Doubting Jesus: A Catholic Biblical Scholar Responds to Skeptical Questions
A couple weeks ago, we launched an #AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Dr. Brant Pitre, who is one of today's premier Catholic biblical scholars. His latest book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Random House, 2016) seeks to debunk skeptical attitudes toward the Gospels put forward today by scholars such as Bart Ehrman.
Hundred of questions poured in and Brant answered as many as he could, sometimes grouping them together where the topics overlapped. Today we share his responses. Enjoy!
The Literacy of the Evangelists
Mike: Where/how did the gospel writers learn to write in Greek when they apparently spoke Aramaic and weren't educated men?
Brant Pitre: Great question! First, although a hundred years ago it was widely assumed that all first-century Palestinian Jews spoke only Aramaic, more recent scholarship has shown that the the linguistic situation in first-century Palestine was (at least) trilingual: there is evidence of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic being spoken (see e.g., Stanley Porter).
Second, as Richard Bauckham and other scholars have pointed out, although four of the apostles were “uneducated” fishermen (cf. Acts 4:13), at least one of the apostles was literate: Matthew, the tax-collector, who would have had to be able write tax-documents, probably in both Aramaic and Greek (cf. Matt 9:9; 10:3).
Moreover, from a historical perspective, the illiteracy of the Twelve apostles is largely irrelevant, since of course two of the four Gospels—Mark and Luke—are not even attributed to apostles, but to followers of Peter and Paul. There is certainly no reason to doubt that Luke or Mark could speak and write in Greek, and external evidence as early as Papias of Hierapolis (who knew the apostles personally) is clear that Mark acted as Peter’s scribe or interpreter while he was in Rome.
What about the apostle John? I see no reason to doubt that John was in fact “illiterate” (Acts 4:13). However, after decades of evangelization in Greek cities of Asia Minor, even if John couldn’t write in Greek himself, he could easily have ‘composed’ his gospel by dictating it to a secretary (or ‘amanuensis’) as even literate writers such as Paul, Cicero, and Titus Caesar (!) were known to have done (cf. Rom 16:22; Suetonius, Divus Titus 3.2). In fact, some ancient external evidence claims John’s Gospel was in fact dictated. For more on this, see The Case for Jesus, chapters 1-3.
Eyewitnesses to Jesus? The Memories of Jesus’ Students
Jim Jones: Name one person who met Jesus, spoke to him, saw him, or heard him and who wrote about the event, has a name, and is documented outside of the Bible (or any other gospels).
Brant Pitre: I’ll name two: (1) Matthaios, commonly known as “Matthew,” who was a Jewish tax-collector in Galilee who became one of Jesus’ mathetai or “students,” (commonly known as “disciples”) and was chosen by Jesus as one of the Twelve apostles (see Matt 9:9; 10:1-3); and (2) Iōannēs, commonly known as “John,” who was a Galilean fisherman who also became one of Jesus’ students and was a member of the Twelve (Mark 3:16-19; 14:17-25). According to the unanimous internal evidence of all extant ancient Greek manuscripts (e.g., Papyrus 4, 64, 66, 75, Codex Sinaticius, Vaticanus, etc.) as well as the unanimous external evidence of ancient writers outside the Bible (e.g., Papias of Hierapolis, Irenaeus of Lyons, Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, etc.), two of the four gospels were authored by Matthew and John (although Greek Matthew was universally regarded as a translation of a Semitic original).
In fact, the Gospel of John itself explicitly states that it was “written” by the Beloved Disciple, an eyewitness to Jesus who was present at the crucifixion (John 21:20-24, cf. 19:35). As Jesus’ Jewish students, Matthew and John not only would have “met Jesus, spoke to him, saw him and heard him,” they would have lived with Jesus for up to three years, traveling with him everywhere and listening to him teach on a daily basis.
It’s not only Christian sources that attribute the Gospels to eyewitnesses. Even Celsus, the famous 2nd century pagan apologist and critic of Christianity, could not deny the fact that the Gospels were written by “Jesus’ own pupils and hearers” who left behind “their reminiscences of Jesus in writing” (Origen, Contra Celsus 2.13). Now, one can of course claim that the disciples were liars—and Celsus did—but there is not a shred of text-critical evidence that the Gospels were ever anonymous and no positive historical evidence attributing them to anyone but the apostles and their companions. For more on this topic, see The Case for Jesus, chapters 2-4.
Are the Gospels Biographies?
