What pop culture gets wrong about Jesus: Q&A with Brant Pitre

Dr. Brant Pitre (Image Books)

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
3 years 3 months ago
Good interview. I look forward to ordering the book. Couple of observations though: 1) Historical critical method is only one approach in a toolbox of approach to biblical exegesis advocated in that magisterial document entitled Verbum Dei. Rarely, in my opinion is there discussions of other methodologies in the toolbox. This suggests to me that the Approach embraced by America Magazine is starting to get stale, and perhaps a little too accustomed to it "comfortable pew" in recent decades. Just a thought on America's current "binary" approach to scripture study. Using persons that are not co-religionists in my opinion is not sufficient cover in my opinion. 2) I find it interesting that practically every scholar (including Catholics) seems to work out of a paradigm that takes for granted that from a Catholic perspective, Judaism is another Religion. JUDAISM IS NOT ANOTHER RELIGION BUT IS THE FOUNDATION OF CATHOLIC CHRISTIANITY. (Thought I would put in caps so that people get the message, after all,we are talking Religion here, not about ticking off boxes at census time). 3) Some very astute modern scholars are starting to detect instances (especially in St Paul's writings) wherein its apparent that he is quoting Aramaic hymns or expressions because of the way the Greek is constructed. Best analogy I have heard is exemplified today whenever one hears a Russian speak English. This seems to suggest that the underlying message is deemed so important that St Paul himself thought it best not to translate free-form. I would love to get feedback on this point... I will be ordering the book from Amazon today... in Christ, On the Memorial of St Blase
Crystal Watson
3 years 3 months ago
It's interesting to see a contemporary scholarly Catholic book on the NT and Jesus. I've been reading too stuff by Candida Moss, Felix Just SJ, and Mark Goodacre.
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 3 months ago

Thanks everyone for reading. Let's continue to share good resources with people in our lives who are striving to grow and mature in faith.

