Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus

Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus February 5, 2016

I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the Patheos Book Club about Brant Pitre's recent book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. Pitre's book touches on a number of points that have been mentioned, or indeed the focus of sustained attention, on this blog as well as in my own academic work on Christology. I found myself both enthusiastically agreeing with points that Pitre made, and finding myself unpersuaded on others.

The overarching question of the book is one that many have asked: Did Jesus claim to be God? Pitre recognizes that there are a number of links in the chain that could lead to a positive answer to that question, each of which depends upon the next, and so successive chapters address these in turn. Along the way, Pitre offers autobiographical glimpses into his own story of pursuing academic study, having his assumptions challenged, and subsequently turning the tables and challenging the assumptions of those who previously challenged him.

The first topic addressed is the question of Gospel authorship. Pitre points out that, despite the impression many have, we do not have any copies of the Gospels which lack the titles by which they are traditionally known, and which indicate the names of the authors. Nor do we have any copies of these works which attribute them to someone different. I suspect that many in the wider public – and perhaps some in the academy who have never looked into the matter – have confused a surmise offered in the past with something confirmed by manuscript evidence. The suggestion that the Gospels initially did not bear the titles by which we now know them is based on the observation that the titles are all of a type, and are unlikely to have arisen before there was a second Gospel to distinguish from the first. And so, conversely, as Pitre points out, the titles of Gospels are probably at least as old as the point at which the second Gospel was composed. My own surmise would be that the Gospel of Mark was originally known by its opening words, as many ancient works were, and so its beginning was the beginning of the “Gospel of/about Jesus Christ,” with “according to Mark” being added once a second Gospel was composed and circulating, and also providing the pattern by which subsequent Gospels were named. Pitre also emphasizes how unlikely it is that the church would invent attributions to Mark and Luke, who were not eyewitnesses nor part of the inner circle of the Twelve. And on this point I agree with him. When it comes to Matthew and John, things seem less clear to me, for a number of reasons, among which is the fact that relationship of the Greek Gospel we know as “Matthew” to the Hebrew composition by the apostle of which the church Fathers speak is unclear. While Pitre points to the use of the name Matthew in that Gospel as evidence of authorship, for me it is the precise opposite. I can well envisage Matthew using Mark, regardless of whether it was based on Peter's own testimony. But I simply cannot imagine him copying the story of his own first encounter with Jesus from Mark and offering nothing of his own, other than changing the name by which he is called (see pp.28-9).

Pitre also makes cogent and important points about the genre of the Gospels (as ancient biographies) as well as the date of the Gospels. Certain dates have become traditional, but are based on deduction and then guesswork as to how long after a source the work that draws upon it would have been composed. Pitre asks important questions, such as why exhortations to pray that the destruction of Jerusalem not occur on a particular day or at a particular time of year would be added after that destruction had already occurred (pp.93-4). At the very least, certain elements in the Gospels must, I agree, have taken their present form at an earlier point, and as James Crossley has argued, Mark 13 seems to be shaped by the Caligula crisis in the 40s. Whether this allows us to date the final form of the Gospels is less clear, but either way Pitre's point is sound, namely that we are not dealing with works that were only written long after the time of Jesus and the potential for his words and deeds to be remembered.

