Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy
Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999. xvii + 427 pp. ISBN 1-56563-344-X.
Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Seminary, is one of the most prolific and significant evangelical New Testament scholars of our day. His latest book is modeled on the format of and designed to complement his earlier Jesus the Sage and the Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994). Only one lengthy chapter treats the historical Jesus per se; the volume actually traces the phenomenon of prophecy from Ancient Near Eastern antecedents to the Old Testament through the Hebrew Scriptures, intertestamental period, lives of John the Baptist and Jesus, subsequent New Testament developments, and post-New Testament early Christian writers, culminating in an analysis of the Montanists in about A.D. 200. A recurring theme is that prophecy is to be distinguished from scribal or exegetical/homiletical activity by its sudden, supernatural nature as what is believed to be a direct word from God (or the gods).
The body of the work begins with a brief discussion of Mari as representative of ANE cultures, which typically had a sense of prophecy in their midst. Moses and Aaron, Balaam, Deborah, Samuel and Saul are all treated briefly. The phenomenon of ecstatic prophecy is not to be viewed as a prototype, especially when it leads Saul to prophesy naked, a significant sign of Jewish shame. Nathan, Elijah and Elisha represent an important pattern of prophecy under the monarchy, as they call kings to account for their lawless behavior. The writing prophets continue this function, as they call as well for national repentance, predict judgment and exile and offer hope for a righteous remnant to return to the land after the punishment of both Israel and Judah. “Ethical monotheism” characterizes several of these prophets; they do not abolish the sacrificial system but stress that ritual proves meaningless when the people consistently violate fundamental moral commandments and worship false gods. En route Witherington treats various classic “Messianic prophecies” with appropriate exegetical nuancing, usually finding an immediate fulfillment in the time of the prophet that nevertheless does not exhaust the meaning of the prophecy, which ultimately comes to pass in the life and work of Christ.
In the latter OT period, apocalyptic literature begins to arise, to give comfort to God's people in times of crisis or perceived crisis, based on the conviction that only dramatic, supernatural intervention can bring the needed salvation. Unlike non-canonical apocalyptic, biblical examples seem not to be either pseudonymous or ex eventu. a particularly helpful discussion of Daniel appears at this point. This is different from 1 Enoch, which also offers a paradigm for the common apocalyptic motif of heavenly ascents. Enoch is important, too, in demonstrating a link between Messiah and Son of Man (as in the Gospels). Brief discussions of the Sibylline oracles and the Dead Sea Scrolls set the stage for a treatment of John the Baptist as an “eschatological sign prophet.” Given that these appear in pre- and post-Christian Judaism, it is hard not to see some element of Jesus' ministry conforming to this pattern as well.
Considerable interaction with recent historical Jesus research leads Witherington to conclude that Jesus was not only a sage (his earlier book) but also an apocalyptic prophet (with Schweitzer and Allison), yet neither millenarian nor ascetic (contra Allison). The non-eschatological paradigm of Borg and Funk cannot be sustained. N. T. Wright's portrait of Jesus the prophet is one of the most helpful and accurate of recent depictions but his restriction of the parousia passages in the Gospels to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is exegetically flawed.
Prophecy at the dawn of the Christian era, particularly in the Greco-Roman world, typically took the form of oracles responding to relatively mundane questions about the future of an individual's personal life. To the extent that early Christian prophets functioned similarly, we would not expect dramatic or widely relevant communication worthy of inscripturation. The case for free creation of words of the risen Lord ascribed to the historical Jesus (esp. as argued by Boring) is once more examined and found virtually baseless; one wonders when liberal scholarship will either respond to these studies or stop postulating a seemingly indefensible position. On the other hand, early Christian creeds or confessions may well have first been composed by prophets; poetic form and singing regularly characterize their contemporary parallels.
Witherington helpfully discusses the major features of Luke-Acts that point to Jesus as a prophet and the early church as a prophetic movement. Warnings against false prophets and criteria for identifying them punctuate the Didache. The Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas represent one canonical and one non-canonical form of early Christian apocalyptic, although each contains elements of other literary genres as well. The Ascension of Isaiah in its final form is a clearly Christian document that reflects the otherworldly journey motif of various apocalyptic books. Protests against the growing institutionalization of the church, a rejection of the prevailing authority, an emphasis on women leaders, and a call for ethical rigorism all characterize the second century Montanist movement and in large measure account for the disappearance of most forms of prophecy in Christianity afterwards.
Countless valuable historical and exegetical insights pervade Witherington's book, which are impossible to summarize in short compass. Especially in light of David Hill's conclusions, it is hard for me to agree that preparation or meditation on Scripture, accompanied by the sense of God?s guidance and speaking to a preacher, who then faithfully proclaims the Word, should not also be included among early Christian prophetic phenomena. I suspect, with David Wenham, that 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 reflects a word of the historical Jesus rather than early Christian prophecy. I am not convinced that 1 Corinthians 13:2 reflects a claim that Paul would actually make about himself. A full critique of Wright needs to recognize that he does see a literal, future return of Christ in the NT parousia passages after the resurrection. And Oswalt's NICOT commentary on Isaiah 40-66 makes a compelling case for the unity of Isaiah on which Witherington does not comment in his acceptance of the critical consensus of multiple “Isaiahs.” But these are all minor quibbles. Overall, Witherington's work rivals those of Hill, Aune and Forbes and provides an up-to-date, persuasive portrait of the progress of prophecy in biblical times.
There are several recurring typographical errors. Leah Bronner's name is misspelled as “Broneer” seven times. Matthew 13:30 appears five times when the correct reference should be Matthew 10:23. Annette Merz's name is cited four times as “Mertz.” Three times H. Leisegang is printed as “Leisgang.” The word “data” is often treated as a singular and there is a noticeable smattering of errors scattered throughout the bibliographies and a smaller handful in the text and footnotes themselves.