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Case for Jesus brant pitre

Attending Bob Jones University made me skeptical of fundamentalists. Attending Oxford University made me skeptical of liberals. I came to question the Bob Jonesers’ young-earth creationism and their Biblical literalism, but at Oxford I learned to question the assumptions (and therefore the conclusions) of the liberals’ Biblical criticism, their doubt about the historical Jesus and their unsparing deconstruction of the Biblical texts and their authorship.

By the time I was finished studying theology at Oxford I felt like the boy in the emperor’s parade, but there were two emperors—the fundamentalist and the liberal scholar—and they were both naked.

The granddaddy of the liberal Biblical scholars was Rudolph Bultmann who believed there was next to nothing we could know about the historical Jesus. The old joke is that Bultmann was asked how he would react if archeologists discovered the bones of Jesus Christ. Bultmann would reply, “So he existed after all?”

Bultmann’s de-mythologizing theories were the product of over three hundred years of increasingly skeptical scholarship combined with early twentieth century academic fascination with folklore and myth. It was all the rage to study the development of religion and religious literature, so Bultmann and his followers decided that the New Testament was the result of religious myth building. This academic fashion item combined with their deep-seated Protestant skepticism produced the foundation for modern Biblical scholarship. The weak point in their theorizing is that they knew next to nothing about the Jewish context of the New Testament.

Oxford UniversityMy seminary education at Oxford in the 1980s was the product of a long line of New Testament liberal scholarship. I remember being told that the entire New Testament had to be dated after 70 AD because Jesus had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. Because prophecy was impossible, the gospels which record Jesus’ glimpse into the future had to be written after the event, and if they were written after 70 AD then Jesus disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could not be the authors of the gospels ascribed to them.

I was critical of the critics. Their theory only worked because they assumed prophecy of the future was impossible, but this ruled out a supernatural cause for the prophecy without discussion simply because they deemed the supernatural to be impossible. It was like Hume’s circular dismissal of miracles: “Miracles can’t happen because miracles are impossible.”

Furthermore, it seemed to me that one didn’t even have to posit the supernatural to allow that “prophecy” can happen. Jesus only needed a basic understanding of human psychology, history, current events, and politics to predict ultimate disaster for the Jews if they didn’t change their ways. One does not kick against the armies of Imperial Rome without consequences.

Nevertheless, various scholars still promote what these increasingly out-of-date theories. The most well-known have managed to package their scholarship in attractive little books for a popular audience. Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman are among them. Mr. Ehrman is best known and has made a name as a New Testament scholar and popular author. A former Evangelical Christian, now an atheist, Mr. Ehrman is heavily invested in the promotion of his own literature that debunks the Bible.

Bart EhrmanScholars like Mr. Ehrman wear their long list of academic accomplishments like the emperor’s new clothes. Without their qualifications it is difficult to question their conclusions. Their authority as published experts would seem unassailable. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of boys in the crowd watching the emperor’s parade who can expose their nakedness. Which brings me to Brant Pitre….

Mr. Pitre is no academic slouch. Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, he holds a Masters from Vanderbilt and a Ph.D. in Christianity and Jewish Antiquity from Notre Dame. Whereas Mr. Ehrman’s background is in established Protestant Biblical textual criticism, Mr. Pitre’s area of expertise is the contemporary Jewish context of the gospels. Mr. Pitre’s main assertion is that to understand the true meaning of the New Testament we must understand the Jewish cultural and religious context in which from which it originated. Picking through the texts without understanding the wider context is relatively fruitless and will lead to false conclusions. This in itself is a brilliant stroke of common sense. Imagine reading say, Dante’s Divine Comedy but not bothering to learn about the culture, language and worldview of medieval Catholic Italy.

The Case for JesusMr. Pitre’s new book The Case for Jesus attacks the foundation of modern Biblical scholarship and in the process calls out the naked emperor Mr. Ehrman. There are two basic foundations on which the modern theories stand: the late dating of the gospels and their subsequent anonymous authorship. Mr. Pitre takes apart the idea that the gospels must have been written after 70 A.D. and suggests another definitive date. Instead of basing the theories of dating around the destruction of Jerusalem, Mr. Pitre argues, we should use the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in 65 A.D. under Nero.

The theory goes like this: The Acts of the Apostles ends with Peter and Paul still living. It was therefore written before 65 A.D. Acts was the second of Luke’s volumes. If Acts is composed before 65 A.D. then the gospel of Luke preceded it. If (as the textual critics insist) Luke was dependent on Matthew and Mark, then Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels were also composed before 65 A.D. This moves all the gospels back to around 60 A.D.—fewer than thirty years after the death of Jesus.

Scholars like Mr. Ehrman argue that because the gospels were written decades after the events, they must have been anonymous. However Mr. Pitre shows that there are virtually no anonymous manuscripts of the gospels in existence. From the earliest dates they were ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These two basic arguments are presented solidly and cogently in an irenic and professional manner.

Jesus of NazarethMr. Pitre’s expertise in the first-century Jewish context of the gospels provides the skill set for him to examine the other main question of the book, “Did Jesus really present himself as God incarnate?” Mr. Ehrman & Co. dismiss the idea of the divine Jesus as a late Hellenic invention while Mr. Pitre shows the claims to divinity for Jesus of Nazareth to be completely consistent with first-century Jewish hopes and beliefs.

