Responding to Pitre’s Concerns (Skinner)

Brant Pitre has responded to my recent post reviewing Chapter Two of his book, Jesus and the Last Supper. I was going to respond only in the comments sections of his post and my original blog post but my response started to grow too long, so I decided to dedicate an entire post to redressing to his concerns. I will attempt to answer him point-by-point.

Here goes….

PitrePitre: “In Skinner’s first part of his serial review, he omitted all of my arguments against historical plausibility (see Jesus and the Last Supper, pp. 45-46) and misrepresented me as stating an intention to ‘err on the side of historicity.’ I appreciate that he was willing to go back and correct the omission from the original post. However, in his third installment, he once again omits what I say and critiques things I did not say.”

Chris at HarvardSkinner: Let me begin by saying that my omission in the initial post was an oversight and that when Brant pointed it out I both apologized and updated the post. Keep in mind that I invited him to reply and I’m openly looking to dialogue on this. He seems to want to hold on to past transgressions though I am doing my level best to represent his arguments fairly and honestly. I can only hope he won’t judge all posts by an oversight in the first one. As for omitting things he says and critiquing things he doesn’t say, I will attempt to explain why I have written what I have written and thereby demonstrate that I am not misrepresenting him. I will also say that I stand by my original statement that he “errs on the side of historicity.” In raising objections diachronically (that is, chapter by chapter), I have the benefit of synchronic oversight—practically, this means (at least for my reading) that since he consistently finds in favor of historicity across the board, he is intent on erring on the side of historicity, despite the exposition of his particular method. This critique is also related to something else he has accused me of: only critiquing his conclusions. In his first response post he adjured me to focus on his arguments and not just his conclusions. I find this somewhat laughable insofar as conclusions are the ultimate byproduct of an argument. In his presuppositions (his argument’s starting point) and conclusions (his ending point) I often see apologetic subtext that makes me suspicious of the weight of the overall argument. It is hard for me to ignore these things. When leveling criticisms against an argument, isn’t *every* part of an argument fair game?

PitrePitre:  “1. For example, Skinner claims 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 ignore this and then critique me for “never” giving any statement about genre? I’m at a loss here.”

Chris at HarvardSkinner: Pitre is correct that he *mentions* that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, and if that were my critique then I would be guilty of misrepresenting him. But let’s go to my actual critique and include the entire quotation. I wrote:

“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.”

To be clear, we do not get any sort of statement like the one I’m describing in Pitre’s opening chapter. I went back and read his pp. 46-50 four times before responding to him in order see what I had missed. I stand by my original statement. Mentioning that the gospels are “Greco-Roman biographies” and “not stenographs” in passing is not the same as discussing genre expectations and how the gospels contribute to our development of historical method. And to take it further, nowhere do I accuse him of treating the gospels as stenographs. I point out that he doesn’t have a rationale for *what* the gospels are and *how* the gospels function as documents that would assist historiographical efforts. Again, I think this is a fair critique and the insight is intimately related to how he treats the gospels throughout his discussion.

PitrePitre: “2. He also claims that the list of ‘new Moses’ parallels he quotes at length (from pp. 54-55) are texts that I ‘deem historically plausible.’ This is also incorrect. In fact, in the very next line—which Skinner strangely omits—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 leave out this line?”

Chris at HarvardSkinner: I can see how he might read me as saying, “Pitre claims *here* that these are historically plausible.” He is correct that he doesn’t do it *here* even though he ultimately does deem nearly everything he examines to be both historical and capable of being harmonized across the four gospel traditions. I am rather using this as a launching point to discuss my concerns about his approach (and again, keep in mind again that I have read the entire book, so there may be instances where something from later in the book creeps into my critique at a given moment). While eschewing the notion of ipsissima verba in favor of substantia verba (which I discussed in my first post) Pitre never openly assumes historicity though the way his method is set up allows him to consistently find *in favor of* the historicity of the substance of nearly everything he surveys. (Bear in mind that I am not accusing Brant of being intellectually dishonest. I hope that I have been clear that I have high regard for his intellect and that he applies his method with internal consistency. I am merely pointing out what I think are blind spots in his treatment of the gospels and this is not a point I’m willing to concede, no matter how vociferously he defends himself.)

PitrePitre: “3. Skinner states 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 somewhat overly simplistic, 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, Skinner is right: the gospels are certainly not “raw, unadorned, historical ‘reporting’.” But I never said they were, nor did I treat them as such. Those are his words, not mine. I said they were ancient Greco-Roman 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 focus a critique on positions I did not actually espouse? Why set up a straw man?”

Chris at HarvardSkinner: I agree that the method is overly simplistic and has its problems (which I also point out in my post). Brant might be reading too much into my critique here. There is no “straw man” here. Again, let’s look at my exact words:

“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.”

