Posts Tagged ‘Mary’

Book Plunge: What Have They Done With Jesus?

February 24, 2015

What do I think of Ben Witherington’s book published by Harper Collins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.


Recently, I received an announcement in my email that this book was on sale on Kindle. Unfortunately, it is no longer at the sale price, but I scooped it up as soon as I saw it was. Why? Because frankly, Ben Witherington is one of the most phenomenal scholars that there is. I have been told that he has an excellent memory down to the page numbers of a book that he has read and is quite knowledgeable in many other fields outside of the New Testament.

Yet in this one, he’s talking about the New Testament and taking a shot at the bad history that is often presented. I knew I was in for a treat when the very first chapter was titled “The Origins of the Specious.” This is more of a classical humor that we often see from Witherington. Witherington says we live in a culture that is Biblically illiterate and yet Jesus-haunted. Jesus is seen all around us, and most of us have not done any real study on Jesus and that consists of more than just going to church every Sunday. The way that our culture buys into ideas on Jesus immediately has had Witherington tempted to write a book called “Gullible’s Travels.”

He gives an example of this when he talks about being interviewed by a major network and being asked if it could be possible that Mary was a temple prostitute who was raped and Jesus was the result. That would be why he said in Luke that he had to be in his father’s house. Yes. That was an actual question that was asked and the tragedy is that was his first question asked by this network as was said and not presented apparently as some crank theory to get his take on.

In our culture, too often the culture will ignore the hard facts found in scholarship on the historical Jesus and instead go with the bizarre crank theories that you can find on the internet and the History Channel. Consider for instance how the idea that Jesus never even existed is spreading like wildfire on the internet. People who will demand the strongest evidences for Christians when making their claims will accept the weakest arguments when made in favor of an idea like this.

So how does Witherington deal with all of this? Witherington suggests we look at the primary sources, the Gospels and the epistles, and see what we can determine about the lives of those who were closest to Jesus. He uses the strongest scholarship he can find and also brings out many of the realities of living in an honor-shame culture that too many people are unfamiliar with. (While unfortunately, they are quite familiar with The Da Vinci Code).

Witherington starts at a place we might not expect, with a woman named Joanna. Now I’m not going to give a full look at any argument. That is for the reader to learn when they get the book. Joanna is someone mentioned in Luke 8 and is seen at the crucifixion in Luke 24, yet Witherington also makes a compelling case that she is also the Junia that we find mentioned in Romans 16.

Witherington brings out an amazing amount of information on this woman just by looking at the culture that she lived in and seeing the best scholarship on the issue. We often think of preachers who are said to milk a text for whatever it’s worth. Witherington is not like that. He’s not trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. Instead, he is more like a highly skilled detective calling in the person for an interview and asking as many questions to get to the truth and finding the person has a lot more to tell than was realized.

From there, we move on to Mary Magdalene who contrary to popular theory was not the wife of Jesus. As Witherington has said elsewhere, when she sees Jesus in John 20, we do not see her saying “Oh honey! So glad you’re back! Let’s go and get a James Dobson book and revitalize her marriage!” (We can also say in this that she never once asked Jesus to take out the trash.) Mary Magdalene is a woman with many legends told about her, but she’s also a woman with a remarkable story. The culture not being accurate about Mary Magdalene does not mean we should downplay her. This was an amazing woman with a shameful past who is an excellent example of the transforming power of Jesus.

From there, we move on to figures who we have more information on. We go to Peter and how he would have seen Jesus in his time and what information we can gain about what Peter did after the resurrection. Peter was known as Jesus’s right hand man and what he would have to say about Jesus would be of utmost importance. As Witherington goes on and shows James and Paul later, Peter will still play an important role there since if Peter gives the okay to these guys, they must have been doing something right.

