In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis posed his famous trilemma: based on what we read in Scripture, Jesus Christ was either a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Anyone who said the things he said and did the things he did must either be a great deceiver (a liar), a confused or crazy man (a lunatic), or God himself.
However, for many modern skeptics, there’s a fourth alternative which Lewis didn’t include: legend. Perhaps we can’t trust the Biblical narratives about Jesus. Maybe they’ve been altered through the centuries much like an extended child’s game of “telephone.” And if that’s the case, we have no reliable information about who Jesus was or what he did.
But is that really the case? Dr. Brant Pitre tackles many of these challenges in his newest book, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016). Pitre, the bestselling author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, goes back to the sources—the biblical and historical evidence for Christ—in order to answer several key questions, including:
• Were the four Gospels really anonymous?
• Are the Gospels folklore? Or are they biographies?
• Were the four Gospels written too late to be reliable?
• What about the so-called “Lost Gospels,” such as “Q” and the Gospel of Thomas?
• Did Jesus claim to be God?
• Is Jesus divine in all four Gospels? Or only in John?
• Did Jesus fulfill the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah?
• Why was Jesus crucified?
• What is the evidence for the Resurrection?
Today, Dr. Pitre sits down with Brandon Vogt to discuss how recent discoveries in New Testament scholarship, as well as neglected evidence from ancient manuscripts and the early church fathers, together have the potential to pull the rug out from under a century of skepticism toward the traditional Gospels. Above all, Pitre shows how the divine claims of Jesus of Nazareth can only be understood by putting them in their ancient Jewish context.
QUESTION: Let’s start with a basic question: why this book and why now?
DR. PITRE: Because skepticism and confusion about Jesus and the origin of the Gospels is everywhere, and it’s spreading.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how they sent their sons and daughters off to college, only to have them come home agnostics or atheists. Over and over again I’ve been asked: Can you recommend a book for them?
Nor can I count the number of students I’ve taught over the years who’ve imbibed, from elsewhere, any number of historically unfounded claims about Jesus and the Gospels. It’s now standard fare for students to walk away from university classrooms thinking that that the Gospels were originally “anonymous”; that we have no idea who wrote them; that they certainly weren’t written by eyewitnesses; that the stories in the Gospels are like the end-product of an ancient “telephone game”; that the Gospels are more like “folklore” than biographies; that Jesus of Nazareth never actually claimed to be God; and that he only claims to be divine in the later Gospel of John—not the earlier Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
I finally decided that the problem was so widespread that I needed to write something myself. So I did. I wrote The Case for Jesus for anyone—believer, unbeliever, or a little bit of both—who’s ever wondered: How did we get the Gospels? Who did Jesus claim to be? And why does it all matter?
QUESTION: As you say, many skeptics dismiss the Bible, thinking it’s little better than the “telephone game” played at kid’s parties, where a message is whispered from one ear to another and usually ends up completely garbled. If the Biblical testimony was passed down for many years before it was ever recorded in writing, how can it be trustworthy?
DR. PITRE: Well, to be frank, the four Gospels wouldn’t be reliable accounts if that’s how they were written. The whole point of the telephone game is to change the original story so that everyone gets a good laugh at the end.
The problem is of course that the telephone game analogy is completely anachronistic and simplistic—to say nothing of being academically irresponsible. It has no place in any serious book about Jesus. And yet it is still taught by skeptics everywhere as if it were a helpful analogy for how we got the Gospels.
To the contrary, as I show in The Case for Jesus, when you look at the actual historical evidence (instead of appealing to a ridiculous modern-day children’s game), you’ll find something quite different: you will discover that the four Gospels are in fact ancient Greco-Roman biographies, based on the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ students and their followers, and written within the lifetime of the apostles. You’ll also see some of the striking differences between the four first-century Gospels and the so-called “lost Gospels”—such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas—and why these later texts are not reliable sources for the life of Jesus.
QUESTION: Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman claims that all four Gospels were originally published without any headings or titles identifying the authors, and that it was years later—perhaps more than a century—when Christians added the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in an attempt to give the manuscripts more authority. Ehrman concludes that because we don’t know the original authors, we can’t be sure the Gospels contain reliable, eyewitness testimony from people who actually knew Jesus and his disciples. Is there anything wrong with this “theory of the anonymous Gospels”?
DR. PITRE: Yes. My book begins by taking the reader step-by-step through the serious difficulties with the now widespread theory that the Gospels were originally anonymous.
First problem: no anonymous manuscripts of the Gospels have ever been found. The reason? They don’t exist. That’s a big problem for anyone who wants to claim that “originally” they were anonymous. History is supposed to work with actual evidence.
Second problem: the idea that all four Gospels circulated anonymously for almost a century before somehow miraculously being attributed to exactly the same authors by scribes spread throughout the Roman empire is completely incredible.
Finally, if you were going to falsely attribute your anonymous Gospel to an author in order to give it “authority,” then why would you choose Mark and Luke, neither of whom was an eyewitness to Jesus? If authority is what you were after, why not attribute your anonymous Gospel to Peter, or Andrew, or for that matter, Jesus himself?