After a useful discussion not just of Jesus' own messianic self-understanding, but also of the sense many in his time had that the Book of Daniel foresaw the arrival of the Messiah in that time, Pitre turns his attention to the question of Jesus' divinity. On this point, I found his treatment much less compelling. The suggestion that Jesus indicated his own divinity through riddles and allusions is itself problematic – not because Jesus was not renowned for communicating in precisely that way, but because the riddles and allusions in question need not be understood in the manner that Pitre suggests. But even if one were to grant this, we see the Gospel authors regularly spelling out for readers things that Jesus at best left implicit. And yet the only way to claim that the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus as God is to view them as likewise content to offer hints and insinuations, a claim which does not seem plausible to me. I plan to blog through the Gospel of Mark and its Christology, and so will revisit some of the texts in more detail. But Pitre regularly draws conclusions which I find it unlikely that ancient Jewish authors would draw. For instance, if there are echoes of theophanies in the story of Jesus walking across the sea, would those have been allowed to trump the conviction that there is only one God, who is not a man, and thus this individual must at best be a person whom the one God has infused with his power in a way he has never done with another of his emissaries? Likewise, the suggestion that the common phrase “I am” indicates divinity is not as self-evident as Pitre suggestions – not only because, in certain contexts, it can mean “it is I,” but because even when a person says “I am” it obviously does not always represent a claim to be the one God! Moreover, if “I am” echoed the divine name, there is a long Jewish tradition of God sharing the divine name with a principal agent. Even in the Gospel of John, even if one grants that it is based on eyewitness testimony as it explicitly claims, Jesus is not depicted as claiming to be God, but as claiming to be the one whom the only true God has sent, the Son who does nothing of himself, but only the will of the one who sent him. And so I am quite happy to agree that even the very different Fourth Gospel needs to be reconsidered, in the manner that John A. T. Robinson suggested. But doing so does not bring the Synoptic Christology in line with the traditional way that Christians have read John, but rather shows John to depart less drastically from the Synoptics than some have thought.

I often felt, while reading the book, that Pitre had paid less attention to precisely what other scholars were saying than he ought to have. In some cases, their wording certainly seemed to justify Pitre's appeal to them, as in the case of Adela Yarbro Collins' statement, “Being seated at the right hand of God implies being equal to God, at least in terms of authority and power” (quoted pp.160-161). In the original context, however, she is clearly referring to a status of qualified equality to which Jesus as Messiah would be exalted. In other cases, the appeal is less justifiable even in terms of the words quoted in the book, as for instance in the case of Joel Marcus, who clearly speaks of “co-regency” and “near equality with God,” which is not the same thing as claiming to be God (quoted p.147). And so I found myself wondering how many of those who read the book hoping to have their beliefs reinforced would notice that some of the scholars to whom Pitre appeals would not actually agree with the case he presents or the precise conclusions that he is arguing for.

Hopefully the first part of my review made clear that, even if I am not persuaded by Pitre's case for Jesus having claimed to be divine, or that the Synoptic Gospels present him that way, there are nonetheless a lot of fascinating details along the way which are persuasive, and others which are at least thought provoking and will require further reflection. Examples include the suggestion that blood and water flowing from Jesus' side would have recalled the flow of blood and water from the side of the temple (pp.170-171), and the suggestion that the story of Jonah is much more readily understood as about a resurrection than we tend to assume (pp.185-189). Yet even on this point, Pitre does not address the fact that, for the Gospel of Luke, the sign of Jonah means what Mark means by saying that no sign will be given. It is only the Gospel of Matthew that turns this into a prediction of resurrection. And so whether or not the Gospel authors were eyewitnesses, their interpretative role and additions to the story do not disappear.

If some scholars in the past have gone too far in dismissing traditional information about the Gospels, or have made inadequately justified leaps in the direction of treating them as late folklore, Pitre is the least persuasive when he attempts to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction, in a way that seems to me equally unjustified. If the Gospel authors have not completely rewritten Jesus, neither do they simply record what he himself said, or necessarily even what they thought about him when he was in their presence. Despite Pitre's concluding altar call of sorts, it is simply not the case that “if you are going to hold to the theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence” nor do you “have to eliminate the entire Gospel of John and what it tells us about who Jesus claimed to be” (p.193). Even in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a person who embodies the divine presence in the form of God's own Word and/or Spirit, who was sent by God, and who as the Messiah is persuaded that he was in some way prepared in heaven before his life on Earth began. Far from it being necessary to deny the historical evidence in order to draw the conclusion that Jesus himself understood himself to be God's appointed agent, and that the Gospel authors also understood him that way, for many scholars who read the Gospels – many of whom are Christians – these are precisely the conclusions that the evidence in the Gospels themselves points towards.