After that, we go to the mother of Jesus. Mary is definitely another Mary with many stories built up after her. Witherington points out that we have Mariology, but we don’t have Peterology or Jamesology. Yet while those of us who are Protestants do think the pendulum has swung too far with the treatment of Mary by Catholics, we should realize the Scripture does say that all people will call Mary blessed, and for good reason and realize that Mary is an important witness to the truth of Christianity and who Jesus was and is.

From there, we move to the Beloved Disciple. Witherington has an interesting take in that he thinks much of the material in the Gospel of John comes from Lazarus. I must say that after reading the material, I find it quite fascinating. Still, it doesn’t mean John has no role in this. John could very well have been the editor of all the material and compiled it all together into a Gospel. This is possible and worth considering.

The next look comes from James, the brother of Jesus. James has often got a bad rap as being a legalist of sorts. Witherington argues that James was in fact an expert at how to handle possibly volatile situations. Paul was interested in the question of what Gentiles needed to do to be considered Christians. Did they need to be Jewish. James was wanting to make sure there was no entire cut from Judaism and that Gentiles would be sensitive to Jewish concerns so that Jews would want to remain Christians and was wanting to say that Jews could still follow and observe the Law as Christians and honor their heritage. While there was no doubt some disagreement between the two, if these two were brought together to discuss points of doctrine, there would be more nods of agreement than disagreement.

At the end of this section, I had a new respect for James and still do. It left me thankful that there were Christians like James who were put in very difficult situations and had to learn how to walk a line very finely to keep an early church together, and James did this without an instruction manual or without even having access to a New Testament. He also had no doubt had to rely on people like Peter a great deal for information on Jesus since James was not a disciple beforehand. That Peter let James lead the Jerusalem church shows what a remarkable amount of trust Peter had in James’s understanding of the Jesus tradition.

Also, we have a brief look at Jude. Jude is one of the shortest books in the Bible, but it is still a book of utmost importance and the look at Jude, one of Jesus’s brothers, will show the importance that Jude would have played in the society and how this little book contains big information on Jesus.

Finally, we get to Paul. We too often can see Paul as the originator of Christianity. This would not explain Peter and James approving of the work of Paul. It also misses the radical change that Paul had in his life, something Witherington brings out well. I have been at men’s study groups before where Paul came up and people have said they want to have faith like Paul. I have reminded them that if they want to have faith like Paul, they need to see the change Christ brings to the world like Paul did. We often do not see that.

Paul was a first-rate thinker highly educated and was the one who really first saw the implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus, even beyond that which Peter saw. This is remarkable since Paul was not part of the inner circle or even part of the twelve at the time of Jesus. Witherington gives a detailed look at the life of the Apostle to the Gentiles and how he changed the world in a way that it has never been the same since.

What do all these people have in common? It would take something miraculous to get them to do what they did. It would have to be an utter life-changing event. Witherington sees no other way to explain the rise of the church. As Witherington says:

“Here we are able to reach a major conclusion of this study. None of these major figures who constituted the inner circle of Jesus would have become or remained followers of Jesus after the crucifixion if there was no resurrection and no resurrection appearances of Jesus. The church, in the persons of its earliest major leaders, was constituted by the event of the resurrection, coupled with the Pentecost event! The stories of these figures, especially their post-Easter stories, are the validation of this fact. There would be no church without the risen and appearing Jesus”

I wholeheartedly agree with Witherington. The best explanation for the rise of the Christian church is the one that the church itself gave. God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is the Messiah and the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel. Jesus is the one who is bringing the Kingdom of God to man. By His resurrection, God is reclaiming the world for Himself and inviting us to take part in it.

I conclude with saying that this is a book that should be read entirely and its ideas grasped. The people around Jesus will not be seen in the same light again. Readers will also get great clues as to the dynamics that exist in an honor-shame society and what a radical difference that makes to our understanding of Christianity.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


Joseph The Skeptic

December 9, 2012

What kind of man was Joseph? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Last time we wrote about the virgin birth of Mary. Tonight, we’re going to be looking at Joseph. We said that the virgin birth would have only brought shame to Christianity. Now for the days of Mary and Joseph, a betrothal like they had was legally binding and it would require a divorce to get out of it. So Joseph hears from his wife-to-be that she is pregnant and that it is by the Holy Spirit. As we know from the text, his response was to say “Praise the Lord!” and take her in immediately excited that he gets to be the earthly father of the Messiah and the Son of God!