Jim: To my understanding, there is now reasonable scholarly consensus that the Gospels are best understood as belonging to the genre of bioi or Graeco-Roman biography. First of all, do you agree that this is a correct and useful classification? If so, what are some of the most noteworthy differences between that genre and the genre of modern historical biography? In particular, what liberties might we reasonably expect authors of bioi to take that a modern biographer would not, and what are some of the literary devices might we expect authors of bioi to use that modern biographers would not?
Brant Pitre: Yes, you are right about the scholarly consensus that the Gospels are ancient biographies or “lives” (Greek bioi), especially since the work of the British scholar Richard Burridge’s ground-breaking book, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography (2004). And yes, I think this consensus is correct. With that said, there are some important differences between modern biographies and ancient forms of biography like the gospels, or Plutarch’s or Suetonius’ “lives,” that we should keep in mind:
- Order: ancient biographies don’t have to be in strict chronological order, but can be more thematically arranged;
- Length: ancient biographies are often fairly brief, averaging between 10,000 and 20,000 words;
- Selectivity: ancient biographies often emphasize that they aren’t telling you everything about their subject (see e.g., John 21:25; Lucian Life of Demonax, 67; Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 1.1). They tend to selective rather than comprehensive.
- Exactitude: ancient biographers are not purporting to give verbatim “transcripts” of what a person has said or done, but rather the “general sense” of what was “really said” (cf. Thucydides, History, 1.22.1)
- Supernaturalism: ancient biographers—in contrast to modern naturalistic historiography—had no qualms about recording purportedly supernatural events in the life of the subject (e.g., the miracles of Jesus).
Finally, it’s important to remember that just because the Gospels are biographies does not mean that they are verbatim “transcripts” of what Jesus did and said. For more on the Gospels as biographies, see The Case for Jesus, chapter 6.
Fact, Symbolism, and Allegory?
VicqRuiz: Dr. Pitre, upon reading the Biblical account of an event, how to you determine whether it is (1) a factual account of something that happened in history as described, (2) a retelling of an actual event perhaps containing some symbolic or allegorical elements, or (3) a purely allegorical story designed only to explain a deeper truth?
Brant Pitre: The first and most important task in this regard is to establish the literary genre of a book. This means asking questions like: What kind of book is this? What are the closest ancient parallels in form and contents? What kind of book did ancient people think this was? And what did the ancient author think he or she was writing? What are the author’s intentions and the audiences’ expectations? Is the author intending to record a historical event? Or is the author intending to compose poetry, allegory, prophecy, parable, or midrash, etc.?
As I try to show in The Case for Jesus, a close comparison with ancient Greco-Roman biography shows that the literary genre of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is closest to ancient biographies (see above). To be sure, the gospels contain micro-genres such as parables, allegories, hyperbole, etc. For example, the parable of the Sower is clearly presented as an allegory which needs to be explained by Jesus to the disciples (Mark 4:1-20). But the macro-genre of the Gospels is closest to biography.
Moreover, I also show that the Gospels are not just any kind of biographies, but historical biographies, in which an ancient author shows an express concern for historical truth: as Josephus puts it in his biography of himself: “veracity” is “incumbent upon the historian” (Josephus, Life, 336-39). In other words, whether or not you believe their claims, the evangelists intend to relate accounts of actual events and even explicitly claim to be recording what Jesus actually “did” and said, based on the “testimony” of “eyewitnesses (Greek autoptai) from the beginning” (see Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 21:24-25). They do not see themselves as composing“folklore” or “myths” (Greek mythos) (cf. 1 Tim 3:4; 2 Pet 1:16). This just isn’t the right genre.
This does not of course mean that the gospels are “verbatim transcripts” of Jesus’ teachings, nor do they claim to be. But again, according to ancient standards, history should adhere “as closely as possible” to the “general sense” of what was “really said” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.1). For more on this, see The Case for Jesus, chapter 6.
What about “Q” and the Order of the Gospels?
Bdlaacmm: Dr. Pitre, Does it matter which Gospel was written first? I often hear people say such-and-such a Gospel was the first written and therefore the "most reliable" (which in itself is kind of interesting, since no one today thinks a book written about WWII in 1946 is for that reason more reliable than one written in, say, 1985 - in fact, usually it's the reverse). The downside of such thinking is that anything in the other three Gospels is then downplayed or even "suspect". At this point, is it even possible to determine the order of composition?
Arthur Jeffries: What is your view on the existence of "Q"? Mark Goodacre, Michael Goulder, and other scholars have argued against its existence, mostly in academic papers (though several books have also been written). However, the consensus seemingly remains unchanged.