Notice I say it “appears as though he has.” He is correct that these are my words, but that’s because this is my critique and it lines up with how I read Pitre’s work across the monograph.I also never accuse him of arguing for the ipsissima verba, so again, he may be guilty of reading to much into what I’ve written. To be sure, not addressing these issues directly gives him plausible deniability (and a certain ground upon which to accuse others of misrepresenting his position) but my point is this: a fuller exposition of such foundational assumptions would have contributed to a more comprehensive (and comprehensible) explanation of his method. He can feel free to disagree with me on this, but again this is my critique based upon my reading of the monograph and I see this is a major omission.

PitrePitre: “Finally, with regard to Skinner’s concern over treating the gospels ‘as though they are records of what actually happened,’ I couldn’t disagree with him more. Of course the Gospels contain records of ‘what actually happened’ (to use Skinner’s words). Why else is there a quest for the historical Jesus? Didn’t the crucifixion of Jesus actually happen? Don’t Lucian’s Life of Demonax and Josephus’ Life of himself contain ‘records’ of things that ‘actually happened’? I for one think they do. The entire quest as I understand it is predicated on the assumption that at least some of what is recorded in the gospels and other sources actually happened. To be sure, that is not to say the gospels are ‘uninterpreted’ accounts–there are no such things. Nevertheless, 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. And this can’t be done by making global statements about “the gospels” as a whole, as Skinner seems wont to do. Each saying or action attributed to Jesus has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That is how I proceed in Jesus and the Last Supper. Hence, to suggest that in principle we shouldn’t treat the gospels as if they may contain records of what actually happened seems to me to completely wrong. And if a scholar accepts the historical plausibility of some episodes and rejects the historical plausibility of others, the question is: What are the reasons for doing so?

Chris at HarvardSkinner: Now who’s misquoting whom? Pitre appears to be guilty of his own “sleight of hand” here since I never say “the gospels do not contain records of things that actually happened.” In fact, he uses the word “contain” three times in the paragraph to describe my position—a word I expressly do not use. If he wants me to avoid putting words into his mouth, I would ask for the same courtesy. I never say the gospels do not “contain” records of what actually happened. I say they ARE NOT records of what actually happened. This is a major distinction. Again, the full quotation is:

“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” (emphasis added).

Thus, for the record, I actually have written that the gospels contain “historical remembrance accompanied by later tradition and theology.” I agree with Pitre that the entire enterprise of historical Jesus research is fundamentally dependent upon the idea that Jesus lived and died and that our documents tell us something historical about him. I understand that a back and forth like ours can create some tension; also both of us are men with family and other responsibilities that make it difficult to find sufficient time to think through and then reply to such critiques (in fact, I have stolen away to finish this response on Saturday morning while my kids are having their daily reading time). Nevertheless, I would ask Brant to be as careful in representing my words as I am trying to be with his. If there is nothing historical in the gospels, then why even engage in historical Jesus research?

PitrePitre: To his credit, Prof. Skinner say that he doesn’t  “want to be guilty of putting words” in my “mouth” or “characterizing my work unfairly.” I appreciate that. But so far, when it comes to several of his main criticisms, that is exactly what he seems to be doing. I hope that in the future he will reserve more of his critiques for arguments that I actually make and positions I actually take.

Chris at Harvard

Skinner:  While Dr. Pitre may still feel unsatisfied by my explanation, I hope it is clear that I am not misrepresenting his views or mischaracterizing his approach. I would end by saying that though Brant nitpicked a few things here and there from my previous post, he did not address my larger question, which remains: “What kind of evidence to the gospels represent?” Having read his monograph and his responses, I’m still waiting for a specific answer.


13 thoughts on “Responding to Pitre’s Concerns (Skinner)

  1. The tone of this whole thing seems to have gone off the rails a bit. It’s turning into more of what looks like a typical non-academic blog debate than a review.

    • Alex, I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Let me clarify: (1) I never intended this to be a typical review. I have asked Prof. Pitre specifically to weigh in so that we could dialogue “in public” over these issues; (2) it’s possible to have rigorous academic debate and still be collegial; (3) I’m not sure what’s “non-academic” about it. Both of us are using specific arguments to clarify our points. Can you be a little more specific? Thanks in advance.

      • I agree with Dr. Skinner, here Alex. Sometimes this kind of back and forth is necessary to help clarify where the real points of disagreement and agreement lie.

  2. I appreciate the dialogue back and forth Chris. These discussions are very helpful in understanding the work that you two put out. I look forward to the next posts!

      • I agree with James. The dialogue is wonderful and insightful. I have always been interested in the theological telling of historical stories found in the Gospels as told by the four evangelists. This is stretching my thinking. Nice to read Prof. Skinner.