That doesn’t sound right does it?

No. Joseph’s response was that he was going to divorce Mary in private. He did not want to publicly humiliate her, which does show his nature very well. Joseph is an honorable man and he does not want to lower the honor of Mary any more than necessary. We can often think that God specifically chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus, but let us always keep in mind that Joseph would have been just as much chosen to be the earthly father.

Now why did Joseph have this desire to divorce her privately? It is because despite what people think, Joseph was a rational man and he knew even in this age where everyone was obviously ignorant of science, exactly what it took to make a baby and he knew that he had not done that with Mary. If he had not done that with Mary, for some strange reason, he did not punt immediately to a miracle. Instead, he just figured there had been some other man. We do not know if he believed it was a rape of some kind or if he thought that Mary had cheated on him. Either way, he wanted to be honorable to her.

What did it take to convince him otherwise? It took something else that would be just as miraculous. It wasn’t until an angel showed up and spoke to him that he decided to take Mary to be his wife and as the text says, he had no relations with her until the time came that Mary gave birth. (Personally, I find it difficult to think that Mary was a perpetual virgin. I just simply suspect Joseph was a guy just like most any other guy, that and the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters.)

Still, when he heard from God, Joseph too responded appropriately, and let’s remember that he too made a sacrifice. He was sentencing himself to the life of a pariah. If it was not assumed that Mary had someone been unfaithful to Joseph, it would just as much be assumed that Mary and Joseph just didn’t have the self-control to wait and came up with this bizarre story of a virgin birth instead of admitting the simple fact. This would have been something that would have been talked about at social gatherings. People would point at Mary and Joseph and have people know that that was the couple that had that illegitimate child.

And this would be the kind of life that Jesus would grow up with as well.

When we read the Christmas story, we can often read about the birth and move on past that. We miss so much that would have gone on around the birth of Jesus. While we do not have as much as we’d like, let’s consider the kind of reputation Jesus would have had even before he started his ministry. That shame was part of the sacrificial life of Christ as well and we should remember it when we face our own shame, for as the Hebrews writer tells us, he despised the shame of the cross for the joy that came afterwards. When we consider our shame, let’s remember we too have joy awaiting us and be faithful.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Don’t Forget About Mary

May 19, 2012

The Mother of God? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Many of us who are Protestants can get nervous at this point in talking about Mary. It’s understandable. We don’t agree with the way other faith traditions have treated Mary and given her a place that we think is way too high. This would be a mistake. Let’s consider for instance the social gospel. This is the idea that Jesus came to tell us to love one another and give to the poor so we should be caring for the poor.

I’m as strong a capitalist as they come and realize that many people here see liberalism and remind us that Jesus came to teach the Kingdom of God, that His rule was coming, and to die for our sins. All of this is no doubt true. The great danger is that in acting against the social gospel, we can miss one point. Jesus did want us to care for the poor and to love our fellow man. Conservative capitalists should seek to do this.

Let’s take this back to Mary. At the start, I used the term Mother of God and this already gets people wondering. “God doesn’t have a mother! God has always been!” Yes. The title can be confusing, but while such objections can be raised, let’s make sure that we don’t forget something easily overlooked.

The church when saying this knew that already.

Yes. They knew darn well that God was eternal. They knew He does not have a mother, and yet they referred to Mary as the Mother of God. Why?

Part of the problem is treating God as if it was a personal name. There is the idea that when we say God, we must always refer to one person who is God and not say anything about His nature. When the Five Ways of Aquinas end with “And this, everyone knows to be God” it would have already been clear that when you say God, you are making some statements about the nature of God.

