Chapter Seven: Ben Witherington’s Interview
Uh, that would mean Jesus saw himself as…the new Jacob, right?...Surely that’s more likely than implying he was Yahweh. But if that is what Jesus meant, that he was Yahweh, then what happens to the fancy distinctions between members of the Trinity that Witherington claims Jesus secretly drew?
What happens to them? Nothing; like we said, that distinction existed in Wisdom theology prior to Jesus’ birth. In any event, Price himself quotes the very line which shows Jacob wouldn’t be in mind here: Jesus was “not merely part of the group, he’s forming the group – just as God in the Old Testament formed his people and set up the twelve tribes of Israel.” If Jesus was trying to imitate Jacob, the method would have been to team himself up with about four Jewish maidens and produce twelve followers with them.
Actually, it’s not even clear what Price thinks would be the purpose of Jesus declaring himself the “new Jacob. Jacob’s role was that of the great progenitor of Israel, but reproduction was hardly slack in Jesus’ day. Jacob also had no real role in establishing any sort of covenantal relations with Yahweh – all he did was reaffirm the Abrahamic status quo -- so there wouldn’t be any reason for Jesus to style himself “the new Jacob” on that account either.
Price also says:
The Dead Sea Scrolls sect was organized with the Teacher of Righteousness at the head, and below him Twelve men. Does Witherington imagine that the Teacher was supposed to be Jehovah God, too?
Would he need to? Did the Teacher himself select these twelve, as Jesus did? Or did he claim that God ordained it (as Jesus did not)? By the way, there’s still not a lot of agreement as to who exactly the “Teacher of Righteousness” was ; iIt seems most think he was taken to be the founder of the Essene movement. And what about those Twelve? This says more:
In the council of the community there shall be twelve men and three priests perfected in all that has been revealed from the whole Torah: --for practicing truth and righteousness, justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with each other; --for keeping faithfulness in the land with firm intention and contrite spirit; -for overcoming iniquity by deeds of justice and endurance of fiery trials; --and for walking in all things by the standard of truth and the regulation for the occasion. --- Dead Sea Scrolls, Community Rule (1QS) 8.1-4
So actually, that Council of Twelve was more like a Consortium of Fifteen (12 +3) – and there’s really nothing to say that the Teacher of Righteousness was the one who put this august body together in the first place, much less (if he did) what he was thinking was his inspiration.
In addition, another DSS text, the Damascus Document, offers a judicial body of only ten men; while a Cave 4 fragment does indicate a body of 12 consisting of 10 men and 2 priests. Josephus meanwhile says that the Essenes had a court with 100 members. There’s nothing therefore to suggest that “12” was given any particular significance in the way Price suggests.
That is not what Witherington does, however. He isn’t restricting the contrast to “that one passage” – he’s encompassing the whole of Jesus’ career and ministry with respect to “that one passage”. He isn’t saying that Jesus was making any sort of contrast, either.
Regarding that passage (Matt. 11:11 and parallels), however, Price says that “it’s obvious that Jesus thinks less of himself than of John!” For, he argues, “….there’s no way you can take Bill saying Sam is the greatest man in history by implying Bill thinks he is greater than Sam!” But there’s a couple of problems with that argument. For one thing, as Keener’s Matthew commentary notes , Matt. 11:11/pars fits a certain pattern of speech, which can’t be taken as blanket judgments. It’s the language of hyperbolic excess, and Price actually admits as much, even as he suggests that the hyperbole can’t show that Jesus didn’t in any way think himself better than John.
Keener points to an example of the same document, the Mekhilta, which referred to both Joseph and Moses as being examples of “no one greater” among the Jews. Are we going to argue that the Mekhilta commits self-contradiction on that one (“Is it saying that Joseph was greatest, or Moses”)? Not at all. A more nuanced, contextualized reader would not take the hyperbole as seriously as Price does, and not read Jesus as though he were laying out a literal ranking system with John at the top.
First, he objects that the quote from Mark 7:7 (11 verses earlier) uses an LXX (Greek Old Testament) version of Is. 29:13, for the Hebrew version “would not have established the desired point.” And since the LXX was a version “which Palestinian scribes loathed,” he argues, these words by Jesus must be fakes.
Did Palestinians really “loathe” the LXX, though? Not at all. Glenn Miller has pointed out at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/alxx.html that even the Qumran texts – used by people who would resent foreign influences on Jewish religion – contain agreements with LXX traditions. And he says also:
The LXX was cited as scripture by Diaspora Jewry consistently in pre-Christian times, was used in synagogues through the 6th century AD, and was used at Qumran in pre-Christian times similarly. Although it was consistently corrected and refined through its heyday (not without major protest from Diaspora Jewry), this was paralleled by Jewish efforts to define/determine the most precise Hebrew text. The disowning of the LXX was never "official", although it was highly disparaged in the later Rabbinical writings. –
However, at the end of the first century C.E. many Jews ceased to use the LXX because the early Christians had adopted it as their own translation, and by then it was considered a Christian translation. This explains the negative attitude of many Rabbis towards the LXX
See also http://www.christian-thinktank.com/baduseot.html
So there’s no substance to this “Palestinians loathed the LXX” argument, not at the time Price needs it.
