The Open-and-Shut Case for Jesus

BOOK PICK: The Case for Jesus


The Case for Jesus

The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ

By Brant Pitre

Image, 2016

256 page, $23

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Anyone who has taken a university-level course in early Christianity — myself included — can probably relate to Brant Pitre’s own collegiate experience of being bombarded with work after work by authors casting doubts on the Gospel and, in so doing, on Jesus himself.

Pitre responds with The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. Now professor of sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, he has delivered a scholarly yet highly readable work. Like an attorney laying out a multifaceted case before the jury, Pitre presents the ample evidence in support of the historical Jesus in about a dozen chapters.

One claim Pitre finds particularly offensive for the lack of any basis in fact is the contention that the Gospels were little more than folklore passed down — and changed over time — akin to an ancient game of telephone. Pitre articulates his arguments not with emotional writings or pleas for faith, but by presenting a significant body of evidence, including content written by those who were not part of the early Church and even those who were critics of it: “As far as we know, for almost four hundred years after the lifetime of Jesus, no one — orthodox or heretic, pagan or Christian — seems to have raised any serious doubt about who wrote the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” Rather than sidestep or overlook data used by critics, Pitre instead addresses those concerns head-on. For example, regarding the authorship and order of the Gospels, he acknowledges that some Church Fathers possessed divergent views as to when each book was written and in which order, but notes that there is no known evidence backing up claims that the Gospels where originally anonymous. In one particularly insightful early chapter, Pitre notes that both the length and format of the Gospels align with ancient Greco-Roman biographies, and he provides multiple examples of such texts as evidence. Other content I found particularly interesting: linkages between the life of Jesus and the Old Testament, such as the Messianic prophecy contained in the Book of Daniel and parallels between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Book of Jonah.

Some chapters are more dense and detailed than others. For example, when writing about the dating of the Gospels, Pitre digs into questions around common theories, including the “two-source theory” that suggests Mark and a never-found source or “Quelle” served as the foundational sources for Matthew and Luke. But while details may be heavy for some readers, Pitre’s clear writing and style make it understandable even for those not steeped in biblical scholarship.

While I possessed some background knowledge of the topic, including through my own exposure in college to works by some of the same academics Pitre is responding to, such a foundation is not at all a prerequisite to appreciate this book. I highly recommend The Case for Jesus to anyone seeking a stronger understanding of the historical evidence behind the Gospels or those seeking to expand their knowledge of the topic.

Nick Manetto writes from Herndon, Virginia.