Reviewing Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Part One (Skinner)

PitreI am presently reviewing Brant Pitre’s massive tome, Jesus and the Last Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) for CBQ and I have pages and pages of notes that obviously will not find their way into a 950 word review. Therefore I decided to proceed with a serial review, where I will discuss the contents of each chapter and my impressions (both general and specific), culminating in a final series of reflections about the book. This will take awhile to complete not only because the book consists of six substantive chapters and a conclusion (all-in-all, 517 pages of text), but also because I think there is material here to be appreciated but also much here to critique. As Brant and I are connected through various forms of social media, I also want to invite him to reply to any critiques either here in the comments section, on social media, or at his more public forum on the Jesus Blog.

In today’s post I want to focus on laying out the primary questions and methodologies that guide the book, but first a word about “expectations” and an admission. Like Pitre and many other colleagues in the field, I have gone through the process of bringing a handful of books to completion, so I am no stranger to (what is truly for publishers) the humdrum exercise of procuring endorsements for the back of a book. I have even written a few myself, so I know well how this part of “the game” works. However, if I am being completely honest, there are times when I take dust-jacket endorsements more seriously than at other times. When I received this book I immediately noticed endorsements from Dale Allison (whom I personally regard as the most insightful English-speaking historical Jesus scholar currently writing), Anthony Le Donne (whose work I also hold in high regard), and well-known, prolific scholars, Craig Keener and Michael Bird (both of whom have taught me through their writings). Maybe it’s unfair (or maybe it’s perfectly fair; I haven’t decided), but I will admit that my expectations were heightened by seeing this group of reviewers heaping praise upon the book. Just so it’s clear, I entered into the process of reading and reviewing this book with higher than normal expectations (fair or not).

So let’s start with Pitre’s guiding questions and then move to a brief discussion of his methodology.

Questions:                                                                                                                                                  On pp. 1-2, Pitre introduces the questions and assumptions that prompted this study and then details the four specific questions will guide his discussion:

(1) Are the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper historically plausible in a Jewish context? If so, what did Jesus mean by them? [As an aside, it does seem that the second question here implies a “yes” answer to the first question before we even get started.]

(2) What does the Last Supper reveal about Jesus’ self-understanding? [I might add, “if anything?”]

(3) How does the Last Supper fit in Jesus’ overall eschatological outlook? [Again, we might ask, “How, if at all.…]

(4) What does the Last Super reveal about Jesus’ intentions toward the community of his disciples? [Or, “What, if anything….”]

After introducing these four questions (directly quoted from p. 2), Pitre then spends the next 26 pages spelling out their implications in fuller detail. Though I do not yet wish to proceed to a full review, I will make two initial comments about the first part of his introductory chapter: (1) The “spelling out of implications” I mentioned above is evidence of what I will describe as Pitre’s “leave no stone unturned” approach; we will see this from him over and over again in the coming chapters. I will point out places where this is both useful and monotonous.  (2) From the initial discussion on pp. 1-28, it is difficult not to get the strong impression that Pitre has already arrived at his “questions” with specific answers in mind and those answers appear to be driven by  specific doctrinal and dogmatic formulations. I will say a great deal more about this over time, but again, since we will see this over and over in the book, I think it’s important to point it out right away.

Methodology: 

After a useful discussion of current concerns over critical methodology—complete with a discussion of current doubt over the value of the criteria of authenticity and Pitre’s noble admission that he had to consider these discussions before completing his book–the rest of the chapter moves toward an exposition of the method Pitre will apply throughout.

While recognizing that it has its problems, Pitre stays close to the methodology used by E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) and incorporates the following elements into his approach:

(1) Contextual Plausibility: This means that for something to be considered historically viable, it must be able to situate Jesus faithfully and honestly within his first century, Jewish context.

(2) Coherence with Other Evidence about Jesus: Pitre writes, “This argument can be formulated as follows: If a particular saying or deed attributed to Jesus is both contextually plausible and coheres with or illuminates other first-century evidence about Jesus, then this too is an important argument in favor of its historicity” (p. 37). So even though Pitre jettisons most of the criteria (at the insistence of scholars like Rafael Rodriguez, Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and others), he still retains what is essentially the criterion of coherence. [I find this somewhat interesting since “coherence” is not only, in my opinion, the weakest of the criteria commonly used by scholars, but also the one most “suggestible”; I will discuss this in a future post.]

(3) Plausibility of Effects in Early Christianity: “If a saying or deed attributed to Jesus is contextually plausible, coherent with other evidence about Jesus, and continuous with or provides a plausible cause for the practice and belief of the early church, then it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence in question is historical” (p. 41).

