Scholars Doing Over Lay Readers with Apologetics

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by Neil Godfrey

pitreA few pebbles dropped (by Michael BirdJames McGrath, Anthony Le Donne and Brant Pitre) into the pond of bible studies blogs alerting me to a new book by Brant Pitre, Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Brant Pitre recently joined The Jesus Blog as a regular contributor alongside James Crossley, Anthony Le Donne, Chris Keith, Christine Jacobi and most recently Rafael Rodríguez. The new book is “not written for scholars” (p. 10) but the blurb recommendations do assure us that

  • it “will benefit both scholars and laymen who read it” (Trent Horn),
  • its author “has a unique talent for putting scholarly work of the highest caliber into an accessible and engaging form” (Mary Healy),
  • it is the work of “wide-ranging research and careful rethinking” (Craig Keener),
  • it is an “important book” written by “one of America’s most brilliant young scholars” (Chris Tilling),
  • it’s content is “all supported by top-notch scholarship.” (Nicholas Perrin).

So scholarly book-lover that I am I grabbed a copy and started reading. I could not put it down. I’m normally a slow reader of scholarly books, taking time to check and follow up footnotes, backtracking to be sure I am registering the flow of argument, etc. But I finished The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ all within a few hours.

The experience reminded me of delving into books published by my old religious cult many years ago, proving decisively and with impeccable logic and thorough research that the Bible really was the word of God, genuine scholarship proved that fact, and all modern scholarship that cast doubts on this was under the sway of the stubborn minds who refused to read the evidence seriously and foolishly relegated the Gospels to folklore and fairy tales. Form criticism was likened to the folly of that favourite juvenile Telephone Game that only works because the players don’t take the message they are asked to relay seriously and make up any old thing as they pass it along.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a difference of opinion, or interpretation of the evidence. But a scholar surely has a responsibility to treat lay readers with enough respect to keep them informed of where his or her views sit in relation to those of his or her peers. I once asked a linguist about a particular theory of the nature of language and he began his response with, “Well, it depends who you ask….” He did not give me his own view as if it was “the truth”. He told me a range of views and the basic reasons for each and then gave his own. That’s how a scholar shows a lay person respect.

It’s not like that among some biblical scholars. Some of them, like Brant Pitre, take the opportunity to deliver a propaganda message and try to convert you to their belief system. Along they way they invite you to scoff at other scholars who disagree. They are write dogmatically, fanning dogmatism among readers. 

But I guess that’s what the game of religion is all about. I just wish its scholars would be more intellectually honest with their parishioners and other lay readers and less zealous for their game of winning souls.

And I wish more of their peers would call them out on it, too, and not cheer them on.

Brant Pitre never gives his readers a chance to know what the alternative arguments are. He simply says, repeatedly, that atheistic or other scholars ignore the evidence, do not take it seriously, etc. and that they have views that challenge the historical reliability of the Gospels. Pitre does not, even in summary outline, present the reasons for their views or why they argue differently from the he does. I suppose such digressions would only confuse lay readers. They might open up a question that leads them to challenge the message he is trying to convert them to.

Here is what Professor Michael Bird had to say about The Case for Christ:

Is the Marcan Jesus identified with Yahweh? Brant Pitre draws on recent research to give an emphatic “Yes.”

Anthony Le Donne writes:

Yesterday Dr. Pitre weighed in on the recently revived Markan Christology debate witha wonderful reflection on the walking-on-water episode in Mark 6. Brant reminds us that John Meier, Joel Marcus, Adela Yarbro-Collins, Eugene Boring, and Richard Hays (thus a nice spectrum of fantastic scholars) take Jesus’ egō eimi saying to suggest Jesus’ divine status in some sense. If we add Pitre’s name, this list becomes even more formidable!

And what does this “recent research” reveal? Pitre comments on part of this argument with these words:

I expect some readers may be thinking at this point: “What?! The Old Testament actually predicts the timing of the death of the Messiah? Why haven’t I heard this before?”

This reaction is understandable. I for one had never seen any of these passages from the book of Daniel before I started studying first-century Judaism seriously. For whatever reason, modern-day Christians are often far less familiar with these passages than were ancient Jews and Christians.

Pitre, Brant (2016-02-02). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (p. 116). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In fact, the analysis of Mark’s nature miracle stories and how they tie in with passage in the “Old Testament” that speak of God himself, and the details that Pitre says most Christians don’t know about and that he only learned when undertaking serious studies — both of these aspects of Pitre’s argument are well known among many Christian cults. In fact, my own erstwhile cult taught these things with just as much excitement and dogmatism as does Pitre!

We “knew” Jesus was being portrayed as God (or at leas the Son of God or an emanation of God) in the Gospel of Mark when he was walking on water and stilling the storm because the gospel accounts contained so many images and even words that clearly borrowed from (or inspired by) passages in Job, in Psalms, in Exodus. God is the one who stills the raging storm and seas. He is the one who “passes by” in his glory. These were the messages we heard in sermons and read in the church tracts. Of course, the same parallels are pointed out by critical scholars who use them to question the historicity of the accounts; mythicists also point to them. But I guess there is no “parallelomania” when the same literary relationship is used in the service of strengthening faith.

