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

Pitre 2

Just to recap what I’ve done so far: in my first post I sought to introduce the major questions and methodologies guiding Pitre’s monograph; in my second post I pointed out what I regard as the strengths of Pitre’s overall approach. In today’s post I want to begin looking at the second chapter of the book (“The New Moses,” pp. 53-147). It may take a few posts to address all of my comments on the chapter.

Pitre begins this chapter as follows:

“If there is anything that is virtually uncontested in the highly contested world of Jesus scholarship, it is the conclusion that Jesus likely spoke and acted in ways that identified him as a prophet. Indeed, the idea that Jesus saw himself as a man sent by God to speak the word of God to the people of God has become a staple of historical Jesus research. As a result, it is relatively easy to list numerous examples of studies on Jesus that contain the now-requisite (and often lengthy) chapter exploring his identity and message as a Jewish prophet” (p. 53).

He goes on to establish the (now banal) fact that many scholars have sought to demonstrate that Jesus is not just any type of prophet, but specifically a prophet like Moses. In particular, he notes the following parallels (pp. 54-55):

(1) Jesus claims to cast out demons by the “finger of God” (Luke 11:20), just as Moses worked marvels during the exodus by the “finger of God” (Exod 8:19).

(2) Jesus chooses twelve disciples to act as leaders of the “twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30), just as Moses chooses twelve young men to act as “leaders of their ancestral tribes” during the wilderness wandering (Num 1:1-16). Jesus also chooses seventy (or seventy-two) disciples (Luke 10:1), just as Moses chose seventy (or seventy-two) elders to assist him in leading the people of Israel (Num 11:16-30; cf. Exod 24:1-11).

(3) During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly describes his contemporaries who rejected his message as “this [evil] generation (Matt 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-32; Mark 8:12) just as Moses repeatedly described the wilderness generation as “this evil generation” (Deut 1:35).

(4) Jesus performs a sign in which he feeds thousands in the wilderness with bread (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15), just as Moses had fed thousands with manna during the exodus from Egypt (Exod 16:1-31). According to the Gospel of John, the response of the crowd to this sign in the desert was to hail Jesus as “the prophet” (John 6:14), referring to “the prophet like Moses” from Jewish Scripture (Deut 18:15-18).

(5) Jesus performs a sign of the “blood” of a “covenant” with the twelve disciples (Matt 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), just as Moses poured out the “blood of the covenant” at Sinai with twelve tribes of Israel.

Before I get too far into the argument of the chapter I want to point out what is already a huge red flag for me. Each of the instances identified by Pitre can just as easily be regarded (and have been identified by a significant number of scholars) as instances where the evangelists have intentionally re-cast Jesus as a Mosaic prophet. I recognize that this is a book about the historical Jesus and not necessarily about the nature of the gospels per se and also that it makes sense for Pitre to focus on what he deems historically plausible. However, since the canonical gospels are the primary “data” (his constant refrain) for his case, some clarification is needed. This lacuna in his treatment of the gospels is symptomatic of his approach throughout the entire book. In short: We never get any sort of statement about what the gospels are (in terms of genre), how they function as historical (or even quasi-historical) documents, and the potential usefulness and/or pitfalls in using them in our historical reconstructions. In the absence of such an exposition, one can only draw conclusions from the way Pitre handles the gospels, which to my mind, is as though they are records of what actually happened. I don’t want to be guilty of putting words into Pitre’s mouth or characterizing his work unfairly, especially since he doesn’t address these points directly. However, in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, it’s hard for me to get any other impression about his understanding of the nature of the gospels. (A personal example to illustrate my perspective on this: When I was a teenager making youthful mistakes, my mother would always tell me, “Chris, I can’t read your mind and I don’t know what’s in your head. I can only make assumptions based on your actions.” That’s what we are essentially forced to do in this situation—make assumptions based on Pitre’s silence on the issue coupled with his treatment of the gospels throughout the book.)