And so I think that Pitre's chain of evidence is an important one, leading us to revisit the Gospels and recognize that they tell us more about the historical Jesus than some have been willing to admit. But it is precisely the Gospels, understood within the framework and against the background of ancient Jewish monotheism and ideas about agents and emissaries that God appointed and sent, which lead to the conclusion that Jesus did not claim to be God. That is not a claim I make denying the evidence, but because of the evidence, even though like Pitre I resisted the conclusion and did not want to reach it.

As you can gather from the length of this post, as well as the details, Pitre's book is very engaging and worth reading, regardless whether you agree with his conclusions either before reading it or afterwards. Click through to read what others around the Patheos blogs have had to say about the book!

 

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  • A community that viewed itself as allied with Paul might think that a gospel authored by someone close to him would be better than one associated with the “pillars” in Jerusalem. Luke might have been a much more prominent figure than he appears to us today.

    • All kinds of things might be true. Historians engage in reconstruction based on the evidence we actually have.

      • I think that we have evidence of pretty obvious reasons why Luke/Acts wouldn’t be attributed to an eyewitness or a member of Jesus’s inner circle: Luke 1:1-4 suggests that it wasn’t and Acts 4:13 suggests that members of the inner circles were illiterate.

        • I don’t follow your point. If your point is that one cannot easily invent authorship by an eyewitness if a work suggests that it wasn’t, that may be true, but it doesn’t in any way make a case for non-Lukan authorship, or that the work is forged so as to appear to be by someone who was an eyewitness. And so were you agreeing with me, or were you making some other point that I missed?

          • I didn’t claim that it makes a case for non-Lukan authorship. I am simply refuting an argument in favor of Lukan authorship that you seemed to find persuasive, i.e., “how unlikely it is that the church would invent attributions to Mark and Luke, who were not eyewitnesses nor part of the inner circle of the Twelve.” In fact, if an attribution was invented, it is likely that it would have been a person who was neither an eyewitness nor part of the inner circle.

          • I’m still not clear what you are positing. Are you suggesting that this work was dedicated to a named individual and yet no one had any idea who the author was?

          • I am positing that your reason for thinking it unlikely that the church would invent an attribution to Luke is a bad reason.

          • Once again, you seem to be trying to address a narrow question in isolation from all other relevant evidence and questions, in which case of course, the same evidence which points towards it having been written by someone who was not an eyewitness, can become a plausible reason for some to have conspired to attribute the work to just the kind of person that the internal evidence suggests wrote it. But why one Earth does that approach seem preferable to you than the simpler option that the internal evidence fits the attribution of the work in all manuscripts and secondary sources because it is in fact correct?

          • I think that trying to address all the relevant evidence and questions is a pretty tall order. It has been several years since I have looked into the question of the traditional authorship of the gospels, but based on my recollection, I think that there are many different directions the discussion might go. It seems to me that the logical place to start is with the argument you cited in the post, which you said you found persuasive.

          • What you call a “tall order” is what historians seek to do, all the time, on every single occasion, and is quite likely the reason why certain arguments (for instance of the mythicists) seem thoroughly implausible to historians but not to others. If you aren’t dealing with, and trying to make sense of, the full range of relevant historical information on a topic, then what exactly are you trying to accomplish, when you dabble in questions of history?

          • That I chose to address the argument that you cited in your post as persuasive does not mean that I have not tried to make sense of other issues related to authorship. It simply means that in this particular comment thread I was interested in addressing the argument that you raised in this particular post. In the past, I only recall seeing the argument that no one would have invented Luke in the works of conservative apologists, so I was curious about why someone who identifies himself with mainstream scholarship would embrace it.

          • OK, perhaps a different approach will help, since you often seem happy to voice skepticism about pretty much everything, and yet historical study also seeks to build, to explain, to offer something positive by way of conclusions, while acknowledging when they must be tentative. And so how would you answer the question “Why was this work attributed to Luke?” What answer to that question seems more probable?

          • I would think it was because he was a prominent figure associated with Paul

          • What is your basis for the claim that he was a prominent figure?

          • It is not my “claim.” It is my hypothesis based on the fact that he is mentioned three times in the Pauline letters. I think the sources are far too sketchy to say much with certainty about Paul’s companions.

