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Blog / Invitation to the New Testament: An Interview with Ben Witherington III

Invitation to the New Testament: An Interview with Ben Witherington III

Dr. Ben WitheringtonOne way to understand the New Testament and its world is to enter into that world and begin to think as the people living then thought. For example, modern culture is primarily text-based with a preponderance of books and documents. But in ancient cultures the oral word was primary and documents were secondary (due, in part, to a low literacy rate).

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Ben Witherington about his book, Invitation to the New Testament: First Things (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Click to buy your copy of Invitation to the New Testament in the Bible Gateway Store

[Also see, Reading & Understanding the Bible: An Interview with Ben Witherington III]

How does the New Testament differ from the Old Testament?

Dr. Witherington: A lot! The New Testament is written by Christians, the Old Testament is written by Jews. This makes all the difference in the world. The New Testament focuses on Jesus, the Old Testament focuses on the one Christians call God the Father. The Old Testament focuses on the story of God’s people up to and beyond the time of the Babylonian exile in 595 BC. The New Testament simply focuses on events that happened in the first century AD.

In what time frame and language were the books of the New Testament written and by whom?

Dr. Witherington: The New Testament was written in Greek from start to finish. It may have in part been based on some Aramaic documents, for example the sayings of Jesus, but it was all written in Greek. It was written almost entirely by Jewish followers of Jesus, with the possible exception of LukeActs and 2 Peter.

Describe the culture and context of the world in which the biblical books were written at that time.

Dr. Witherington: The culture was: 1) Patriarchal in character, a male dominant culture. 2) The culture was an honor and shame culture: the highest ethical value was not life or truth, but honor. You’d rather die than be shamed, you’d rather lie than be shamed, if we’re talking about most ancient peoples. 3) The cultures were not democratic and they did not practice modern capitalism. They were barter societies in which money was used for taxes, tolls, and tribute paying. 4) The societies were reciprocity cultures: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. A free gift was looked on suspiciously, or even as an oxymoron. These were payback cultures. 5) Society was very hierarchical, very stratified, divided up between patrons and clients. It was who you knew that most allowed one to get ahead. 6) Education was limited mostly to men, with about a 15% or so literacy rate in the wider culture. 7) Geography, gender, and generation were thought to determine who you were. Where you came from, what sex you were, and who your father was were thought to fix your personality. You were born with it and stuck with it. It was manifested over time. The ancients didn’t much like or believe in change, including the notion of conversion.

When was the New Testament compiled and what was the process?

Dr. Witherington: The New Testament began to be compiled in the first century AD when a collection of Paul’s letters was made (see 2 Pet. 3); Paul’s letters being the earliest New Testament documents in all likelihood. In the early second century there seems to have been a collection and a binding together of the four canonical Gospels, which is the point in time when Luke’s Gospel was separated from his second volume—Acts—even though they were meant to be two volumes of one work. Still later in the second century there were other collections made of writings by the family of Jesus and original disciples (for example, James, Jude, 1 Peter, 1-3 John). Probably the last books to be added to the collection were Revelation and 2 Peter, with the canon being closed in the later part of the 4th century when 27 books exactly were agreed upon by the church in the east and the west.

Why are the books of the Bible ordered the way they are?

Dr. Witherington: If you mean final editing, its because of the story moving from creation to fall, to redemption, and finally in Revelation to new creation.

How is Hebrews 12:2 an example of the challenge Bible translators have?

Dr. Witherington: Hebrew 12:2, in no Greek manuscript, mentions a qualifier to the word ‘faith.’ It simply reads, “looking to Jesus the author/pioneer and finisher of faith.” The faith in question is the same as that described in Hebrews 11, and so it’s a reference to Jesus’s faith and faithfulness, not to ours. As such, the translation ‘author and finisher of our faith’ is missing the point that Jesus is the final exemplar in the hall of faith.

Why do the letters of the New Testament owe more to speech conventions than to letter-writing conventions and why is that important?

Dr. Witherington: It’s important because unlike our culture, these were oral cultures, and the New Testament documents were meant to be heard, not silently read. Not surprisingly then, they primarily reflect oral and rhetorical characteristics more than epistolary conventions. The letters in the New Testament are not like modern letters; they’re more like ancient sermons and speeches.

Why do you say we should call New Testament history theological history telling?

Dr. Witherington: Because the authors are all committed Christians and are proudly interpreting the history they present in light of the Christ event, or theologically. So for instance, they’re not content to say ‘Jesus died on a cross.’ Anyone could say that with little or no faith commitment. They wish to interpret and explain the theological significance of the facts and so they say ‘Jesus died on the cross for our sins.’

What Gospel was written first and when; and what do you mean that it has a theological order to it?

Dr. Witherington: Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest one, and besides having a broadly chronological ordering, it has a theological ordering as well. So for instance, in the first half of Mark’s Gospel we have people asking all sorts of questions about Jesus and his words and deeds. The WHO question is not answered in this Gospel until in Mark 8 Peter says, “you are the Christ, the son of God.” Thereafter, in this Gospel, Jesus reveals four times in three straight chapters that the Son of Man must suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise. In other words, Mark is telling us, ‘until you know who Jesus is, you can’t understand why he had to die on a cross.’

How do you respond when people suggest that the Gospels don’t always agree in their depiction of Christ’s life?

Dr. Witherington: I’d say the Gospels should not be evaluated like modern historical works. They’re more like portraits of Jesus than photographs; beautifully interpretive portraits. Under inspiration, the Gospel writers had a certain freedom to arrange their material to best bring out the major points they wanted to make about Jesus; or put another way, they had the freedom to paint the portrait in ways that best expressed their particular purposes. I’d say the Gospels are like the famous paintings of Rouen cathedral by Monet. Each painting clearly has the same subject, but shaded in slightly different light. Similarly the Gospel writers come at Jesus from slightly different angles. Most of the differences in the Gospels reflect deliberate editing to highlight particular purposes.

What sort of person was Paul, who wrote so many of the New Testament letters?

Dr. Witherington: Paul was probably one of the two or three (along with Luke and the author of Hebrews) most well educated early Christian writers. He was also a very passionate man, committed to his tasks as an apostle, and not prepared to compromise what he saw as the essence of the true Gospel. His passion was for Christ, and for spreading the Good News about him; especially to Gentiles across the Roman Empire, but also to Jews as well.

Why do you call 2 Peter a mystery?

Dr. Witherington: 2 Peter is clearly enough a composite document. It has some Petrine material in chapter one, some material edited from Jude in chapter 2, and some Pauline discussion in chapter 3. We often forget that ancient scribes did not work with the same conventions as modern authors, and in this case 2 Peter owes something to three different famous early Christians.

What do you hope readers of Invitation to the New Testament will glean from it?

Dr. Witherington: My hope would be that the reader would fall in love with the reading of the New Testament and learn its depth and riches, and thereby fall in love with the central figure of the New Testament even more: Jesus.

Bio: Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the MDiv degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a PhD from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.

Witherington has also taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Duke Divinity School, and Gordon-Conwell. A popular lecturer, Witherington has presented seminars for churches, colleges, and biblical meetings not only in the United States but also in England, Estonia, Russia, Europe, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Australia. He has also led tours to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

Witherington has written over 40 books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He also writes for many church and scholarly publications, and is a frequent contributor to the Patheos website.

Along with many interviews on radio networks across the country, Witherington has been seen on the History Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The Discovery Channel, A&E, and the PAX Network.

Filed under Bible, Books, Interviews, New Testament