Ben Witherington III is a distinguished New Testament (NT) professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is also a friend of mine who I highly respect as a theologian. I usually visit briefly with Ben every year at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. I agree a lot theologically with Ben except for his identifying Jesus as God.
I once told Ben that I had been a Trinitarian for twenty-two years, then re-examined in depth the subject of whether or not Jesus is identified as God in the Bible, changed my mind about it, and wrote a 600-page book on it entitled The Restitution of Jesus of Christ (2008). He replied, “You’ll never convince me.” So, he had no interest in seeing my book. But that didn’t harm my positive feelings for Ben Witherington, from whom I have learned by reading some of his books.
Today, I watched a video of Methodist Ben Witherington delivering a one-hour message entitled “The Self-Understanding of Jesus” at Meyer’s Park Methodist Church in Oakland, California. Yet Ben introduced his subject as “a singular Jesus in a pluralistic world.”
Actually, the only time in this message when Ben addressed Jesus’ self-understanding was (1) Jesus’ constant self-identification as “the Son of Man” in his sayings in the four NT gospels, in which I think Ben correctly claims that Jesus’ alluded to Daniel 7.13-14 as that “one like a son of man” being himself, and (2) Jesus’ answer to the High Priest Caiaphas’ question, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One” (Mark 14.61 NRSV), referring to him whom Jesus often called “Father.” Jesus answered positively, though a little obscurely when you compare the answer recorded by all three synoptics. Then Jesus added, “‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (v. 62). Perhaps most NT professors agree that Jesus here alluded to both Psalm 110.1 and Daniel 7.13 as indicated in the NRSV by the single quotes.
Dr. Witherington made the interesting observation that the only place in the entire Jewish Bible (=Old Testament=OT) where the Son of man concept and the kingdom of God are mentioned together is in Daniel 7.13-14, thereby affirming that Jesus derived his identity as Son of Man and his concept of the kingdom of God, which was the centerpiece of his parabolic teaching during his two-to-three-year itinerant ministry, from Daniel 7.13-14. Indeed, excepting the Shema in Deuteronomy 6.4-6, I regard this Danielic text as the most important in the OT.
But in Ben’s message, he begins with Daniel 7.13-14 and then moves to other biblical texts as support for his identifying Jesus as being God. Interestingly, Ben rightly states that Jesus never expressly identified himself as God, such as “I am God,” in any of his NT gospel sayings. And Ben never says Jesus understood himself as being God. (Both Jimmy Dunn and Tom Wright say Jesus did not believe he was God.) Yet Ben endeavors to prove from scripture that Jesus is indeed God while ignoring whether or not Jesus understood himself as God, which the title of his message would lead one to believe that Ben was going to address, which he does not.
First, Ben says Daniel 7.14 (indirectly) identifies Jesus as God because we read of this Son of Man, who is Jesus, “men of every language worshiped him.” That is how the NIV renders this phrase in Daniel 7.14, but most other major English Bibles don’t; they have “serve him” (e.g., KJV, NASB, NRSV, ESV). It’s the same concerning the Son of Man in v. 27. That is, the NIV has “worship and obey him,” whereas the other versions just cited have “serve and obey him.”
The Aramaic word translated in Dan 7.14 and v. 27 as “worship” in the NIV and “serve” in these other English versions is pelach. Any Bible lexicon or Aramaic dictionary reveals that this word can be rendered “serve,” “worship,” “revere,” or “minister.” And it is not necessarily used exclusively for such an act being directed toward a deity. So, I think Dr. Witherington was not being scholarly when he failed to point out these possible meanings of pelach in Daniel 7.
Moreover, from the perspective of the Shema, the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 refers to the one and only true God, so that the Son of Man therein cannot also be God. To say so would make these individuals two Gods–an abhorrence to Judaism and a charge from which post-apostolic, institutional Christianity has never escaped.
Third, Ben says Jesus ushering in at the end of the age (at his second coming) the eschatological kingdom that will be eternal, and his reign over it eternal, requires that Jesus is God. I fail to see the logic, here, and Ben doesn’t offer any or scripture to support this assertion.
Fourth, Ben does as so many Trinitarians do by citing 1 Tim 2.5 as evidence that Jesus is God and man, and Ben adds that it indicates Jesus is a “God-man.” This text says in the NRSV, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” This text certainly does not say Jesus is a God-man, which the Bible never says anywhere. And Ben so asserts arbitrarily, thus without citing any scripture or making any logical arguments to support it. At least Ben is right on target in saying Jesus fully REVEALS or manifests God, which does not mean he IS God.
I think Paul states this in 1 Tim 2.5–which scholars say may be a creedal statement already in existence and thus not created by Paul—because of Jesus’ uniqueness as a human being and therefore not that he is God and man. What made Jesus so unique? It was that he was sinless and thus qualified to bear our sins on the cross as the Lamb of God without spot and blemish. Furthermore, Jesus’ status as “the Son of God,” thus not just any son of God—for there have been many, including humans, angels, and Israel according to the Bible—adds to Jesus’ uniqueness. But neither does this status as the Son of God mean Jesus is God, as is so commonly thought. Rather, it indicates Jesus had such an extraordinary relationship with God. That is why the message came from above at Jesus’ baptism and Transfiguration, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
When I read the title of this message-video by Ben Witherington III, “The Self-Understanding of Jesus,” I was really wanting to hear and see it. But I must say I was a little disappointed, since Ben hardly addressed this subject. Yet this subject has been at the core of “the quest for the historical Jesus” undertaken by scholars throughout the past 200+ years. Instead, I think Ben hopelessly entangles himself in this message in his effort to prove from scripture that Jesus is God, and I think many, if not most, leading scholars involved in the quest would agree with this assertion.
Having said this, I need to admit that some of these scholars, who have a very weak view of the inspiration of scripture (=Bible) would say we can’t know anything or hardly anything about the self-understanding of Jesus, with which Ben and I together wholeheartedly disagree.
To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book, with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.