Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus–Review of Thomas Brodie’s New Book

December 25, 2012


Thomas Brodie’s new book is subtitled Memoir of a Discovery. The “discovery” is his realization that Jesus is a literary character and did not exist as a historical person at all.  This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the thesis of Bart Ehrman’s book that I reviewed in my previous post.

Throughout Ehrman’s book, the one theme that he keeps repeating over and over again is his assertion that no reputable New Testament scholars deny the historicity of Jesus. I pointed out some of the problems with this view already in my last post, and now Brodie’s book certainly blows that assertion out of the water. Brodie is not some half-educated interloper in the field of New Testament scholarship; he is an established biblical scholar who heads an institution devoted to biblical scholarship and has published widely on topics in New Testament studies.

While this book is a memoir that includes personal reminiscences, it also presents reasoned arguments that effectively counter the weightiest points that Ehrman’s book cites to prove Jesus’s historical existence.

Ehrman’s key point was the existence of multiple independent witnesses to the historical Jesus.  He considered Mark, Q, L (Luke’s special material), and M (Matthew’s special material) all to be independent witnesses, and he even cited the Gospel of Thomas and later sources such as Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. Brodie argues that none of these are genuinely independent witnesses.  All of the New Testament sources are actually dependent on Old Testament texts and each other, and later sources are dependent on the New Testament. As for the Gospel of Thomas, dating that text early is “skating on thin ice.” Ehrman doesn’t give the rationale for that dating but cites a source that supposedly has a “strong argument” for it. Brodie checked out the cited source and reports that “the reader who tries to track down that logic by going back to the cited author will discover that the argument, which remains elusive, presupposes having read the author’s yet earlier work.” (228)

Ehrman cites Josephus as another independent witness, and Brodie discounts that independence also. He points out that a genuinely independent witness generally provides information we don’t find elsewhere:

So what do these [non-Christian] sources tell us that is not already in the Gospels or Acts? What do they tell us that bears out independence?
Nothing. (164)

The distinctive writing style of the Josephus texts proves nothing because Josephus wrote in his own style when reporting data from other sources as well. Moreover, Josephus could have had access to the gospels.  He and the evangelists were kindred spirits in that they were highly literate people working with Old Testament scriptures to create new writings with similar narrative content.  And Josephus lived in Rome in close proximity to a Christian community.

Ehrman makes much of his criteria for historicity, of which independent witness is the lynchpin, but he virtually ignores all of the scholarly work being done of late on criteria for literary dependence. As a result, his book “cannot deal adequately with Price and Thompson, and shows little awareness that — whatever some of their opinions — their work has a place in a central new field of biblical research.” (229)

The problem with Ehrman’s approach goes deeper than not giving adequate attention to instances of literary dependence. The problem is that Rule One in any valid list of criteria for historicity would be to determine the literary context of a source, and this is missing from Ehrman’s approach.  As Brodie puts it, “If a newspaper announces cheap flights to Mars, it is important to note whether the advertisement occurs in the Travel Section or in the Cartoons-and-Jokes Page. Clarity on the literary factor is Rule One.” (122)

If, as Brodie asserts – and he backs up his assertion with evidence – the literary context of the New Testament is historicized fiction created by rewriting Old Testament texts, Rule One trumps the other “critieria for historicity.” Sure, there are texts that speak of eye-witnesses and reliable transmission of historical data, but it is a mistake to read such a text as historical, “without asking sufficiently whether it is actually historical or whether it is simply written to look like history.” (122-3)  Even such things as accurate geographical knowledge aren’t necessarily evidence of historicity – Virgil’s Aeneid also shows accurate knowledge of places.

You reach different conclusions once you take into account the literary character of the New Testament books. So, for example, John Meier in A Marginal Jew interprets texts that present Jesus as a new Elijah to mean that a historical Jesus thought of himself as standing in the line of Elijah/Elisha. But the simplest explanation that fits the literary data is that “the evangelists adapted the biblical figure of Elijah to draw the picture of Jesus.” (158)

Explaining the data does not require invoking the historical existence of Jesus. The explanation that suffices without invoking Jesus’ historical existence is the simplest, therefore, in respect for a basic rule of method, it is to be preferred.” (159)

Or, for example, the word tektōn (often translated “carpenter”) that Mark applies to Jesus can be traced to the book of Wisdom:

Wisdom 13, particularly its account of people failing to discern the Creator and of seeing only the works of a tektōn, provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tektōn; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data. (159)

Recognizing the literary character of the New Testament books also leads to discounting oral tradition, another of Ehrman’s key witnesses to a historical Jesus. For Brodie oral tradition is a questionable theory and isn’t necessary:

The core presumption is that Jesus Christ was a specific historical person, and within that theory something is needed to bridge the gap between the death of Jesus (generally placed around 30 CE) and the composition of the Gospels (generally placed around 70-100). . . . Even if the theory were true, the gap could be filled by saying that the evangelists were either present at the events or spoke directly to people who had been. (117)

Brodie doesn’t consider it necessary to invoke either oral tradition or eyewitness testimony because he can trace literary connections in the gospel stories to the Old Testament and the epistles, and the epistles themselves have literary connections to the Old Testament.

