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Witherington on Ehrman, part III

Part III of Ben Witherington’s critique of Bart Ehrman. Needless to say, I still haven’t read the book. Part III does seem to be the most damning, though. Some salient points:

When it comes to the issue of the virginal conception vs. the incarnation it seems to me that something vital is missing in Bart’s discussion—namely the recognition that these two ideas are not rivals, nor do they contradict one another, for they speak really of two different things. Incarnation tells us that a pre-existent person showed up in the flesh, without telling us anything about how. The virginal conception tells us something about how the human being Jesus came into this world.

Perhaps I should give Ehrman some benefit of the doubt here, but I know of no reason that the crux of this argument isn’t valid. Certainly the gospel authors may have understood the conception as the beginning point of the incarnation – but they could have written about it understanding it to be the incarnation of a pre-existing figure without making that completely clear.

In his succinct presentation of the teaching of Jesus in Mark, Bart is right that this Evangelist takes an apocalyptic approach to presenting Jesus. This is quite true (see my Gospel of Mark commentary), and he agrees that Jesus is presented as the Son of Man in Mark. He says nothing however about the connection between these two facts, namely that Jesus presents himself as the figure referred to in the apocalyptic vision in Dan. 7—the one ‘like a son of man’ who descends on a cloud from heaven, and is given a throne by the Ancient of Days and will judge the world, and rule in a kingdom forever.

As Michael Whitenton has stressed on his blog that the Son of Man texts in the Gospel have a closer affinity to the Parables of Enoch than Daniel 7. The Parables stress the pre-incarnation of the Son of Man, whereas Daniel leaves this point out. Either way, it is clear that the Gospels characterize Jesus as being the “Son of Man” which was certainly a worshipful and divine figure. And, perhaps Witherington’s critique could be even stronger here if he acknowledged the Parables material. Whether the Gospels present Jesus as “fully Divine” and as the God of the Jews is a somewhat separate question, and I would enjoy seeing Ehrman’s treatment of it. However, if it’s true as Witherington claims that Bart ignores the import of the Son of Man material, then that would absolutely dilute his case!

I’ll have to slide over some of the questions I have about the final part of the review – there are several complaints about Ehrman’s treatment of the parousia that I don’t have time to properly assess.

The last thing I’ll say about this post concerns this:

On p. 77 Bart makes a surprising statement— “Jewish apocalypticism was a worldview that came into existence about a century and a half before Jesus’ birth…” Now perhaps Bart is thinking solely of Daniel, and is really late dating the book, but even if so experts in apocalyptic literature are clear enough that we see the beginning of this way of thinking much earlier— in the exilic period with Ezekiel and in Zechariah for example which certainly are not books that date to the second century B.C. Why quibble over this point? Well because of course historically it matters, and it calls into question Bart’s historical judgment. For my part, I don’t think, once one has read the gamut of scholarship and commentaries on Daniel, that one can conclude that even Daniel can safely be dated no earlier than the second century B.C. as a book.

I would be very surprised to learn that Ehrman was ignorant of apocalyptic language in Ezekial and, to a lesser degree in Jeremiah. Again, not having read it, I am willing to hazard the guess that he is not referring to the earliest appearance of apocalyptic language in the Hebrew Bible, but to the time when the Jewish Apocalyptic worldview came into its own as a pan-Judaic point of view. If that is the case, he is probably correct in dating it to the second century, and it would probably be correct to consider some of the late material in Daniel as belonging to that second century innovation. In other words, I think BW is being a little bit too harsh here.

Still & all, I sympathize with Witherington’s view and I’ll be surprised if I am not disappointed in some of these same ways by Jesus Interrupted when and if I get around to reading it!

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