Mr. Pitre’s book is a must read for all who are even the least bit interested in New Testament scholarship. It is written in an accessible and winning style, and I’m delighted to learn that Mr. Pitre is working on a new Introduction to New Testament studies. Let’s hope the new generation of scholars like Mr. Pitre will continue to be the boys at emperor Ehrman’s parade, and as the greying atheists like Mr. Ehrman retire, a new breed of scholars with sharper brains, fresh insights, and a more balanced approach will step into their shoes.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Fr D: thank you for recommending Dr Pitre’s book. Any thoughts on Lee Strobel’s series of books from a few years back: “The Case for Christ”, “The Case for a Creator”, “The Case for the Resurrection”?

    As for your close neighbour, Bart Simpson (er, ‘Ehrman’, sorry), I read a review of his new book: “Jesus Before the Gospels” published during Holy Week (natch) in our national newsmagazine, MacLean’s, and consigned it to my personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum, next to Karen Armstrong’s oeuvre. Atheists crave evidence. I’m happy to settle for faith backed by reason, as Christianity is of course. A divinity that can be proved is not divine. Q.E.D. what?

    btw: Did you know that for many years Ms Armstrong suffered from *unexplainable* bouts of smelling sulphur? Perhaps still does. She should have seen that coming when she entered a convent at 17 despite disavowing the Resurrection as an “elaborate lie”.

  2. Also highly recommended are:
    “The Birth of The Synoptics” by Jean Carmignac .
    “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Bauckham
    “Jesus” by David Flusser.

  3. In an odd way I think that the influx of unbelieving Biblical historians will ultimately be a plus for Biblical History as a field because it will help keep everybody in the discussions on their toes and honest. For a long time there were camps of believing Jewish scholars, and believing Christian scholars and in their ranks unknown percentages of covert agnostics and atheists. And of course I am lumping varying different sorts of Jewish and Christian scholars together. Everybody had their own biases, mostly unacknowledged and therefor unconsidered and unguarded against by the scholars themselves. Among serious historians a good number of these unbelieving scholars are very helpfully making a case for the actual historical existence of Jesus as a man. For example, Robin Lane Fox, whose real bailiwick is the slightly later time when Christianity was beginning to make real inroads to paganism: I am overly simplifying Mr Fox, but in brief, without a human Jesus figure, you cannot sensibly explain the survival of Christianity once the Romans had learned to dissociate Christianity from traditional Judaism, much less its growth into the sort of religion it was becoming. Peter Brown is another splendid and honest and courteous unbelieving scholar of Christianity.
    So, in a poetic irony, we are coming into a time very like that in the early church when it had no important problems convincing people of Jesus as a god, but real difficulties arguing that he was a man while he lived on earth, as well as God. Poor Mr Bultmann has wound up with a fair group of unbelievers defending the idea of a historical Jesus.

  4. Why do people so vehemently argue to prove the non-existence of something? I understand debating about it, which can be interesting. I guess I just can’t wrap my head around what the motive is for trying so hard to prove something doesn’t exist. If you don’t think it exists than why do you have to prove it’s non-existence. I’m not sure that I believe in Satan but I don’t do great studies, join I don’t believe in Satan groups or make fun of people who do believe in Satan. What motivates them? My 11 year old said I have two dimensional thinking, maybe I do, I don’t know.

    • I know what you mean. Calling these people “Atheists” is a mistake. A better term would be anti-theists, since they’re not content to simply disbelieve in God and religion, but rather they have an active hostility to both.

  5. Father: I was taught the same modernist garbage in the 60s and 70s and reacted as you did. It’s been encouraging at long last to see a whole string of scholars making some serious efforts to refute it.

    Bultmania seems to everywhere in popular culture. While waiting in for a flight, I heard a businessman behind me tell someone that he was reading a Crossan book he bought at the airport, and how many interesting insights it had about “the historical Jesus.” Since I am not particularly shy, I turned around and engaged him in a conversation about it. He had no idea about the problems with writings like Crossan’s.

    I suppose that fact reflects the generally lower level of religious knowledge most Catholics possess these days. As a high school freshman with just eight years of pre-V2 Baltimore Catechism behind me, I probably would have known after a few pages that the book was a heretical crock and tossed it into the garbage,

  6. Fr. DL, thank you for highlighting Dr. Pitre’s new book. He has got so many good books and audios, it’s hard to recommend just one. I would say my favorite was “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist”. And because he’s got stuff in audio form, it’s so easy and convenient to listen to him while traveling. My husband and I just finished his “Jesus and the End Times: A Catholic View of the Last Days” while we were down in AZ driving and site seeing. I think it’s worth recommending his website where you can find all of this stuff. But I’ll leave that to your discretion. Needless to say, if a person googles him, they will find all of this as well. Thanks again.

  7. Excellent and thank you for directing me to Pitre’s book. I am clicking for it on Amazon now…and like the post above I would VERY MUCH like your take on the “Case for…” books by Lee Strobel.

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