by Neil Godfrey
I was sitting with Everard Johnston, Lecturer in scriptures and dogma, at his house in Picton Street, Port of Spain, discussing the manuscript. By then his young wife, June, had gone to bed, and amid the sounds of the tropical night we sipped rum and coke as I tried to explain the basic idea of rewriting.
I handed him page 128 on connections between 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament.
He took his time perusing it, then he put it down, muttering, ‘In the same order . . . the same order apart from minor modifications’.
We turned to the gospels, discussing the extent to which they too are a product of the rewriting. Suddenly he said, ‘So we’re back to Bultmann. We know nothing about Jesus.’
I paused a moment.
‘It’s worse than that’.
There was a silence.
Then he said, ‘He never existed’.
There was another silence, a long one, and then he nodded gently, ‘It makes sense’.
(pp. 35-36 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, T. L. Brodie)
Brodie does not make an explicit connection in any of his earlier publications on the relationship between the literary origins of the New Testament writings and the question of the historicity of Jesus. Most of his earlier books explored the literary structures of the Gospels and some of the epistles. Brodie was especially struck by the way the Gospel authors not only seemed to borrow so heavily from the Old Testament but also appeared to be re-writing of so much of those Jewish scriptures. In 1980 an exchange with Joseph Fitzmyer led Brodie to broaden his scope by investigating the wider literary practices of the early Christian era and to see if such borrowing and re-writing was a known feature of the literary customs of the day. (Didn’t someone recently write a review claiming that Brodie never listened to advice?)
It was. I discussed a range of these literary ways in How Literary Imitation Works.
If the Gospel narratives can be explained as a re-writing of Jewish Scriptures, then what place is left for the hypothesis that these narratives came to the evangelists (authors of the gospels) by oral traditions that could supposedly be traced back to historical events and the historical Jesus?
Brodie’s argument for mythicism boils down to this: If the narratives of Jesus can be explained as re-writings of other literature, and if the arguments for oral tradition are found wanting, then there are no grounds left for assuming that the Gospels owe anything to historical events and traditions.
Dennis MacDonald was conscious of this question when he wrote The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, so in his conclusion he was sure to explain (p. 190, with my emphasis):
It is entirely possible that before Mark picked up his quill no one had heard of Jesus stilling the sea, manifesting his glory to three disciples, sending disciples to follow a water-carrier, or agonizing all night about his death. Homer, not history or tradition, explains the Gerasene demoniac, the anointing woman, the fleeing naked youth, Joseph of Arimathea, the women who came to anoint Jesus, and the youth sitting in the tomb. This is not to deny the historicity of other information in Mark . . . but it is a reminder that the evangelist was no mere editor; he was an artist uninhibited by his creation of theological fiction. Mark not only handed on tradition; more than anyone else in the early church with the possible exception of Luke, he created it.
But Brodie did not quickly hasten to add that the gaps left unexplained by literary borrowing and re-writing can be explained by oral tradition. In fact, he argues that many of the arguments used by New Testament scholars to justify the oral tradition hypothesis are seriously flawed. See my own posts addressing several of these in the Oral Tradition archive.
Brodie’s publications that argue the Gospels and some of Paul’s letters are re-writings of the Old Testament are a mix of strong and weak, if one is to be guided by the reviews of them in the scholarly journals.
Some Reviews of Brodie’s Works Addressing His Method
It is interesting that one reviewer who notices immediately the implications of Brodie’s literary argument for oral tradition and the historicity of the events in the Gospels is the most scathing
Over the years the thesis has developed from a plausible literary theory about the influence of a portion of Old Testament historiography on the composition of Luke–Acts into a broader claim about rewriting and literary imitation in the ancient world and its tentative application to much of the New Testament. The implication of the theory for questions of historicity is not considered, and it is unclear whether Dr Brodie draws the radical consequences which his theory suggests. . . .
All these hundreds or thousands of possible echoes deserve to be followed up, but it is hard to believe that they justify the far-reaching claims made for them. However, it is the literary relationships discovered within the New Testament itself which will make most specialists set the work aside as eccentric. Here a large edifice is built on a very precarious hypothesis about a new version of Proto-Luke . . . . (doi:10.1093/jts/flj005 ROBERT MORGAN)
Another review by, one by David M. Reis (DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-0922.2006.00116_40.x)
Brodie’s weighty tome connects much of his previous work on the intertextuality and the literary development of the Gospels. Specifically, he argues that Proto-Luke reflects a dependence upon the Septuagint (especially the Elijah-Elisha narrative) as well as 1 Cor and logia from Matt 5 and 11. Moreover, he maintains that this text becomes the core of the Gospel tradition that the Evangelists creatively engaged. . . . . These are bold strokes, and although Brodie perceives the wide-ranging implications that his proposal would have for early Christian history and theology, he restricts himself to a narrow problem. . . . Calling attention to the intertextual connections within the Gospels represents an innovative direction in NT studies and merits further examination. It is perhaps unavoidable, however, that the volume’s highly technical argumentation will restrict readership to specialists and advanced graduate students.
Brodie’s overall project is to place the development of the New Testament scriptures within the context of the greater literary development of the Greco-Roman and Jewish spheres, and by so doing replace the current models that trace the development of the New Testament texts through oral tradition and literary dependence and development. In this challenging and expansive treatment of New Testament literary development and origins Brodie seeks to isolate a portion of Luke-Acts or Proto-Luke which serves as the literary linchpin to the creation and development of the canonical Gospels. Brodie argues that Proto-Luke itself has a direct and verifiable literary dependence on the Elijah-Elisha narratives of 1 and 2 Kings, Matthew’s Logia or sayings source (which in turn has a direct literary dependence on Deuteronomy and Sirach) as well as at least one epistle (with an emphasis on 1 Corinthians). . . .
While these are important distinctions, Brodie does not do well with explaining how the earliest Jesus traditions moved from oral expression to written text. It is difficult to assume that the Gospel writers did not incorporate some oral traditions into the crafting of their narratives and while this sort of source material is less verifiable it does not make it any less possible. Brodie concludes this section by proposing that the gospel authors would have functioned in a setting similar to those of the ancient literary and rhetorical schools. Brodie seems to conclude that similarly minded Christians would have gathered in literary communities with the purpose of producing new texts. However, it is unclear how these literary communities would have functioned or whether they would have existed in the earliest stages of Christian development. . . .
Despite the criticisms raised above, Brodie has done a fine job of placing the gospel texts in their broader literary context. This continues to be helpful as a way of orienting the reader to the norms and practices associated with the production of texts in the ancient world. Ultimately, Brodie has produced and interesting and stimulating proposal for scholars and graduate students that continues to further the discussions related to the development and growth of the gospel materials.