(4) Pitre adds a final point: he is not searching for the ipsissima verba Jesu (“very words of Jesus”) but the substantia verba Jesus (“the substance of the words of Jesus”), which for him is less problematic and more nuanced than the ipsissima vox Jesu (“very voice of Jesus”).

UPDATE: (5) In my first draft of this post, I neglected to mention Pitre’s triple-context arguments against historicity: (1) contextual implausibility, (2) incoherence with other data about Jesus; (3) and implausibility of effects (see, in particular, pp. 45-46). This approach allows him to consider all the arguments against historicity before considering all the arguments in favor of historicity.

A final word for this post: Pitre appears to be intent on erring on the side of historicity. While he may not phrase it exactly in those terms, this seems to be the substance of what he says and then demonstrates in subsequent chapters. I’ll close with a quotation that makes this methodological stance clear:

[I]n this work, my first step will be to at least attempt to offer a historical plausible interpretation of any given saying or deed of Jesus before rendering any judgments about its historicity. Indeed, how can a scholar decide whether or not an episode from the Gospels is historically plausible without actually having attempted to situate it in Jesus’ historical context to see whether it fits. Yet, as we will see over and over again in the course of this study, on numerous occasions, many Jesus scholars will reject a particular episode from the Gospels as unhistorical or implausible before they have even interpreted the evidence in its context. In this way, historical conclusions are drawn based on presuppositions and prejudgments that are often unstated, apart form any detailed analysis of the passage in question (p. 51).

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17 thoughts on “Reviewing Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Part One (Skinner)

  1. I shall look forward to following the rest of this review. However, this initial post suggests you will echo the reservations I had about his Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, which ended up with (I caricature somewhat) a remarkably Tridentine Jesus.

  2. Hey Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to review Jesus and the Last Supper. I am very grateful for the feedback and the time you put into it, and for the invitation to respond.

    Three quick questions:
    1. What specific “doctrinal and dogmatic formulations” are you referring to as “driving the discussion”? You say it happens on pp. 1-28 and “over and over again” throughout the book. Can you give an actual example of a “doctrinal formulation” in the text?

    2. You said that I “state” my “intention” to “err on the side of historicity.” I cannot recall having such an intention, much less stating it anywhere in the book. To the contrary, I am very much in agreement with John Meier’s argument that the ‘burden of proof’ falls on the one making the argument. In the quote you gave, I actually stated a very different intention: to avoid the error of drawing “historical conclusions” based on “presuppositions and prejudgments” before even attempting to interpret the data in context (p. 52). Here I was following Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter: “before declaring a tradition to be inauthentic, we must always also test whether the saying, in a different meaning, cannot also be understood as a saying of the historical Jesus” (The Quest for the Plausible Jesus, 207 [quoted on p. 52]). I think this is a major point missed by many Jesus books. Do you think we shouldn’t test to see if material can be understood as a saying of the historical Jesus before drawing historical conclusions?

    3. I noticed you made no mention of my triple-context arguments *against historicity*: (1) contextual implausibility, (2) incoherence with other data about Jesus; (3) and implausibility of effects (see p. 45-46). This is one of the key aspects of my method. Unlike the traditional for-critical criteria, that only work to authenticate data, the triple-context approach works in reverse as well. Why leave out the arguments against historicity, when I employ them throughout the book?

    Sincerely,

    Brant

    1. Brant,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and interact. Too much of what we do happens in an academic “echo chamber,” so it’s good to get dialogues like this up and running. To your questions:

      1. I don’t actually say that doctrinal formulations appear in the first 28 pages, I say, “it is difficult not to get the strong impression that Pitre has already arrived at his ‘questions’ with specific answers in mind and those answers appear to be driven by specific doctrinal and dogmatic formulations.” I get that impression here and it is confirmed (in my reading) throughout the book. Perhaps I can be clearer in the way I have worded this, but I am offering a precis of what (to my reading) happens in subsequent chapters. I see, in your conclusions, a very orthodox Jesus who knowingly performs an act and preaches a message (re: the Eucharist) for which we have a much later, fully developed theology. As important as they are to me personally and to my own Christian faith, I want to keep later doctrinal formulations (e.g., Chalcedonian Christology, Trinitarianism, views of baptism and eucharist, etc.) where they belong, that is, later than the time of Jesus and the NT. In other words, I don’t believe there is a one-to-one correspondence between later theological developments and what we read in the NT and quite often in the book, you seem to go in the opposite direction from me. However, I want to resist saying too much about this here because it will factor into my critique as time goes on. For now I will say this: we all have our own theological presuppositions and read through a certain set of lenses. However, (at least in my eyes) your own presuppositions seem to win the day over and over.

