Professor Witherington is one of America’s most respected Evangelical biblical scholars. His book on Christology is written for advanced students and other scholars, and is worth reading. I quote here for the benefit of dawah carriers a significant statement from Witherington’s book concerning his modus operandi in approaching the question of the Christology of Jesus.
Methodological and Historical Considerations
‘Most of my material, with rare exception, is taken from Mark or Q. Thus, I will start with what are probably our earliest sources and go into later material, if it confirms hints in the authentic synoptic material or if it helps make sense of that data. I will not be dealing with material such as the “I Am” discourses on the Fourth Gospel because it is difficult to argue on the basis of the historical-critical method that they go back to a Sitz im Leben Jesu. Even when we can get back to such a Sitz im Leben from Mark or Q, what can be recovered is often only the substance of what Jesus said or did, although sometimes we are able to recover his very words.’ p.30
Some brief comments,
1) Witherington’s reluctance to utilise the ‘I Am’ statements in John is quite unremarkable in itself, and follows the consensus of virtually all other NT scholars. What is significant in my view is the fact the Witherington is one of the leading faces of American evangelical Christianity which often looks to him for a scholarly validation of their theology (see for example chapter 7 of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel). But as this quote demonstrates, he is in considerable doubt concerning the historical value of the discourses in John which, significantly, contain the highest Christology of any of the four gospels.
2) Even in the earliest recoverable Jesus material in Mark and Q Witherington demonstrates typical scholarly reserve and knows that only ‘sometimes’ can we recover Jesus’ actual words. This caution is a world way from ubiquitous evangelical and fundamentalist use of the gospels which give the impression that they all contain only the actual words of Jesus himself. At least some of Evangelicalism’s best scholars know that this is not the case.