Let me see if I can state my objection with a little greater clarity. Many of us trained in gospels research have operated under a model that sees several layers of tradition operative in the text. The classic exposition goes something like this:

Stage 1: Traditions from the Ministry of Jesus (Traditions stemming from the historical ministry of Jesus in the late 20s CE)

Stage 2: Post-Resurrection Preaching of the Disciples (Religious convictions about Jesus that arose after his death)

Stage 3: The Writing of the Gospels by the Four Evangelists (Texts and traditions about Jesus that developed during the writing of the gospel narratives; what is often referred to as the evangelist’s Sitz im Leben)

This model developed within a German Protestant liberal framework and was widely adopted (even being embraced by the Roman Catholic church during Vatican II and spelled out in detail in Dei Verbum [§19], and the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document, “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” [§6-9]). The model has also been widely criticized of late and for good reason. For my part, I’m not convinced that this model is viable in the way it has been articulated and used for decades but a kernel of usefulness remains. For our discussion here, the most important insight to be gleaned from this model is the foundational recognition that the gospels are not records of “what actually happened” (as if such an interpretation-free reporting of human events were even possible). Instead, the gospels as we have them today are a combination of historical remembrance accompanied by later tradition and theology. It may in fact be impossible to isolate with precision “history” from “tradition” (at least as those terms have been used in this discussion), but that does not nullify the fundamental insight this model provides—the gospels are not raw, unadorned, historical “reporting.” Important scholars of decades past (e.g., Jeremias, Schuermann, et. al.) rightly, I believe, established the basic premise that theology and liturgical practice largely helped to determine the narratives as we have them today. Why abandon such a critical and important insight to take us back to a pre-critical approach?

Before I continue, let me clarify my own position on this a little:

(1) This model, as traditionally articulated, has its problems even though there is still great merit to its underlying assumptions. The model was often used with attempted precision by those working with “criteria of authenticity” that are now under attack (again, for good reason). However, even those opposing the form-critical assumptions behind the criteria would recognize that there is later tradition and theology in the final forms of the canonical gospels. In other words, we can no longer use this model to establish that Jesus definitely said “X” (Stage 1) or that “Y” reflects, for instance, the views of the Matthean community (Stage 3). However, in adding nuance to this discussion we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

(2) Variations of this model (and its attendant assumptions—primarily that later traditions and theology are present in the final forms of the text as we now have them) are still widely used by NT scholars working with the gospels. This means that some discussion of this subject would be valuable, and perhaps even necessary in such a lengthy and detailed reconstruction of the historical Jesus.

(3) It is PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE for Pitre to reject this model, but since he is writing an academic treatise using the gospels to reconstruct a historical Jesus, he needs to let his readers know where he stands on this subject with a little more substance and clarity. My concern is that he offers no rationale for how or why he might reject this model, even though it appears as though he has. The closest Pitre gets to discussing such concerns is on pp. 28-29 of his introductory chapter (discussed in my first post). He writes:

“Indeed, a whole host of issues that are fundamental to methodology in Jesus research—such as the literary genre of the Gospels, their relationship to the living memory and testimony of the eyewitnesses, the Synoptic problem and the existence of ‘Q,’ the question of whether the Gospel of John should be used as a source, just to mention a few—can no longer be treated as settled, but are the subject of lively debate and a growing number of competing scholarly viewpoints.”

But this is a bit too facile for me. Yes, there is MUCH that cannot be treated as “settled” but the genre of the gospels and the need for nuance in using them to reconstruct history are still very much in play. Otherwise we are destined to lapse back into an oddly well-informed sort of biblical fundamentalism. A little further down he continues:

“[G]iven the growing skepticism about the possibility of reconstructing the ‘original form’ of a saying or deed of Jesus, it seems illogical to base any historical conclusions on scholarly reconstructions of the words and deeds of Jesus rather than the extant evidence of the Gospels” (p. 31).

