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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