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).

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Nine Books I’m Currently Reading (Skinner)

Ok, so I just checked and in my last three weeks of blog inactivity, Nijay has literally posted 14 different times. (I think he’s trying to make me look bad.) During that period I have been a little busy, first finishing exams and then finishing up a paper I’ll be giving at this conference in London in a little more than a week. When I return from London I have a bunch of stuff to post about, but for now, I thought I’d mention a few books that I am reading at the moment as I plan on reviewing them here on the blog. Summer is a good time to catch up on (late) book reviews and other books I have been too busy to pick up. Here are nine I’m currently reading, seven of which I plan to discuss here:

Black Book1.  C. Clifton Black, The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate (2d ed; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

I am currently reviewing this one for Biblical Theology Bulletin. I received it awhile back when I was working on my book on Markan character studies and I found it extremely useful for my historical overview of Markan research on the disciples. This is a second edition of Black’s revised dissertation, which was an “instant classic” when it was first published back in 1989. Black’s insightful analysis of the different types of redaction criticism, as well as the failures and successes of redaction critical method remains poignant and thought-provoking. The substance of the original book remains the same, though Black has added a lengthy “Afterword” (43 pages) in which he discusses redaction criticism in the 25 years since the initial publication of his book. I have several thoughts about this book that I hope to share in due course.

Burke Book2. Tony Burke, Secret Scriptures Revealed: A New Introduction to the Christian Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). 

I am currently reviewing this one for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Tony (whom I have not yet met) has a very good blog named Apocryphicity, devoted to all-things-Apocrypha. If you’ve read his blog, you won’t be surprised by the quality of this book. Those who know me well know that I love to research and write, but they also know that I am a teacher first. That’s why I love getting solidly-researched, well-written books aimed at students. I am not finished with the book yet, but I can already tell you that it’s a great fit for the classroom. I do intend to try it out the next time I have an opportunity to teach a course on the non-canonical literature.

Ehrman.Plese Book3. Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Like the previous book, I am also reviewing this one for Catholic Biblical Quarterly, though I have yet to do more than simply leaf through a few pages. Back in 2011, Ehrman (who is well-known to anyone who might read this blog) and Plese (a leading authority on Christian Gnosticism) published a book entitled, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, in which they provided original language texts–complete with text-critical discussions–and translations of non-canonical writings about Jesus. This book covers the same writings from that previous volume but with English-only translations and without all of the scholarly jargon. Like the Burke book, I think this has the potential to be a useful classroom resource. I will say more about this once I’ve had a chance to go over it in greater detail.

Keith Book4. Chris Keith, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). 

I am reviewing this one for Theology. I read (and really liked) Chris’ related book, Jesus’ Literacy , and I have already read the first two chapters of this one. Chris writes that this book is part three of a three-part “Spielbergian” project (my words, not his) in which he deals with various issues and various angles related to the literacy of Jesus (see here and here for the previous two works). I have made no secret of the fact that I think very highly of Chris Keith’s scholarship. He is a creative, intelligent, and productive scholar, especially in light of his age. I look forward to working my way through the rest of the book.

Bennema Book5. Cornelis Bennema, A Theory of Character in New Testament Narrative (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

This book came to me in the mail awhile back. I have been asked by Fortress Press to provide a review here on the blog (which I will due by summer’s end) and was just asked today to review it for a journal. I have had a chance to look over several chapters (but, if I’m being totally and completely honest), I have only really perused the four or five sections in which Cor interacts with my own work. This is not as utterly self-serving as it sounds. In November I will be on a panel with Cor, Alicia Myers, Steve Hunt, Frank Moloney and others at SBL in which we deal with Johannine characterization. I already know that I have some strong disagreements with Cor, but I also find his work stimulating. One of the strengths of what I’ve already read is that Cor is definitely read up on all of the important research in this area.

Myers Book6. Alica Myers, Characterizing Jesus: A Rhetorical Analysis on the Fourth Gospel’s Use of Scripture in its Presentation of Jesus (LNTS; London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014).

OK, I have to be honest and say that I haven’t even looked at this one yet. Like the previous book, I just received this in the mail so that I can read up for our November session at SBL. I recently had the chance to meet Alicia who is moving to Campbell University, right down the road from where I teach. I will likely provide a review of this one closer to November, but I did want to mention it.

 

Crump Book7. David Crump, Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

I agreed to review this one for Biblical Theology Bulletin, but I am not really sure what to say or think about it. This book is different in focus and content from the volumes I typically review and I’m just not sure what to do with it. Crump wants to look at the Scriptures through a Kierkegaardian lens while giving a nod to issues like authentic faith and Scriptural authority (issues I am a little tired of discussing in public), all while questioning the value of the historical critical method. It’s been an *interesting* read thus far. Tune in and I’ll say more once I’m done.

Finally, I’m also reading the competing 8. Ehrman and 9. Bird (et al) volumes….but don’t worry, I don’t plan to review either one here on the blog. There’s much too much of that going on in the blogosphere right now.

The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.

Mike Bird on WATSA Gospel of Thomas?

Over at Euangelion, Mike Bird has been reading my book, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? After a brief overview of the book’s contents, he concludes:

“The book is successful in its aim of helping the non-specialist navigate the maze of GTh scholarship. Besides reading GThom, I recommend it for anyone who is hoping to get a grip on what all the fuss about GThom is about.”

Thanks for the kind review, Mike!

Redman, Perrin, Popkes, DeConick, and Others

Judy Redman’s critique of Nick Perrin seems to be generating a buzz around the blogosphere over the last few days. Judy started off with a few posts to which Clayboy (aka Doug Chaplin) responded. This morning over at Euangelion Mike Bird has posted a response from Nick (presumably given directly to Mike?) where he compares the views of E. E. Popkes (expressed in his recent monograph Das Menschenbild des Thomasevangeliums) and April DeConick. This exchange is providing helpful discussions for those considering important issues in Thomas studies. Let’s hope it continues.