The Historical Jesus and the Gospel Witnesses? (A Response to Brant Pitre)

The Historical Jesus and the Gospel Witnesses? (A Response to Brant Pitre) March 4, 2016


In my previous post, I tackled the first of Catholic Biblical scholar Brant Pitre’s responses to a series of questions sent in by skeptics and atheists, which he answered as a sort of publicity tie-in with his new book The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.

In this post, I’ll move on to the second question that Pitre answered:

Name one person who met Jesus, spoke to him, saw him, or heard him and who wrote about the event, has a name, and is documented outside of the Bible (or any other gospels).

To get right into it, it’s pretty obvious that this question is framed in fairly typical language used by Jesus mythicists: that is, those who actually doubt the existence of a historical Jesus and the usual type of evidence marshaled in suppo.

It’s interesting, however, that in answering this, Pitre seems to subtly resist what the question itself actually asks. The question is manifestly about extrabiblical evidence for Jesus; yet, as will be seen, Pitre’s answer is entirely oriented toward Biblical evidence. I call attention to this because it’s much the same point that I usually start from when addressing this sort of skepticism—though I take it in a quite different direction. While Pitre gives no indication that he agrees with this particular point, I think the extrabiblical sources on Jesus (Josephus, Tacitus, et al.) can only get us so far, and are vulnerable to attack: for example, one can imagine that in the way that the question is framed here, the testimony of Josephus and Tacitus wouldn’t qualify as having come from someone who directly encountered Jesus.¹

In any case, Pitre takes what it’s my view a precarious starting point here in the apostles Matthew and John as quintessential eyewitnesses to Jesus, whose testimony is enshrined in the gospels that bear their names²:

According to the unanimous internal evidence of all extant ancient Greek manuscripts (e.g., Papyrus 4, 64, 66, 75, Codex Sinaticius, Vaticanus, etc.) as well as the unanimous external evidence of ancient writers outside the Bible (e.g., Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyons, Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, etc.), two of the four gospels were authored by Matthew and John (although Greek Matthew was universally regarded as a translation of a Semitic original).

Simply from a pragmatic standpoint, however, the first consideration here is likely to be a non-starter to someone of mythicist (or otherwise ultra-skeptical) sympathies. For one, even from a less skeptical perspective, to press the manuscript/textual traditions themselves into the service of historical inferences is itself weak. Even the earliest manuscripts mentioned here are typically dated to the late 2nd or early 3rd century. Further, many known forged or erroneously-ascribed writings don’t have diverging authorial ascriptions in the actual manuscript tradition, either.

Beyond this, however, it should be a obvious principle that if we were to find good reason to doubt something—like the traditional notions of gospel authorship—then, even if don’t have any actual names to go on here other than the traditional ascriptions, this doesn’t mean that these are most likely to be correct, or even that they’re more likely to be correct than other options. (For example, although the apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans may not be ascribed to anyone other than Paul in the extant manuscripts, its Pauline authorship has been universally denied, both in antiquity and in modern times.)

Instead, in instances like these, lacking any other positive evidence we must simply pass the disputed claims over in silence.³

Of course, though, in this particular instance we do have something to go on beyond just the actual manuscript ascriptions: as Pitre suggests, we have the unanimous external evidence.

The most important of this evidence is found in the writings of Papias of Hierapolis. To be sure, Papias is a very early witness, with his main text, the Exposition of Logia about the Lord, hardly to be dated after the first couple of decades of the 2nd century.⁴ᵃ Papias constitutes valuable early testimony, then. But for what exactly?

In my previous post, I suggested “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.” Now this might be qualified; but only slightly (more on this in later perhaps). However, also complicating the idea that Matthew wrote the gospel that bears his name—Matthew, who “met Jesus, spoke to him, saw him and heard him”—is that this gospel is virtually universally held to have taken over large amounts of material from the gospel of Mark, reproducing it with only slight variations.⁴ᵇ

Above all, this naturally calls into question whether the author of this gospel (Matthew) was an independent witness to the events in Jesus’ life that Mark covers. 

Of course, Pitre—along with anyone who has even a rudimentary knowledge of Biblical studies—is aware of this fact. In light of this, he attempts to reconcile this fact with Matthew’s apostolic witness, more or less suggesting that Matthew was aware of the reliability of Mark, and in so replicating material ostensibly sought simply to reiterate what Matthew independently knew to be true anyways.⁵

But if Pitre’s larger project here is to find evidence supporting the “case for Jesus,” this particular suggestion doesn’t help the case for one simple reason: (having the gospel of Matthew in the form that it’s come down to us,) a world in which Matthew used Mark’s gospel knowing that Mark was a reliable source, on one hand, and a world in which Matthew used Mark not knowing that Mark was a reliable source, on the other, are indistinguishable. At the very least, then, the suggestion that Matthew was independently affirming the truth of Mark’s account gives us absolutely no explanatory advantage over the converse. Most cautiously, if we can’t assume that Matthew wasn’t independently affirming Mark, either, then this means that no one can appeal to un-evidenced speculation in service of one hypothesis or the other.

