Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III (Book Review #19 of 2017)

A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem by Ben Witherington III

FTC fair notice: I received an advanced copy of this book on Kindle via NetGalley. This review is my own honest assessment.

This book is an attempt to interest the reader in important non-fiction elements of first century Palestinian life while weaving in a fictional story with familiar characters from the Gospels. Witherington has four different fictional storylines going while including sidebars to examine particular details that come out in his narrative. From the sidebars you can learn more about specific Greek words, geography, artifacts, see pictures, and more. Key takeaways are how houses were designed in Palestine, how we think house churches ran, how slavery and manumission worked, etc. I learned, for example, that Greeks and Romans bleached their tunics white by using urine. It was not unusual for wealthy households to have laundry people on their property washing linens in urine all day. (This will change your thinking on any "white as snow" passage you read for the rest of your life.)

The greatest bit I gleaned from the book was thinking through how fragile the knowledge and memories of Jesus were in those early days. House churches might have had access to parts of Mark's Gospel, but may also have had other Aramaic stories, or told stories from eyewitness memory. I have a greater appreciation for how difficult it was for the Gospel writers to compile their sources, complete the work, and how amazed I am at the hundreds of thousands of manuscript copies we have available today. The Church in the book also seems smaller and more fragile than one might imagine giving the large numbers of conversion given in Acts and the fact that "all of Asia" had heard the Gospel thanks to Saul/Paul.

I read non-fiction almost exclusively, so I found the fictional parts rather contrived. (The sidebars on the advanced Kindle version I received often intersected with the narrative text, so the sidebar began and ended in the middle of stories, so this was a technical flaw I hope they figure out before releasing the full version.) I recently read The World of Jesus by William H. Marty that also attempts to explain much of first century Palestinian history. I followed Witherington's work with Jerusalem's Traitor by Desmond Seward. All three works rely heavily on Josephus' works, but I find Jerusalem's Traitor does a better job of getting to the character of Josephus and actual events in Palestine than Witherington's fictional account. Perhaps Witherington assumes you have already read Josephus to have the information about armaments, battle tactics, etc. that never show up in the actual battle for Jerusalem.

The reader is also subjected to Witherington's minority positions on certain biblical events and characters without being given an alternative view or an explanation. It is not an established fact that Levi/Matthew wrote his Gospel after 70AD. For example, one argument for an earlier date is the fact that Matthew writes more about Sadducees than other Gospels, and 70AD pretty much eliminated them. Witherington assumes Matthew came after Mark and relied on other Aramaic sources as well, plausible. But most scholars reject the idea that "the beloved disciple" was Lazarus, not John. Witherington's account presents that Joanna wife of Chuza in Luke's Gospel is the same as Junia wife of Andronicus in Romans 16:7, and that she was an apostle. No sidebar is given for this justification or how it's apparently impossible for people in biblical periods to share common names, etc. In Witherington's fictional account, Chuza left her when she followed Jesus and she later met Andronicus and became an apostle. My concern is that the reader would consider this fact rather than a hypothesis.

Josephus' life is one of the storylines, but much of import is left out. For example, Witherington leaves out any personal history Josephus had as a governor in Galilee or once being a commander of troops himself. There is also very little about what happened to actual characters in Jerusalem in the fall. The reader doesn't learn that the Jewish revolt had long before brought much of the countryside into war and chaos, and perhaps this shaped life in places like Capernaum more than infighting among Christians and Pharisees. Where are the Sadducees in the fall of Jerusalem? What happens to the corporate psychology of Palestine when the temple is destroyed? It really wasn't so traumatic in the book, a few refugees and stragglers resettling but life goes on. One of the storylines also doesn't really end, I think the author had a difficult time finding a stopping point. I respect Witherington's scholarship and the prolific nature by which he writes books. I have not read his classic Week in the Life of Corinth but might in the hopes that it provides more actual insights into a week in the life of local culture than this book does.

Pros: I learned some facts from the sidebars that will help me as a Sunday school teacher. I also got a greater appreciation for the early Gospel writers and Christians striving to work hard to tell others the stories of Jesus and make sure it's recorded accurately and quickly. This book is a quick read.

Cons: I felt the fiction detracted from the non-fiction. My previous exposure to Witherington was primarily his Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. The fiction also presented the author's minority positions on issues without stating them as such.

I recommend Jerusalem's Traitor if you really want a week in the fall of Jerusalem, or William H. Marty's book if you want broader political/historical context quickly. 3 stars out of 5.

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