Lord, Not Legend: A Review of Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus

The new book by a notable young Scripture scholar addresses both the dominant paradigm in academic biblical studies and the more popular errors about Jesus and the New Testament.

A Tale of Two Paradigms

The dominant paradigm reigning in academic biblical studies today is marked by radical discontinuity. That’s why people who know the basics of the Christian story—whether they believe it or not—are often nonplussed when they encounter radical reconstructions of Jesus and earliest Christianity. Others, of course, applaud them, finding that such radical reconstructions get them off the hook with the traditional Jesus and the Church. Gone is the Jesus who saves us, replaced by a Jesus who either affirms us, or is ultimately irrelevant, or who encourages whatever vague spirituality is du jour. In either case, they are presented with a reconstruction in which Jesus is alone, cut off, isolated—divorced from Judaism, from the Old Testament, from the Gospels, from the Church. The real Jesus, radical reconstructions insist, is some sort of mystic, or revolutionary, or Cynic, or teacher, or prophet, whose Judaism is incidental and irrelevant at best and who has been hidden—often deliberately—by the later dogma of the Church, even by the biblical Gospels themselves.

By contrast, traditional Christianity (whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or fundamentalist) sees Jesus in terms of continuity. In broad strokes, he fulfills the Old Testament promises, and the Gospels of the Church (however conceived) faithfully record eyewitness accounts of His Virgin Birth, miracles, prophecy, and teaching, his sacrificial death, his bodily resurrection, as well as his commissioning of the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations.

The dominant paradigm reigning in academic biblical studies today was developed largely by German scholars of a Lutheran confessional persuasion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. D. F. Strauss suggested the disciples made up almost everything in the Gospels out of Jewish legends, while Rudolf Bultmann claimed not only that the Old Testament could not be considered Scripture for Christians (and thus irrelevant for understanding Jesus) but also that most everything in the Gospels was a post-Easter retrojection back into the life of Jesus and thus that we can know next to nothing about the historical Jesus. Meanwhile scholars such as Heinrich Holtzmann were busy arguing that Mark, and not Matthew, was written first among the Gospels, while Walter Bauer was arguing that orthodoxy didn’t exist until history’s victors in what became the later Church invented it, with Adolf von Harnack contending similarly that later Christian dogma was an imposition upon the Gospels, the earliest Church, and Jesus himself.

The dominant paradigm reigning in academic biblical studies today, being developed originally by Germans prior to the horrors of the Holocaust, is also laden with anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of a genteel but not necessarily virulent sort. While some like Bultmann did join the Confessing Church and oppose the Nazis, others like von Harnack were busy finding ways to deny Jewish scholars important professorships. In any event, to enlightened German Lutheran eyes, Judaism and Catholicism were cut from the same cloth. They belonged to the old world of sacrifice and ritual which the Reformation and its child the Enlightenment had buried forever. It would be inconceivable to such scholars that common, normal Judaism could inform our understanding of Jesus or earliest Christianity—this is why Germans excelled at exploring Greco-Roman backgrounds—or that Jesus and the earliest Church could be understood in Catholic terms.

The greatest contemporary popular exponent of the dominant paradigm today is Dr. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a former fundamentalist whose forays into textual criticism made him a liberal Christian for a time but ultimately an unbeliever. A friendly convivial fellow and a serious, sober scholar, neither an anti-Catholic nor anti-Semite, Ehrman has sold millions of books popularizing the paradigm of discontinuity in several books, in which he endeavors to show the Gospels are unreliable and that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet far different from the Jesus Christ the Church has worshipped as divine son of God.

Pitre Revives Lewis’ Trilemma

Dr. Brant Pitre’s most recent popular offering, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, the Catholic imprint of Doubleday, 2016), has Ehrman’s work as its gentle target as Pitre presents a spirited defense of the tradition paradigm of continuity among Judaism, the Old Testament, Jesus, and the Gospels. (Full disclosure: I wrote a positive blurb of an advance draft of the book.)

Interestingly, Pitre doesn’t discuss Jesus’ continuity with the Catholic Church, probably be cause he wishes to present an argument congenial to Christians and seekers of all stripes, even as his presentation would be fully at home in Catholic Christianity. Indeed, he begins with an Anglican, the famous C.S. Lewis, who offered the famous “trilemma”: a man who said the sorts of things Jesus did about himself was either a liar, a lunatic (“on the level with a man who claimed to be a poached egg”), or Lord. As most people don’t want to concede Jesus was deceived or deceptive, Lewis’ logic is designed to force readers to accept the third, fateful, option: Jesus was, and is, Lord.

