Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus — Book Review

Returning to the written book review (see video reviews here and here), I am taking a look at another book about the historicity of Jesus (see my review of Is This Not the Carpenter? for a useful collection of essays on the subject), but this one is different in conclusion and form. The book in question is from Thomas L. Brodie, a Dominican from Ireland and head of the Dominican Biblical Center in Limerick. (And no, not everything in the book is poetry.) So, you would expect a Catholic in a major religious order to take a traditional view, at the very least thinking Jesus was a historical figure.

But as I reported a few months ago when I first learned of the book titled Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, it turns out that in fact Brodie is a mythicist. So was this book going to be the next The Jesus Puzzle, making the case as others have? Actually, the method of the author is different and is meant to be autobiographical. It talks about how he came to his conclusions, what was going on in New Testament studies over several decades, all contributing to his beliefs about how the Gospels and other works came to be. If you want to see the case laid out about how all the Gospels are inter-related and derivative from the Old Testament, you will want to get a copy of his much larger volume The Birthing of the New Testament. However, the volume under current review gets into technical arguments as well, so you can see the sorts of intertextual arguments he makes and how valid they are.

A few things in particular that stood out to me besides the mythicist position are when he came to this conclusion, and what he has to say about the letters of Paul. First, it seems that by 1975 Brodie no longer thought that Jesus was a historical figure. He didn’t publish such a conclusion (he was having enough trouble publishing as it was), but it seems when he revealed his beliefs to close confidants that they saw merit in his position. Are the Dominicans a foxhouse of Bible skeptics? Let it be so! Nonetheless, even though Brodie came to this conclusion nearly 40 years ago, it is only in this volume that he publishes this belief.

It was also noteworthy the stories he told of how he did his research, how he tried to get early manuscripts reviewed or published. He interacted with friends and even top scholars such as Raymond Brown, Geza Vermes, and Richard Bauckham. The way the story is told also gave me the impression that the Dominicans do not train their members in the ways of producing scholarly papers; Brodie had a lot of ropes to learn before he was able to get things into book chapters, journal articles, and his own books by academic presses. Brodie also was jumping around the world, from the Caribbean, to the Holy Land during war, to South Africa in the last days of Apartheid. It seems he was having adventures on the order that Alfred Schweitzer was having in Africa that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

His research also seems to have had conclusions change along the way. The most notable example of this, if I am reading him right, is that he used to think that Luke-Acts used the Gospel of John in its composition; that is the position he took in 2004 in Birthing of the New Testament. But in the current volume, he seems to now think, based on some new scholarship looking at the movements of Jesus and Paul, that it’s the reverse: John knew and used Luke-Acts. More scholars have concluded this to be the direction of influence, though there is still discussion. One way or another, we can see some of Brodie’s evolution of thought.

While all this was interesting, the press releases and back book blurb already indicated a significant bombshell, the thesis that Jesus was not historical. But there is even more to be had in these pages. Brodie had only in recent years examined the letters of Paul in the same way he did the Gospels, determining their writing methods and relations. Brodie had concluded in his 2004 book that the epistles of Paul had been used by at least one of the Gospels (Mark), but now he concludes that all the letters attributed to Paul are fakes. Scholars already figured that most of the letters in the New Testament, such as 2 Peter, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and more, were forgeries (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged for some good discussion). But now Brodie sees the life of Paul as found in the letters (as well as in Acts) to be fictions based on Old Testament stories and tropes. What is fascinating about this is that he seems to come to this conclusion independently of the school of New Testament scholarship known as the Dutch Radical school that first came about at the end of the 19th century with figures such as Bruno Bauer and W. C. van Manen. Brodie also seems to not know about the works of modern members of this line of inquiry such as Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price (whose own book on the letters of Paul is due out next year). It will be interesting if such opinions now get more talk amongst the scholars (maybe there are quiet Dutch Radicals out there just as there have been Jesus mythicists/agnostics).

As for the life of Paul as modeled on the Old Testament in the same way the stories of Jesus were, Brodie says his research on this is ongoing and very new. He hasn’t made all the probable connections, so let me note a connection that may be interesting. In 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 (cf. Acts 9:23-25) tells how Paul escaped through a window in the wall of Damascus to avoid being captured by an agent of the Nabatean king Aretas IV. This seems comparable to the story told of David escaping the forces of King Saul by slipping through a window in the wall. Also, it says David was let down through the window, and Paul was lowered down using a basket. If this detail of Paul’s life, one of the few that scholars fit into a small historical timeframe (Aretas died in 40 CE, and the events happened after Jesus’ time of death, so there are some termini of use), then historical Paul studies are in big trouble, as are any attempts to learn about earliest Christianity.

Let me say that I am not arguing that all the letters of Paul are forged or that Paul did not exist. That is a discussion that just needs to be had, and it is one that ought to be argued by those competent in the subject. Nonetheless, Brodie may find the connection I have highlighted here useful.

