Questioning Stan Porter on Peter O’Brien and Plagiarism (Skinner)

obrienI didn’t get a chance to mention this last week, but last Monday several of my friends on social media shared a blog post by Stanley Porter in which he appeared to come to the defense of Peter O’Brien in the midst of recent revelations about O’Brien’s plagiarism across three of his commentaries. A number of my friends shared this post (several approvingly), but in my opinion, Porter’s response was simultaneously condescending and tone deaf, and in places, a bit self-righteous. I’d like to respond to a few excerpts and wonder aloud about what Porter was thinking….

First, in case you missed it, here’s a portion of the statement from Eerdmans:

“Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print” (emphasis added).

Now let’s look at the first excerpt from Porter’s post:

 “I believe that the acceptable convention of commentary writing today is essentially to repeat what others have said before you, even if you massage their words in various ways. Therefore, I find it hard to fathom that there is so much self-righteous indignation over Peter O’Brien’s supposed plagiarism in several commentaries. I think that O’Brien, if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this), may well have simply been following the convention of current commentary writing—an inevitability that has become an accepted norm. From my experience of reading commentaries, I suspect that many commentary writers would not like anyone looking too closely at how they have written theirs, simply because the use of other commentators is exactly what writing a commentary (unfortunately) has become.”

My first response would be to say that I think Porter is guilty of overstatement here. In fact, he appears to indict this current generation of commentators of being guilty of the same sort of infraction committed by O’Brien. But, let’s just for the sake of argument, grant that Porter is not guilty of hyperbole here. I think we can all agree that it is unprecedented, at least in recent memory, to have a major publisher in the field of biblical studies completely pull not one but three commentaries from circulation. Remember, this decision was arrived at through a collaboration of Eerdmans editors and outside consultants. So when Porter says, “if he did plagiarize (and I wish to question this),” he sounds more than a little arrogant. Surely a cadre of experts both within and outside of Eerdmans’ editorial staff can be trusted to adjudicate this matter fairly, can’t they?

Porter continues:

“I find it interesting that the notion of plagiarism has developed into what it has become. If the New Testament authors cite or closely paraphrase Old Testament writers but without attribution, we consider this a meaningful citation or allusion and engage in all sorts of exegetical gymnastics (and write endless books) to ascertain their meanings and motives—but we do not accuse them of plagiarism. Why? Because that is the convention of the ancient writers (as I believe the convention is for contemporary commentary writers). This is also true of more recent authors. If Shakespeare uses Holinshed’s Chronicles or earlier versions of the story of Hamlet, we don’t call Shakespeare a plagiarist, we instead call him the most brilliant writer of the English language who ever lived. If a contemporary author invokes an earlier author, such as Shakespeare or any number of others, we may spend hours determining the nature of the invocation or its purpose—but again we don’t call it plagiarism, we call it literary allusion and commend the learnedness of the author (as in the allusion to T.S. Eliot above).”

Let’s call this paragraph what it is: sheer editorializing on an unrelated issue (viz., the trajectory of our understanding of plagiarism across literary history). We are not in living in the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote and we are not living in the first century when the apostles wrote. There are clearly delineated understandings of what constitutes plagiarism and theft of intellectual property. “Writing” and “borrowing” are not regarded in the same way today as they were during the time of Shakespeare or biblical writers. This entire paragraph is simply a red herring (and a bit of grandstanding). A real and substantive offense was committed here and we should laud Eerdmans for their response. Let’s remember that O’Brien didn’t deny these accusations. In fact, the plagiarism was deemed so blatant that Eerdmans was willing to (1) discontinue the commentaries, and (2) replace the books with other volumes for those who wanted to send their O’Brien volumes in.

Porter continues:

“[U]nfortunately, there are fewer and fewer scholars really competent to comment upon the text but ever-increasing demands to write new commentaries to fulfill the demands of publishers. There are plenty of scholars willing to unload their theologies and other agendas on each and every biblical text, but few that I have found who are equipped to wrestle in new and distinct ways with its very language. As a result, it is not only easier but has become the norm to use the previous work of others.

So let me get this straight? This type of “not-really-plagiarism” is part and parcel of what commentary writing IS, HAS BEEN FOR YEARS, and CONTINUES TO BE and is therefore not necessarily a bad thing. But, this state of affairs is ALSO the result of shoddy scholarship by a newer, younger group of scholars who aren’t really up to the task of commentary writing? Which is it? I’m not sure Porter can have it both ways. It sounds to me like he’s speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Perhaps the problem is not that there are too few scholars currently capable of writing good commentaries but rather, that a handful of luminaries—especially within evangelical circles—consistently wind up with multiple commentary contracts (and their concomitant deadlines) and are simply unable to meet the demands in a fair and intellectually honest way?

