Highlights from Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s get this thing out of the way. Here are some of the “highlights” of Brant Pitre’s new book, The Case for Jesus, supporting some of my criticisms in the previous post. More may follow. (I’ve only covered chapter one in this post.)

If Brant Pitre kept his book from the view of his academic peers and treated it as nothing more than a pastoral interest that was quite separate from his intellectual responsibilities as a scholar, no problem. What should be offensive to us is the fact that a constellation of scholarly authorities have muttered sweet scented somethings about it. These authorities otherwise claim to be serious scholars who never let their theological biases influence their work. But by treating The Case of Jesus as a worthy contribution for scholarly consideration (despite being primarily addressed to lay readers) they declare their true interests.

1. A historical religion

Note first of all a fundamental point that I do agree with (I do in fact agree with a number of Pitre’s observations and analyses but not the tendentious conclusions he draws from them):

Christianity is a historical religion which claims that the God who made the universe actually became a man — a real human being who lived in a particular time and in a particular place. As a result, the idea of searching for the historical truth about Jesus made sense to me. (p. 2)

So when Professors of religion and theology like Brant Pitre tell you that they are doing “history”, what many of them evidently mean is that they are pursuing their theological interest and seeking to understand their faith more deeply. Christianity’s fundamental message confuses history and theology from the outset. (Of course there are some scholars who have lost their interest in religion and do approach Jesus studies from a secular interest. But as some of those scholars (Crossley, Goulder, Brodie…) have pointed out, their voices are a very small minority.

Challenging the historicity of the gospels or underlying Christian narrative really is a challenge to the faith of scholars like Pitre.

2. Faith building scholarship

Unlike some professors these days, who seem to make it their goal to tear down their students’ faith, Dr [Amy] Levine was always extremely respectful of and concerned for her students’ beliefs. Even more, she sought to enrich our faith by helping us to see Jesus and the New Testament through ancient Jewish eyes. This was a life-changing gift for me. . . .  that would eventually help me to see clearly the Jewish roots of Jesus’s divinity. (p. 3)

Only “some professors” are genuinely critical? Recall also my recent post on the Christian bias of proclaiming the Jewish Jesus.

3. Atheist Bart

I thought Bart Ehrman has told us he is an agnostic. Apparently no difference in Pitre’s eyes:

One of the textbooks I learned from — written by the now famous atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman — even compares the way we got the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels ot the children’s game of Telephone! (p. 3)

So begins Pitre’s division of the scholarly sheep from the scholarly goats: atheists versus believers. What other academic field worries about atheists in their ranks? I mean, it’s not as though most biblical scholars would be worried about vested faith interests, would they?

4. Liar, Lunatic or Lord?

You thought this trilemma went the way of C.S. Lewis. But no. Pitre clings to it and even as a professor believes it contains a pretty good reason for believing Jesus really is divine.

Of course, the “problem” underlying the question only works if, Pitre points out, we assume

that all four gospels (including John) tell us what Jesus actually did and said. (p. 7)

Hence The Case for Jesus, the book that will “prove” to the faithful that all four gospels (including John) really do tell us what Jesus actually did and said. Or at least, the were written with the intent of being believed to tell us “the gospel truth” about Jesus.

Later Pitre seems to go a little awry and will admit that he is unable to go into all the arguments he would like to make to prove that the gospels do tell us what the historical Jesus did and said, so he settles for a lesser claim at that point and purports to demonstrate that the evangelists (authors of the gospels) were all declaring the historical Jesus to be God. Up until that point Pitre had declaimed his assurance that the gospels were documented eye-witness reports (or in some cases reports of those who directly heard from the eyewitnesses themselves). Believe and be saved!

5. Crisis!

Pitre tells the dramatic story of the spiritual crisis to which his undergraduate studies of the Bible led him. Some text books had actually cast doubt on his belief that Jesus was divine.

At that moment, I made a decision. The only way I could really know was to try to say out loud that I no longer believed that Jesus was God. So, alone in the car, I tried. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say it. Not because I was afraid to. After years of study, I had learned to follow the evidence wherever it led me. No. I couldn’t say it because something in me wasn’t yet fully convinced that Jesus wasn’t divine. (p. 7)

A moving story for the pulpit.

What Pitre thinks held him back was his growing knowledge of what he calls “the Jewish context” of Jesus. What he means exactly is that we can interpret passages in the gospels as allusions “Old Testament” sayings and motifs speak of God’s power and glory. God stills the storm, treads on the waters, etc — just as Jesus is depicted in his “nature miracles”.

Some critical scholars have suggested that such literary evidence points to the possibility that the evangelists crafted their stories about Jesus from the Jewish scriptures. In other words, the gospels are creative literature in the same way the story of Jonah is a fabricated tale to teach a theological message. But it is hard to find this possibility expressed in The Case for Jesus. The reader is left to infer that Jesus really did do “a greater than Jonah” and that two of his apostles, Matthew and John, saw him do it and were inspired to record the events in the OT language of epiphany. Two other evangelists wrote the same stories as they heard them from Peter and other eyewitnesses.

6. When were the Gospels identified with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

A number of reasons have led to a general scholarly acceptance of the view that the names by which we label the New Testament gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were late additions. The first time these names appear in the historical record is around 180 CE in the writings of Irenaeus. It is generally believed that the gospels, or at least an early form of our gospels, were known to Justin (around 140-160 CE) but he never identifies them by the names known to us today (or to Irenaeus). Instead, in his writings we find references to Memoirs of the Apostles. Up until his time one finds in other writings apparent quotations from Matthew but never with any hint that the writer knew they were quoting from an apostolic authority such as Matthew himself. But after Irenaeus’s mention one finds the gospels identified by their well-known names everywhere.

What happened?

A monumental challenge to “proto-orthodoxy” was led by Marcion (around the same time as Justin). Marcion was condemned by Fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian and others as a heretic. Marcion claimed to follow Paul alone, and he is reputed to have put together the very first Christian canon. His canon consisted of Paul’s letters and a single “gospel” of Jesus that some suspect was an early (or truncated) form of Luke.

The “proto-orthodox” responded by cobbling together their own canon. Their epistles of Paul were longer (they accused Marcion of deleting passages he did not like); they had a four-fold gospel, traceable back to eyewitnesses of Jesus and a servant of Peter himself. The “orthodox” Luke was also longer than Marcion’s — again with the explanation that Marcion had chopped bits out of the original. Then there was Acts, proving the true church was traced not to Paul but went back to apostles who were with Jesus before he was resurrected and started giving out visionary experiences from heaven. And other epistles, especially the Pastorals that reinforced good “catholic” and anti-Marcionite doctrine.

One tell-tale indicator that the names attached to the gospels were a scribal addition is their form. Other literature of the time would find the author introducing himself in his opening lines of his work. Normally he would explain who he was and what authority he had to write about his topic all with the point of persuading readers to have confidence in what was to follow.

We find no such assuring provenance indicators in the canonical gospels. (We do find them in some of the later apocryphal gospels, however, such as the gospels of Peter and Judas.) What we have in the canonical gospels is superscriptions all with the same formal structure: “the gospel according to Matthew”, for example. Or just “according to Matthew”. Notice even here not only the formulaic superscriptions but even the ambiguity about authorship. The headers do not say Matthew actually wrote the gospel.

It is unlikely that a real Matthew, Luke, Mark and John all just happened to begin their works the same standard way with such an unconventional superscription. Of course we can speculate otherwise but only in defiance of standard practice, the silence on the authors until after Marcion, and other probabilities.

Moreover, if Matthew really had been the disciple of Jesus, it is difficult in the extreme to imagine him copying so much of “Mark” as he does. There are similar problems with the other identities.

I have condensed here the main reasons many have concluded that our gospels only acquired their names in the later second century. (Inform me if I have overlooked other important reasons.)

Professor Brant Pitre will have none of this nonsense. Look at the manuscripts, the “hard” evidence, he insists. Over-riding all other considerations is the following fact:

There are no anonymous manuscripts of the four Gospels. They don’t exist. In fact. . .  the only way to defend the theory that the Gospels were originally anonymous is to ignore virtually all of the evidence from earliest Greek manuscripts and the most ancient Christian writers. . . . 

There are compelling reasons for concluding that the four Gospels are first-century biographies of Jesus, written within the lifetime of the apostles, and based directly on eyewitness testimony. (p. 9)

What Pitre proceeds to do in the following chapter addressing “all the evidence from the earliest Greek manuscripts” is to fudge the dates specialists have assigned to those manuscripts, fudge the actual ideas of some other scholars by selective quotations, sometimes fudge even the nature of the manuscript evidence itself. But all of this is no doubt excusable if one is writing for a lay audience and one doesn’t want to confuse them with details.

We will look at Pitre’s simplistic short-changing of his lay readers in the post on his second chapter in which he argues that late second to third and fourth century manuscripts are reliable guides to what the Gospels looked like in the first century.

(But I want to finish posting on Salm’s new Nazareth book soon, too.)

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Highlights from Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

  1. Yes. But in his world as a priest, not being ready “yet” to say that Jesus wasn’t fully divine, could be read as a daring flirtation with future unemployment.

    Granted, for the rest of us here in the secular world, that would have been daring only many, many years ago.

    I didn’t read it. But I gather that his hint is that Jesus was just a man? Which, we to be sure rightly object, still supports an historical Jesus?

    1. I’ve taken scholars to task for using “hard to imagine” as an argument, especially here:


      But I do it because they fail to imagine all the possibilities. In this case, I don’t think Neil has. The reason that it’s “difficult in the extreme to imagine” that the author of Matthew was one of the Twelve is that he waited for 50 years to write it, and that he copied from sources. Recall as well that not only did Matthew copy almost all of Mark, often word for word, but:

      1. The few passages of Mark that he omitted are “difficult” in light of later doctrine.
      2. The few editorial changes he made are almost all theological changes.

