Jerome Murphy-O’Connor versus Thomas Brodie

July 20, 2014

I’m developing my posts on the Brodie and Ehrman books into a review article for an academic journal. That has led me to read a lot of material written to debate whether Jesus was a historical person, and the most prominent characteristic I’ve found is acrimony. Relatively few people seem able to engage in this debate without sounding indignant about or contemptuous toward the opposing side.

Thomas Brodie is an exception. Even when responding directly to Bart Ehrman in his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, he maintains a respectful, matter-of-fact tone. Search high and wide through Brodie’s writings and you’ll find no expressions of contempt for those who disagree with him or anger at them for disagreeing. I attended several of his sessions at the 2012 SBL conference and met him for lunch, and found him to have a good-natured sense of humor at all times. Great enthusiasm for the study of scripture and nothing negative to say about anyone. I believe his respectful attitude toward all, including those who take opposing stands, is part of the reason why so much of what he writes shows more insight than most of his peers. I am not personally convinced by everything he’s written, but I respect his scholarly judgment and consider him to be one of the half-dozen or so greatest New Testament scholars of our time.

But most people are not so affable about disagreement when they perceive it as relating to religious beliefs. Brodie paid a heavy price personally and professionally for “coming out” publicly with the belief that Jesus was strictly a literary character. Although his book also eloquently expressed the strength of his Christian faith, the first consequence was the loss of his job as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute. The situation is described well in Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies, a blog post by a colleague who had been one of his students:

While arguing for the non-existence of Jesus is nothing new and not unheard of in scholarship (where the term is mythicism) it is controversial when it comes from the pen of a Dominican priest. Sensing trouble over this publication Brodie did not consult the Church first – something which he was required to do. This resulted in a ban from publishing, teaching and preaching, and Brodie resigned his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. This resignation was not of his choosing, I am sure of that. I was a student of Brodie for the past 5 years and he would be in his office before 8am every day and would not leave until at least 9pm – 7 days a week. He was extremely dedicated and passionate and would not walk away from his work lightly.

What it comes down to is intellectual honesty in biblical studies and that can be fairly limited depending on your background. Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it. … Someone remarked to me that he was intellectually dishonest in not saying this sooner and that this was underneath all his previous research and we did not have the full picture. My answer to that was that he had little choice until now. He made clear in the first page of this book that if he didn’t say it now he never would as he is an aging man. He threw caution to the wind and paid the price.

Another consequence for Brodie was a public attack against him in print. The official journal of the Dominican order, Doctrine & Life, devoted its July, 2013 issue to a collection of articles that critiqued Brodie’s arguments against Jesus’s historicity. Now, you might expect that a close-knit group of Christian academics within the same religious order would treat each other with love and kindness, and when they disagreed they would do so courteously and respectfully.

That’s not what happened.

It’s not unknown for an academic journal to publish a collection of articles critiquing a controversial book. When they do that, typically they give the book author a chance to respond to the reviewers. And of course typically the reviewers address the author respectfully as an esteemed colleague with whom they disagree about certain points.  The Dominicans took a radically different approach. What is striking about this collection of articles is the predominantly condescending and disdainful tone not only toward Brodie’s arguments but even toward his person. And that attitude is implicitly reflected also in the editorial decision not to publish a response from Brodie himself.

The critique of Brodie’s book consists of four articles, one by a well-known biblical scholar and fellow Dominican, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Murphy-O’Connor, who died shortly after writing this article about Brodie, was one of the foremost scholars of the Pauline literature, with many books about Paul and the Pauline literature to his credit.

In his article “Understanding the World of the Ancients,” Murphy-O’Connor’s language frequently sounds indignant and contemptuous:

Brodie evidently knows little about antiquity He several times emphasizes that he came to his essential conclusions very early in the 1970s; the proofs came later. One might suspect that the only evidence he considered seriously was that which appeared to fit his preconceived thesis. (p. 11)

Evidently, suspension of the reader’s (or student’s) critical sense is indispensable to Brodie’s methodology, which is dominated by wishful thinking. (p. 14)

Brodie does not help his case by writing that he would need 30 pages to work out the parallel clearly (p. 142). He evidently recognizes that persuasion would be difficult without a thick smoke screen! Here he provides barely a page. To appeal to faith is much easier. (p. 14)

If any one passage can be said to highlight the wishful thinking of Brodie’s methodology this is it. One has only to read the passages in Numbers that he suggests, to realize the abyss between the two texts, which Brodie vainly attempts to camouflage by the weasel language ‘largely a synthesis and adaptation’. (p. 14)

Logic is totally lacking. Perhaps it has been replaced by special revelation! In any case, Brodie never offers the slightest evidence against Pauline authorship of any of the letters. (p. 15)

This last triumphal proclamation closes the article.