I understand loyalty and I can appreciate not wanting to kick someone when they’re down. I also understand the instinct of one senior scholar wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to another senior scholar (especially one from similar race, gender, and theological demographics). However, we need to be able to call a spade a spade, and wholesale quotations from someone else’s commentaries that are unattributed amounts to plagiarism, pure and simple. Perhaps the reason why there has been so much “righteous indignation” (Porter’s words, not mine) over this issue is that many in this field (myself included), are passionate pedagogues who wish to hold our students to the highest standards of academic conduct. I have been teaching in higher education for the past twelve years and I have caught plagiarized work nearly every semester during those twelve years. How can we hold the students to such a standard if the experts won’t do it?

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Book Notice: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (Skinner)

Synoptic ProblemEarlier in the week I checked my campus mailbox and found this treat waiting for me: The Synoptic Problem: Four Views (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer; Baker Academic). I have always been a fan of the “four views” (or “three views”) format. I find them helpful for introducing students to a given subject and useful for helping a professor get a bird’s-eye-view of the salient points for and against a specific view.

This book features the following lineup of scholars/arguments:

Craig Evans: Two-Source Hypothesis, Mark Goodacre: Farrer Hypothesis, David Peabody: Two-Gospel Hypothesis, Rainer Riesner: Orality and Memory Hypothesis

I was happy to see focused attention given to the Farrer Hypothesis and to Riesner’s “Orality and Memory” Hypothesis. I think this coverage of the topic is particularly useful since: (1) Q skepticism has grown quite a bit in recent years—largely due to the efforts of Mark Goodacre—and needs to be given serious consideration by students of the NT; and (2) research on orality and social memory has significantly impacted our study of the gospels and the historical Jesus in recent years. This book is a welcome addition to the spate of works on the Synoptic Problem. I am planning to use this as one of the primary texts the next time I teach an undergraduate course on the gospels.

My Advice to Incoming PhD Students (Skinner)

PHDReaders of this blog will know that I recently moved from North Carolina, where I’ve been teaching for the past six years, to Chicago to take a position at Loyola University. These past two weeks have been filled with various sorts of orientations as we prepare to begin classes next Monday, so it’s been difficult to to find enough time to get back on the blog. I’ll return to series of posts I was working on very soon, but while I had a moment today, I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since Monday.

One of my new roles here at Loyola will be section coordinator for the PhD in New Testament / Early Christianity. Earlier this week I had a chance, along with the other three section coordinators, to meet all of the incoming MA and PhD students and welcome them to Loyola. We were asked by the graduate student caucus to discuss our responsibilities as section coordinators and then to share any advice we would like to give to the students. I thought it might be helpful to repeat that advice here on the blog and also share something I was a little hesitant to say on Monday (but probably should have).

(1) Make friends while you’re here. A well-known refrain from one of Maya Angelou’s poems reads, “Alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody, Can make it out here alone.” Doctoral study can be one of the most difficult, most intense, (and for many) loneliest periods of your adult life. This is especially true if you are in a hyper-competitive or isolated environment where every student is out for himself/herself. I encouraged our students to make friends with one another and thereby create a support system that will sustain them throughout the program and even after their time in graduate school. For my part, I was privileged to have four friends with whom I remained close during my time at Catholic University. When I published my dissertation, I thanked all four of them for the role they played in my transformation, but also for how their friendship sustained me through the long and difficult period that is PhD studies.

Alongside the transformative element of making friends in your program—let’s be honest—establishing and maintaining friendships in this field is also a matter of sheer pragmatics. Finding success in academia—which is measured by things like gainful employment and publication—like many professions, is significantly impacted by who you know. In other words: opportunities accrue to those with robust social networks. I have now collaborated on three different book projects with two of the four friends I mentioned above and have met numerous people in this field as a result of my relationships with them (and vice versa).

(2) Start presenting your research and publishing as soon as possible. I am well aware that this piece of advice will not be as universally agreed-upon as my previous point. I conceded this when talking with the students and then said, “On this point, I’m talking specifically to the PhD students in New Testament / Early Christianity.” More and more, we see freshly-minted PhDs entering the job market with numerous professional presentations and a handful of publications already listed on their CVs. In a perfect world, students would focus on getting through their coursework, finishing comprehensive exams, and writing a solid dissertation before attempting to publish. (There’s obviously greater flexibility for publishing during your program if you’re in a European setting.) The problem is that the job market is saturated and therefore incredibly competitive; everyone is doing everything within reason to make their CVs as impressive and competitive as possible. This might not have been great advice 20 years ago, but it seems to me it’s a necessity in the current market.

(3) Enjoy yourself. Very few people have the opportunity to take several years out of their lives to read, study, and learn about a topic of great interest alongside other students and experts on the subject matter. As difficult as it can be at times, it can also be intoxicating….so try to enjoy yourselves.