However, in my previous post, I also suggest re: Mark that

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).⁶ᵃ

Yet it’s precisely some of this dubious material that the gospel of Matthew replicates; and to the extent that some of the events (presumably with at least some historical core) didn’t happen in at all the same way as is suggested in the gospel of Mark—or, even more, didn’t happen at all—would we really expect find such close reflections of these in Matthew, if the author were a true witness?⁶ᵇ

Yet even the material in the gospel of Matthew that was not taken from Mark seems to have been taken over from another source, or sources. In fact, there’s fairly unimpeachable evidence that at least some of this material was adopted by the author of Matthew from what was already a written Greek source. (I’ve discussed the strongest evidence of this in more detail in my post here; and I’ll be discussing the general issue in greater length later.) In the end, then, in many ways the author of Matthew ends up looking more like compiler of inherited traditions than an independent witness—and, again, we might say an uncritical one, at that—with all this entails.⁶ᶜ

In my last post, I mentioned the ascription of the earliest gospel to Mark, who in early tradition was a follower and interpreter of Peter. While I only tangentially mentioned the academic debate over this issue, it might be worth asking—in light of Pitre’s comments addressed in this post—how exactly Matthew has been associated with the gospel bearing his name.

In his celebrated commentary on Matthew, Robert Gundry writes that

In favor of this ascription we may ask, Why did an apostle so comparatively lacking in prominence as Matthew enter the picture if he did not actually write the gospel ascribed to him? The mere shift from “Levi” (Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32) to “Matthew” (Matt 9:9-13) seems insufficient to have generated the ascription. Since Christian apocryphal books tended to gain the names of apostles prominent in the NT, we should have expected a more prominent name. (Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, 620)

It should be noted that unlike Mark, the character of Matthew appears in the gospel bearing his name, where he’s identified as a publican, or tax collector: ‘Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me”‘ (Matthew 9:9).

In this regard, it’s interesting that there are a few other places in the gospel of Matthew that have a unique focus on money and economy. Gundry continues

The special interest devoted to money in the unique passages 17:24-27; 18:33-35; 20:1-16; 27:3-16; 28:11-15 (see also . . . 25:15; 26:7) lends some internal support to the ascription of our gospel to the Apostle Matthew, for he had been a tax collector in Galilee and was known also as Levi. Further support of this kind comes from three insertions of tax collectors, including a description of Matthew (10:3), and two references to tax collectors in distinctive passages, besides three shared references.

Even more specifically, Leon Morris writes in his commentary on Matthew that the author

uses the general word for money, nomisma, and the words for “gold” 5 times, “silver” 10 times (two words), and “talent” 14 times, a total of 29, whereas Mark refers to “silver” once and Luke has it 4 times; they have none of the other words for big currency. Matthew also has reference to coins such as the assarion, the chalkos, the denarius, the didrachma, the kodrantes, and the stater. Mark and Luke mention some of these coins, but not as many as Matthew. (The Gospel According to Matthew, 14 n. 46)

Here again, however, we seem to be at something of a critical impasse. Gundry frames his commentary in terms of evidence in favor of the gospel’s ascription to the apostle Matthew being historically reliable. But it’s virtually just as easy to say that the ascription to Matthew could have followed from the prominence of fiscal/economic motifs therein, in conjunction with the character of Matthew appearing in a relevant capacity here, as a publican (Although Matthew might have been “comparatively lacking in prominence” in the bigger scheme of things, as Gundry notes, he certainly wasn’t lacking in prominence in terms of characters that have some connection to fiscal/economic issues, if we were to indeed isolate this as a prominent theme in the text of the gospel.⁷)

In the same response, Pitre also writes

It’s not only Christian sources that attribute the Gospels to eyewitnesses. Even Celsus, the famous 2nd century pagan apologist and critic of Christianity, could not deny the fact that the Gospels were written by “Jesus’ own pupils and hearers” who left behind “their reminiscences of Jesus in writing” (Origen, Contra Celsus 2.13).

As more of minor quibble here, I worry that this too might give the mistaken impression that in the passage quoted by Origen, Celsus was specifically concerned with not denying the authorship of the gospels. But in fact Celsus’ interest here wasn’t particularly with the issue of authorship, but rather the general accuracy—or, actually, the lack thereof—of the gospels’ claims themselves and their authors: he suggests, for example, that the gospel authors “invented the statement that Jesus foreknew and foretold all that happened to him.”

Further, and more generally speaking, there’s no reason that Celsus, writing in the later 2nd century, would have had access to any good historical information about the gospel authors in the first place. (At the very least, he doesn’t mention any; and besides, there are other instances in which scholars doubt Celsus’ claims about early Christian origins, e.g. the identity of Jesus’ “real” father.)

This post was originally well over twice as long as it now, but I’ve decided to divide up into two, if not three posts—the subsequent of which will address Pitre’s claims about the authorship of the gospel of John, as well as more general issues about the composition of this gospel, and a related issue involving the authorship of Revelation and its relationship to the gospel of John.