In response I would simply ask, “what kind of evidence” do the gospels represent? This critique will arise again when I discuss Pitre’s treatment of the Fourth Gospel.

But with my concerns about method aside, let us return to Pitre’s discussion of Jesus as a prophet like Moses. Pitre is concerned to demonstrate the plausibility that Jesus saw himself as a New Moses ushering in a New Exodus. The remainder of the chapter (pp. 57-147) is taken up with this question. Pitre begins by first examining the concept of a “New Moses” in Early Judaism. This discussion includes a consideration of the Old Testament (Deut 18:15-18; Isa 43:15-19) and early Jewish literature (4QTestimonia, Josephus’ Antiquities), before an examination of the feeding of the multitude. A clear strength in Pitre’s presentation here (and really, throughout the book) is his attention to parallels in the ancient literature (see e.g., the helpful chart on pp. 60-61). I can easily see how those who would find Pitre’s method acceptable might find his attention to parallels in the literature as the (or at least a) factor which proves his arguments convincing. He makes a number of astute observations in this section before moving on to a consideration of the four canonical accounts of the feeding of the multitude. I will discuss these and more in the next post.

I think this is an acceptable spot for me to “press pause” on my review of Pitre’s chapter. After readers have had an opportunity to digest and/or interact with what I have written here, I will continue, in another post, my discussion of chapter two. I look forward to hearing from Prof. Pitre but also from others who are interested in these questions……

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

  1. Thanks once again for this, Chris. I haven’t read Pitre’s book so forgive me if the following question and comments are out of place. Do you think that Prof Pitre set himself an unfortunate trap by framing his research question in terms of “what Jesus thought of himself”? I know this line of reasoning is not uncommon among historical Jesus researchers. But it is clearly a question whose answer, even with the best tools that one can muster, is unattainable. I think you are therefore quite right in taking Prof Pitre to task for pursuing the research constrained by that stale question. Wouldn it have been better for Prof Pitre to have framed the question as:”based on the bioi genre of the Gospels and other relevant the literature of the period what religious model would best fit the Jesus the Gospels portray?” It still remains a historical question though clearly framed in literary terms. For all its worth, I personally think the “New Moses” or even the “Greater than Moses” model is too narrow and often overdrawn in scholarship. To me the “Emboddied divine agent” would seem a more versatile model representative of the accounts of the Gospels.

    • Annang, I think your question is an insightful one, and to my mind goes directly to the heart of the objections I raise about genre. In a genre like bios (Greco-Roman biography), how do characters function? I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and interacting with these questions during my research on characters and characterization in both John and Mark. In the modern Western world, we regard the novel and the short story as the standards by which we judge great literature. Character formation and development in contemporary storytelling is very much about an inner “psychological” unveiling of a given figure’s motivations, desires, movement toward redemption, etc. We are very much used to asking questions like, “how does so-and-so regard herself” when dealing with such literature. However, this is *NOT* how characters functioned in ancient literature and therefore we are at a loss to recover how Jesus or anyone “saw himself/herself.” I think you are correct that this is unattainable, and this becomes even clearer when we are honest about what type of literature the gospels actually represent. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to weigh in.

  2. Skinner writes: “the way Pitre handles the gospels [is] as though they are records of what actually happened.” And “For our discussion here, the most important insight [is] that the gospels are not records of “what actually happened”…”

    Just a preliminary comment, as it’s late and I need to re-read Brant’s first chapter, but I think you may be guilty here of criticizing Brant here for doing precisely what he set out to do. I am thinking particularly of his closing appeal to the priority of exegesis over making judgments on historicity. Personally, while I’m not yet prepared to say whether Brant did it well, or whether it works (i.e., whether his intended approach will inevitably become compromised by the religious pressure to verify historicity), I am very glad to see someone doing exegesis “as though” it’s what actually happened. Honestly, I find your phrasing (“as though”) to be deeply ironic. The thing you most criticize is (I think) precisely what Brant said he was going to do.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for commenting. I would find his treatment of the gospels illegitimate irrespective of what Brant stated he is trying to do. The nature of the gospels has been discussed ad nauseam by scholars of early Christianity. Given how erudite Pitre is (and there is zero doubt in my mind about his intellectual and research abilities), there is no way he is unaware of these discussions. This means that the move to omit such a discussion was intentional. I am wondering why such a move was preferable to or even necessary for him to make the case he has made. I have my suspicions (as you note, perhaps “the religious to verify historicity”) but again, I don’t want to be guilty of putting words into his mouth.

      I am glad you are reading and I appreciate you taking the time to weigh in. Hope all is well!

  3. Chris, in your first post, you omitted all of my arguments against historical plausibility and misrepresented me as stating an intention to “err on the side of historicity.” I appreciate that you went back and corrected that. However, in this post, you once again omit crucial points and base some of your critiques on errors.

    1. First and foremost, you claim that I “never” provide “any sort of statement about what the gospels are (in terms of genre)” or “how they function as historical (or even quasi-historical) documents.” This is demonstrably false. On page 46, I expressly state: “the four Gospels should not be treated as stenographs of Jesus’ teachings but as ancient Greco-Roman biographies.” Then I spend several pages discussing the implications of this for what I mean by historical plausibility (pp. 46-50). Why did you ignore this and then critique me for “never” giving any sort of statement about genre? I’m at a loss here.

    2. You claim that the list of “new Moses” parallels you quote (pp. 54-55) are texts that I “deem historically plausible.” This is also false. In fact, in the very next line—which you strangely omitted—I deliberately left the question of their historical plausibility open: “Whether or not one accepts the historicity of each one of these episodes…” (p. 55). In reality, I made no judgments about historical value of any of these passages. I simply listed them to show what evidence has led other scholars, such as Dale Allison, to conclude that Jesus saw himself as a new Moses. Why did you leave out this line?

    3. You state that I appear to “reject” the classic “Three Stage” model of gospel formation. I almost laughed out loud when I read this, since I regularly teach Vatican II’s three-stage model of gospel development in Dei Verbum 19 to my graduate students. Though not without its problems, this model helps show that the gospel authors selected some things from tradition, reduced some things to a synthesis, explained some things in view of the contemporary situation of their churches, etc. As a result, you are correct: the gospels are not “raw, unadorned, historical ‘reporting’.” But I never said they were, nor did I treat them as such. Those are your words, not mine. I said they were ancient biographies. And I explicitly stated that “the ipsissima verba” are “incontrovertibly not what the Gospel authors… ever intended to provide us” (p. 46). So why are you focusing your critique on positions I did not actually espouse? Why set up a straw man?

    4. Finally, with regard to your concern over treating the gospels “as though they are records of what actually happened,” I couldn’t disagree with you more. Of course the Gospels contain records of “what actually happened” (to use your words). Why else is there a quest for the historical Jesus? Do you think the crucifixion of Jesus actually happened? Do you think that Lucian’s Life of Demonax and Josephus’ Life of himself contain “records” of things that “actually happened’? I for one do. The entire quest is predicated on the assumption that at least some of what is recorded in the gospels and other sources actually happened. And it is the task of the historian to try to the best of his or her ability to evaluate the historical plausibility or implausibility of a given teaching or action attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Are you suggesting that none of what is recorded in the gospels actually happened? And if you accept the historical plausibility of some episodes and reject the historical plausibility of others, what are your reasons for doing so?

    Chris, you say that you “don’t want to be guilty of putting words” in my “mouth” or “characterizing my work unfairly.” I appreciate that. But, with several of your criticisms so far, that is exactly what you have done. I hope that in the future you will reserve your critiques for arguments that I actually make and positions I actually take.

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