Lewis, a man of letters who expressed explicit disdain for Bultmann and German scholarship, accepted the Gospels’ testimony about Jesus self-presentation as true. At this point the radical paradigm of discontinuity raises its head in protest, however, claiming as Ehrman does that there’s a fourth option that Lewis dismissed: the Gospels do not in fact represent the truth about Jesus, that the Gospels are largely legendary. All, then, hinges on the Gospels’ reliability. If they present Jesus faithfully, then Lewis’ trilemma works. If not, it doesn’t. And so Pitre offers a tour-de-force showing that the Gospels do indeed do so.

The book falls into two parts. In the first (chapters 2-7, after an introductory chapter), Pitre argues that the Gospels are reliable, presenting eyewitness testimony to Jesus. In the second (chapters 8-12), Pitre dives deep into Gospel passages and Old Testament Scripture as well as Jewish tradition to show that Jesus claimed to be Son of Man, Messiah, and God, and that Jesus crucifixion matters and his resurrection happened. A chapter of evangelical challenge to the reader concludes the work.

The Reliability of the Gospels

Pitre first demonstrates that the Gospels were not anonymous, as claimed by representatives of the radical paradigm. Not one anonymous copy of a Gospel exists. Every single manuscript of the Gospels has a title with a name; any variations (e.g., “The Gospel according to Mark” vs. simply “According to Mark”) always has the same name for the same particular Gospel, without exception. There is no convincing argument to explain why if the Gospels were originally anonymous they took the names they did, particularly in the cases of Mark and Luke, who were not themselves eyewitnesses. By contrast, truly anonymous documents, like the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, evince diversity in the manuscript tradition where certain copies are attributed to this author (say, Timothy) or that author (say, Paul), and the later Church has actual debates about who might have written it.

No such debates surround the authorship of the Gospels, Pitre observes, and he moves in the next chapter to show that traditional authorship of the Gospels—Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John authoring the Gospels that bear their names—is not only plausible but compelling. Matthew Levi, a tax collector, was one of the twelve apostles who could probably write, while Mark was John Mark, associate of Peter and Paul, and Luke was indeed St. Luke the physician, traveling companion of St. Paul. John himself may have been able to write—Epictetus speaks of someone “writing in an illiterate way,” and that would well fit whoever wrote the Johannine literature, which does not present us with the greatest Greek—or John easily could have dictated his work to a scribe.

In many ways it might seem that Pitre is simply defending premodern tradition regarding the authorship of the Gospels. He is; but here it’s important to point out that modern scholarship, originating in the nineteenth century, is largely negative in its conclusions. It tears down but is not good at building up. It claims the tradition is wrong about most everything, but can offer little in the way of positive hypothesis in its place. Modern scholarship will claim that neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John wrote the Gospels that bear their names, but than cannot say who did. So too with Paul’s letters; supposedly six of the thirteen letters ascribed to Paul in the New Testament are pseudonymous (written falsely under Paul’s name), but no positive claims of authorship are put forward. So too with Jesus: modern scholarship offers a myriad of Jesuses, the making of which there seems to be no end, but whatever Jesus was, he wasn’t, and isn’t, Lord and God.

Modern scholarship is modern—like every other area touched by modernity, radicals wish to start from scratch, whether Bacon in natural science, Descartes in philosophy, Kant in ethics, Rousseau in politics, or any number of cultural revolutionaries. So too in biblical studies: modern scholars shift the burden of proof and assume that whatever longstanding tradition has said about Jesus or the Gospels must be doubted on principle. The result is myriad conflicting reconstructions of Jesus and earliest Christianity, all at odds with what eighteen centuries of Christian tradition have said.

Pitre thus can do no other than to show that modern claims have no real force, that indeed when it comes to the authorship of the Gospels, there is no real compelling warrant for discarding the tradition. And he does so, in a popular way, in a convincing way, showing that the early Christians largely knew each other (early Christianity is tiny, relative to the wider population of the Mediterranean basin which Rome dominated) and valued truth above all.

So too his treatment of the Gospels’ dates of composition in a later chapter. Most modern scholars would place them after A.D. 70, which saw the Romans destroy the temple in late summer. Assuming prophecy is impossible as a species of the miraculous, Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of the temple in the Gospels must have been invented after the fact and retrojected back into Jesus’ mouth. Pitre observes three things: First, others predicted the destruction of the temple, not just Jesus; given the Babylonian destruction of the first temple six centuries prior, one need not be a genuine prophet to predict a Roman discussion of the second. Second, Pitre observes certain details of Jesus’ predictions make no sense if they were concocted later; why invent Jesus instructing his disciples to pray that it not happen in winter when in point of fact the destruction happened in late summer? Third, Pitre suggests the modern solution to the synoptic problem—with Mark and Q as the earliest sources for Matthew and Luke—is likely untrue, and thus can’t be used to place the Gospels late.