It’s too early for a concluding statement to all of this—though it should be reiterated my post here is absolutely not a critique of the actual historicity of Jesus; it’s merely a response to some of the specifics of how Pitre chose to defend this in his answers. As I suggested in the notes to my original post, in regard to the gospel of Mark bearing some of the hallmarks of “historical fiction” in places, 

“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.

That is, then, despite their creative license, things like Mark can be used as evidence supporting the core historicity of Jesus, as well as other aspects of his character and teachings. (For more on how exactly this can be done, see my responses to questions in this thread.)

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] It’s long overdue for an expansion, but I’ve written about some of the individual extrabiblical references to Jesus here.

[2] In isolating these two, I think here of the correspondence to two of Martin Hengel’s three “pillars” of New Testament theology:

The theology of the New Testament writings rests primarily on ‘three pillars’, two late and one early: first of all on Paul, whose letters were written around 50 and 60, and at the end, between 90 and 100, on Matthew and John. Between them as mediators stand the great ‘narrators’ Mark and Luke. (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ, )

Of course, Matthew and John also happen to be the most esteemed gospels of antiquity. Pitre naturally omits Paul due to the manifestly supernatural nature of his encounter with Jesus; though Paul’s familiarity with James, the brother of Jesus, is often taken as the greatest piece of evidence in favor of the existence of the latter. (And in many ways rightfully so.)

[3] James Dunn argues similarly to Pitre that

The fact that the Gospel of John is never attributed to other [sic] than ‘John’ must mean that this label was attached to it from the beginning, and that this ascription to ‘John’ was more or less universally understood. (Neither Jew nor Greek, 71)

Barring the fact that the heretical sect known as the Alogoi ascribed the authorship of John instead to the gnostic Cerinthus (Epiphanius, Panarion 51.3-4)—though this certainly isn’t a legitimate possibility—we should be extremely cautious about something that seems to be an argument from ignorance (in the sense that an argument is made based merely on a lack of evidence to the contrary; a sort of “devil you know” fallacy).

As for the more general issue of authorship and agnosticism—in light of the apparently common urge for identification—the debate over the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews also comes to mind here. Virtually universally rejected as being a genuine epistle of Paul, over the centuries different scholars have suggested (sometimes confidently) dozens and dozens of potential authors, culled from the pool of known early Christian figures. However, there’s very little basis for suggesting any one author over another here, and certainly not for making a solid positive identification; thus we’re forced into agnosticism on this. (I’ve discussed this more here.)

[4a] Recently, both Michael Kok and Dennis MacDonald suggest the date of the Exposition as ~110 CE.

[4b] There have been countless studies of Matthew’s utilization of Mark. A few recent entries include Doole’s What was Mark for Matthew?: An Examination of Matthew’s Relationship and Attitude to his Primary Source; O’Leary’s Matthew’s Judaization of Mark: Examined in the Context of the Use of Sources in Graeco-Roman Antiquity; Sim’s “Matthew’s Use of Mark: Did Matthew Intend to Supplement or to Replace His Primary Source?” and Konradt’s “Matthäus und Markus: Überlegungen zur matthäischen Stellung zum Markusevangelium.” As for the hypothesis of Markan dependence on Matthew, this is an extreme minority proposal: see the volume One Gospel From Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke. A lengthy dissertation by B. Ward Powers was published in 2010 as The Progressive Publication of Matthew: An Explanation of the Writing of the Synoptic Gospels, arguing for Mark’s use of Matthew and Luke; though so far this seems to have been ignored by scholars (surely due to having not been published by an academic press and being less rigorous). Neville’s Mark’s Gospel — Prior or Posterior?: A Reappraisal of the Phenomenon of Order is strikingly non-committal. In terms of major studies that put forth a strong version of the independence of the Synoptic gospels, see Rist’s 1978 monograph On the Independence of Matthew and Mark.

[5] Pitre writes

many people who take the view that the Gospel of Mark was written first find it unbelievable that an eyewitness such as the apostle Matthew would rely on or copy from a Gospel written by a non-eyewitness such as Mark. But this just isn’t true. For one thing . . . there are good reasons to conclude that the Gospel of Mark is directly based on the testimony of the apostle Peter, who was both the leader of the twelve disciples and an eyewitness to much more of Jesus’s ministry than the apostle Matthew (see Matthew 16:13-18). If Mark’s Gospel is based on the testimony of Peter, there’s nothing remotely implausible about Matthew using it as a source. Even more important, history gives us other examples eyewitnesses who relied on other people’s testimony when composing biographies of their own teachers. For example, when writing his account of the death of Socrates, the ancient Greek writer Xenophon (who was a disciple of Socrates) used the “reports” (Greek exēngeile) of another disciple named Hermogenes (see Xenophon, Apology, 1.2, 10). The reason was that Xenophon was not present at the trial and death of Socrates, whereas Hermogenes was. (The Case for Jesus, page number unknown)

[6a] I’ve reproduced the original note to this at the end of this post.

[6b] Funny enough, some of the smaller differences that we do find in Matthew seem like they are the less (historically) accurate ones, including what appear to be apologetically/theologically motivated alterations, etc.

[6c] More on this later perhaps.

[7] I’m actually not sold on this issue, but it’s something to consider.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment