Brant PITRE. Jesus and the Last Supper. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. pp. 590. $55.00 hc. ISBN 978-0-8028-4871-0. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309.
In this well-researched monograph on the Last Supper, Brant Pitre provides a noteworthy contribution to historical Jesus studies. Pitre begins his book by calling into question the adequacy of the methodological approaches that have held sway in the field over the last several decades. In this regard, Pitre adds his voice to a movement that is already gaining momentum. As Pitre observes, “If there is any aspect of the historical quest for Jesus that is currently in a remarkable state of flux, it is the question of method” (p. 28). Pitre notes, for example, a “rising tide” of scholarly critiques against the “traditional” criteria of authenticity: e.g., multiple attestation, embarrassment, coherence, and dissimilarity (p. 30). He is specifically critical of scholarship that seeks “to base any historical conclusions about Jesus on a particular source−critical solution to the question of the literary relationship between the Gospels” (p. 31). In Pitre’s view, the Synoptic problem is fundamentally a literary problem, and is methodologically incapable of determining the historicity of particular acts or sayings in the Gospels. Given the inadequacies of such methods, Pitre suggests that the field could benefit from a methodological reboot.
Pitre’s alternative proposal, as he readily admits, is not entirely new, but follows the methodological approach of the renowned New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders. Following Sanders’ lead, Pitre sets forth three main criteria for determining the historicity of particular events portrayed in the Gospels: First, contextual plausibility: “If evidence about Jesus is compatible or believable within his first-century Jewish context, then this is an important argument in favor of its historicity” (p. 34). Second, coherence with other evidence about Jesus: “If a particular saying or deed attributed to Jesus is both contextually plausible and coheres with or illuminates other first-century evidence about Jesus, then this too is an important argument in favor of its historicity” (p. 37). Third, plausibility of effects in early Christianity: “If a saying or deed attributed to Jesus [meets the other two criteria], and [is] continuous with or provides a plausible cause for the practice and belief of the early church, then it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence in question is historical” (41).
Applying this methodology to the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, Pitre reaches several interrelated and provocative conclusions. He argues, for example that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal, which took place on the evening after the Passover lambs had been sacrificed in the Temple. Building on this conclusion, Pitre goes on to assert that Jesus viewed his own impending death as a redemptive sacrifice, and that he identified himself as the eschatological Passover lamb of the new Exodus, a future act of deliverance in which God would deliver the people of Israel from their enemies and usher in an era of universal peace. In this same vein, Pitre claims that Jesus presented the Last Supper to his disciples as a foretaste of the messianic kingdom banquet, an event that he looked forward to participating in after his death and subsequent vindication by the Father.Undoubtedly, many New Testament scholars will take issue with Pitre’s conclusions, both in terms of individual claims that he makes and, for some scholars, when these claims are viewed together as a whole. Even if one ends up disagreeing with Pitre’s broad arguments, though, one could still profit immensely from reading this work. For one thing, Pitre provides a detailed and careful overview of where the scholarship stands on various historical questions related to Jesus’ celebration of the Last Supper. Thus, at one level, this monograph could be utilized simply as an elaborate literature review of work that has been done on the Last Supper. Alongside this achievement, Pitre advances the conversation around this topic by arguing in support of certain positions that are not widely accepted in the field. Perhaps Pitre’s theses will not attain broad acceptance, but they will also not be easily ignored. Regardless of where one lands on the various questions raised by Pitre, it will not be possible to argue in a different direction without taking into account his work, which will rightfully become an indelible reference point for future scholarly debates on Jesus and the Last Supper.