’d intended to review Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016) here at Rational Rant, but I’ve run out of time, and I’m not really that interested as things turn out. I had thought from the title that Dr. Pitre would be dealing with the inanities of the mythicists—those nuts who think that a reasonable case can be made for Jesus as a purely fictional character—but it turns out not so much. He is asking, rather, “Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?”
Dr. Pitre’s answer is yes. To make his case he recycles the arguments of Paley and McIlvaine yet another time—the gospels are reliable because they were written either by eyewitnesses (Matthew, John) or by people who had followed the apostles (Mark, Luke), and so it’s all just a matter of reading what they say and applying it, and so on and so forth ad nauseam. And yes, Dr. Pitre does hold an actual doctorate from a real university, which makes it all the more puzzling that he writes like a clever undergrad who has just discovered J. A. T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament and thinks the Bishop of Woolworth’s has a point. Yes, the book is that bad, or that good, depending I suppose on how you look at it.
Looking at this particular glass as being half full, Dr. Pitre conducts his flimflam with flair, and the casual reader may not notice the bait-and-switch tactics he employs against his straw men. On the half-empty side, none of this is particularly new, and Dr. Pitre has the annoying habit of simply asserting things when he ought to be laying out evidence for them—for example that the titles of the gospels necessarily imply authorship claims, or that legendary material about Jesus was taught formally, rather than transmitted informally.
One of the historical puzzles about the gospels—bear with me here, this is a digression but a necessary one—is the failure of first and second century writers to mention them by name even when apparently quoting from them. Justin Martyr (middle of the second century) refers to them vaguely as the memoirs of the apostles, but it is not until the end of the second century that Irenaeus refers to them by their present names—and his description makes it clear that he is referring to our extant gospels. This fairly significant gap caused a number of nineteenth-century writers to infer that the gospels themselves did not exist until late in the second century—but manuscript discoveries, examination of the text of the gospels, and close analysis of second century writers seem to rule that out.
Assuming these conclusions are warranted, how then do we account for the discrepancy? One explanation is that when the gospels circulated individually they were without distinctive titles, perhaps being called something simple like “The Gospel” or “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” (as in the beginning of Mark). Only when the four were included together in the fourfold gospel canon was it necessary to provide them with clearly distinctive names, and so it is that the first author to clearly attest the fourfold gospel is also the first to clearly refer to them by name.
Now Brant Pitre, for whatever reason, wishes to argue that the gospels never circulated sans title. He seems to imagine that this would be a point in favor of their reliability—although nothing is easier than to add a phony claim of authenticity to a forgery, if that’s what he’s trying to forestall. (Consider, for example, that William Henry Ireland’s Vortigern came complete with a short preface signed by William Shakespeare.) Naturally, you’d expect him to give some alternate explanation for the echoing silence from the first and second centuries.
As my father used to say, you may expect anything, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. And in this case we sure as hell don’t. Instead we’re treated to a little song and dance about how copies of the gospels—the gospels included in the fourfold canon to boot!—all have titles. To bulk up his list he makes a point of including Sinaiticus and Vaticanus four times each, once for each appearance of one of the four. The total irrelevance of this “evidence” doesn’t seem to faze him in the least.
And the pattern continues throughout. Dr. Pitre expends a good many pages on the “traditional” view of the authorship of the four gospels—how Matthew the tax-collector wrote the first of them in Hebrew, and it was translated into Greek later on; how Mark used to follow Peter around writing down whatever he said about Jesus, not necessarily getting it in the right order but trying to neither omit anything or add anything to the account; how Luke was Paul’s travelling-companion and wrote his gospel while Paul was still alive; how John dictated his gospel to somebody or other late in his life.
This is a lot of fun, needless to say, but it is also the rankest kind of hearsay. People like Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, writing a century or more after the gospels are supposed to have been written, are our informants, and none of them tell us how they know. This isn’t just a lame “were you there?” sort of thing; it’s important in evaluating traditions to have some idea of where they came from, and how the original informant came by them.
For two of these attributions we have a relatively early source, sort of. A man named Papias, whose hobby was collecting traditions from people who had known people who had known Jesus and assembling them into a book, recorded (probably at some time during the first half of the second century) that an unnamed elder had told him that he had heard that Matthew had written his account in Hebrew characters, and that Mark had been Peter’s interpreter and written down what he said. This is not especially solid, given that Papias didn’t tell us anything useful about this elder, and this elder gives no authority or source for his claims except a vague tradition, but for antiquity it’s not all that bad. I mean, it’s horrible, but plenty of times we have to hang our historical hats on flimsier hooks than this.