(4) *What I didn’t say (but probably should have).* What I would have said if (a) I weren’t brand new and eager to make a positive first impression, and (b) I didn’t want to completely discourage the entire room, is that PhD studies require tremendous sacrifice over a period of years during which many people quite literally put their personal lives on hold. So, if there’s ANYTHING ELSE you think you might want to do other than this, press pause and go do it. If there’s enough uncertainty, you should think long and hard about what you’re about to do. At the end of your period of study and sacrifice, there’s no guarantee that a job will be waiting for you. In fact, the outlook for the academy here in the United States is presently, very grim, especially with nearly 51% of college faculty serving in a contingent capacity. In other words, you will expend a lot of energy over several (possibly many) years, potentially sacrificing a great deal, and it could all very well be just an exercise in personal enrichment.

I hope that advice was neither too extreme nor too grim, but reflective of the realities of pursuing a PhD in our field in 2016. I would love to hear what others might have added (or removed) from my list.

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.

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……

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

PitreHaving provided an introduction to the major questions and methodological approaches guiding Prof. Pitre’s book in my last post, I wanted to spend the bulk of today’s post emphasizing what I think are the major strengths of the book. Thus, comments here will consist solely of “words of praise” before I begin my formal chapter-by-chapter review (during which I will attempt to provide substantive discussion that includes both agreement and dissent).

1. Breadth of Research: I should begin with the observation that this book has been assiduously researched. I can honestly think of no better term than “impressive” to describe the breadth and depth of Pitre’s awareness and analysis of foundational works of scholarship on Jesus as well as ancillary works aimed at ferreting out a perhaps less-significant-but-still-related insight or piece of information about Jesus. Pitre demonstrates a strong grasp of the major movements in the history of Jesus research, their implications, their strengths, their weaknesses, and potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions when it comes to the “assured results of modern scholarship.” He, in fact, eschews at every turn, what many would regard as fixed positions. I was particularly impressed at his acknowledgement that just prior to finishing this book, he was forced to delay publication so that he could reckon with the implications of recent research dealing with skepticism over the value of the criteria of authenticity. In fact, he writes that this book gestated for nearly ten years (!!!) before coming to full fruition. That sort of patience alone is laudable.

Pitre (like myself and many others) was trained by those using the criteria (indeed he acknowledges his indebtedness to John Meier, among others, in the book’s dedication and preface). I therefore find it praiseworthy that he would take the time so close to having the book published, to listen to those who have (rightly, I think) pointed out why those criteria are no longer useful. It appears that the social memory theorists really had an impact on his thinking! As I pointed out in my previous post, he still makes use of a modified version of the criterion of coherence, but he qualifies this approach. (For what it’s worth, I have discussed on numerous occasions both on this blog and on my previous blog, my own journey with the criteria. If you are interested see here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Pitre’s breadth of research manifests itself in two ways I’d like to highlight here:

a. Knowledge of Primary TextsPitre is at home in the NT (as one might expect) and in the    Hebrew Bible (including the Deutero-Canonical writings), and the LXX. He also discusses, often at length, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal works, numerous Second Temple and Rabbinic Texts, and a host of early Christian writings. He has done his homework and is to be applauded. Let’s be honest, in this field, it can be a challenge to get your arms around the massive amount of ancient literature you need to fully examine an issue. Brant Pitre has, in my opinion, done the necessary leg-work to earn any informed reader’s respect.

b. Knowledge of Secondary Texts: Whether it’s commentaries, books about Jesus, articles on form criticism, or monographs on the Eucharist, Pitre also demonstrates thorough research in the secondary texts in English, German, and French. Honestly, what more can one ask for in a book in the field of NT/EC that purports to be a definitive treatment of the subject? (I have learned to pay attention and take note of this over the years; my Doktorvater, Frank Moloney, laments to me quite often at how North American works of Biblical scholarship have morphed into what he calls “English-only” treatments of the subject.) It’s often hyperbole to say, “so-and-so has read everything written on the subject,” but I can say that there was no point at which I thought, “well he missed that monograph,” or “what about this article?,” and there were many many instances in which Pitre’s treatment pointed me to something that I had not previously read or even been exposed to. I will learn much from returning to Pitre’s bibliography.

2. Attention to Detail: In my last post I spoke of Pitre’s “leave no stone unturned” approach. As this serial review progresses, I will point out how nearly every conceivable angle of an argument is considered. While I often disagree with his conclusions, it’s difficult to assail his careful concern to consider all sides of the argument.

3. Consistency in Applying Methodology: I always appreciate when a given scholar applies his/her stated methodology with consistency. Pitre’s consistency allows the reader to appreciate what is, overall, a very coherent argument. There is much to be said for writing an intricate and circuitous, 500+ page treatise, all the while making complex arguments but maintaining consistency.

These are, as I see them, genuine strengths of Pitre’s book. I will begin my critique of Chapter One some time in the next week. For now, I’m off to the annual CBA meeting in California. (I hope to see some of you there!)

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).