As I try to show, the theory of the anonymous Gospels is both unhistorical (it has no actual text-critical manuscript evidence to support it) and uncritical (it doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny).
QUESTION: How can we be sure that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah in Israel? We know of other historical figures who claimed the same thing. So what’s special about Jesus’ claim?
DR. PITRE: This is a great question. One of my other favorite chapters in the book is where I show why the earliest Christians—who were all Jewish Christians—came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact he long-awaited Jewish Messiah.
In large part, the answer revolves around Jesus’ two favorite expressions: “the Kingdom of God” and the “Son of Man.” As I show in the book, both of these expressions are drawn directly from the book of Daniel. Significantly, Daniel’s prophecies were interpreted by first-century Jews as not only foretelling the coming of the Messiah, but as actually giving a timeline for when he would arrive.
I can’t go into the details here, but if you get the book you’ll see that the prophecies in Daniel suggested to ancient Jews that the Messiah would actually come sometime in the first century, during the time of the Roman empire. In the midst of this fervent messianic expectation steps Jesus of Nazareth, who identifies himself with the Danielic “Son of Man” and the “Kingdom of God” and whose very death will take place at the time that Daniel says a future “messiah” would be killed.
Whenever I share this information with my students, they are often blown away. Most modern-day Christians are almost completely unaware that the book of Daniel even gives a timeline for the coming of the Messiah, much less how Jesus’ life fits into it. However, this was widely known by ancient Christians and one of their favorite arguments for showing that Jesus didn’t just claim to be the Messiah; he was actually “pre-announced” and fulfilled the messianic timetable given in the book of Daniel
QUESTION: Some scholars say that although Jesus may have been the Messiah, he never claimed to be God (except, perhaps, in the Gospel of John which, they assert, was written much later than the other Gospels and is thus unreliable). But is this true? Did Jesus think he was God? Is this evident in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, or elsewhere outside of John?
DR. PITRE: The question of whether or not Jesus claimed to be God is really at the heart of the book.
These days, it’s standard fare for skeptics to argue that Jesus is only depicted as divine in the Gospel of John and that he never makes any divine claims in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
This remarkably widespread idea is, to be frank, demonstrably false. As I show in the book, Jesus does indeed claim to be divine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But he does so in a very Jewish way: using riddles, parables, and allusions to the Jewish Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) to both reveal and conceal his identity. However, if you don’t know your Old Testament well—and let’s face it, many contemporary readers don’t—then you won’t see it. You won’t understand clearly what Jesus is saying about himself and who he is really claiming to be. In other words, many people (including some scholars) miss the Jewish roots of Jesus’ divinity.
Indeed, as you will see if you read the book, if you want to deny that Jesus claims to be divine in the Synoptic Gospels, then you had better be ready to eliminate a lot of evidence. To be sure, Jesus is fully human in the Synoptic Gospels—but he is also much more than just a man.
QUESTION: There has been much debate among Bible scholars about what the early Christians meant when they claimed Jesus had been “resurrected.” What did they not mean by that idea, and what did they mean?
DR. PITRE: Well, when the Jewish disciples claimed Jesus was raised from the dead, they were certainly not claiming that he had simply been resuscitated, or that his “spirit” lived on in the hearts of his followers, or that his “soul” had “gone to heaven” after he died. That’s just not what “resurrection” meant in a first-century Jewish context.
Instead, what they were claiming was that Jesus was now alive again in the same body that had been crucified, and that he would never die again. In other words, they didn’t go around preaching the immortality of Jesus’ soul; they proclaimed the resurrection of his body.
From the beginning, the bodily resurrection of Jesus was one of the most controversial claims made by Jesus’ disciples. In the final chapters of the book, I take a close look at the actual evidence the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection. (This makes it a perfect book for Lent and Easter!) But I also do something unique. Most books ignore the primary reason that the first Jewish Christians believed in the resurrection: they saw it as a fulfillment of Scripture. I try to show which prophecies from the Old Testament they believed Jesus had fulfilled and why the argument from Jewish Scripture was such a powerful motive of credibility for believing in the Resurrection.
QUESTION: Suppose you meet a Catholic college student who has sat through a few Introduction to New Testament lectures and is now reeling. The professor planted in his mind the seeds of skepticism, causing him to doubt his faith, the Scriptures, and even Jesus himself. What would you say?
DR. PITRE: That’s easy. I would tell them to read The Case for Jesus!
But seriously—I would first ask the student if he could briefly explain the arguments both for and against the truth of the Gospels and the divinity of Jesus. In my experience, students who have been shaken by skeptical scholarship almost invariably have often only heard one side of the argument.
That, at least, is what happened to me when I first began studying the historical debates over how we got the Gospels and who Jesus claimed to be. Almost twenty years ago now, I went through a very dark period where I almost lost my faith (more about that in the book). I was exposed to the more skeptical arguments, but was unaware of any of the counter evidence—the manuscripts of the Gospels, the evidence from the early church fathers, the Jewish meaning of Jesus’ divine claims in the Synoptic Gospels, etc.
In the final analysis, that’s why I wrote The Case for Jesus. I wanted to put all of the key issues on the table in a readable book, give people both sides of the argument, and let them judge the evidence for themselves.