In the fifth chapter Pitre addresses the so-called lost Gospels—heretical, later works such as the Gospels of Judas, Thomas, and Peter, as well as the Infancy Narratives of Thomas. These “lost Gospels” make much mischief in the media, as Pitre observes, and he shows that early Christians rejected them because they were forgeries, not really authored by those whose names they bear, and because their content was bizarre. For instance, in the Infancy Narratives Jesus magically kills playmates who displease him, while in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus tells Peter every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Here Pitre might have done well to dive in deeper and discuss the “rule of faith” as well as the question of “Christianities.” For part of the revisionist project which Ehrman in particular advocates is the idea that there really wasn’t one Christianity—the “early Church” of the Fathers—in late Roman antiquity but many varied Christianities. It’s a subtle value judgment masquerading as a factual claim, however. There were indeed many groups claiming the name Christian, but the implication that all have a right to the name does not follow. The question is whether there really was one Church, for all its linguistic, geographic, and liturgical diversity, intended by Jesus himself, with a “rule of faith”—fundamental Christian orthodoxy looking very much like what we know as the Apostles Creed. Perhaps Pitre doesn’t go there because he’s avoiding presenting a particularly Catholic argument. For readers who know Ehrman and his arguments, however, it might not do simply to point out the grounds for their rejection of such apocryphal Gospels, because those readers would see the Fathers as part of the conspiracy burying Gnostic truths about Jesus.

The sixth chapter finds Pitre arguing with the majority of contemporary scholarship that the Gospels are ancient biographies. For genre matters above all; get the genre of a document wrong, and right interpretation is well nigh impossible. Rejecting the now-rejected idea that the Gospels are “folklore” and thus lack a proper literary genre, Pitre explains what most Gospels scholars now accept, that the Gospels belong to the category of ancient biography. Most significant here are two observations. First, the Gospels as ancient biography are not ordered chronologically. Second, ancient biographies don’t relate all details about a person. The implications are important (although Pitre, curiously, does not draw them out): what many consider contradictions among the Gospels really aren’t because ancient biographers had freedom to order their material topically. (Our modern concerns for chronology are the fruit of a Newtonian understanding of the universe.) Pitre then shows that the Gospels are “historical” biographies, which present the true substance of Jesus’ words and deeds, but not “verbatim transcripts of what Jesus said and did” (p. 81). More could be—and should have been—said about the relationship between the precise shape of the stories in the Gospels and the “substance” behind them. Will skeptical readers find this substantial enough in the face of stark perceived contradictions, such as the cleansing of the Temple very early in John and very late in the Gospels?

The Person and Work of Christ as Danielic Messiah and Son of Man

So far Pitre has made a solid case for continuity from the Jesus of history to the Gospels. The second part of the book is more exegetical, and is essentially the explication of a theological, narrative vision of Jesus’ person and work. It would have been helpful if Pitre had presented a summary of the vision he explicates over several chapters to give readers a sense of the whole instead of presenting it piecemeal. (The closest Pitre comes is the ultimate paragraph on p. 191.)

The most significant move Pitre makes is to root Jesus and the Gospels deeply in Judaism, and that rooting pays off well in these chapters. Pitre draws deeply on Jewish history and Scripture (i.e., the Christian Old Testament) to illuminate the significance of salient passages in the Gospels. The story he presents runs like this:

Jesus saw his mission chiefly in terms of Daniel’s prophecies (chs. 2, 7, and 9), prophecies which in turn came true in Jesus’ life and the mission to the Gentiles. Daniel 2 presents prophecies of the kingdom of God which will come following the succession of four empires: the Babylonian, the Medo-Persian, the Greek, the Roman. Jews (so Pitre) believed the kingdom would come during the Roman Empire, and Jesus proclaims himself the agent of this kingdom’s advent. Jesus thus presents himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7, the King of the fifth kingdom, the Kingdom of God. Indeed Jesus is also the Messiah of Daniel 9, and Jesus speaks as if the Messiah and the Son of Man are the same person.