      2. To be fair, you don’t use those exact words (and I am clear in the post that this is my own take), but what I mean is (and again, I don’t want to give too much away here in the introductory post) is that you consistently provide all the evidence AGAINST historicity, then look at all the evidence FOR historicity, and then conclude in FAVOR of historicity. If this were to happen once or twice, I would likely have a different critique. When it happens in every single case, then I have to wonder if historicity is an assumed end-point in each instance.

      3. I think this is actually a fair point and when I have time, I will go back and update the post to reflect this part. I was trying to keep the first post from getting too bogged down, but I think that mentioning this three-fold approach will be useful for those who have not read your book to better appreciate your approach. I will notify you when I update.

      I hope this suffices for now to explain my comments. I look forward to more opportunities for dialogue.

      Best,

      Chris

      1. Thanks again for the dialogue, Chris!

        Three quick responses:

        1. I wholeheartedly agree on keeping “later doctrinal formulations” where they belong—later. Which is why I ask: where in the book did I ever, as you say, draw a “one-to-one correspondence between later theological developments what we read in the NT”? I do not recall ever mentioning such developments, much less what I think of them. How can a book that never discusses later Christianity can be critiqued for drawing “one-to-one” correlations with doctrinal formulations it never even mentions? Instead, what I do argue is that there are good historical reasons to conclude that the historical Jesus saw himself as the new Moses who would institute a new Covenant (Chap 2), give the new Manna (Chap 3), inaugurate a new Passover (Chap 4-5), and the banquet of the Kingdom of God (Chap 6). How do any of these categories make him into a “very orthodox Jesus”? They seem to me to make him a “very JEWISH Jesus.” Think about it: Which later church council ever utilized the ‘dogmatic formulations’ of “Moses,” “Manna,” “Covenant,” “Passover,” or “Kingdom of God”? These are precisely NOT later “doctrinal formulations”; they are first-century “Jewish formulations” (as I took many pages to show). That’s the whole point of the book: to situate the Last Supper in the context of first-century Judaism, not later Christianity.

        2. I notice here that your critique is focused on my conclusions, and not on my actual arguments. If I made a weak argument for historicity, please, by all means, tell me it’s weak–and then tell me why. But you seem to be assuming that there are certain historical conclusions about Jesus that are a priori impermissible. According Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels, there are well over 350 pericopes in the four Gospels. In Jesus and the Last Supper, I examined a total of 6. Are you suggesting it’s a priori impossible for the substance of six pericopes to be historical? If so, how do we know that in advance? And if it’s the historical arguments that are the problem, why focus the critique so much on the conclusions?

        3. Thanks for recognizing that I include “all the evidence AGAINST historicity” and for being willing to go back and update readers on the fact that my triple context approach works both ways. It’s extremely important. The reason I argued both for and against each pericope is precisely so that the reader could evaluate for themselves the actual arguments for and against historicity. Too much historical Jesus research is filled with unsubstantiated historical assertions rather than solid historical arguments.

        That’s my main concern: historical reconstruction should stand or fall on the strength of its arguments, not on the basis of its conclusions. I look forward to seeing which arguments you find convincing, which ones you don’t, and why.

        Sincerely,

        Brant

      2. Brant,

        Thanks again for weighing in with specific queries and doing so with clarity and charity. I want to resist getting into a lengthy exchange here in the comments section of this very first post since I am going to spend a great deal of time critiquing your arguments in the weeks to come. Keep in mind that this initial post is a way of introducing the book and its argument(s) and trying to do so in a fair and nuanced way. I will get to the substance of your arguments and my critique of them in due course. I will attempt, throughout the forthcoming posts, to validate the claims you want to dispute here. I welcome your continued interaction.

        Best,

        Chris

  3. I am really loving this! Thank you both for getting out of the “echo chamber” to dialogue in public before us!

  4. Here’s the comment I left on Facebook:

    Okay; I’m gonna weigh in here. Christopher: Thanks for reviewing this book; one of the greatest frustrations of our field is not being able to keep up with all the interesting and important works being published. Brant: I haven’t read a single word of your book other than those Chris quotes, so my comments are only in response to Chris’s review and your response.