Another point common among many such Christian low-brows is conviction that at the time of Jesus there was widespread Jewish expectation of the messiah because the prophet Daniel had left writings indicating he was due to arrive some time within decades of the turn of the first century. Seventy weeks of years (490 years) from the time of Jerusalem’s rebuilding (or thereabouts) were to pass and then the Messiah would appear and end the sacrifice, being “cut off”, killed.

Now maybe lay people who are well aware of these arguments (presumably not Pitre’s lay Catholics, however) have come to their beliefs for the wrong reasons. But Pitre gives them no better reasons (no scholarly ones) for believing them. He does in one end-note mention an alternative scholarly view that the four kingdoms of Daniel ended with the Seleucid empire but he does not give any hint as to why some scholars argue this view. Pitre makes them look pretty dumb for not seeing things his way.

I could give plenty of examples of the shameful way lay readers are short-changed intellectually with this book, and the way they are encouraged to scoff at critical scholarship that disagrees with the views of apologists like Pitre, Bird, and others. But I must keep to my plan to complete my posts on other books first.

Suffice to say that an intellectually honest and respectful way of writing for the public should always give some indication of the reasons for alternative arguments. But of course bible scholars like Pitre are in another business, that of “strengthening the church” or the faith of believers or winning converts.

It is an abuse of one’s status as a public intellectual to write dogmatic apologetics for lay readers. Such professors ought to remove Professor, Doctor, their academic status etc from their credentials listed in such books. It is not enough to say they are “not writing for scholars”. While they present themselves as academics they are understood to be informing the public honestly and fairly of scholarship however quotidian their language and style.


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Scholars Doing Over Lay Readers with Apologetics”

  1. To give them their due? In the world of ardent believers, their occasional critical remarks (not quoted by Vridar?) are daring and revolutionary

    Should we ever note their more critical moments? Your call, of course.. Though I see some advantages in that.

    1. I do hope to post more of their “critical arguments” and style of argument to demonstrate the points I made in this post. Every page I felt I was reading one of the “scholarly tracts” from my old church. It is as “scholarly” in its manner and style of argument as any fundamentalist “proofs” of the historical reliability of the Bible. Of course these guys hate mythicists with a vengeance. They have never before seriously examined their assumptions — they go into scholarship to learn more about their faith. One interesting detail in the book — memory studies are implied as being motivated by a desire to get rid of form criticism and “establish” the historical “reliability” of the Jesus narrative.

      1. I feel that the SURFACE of their style is designed to appease the faithful. Though the undertone, perhaps, is more critical.

        I admit, their style of appearing to pander mainly to religious belief, convention, while carrying a moderately critical undertone, is far too compromised, in the era of the New Atheism. Which is willing to be far more explicitly critical.

        So I look forward therefore, to your future critique of their veiled, and compromised “progressivist” moments.

        I therefore mostly agree that the age of moderate, veiled religious criticism, is all but over. At least in the Internet. Though perhaps it still has some transitional usefulness, in weaning traditional believers, gently?

        If your response is negative, I will support you of course. Though at times I feel that a very, very, very slight compromise with the more critical ostensible ” believers” – at least talking with them – could be very, very useful, strategically.

        Granted, on the surface they are always eager to support, or not obviously confront, the religious status quo. Which is a very annoying and all but outdated habit.

        Still, in many revolutions, contacting those who were sympathetic to the new movement, but who for various reasons remained inside the old, was tactically very, very useful.

        1. Some of us, if not all, should probably continue with marginal persons who retain ties to the past, but who show signs of developing into true critics. With some guidance, addressing their conservative views. But then showing everyone how to move on to the next step.

          Granted, there has long been a major element in “Critical” religious study, that endlessly flirts jokingly with criticism of Christianity. But which is all too comfortable with that moderate, joking, coy half-criticism. And never willing to take it to the next, SERIOUSLY critical level.

  2. “Case for Jesus”.

    Yet another Christian scholar who thinks they have something to add. I once was a fan of Merton, but eventually realized he was putting on a show, and his “vocation” was a long term manic phase. How much paper needs to be wasted on vanity projects?

    Pour out all the grandiosity from Christian scholarship and what do you have left?

    None of them think they are Pharisees, yet Jesus is pointing the finger at every one of them. Scholars continue on, regardless, because its all “for the glory of Gawd”. Jesus basically dismisses the Pharisee as a “pretentious douche”.

    Pitre offers nothing new. His work is useless. I understand why Dawkins just dismisses theology. All of it is like a “white washed tomb”. It would be nice to have research devoted to actual problems instead of adding yet another narcissistic publication about an issue which should not require a frenzy of apologetics.

    1. Well, Pitre is undoubtedly the more conservative member of that group; he’s a priest. Though in that respect, he might be seen by his peers as a revolutionary liberal.

      In any case though, I’d see Le Donne as significantly to the left of Pitre’s present public position.

      Granted, we’re seeing a lot of apologetics arguments surface in this group, to date.

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