The prophecy of the Messiah in Daniel 9:24-27 predicts the Messiah will be “cut off” after “seventy weeks of years,” which Pitre sees fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion in A.D. 33, exactly 490 years after the Persian king Artaxerxes issued the decree to rebuild the temple. The prophecy also predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and that second temple, which happened in A.D. 70. Pitre writes:

For Daniel had not only prophesied that the Messiah would come; he predicted when he would come, what would happen to him, and what would happen to Jerusalem and its Temple. And it happened. In the first century. Two thousand years ago. Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimer of the kingdom of God and coming of the Son of Man, was ‘cut off’ by the Romans when he was crucified, some 490 years after the restoration of Jerusalem under King Artaxerxes. (p. 118)

Pitre rightly sees the Son of Man in Daniel as a divine figure, and complements Jesus’ subtle claim to divinity in an examination of several passages in the synoptic Gospels, important because many scholars don’t find Jesus claiming divinity therein. Seeing Jesus presenting himself as God in the synoptics depends on seeing allusions to Old Testament passages and how they are interpreted in Judaism. For instance, the Stilling of the Storm (Mark 4:35-41) draws on Psalm 107. Mark’s story presents (1) the disciples in boats; (2) stormy winds and waves; (3) fearful disciples who (4) cry out to Jesus; (5) Jesus stilling the store and (6) a “great calm.” In Psalm 107 we find (1) sailors in ships; (2) stormy wind and waves; (3) courage melting away; (4) crying out to the LORD; (5) the LORD stilling the storm; (6) the waves of the sea becoming quiet. If one sees the parallels, one sees Mark’s story presenting Jesus as God.

Pitre then explains Jesus’ caution regarding his divine identity: given that it’s blasphemy to claim one is God, Jesus does not disclose it directly until he confesses to being the divine Son of Man at his nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin. For that blasphemy he is crucified. But that is not the end, of course; Jesus is raised, and Pitre’s observation of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament regarding the resurrection is fascinating and shows that it is simply impossible to understand Jesus and the New Testament apart from the Old.

Pitre notes that the earliest Christians argued first that Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled the Scripture; any other arguments for the resurrection were secondary. So Pitre turns to Jesus’ mention of Jonah, the only Old Testament passage mentioning the resurrection of an individual on the third day. Reading Jonah carefully in Hebrew, Pitre noticed that Jonah’s prayer indicates he died, that the fish vomited up a corpse, that God raised Jonah from the dead, and that Jonah’s preaching precipitated Gentile repentance. So too with Jesus.

Pitre sees in the conversion of the Gentiles to Christianity an overlooked proof for Jesus person and work, and here he comes closest to showing his Catholic colors, though in a way that’s still generically Christian:

Indeed, how does one explain the universality of the Church? I guess you could argue that it was a coincidence. I guess you could claim that the many passages in the Old Testament prophesying that one day the pagan nations of the world would turn and worship the God of Abraham, just happened to take place after the death and resurrec­tion of Jesus (see Isaiah 2:1-3; 25:6-8; 66:18-21; Jeremiah 3:15-18; Micah 4:1-2: Zechariah 8:20-23). I guess you could also claim that these mass conversions among the pagans just happened to coincide with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who just happened to live and die at the very time that the book of Daniel said the Messiah would come. And I guess you could believe that after Jesus was cruci­fied, the tomb just happened to be inexplicably empty and hundreds of disciples of Jesus began claiming to have seen him alive again in his body. I guess you could claim all this. I, for one, prefer the simpler ex­planation. Jesus of Nazareth was right. The Son of Man was crucified. The Son of Man was buried. The Son of Man was raised on the third day. The tomb was empty. It still is. And the Gentiles turn to the God of Israel in droves. Because something greater than Jonah is here. (p. 191)

Continuity, then, extends not only from Judaism and its Bible to Jesus and the Gospels but into the Church as well.

Lord, not Legend

The book concludes with an evangelical call based on the episode at Caesarea Philippi in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, asking readers to consider the same question. Having presented historical and exegetical evidence in a rational way, here Pitre brings in the element of mystery, offering the reader an opportunity to encounter Jesus with the heart, having engaged the Gospels’ claims about him with the head. Pitre writes:

I think it’s important that Jesus taught about his divine identity in this way. For it shows that Jesus knew that what he was asking people to believe about him was some­thing that, humanly speaking, couldn’t be forced upon them. I think it shows that Jesus understood his identity as a mystery that needed to be revealed. (p. 194)

Ultimately, apologetics only takes one so far. As faith and reason complement each other, perhaps Pitre’s apologetics clears the way for reason to accept what God might reveal about Jesus in the heart.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).