Brant Pitre is an American Catholic theologian and layman who serves as professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, La. Professor Pitre holds a Ph.D. in Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He also holds an M.T.S. in biblical studies from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. in philosophy and English literature from Louisiana State University. His books include Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans 2015), Jesus the Bridegroom (Image 2014) and Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (Doubleday 2011). He is also a public speaker and has produced a variety of audio and video Scripture studies.
Professor Pitre, who lives with his wife and four children in Covington, La., also serves as a senior fellow a the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. His most recent book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, was published Feb. 2 by Image Books. On Feb. 1, I interviewed him by email about the book.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote the book because confusion about Jesus and the origin of the Gospels is everywhere, and it’s spreading.
For example, every year, right around Easter, a flurry of popular-level books, articles and television documentaries are released claiming to reveal the long-lost “truth” about Jesus: e.g., that he was really a Zealot, or that he was really married to Mary Magdalene, or that he was really a first-century Cynic sage, or that previously unknown “gospels” have finally been unearthed, and that these books threaten to shake the very foundations of classical Christianity, and so on.
At the very same time that all of this is going on in the popular culture, contemporary New Testament scholarship—especially in the last decade or so—has been producing a remarkable number of fresh studies of Jesus and the origin of the Gospels. For example, in recent years, there have been several award-winning books on the origin of the Gospels, the literary genre of the Gospels, new studies of the Synoptic Problem and the dating of the Gospels, and literally dozens of fantastic books on Jesus and first-century Judaism.
In my experience, most Catholics have heard lots about the wild-eyed theories out there—theories usually designed to call into question the claims of historic Christianity. However, many Catholics are often not very familiar with recent developments in serious New Testament scholarship. And if they are familiar with scholarly works, it is often with books that are now quite dated. For example: for much of the 20th century it was widely assumed that the Gospels are not Greco-Roman biographies; Jesus was often pitted against his first-century Jewish environment; and a kind of “dogma” arose claiming that Jesus is not depicted as divine in the earlier Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but only in the later Gospel of John.
A lot of that is changing. The sands of scholarship are shifting in new and exciting ways. To be sure, there are still lots of debates, and there always will be. In The Case for Jesus, however, I wanted to share some of the most recent developments regarding the origin of the Gospels and the identity of Jesus with a wider reading public—developments that stand in striking contrast to some of the more radical skepticism that gets lots of airtime in contemporary pop culture.
Who are you writing for?
The book is written for a general audience. To be sure, it’s filled with lots of up-to-date scholarship (there are over 400 endnotes!)—but I try to make both the scholarship and the evidence accessible to the average reader. Ultimately, it’s for anyone who’s ever wondered: How did we get the Gospels? And who does Jesus of Nazareth claim to be?
In a way, it’s a kind of popular level response to questions that I have been asked over and over again during the last 12 years of teaching as a professor in the classroom, questions such as: Who wrote the Gospels? When were they written? How do we know? What kind of books are the Gospels? What do we make of the so-called “Lost Gospels”? Did Jesus claim to be God? Why did the first Jewish Christians think he was the Messiah? Why was he was crucified? Why did his first followers believe he had been raised from the dead? And so on.
These are all good questions. And contemporary New Testament scholarship has lots to say about them—much of which, sadly, has still not made its way into the hands of the wider reading public. So, instead of writing lengthy responses every year to individual queries, I thought it would be helpful to put into one place my answers to what I consider some of the most important questions about Jesus and the Gospels. That way, I can refer inquiring minds to the book. My hope is that readers will read it, judge the evidence for themselves and hopefully become more familiar with the scholarly debates in the process.
What do you mean by “the case for Jesus” in your title?
That’s a good question. There’s an outlook that theologians refer to as fideism. It can be defined as “the tendency to undervalue the role of reason in examining religious claims and to overemphasize the free decision of faith.” (Gerald O’Collins, S.J., and Edward G. Farrugia, S.J., A Concise Dictionary of Theology [Mahwah: Paulist, 2000], 90). Over the years, I’ve noticed a kind of creeping fideism among some of my students.
For example, some students think that historical-critical investigation—i.e., using reason to explore the historical origins of Christianity—is a threat to faith. I don’t share that view. To the contrary, I think historical criticism is essential to the task of biblical exegesis. I also think it’s important for mature Christians to be able to approach their faith from the perspective of both faith and reason, both theology and history. Christianity is a religion that makes historical claims; so, to history it must go. So what I wanted to do in this book is explain from a historical perspective the origin of the Gospels and the identity of Jesus. This is a book that is written from the perspective of faith, but drawing on the results of contemporary historical research.
