Continuing My Conversation with Brant Pitre (Skinner)

PitreBefore I began my new position here in Chicago I was slowly but steadily working my way through a serial review of Brant Pitre’s mammoth monograph, Jesus and the Last Supper. As I have been trying to get my bearings here at Loyola over the past five weeks, I have been unable to devote any real attention to blogging through the book. Our discussion over several weeks back in August generated some helpful dialogue that allowed us both to iron out some misunderstandings, discuss some areas of disagreement, and also establish some common ground. Before I continue my review in the next week or so, I wanted first to thank Brant for his willingness to enter into and then continue this dialogue. I wasn’t sure if he would have time or interest when I extended the invitation for him to respond. I also wanted to briefly respond to a few of Brant’s replies on my last post (see if you can follow the discussion trail: here, here, here, here; see also Brant’s posts at the Jesus Blog). Hopefully sometime in the next week, the post that follows will continue the review where I left off. I don’t want to get too off track from the review but I do think the external dialogue is important.

In his last set of questions to me Brant wrote:

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.

To this I would first respond by saying, “Yes. That is correct. I am reading this book with a hermeneutic of suspicion.” To be sure, I read every attempted reconstruction of the historical Jesus with a certain level of suspicion. That’s not because I am suspicious of my colleagues’ abilities or their intentions. It’s largely because I have become persuaded through my own research and by reading the works of scholars like Dale Allison (and others), that there is very little that we can know with any real certainty about the historical Jesus. So, if it seems as though I am giving Brant or his argument a “sideways eye,” (which I am not), it’s only because a lot of reflection has led me to a starting point of this type of suspicion. I would add to this, however, that I don’t think awareness of subtexts is a negative thing or even necessarily a sign of suspicion. Being aware of subtexts is eschewing the simple naivete that attends many attempts to simply “tell you what the text is saying” (which I think is near impossible). We all have a set of lenses we use to interpret these texts and those lenses shape, form, inform, and even taint our very best attempts at objectivity.

Brant continues:

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.

I understand the potentially positive rhetorical value of connecting one’s methodology to the likes of E. P. Sanders. He is a giant in this field and his work is highly respected. It’s not his methodology to which I am objecting. It’s Pitre’s use of this methodology that I find difficult to accept in places. It’s not that I think Sanders’s methodology errs on the side of historicity, it’s that (to my mind) Pitre’s use of this methodology errs on the side of historicity. As for a more specific critique of the method as it is used in the book, I can enumerate three:

(1) First, I have specific problems with the use of “coherence.” In the days when the criteria of authenticity reigned unquestioned, I always found the so-called “criterion of coherence” to be one of the least convincing approaches to deliberating on the historicity of a given saying or event in the life of Jesus. In my teaching, I often refer to the criterion of coherence as a “drip pan category having little, if any value.” In my estimation, “coherence” is a slippery category because it allows a given researcher to engage in what often appears to be a specialized level of subjectivity: “Now that I have established X as being historically plausible, allow me to make the case for the historicity of Y & Z, which clearly cohere with what I have already established.” To me this is terribly problematic. As I have indicated, I think the notion of coherence is brimming with opportunities for subjectivity to creep into our reconstructions. Now, I do want to be fair and acknowledge that Brant is not using the criterion of coherence as it has been classically formulated, but he is using coherence in a way that, to my mind, allows him to get away with the same type of deeply subjective suggestions when arguing for historical plausibility.

(2) Second, if the Gospels are participating in the genre of Greco-Roman biography (bioi) as Brant concedes (and as most agree), then another methodological concern rears its head. (In saying this, I am critiquing more than just Brant’s book but much historical Jesus scholarship in general.) If you read the works of classicists working with other bioi (e.g., Plutarch, Tacitus, Lucian, etc.) they are asking a very different set of questions than what historical Jesus researchers are often asking. In fact, I would argue that an element of special pleading is embedded in the way we think about the “historical Jesus” that neither classicists nor other historians would allow when approaching ancient Lives. With the nature of the gospel genre at the center of our deliberations, I am not persuaded that we can establish with certainty, precision, or even the levels of “plausibility” attempted by Pitre, that given words, deeds, and more importantly, mindsets can be isolated in the various presentations of Jesus the gospel narratives. Against that backdrop, I think Pitre’s arguments often function against the genre with which he’s working.

(3) Third, my own work on characters and characterization suggests to me that even when we are dealing with characters who are supposed to be imitable—which is one function of main characters in bioi—ancient authors are not concerned with detailing specific words and actions. It also suggests to me that isolating a potential mindset from which Jesus is working, (e.g., seeing himself as the New Moses v. his being presented as a New Moses at the narrative level; seeing himself as a Davidic King v. his being presented that way at a narrative level, etc.) is practically impossible. With that assertion in mind, I have recently written the following for a chapter on Johannine characterization in a forthcoming book. I think it applies to what I am trying to say here:

“The construction of personal identity is of paramount importance to modern individuals and therefore plays a prominent role both in the modern novel and the short story—the standards by which we judge contemporary literature in the Western world. When we encounter characters in contemporary literature we are often treated to psychological profiles as figures move toward and in some cases away from moments of redemption. As familiar as this scenario is to readers of modern literature (and consumers of modern film) this is not how characters typically functioned in ancient literature. Therefore, when approaching the New Testament narratives we must be careful to situate characters within the thought worlds that gave rise to them.”

When we treat Jesus as a historical figure and offer our reconstructions from the gospel material, I think we must pay close attention to the way characterization functions in ancient literature. Otherwise, we end up with a modern character whose inner-life can be profiled with precision—something that would not have been available within this genre of literature. While I could say more concerning methodology, my *brief* response to Brant’s questions is running long. I imagine I will say more in the course of my review.

Brant also wrote:

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 appreciate this being spelled out in greater detail. While I agree that one pretty major pitfall of gospel analysis is the search for the *exact* words of Jesus, I also see a certain degree of historical positivism in the approach taken in Brant’s book, especially the suggestions about how the gospel accounts of these six pericopae should be harmonized to create a more coherent picture. The harmonization approach strikes me as out of keeping with the genre of the literature we are examining…..but I know this is a subject on which Brant and I clearly disagree (and it continues to be a question across a certain sub-section of historical scholarship). I will get to this critique in future posts.

(3) Brant wrote:

Third, you’re right: I didn’t answer your question: “What kind of evidence do 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 (Suetonius, 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 appreciate this more fulsome description from Brant. I have already (see above) registered some of my concerns about gospel genre vis-a-vis historical Jesus research in general and Brant’s work in particular. There’s actually much that I agree with in Brant’s paragraph and I’m glad to see him lay out his understanding of the gospel genre in these clear terms.

I also want to say that I appreciate how collegial Brant has been throughout our exchange thus far. Most people that I have heard from have seen us as engaging in rigorous dialogue while remaining friendly. I do hope this is coming through. One comment in the previous post questioned the “tone” of the conversation but for the record, both Brant and I believe it is possible to register strong disagreements and still treat one another well. I hope to get back to blogging through the book in detail in the next week or so. For now this exchange will have to suffice for keeping the conversation going. I look forward future exchanges (as I hope others do)!