          • You are assuming, are you not, the relative date between the letters Philemon, Colossians, and 2 Timothy on the one hand, and Luke-Acts on the other? And how do questions about the authenticity of Colossians and of 2 Timothy relate to this matter?

          • No. I’m not assuming anything about relative dates. My hypothesis rests on there having been a tradition concerning a companion of Paul named Luke that led to the attribution. The letters reflect the traditions that existed at the time of their writing regardless of their authenticity.

          • Perhaps you don’t realize your assumptions. If Luke-Acts is at the early end of the possible date range, then it could be the source of inspiration for the mention of Luke in letters that were subsequently composed, could it not? And so I ask again what leads you to prefer the particular hypothesis that you have adopted.

          • It could be if the attribution is also very early; however, if the consensus of mainstream scholars is correct, the attribution did nor occur until the second century.

          • But that is precisely the question this post raised, as raised not only in Pitre’s book, but many others with a less popular and more scholarly focus than his. We do not have any evidence that Luke-Acts circulated without an authorial attribution.

            I would have no objection with respect to your falling back on the consensus of mainstream scholars at this point, were it not for the fact that you are happy to treat such consensus dismissively when it suits you.

          • Since we have no manuscript evidence from the period in which it is thought that the gospels circulated without attribution, the fact that all the manuscripts we have contain the attribution really doesn’t resolve the question, does it? The post didn’t really engage with the opposing arguments did it?

            The fact of the matter is that there is some question whether the traditional titles actually constitute authorial attributions, rather than invoking some sort of tradition behind the writings. Your post really didn’t engage with that either.

            I seem to recall trying to address one of the issues that was raised in your post and being discouraged from doing so.

          • The question of what the role of the named individuals is is certainly worth asking. But it isn’t clear in what way it would make sense to say that an anonymous author of the Gospel informed himself from Luke, who wasn’t an eyewitness.

            That is precisely the kind of thing I was talking about, which you seem to have interpreted as discouragement. I want to encourage you – to stop treating any and all possibilities as equal, and to actually weigh their probability in relation to the available evidence.

        • s.zorin

          Impossible. Maybe a few but not most of them. A simple illiterate peasant could not have afforded to abandon his field and house and family and to wander around the Palestine or the Eastern Mediterranean in order to “spread the gospel”. People of higher standing and income could have been able to do so. And those were literate individuals.

  • John MacDonald

    Attributing a high Christology to Jesus seems to fly in the face of at least some of the gospel evidence, such as the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, the cry of dereliction from the cross, and Jesus’ phrasing when he teaches The Lord’s Prayer. In these three cases there seems to be a definite demarcation between Jesus and God.

    • John MacDonald

      And the fact that Jesus disagrees with God and petitions God in the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane suggest he is not simply a Trinity who is the same as God.

    • s.zorin

      There – was – no – “cry of dereliction” – on the cross.

  • The Eh’theist

    Pitre points out that, despite the impression many have, we do not have any copies of the Gospels which lack the titles by which they are traditionally known, and which indicate the names of the authors.

    The way that this is worded might suggest to someone reading quickly that the fragments that are used to support the early existence of some of the Gospels like P52 or P90 have titles as well and form part of this evidence, when the first examples with titles would be at least 50 years later.

    This doesn’t mean that the original papyri didn’t have titles, but it shows that the evidence for the titles is still some decades away from the evidence for the text.

  • Pitre also emphasizes how unlikely it is that the church would invent
    attributions to Mark and Luke, who were not eyewitnesses nor part of the
    inner circle of the Twelve. And on this point I agree with him.

    If Joseph Tyson is right about Luke-Acts being produced as a response to Marcionism (and I appreciate that this might be a big “if”), then wouldn’t it make perfect sense to attribute it to a follower of Paul such as Luke? Such an attribution would be countering Marcion’s claim to be following in the tradition of Paul, by having a close witness of Paul’s ministry depicting a Paul who is part of a united early church with Peter and James.

    • Even then, it seems as though there were probably either better known associates of Paul’s – e.g. Timothy – or other individuals whose connection with both Paul and others might have served to make the point more effectively – such as Barnabas. And even if Luke-Acts is a response to Marcionism, does that require that it not have been written by Luke?

