NEW ORLEANS (BP)–During the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III offered divergent interpretations of the message of Jesus.
The forum, established in 2005 to prepare seminary students and Christian ministers to think critically and engage secular society with truth, brings together scholars from opposing views to discuss an important issue in a civil manner.
This year’s Greer-Heard forum, with the topic, “The Message of Jesus: What did He really teach?” embodied what the event, funded by Bill and Carolyn Heard and led by Bob Stewart, NOBTS professor and director of the forum, aimed to achieve when they launched the program. The scholarship, civility between the guests, and the importance of the topic came together in a unique way, making for a memorable discussion, Stewart said.
Crossan, known for his work with the Jesus Seminar and his writing on the historical Jesus, represents the liberal branch of biblical scholarship. During his time with the Jesus Seminar, Crossan and other liberal scholars famously voted on the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels. While evangelical scholars contend that the Gospel accounts are authentic and reliable, the Jesus Seminar argues that little of the material attributed to Jesus is authentic.
Witherington is a leading evangelical scholar and professor of New Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and is a noted defender of the Christian faith and Scripture through his numerous books and television appearances.
The forum opened with a 40-minute presentation by Crossan, followed by a 40-minute presentation from Witherington. After the opening presentations, the two men dialoged about the message of Jesus and entertained questions from the audience at the February event.
During his presentation, Crossan introduced the audience to the matrix of tradition, vision, time and place he uses to understand Jesus and His message. From the start, Crossan argued that much of Jesus’ message was a reaction to the Roman Empire and a call for peace through justice. He even sees a reaction to Rome in the divine titles of Jesus given in the New Testament.
“Before Jesus ever existed and even if He had never existed there was already in the Mediterranean world of the first century a human being whose titles were Divine, Son of God, God Incarnate, God from God, Lord, Liberator and Savior of the World,” Crossan said. “This is, of course, Caesar the Augustus.”
In the gospels, Crossan sees an epic struggle between competing views about the future of the world.
“There is a clash between empire and eschaton,” Crossan said. “By empire I mean when people or one nation uses others primarily for their own interests. Empire and eschaton clash throughout the whole Bible.”
The Greek word “eschaton,” Crossan explained, simply means an end. Though the term is often used in reference to the end of the world, Crossan does not see this aspect in Jesus’ message.
“It’s not about the end of the world. It is about the end of evil and impurity and violence and war and oppression,” Crossan said. “My translation for eschaton and eschatology is the great divine cleanup of the world.”
For Crossan, Herod Antipas plays a key role in understanding the message of Jesus. Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled as a tetrarch in Galilee during the time of Jesus.
Seeking to win favor with Rome, Antipas began commercializing the lake known as the Sea of Galilee, Crossan said. Antipas constructed a new capital city, Tiberius, on the shores of the lake and began taxing the fishing industry.
While this move provided increased revenue for the Roman occupiers, it angered the Jews who believed that God owned the whole world including the lake and its fish. According the Crossan, the people of Galilee would have viewed Antipas’ action as unjust.
John the Baptizer came announcing that God would soon act on behalf of the Jews, Crossan said. John believed that repentance from sin was needed before God would act. Jesus began as a follower of John, but came to a different conclusion about the nature of the Kingdom of God, Crossan said.
While John awaited God’s intervention and coming Kingdom, Jesus announced the presence of God’s Kingdom, Crossan said. According to Crossan, Jesus was announcing God’s desire to collaborate with mankind.
For Crossan, Jesus is primarily a nonviolent revolutionary reacting to and against the Roman Empire. And in Crossan’s matrix of understanding, Jesus is calling on the Jews of His day to collaborate with God in bringing peace through justice.
Crossan closed by pointing to a famous quote by Augustine of Hippo and a famous misquote by Desomond Tutu. Writing in 416, Augustine said, “God made you without you; He doesn’t justify you without you.”
“Desmond Tutu of Cape Town in 1999 brilliantly, magnificently misquoted Augustine saying, ‘Augustine says God without you won’t; you without God can’t.’ I think that is the message of Jesus — God without you won’t; you without God can’t,” Crosson said.
To open his presentation, Witherington noted a growing biblical illiteracy in western culture. He warned against the American tendency to believe almost any suggestion about Jesus if it is presented in a rhetorically effective way.
Disagreeing with Crossan’s preoccupation with Rome in the message of Jesus, Witherington argued that Jesus’ teachings can only be understood in the context of the Hebrew scriptures.
“The primary matrix for understanding Jesus is not the Greco-Roman world nor the emperor nor the empire,” Witherington said. “The primary matrix for understanding Jesus is the Hebrew Bible, the Greek Old Testament. The long Jewish tradition of messianism and all the main titles applied to Jesus — Son of Man, Son of God, Son of David, Christ, Lord — are coming not from a reaction to the empire. They are coming in the context of the Jewish discussion about such messianic figures.”
Witherington interprets the message of Jesus through the lens of a rich Jewish narrative thought world. Jesus and His earliest followers were “all Torah-loving Jews,” he said.
“He lived out of and spoke into a rich, storied world and He told His own and other tales in light of the dawning eschatological realities that He believed were happening.”
Because of the Jewish context, Jesus was able to allude to Old Testament figures and stories and expect His audience to understand who and what He was talking about. Even when addressing His disciples, Jesus spoke out of this same narrative thought world, Witherington said.
“Not surprisingly, His storied world is populated not by Greco-Roman figures, but by Old Testament figures and Old Testament stories alluded to, retold, recycled in various ways,” Witherington said. “His storied world involved the spinning out of new tales often in the form of parables or visionary remarks. The function of Jesus’ discourse was not merely to inform but to transform.
“There was both a theological and ethical thrust to Jesus’ teaching,” Witherington said. “The stories were meant not only to transform the religious imagination of the audience but also their praxis, giving them samples and examples of how to believe and behave in light of the dominion of God.”
Witherington also notes a dark edge in Jesus’ evaluation of His own people. Jesus calls the people lost in numerous parables. He often speaks about the “the need for repentance by one and all as God’s divine saving activity is happening in their midst,” Witherington said.
“Jesus did not come to meet the audience’s messianic expectations, He came to meet their needs,” Witherington said. “Ultimately that task could be consummated only through the sacrifice on the cross and its sequel. Redemption would not come on the cheap or even just by spiritual revival and good preaching accompanied by some miracles. The sin problem would not be dealt with or overcome by those means alone.”
Witherington agreed with Crossan that Jesus proclaimed the presences of the Kingdom. However, Witherington sees both immediate and future eschatology in Jesus’ message.
“Without the coming of the Son of Man there would have been no Good News of the Kingdom, and without His death, resurrection and return, there would be no completion to the arc of the story Jesus was telling and He believed He was living out of — the story in Daniel 7 — of the one like a Son of Man who came down from heaven to rule forever on earth, and to be worshipped by every tribe and tongue and people and nation, Witherington said.
“In Daniel 7 we see the harmonic converge in the key elements in Jesus’ message — Kingdom of God and Son of Man, and it was, and is, and ever shall be only the latter that brings the former on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Witherington closed with the story of a recent subscription promotion he received from Time magazine. In the letter, Time-Warner utilized the computerized personalization techniques used by many marketers.
This time the computer got it wrong. Each time the computer tried to create the “personal” greeting for “Dr. Ben Witherington III” the result was “Dr. III.” Starting with “Dear Dr. III,” the form letter repeatedly used “Dr. III” to refer to Witherington.
“When the world tries to be personal it treats people like numbers and things. That’s the way of the worldly empire,” Witherington said. “When God is personal, He cares enough to send His only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. And best of all, He calls you by name.”
Gary D. Myers writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more about the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum or to order audio recording of the event, visit www.greer-heard.com.