Ben Witherington · culture · Rob Bell

Ben Witherington on Rob Bell

I stumbled across a blog written by Dr. Witherington that I thought I might share with my readers.  Witherington first praises Bell as an “engaging dialogue partner” and one who “takes the bible seriously,” but comes back with a fairly hefty criticism that Bell “has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries AD, and the later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism.”  Witherington reminds him that “Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense.”  When pressed later on by commenting blogger only known as “Daniel” (not be confused with the author of this blog) as to why his disciples called Jesus “rabbi” if he was not a rabbi, Witherington responded, “The Hebrew and Aramaic words ‘revi/rabbi/rabbouni’ simply mean ‘my great one/master’ or ‘my teacher’ in early Judaism. They do not have the sense of ‘ordained rabbi’ that they come to have centuries later after the time of Jesus. Properly speaking all those passages you list should not have the translation ‘rabbi’ because they are misleading, and convey to a modern audience that Jesus fell into the same category as modern rabbis, which is false. A better translation would be ‘my teacher’ or ‘my master’.”

Witherington is especially critical of Ray Vanderlaan and his Follow the Rabbi site.  Witherington also roundly denounces Bell’s views on homosexuality as “unhelpful.” Commenting on the post, Michael Spencer of the blog internet monk agreed saying: “While I am basically optimistic and supportive regarding the emerging church, I have not been able to extend that optimism to Bell. Zondervan sees some star quality and is overlooking some serious problems. I appreciate Bell’s heart, but posing as an “expert” on the Judaism of Jesus is over Rob’s head. And your critique of his approach to sexual ethics is also on target. I join Rob in much of what he is feeling, but that is a problem with how we love and respect people. It’s NOT a problem with the Bible’s clarity on sexual ethics. It’s Hebrews 13:4.”


3 thoughts on “Ben Witherington on Rob Bell

  1. These criticisms are not suprising but they are a bit presumptuous. For example, I don’t think Rob pretends to be an expert at Judaism at all… for starters, he’s not nearly jewish enough.
    Good post, Danny.

  2. True: I don’t think he pretends to be an expert, but he does – at least in Velvet Elvis – teach about Jesus being a rabbi in the sense that Witherington critiques him for.

    I like both Bell and Witherington in much the same way that I like both The Monkees and Frank Zappa. They both hold an appeal (for me), but for very different reasons.

  3. That is a good analogy Robaigh. I think that Witherington is a great scholar, and I think that Bell is a great pastor. The struggle is where the two should meet. It appears that Witherington is calling Bell to become a scholar in the same way that he is a scholar, but, as others have noted on Witherinton’s site, Bell, as a pastor, simply doesn’t have the time. I think that Bell has much to offer, but I worry that if Witherington is right, Bell is giving a picture of Jesus that is not altogether accurate. We just have to be careful that we do not swallow everything we read as spiritual food in the Christian consumer market.

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