    I’m particularly interested in the extended quote from p. 51, both for what I think Brant is saying (again, without any clue as to the context in which this passage appears) and for Chris’s critique. Brant begins by describing his “first step”: “to at least attempt to offer a historically plausible interpretation of any given saying or deed of Jesus before rendering any judgments about its historicity.” Chris interprets this method as a commitment “to err on the side of historicity,” by which he means (if I understand him rightly) that he thinks Brant will interpret the sayings and deeds of Jesus *as if* they were historical before he offers a judgment for or against historicity. In the ensuing back-and-forth between Brant and Chris, it is made clearer for those of us reading Chris’s review that Brant also examines, for each tradition, the arguments for as well as against historicity. But, it sounds like this examination occurs *after* the initial move (remember: “first step”) of interpreting each tradition *as if* it originated in the actual life and teachings of Jesus.

    If I’ve rightly understood the issue between Chris and Brant, I think I lean toward Brant’s approach to historical analysis. In my 2009 article, “Authenticating Criteria” (http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/174551909×447374), which Brant cites on p. 30, I argue that the criteria of authenticity affect the historian’s *interpretation* of a given tradition even more fundamentally than they affect the historian’s authentication. As I explain, “When we pose the question of ‘dissimilarity’, for example, we ought to ask what it means for the interpretation of, say, Lk. 4.25-27 if we posit its origin in Luke’s redaction/creation of Jesus tradition to frame the programme of Luke–Acts, on the one hand, or in the proclamation of Jesus, on the other. The assessment of ‘inauthentic’ too often presupposes a particular interpretation of the tradition being assessed” (p. 166).

    Again, if I’ve understood Chris rightly, and if he has understood Brant rightly, I think Brant’s methodological set-up takes account of the importance of *interpretation* as a prior step in the historical analysis of a tradition. Before we can say this or that event or saying originated in the life of the historical Jesus, we have to know that the event or saying in question *means*, what it *is*. Whatever else I might say for or against Brant’s historical agenda, this is one aspect I think I can get behind.

    Looking forward to more installments in your review, Chris. Good work!

    1. Considering narratives *as if* they’re historical is a wonderful idea. Plausibility and contextual coherence are hugely important, despite being philosophically tricky. I’m looking greatly forward to the rest of this conversation…

      Rafael, in your distinction between “interpretation” and “historical analysis”, I think you’re saying literary analysis should precede historical judgment and reconstruction. If so then I agree, but since scholars have often used “interpretation” as a synonym for historical analysis, you’re urging interpretation prior to interpretation. The terminological confusion is not to your fault, of course. I believe we don’t yet have the vocabulary to parse these things as helpfully as we might.

      I hereby suggest using the term “representation” and here is one helpful sentence from Frank Ankersmit’s 2012 masterpiece of historical theory: Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation – “Representation precedes interpretation… we read the novel as if it were true, and our failure to do so makes nonsense of the literary text.”

      I’ve been working through that book recently and I blogged a synopsis of its main ideas just yesterday. The post is called Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth: http://www.billheroman.com/2016/08/propositional-truth-vs-representational.html

      Steve Mason’s recent work also comes to mind, reconstructing narratives “in situ”… but that’s more than enough out of me for today!

      Many thanks to Chris, Brant, Rafael, and ALL who’re engaging in this vital discussion!

      1. Very good, Bill. Yes, historical analysis of a text is also interpretation, or representation, of that text as a particular type of thing. So, for example, when John Dominic Crossan calls Matthew’s “in spirit” in Matt 5:3 a “gloss” that “diverts attention and interpretation from material to spiritual, from economic to religious poverty” (The Historical Jesus, 270) and thereby judges it secondary to Luke’s and Thomas’s unqualified, “Blessed are you poor,” he is passing judgment on a particular interpretation of Matthew’s first beatitude. What I like about the historiographical program suggested in Chris’s quote from Brant is that it acknowledges that these texts have multiple possible interpretations, so interpreting the text as historically inauthentic does nothing to prove the text actually is inauthentic. As you say, quoting Ankersmit, unless we first “read the novel as if it were true,” we can neither pass judgment on it because we find it false nor be very surprised at all that the result is “nonsense.”

        Nice quote, man. It really is perfect.

  5. Ankersmit is deeply theoretical, but he really is the bomb.

    My question about Brant’s book – my copy of which should arrive here tomorrow – is whether he’s leaving historicity in place as the tail that for too long has been wagging this dog. Personally (following Ankersmit and Mason), my hope is that this idea of doing “plausible contexts” or “stories as if historical” will be most successfully implemented by studying narrative qua narrative.

    Reading in context does not impenge on the proper domain of historians.

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