Brant Pitre: For well over a decade, I was a diehard “Q believer.” My first book on Jesus was even written using Q as a working hypothesis. Then I read Mark Goodacre’s 2002 book The Case against Q, and it changed my mind. I for one am troubled by the fact that Q only exists in the imagination of scholars; no manuscript has ever been found, and no ancient Christian ever refers to such a book. Even more importantly, as Goodacre shows, there is compelling evidence that Luke both knew and used Matthew’s Gospel, and if that is the case, then the need for Q simply vanishes.
With that said, over the years, as I have continued to study the Synoptic Problem, I have frankly become more cautious and agnostic about ever unraveling the precise literary relationship between the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I agree with what the great scholar Joseph Fitzmyer stated some decades ago: the Synoptic Problem is “practically insoluble.” We simply may not have enough data to solve the complex question of literary order and relationship.
In any case, from the perspective of the quest for the historical Jesus, it’s important to remember that the literary question of the relationship between the Gospels (who copied from whom?) is just not as important as the historical question of authorship (who wrote the gospels?) and date (when were they written? within the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples?)
Think about it: if Mark is actually based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, for basic historical questions, does it really matter who copied from whom? And if Matthew is really written by one of the apostles, for basic historical questions, does it really matter if he copied from Mark? And by the way—as I show in the book—the old argument that an eyewitness like Matthew would never use a non-eyewitness like Mark as a source is bogus. We have evidence of exactly that taking place amongst students of Socrates (cf. Hermogenes, Plato, and Xenophon).
In sum, all of the actual historical evidence we possess points to the Gospels being first-century biographies written within the living memory of the events by apostles and their followers. That is what matters most for those of us interested in the historical quest for Jesus. For more on Q, the Synoptic Problem, and the first-century dating of the Gospels, see The Case for Jesus, chapter 7.
Did Jesus Fulfill the Jewish Prophecies?
David Nickol: Did Jesus fulfill the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah? If the answer in Dr. Pitre's book is "yes," what are the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah that Jesus fulfilled? Also, what does it mean to "fulfill" a prophecy? Perhaps a better question would be, "What was predicted or foretold in the Old Testament about Jesus?" Or were the "prophecies" outside (and after) the Old Testament? (The word Messiah is not found in the Old Testament.)
GuineaPigDan: I guess I'll give one a shot. How come prophecies of Jesus weren't more specific, like just plainly saying "your Messiah will be Yeshua, born around 4BC and is also the 2nd Person of the Trinity and will be crucified, resurrected and end sacrifices." Having the Jews develop one idea of the Messiah but then suddenly told, "Psych! This other person was the Messiah" is a bit like reading a mystery novel where the reader didn't get a chance to guess the ending on their own.
Brant Pitre: These are both great questions. A whole book could be written on Jesus and Jewish prophecy; for now, just a couple of quick points.
First, David, I’m sorry to say that someone has misinformed you about the word “messiah” (Hebrew mashiach). This word is used dozens of times in the Old Testament—usually as a title for the “anointed” king (for example, see 1 Sam 2:10, 16:6; Ps 2:2; 89:39). Moreover, it actually occurs in the most explicit prophecy about the coming death of a future “messiah” (Hebrew mashiach) that we possess (Daniel 9:25-27).
And intriguingly—to answer your question, GuineaPigDan—this prophecy in Daniel 9 not only proclaims that the messiah will one day come and be killed, it actually foretells when this will take place: namely, some 490 years after the “going forth of the word” to restore and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple and before a final future destruction of the “sanctuary” and the city, in which “sacrifice and offering” will “cease” (Daniel 9:25-27). (Note the reference to the future ‘end’ of ‘sacrifice’ you mentioned.)
Indeed, as the first-century historian Josephus tells us, that is one reason the book of Daniel was so popular among first-century Jews, because Daniel gave a timeline for the fulfillment of his prophecies (Josephus, Ant. 10.267-68). A solid case then can be made that Daniel’s prophecies were expected by ancient Jews to be fulfilled sometime in the first century A.D.
Second, the book of Daniel wasn’t just a favorite among many ancient Jews; it seems to have been one of Jesus’ favorites as well. If you read the Synoptic Gospels carefully, you will see that Jesus’ two most frequently used expressions are (1) “the kingdom of God” and (2) “the Son of man.” Where does he get these expressions? Above all, from the book of Daniel’s oracles about the future coming of the “kingdom” of “God” (Daniel 2) and the coming of the heavenly “Son of man” (Daniel 7). Significantly, the earliest first-century Jewish interpretations of Daniels’ “Son of man” identify him as the Messiah (e.g., 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra). Once this is clear, Jesus' use of this expression to refer to himself becomes even more striking, since our earliest Jewish interpreters of Daniel also identified the fourth kingdom with the Roman empire. In other words, according to Daniel 2 and 7, the kingdom of God and the messianic Son of Man were expected to come not just ‘one day’ but sometime during the reign of the Roman empire.
