as the dating of Mark, or whether there is any evidence of eyewitness reporting, or whether Q was an actual document that was used by the authors of Matt and Luke—these kinds of things are arguable and I'll not comment on them except to say that W invariably takes the orthodox view on all of these. No, what bugs me is the outright falsehoods that he let slip out in his passionate rhetoric during this interview. Moreover, not only are they egregious falsehoods; they are stated so haughtily, so smugly, that it makes them doubly shameful to my eyes.
Again, I have nothing against W personally, and I normally would have just let my annoyance at his usual bedside bad manner slide . . . But then I saw that N.T. Wrong posted the list of 50 top bibliobloggers for December . . . and, who should be holding the top spot for two months in a row? Surprise! It's none other than our man W.
Since I doubt that any of the parade attendees at his crowning will call him on any of his guile (nice suit you got there, dude!), I will.
First Whopper comes at about the 15 minute 20 second mark in the interview. At this point the conversation centers on whether the various near-contemporary Pagan sources are useful historically:
- Q — Did Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, [or] Pliny actually claim to have seen Jesus?
- W — They claimed that there were Roman records that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and you don't have records about crucifixion of people that didn't exist. I mean, that's just absurd. They don't just make up those kind of Roman records. There's no reason for them to do so. So, it's an absurd point of view to start by asking' Did Jesus exist?'. Of Course he exists!
Okay, let's take a brief looksee at what these ancient pagan gentlemen actually said; shall we?:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.63
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
Annals 15: 39–43
[...] as the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.
. . . . . . . .
Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition
Life of Claudius
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ — none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do — these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
Letter to Trajan
Now, where exactly does any of these historians claim "that there were Roman records that [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate"? As a historian, W is entitled to speculate on where they might have gotten their information from. He is completely justified in saying something like: 'It has been suggested that Tacitus [etc] may have used one of Pilate's reports to the emperor as the source for his statement that "Christus" had been crucified by Pilate.' But W is not entitled to assert what he does say. Phrasing it like he does —"they claim that there were records"— makes his statement an outright lie, in my opinion. And yet folks just keep bestowing him with honors and a platform in which to spread the crap around, all the while praising the cut of his fine threads.
My second example of a whopper comes at about 42 minutes 45 seconds into the interview. At this point the conversation centers on whether Josephus' reference is authentic or an interpolation:
- Q — There's the fact that Origen, who was very well aware of Josephus' writings, makes no mention of this passage [Josephus' Flavium Testamonium] as support.
- W — That's not true. That is absolutely not true. I had a patriscic seminar this summer. He certainly did mention this passage.
- Q — Where does Origen mention it?
- W — In his Gospel of John. No question. He certainly did. So, I'm sorry [but] that's not true.
- Q — So, tell me where Origen mentions this. Because this is news to me.
- W — It's in the commentary on the Gospel of John. There are fragments of the commentary on the Gospel of John. The person to ask about this is Warren Smith at Duke University. He's a patristics expert. He came and did a seminar for us.
This particular whopper floored me. I'm not going to bother to cite Origen here. I will only say that nowhere in his extant work does he suggest what W says he does. Not even in his commentary on John. This is just plain bullshit.
Like in the previous example, the good professor would be justified in saying something like, 'There are those, such as Warren Smith over at Duke, who believe that a case can be made that Origen knew of the Josephan passage.' But, instead, what W says is "No question! He certainly did!" This makes him a liar, in my opinion, and his poor students keep obliviously taking notes, not knowing any better. (There'll be a quiz on Wednesday, and all that jazz.) This is professionally irresponsible.
In closing . . .
Allow me to digress and address something which is not necessarily a complaint about W specifically, but is instead a complaint about the tendencies of NT scholars in general (including W) when it comes to discussing the ultimate fate of the disciples of Jesus. It is wonderfully illustrated by W when he says (somewhere around 17 min 20 sec into it):
- W — The earliest disciples of Jesus, who very clearly are depicted as flawed human beings during the ministry of Jesus—they ended up betraying, denying, or even deserting him in his eleventh hour. And yet after the death of Jesus, after the crucifixion, the most shameful way to die on planet Earth—after that, they became world leaders. They went out and promulgated the fact that they had seen the risen Jesus, and they were prepared to die for their conviction. Now, what kind of person is it, who promulgates a fraud, and is then prepared to die for the fraud? I don't know anybody like that. And I certainly don't know of any ancient persons who went around selling fictitious stories and then were prepared to be martyred for them.
This canard is so pervasive in the literature and collective subconscious of its adherents that it absolutely astounds me that no one bothers to point out the big elephant in the middle of the room. Namely, the fact that, other than a passing reference in the Acts of the Apostles (a Christian document) regarding the execution of James the son of Zebedee, there is absolutely NO contemporary or near-contemporary textual evidence regarding the death of ANY of Jesus supposed disciples. None. This is a fact. The closest thing we have to it is a vague reference to Peter's (and Paul's) "witness" in the first letter of Clement, which is an anonymous work dating from roughly around the turn of the century, according to the current majority view (though I would argue that no one really can say with any degree of certainty and that such a date is a wishful surmise at best).
The continuing dissemination of such bad apologetics underscores for me the main thesis of Hector Avalos' excellent book, The End of Biblical Studies, which, in a nutshell, is that the field of religious studies (and New Testament and historical Jesus studies in particular) is rapidly disintegrating before our eyes into a dance of self-congratulatory circularity. I think he's spot on.
But hey!, I can call it like I see it. :)
Finally, if Ben Witherington is a paragon of scholarship in the field of academic NT studies, like his rating in the biblioblogosphere suggests, then I'm afraid that NT scholars are in big trouble, and may even indeed be in need or prayer.