  3. Thank you Chris, for these helpful points of clarification. I think I’m getting a better sense of where you’re coming from. A few thoughts, for what they are worth:

    First, the reason I brought up the omission in your first post was not to be unforgiving but rather to highlight a pattern I see in your review of critiquing what you imagine to be my “intentions.” You used the language of being “suspicious” of the “subtext” driving my conclusions. You’ll forgive me if this creates the impression that you are reviewing the book with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I want readers of the book will be critical, but not suspicious. I don’t think it too much to ask to focus on the text I wrote rather than on the “subtext” that only exists in the imagination. That’s one reason I keep insisting that you focus your critique on my arguments rather than repeatedly emphasizing that I conclude that “everything” historically plausible, as if that alone was somehow a sufficient refutation. This is especially true if you recall that by “everything”, we are only talking about 6 of the over 360 pericopes found in the gospels. Now, if you think the use of E. P. Sanders’ triple-context approach to historical plausibility is flawed to err “on the side of historicity,” then by all means, critique the method. Show where and why the historical arguments from (1) contextual plausibility, (2) coherence, and (3) consequences in the early church break down or don’t work. But the thrust of your review seems to keep falling on the fact that I concluded that all 6 pericopes associated with the Last Supper are historically plausible, as if my conclusions alone show the historical arguments to be invalid or worthy of “suspicion” rather than evaluation. Of course conclusions are part of the argument and therefore fair game, but what I have yet to hear from you is *why* my conclusions *do not follow* from my arguments. That’s where I’d like to see the discussion go.

    Second, I understand if you found my section of gospel genre and historical plausibility inadequate. I accept the criticism that it was too brief and I could have said more. What I took exception to was the claim that I “never” gave “any kind of statement” about the genre of the gospels. Yes, the statement was brief. But it wasn’t really in passing. It was at the beginning of a crucial section dedicated to how I understand what the gospels are and its implications for what I mean by “historical plausibility” (pp. 46-50). There I chose to focus on what I consider one of the primary “pitfalls” of gospel analysis: the search for the exact words of Jesus and the failed positivistic attempt to reconstruct “original forms.” I understand if you think more needed to be said. I would have liked to say more too, but this it isn’t a book about the origin and nature of the Gospels. It is a case-by-case analysis of a handful of episodes related to the topic of the Last Supper. I have plans to write a full-scale monograph on the nature and origin of the Gospels. But this is not that book. Moreover, I myself am still thinking through some key issues (e.g., I find myself more and more persuaded by arguments against the Two-Source hypothesis given in Mark Goodacre’s Case against Q and E. P. Sanders’ Study of the Synoptic Gospels).

    Third, you’re right: I didn’t answer your question: “What kind of evidence to the gospels represent?” So I will try now to give a brief answer: In my opinion, the four gospels are first-century Greco-Roman biographies, written within the living memory of the events they purport to record. Written from a post-resurrection vantage point, they reflect the understanding of later tradition and theology (e.g., Luke 24:45; John 2:22, 7:39; 14:26). Their intention is to provide accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, with specific attention to what he did and said, and how he died and rose again, in order to lead others to faith in him. Like other ancient Greco-Roman biographies—Lucian’s Life of Demonax, Suetonius Lives of the Caesars, Josephus’ Life of himself—the gospels are not necessarily chronological (Suetoniaus, Life of the Deified Augustus, 9), nor are they comprehensive (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 67; Plutarch, Life of Alexander 1.1). Nor should the speeches within them be considered to be verbatim accounts of what was said (cf. Thucydides, History 1.22.1). As a result, any attempt at reconstruction of the life of Jesus should avoid the pitfall of confusing exactitude with historicity by focusing on the substance of the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus. With that said, the gospels seem closely akin to those bioi that are concerned to stress their historical “veracity” (Josephus, Life 336-39) and rootedness in eyewitness testimony and proximity to the subject (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 1). This seems to be why two of the four emphasize that their accounts of what Jesus said and did are based the testimony of “eyewitnesses” (e.g., Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 21:24-25). All of this taken together provides good grounds for the investigation, on a case-by-case basis, of the historical plausibility or implausibility various sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus, as well as events the gospels purport to have taken place.

    I hope that gives you a better idea of what I think of the gospels as a whole. Finally, I will certainly return the courtesy and go back and edit my original response to more accurately reflect your words and the distinction you are drawing between “contain” and “are.” I’m sorry that I misquoted you there. I want to be as accurate and fair as possible in my responses.

    • Brant,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. I currently have family in visiting from Virginia and then I have new faculty orientation at Loyola for the next three days. I will try to respond here and/or in the next post sometime mid-to-late week. Just didn’t want you to think I was ignoring you.

      • By all means take your time! We are in our first week and orientation as well. Enjoy your time with your family.

  4. Brant said: “Any attempt at reconstruction of the life of Jesus should avoid the pitfall of confusing exactitude with historicity…”(1/2)

    I love this, especially because this “pitfall” has equally caught both apologists and critics. The effort to complicate vox & verba with a third category (“substance”) is a welcome advance.

    “by focusing on the substance of the sayings and actions attributed to Jesus.”(2/2)

    But here is where I grow confused about Brant’s approach. Yes, thinking about “substance” helps us avoid positivism, but how does it help us perform reconstruction? What is the positive (proactive, methodological) advantage of “substance”?

    Also, Brant, what is the difference in your mind between “historicity” and “plausibility”? If you successfully show plausibility of the substance, can we therefore accept historicity of that substance, or is something more still required?

    By the way, following you both as you iron out misunderstanding each other is hard work for us also, but I echo everyone who thanks you for the persistence. Please do keep with this, anon…

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