Crystal Watson
3 years 3 months ago
I'm curious - what happens when a Catholic NT scholar comes across scripture that contradicts Catholic doctrine, like Jesus' siblings and Mary's perpetual virginity?
William Rydberg
3 years 3 months ago
First off, you can't stop anybody from wanting to believe what they want. Speculation on who Jesus is run the gamut. But if one is serious, there is an answer to questions you have raised. The best English language Catholic Apologetics website is Catholic Answers. God bless... Christ is Risen!
Crystal Watson
3 years 3 months ago
I'm not curious about the question of whether Jesus had siblings or not, but about Catholic NT scholars .... I'm wondering what they do when scripture and Catholic teaching conflict.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 3 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I read your scholarly posting all the time and there is much with which I can agree. Your fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to the Catholic Church is admirable. And your humility discernible through frequent reminders its only “my opinion,” gives redemption to what I do find irritating. I guess that’s the right word. If I’m misunderstanding your good intentions, I apologize as I do not relish engaging in rash judgments. Even righteous judgments make me cringe. What am I saying? Well, simply, collective in your postings, it seems that God in Jesus Christ is a demanding Task Master, a stern frowning Master, who gives his children (us) a piece of “candy” (a virtue or some material benefit) with one hand, while holding a whip in the other hand. The command, eat the candy only as he says, when he says, where he says,, how he says, and if not done as ordered, the whip cracks, teaching how to obey, no ifs, ands, or buts! I think that’s the general tenor. That’s the kind of God in Jesus I grew up with in the 30s/40s/50s the Holy Task Master, in the Sky, kids trained from Mama’s knee to address Him as “Poppa God” a “Poppa” who gives good things without a smile, to be used exactly as He decides or He will surely say at death when loving assurance is mostly needed, “Damn you! Go to Hell!” I have to confess, as an adult if I believed God to be so nasty, I would turn away from the Catholic Church, all religion and be agnostic, even atheistic! Now I know that God in Jesus is nothing as just described. Quite the contrary, really! So gentle and caring is God in Jesus, that even Hell was designed as a “comfort zone” so to speak, for the demons, whom after their Rebellion would have found it a greater torment to remain in the presence of God, so detested was He by them, that to soften their pain God “cast them out.” This Act of Mercy by God is recorded in Franciscan Speculative Theology, the teaching of Duns Scotus? Or perhaps Bonaventure? Or another Franciscan theologian. To this teaching I adhere and surely should expect no less mercy for erring humanity heart-sick and more. I dare say I think Holy Father Francis feels pretty much the same way . I’ve said this before on another site, at another time, but I repeat it here because its seems to me imperative. In her Diary St. Faustina Kowalska Visionary and Spoke Person for Divine Mercy records Jesus saying, “Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to My Merciful heart!” I find it comforting that Jesus admits that humanity is “aching” all of us in some way. Divine Mercy then tells aching humanity to “snuggle close to His Merciful Heart.” Two kinds of people “snuggle” little children to parents for comfort and lovers, one to the other in legitimate embrace. So, Divine Mercy is saying that we should all be like “little children,” like “lovers” in relation to Jesus God. This surely uncomplicates religious life and makes spirituality seem like something doable, livable. Mr. Rydberg, in a nutshell that’s all I meant to say. Do you agree? No offence meant.
William Rydberg
3 years 3 months ago
You are entitled to your opinion although I really have a laid-back temperament in person when it comes to the Faith, it's not like I can change anybody's mind. That's what the Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium in the Trinity is for... In my opinion... My philosophy is Catholic to the core: "Let Jesus Christ-God come in the flesh be the judge". - St David said it best in I think yesterday's Mass Reading when he said it is better to fall into God's hands rather than Man's... Finally, I appreciate you sharing some personal recollections as it was in your past, but I ask you to consider that some of the tasteless things that you experienced may have been influenced by the Enemy. It's not like he only just showed up. Just a thought, feel free to dismiss... in Christ
Bruce Snowden
3 years 3 months ago
Thanks Mr, Rydberg for your well considered response to my post. No, I don't easily "dismiss" what you say. I do admire your firm commitment to Jesus and the Catholic Church and also your obvious humility, which the Ancients say is "the beginning of wisdom."
Sandi Sinor
3 years 3 months ago
The "God" you describe was pretty much how God was presented before Vatican II. You were not alone. However, I take some exception to quoting Faustina, whose understanding of God goes well beyond God as stern judge, but describes God as torturer. The book sounds interesting but as book money is a scarce resource, I will wait for reviews before buying. You might be interested in this review, in America, of one of Brant Pitre's earlier books. http://americamagazine.org/content/good-word/brant-pitres-jesus-and-jewish-roots-eucharist
Bruce Snowden
3 years 3 months ago
Hi Sandi, I don't know what Faustina meant by calling God a "torturer." Don't recall ever seeing that remark by her. Perhaps she considered love which God is, a "torture" a yearing, an unfulfilled need to be "one with" the beloved, a "come close but not too close" invitation the kind of stuff those of us who have loved have experienced, the kind of thing saints speak of, like Francis of Assisis' "Who are You my God and who am I, a poor little worm Your servant" - you know, "saint talk." Or maybe Faustina made the same mistake that Biblical writers did - attributing to God, human flaws. Just don't know. The important point is to reflect on what Divine Mercy said.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 3 months ago
Faustina does not call God a "torturer". Her description of hell implies that God's anger is so fierce towards "unrepentant" sinners that God makes sure they are tortured, endure unbelievable suffering throughout all eternity. Forever and ever.Today, I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! The kinds of tortures I saw: the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one’s condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it, a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God’s anger; the fifth torture is conditional darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of satan, the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, She writes of some of her fellow sisters:the rule concerning silence should stand in the very first place. God does not give Himself to a chattering soul which, like a drone in a beehive, buzzes around but gathers no honey. A talkative soul is empty inside. It lacks both the essential virtues and intimacy with God. A deeper interior life, one of gentle peace and of that silence where the Lord dwells, is quite out of the question. A soul that has never tasted the sweetness of inner silence is a restless spirit which disturbs the silence of others. I have seen many souls in the depths of hell for not having kept their silence; they told me so themselves when I asked them what was the cause of their undoing. These were souls of religious...Would God really condemn sisters who have devoted their lives to religious service to suffer unbelievabley because they are talkative? Bruce, do you believe that God would create human beings and let some of them (huge numbers actually, according to Faustina, including talkative religious sisters) suffer horribly for all eternity? Do you believe that it is possible for a normal (not mentally ill) human being to truly know God and still reject God? Do human beings commit evil? Of course. But if a human being ever truly experiences God's love, it is doubtful they would ever choose evil with "full knowledge" and "full consent". If God is all embracing, all encompassing love, and someone truly experiences and knows this love - the love of a snuggling up parent or the love of a lover, it is very unlikely that they could commit a "mortal" sin that would damn them for all eternity to horrific suffering. It requires three things - grave matter, full consent and full knowledge - a deliberate decision to reject the good and reject God. The only way a normal person could choose this would be if they did not know God, did not know God's love. Saying that people would choose this through free will ignores that knowing God and God's love in this way is probably a fairly rare experience for even committed religious people, who often believe from hope rather than from experience. Many might say that Sr. Faustina had a very vivid imagination, one that was y overly influenced by a certain type of religiousity that was too common for too much of christian history. Perhaps she had too much silence, too much time for her imagination to take over. Perhaps she needed a bit of lively chatter with the other sisters to move her away from such horrible ideas about God. Anyway, quite a diversion from the subject at hand, which is Mr. Pitre's new book.
Bruce Snowden
3 years 3 months ago
Hi Sandi, - The last paragraph of your quoted dissertation explains somewhat Sister Faustina's misunderstandings. God tortures no one, not even the Fallen Angels. They, I believe, are the originators of their own Hell of regret and remorse, all of them highly intelligent, flabbergasted that they could be so stupid as to let "pride of being" blind good judgment. Again I have recourse to Franciscan Speculative Theology to discover that Trinitarian revelations to the Angelics that the Second Person would take on an animal form as Man, to become Redeemer made some of the Angels led by Lucifer which means "Bearer of Light" refuse to accept that Divine decision. "We will not serve!" they said at having to bow down in adoration to a creature of a lower nature than theirs, the Second Person as Man, their "pride of being" causing them to be mercifully cast out by their Creator. They caused the problem - Faustina and many others exaggerate the end result, truly terrible but not as horrid as some would let frightened imaginations project. Don't know if this helps you very much. Concentrate on Merciful Jesus and don't let pious exaggerations distract you from Jesus.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 3 months ago
Bruce, thank you for your response. I do not know Franciscan Speculative Theology. Many believe in Faustina's visions, but they seem to me the product of an overactive imagination. After all, if she herself really was taken to see hell, then all she says must be true. But if she wasn't, and it seems very unlikely that she really saw what she claims to have seen, because that would make God into a torturer,, the rest of her testimony should also be read as simply the interesting ideas of this woman, but not necessarily credible. I will concentrate on the gospels, which is why I was interested in the interview. I will leave Faustina and those like her to others and focus on what Jesus taught. The rest is all pure speculation.
Bert Clere
3 years 3 months ago
I think the authorship of John's Gospel is a good example of how people's biases tend to be reflected. For instance, conservatives find it very hard to accept that the beloved disciple was not the author of the text. While liberals seem only to want to deny him authorship. The more I read up on the issue, the more I came to believe that John is several layers of composition from a religious community from 70 to 100. And there's lots of reason to think that the first layer originates in some way from the beloved disciple himself, and that his community shaped his teaching into a Gospel.


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