What of that the Hebrew version of Is. 29:13 doesn’t get the point across that the LXX version does? Price doesn’t explain why this is so, so it’s hard to know how to answer this. Let’s compare and see if we can guess:
Mark 7:7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Is. 29:13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men…
So….what’s the problem exactly? Like I said, it’s never quite explained, though Price may later give a hint when he says, “the very passage cited condemns those who set aside the Torah commandments to replace them with their own! Jesus is shown here condemning the scribes for doing what Witherington thinks Jesus was bragging about doing! On Witherngton’s logic, Jesus should have recognized that the scribes were claiming divine nature and authority for themselves!”
But that’s exactly the point! In effect, Jesus is saying, “Look at the way you guys play with the law. Who do you think you are, God?” Jesus is accusing them of going far past the lawyerly license they claimed for themselves as interpreters, to the point that they are so actively “interpreting” that they are effectively writing the law themselves, sort of like some criticize the Supreme Court for being legislators instead of just judges. Of course, the scribes would protest that they were doing no such thing, but that’s beside the point. Jesus says that these guys are “laying aside the commandment of God” – and who has the right to do that in reality, except God?
More than that, Price says Jesus here “quotes” Is. 29:13, but it might be better to regard this as something more allusive, namely, an allusion. Allusions didn’t need to respect the context; if anything you’d be seen as a right clever (and honorable) fellow for knowing how to craft the tradition for your own usages. (See more on that here.)
Next objection: Price wonders what Witherington can do with passages like Matt. 5:17-19/Luke 16:17, which says that “the cosmos itself will perish before the least bit of the Torah will be set aside”? That has already has been taken care of and not with the “all is fulfilled” argument Price supposes will be used.
Next, Price objects that you won’t find Witherington referring to the “law-smashing Jesus” in other books where he talks about Jesus’ Jewishness. But Price earlier admitted in the chapter that he hasn’t read all of Witherington’s books, so how can he be sure of this? Not that it matters: This “law-smashing Jesus” is just Price’s caricature of what Witherington is saying in a single line of CFC.
Finally, Price objects that founding a sect that invalidated kosher would have led to a “swift and merciless elimination” of his sect. I agree! And I could use this as an argument for the impossible faith line of persuasion. Actually, I did use similar ideas. So Price has provided me with some more ammo then: If it were not for the validating evidence of the Resurrection, I agree, we would have seen a “swift and merciless end” for Jesus – and for Christianity.
I have always said that the criterion of dissimilarity is useless myself, and this is confirmed by the social science aspect of the picture: If anything, we would expect a teacher in Jesus’ social setting to reaffirm widely accepted teachings; hence, when Jesus is reported saying something that is also found in contemporary Jewish practice, it’s actually all the more reason to regard it as authentic, not less. As for Christian practice, I have also consistently dismissed that as a case of cart before the horse.
So for me, at least, there has never been any problem of being inconsistent by saying Jesus said radical things on one hand, and affirmed traditional stuff on the other. That would just have been what we’d expect. I also doubt that Witherington would characterize his view as, “If Jesus is supposed to have said it, then it must have been radically new.” Price puts it in quotes, but that’s an illusion, a sleight-of-hand trick, as he puts it, since he’s only manufacturing by caricature, not producing, such a quote from Witherington.
I think if I wore glasses I’d need to clean them to be sure I read that right! On the previous page, Price was all over Witherington for making, so he says, Jesus into “a man out of time, a divine insertion into the time stream with a perspective not conditioned by his place in ancient history and culture.” So what’s all this then about Jesus anticipating something 1000+ years before the fact? And no, it wouldn’t work, actually; such individualism would indeed have been greatly foreign to the thinking of that social world. Contrary to Price, it was a universal of the period that you DID need the “saved-up capital of the past” to speak with authority; the past was king, the past was the authority that gave the present its power. In any event Price here openly and blatantly self-contradicts within a few lines.
So there’s no leap here, and we have more on the “I say unto you” verbiage that Price doesn’t address here. I might add that Price needs to substantiate the claim that Buddha is said to have done the same thing – and he might want to be careful; there’s a bit of a difference between presuming to speak for a deity of personal monolatry and a deity of impersonal pantheism.
Ali, adopted son of Muhammed, was regarded as an incarnation of Allah during his own lifetime; he was so embarrassed by this that he had many executed.
African prophet Simon Kimbangu was regarded as “God of the Blacks” by an admiring sect, the Ngunzists. He was upset by their claims and tried to stop them, but could not.
The Rabbi Schneerson was regarded as divine by followers even before his death
But Price’s examples don’t quite match the point Witherington was making here. By Price’s own admission, what we have here is people who NEVER made claims of divinity, but had followers ascribe divinity TO them. Did any of these followers then go on to write documents in which they falsely portrayed the founding person as making claims to divinity that they never made? In other words, did any of the Ngunzinsts write a book titled “Simon Kimbangu: My Life!” in which they did NOT report all these places where Simon denied that he was divinity, and replaced it with him saying that he really was? They did not. The parallel is illicit.
Beyond that, here’s the rub which Price’s argument never irons out: He hasn’t given us any way whereby a person could historically claim to be divine without him arguing that the person’s followers must have invented those claims and put them in that leader’s mouth.