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)!

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).

Book Notice: Jesus and Brian (Skinner)

Jesus and BrianYesterday I was thrilled to find this new book in my campus inbox! Last summer (June 20-22, 2014), King’s College London hosted a conference entitled, “Jesus and Brian: A Conference on the Historical Jesus and His Times.” I remember wanting to attend and being very disappointed that I was not able. (I had already made two trips to the UK that summer and there’s no way my university would have financed a third!) While the conference was taking place, I was able to catch various posts on social media as several of my friends attended and attempted to live tweet the proceedings. Well now I guess I have the second best thing, a copy of Jesus and Brian : Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times Via Monty Python’s Life of Brian (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). The book is scheduled for release on September 10, 2015 and represents the full proceedings of the conference.

The contributors to this volume represent some of the very best scholars working in both Jesus research and reception history, and include William Telford, Richard Burridge, David Shepherd, David Tollerton, James Crossley, Philip Davies, Joan Taylor, Guy Stiebel, Helen Bond, George Brooke, Bart Ehrman, Paula Frederiksen, Amy-Jill Levine, Steve Mason, Adele Reinhartz, and Katie Turner.

Two of the book’s four jacket endorsements are provided by members of Monty Python, who, I should point out, also attended the conference:

“I was astonished when I heard there was to be a conference where proper New Testament scholars would be discussing what they had learnt from Life of Brian! This is the result. Fascinating…” –  John Cleese

“Taken as a whole, the essays form a complete analytical documentation of the Life of Brian, and very interesting they are too! They take various angles and look at the film from not just a filmic one but from a historical point of view, and read many things I had not noticed at the time. The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries always right on the nose.” –  Terry Jones

I hope to provide a more substantial review of the book in due course, but for now, I wanted to get it on your radar. You only have two more weeks to wait!

Interview with William Arnal on the Gospel of Thomas: Part Three (Skinner)

Arnal 3Today I am posting the third and final installment of my interview with Bill Arnal.

(CWS) 5. In light of your answer to question 5, I’m wondering if you are planning any future projects on the Gospel of Thomas?

(WA) I’m currently working on a commentary on Thomas as a wisdom writing. This is contracted with the SBL for the series on “Wisdom Literature from the Ancient World.” I planned to have it done sometime in late 2015, but health issues have slowed me down a little bit.

(CWS) 6. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. Your past publications and scholarly involvements suggest that you are also interested in such questions. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

Actually, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever drawn any positive conclusions about the historical Jesus. Everything I’ve written on the topic is negative. For instance, I’ve argued that the “indisputable facts” about Jesus (per Sanders) are not nearly so “indisputable” as he claims. I’ve argued (at some length) that the turn toward a “Jewish Jesus” since the 1970s is basically meaningless, allows few substantive conclusions, and is driven by today’s ideological problems. I’ve argued that source-critical conclusions have no real bearing on one’s image of the historical Jesus. And I have argued that the quest for Jesus doesn’t matter. It’s simply not a coherent or significant historical question. Our sources are terrible, the relevance of Jesus to the development of Christianity is dubious, and our obsessive interest in him is driven by religious concerns. The whole thing is like trying to explain the fall of the Roman Republic by writing a biography of Caesar. It’s the kind of thing that few serious historians would think to do, at least with material we didn’t regard as “religious.” So I am very negative about the value or prospects of historical Jesus scholarship in general, and my interest in Thomas is not driven by any assumption that Thomas is (or is not) a good source for Jesus. Let me be as clear about this as possible: my understanding of Thomas has no implications for the historical Jesus.

With all that negativity in mind, it seems to me that there is very little in Thomas that we could (were we so inclined) trace back to the historical Jesus with any confidence. I’m pretty sure the name “Jesus” (or rather, its equivalent) is historical. And I imagine Jesus said stuff, sometimes, so that’s probably accurate too. I’m not especially confident about anything else. I suppose it’s plausible enough to claim that, for instance, Thomas’s parables about the assassin (saying 98), or about the woman with the broken jar (saying 97), go back to the historical Jesus, but I don’t see how one could prove that, nor do I see what difference it would make.

Many thanks to Bill for taking the time to contribute to our ongoing interest in the Gospel of Thomas!

Helen Bond Reviews Keith & Le Donne on the Criteria (Skinner)

helen-bondOver at the Marginalia Review of Books, Helen Bond reviews Jesus Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity (ed. Chris Keith & Anthony Le Donne). After a thorough consideration of the book’s subject matter she concludes that the volume should be considered “essential reading for anyone even contemplating any kind of reconstruction of the historical Jesus.” Check out her review, and more importantly, check out the book. If you get a chance, you should also check out Bond’s very useful book, Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed.