Friday, June 02, 2017

Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Ben Witherington III, #2

WitheringtonThis week, I am continuing reading, for my New Testament devotions and study, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, by Ben Witherington III. In the first part of this book Witherington looks at the influence of Jewish wisdom on the teachings of Jesus and how He develops and expands the wisdom tradition. We have already looked at the influence of Old Testament and intertestamental wisdom writings in Jesus’ teachings in the first post, and, in this post, will look at how that influence actually came out in Jesus’ teachings in the Synoptic Gospels .  I am posting from my reading in New Testament theologies and devotionals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

In chapter 3, Hokmah Meets Sophia: Jesus the Cynic, Witherington begins his discussion of Jesus as a sage. But, before he looks at Jesus' relationship to the Jewish tradition of wisdom, he looks at the influence of Hellenistic philosophy, specifically the influence of Cynicism on Jesus. While Jesus must have been somewhat influenced by Hellenism, he finds the influence of cynicism to have been minimal if any. Most Cynic writings are too late to have influenced Jesus. He sees a much closer affinity between Jesus and the Old Testament wisdom, rabbinic writings and, especially Ben Sira.

Though it is plausible that Jesus intended to be in various respects a radical reformer of early Judaism, a Jesus totally at odds with the religious life of early Judaism can not be ferreted out of the Synoptics, unless one so truncates the tradition to a very few aphorisms or parables that one conveniently leaves out all the evidence of Jesus’ Jewishness. 125

This process of re-creating Jesus in one’s own image happens all too often when one works with an overly truncated corpus of Jesus’ sayings. 140

Even if Jesus was influenced by some Cynic ideas and attitudes and practices, the influence seems to have been slight in comparison to the profound impact that the Jewish Wisdom material had on both the style and substance of his teaching. 142

Chapter 4 is entitled Wisdom in Person:Jesus the Sage. In this chapter Witherington looks at Jesus' wisdom teaching through his use of aphorisms and parables. He begins with theory of language and concludes that meaning of a text comes primarily from the author and not the reader. This means the reader must consider the historical, cultural, literary and other contexts to do proper exegesis. Jesus must be understood as a Jewish prophetic sage of the common person, announcing the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Jesus is using traditional means and styles of speaking and is building on an ancient tradition, but He is using them in a new way for a new time, to announce a new way of thinking and being in relationship with God. There is both continuity and discontinuity with the OT in Jesus' presentation of the kingdom of God.

In short, the meaning derived must be in continuity with, or pursuing the same path as the author’s meaning. There must always be a line of continuity between the original intended authorial meaning, to the extent it can be discerned, and whatever meaning one may derive from the text. 151

The vast majority of the Gospel sayings tradition can be explained on the hypothesis that Jesus presented himself as a Jewish prophetic sage, one who drew on all the riches of earlier Jewish sacred traditions, especially the prophetic, apocalyptic, and sapiential material though occasionally even the legal traditions. 158

Jesus uses proverbs in defense of his vision of the Reign of God. Jesus wants people to see that it is time for a new experience of God’s presence in human life. This new vision challenges old ways of thinking and acting...Jesus sees the coming of the Reign of God as an opportunity for radical change.  160

Jesus’ social position and orientation as a sage of the common people probably explains to a significant degree why he offered aphorisms of counter order. He identified with and believed that through his ministry God was doing something special to help the least, the last, and the lost as well as others. 165

In the next section Witherington discusses Jesus' "aphorisms of counter-order." These were proverbs that countered the "act-consequence" proverbs with a new way of being wise in the new age of God's in-breaking kingdom. One important aspect of biblical wisdom is being able to adapt to new situations brought about by new things God was doing. Jesus incorporated OT eschatology into wisdom sayings because he was fulfilling the prophecies and His disciples needed to adjust their thinking accordingly.

The meaning of these two verses is that human beings, not least because they were created before the sabbath and the sabbath was given for their rest and restoration, are more important than the observance of sabbath regulations. Giving them rest and restoration, which was the original purpose of the sabbath, takes precedence over the strict observance of Mosaic sabbath rules. Mark 2.27-28, 168

A human being “is caught up in self-defeating care to maintain himself in the world, but his great hope lies in the word that he is already valued by God.… One must give up the maintenance of a little self-order as the primary concern and give oneself over to the new divine order, in which the meaning of individual-in-community has everlasting significance.” Mark 8.35, 174

An essential element in following Jesus and being like him is learning his teaching...It was the job of the disciple to learn and conserve the teaching of the master. The disciple could not assume authority over his teacher or his teaching. Third, the disciple could only be equal to the teacher when s/he was fully instructed—then only was s/he complete. Matthew 10.24-25a, 179

Next, Witherington looks at Jesus' "narrative meshalim" or parables. He suggests that Jesus was using a common contemporary rabbinic means of teaching, but used it in a different way to get across His kingdom message of God breaking into the world in an unexpected way. This unexpected way often included the marginalized and unexpected people like Samaritans, women and the poor. Jesus was not only commenting on the old, like torah, but was bringing in new prophetic revelation from God.

(Jesus' parables) were illustrations of what was happening or would happen as a result of God’s dominion breaking into Israel’s midst in the person and ministry of Jesus the sage. In this regard, Jesus’ meshalim are not Torah-centric like other early Jewish parables but are more prophetic in character, telling the truth about some present or future situation. 187

This Samaritan went well beyond a simple act of kindness or compassion. Indeed he went beyond all bounds, not merely ethnic bounds, but even the suggested bounds in the Old Testament of what compassion would look like. Herein one finds a clue to what this parable is about. When the dominion of God breaks into human lives and situations, old prejudices pass away and a new and shocking pattern of behavior comes to pass. Luke 10.30-35, 195

The dominion of God has its own economy. All work in the vineyard is apparently equally valuable to the vineyard owner, regardless of the length of time one worker or another contributes to the overall task. The point may be that it requires a group effort, and just as a team’s members all equally share in a victory, regardless of how many minutes one or another player has played, so too every worker equally shares in the remuneration in the dominion of God. Mathew 20.1-15, 200

Finally, Witherington sees Jesus as presenting Himself as the embodiment of wisdom in his proverbs and parables. As were many of the OT prophets, He was the embodiment of His message.

The spokesman for God might not just convey a message but be the embodiment of that message in who he was, in what he did, in how he lived. Realizing this, it would not be an improbable progression in early Judaism for Jesus not to be merely an utterer of Wisdom speech, but also to represent himself as the embodiment of Wisdom, Wisdom in person. The relationship of Jesus the sage and Jesus as Wisdom lies in part in one being the personal embodiment of one’s message, but also in the fact that for Jesus, who told the parable, and what his authority was, was as important as the mashal he told. Jesus did not merely announce the inbreaking of God’s dominion on earth, he believed that he brought it, and thus in some sense even embodied it. 203–204

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