April 10, 2016
Attending Bob Jones University made me skeptical of fundamentalists. Attending Oxford University made me skeptical of liberals. I came to question the Bob Jonesers’ young-earth creationism and their Biblical literalism, but at Oxford I learned to question the assumptions (and therefore the conclusions) of the liberals’ Biblical criticism, their doubt about the historical Jesus and their unsparing deconstruction of the Biblical texts and their authorship.
By the time I was finished studying theology at Oxford I felt like the boy in the emperor’s parade, but there were two emperors—the fundamentalist and the liberal scholar—and they were both naked.
The granddaddy of the liberal Biblical scholars was Rudolph Bultmann who believed there was next to nothing we could know about the historical Jesus. The old joke is that Bultmann was asked how he would react if archeologists discovered the bones of Jesus Christ. Bultmann would reply, “So he existed after all?”
Bultmann’s de-mythologizing theories were the product of over three hundred years of increasingly skeptical scholarship combined with early twentieth century academic fascination with folklore and myth. It was all the rage to study the development of religion and religious literature, so Bultmann and his followers decided that the New Testament was the result of religious myth building. This academic fashion item combined with their deep-seated Protestant skepticism produced the foundation for modern Biblical scholarship. The weak point in their theorizing is that they knew next to nothing about the Jewish context of the New Testament.
My seminary education at Oxford in the 1980s was the product of a long line of New Testament liberal scholarship. I remember being told that the entire New Testament had to be dated after 70 AD because Jesus had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. Because prophecy was impossible, the gospels which record Jesus’ glimpse into the future had to be written after the event, and if they were written after 70 AD then Jesus disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could not be the authors of the gospels ascribed to them.
I was critical of the critics. Their theory only worked because they assumed prophecy of the future was impossible, but this ruled out a supernatural cause for the prophecy without discussion simply because they deemed the supernatural to be impossible. It was like Hume’s circular dismissal of miracles: “Miracles can’t happen because miracles are impossible.”
Furthermore, it seemed to me that one didn’t even have to posit the supernatural to allow that “prophecy” can happen. Jesus only needed a basic understanding of human psychology, history, current events, and politics to predict ultimate disaster for the Jews if they didn’t change their ways. One does not kick against the armies of Imperial Rome without consequences.
Nevertheless, various scholars still promote what these increasingly out-of-date theories. The most well-known have managed to package their scholarship in attractive little books for a popular audience. Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman are among them. Mr. Ehrman is best known and has made a name as a New Testament scholar and popular author. A former Evangelical Christian, now an atheist, Mr. Ehrman is heavily invested in the promotion of his own literature that debunks the Bible.
Scholars like Mr. Ehrman wear their long list of academic accomplishments like the emperor’s new clothes. Without their qualifications it is difficult to question their conclusions. Their authority as published experts would seem unassailable. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of boys in the crowd watching the emperor’s parade who can expose their nakedness. Which brings me to Brant Pitre….
Mr. Pitre is no academic slouch. Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, he holds a Masters from Vanderbilt and a Ph.D. in Christianity and Jewish Antiquity from Notre Dame. Whereas Mr. Ehrman’s background is in established Protestant Biblical textual criticism, Mr. Pitre’s area of expertise is the contemporary Jewish context of the gospels. Mr. Pitre’s main assertion is that to understand the true meaning of the New Testament we must understand the Jewish cultural and religious context in which from which it originated. Picking through the texts without understanding the wider context is relatively fruitless and will lead to false conclusions. This in itself is a brilliant stroke of common sense. Imagine reading say, Dante’s Divine Comedy but not bothering to learn about the culture, language and worldview of medieval Catholic Italy.
Mr. Pitre’s new book The Case for Jesus attacks the foundation of modern Biblical scholarship and in the process calls out the naked emperor Mr. Ehrman. There are two basic foundations on which the modern theories stand: the late dating of the gospels and their subsequent anonymous authorship. Mr. Pitre takes apart the idea that the gospels must have been written after 70 A.D. and suggests another definitive date. Instead of basing the theories of dating around the destruction of Jerusalem, Mr. Pitre argues, we should use the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in 65 A.D. under Nero.
The theory goes like this: The Acts of the Apostles ends with Peter and Paul still living. It was therefore written before 65 A.D. Acts was the second of Luke’s volumes. If Acts is composed before 65 A.D. then the gospel of Luke preceded it. If (as the textual critics insist) Luke was dependent on Matthew and Mark, then Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels were also composed before 65 A.D. This moves all the gospels back to around 60 A.D.—fewer than thirty years after the death of Jesus.
Scholars like Mr. Ehrman argue that because the gospels were written decades after the events, they must have been anonymous. However Mr. Pitre shows that there are virtually no anonymous manuscripts of the gospels in existence. From the earliest dates they were ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These two basic arguments are presented solidly and cogently in an irenic and professional manner.
Mr. Pitre’s expertise in the first-century Jewish context of the gospels provides the skill set for him to examine the other main question of the book, “Did Jesus really present himself as God incarnate?” Mr. Ehrman & Co. dismiss the idea of the divine Jesus as a late Hellenic invention while Mr. Pitre shows the claims to divinity for Jesus of Nazareth to be completely consistent with first-century Jewish hopes and beliefs.
Mr. Pitre’s book is a must read for all who are even the least bit interested in New Testament scholarship. It is written in an accessible and winning style, and I’m delighted to learn that Mr. Pitre is working on a new Introduction to New Testament studies. Let’s hope the new generation of scholars like Mr. Pitre will continue to be the boys at emperor Ehrman’s parade, and as the greying atheists like Mr. Ehrman retire, a new breed of scholars with sharper brains, fresh insights, and a more balanced approach will step into their shoes.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a graduate of Oxford University. He is the author of sixteen books and contributes to many magazines, papers and journals includingCrisis, Integrated Catholic Life, National Catholic Register and Intercollegiate Review. Visit his blog at Standing on My Head, read his latest book The Romance of Religion and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com