      The ad hoc arguments that explain away such odd features in the Synoptics seem not just inconsistent, but awfully strained, and barely pass the giggle test. For example, on one apologist web site a guy thinks maybe Matthew did it out of convenience. So Matthew was in no hurry for decades, but then suddenly felt the need to write a gospel right now, so he cribbed from a non-disciple who wrote in “rough Greek.”

      Since when do eyewitnesses need to rely on tradition?

      1. Please note the fairly recent critiques of Matthew’s alleged direct dependence on Mark, by David J. Neville, David B. Peabody & J. Enoch Powell. These are separate from arguments that the so-called Q material derives from “logia” based on notes from a literate disciple and/or that Mark contains some eyewitness material from the chief disciple in “another place”, i.e. “Babylon”=Rome.

        I wish only to suggest that Matthew = Mark+Q (as proposed by e.g. B. H. Streeter) is not an absolute certainty. The Synoptic gospels may well contain some authentic recollections of the activities and parables of Jesus, but what we have today are three quite late post-70 texts, notwithstanding the erudite counter-claims by e.g. J. A. T. Robinson & C. C. Torrey.

        If these comments are regarded as nuisance-trolling, please delete them.

    2. As per Tim, what I’ve done is point out reliance upon the fallacy of argument from incredulity or ignorance. The dogma being argued is presented as the only reasonable explanation. Their rhetorical questions are the foundation of their arguments and quite reasonable alternatives and scenarios are brushed aside.

      If I have fallen into the same fallacy here then I am at fault. It is difficult in the extreme to imagine NASA scientists believed the moon is made of cheese likewise has the formal appearance of the argument I have made but is hardly an example of a logical fallacy. Is there a reasonable alternative scenario, not an ad hoc flashbulb, to explain what we know about the Gospel of Matthew as the product of the eyewitness of a disciple of Jesus?

      As I will show, almost Pitre’s entire argument is one long appeal to the fallacy of appeal to ignorance. The very real alternatives in the scholarly literature are implied not to exist. Or are brushed aside as the desperate appeals of the hard-hearted ungodly.

      1. I read some of what’s available for free on Amazon. His description of the state of available manuscripts for the gospels is dishonest; it actually made me angry.

  2. Good article.
    I would think that as long as scholars acknowledge that the book is not scholarly and they are saying it is good because it generates interest in the field, it would be perfectly acceptable to like the book. However if they are claiming that the book is a contribution to scholarship, that would be outrageous.
    For example, a group of Ichthalogists might praise the book or movie “Jaws” for getting people interested in marine life, but if they said it was a contribution to scholarship on sharks, that would be crossing the line. The same idea could be applied to astrophysicists who might appreciate “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” for their entertainment value and for the interest they bring to their subject; however, some claimed they were contributions to astrophysics, one would be rightly distressed and alarmed about the seriousness and quality of those astrophysicists.

  3. I’ve always thought that the “nobody would have invented Mark or Luke argument” was silly simply because we have no way to determine that they were actually insignificant figures at the time. There are many writings that are attributed to figures whose importance we can no longer gauge.

    According to McGrath, Pitre argues “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.” I confess that it had not occurred to me how silly this argument is with respect to Luke. The author makes it clear in the prologue that he isn’t an eyewitness and he indicates in Acts that members of the inner circle were illiterate.

  4. The NT underwent compilation/redaction to fit in with the needs of the early Church. 180 CE Irenaeus based his choice of the four canonical gospels on Geography, Meteorology and Symmetry as much as anything else, saying in Against the Heresies,

    …It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the church is the gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh…

    1. It’s true that he says so plainly. The only question is whether he’s telling the truth or is constructing a post hoc rationalisation for a decision that was made on other grounds.

  5. God who created the universe became a REAL man – is this conceptually coherent? How does it tally with all the data in the gospels themselves? Was the male chromosome of the virgin-born man specially created and, if so, how “real” was the man? The fall-back position of God “in” Jesus as an inspirational force seems marginally more credible to me.

    1. The question is around the thought-world of the ancients, not ours; it is about the theological-literary message of the texts in their ancient context, not ours. What seems credible to us is irrelevant.

  6. Blah, blah, blah.
    Believing scholar writes book supporting Christianity. Liberal scholars sniff at belief because that’s for the unwashed. Why don’t you just admit you have an anti-Christian bias?

    1. I presume you would prefer this was another blog of Christian apologetics. If you don’t like my viewpoint then you are free to ignore. As for my “anti-Christian bias”, that is certainly true in one sense but not in another. Read “About Vridar” and the “author profiles” there.

      Then read some of the posts and comments here and tell me how it is I am criticised by some atheists for failing to attack Christianity and religion and even making excuses for them.

      And do check out the diversity of my posts on fundamentalism and the nature of religion.

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