The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. By Brant Pitre. New York, NY: Image, 2016. 256 pp. Hardcover, $23.00.
Brant Pitre had a crisis of faith while studying theology at a liberal school (Vanderbilt). His teachers told him that the Gospels were anonymous, and that Jesus never claimed to be God. Consequently, his faith in both the deity of Christ and the authenticity of the NT were shaken. So he decided to do doctoral studies in NT, during which time his faith was revived, and he began to see flaws in the arguments of liberal scholars. The Case for Jesus is a defense of the deity of Christ. “This book is about one big question: Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be God?” (p. 1). To defend that claim, Pitre’s book has two major goals: first, to establish the authenticity of the Gospel record of Jesus’ teaching, and second, to defend the idea that Jesus claimed to be God. I think he accomplishes both goals very well.
In chaps. 1-7, Pitre makes a strong case for the authenticity and reliability of the Gospels. Chapter 2 begins by refuting the idea that the Gospels were anonymous books, based on the now-discredited theory that the Gospels belonged to the genre of anonymous folktale. Moreover, he explains that there is no manuscript evidence to support the theory of anonymity; instead, the earliest manuscripts unanimously attribute the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, there are no anonymous manuscripts. Moreover, he presents the “internal” evidence for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being the authors of the Gospels. For example, tradition says that the Gospel according to Mark is really Peter’s memoir. Pitre argues that Peter, who was “unlettered” (Acts 4:13), would likely have used a secretary such as Mark, whom he calls his “son” (1 Pet 5:12 13). Or the fact that Luke’s Gospel is dedicated to a named person makes it unlikely that the book would have been originally anonymous (p. 33).
The internal evidence might be slim, but he shows that the external evidence, namely, the witness of the “Church Fathers,” is unanimous in naming Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of those books.
He further defends the reliability of the Gospels by showing their genre is that of Greco-Roman biography. However, that is a potential weak point in Pitre’s presentation, as he says the Gospels should not be understood as verbatim transcripts of what Jesus said, as with Greco-Roman biographies, but instead they give “the substance” of His teaching (p. 81). He cites Thucydides’s aim to adhere “as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said” (p. 81). Perhaps all that Pitre means is that sometimes the Gospels summarize Jesus’ sermons instead of giving them word-for-word, in which case I would agree. But what about the rest of the time? Initially, I thought Pitre was suggesting there could be errors in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ teaching. However, in chap. 7, Pitre argues the disciples would have had “rehearsed memories” of Jesus’ teaching, not “incidental memories” (p. 88). This “frequent recall” memory would mean a higher degree of word-for-word accuracy of Jesus’ teaching than you would find in Greco-Roman biographies. Still, in his discussion of the rich young ruler’s question to Jesus, Pitre says, “I for one see no way to reconstruct the exact words of Jesus, but I don’t think we need to” [p. 149]). If we do not know Jesus’ exact words, then how do we know they were not changed?
Chapters 8–13 explore Jesus’ claims to divinity. These chapters were full of insights into the Biblical allusions of Jesus’ actions and claims and how they point to His deity. For example, when compared to Ps 104:1-7, Jesus’ calming of the storm is precisely what YHWH does, without explicitly making that claim. During His walking on water, Jesus uses ego eimi and intends to “pass by” the way YHWH’s glory often passed by in the OT. In the Transfiguration, He appears on a mountain with Elijah and Moses, whom YHWH also appeared to on mountains. Or Jesus’ self-designation as the “Son of Man” is an allusion, not to his humanity, but to the divine “one like a son of man” figure who comes with clouds (which only God does) in Daniel’s prophecy (Dan 7:13).
Some of what Pitre says is speculative (e.g., that the blood and water that gush out of his side is an image of the blood flowing from the Temple into the brook Kidron, showing that Jesus is the true Temple, p. 171). I think he gets Daniel’s prophecy of the fourth kingdom wrong—Pitre does not distinguish between Rome’s first (iron legs) and second (mixed iron and clay feet and toes) phase. All in all, I think this is an excellent book. It covers the kind of evidence that all Christians should know in order to defend the reliability of the Gospels and to understand Jesus’ claims of deity. Recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society