Consider what happens when someone tells you Jesus is God. We uphold that of course, but what do we mean? Greg Stafford, formerly with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, used to have a syllogism that went this way.

Jesus is God.
God is a Trinity.
Jesus is a Trinity.

The form of that syllogism is absolutely valid. Therefore, we need to find a problematic premise, but the top two premises are both statements we affirm and yet we don’t affirm the conclusion. What kind of situation are we in?

Let’s look at the first one to see. When we say “Jesus is God” do we mean “Jesus is the being who is the Trinity”? No. That’d be modalism. What we mean to say is that Jesus is a person who carries within Himself the full nature of God. That nature happens to be shared by three persons.

So let’s take this back to Mary. We are not saying that Mary gave birth to the being of God. That is nonsense. We are saying that Mary gave birth to a person who happens to have the full nature of God. That is difficult to understand, but not ipso facto nonsense.

Mary has a great position then in church history getting to give birth to Jesus. While I do not affirm her sinlessness or assumption or perpetual virginity, I and I would hope my fellow readers who are Protestants will affirm that this lady was given an incredibly special privilege we dare not take lightly.

It means that at the right time, God found just the right woman in Israel who he chose to be the mother of His Son. For thirty years, she would raise Him and care for Him and show Him how He ought to live. If some scholars are right and Joseph was dead when Jesus began His ministry, this would have been an even more challenging task.

In fact, usually in the gospels when she shows up, she’s not really acknowledged. Obviously, she plays a part in the birth narratives, but even then there’s a mystery. Luke writes about how she pondered events in her heart no doubt wondering what exactly would happen with this child. He also gives the words of Simeon that a sword would pierce her soul as well, and surely a number of mothers can say there’s no sword like losing your child.

When we see Jesus at the age of twelve in Luke, Jesus rebukes his parents to say “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” It’s as if Mary should have known better. Why was it so hard to find Him? Surely such an event made an impression on her.

When in His ministry, Jesus’s family comes for Him, we find at one point that they think He is insane. There is no indication Mary is not part of this. Had she told Him about his miraculous birth and did she think that this was going to His head? We don’t have enough information to know for sure.

Later when His family seeks Him, Jesus tells them that His family are those who hear the Word of God and obey it. In a society that placed great emphasis on honoring family obligations, Jesus did just the opposite in putting His family in a distant position, something He told us we must do in Luke 14 to be His disciple. When a woman cries out that blessed is the womb that gave birth to Jesus and the breasts on which He nourished, he replies that blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it.

Of the gospels, John alone has the future of the situation. While in the beginning, Jesus does rebuke His mother at one point telling her His time is not yet come, nevertheless He does as she says. In the end, we find that He has the beloved disciple be the one to take care of her.

If any time was perplexing to Mary, it would have been that weekend. The disciples had followed Him for but three years. She had been there all His life and Had been told He was the Messiah by Gabriel himself. Didn’t God know how the story was to turn out? How could crucifixion be what He had in mind all along? Had God deceived her? Had Mary just failed as the mother of the Messiah? Had she brought doom to all of Israel so that they would never be free from Rome?

It would be fascinating to know what went on in that time. It has been said that when a parent loses a child, they lose their future. Mary lost not only hers, or so she thought, but she had lost the future of Israel, not just for herself but maybe for everyone else. Was there any chance God would send another Messiah? We can’t be sure what she thought, but we can be sure her thoughts were not pleasant.

The last time we see Mary in the New Testament (I know some might say Revelation 12, but I do not see that as Mary) is in Acts. Mary is there with the rest of the disciples. There she has come to understand and no doubt with the coming of the Holy Spirit would understand more.

Perhaps what we need to do to understand best what it meant for Jesus to carry the hope of Israel on Him would be to consider what it was like for His mother. While there are ways we think that we should not see Mary, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. God chose a special woman for a special task, and may we all be ready for whatever special tasks He has for us, even if we just see ourselves as peasants.

In Christ,
Nick Peters