The last 15 years have seen numerous attempts to reconstruct the life of Christ. For good or ill, the novel theories of Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Elaine Pagels have found their way into the public media. For example, in Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Bruce Chilton concludes that Jesus was traumatized by the death of his father, suffered from some mental illness (bipolar perhaps), and stirred his Galilean followers to march on Jerusalem.

In 1995, Bart Ehrman offered a more scholarly (but misguided) assessment in Misquoting Jesus, in which he argued for a merely human Jesus. Dallas Theological Seminary's Darrell Bock answered him in The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities.

At first glance, Ben Witherington's new book appears to engage these debates. Both the title and introduction suggest that this volume offers a scholarly apologetic for the New Testament Jesus. And in a final appendix we find a stinging dismantling of James Tabor's primary theses in his speculative book, The Jesus Dynasty.

But this book goes in two different directions. In fact, Witherington, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and a first-rate scholar, spends most of this book touring the inner circle of Jesus' immediate followers—women such as Joanna (whom he suggests is the apostle Junia), Mary (Jesus' mother), and Mary Magdalene; and men such as Peter, the Beloved Disciple (Lazarus in his view), James, and Paul.

On occasions where urban legend has run away with a character such as Mary Magdalene (thanks in part to The Da Vinci Code), Witherington helpfully straightens things out. But in each case his aim is to explain what these people believed and taught.

In this respect, What ...

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