      • Wouldn’t any anti-Marcionite work have to be written too late for authorship by a close companion of Paul to be likely?

        It does seem to make more sense for a more famous companion of Paul to be claimed as the author; on the other hand, the Gnostics were claiming apostolic authority for their teaching via unknowns like Theudas and Glaucias. So is it so implausible that the orthodox would also use a little-known follower of an apostle to support their own claims?

        • What we have to decide is whether that is more or less unlikely than the attribution of a late work to a relative unknown. But the fact that Marcion himself used a version of Luke, one that doesn’t seem to have been created by him, makes it seem all the less likely that it was invented in response to him.

          Why does the fact that someone like Theudas was unknown not lead you to think that Valentinus was telling the truth about the name of his teacher?

          • I tend to be fairly cynical about such claims from the early Christians, since they had an obvious motivation for claiming apostolic authority for their own ideas. It’s possible that Valentinus really did have a teacher named Theudas, but that Theudas’ supposed links to Paul were invented or exaggerated. Similarly, Luke-Acts could have been written by someone named Luke, or someone whose teacher was named Luke, without this meaning that it was really written by a companion of Paul. Or the author could simply have made up a companion of Paul, about whom there would be no competing legends.

            Either way, the author’s desire to claim the tradition of Paul provides a motivation for falsely claiming authorship by a companion of Paul, rather than one of the Twelve or another witness of Jesus.

          • Certainly one can legitimately suspect that the identification of an individual with someone directly connected to an apostolic source may be motivated by a desire to garner increased authority. But once again, it seems that if the individual had simply been starting from a clean slate with their invention, they would have connected themselves with famous individuals if at all possible.

  • Joe Wallack

    “The first topic addressed is the question of Gospel authorship. Pitre
    points out that, despite the impression many have, we do not have any
    copies of the Gospels which lack the titles by which they are
    traditionally known, and which indicate the names of the authors. Nor do
    we have any copies of these works which attribute them to someone
    different. I suspect that many in the wider public – and perhaps some in
    the academy who have never looked into the matter – have confused a
    surmise offered in the past with something confirmed by manuscript
    evidence.”

    Oh there is Textual Criticism evidence that the Canonical Gospels had other attributions, you just have not listed it above:

    GMark:

    1) A Gnostic tradition that Glaucius was the interpreter/translator of Peter.

    2) Which “Mark” wrote “Mark” = http://earlywritings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=563

    3) That Peter was the source for a Gospel that has a primary theme of discrediting him as a witness is ridiculous.

    GMatthew:

    1) Traditional attribution is based on the supposed tax collector “Matthew” within the Gospel but the source for the story gave the name as Levi (little known fact that Christianity changed the name because they thought “Levi” was “too Jewish”).

    2) GMatthew wants to credit Peter as a historical witness but uses as a base a Gospel with a primary theme of discredting Peter as a witness suggesting either there was no historical witness available to Matthew or it was not especially interesting and therefore not used.

    GLuke:

    1) We have an entire Church (Marcion) that used a version of Canonical “Luke” but did not attribute it to “Luke”.

    2) For all we know Marcion’s version was original.

    GJohn:

    1) The orthodox testify that there were Christian groups c. 2nd century (Alogi) who did not think “John” was written by John.

    2) We have external and internal evidence that “John” was originally Gnostic. Like GLuke, for all we know, Gnostic “John” could have been original.

    Note that much of the above is Textual Criticism COMMENTARY regarding authorship which is exponentially weightier evidence than what extant individual manuscripts show.

    Does his book mention any of this?

    http://thenewporphyry.blogspot.com/

    • Not all of the above is correct, and most of what is correct doesn’t seem relevant. The question of whether we know which Mark, or Luke, or Matthew, or John wrote a given work is different than the question of whether the attribution of authorship gets the name right. There is no evidence that the reason Levi’s name is changed to Matthew in that Gospel is because the former name was thought to be “too Jewish” – Matthew is a Jewish name too.