So it seems that Brodie has not just dropped a bombshell about Jesus not being historical, but instead he is carpet-bombing the whole of Christian studies as it is currently done. If he is right needs to be argued, but he has been putting together his case for decades now and publishing it in peer-reviewed journals and with other qualified scholars (he has worked on intertextuality with Dennis R. MacDonald, for example). But even with the apparent lack of historicity for the entire Bible (yes, the OT is also not historical other than what can be demonstrated with outside sources), Brodie is not an atheist.

A few of the last chapters deal with not only how to research Christian origins without the NT as historical documentation, Brodie talks about what the new Jesus means and what God is based on an understanding of the whole Bible as a long metaphor and not as history. When I first read this, along with the comparisons Brodie made to how theology changed with Copernicus, my mind went to the preface added to Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus by Andreas Osiander stating how this new planetary model need not mean anything theologically but instead just be a useful tool. However, such a metaphor is not apt since Copernicus didn’t write this while Brodie wrote his chapters; moreover, Brodie’s writing is heartfelt, not tacked-on to avoid excommunication or banning of his book. Instead, in a way, Brodie is like the young David Strauss after writing his The Life of Jesus Critically Examined; sure the stories are mostly myth, but faith and theology weren’t doomed. (Unfortunately Strauss later became an agnostic, probably not helped by the treatment he got from Christian academia after publication.)

However, his reasons for staying in the faith will be unconvincing to those outside. He obviously has to take a liberal theology, but he also tries to give a couple of arguments for God’s existence besides historicity of the Bible (which he no longer buys). He calls upon the fine-tuning argument, which is unfortunate since proper statistical analysis actually shows that fine tuning makes God less likely to exist. (See this page here as well as Victor Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning. and a chapter by Richard Carrier in The End of Christianity.) Brodie also cites how the workings of the mind are so unknown, but there are two problems with the argument. First, Brodie doesn’t know much about neuroscience (he talks about reading a page or two from a doctoral thesis on the subject and getting lost), and second, he doesn’t explain how God’s existence makes better sense of the mind. If he is supposing a substance dualism, that is something unlikely given our knowledge of the brain; dualism seems to fail with split-brain patients, for example, and materialist methods have been doing well in explaining how the brain works and how brain states and mind states are well-correlated. It seems that Brodie is just against reductionist science, but he seems to conflate the notion of reductionism as explaining things with constitute parts and reductionism meaning we don’t have any meaning, we are made less. I don’t buy that, and the argument could well be made that Copernicanism is just as reductionistic, making the planets go around the Sun with gravity rather than God/angels pushing things around the Earth. It’s an emotional plea and not convincing.

Nonetheless, it will be these sorts of arguments and liberal theologies (which seem to me incoherent and unevidenced) that Christians will have to use if they remain believers and yet be mythicists. But in a way, it seems unnecessarily to make arguments for God’s existence if historicity doesn’t matter. If the stories of God’s interactions in the world according to the Bible don’t have to be real, then perhaps any case where God was said to have done something need not be necessary. So arguments from fine-tuning or the mind are not needed. Why not just go completely mystical? If the first Christians were mythicists and apparent mystics (the visions they had according to Paul’s letters, fake or not, indicate that), then perhaps modern Christians can be, too. We’ll have to let that argument run its course elsewhere.

The volume also has a chapter on the work of John Meier, his The Marginal Jew, and Bart Ehrman’s attack on mythicism, Did Jesus Exist? Both chapters show some of the flaws in the arguments they made (Meier’s book get much more attention, as it should), but there are more extensive critiques elsewhere. Nonetheless, we see Brodie competently interacting with the opposition to his case and belying the statements of some that no New Testament scholars doubts Jesus was historical. Thomas Brodie is clearly standing on the side of mythicism.

Now, this book will not convince you that Jesus didn’t exist, but that wasn’t the purpose anyways. If you want to be convinced of that, or at least get the best arguments for mythicism, you will want to read some of Brodie’s other works on the Gospels, books that will be cited by other mythicists in their works (I think Richard Carrier will be pointing to his work a fair bit in his upcoming volume). There is still plenty to argue. In some ways, Brodie’s argument is incomplete; even if the Gospels are totally myth, that does not necessarily mean Jesus didn’t exist. He would be completely lost to us historically, but he could have still begun to move people into forming a new religion. That means more needs to be argued if one is to be a Jesus mythicist rather than just an agnostic, which some scholars are.

With that, I recommend  you get to read this book. Brodie’s story-telling is interesting even without arguing for Gospel intertextuality, and he has lead an fascinating life. His work has had an impact on New Testament studies, and now it may have even more. Or perhaps now everyone will run away from his research if it leads them to Jesus mythicism. Only time will tell, and you should read what Brodie says to see if you will run and hide or stand before his arguments and evidence. (As of now Amazon is running low of copies, so it must be selling faster than expected. Get your copy now! Along with his Birthing of the New Testament.)

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus — Book Review

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