It’s interesting that a recent poll conducted in the U.K. asked respondents which dead person they would most like to meet. Princess Diana was expected to be number one. But in fact, she came in at the number two spot behind Jesus. What this shows is that even in the heart of secular Europe, interest in the historical person of Jesus is as high as it has ever been. Even in America, Jesus remains a highly popular, enigmatic, and fascinating figure. As Dr. Ben Witherington III says, we live in a Jesus-haunted culture that is biblically illiterate. Unfortunately, because of that almost anything can pass for knowledge of Jesus. Thus have we seen a slough of popular and supposedly scholarly books on Jesus in the last decade that are based on flimsy foundations, weak theories, and pseudo-scholarship.
My introduction to Ben Witherington was when I took a class from him in my last year at Asbury Seminary, the year he started teaching there. This was back in 1995, and he had already written several excellent, scholarly books on the New Testament. Within a few classes I was thinking to myself, “why have I never heard of this guy before?” Before the end of that class, I thought to myself, “this guy is going somewhere.” While I hadn’t seen his name quoted or cited as an authority up until that time, I had a strong feeling that that would happen. Sure enough, in the 14 years since that class, I have seen Ben Witherington’s name come up repeatedly in different places. He has written many more books, including the best-selling title “The Gospel Code”, which was written in response to Dan Brown’s horrible and now thoroughly discredited book, “The Da Vinci Code.” He has been interviewed by every major TV network as well as appearing on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, and is cited as an authority by many other scholars. One of my regrets from my time in seminary was that I didn’t have opportunity to take more classes from Witherington.
So I was excited to find out that he was teaching a one-week intensive class at Houghton College at the end of June on “The Jesus of Film, Fantasy, and Faith.” The purpose of the class was to cut through all of the pseudo-scholarship and popular level works about Jesus that have become so prominent in the last decade and show the evidence for the canonical Gospel portraits of Jesus, the books developed out of the collective memory of those who were closest to Jesus and knew him the best. I’ll be blogging about some of the insights I gained from that class. But as Dr. Witherington puts it, Witherington shared in the class how he has spoken to audiences across the country and has been amazed at the number of Christians who don’t realize, for example, that the New Testament doesn’t say that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or in fact that he was married at all! In fact, there is no historical evidence for that claim at all even though many popular writers treat it as a serious hypothesis.