Ben Witherington III
I got a package from my old seminary this last week. I opened it up, and there was this book by Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary. No letter accompanied the book, no explanation why it was sent. It obviously wasn’t sent to all alumni, or Deanne would have gotten a copy, too. MDiv recipients? People who answered the alumni phonathon? I have no idea.
Still, the book looked interesting. It was a novel of sorts, a fictional presentation of some of the events alluded to in Acts 18, including Paul’s appearance before the governor, Gallio. Real, historical personages mix with fictional figures in this book. Sidebars give explanations of historical practices, 1st Century Roman and Greek culture, and so on. So, we have education as well as narrative.
Witherington has a very high reputation among evangelical scholars, so I looked forward greatly to reading this book. That said, it wasn’t long before I began to make critical notes in my copy. For a scholar dealing with the 1st Century, I thought, his grasp of Latin is pretty sloppy. No doubt he could run rings around me in Koiné Greek, but even my high school Latin is apparently better than his.
For instance, he has a priest of Aesclepius calling for silence before an offering, saying to the assembled guests, ”Tacit!” (“Be silent!”) Except he wouldn’t have said that. I mean, I’ll give him that an offering conducted by the Roman governor might be in Latin – I would have thought they would be speaking Greek at this occasion – but even then, tacit is not a recognized form of the verb tacere. The 2nd person singular imperative would be Taci! or in the plural, Tacete! "Tacit" is an English word derived from tacere.
“Oh, picky, picky, Art,” I hear you say. Who cares if the ending of a verb is wrong? Well, I would think Dr. Witherington would. After all, when he exegetes the Greek New Testament, I’m sure he analyzes each word to determine exactly what it means. A student mishandling an inflection would be sure to be corrected. These little grammatical things matter, and often great matters of interpretation hinge upon them. Nor is this the only instance of the author's Latin that made me question his usage.
For instance, take this cultural mistake. At one point, he has Paul sweeping leather shavings from his tent-making work from his toga as he gets up to go someplace. Now, Paul, as a Roman citizen, was entitled to wear a toga, but I’m guessing that Paul the Jew from Tarsus would have thought it an affectation to wear one. And he would probably be sneered at by the Romans in Corinth if he did, too. The toga was the Roman male dress suit – rather like “white tie” for us. Paul wouldn’t be wearing it to work in, even if he owned one. I’m sure what he was wearing was a tunica -- a tunic. Likewise, Witherington refers to Camilla, wife of Erastos, pulling her toga over her head when looking out in the rain. I’m sure she did no such thing. The toga was male attire (except in the case of prostitutes, who evidently paraded in flame-colored togas on festival days – the probable source of the Whore of Babylon’s appearance in Revelation). Camilla’s wrap would probably have been a palla, assuming she was in Roman dress, rather than Greek.
Once again, “picky, picky,” I hear you say. But if we’re just considering the narrative for what it’s worth, well, it’s a nice, well-constructed story, but it’s not exactly deathless prose. Witherington’s characters tend to speak in late American clichés, as when Nicanor says, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Let’s face it, y’ain’t readin’ this for the literary value. Or why include the historical sidebars? No, this book’s readers are reading it because it is by Dr. Ben Witherington, the scholar of early Christianity. They trust that he will give them an accurate presentation in all respects of what 1st Century Corinth – and the 1st Century Christian Church – were really like.
And here, too, there are things that boggle me. The author explains Roman roads, dining customs, all kinds of trivia – but then he drops in details that are essential to his story that are just begging for explanation. He explains the practice of 1st Century prophesying, but then punts on what 1st Century Eucharistic liturgy might have looked like. In effect, he has Paul presiding over a low-church protestant/evangelical/charismatic communion like what we might find on a Walk to Emmaus. Even in the 1st Century, before composed Eucharistic prayers, nobody would have conducted a service that casually. And to have Nicanor – and his bodyguard, Krackus – be invited to the dinner and take communion with everybody else, unbaptized and uninstructed as they are, is one giant anachronism. So far as I know, the first church leader to shrug off unbaptized persons taking communion was John Wesley, who was dealing with an evangelistic situation in which there were many baptized persons who had no faith and no instruction, all mixed together with unbaptized persons who were also coming to faith in Christ. Wesley thought it a barrier to separate the baptized and unbaptized before communion in a Methodist setting, since all were more or less on the same faith level, and began to talk of communion as a “converting ordinance.” So this is an entirely modern practice.
Then there are all the little details. One of the puzzles of the NT is why Sosthenes is the ruler of the synagogue accusing Paul in Gallio’s court in Acts 18, but then winds up the co-author of 1 Corinthians, which Paul sends later from Ephesus. There’s a story there, but Witherington decides not to tell it. He makes Erastos the host of the church in Corinth, though Acts is clear that when Paul left the synagogue, he went next door to the house of the God-fearer Titius Justus. He says his villain, Aemilianus, is a direct descendant of the dictator Sulla. (I presume this character is fictional; his descent – real or imaginary – would, I guess, be through Sulla’s daughter Cornelia Sulla, who married Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus. The –anus ending shows that he was born a Livius, but was adopted into the gens Aemilia; the villain here would then be supposed to be a descendant of Lepidus and Cornelia, adopted into the gens Aurelia. All top-drawer families to be connected to.) He has the snooty Aemilianus offer to adopt the freedman Nicanor as his heir, without even a previous patron/client relationship. (This is preposterous.) And on and on and on.
If you don’t know any better, this is a nice story, an easy read for the summer. But if you go to this expecting to see a great scholar bringing the New Testament world to life, I’m afraid you will find it a weak reed to lean on. Dr. Witherington could have used a good editor to make this better as both a novel and New Testament interpretive demonstration.