But there are two ways when it comes to evidence concerning authorship: there is the way of relying on the mere word of ancient writers, and there is the way of examining the evidence for ourselves. Ideally these should point us in the same direction—if ancient writers say that The Birds was written by the comic playwright Aristophanes, if collections include the play among his works, then we should find the language, appearance, and historical situation of the piece consistent with his authorship. If instead of a play in ancient Greek we found we were examining a laundry list in Sanskrit, we would have reason to be skeptical—either that the ancient writers didn’t know what they were talking about, or that what we have isn’t what they were looking at.
And that’s the problem with the four canonical gospels. They don’t read like eyewitness accounts, but rather like anonymous compendia of semi-random fragments. This was noted even in antiquity by Faustus of Mileve:
But, besides this, we shall find that it is not Matthew that has imposed upon us, but some one else under his name, as is evident from the indirect style of the narrative. Thus we read: "As Jesus passed by, He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom, and called him; and he immediately rose up, and followed Him." No one writing of himself would say, “He saw a man, and called him; and he followed Him;” but, “He saw me, and called me, and I followed Him.” Evidently this was written not by Matthew himself, but by some one else under his name. [Augustine, Contra Faustum, XVII 1]
And in fact not only does Matthew not appear to have been written by an eyewitness, it shows no sign of having been written in Hebrew (or even Aramaic). Mark could have had a Petrine source, maybe, but close analysis doesn’t suggest any substantial contribution if so. And John looks like a dialog created by slicing up some treatise by inserting questions, rather in the manner that The Sophia of Jesus Christ was created by slicing up the treatise of Eugnostos the Blessed.
So how does Dr. Pitre deal with this issue? He dismisses the evidence we can actually see for ourselves—at least if we have the patience to actually examine the documents in question—as speculative while elevating the late and remote testimony of the likes of Irenaeus to a primary position.
Very well, then, if we are supposed to accept this out-and-out hearsay from anonymous sources as definitive, what is Dr. Pitre’s explanation for the clear contradiction between the evidence of the documents and the ancient claims? That turns out to be simple: he makes no effort whatsoever. On page 97 he declares that the problem of the interrelationship of the gospels is insoluble, and moves on.
This is the point where I (metaphorically) hurled the book across the room before stamping on it and tossing it into the chipper. I mean, if you have no solution, however tentative, to the synoptic problem then you have no business writing jack about the historical Jesus. No business at all. That solution is the key to writing anything of consequence—no, anything at all—about Jesus and his place in history.
Everything of importance that we can say about the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth comes from the synoptic gospels. For us to evaluate the material appropriately we must have some notion of just what the hell we’re looking at. Are they eye-witness accounts, or careful historical narratives based on such accounts, or reminiscences made long after the events, or grab-bags of traditional information, or myth disguised as history, or what?
Dr. Pitre likes to ramble on about how such things as Markan priority or the Q hypothesis are not facts, but one thing that is a fact, no matter how you dance around it, is the close literary relationship between Matthew and Mark. Either Mark is a kind of peculiar reduction of Matthew, as Augustine suggested, or Matthew is an expansion of Mark as practically everybody who has ever tried to come to grips with the problem has concluded. In the first case the traditional claim about Mark following Peter around and writing down what he said goes up in flame like gasoline-soaked newspaper on a hot summer day. In the second case that whole little set-piece about Matthew (an eyewitness) writing down what he remembered in Hebrew gets blown away like a cobweb in a hurricane. And, of course, technically both gospels could be dependent on a hypothetical third document, in which case both of them are dead on arrival.
With a coherent explanation of the relationship among the gospels (such as the classic two-source hypothesis) we can at least make informed decisions about the material. In some cases we can even go behind the extant material, as is the case with Q, the hypothetical second source (the first is Mark) behind the sayings common to Matthew and Luke. Without such an explanation, all we can do is throw up our hands in despair, and either retreat into a naïve Mythicism or an abject credulity, the second being apparently Dr. Pitre’s choice.
I tried hard to come up with nice things to say about The Case for Jesus. I really like the writing style and the breezy way he negotiates a difficult topic. And it’s downright nostalgic revisiting these musty arguments, like taking a boat-ride through a Disney version of nineteenth-century apologetics. It’s a useful reminder that there is a conservative case for Jesus to be made, and it would be nice to see a forceful statement of that case. Unfortunately, this book aint it.
 Brant Pitre and I seem to have had opposite experiences in the search for Q. He started out as a die-hard believer; I started out as a die-hard skeptic. He was converted on reading Mark Goodacre’s book; I was slowly convinced of its (partial) reality by years of grappling with the texts themselves—though taking Dr. James Robinson’s class in Q back in the early eighties shook me up considerably. In my experience any hypothesis postulating Luke’s dependence on Matthew is a non-starter, anyway.