So, GuineaPigDan, some prophecies are more vague, but some prophecies are quite specific—and it’s precisely these prophecies from the book of Daniel that Jesus chooses to refer to himself and to the kingdom he is bringing.
These aren’t, of course, the only kinds of “prophecies” Jesus sets out to fulfill. Jesus also engages in prophetic signs and actions that hearken back to the Old Testament, in which he ‘reenacts’ certain events from Jewish Scripture like the divine revelation of the name “I am” to Moses (see Mark 6) or the Cry of Dereliction from Psalm 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (see Mark 15), but reconfigures them around himself. This kind of fulfillment is more commonly referred to as typology or recapitulation.
There’s so much more to say. Put it this way: pretty much the entire second half of my book is devoted to examining Jesus, Jewish prophecy, and biblical typology. After reading, I don't think you’ll walk away thinking that “the Jews” had “one idea of the Messiah” and that Jesus had another. Check it out for yourself and see what you think of the evidence. See The Case for Jesus, chapters 8, 9, 11-12.
Was Jesus Wrong about the “End of the World”?
LanDroid: Huston Smith, in his classic book The World's Religions, wrote, "We know almost nothing about (Jesus); and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong—this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end." There are several passages where Jesus warns that some in his audience would see the kingdom of God in their lifetime. What are we to make of these incorrect predictions 2,000+ years later?
Brant Pitre: Important question, LanDroid. First, although I don’t go into this particular issue in The Case for Jesus, I’ve written a whole book on the Olivet Discourse (2005) and a lengthy article on Jesus’ prophecies of the destruction of Temple and the end of the world for the new Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (eds. Joel B. Green et al., IVP Academic, 2014, pp. 23-33). In that piece, I show that Jesus can’t have been “wrong” about the end of the world, since he expressly states that although “heaven and earth will pass away,” “not even the Son” knows “the day or the hour” (Mark 13:32).
Second, I find it fascinating that your question assumes that “the kingdom of God” is identical to the “end of the world.” What makes you think that? As I show in The Case for Jesus, when Jesus speaks about the Son of man and the kingdom of God, he is principally alluding to the book of Daniel, in which the “kingdom of God” does not refer to the “end of the world,” but the coming of a heavenly kingdom which will arrive sometime during the Roman empire, begin small like a little “stone”, and then spread throughout the world to become a great “mountain” (Daniel 2). In Daniel, the kingdom of God is a mysterious kingdom that has its origins in heaven but spreads throughout the whole world on earth while being ruled from heaven by the mysterious “Son of man.” This future kingdom will be ruled over by the heavenly being who is “like a Son of man” (Daniel 7) and who was identified as the “Messiah” by first century Jews (e.g., 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra).
In other words, far from showing that Jesus was “wrong” about the coming of the kingdom of God, I try to show that his prediction that the kingdom would come within the lifetime of his disciples is in fact precisely what happened. But people often misunderstand what the kingdom is. Albert Schweitzer’s great mistake was to collapse the kingdom of God and the “end of the world” into one as if they were two ways of talking about the same thing. See The Case for Jesus, chapter 8.
The Divinity of Jesus
Jason Sylly Crabtree: I'm an atheist. I believe Jesus existed, but what real support is there to the claim of his divinity (inside, and especially outside the Bible)?
Brant Pitre: This question is really at the heart of my new book. There’s no way to do it justice here. But I’ll say this: You’re probably familiar with the now common idea that Jesus only claims to be divine in the (later) Gospel of John, but not in the (earlier) Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I spend three chapters in the book showing that Jesus does claim to be divine in the Synoptic Gospels, but he does it in a very Jewish way: using riddles, parables, and, most of all, allusions to the Jewish Scriptures to both conceal his divine identity from his opponents and reveal it to his companions and those who “have the ears to hear.” I look at six or seven episodes, but here I’ll just pick one: in Mark 14, Jesus is handed over by the Sanhedrin to the Romans to be crucified under the charge of “blasphemy.” Now, despite what many Christians assume, it wasn’t blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah. How else would you know who the king was? But it was blasphemy to claim to be divine.
