Doubting Tradition: A Critical Response to a Catholic Biblical Scholar’s Response to Atheists

Doubting Tradition: A Critical Response to a Catholic Biblical Scholar’s Response to Atheists March 1, 2016


Over at StrangeNotions, Catholic Biblical scholar and theologian Brant Pitre has responded to a host of questions that were sent in by skeptics and atheists, in promotion of his recent apologetic work The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.

I was originally going to tackle all of his responses in a single post; but this has grown so long that I’m just going to divide this up into different installments, replicating the original questions and then addressing Pitre’s responses to them.

Question 1:

Where/how did the gospel writers learn to write in Greek when they apparently spoke Aramaic and weren’t educated men?

This question, of course, takes aim at the traditional understanding of the authors of the gospels having been among the original Jewish followers of Jesus—or people who were close to these followers and collated their testimony. 

To this, Pitre has two different lines of response. The first is to suggest that several of these evangelists were literate and in a position to understand the original language, having fluency in both Aramaic and Greek. (In some ways this is bound up with the larger question of literacy and bilingualism in Palestine/Galilee, though I won’t get further into this, and will only refer the reader to my post here.)

More importantly however, Pitre notes that in another sense “irrelevant, since of course two of the four Gospels—Mark and Luke—are not even attributed to apostles, but to followers of Peter and Paul.” Although at least the second part of this is true, the main question here is whether this attribution is really worth as much as Pitre suggests. In this regard, his argument that “external evidence as early as Papias of Hierapolis (who knew the apostles personally) is clear that Mark acted as Peter’s scribe or interpreter while he was in Rome” is quite open to criticism.

Although Mark is certainly our earliest gospel—and in some ways, I’m more optimistic than many critical scholars as to just how archaic some of the material within it is¹—the extent to which a few major events recounted within it could even be plausibly said to have been informed by the testimony of an honest eyewitness is questionable, as at major points it bears the hallmarks of something closer to historical fiction rather than true history (of the kind that might be recounted by a genuine observer).²

Further, the academic world is fortunate to have recently received Michael J. Kok’s monograph The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century, the most important study on the early tradition of the gospel’s attribution to Mark that’s ever been produced—and yet one that’s skeptical of the accuracy of and motive behind this attribution. More generally, Pitre’s suggestion that Papias knew “the apostles” could easily be misunderstood, as scholars have debated the exact distance between Papias and the original apostles, with many suggesting that Papias in fact had a second-hand acquaintance with these, as opposed to a direct one.³

Moreover, that Papias seems to have suggested that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic—something nearly universally rejected by scholars—challenges the idea of Papias’ accurate knowledge of gospel authorship and its circumstances.⁴

Finally, although in the course of defending the literacy of the apostle John, Pitre accepts John as the genuine “eyewitness” and author of the gospel that bears his name, it’s frequently thought that this eyewitness claim is either a(n ahistorical) literary device, fabricated, and/or in fact secondary to the original gospel text itself.⁵

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

The next installment of this post series will address Pitre’s response to a question about the historicity of Jesus and eyewitness attestation.


[1] I’m thinking particularly of some of the sayings material, which I think at some points bears very obvious signs of translation from Aramaic. Maurice Casey’s Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel is one of the most well-known studies of this, though I disagree with Casey at several important points. Incidentally, Maurice Casey’s student James Crossley—one of the few professing atheist Biblical scholars—dates the composition of the Gospel of Mark extremely early (The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity), though his view here has proven controversial. 

[2] “Historical fiction” in this specific (religious/theological) context often means narratives that are in some ways informed and inspired by historical persons and actual events—though with much creative license, and through memories that are often distant. The question, though, is just how historical or ahistorical these narratives are.

For a study of the genre of Mark and literary precedents, see Vines’ The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel, and Becker, “The Gospel of Mark in the Context of Ancient Historiography.” See also several chapters in Downing’s Doing Things with Words in the First Christian Century.

For a more radical approach to the (non-)historicity of Mark, see the work of Dennis MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts), though his particular work here hasn’t been well-received. Similarly infamous studies is Mack’s A Myth of Innocence. See also Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11.”

Other studies—more cautious than MacDonald’s—can be found in Watts’ Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark: An Introduction and CommentaryAdam Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material; Derrett, The Making of Mark: The Scriptural Bases of the Earliest Gospel. (Another recent work on Markan genre is Jeff Jay’s The Tragic in Mark: A Literary-Historical Interpretation.)

For a creative though strained attempt to see one of the most well-known of Jesus’ miracle stories through the lens of “myth,” see Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles in Cadiz (τὰ Γάδειρα): Death, Myth, and Monsters at the ‘Straits of Gibraltar’ (Mark 4:35-5:43).” More securely, many aspects of the trial/passion narrative in Mark are regularly thought to be of dubious historicity. See also DeMaris’ “Jesus Jettisoned: Gospel Composition and the Marcan Passion Narrative,” Duran’s The Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative, and Maclean, “Barabbas, the Scapegoat Ritual, and the Development of the Passion Narrative.” (Many detailed studies here can also be found in the volume Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark.) 

For a general study of interface between history and fiction, see Bowersock’s Fiction as History: Nero to Julian, and the volume Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative.

[3] These issues have been addressed in much detail by Bauckham and Gundry; and also recently Shanks’ Papias and the New Testament. Papias does claim to have received some information about Joseph/Justus Barsabbas first-hand from the daughters of Philip the Evangelist, though funny enough the information he recounts is pretty transparently dubious: quoting from Philip of Side,

Παπίας . . . ἱστόρησεν ὡς παραλαβὼν ἀπὸ τῶν θυγατέρων Φιλίππου, ὅτι Βαρσαβᾶς ὁ καὶ Ἰοῦστος δοκιμαζόμενος ὑπὸ τῶν ἀπίστων ἰὸν ἐχίδνης πιὼν ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ χριστοῦ ἀπαθῆς διεφυλάχθη.

Papias . . . related, as having received [this information] from the daughters of Philip, that Barsabbas, also [called] Justus, when he was tested by the unbelievers and drank viper’s venom, was guarded by the name of Christ without experience of harm.

Finally—perhaps tangentially relevant—a recent study has questioned whether Papias really was a “bishop” and what this means: Witulski’s “Παπίας ἐπίσκοπος? — Zur Frage nach dem Bischofsamt des Papias von Hierapolis.”

[4] Though see my comments here for a more nuanced discussion of the issue, relevant to Matthew.

[5] See Armin Baum’s “The Original Epilogue (John 20:30-31), the Secondary Appendix (21:1-23), and the Editorial Epilogues (21:24-25) of John’s Gospel,” and Culpepper’s “John 21:24-25: The Johannine Sphragis.” By “fabricated” I mean to differentiate this from an eyewitness/authorship claim(s) employed as a literary device that was never intended to be read/interpreted “literally”; rather, I mean something closer to an actual intent to deceive—in much the same way that pseudepigraphic attribution often functions.

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