The Case for Jesus:a review

by frankbeswick

This book is one of the most lucidly written works of Christian Bible scholarship that I have read.

The book, the Case for Jesus, by Bible scholar Professor Brant Pitrie of Notre Dame seminary in New Orleans is an excellent work that deserves attention from scholars and lay folk alike. While there is much in the text that I already knew, given my background in religious scholarship, I found that the book augmented my understanding. It is also clearly and concisely written, a boon to those of us who have had to wade through tomes of turgid theological prose.While being a work produced by a Roman Catholic, it is not specifically Catholic, but addresses general Christian issues.

Image courtesy of Gamopy

The Authorship of the Gospels.

A virtue in theological writing often honoured more in the breach than the observance is clarity and conciseness. Those of us who studied Theology at university have long had to labour through tomes of convoluted language, scholastic texts being some of the worst, but not exclusively. This reminds me of an instance when I was in my final year at college. A colleague had received some documents from the Vatican, which were all in Latin, so I was asked to translate. I waded my way through complex Latin sentences and abstract words,  but one line stood out as clear and easily translatable. It was a line from Jesus from one of the gospels. I paused and reflected that I had learned a lesson that day. The true master, the wise one, could speak simply. I think that Brant Pitrie has learned this lesson well.  

His target is liberal Christianity, which likes to present its debunking of traditional Christianity as objective scholarship,  whereas it is ideological driven by a yearning to take the supernatural out of Christianity and therefore fit in with the secular world. To attain this goal it has had to resort to the claim that the gospels are relatively late documents not written by the four evangelists and that the supernatural element was added later in a myth making process. To justify these claims they would need access to the supposed earlier teaching through surviving documents, though no such documents exist.

Pitrie begins by observing that the claim that the gospels were written by anonymous Christians is incredible,for readers want to know the author of a document so  as to test its credibility, they did in ancient times as we do now. Furthermore, a document dedicated to a named person, as Luke and Acts are, would never in that period be unattributed. Pitrie points out that if the gospels were anonymous we might at some time have found an anonymous version of the four gospels, but we have not, and moreover, every one of the ancient copies we find is attributed to the same author. Thus Matthew's Gospel is always attributed to Matthew and so on. Is it credible that Christians across the Mediterranean world would all arbitrarily attribute each gospel to the same person,if they were merely guessing? Not likely, and no serious scholar should insult his and his hearers intelligence with a claim like this. 

The Dating of the Gospels.

Pitrie's attack continues. He notes the liberal Christian claim that there was a period of exclusively oral transmission during which the original teaching was elaborated and disputes it. His case is based on Luke's comment at the beginning of his gospel that many had attempted to write about Jesus, and says that this indicates that there were texts earlier than Luke. This fits in with the work of Maurice Casey,a professor of Aramaic at Nottingham University, whose researches suggest an early Aramaic version from which Mark's gospel was translated. 

Moreover,Pitrie takes aim at the claim that Luke's Gospel and Acts of the Apostles were written after AD 70 by pointing out that Acts, the sequel to Luke, finishes with Paul's arrival in Rome, and that as Paul was executed in AD 65 any text written in AD 70 would have mentioned his death. That it did not indicates a date for the gospel prior to  65.  Then he notes that as Luke's Gospel contains Mark's Gospel in substantial quantities, so Mark must be older than AD 65. We see that this fits in with Casey's studies. These facts contradict the liberal Christian establishment's assertion that Mark's Gospel was written post AD70 

An argument in favour of the later date for Luke is rejected. This is the claim that as Luke contains predictions of the Roman siege of  Jerusalem it  must post-date the siege, which was in AD70. Pitrie observes that this argument makes the assumption that Jesus could not predict the future in the same way that anyone can,prophecy not withstanding. Jesus could have seen how things were going for Israel and knew what would happen, and as he like many others knew how ancient cities were besieged his supposed prophecy was just perfectly normal human thinking.

He is scathing about the Chinese Whispers theory, which compares the oral tradition of the early church with the parlour game Chinese Whispers, in which a story is changed in the telling. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that the transmission was like this, and anyway in Chinese Whispers no one has a stake in the answer. There were also living witnesses and those in contact with them who could say yeah or nay to any of the supposed productions that emerged from the Chinese Whisper process. He denies that this account of early Christianity has any credibility at all.      

The Divinity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

Liberal scholarship makes out that there is no support for Jesus' divinity in the Synoptic Gospels and that as the Gospel of John, which makes the claim for Jesus' divinity was the last canonical gospel written, it is clear that the belief that Jesus is divine was not  part of the original message. Pitrie takes aim at this claim, stating that the divinity of Jesus is present, but couched in Jewish language. He analyses the conceptual background to Jesus' proclamation of God's kingdom, but focuses on three incidents.

Pitrie begins with Jesus' walking on water to point out that the English translation of his words to the Apostles does the gospel no justice. We are told that Jesus meant to pass them by, but said, "It is  I." But the phrase "pass them by" in the Moses story denotes what God does when he visits his people. Moreover, the words  "It is I" are a mistranslation of ego eimi, which means I am. "I am " is the name for God, which we know as Yahweh and its misspelling Jehovah. This, according to Pitrie is  a gentle revelation of who Jesus truly is. A similar revelation comes in the story of the calming of the storm."Who is he that the winds and waves  obey him?" For the Jews only God was lord of the winds and the waves. Again, a quiet demonstration that Jesus was more than human.

The words I am are used by Jesus in his self-revelation to Caiphas, who asked Jesus whether he is the Christ. "I am and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming on the clouds of heaven." In this we have a  coming together of titles that constitutes a self-revelation of a special status. What is more, there are seven I am sayings in John's Gospel that are regarded by liberal scholars as late additions to the Jesus tradition, but Pitrie's observations indicate that they are not Johannine theological elaboration, but are genuine parts of the Jesus story. 

Finally Pitrie turns to the Transfiguration, which liberal scholars dismiss as a post-resurrection experience wrongly placed. But the content of the transfiguration, which contains references to Jesus' coming passion, are inconsistent with this view. Furthermore,Pitrie points out that Moses and Elijah, who appear talking to Jesus. both had experiences of God but did not  see him face  to face, and as they now see is face the story is hinting that in Jesus they finally see the face of God. Yet another hint of Jesus' divinity in the synoptic gospels.

I have not given an  exhaustive account of the book, for there is more in this well-written volume that will repay the reader's time and commitment. Truth is often spoken simply, and in its lucid prose this book speaks the truths of the Christian faith in concise, simple language. I commend it to you  

Updated: 07/06/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 07/07/2017

His uttering the words "I am"in the Jewish context indicate that he knew what he was saying. Any and every Jew would have picked up the meaning.

frankbeswick on 07/07/2017

"I am the Bread of life; no one who comes to me will ever hunger." The sentence is easy to translate, with no grammatical complexities and a simple vocabulary. That is what made it stand out from the grammatically complex Latin in which the church documents were couched.

blackspanielgallery on 07/06/2017

An excellent review. Indeed, the references to Jesus' divinity might have eluded Jesus Himself, if He had not yet, in His human form, come to a full understanding. Of course as a member of the Godhead in Heaven He would always have understood His true nature. It is possible Hos human nature was inspired by His divine nature to choose the words used,

DerdriuMarriner on 07/06/2017

FrankBeswick, What was the statement by Jesus that so impressed you in the Latin that you were translating?

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