Brodie also addresses Ehrman’s assertion that the crucifixion must be historical because early Christians would not have invented the idea of a crucified messiah. For Brodie, the crucifixion and resurrection theme makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that “deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.”  A new adaptation of that theme would have to adjust to a new cultural milieu:

So when there was a need to express the ancient contradiction or paradox between God-based hope and life’s inevitable sufferings it was appropriate to express those sufferings in a clear contemporary image — Roman crucifixion.  It was doubly appropriate in the context of a rhetorical world that sought dramatic effect and energeia) (graphic presentation) . . .(230-1)

The process of adopting crucifixion as a new symbol was like Luke’s drawing on the Naboth story in 1 Kings 21 for his story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 6-7 and adapting it by replacing the monarchy and assembly of the Old Testament story with the synagogue and Sanhedrin of first century Palestine. Or like Luke’s drawing on the story of the foreign commander Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 but replacing him with a Roman centurion in Luke 7 and Acts 10.

It’s not just Gospel stories about Jesus that are literary fictions:  Paul himself is a literary construction, since “down-to-earth details concerning Paul are composed on the basis of specific Old Testament texts — details of plot and scene and emotion.” (140) For example, Paul calls the Galatians stupid which sounds like anger, but

when you reconnoiter in the Old Testament, especially in the Greek version, you find a similar text in Jeremiah, where the great prophet effectively calls the people mindless, and then repeats it with intensified effect (Jer. 5:21, 23). . . . Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah. (141)

Likewise, parts of 1 Corinthians correspond to Deuteronomy. Even the litany of resurrection sightings in 1 Cor 15:1-8 is “a very careful literary synthesis of older texts.” (150)

The story of Paul in Acts is likewise historicized fiction. The storm and shipwreck is modeled on well-known literary accounts of storms, and the rest of the voyage parallels the Old Testament story of people being deported and brought to captivity in Babylon in 2 King 25.

… the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). . . . The idea that Paul was a literary figure did not remove the possibility that behind the epistles lay one outstanding historical figure who was central to the inspiring of the epistles, but that is not the figure whom the epistles portray. Under that person’s inspiration — or the inspiration of that person plus co-workers — the epistles portray a single individual, Paul, who incorporates in himself and in his teaching a distillation of the age-long drama of God’s work on earth. (145-6)

Brodie recognizes that these are not common interpretations in scholarship today, but when he reached these conclusions he searched to see if they had occurred to anyone else. He discovered that at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century the biblical scholar Bruno Bauer had already proposed that Paul and Jesus were both mythical creations, and a number of people who followed him in that belief. And of course the New Testament is a continuation and literary inheritor of the Old Testament, and many scholars such as Thomas Thompson, John Van Seters, and Robert Alter have shown that historicized fiction is typical of the Old Testament.

How should Christians react to the realization that the scriptures are not historically accurate?

The undertaking [that produced the NT] contained the building of a story — narrative, historicized-fiction — especially about Jesus and Paul, and such story-building can be described with terms such as fiction, myth, invention, conspiracy, and forgery (Ehrman 2012: 82, 114). The same terms can be used of the Torah, the Book of Moses, which was not written by Moses. At one level these terms are true, but used pejoratively they miss the heart of the matter, namely that, despite their use of story and their limitations, the Torah, Gospels, and Epistles contain deepest wisdom. (231)

All of this also raises the question: what is Christian faith all about if you subtract from it a historical Jesus?

Ehrman’s book could seem to set up a false dilemma: stay with a claim to a historical Jesus, or lose Jesus and, with him, lose God. But there is a further option. Rediscover Jesus as a fresh scripture-based expression of suffering humanity’s deepest strengths and hopes, and thereby rediscover a new sense of the reality we often refer to glibly as God. (231)

A more realistic and constructive approach is to see our coming to terms with a nonhistorical Jesus as the modern counterpart to medieval Christians’ coming to terms with the realization that the earth is not the center of the universe. Both require some rethinking, but after that rethinking the essence of Christian faith remains in both cases. The resulting faith can be stronger and richer than one built on a a doomed attempt to find the historical Jesus. “The quest for the historical Jesus installs the flicker of a matchstick in place of the aurora borealis.” (213)

I highly recommend reading Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus after reading Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist. It is a transformational experience to read something that comes off as absolutely certain and then read a counterpoint that calls into question everything you were just starting to take for granted.  Even if you don’t agree with everything Brodie says, you can’t help but recognize the reasonableness and validity of most of his arguments, yet according to Ehrman such arguments are unreasonable and invalid.

The weak points in Brodie’s book are few. I didn’t see in it an answer to Ehrman’s question about why the early Christians would invent the idea of a brother of Jesus, and the reference to James in Josephus does seem to be independent since it introduces information not in the New Testament. But the weakest link in the argument is not the evidence but the nature of the proposition itself:  it is virtually impossible to prove non-existence of a person no matter how much evidence points in that direction. Even if most of what we have in the New Testament is historicized fiction, there always remains the possibility that somewhere at the back of all that imaginative literature was a real person. We know next to nothing about that person, however, which is not much different and is the point I made in my last post.  In either case the quest for the historical Jesus is futile, and Brodie’s point that it is a counterproductive effort is well taken.