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!
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.
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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