And so the question is this: If Jesus isn’t claiming to be divine, then why is he charged with blasphemy in the context of a question about his identity? Far from not claiming to be divine in the Synoptic Gospels, the climax of these Gospels is precisely the explosive divine claims of Jesus and his subsequent execution. In other words, to answer your question: ‘What real support is there for the divinity of Jesus?’ There are four first-century biographies agreeing that Jesus speaks and acts as if he were divine and that he was in fact charged with blasphemy because of who he claimed to be.
What about the Resurrection?
Ignatius Reilly: The only evidence we have that [Jesus' resurrection] is historical in Mark is that a few women found an empty tomb. Maybe it was the wrong one. We also have the fact that nobody expected Jesus to rise, even though Jesus supposedly kept telling them his plan. The suggestion that the disciples did not understand Jesus when he told them about his resurrection seems like a way of covering over an inconvenient historical fact.
Rick Bateman: Why did the disciples/apostles wait until after Jesus had ascended to heaven to start preaching that he had risen? Wouldn’t it have been far more effective to start preaching while he was still around? For that matter, why didn’t Jesus continue preaching while he was still around (to anyone but the disciples)? For that matter, why did Jesus leave at all? Doesn’t it seem just a little convenient, not unlike the kind of explanations they might’ve come up with later if he hadn’t really come back to life at all?
Brant Pitre: These are great questions, and I can’t do them justice here. But I think they’re related, so I’ll try to make a couple of quick points to consider.
First, Ignatius, it’s simply not true that the “only evidence” for the resurrection we possess is the empty tomb in Mark. The empty tomb is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the early Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus (since, obviously, tombs can get emptied in lots of ways besides resurrection.) As I noted above in the question on the literary genre and authorship of the Gospels, we have four first-century biographies of Jesus—attributed either to the apostles or their followers—that testify that (1) Jesus died and was buried, (2) the tomb was empty on Easter Sunday, (3) Jesus appeared on multiple occasions in his body to his disciples (including Matthew and John, to whom two of the four Gospels are attributed (see Matt 28; Mark 16:1-9; Luke 24; John 20-21).
Now, you can say that they’re all lying (as you suggest they may be), but you can’t claim we don’t have any evidence. Sure, it’s theoretically possible that all four authors are ‘covering up an inconvenient fact’, but it also possible (and I would argue much more plausible) that the disciples of Jesus really didn’t understand (or believe) what Jesus meant when he said he would die and rise again. After all, as dense as the disciples sometimes were, even they knew that ordinarily, dead people stay dead.
Second, Rick, the question of why Jesus doesn’t have the apostles start preaching before he ascends seems to be answered in the Gospels of Luke and John, which not only depict the apostles as too afraid for their own skins to go out and preach, but in which Jesus also spends those 40 days instructing the disciples about the mysteries of the kingdom and preparing them to be his “witnesses” (John 20; Luke 4).
Likewise, the question of why Jesus left all is a great question. It revolves very clearly about the meaning of the Ascension. Unfortunately, I don’t get into the Ascension much in the book. From one angle, it does indeed seem ‘convenient’ as you put it, if your goal is to cover up the fact that Jesus’ corpse was really mouldering somewhere in a tomb and never really raised. (So I ask you what I asked Ignatius: Do you think all four biographies of Jesus—including the two attributed to eyewitnesses—are deliberately deceiving their readers? If so, what’s your evidence?)
On the other hand, I would suggest that you consider the possibility that Jesus ascends into heaven precisely to fulfill the prophecy of Daniel, in which the “Son of man” ascends to the Ancient of Days to take his seat on a heavenly throne (contrary to what many assume, as James Dunn points out, the “Son of man” in Daniel 7 is ‘ascending’, not ‘descending’). It is, after all, the kingdom of “heaven.” But this doesn’t mean that Jesus ‘leaves’ (as you put it). Indeed, the whole account of the Road to Emmaus shows that the risen Jesus remains with his disciples in “the breaking of the bread.” (For more on this, see my 2011 book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.)
In the final analysis, it seems clear that throughout his public ministry and into his resurrection and beyond, Jesus does not go around shoving the mystery of his identity down people’s throats. To the contrary, he invites people to answer the question for themselves: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). In other words, he respects the freedom of his disciples and he wants them to trust him. In other words, he is not only giving motives of credibility (miracles, teaching, resurrection, etc.) for believing him (cf. John 10:38), he ultimately wants to call people to trust him, even when they can’t fully comprehend everything he says and does. This, of course, is what Christianity has traditionally referred to as “faith,” and this kind of trust is an essential part of any healthy relationship, including (and perhaps especially) a relationship with God. For more on the resurrection, history and faith, see The Case for Jesus, chapters 12-13.
Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.