What is the “Biblical and historical evidence for Christ” referenced in your subtitle?
Well, you’ll have to read the book to find that out! I don’t want to give too much away. Here are some of the chapter titles:
- Were the Gospels Anonymous?
- The Titles of the Gospels
- The Early Church Fathers
- The Lost Gospels
- Are the Gospel Biographies?
- The Dating of the Gospels
- Jesus and the Jewish Messiah
- Did Jesus Think He Was God?
- Why Was Jesus Crucified?
- The Resurrection
As you can see, the book deals with what I consider to be some of the most important topics for answering key questions about Jesus and Gospel origins.
How does your work at the seminary relate to this book?
Teaching at a seminary has taught me the importance of holding together both faith and reason, both theology and history. That combination of fides quaerens intellectum (“Faith seeking understanding”) is very much at the heart of this book.
What is the goal of your writing and work?
To search for the truth to the best of my ability, to share what I find and to help people better understand the Scriptures. Along the way, I try to present different sides of various scholarly debates as fairly as possible and let the readers judge the arguments and the evidence for themselves.
How has your faith evolved or changed during the course of your work as a biblical scholar?
Over the years, I have become more and more convinced that you cannot really understand the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels unless you interpret them in their first-century Jewish context. The more I study Second Temple Judaism—the Judaism of Jesus’ day—the more I feel that I grow to understand both Jesus and early Christianity. At the heart of The Case for Jesus is the claim that you cannot really grasp who Jesus is claiming to be in the Gospels—especially the Synoptic Gospels—unless you interpret his words and his actions in that first-century Jewish context. In other words, a deeper understanding of Judaism leads to a deeper and more mature Christian faith.
Who have been the biggest influences on your faith and writing?
When it comes to my writing, two of the biggest influences are my former professors: Father John P. Meier (of the University of Notre Dame) and Amy-Jill Levine (of Vanderbilt University). They are both brilliant scholars, amazing teachers and excellent writers. Father Meier’s multi-volume series on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, was the book that actually inspired me to want to be a New Testament scholar. Dr. Levine, who is both Jewish and a Professor of New Testament, helped me learn to read the Gospels through ancient Jewish eyes. I could not have written The Case for Jesus without what I learned from her about the Jewish matrix of early Christianity.
Finally, Father Meier taught me never to accept a scholarly consensus just because it is the consensus, but to always go back to the primary sources and re-examine the evidence for myself. That’s one thing I tried to do in The Case for Jesus: go back to the sources.
When it comes to my faith, the biggest influence on me has been my wife Elizabeth. She grew up in the Protestant tradition, and from an early age challenged me to study Scripture much more carefully than I was used to growing up as a Catholic. She also has a very pure heart and has helped me to grow in faith in ways I cannot even begin to explain. When I was in graduate school, I went through a pretty dark period where, for a number of reasons that I go into in the book, I almost lost my faith completely. She stuck with me through it all. I’ve learned more from her than any book.
What’s your next project?
I’ve got several in the works: an edited collection of essays on Paul; a full-length introduction to the New Testament for graduate students; and a scholarly monograph on Jesus and the origins of early high Christology, which will treat some of the topics covered in The Case for Jesus but with greater depth than was possible in such a short book.
Your specialty is the Bible. What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
An impossible question. But if I must, it would be: “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). With all of the suffering and violence in the world today, it’s easy to become discouraged. I like that Jesus here commands his disciples to be cheerful. I need that. I need to hear that the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not overcome it.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about sacred Scripture, what would it be?
I would thank him for calling attention to the centrality of the message of mercy in the New Testament. Reading Francis’ The Face of Mercy really took my breath away. I can't remember the last time I read something that immediately and radically transformed the way I see Jesus and how I read the entire Bible. Pope Francis helped me see a central theme that I had been overlooking in my reading and teaching of Scripture.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
St. Jerome famously said: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I hope that in some small way I can help people dive more deeply into Scripture and, by doing so, encounter the person of Jesus Christ.
Any final thoughts?
Almost everyone I know has someone in their family or circle of friends who struggles with their faith or who may not yet have encountered the person of Jesus in the Gospels. I also know lots of Catholic high school and college-level teachers who tell me that atheism and agnosticism is remarkably widespread among their Catholic students. If you know someone who is struggling with their faith, or someone who just has lots of questions about Jesus, then I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of The Case for Jesus—read it first yourself!—and then consider sharing it with them. Maybe, in some small way, it might help expand their knowledge, strengthen their faith and, in that way, equip them to better explain and share that faith with others.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.