A WEEK IN THE FALL OFJERUSALEM. By Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. 158 pages.
It is the year 70 CE. The Roman general Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian and a future emperor himself, is nearing the completion of a devastating war in Palestine, a war that would prove pivotal for the Jewish people, and in many ways, for Christianity. It was in that year that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and with it the Second Temple, which had been expanded and rebuilt by Herod, making it one of the great marvels of the ancient world. The aftermath of the destruction of the Temple included a refocusing of Judaism away from the Temple and its priesthood, to the centrality of the Book and synagogue. There would be one last stand by the anti-imperial zealots at Masada, but for most Jews a new reality emerged. With the priestly ruling class and the zealots destroyed or sidelined, two groups strands of Judaism came to prominence. One group, which gathered at Jamnia and set parameters for the Hebrew Bible is known to us as the Pharisees. The other strand was the followers of Jesus, a community that was becoming increasingly Gentile, but which still had a significant Jewish component.
In A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem, Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar and professor at Asbury Seminary, imaginatively reconstructs what life was like during the week following the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem. He weaves the two strands together, the Jewish and the Christian, but the focus is on the Christian strand, which still abided in the region, a community that still might have included some of Jesus’ original followers. These would be names that someone familiar with the Gospels would recognize, people like Joanna, Mary and Martha, and Levi.
This brief, readable, accessible book is an attempt to creatively fill in the gaps of the story. Readers of the New Testament often have questions about what happened to the people who figure prominently in the Gospels. Readers also wonder about how the Gospel writers got their information about certain events. As an evangelical New Testament scholar who seeks to defend the reliability of the Gospel narratives, Witherington has a dog in this show. While he uses speculative fiction to lay out scenarios, it is clear to me (at least) that Witherington wants us to understand that the figures who appear in the Gospels likely told their stories, which were then passed on to others. In a post-oral society, we don’t trust oral tradition, but in the ancient world it was the oral tradition that was considered most valuable. It was only as the “players” began to age and die off, that it was deemed necessary to put down on paper the story, so that it could be passed on to later generations. It is my sense that Witherington is using this device to make that case, but he does so with subtlety.
The story begins on the day that Titus' troops broke through the walls of Jerusalem. We experience this moment through the eyes and ears and even nose of a woman named Joanna, who had recently returned to Jerusalem from Rome, after her husband Andronicus had been executed for his faith. She had returned to Jerusalem to care for her sister. As the story continues we learn that this Joanna is none other than one of the women at the cross and the tomb, and a companion of Paul in his work. As the story moves forward, we meet up with Mary and Martha of Bethany, who flee the city and end up in Pella, where they encounter Miryam of Pella, another follower of Jesus who hailed from the village of Migdal, in Galilee. Figures from the Gospels who seek refuge wherever they can, are reunited in places like Pella, one of the cites that made up the Decapolis, or in Bethsaida, a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee, where Peter and Andrew had once lived. It is at Bethsaida, that another refugee from Jerusalem finds safety. His name is Levi, a former tax collector, and one of the twelve, who was now going under his other name—Mattheos. Levi ends up at the house where the son of one of his former fellow apostles now lived. Levi went there, carrying a newly written account of Jesus’ life written by John Mark, an account he sought to expand upon, but needing some more information. You can see where this is going. It is truly speculative, but it is intriguing.
Everyone in the story has aged some forty years. Many of the characters had been out of touch for years, but now, due to the destruction of Jerusalem, they’re reuniting, and their telling their stories, stories that will appear in the Gospels.
As I noted at the top, this is a readable, accessible, attempt to lay out a scenario, a speculative attempt, that might explain how the Gospels came into existence. In this scenario, Witherington follows tradition, suggesting that the persons tradition had named as authors could in fact have been the authors. That would mean the Gospels are not anonymous stories, written long after the fact, based on second hand knowledge. He’s arguing that the gospels are based on firsthand accounts. Yes, they’re written with specific audiences in mind, but nonetheless are written by those who lived the story in some fashion.
Because Witherington is using narrative to develop his point, it would be in appropriate to include clarification with the story itself. So, throughout the book, he places text boxes that give explanations of events, people, sites. A text box might offer a description of a shofar or the method of tax-collecting, the nature of slavery in the first century Roman world and the way Christians dealt with it as well as a description of ancient laundries. These text boxes should prove quite helpful, saving a trip to the Bible dictionary. Often the text boxes include pictures, illustrating the story further. Everything is done in a way that doesn’t distract from the narrative. If you don’t need the information in the text boxes, you can continue without stopping.
Not everyone will be convinced by the narrative of Witherington’s proposal, but it’s worth considering. Why couldn’t the traditional accounts of authorship be true? If these accounts are based on eye witnesses, what does that mean for the church today? Does this give greater authority to these accounts? Does it matter who wrote them? Personally, I'm not convinced that we need to defend traditional authorship to have reliability, but I'm open to the idea that tradition has had it correct all along. I'm not a Jesus scholar, so I'm not as familiar with every argument pro and con, but I appreciate creative efforts to explore complicated and important issues regarding Scripture. As for Witherington, in this book he doesn’t argue for inerrancy or infallibility of the Gospels, only reliability. My understanding of Witherington's position, is that he affirms infallibility, but that's not on the agenda here.
One doesn’t have to embrace the author’s perspective to find this to be a fun read that opens up conversation about what happened to Jesus’ followers, especially the women who figure so prominently in the Gospels. So, take and read, and let your imagination take you where it will.