Some of the parallels Brodie points out when he asserts a New Testament text was written by adapting an Old Testament text are indeed subtle. Such arguments are not necessarily convincing for everyone, but they’re part of a large body of evidence in which some points are stronger and some weaker. The conclusion you reach depends on the cumulative impact of all of the evidence. Murphy-O’Connor seizes on the weakest links without addressing the stronger ones. And he is not above creating a straw man and demolishing that. He states:

… Brodie believes that the intention of Jews in writing Genesis was to preserve for their people Homer’s Odyssey, and the way that Matthew’s community preserved Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the First Gospel! (p. 10)

Murphy-O’Connor cites page 133 in Brodie’s book for this assertion. Go there and you find that this is not at all what Brodie was saying.  What Brodie says there is that “within Genesis lies a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey and “within Matthew lies a transformation of Romans,” not that the transformation was done primarily to preserve the original text. On p. 130 Brodie explains that the purpose of transformation is “to respect and preserve the text in adapted form so that it fulfils some other function.” But Murphy-O’Connor uses the belief he falsely attributes to Brodie as the basis for questioning Brodie’s reasoning: “The absurdity of the conclusion strongly suggests that the basic principle is somehow flawed.” (p. 10)

As in personal relationships, so in academic debates, you’re often guilty of the very thing you criticize in others. Murphy-O’Connor repeatedly accuses Brodie of wishful thinking, but a significant part of his article is about why a historical Jesus is required for Christian faith.

Thus, to walk on the moon is no longer a utopian idea; it has been done. Similarly the lifestyle demanded by Jesus of his followers is known to be really possible because Jesus lived that way. The ideal, in other words, is not a utopia; it has been achieved, and can be achieved by other human beings. … To follow Christ is not to chase a utopian dream but to imitate the exemplary life of Jesus. (p.13)

Clearly, Murphy-O’Connor’s Christian faith requires a historical Jesus, so for him, Brodie’s thesis can’t possibly be true. And that standpoint is arguably the root motivation for the intemperate attacks on Brodie.

Murphy-O’Connor’s article and the other three in the Doctrine and Life issue don’t add much substantive content to the debate. They express worries that the Catholic faithful will be led astray, they assert that Brodie did not prove his point, and their tone is condescending in two of the three.

The only one of the four articles that maintains a respectful attitude toward Brodie is “Lessons from an Offbeat Intervention” by Fergus Kerr.  Kerr finds Brodie’s book unconvincing but sees value in it as something that challenges people to think about and question their religious beliefs.

Kerr does argue that it’s hard to believe a character like Paul could be completely made up. “To believe this, one would have to admire the control that the scribes possessed of the geographical details, the twists and turns of the plot, the numerous dramatis personae and so on, as the story unfolds from Tarsus to Rome.” (p.27) Brodie acknowledges there might have been an individual behind the portrayals, and Kerr asks, “Why could this genius not have been the historical Paul?” (p. 28) But Kerr doesn’t dismiss Brodie’s position on Paul and Jesus out of hand – “And again, as with the fictitious Paul, these inventive narrators would have had to maintain remarkable control over very heterogeneous material – not an impossibility, perhaps.” (p.29)

In my view Kerr and the other Dominicans are correct that Brodie’s confidence in his conclusion goes beyond what the evidence warrants. But overconfidence is endemic among scholars of scripture and ancient history. When all we have to go on is ancient literature, little is certain and nothing can be “proved,” but scholars want to feel confident about something. Nevertheless, in order to be a milestone positive accomplishment for the world of scriptural scholarship, Brodie’s book doesn’t have to convince everyone. What is does accomplish is help establish that that a serious scholar can indeed take a mythicist position. It helps show that mythicism an intellectually viable position even if not universally convincing. And you can reject Brodie’s absolute denial of Jesus’ historicity while accepting his point that we should focus our efforts at understanding Jesus on literary rather than historical investigations.

It’s a truism among scholars that everyone has assumptions and presuppositions, and no one can completely escape the impact of that.  It’s a valid principle, but there are serious differences in degree of impact. When I see contempt and acrimony in a scholar’s writing, to me that’s a red flag that something is clouding the person’s judgment. And when I see strong devotion to a religious idea that demands a particular conclusion, that’s another red flag. The stark contrast between the attitude toward others evidenced by Thomas Brodie and that evidenced by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor helps confirm for me that Brodie is by far the greater scholar, and his scholarly judgment is in general more reliable.

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