by Neil Godfrey
Rabid anti-mythicist Joel Watts has hailed the major work of mythicist Thomas L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament, as “a masterpiece” in his own newly published book, Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark:
[Brodie's] 2004 work, The Birthing of the New Testament, exploring the answers to the creation of the New Testament, stands as a masterpiece. His thesis is rather remarkable and easily within the realm of Roman literary tradition. . . . Brodie . . . has provided us with a better methodology . . . (Mimetic, p. 19)
In The Birthing of the New Testament Brodie, who has since “come out” confessing that his work led him to conclude Jesus did not exist (see various posts in the Brodie Memoir Archive), expounds in depth his methods and arguments for the literary sources of the Gospels, and effectively demolishes any need for a hypothetical “oral tradition” to explain any of their narrative input. The deeds, teachings and even the characters in the gospels are for most part re-writings of the Jewish Scriptures.
But Joel Watts, who has nothing but verbal slime to flick at the intellectual competence and personal character of anyone who leans towards a mythicist view, did not know that when he wrote that Brodie’s arguments were “a masterpiece”!
My my, what one will acknowledge if one does not hear the M word in what one is reading!
This brings to mind Brodie’s own observation that other scholars and teachers did not have a problem with his methods, only his conclusions:
He listened to me patiently, and looked carefully through some of the manuscript. I brought the conclusions to his attention.
‘You cannot teach that’, he said quietly.
I explained that I didn’t want to teach the conclusions, just the method, as applied to limited areas of the New Testament. If the method was unable to stand the pressure of academic challenge, from students and other teachers, then I could quietly wave it good-bye and let the groundless conclusions evaporate in silence.
It was a Saturday afternoon. He needed time to think it over. He would see me in a few days. (Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, p. 36)
Brodie learned to keep silent about the implications of his arguments in his earlier published works. He explains why in his Memoir. He was advised by publishers and scholars that his conclusions (not his methods) were unacceptable.
Other scholars who have advanced similar arguments have evidently been aware of the conclusions to which they intuitively lead. They have therefore made a point of explicitly reminding readers they are not questioning the historicity of Jesus or the fundamentals of the Gospel accounts. That they need to protest so consistently tells me they well understand the logical conclusions to be drawn from those arguments — but faith (or security of academic tenure according to Joseph Hoffmann) must, as always, override reason. More on this at the end of this post.
Even James McGrath endorsed it, (until . . . . ?)
Even James McGrath who, on learning that Brodie does not believe in the historical existence of Jesus wrote that while Brodie has made a “small number” of relevant comparisons, his methods are overall “problematic”, “unchecked parallelomania”, and “bizarre extremes”, praised this book of Joel Watts — presumably aware that Watts owes a good part of its thesis to Brodie’s work!
Watts’ book is “The newest element in the periodic table of scholarly tools . . . . bound to generate fruitful and illuminating discussion”, writes McGrath in his back-cover endorsement of the work.
Perhaps McGrath’s analogy of a new element on the periodic table was not so favourable, however. He goes on to explain that such elements are “highly unstable and liable to cause reactions”. Ever the master of equivocation.
I am disappointed that Joel Watts appears to have lacked the professional courage to defend his assessment of Thomas Brodie’s work against James McGrath’s recent scathing belittling of it now that Brodie has explained its implications for the Christ Myth.
And Adam Winn thought Brodie’s work was “important”
Joel Watts also relies heavily upon the scholarship of Adam Winn, in particular his 2010 work, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material. And Adam Winn, likewise, acknowledges Thomas Brodie’s scholarship as worthy of serious consideration:
The presupposition that Mark’s gospel relied primarily, if not exclusively, on oral tradition is greatly misguided and again is undermined by our knowledge of ancient writing practices. . . It is therefore of great importance that the question of Mark’s literary sources be reopened. . . .
Thomas L. Brodie . . . suggests Markan imitation of the Septuagintal Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings. Brodie’s work is, by his own admission, preliminary and cursory, and requiring further investigation of the topic. Yet, Brodie has laid important ground-work for such an investigation, noting numerous and striking parallels between Mark’s gospel and Elijah-Elisha narrative. (Mark, pp. 7, 10)
For Joel Watts, Brodie is a Giant
Dennis MacDonald‘s . . . methodology of introducing ancient literary theory to Gospel Criticism is well worth any Gospel critic’s examination. Thomas Brodie has provided help in narrowing down methodology and to offer some correction to previous conclusions. Adam Winn‘s continuing push into the undiscovered country has helped beyond words to clarify my own position. It is to these three giants that I shall now turn. (Mimetic, p. 11, my bolding)
Yes, Watts does borrow from Brodie:
I have borrowed the authority of MacDonald, Winn, Brodie . . . . (Mimetic, p. 34)
What of McGrath’s unsupported and wishful fancy that Brodie’s method is “bizarre” and “unchecked parallelomania”? Joel Watts would apparently strongly disagree!
Brodie has developed his own set of criteria for judging literary dependence. . . Brodie and Winn have given us solid criteria from which to move forward. . . (Mimetic, p. 23)
Is Watts aware that Brodie does not think that the Gospel narratives derived from oral traditions? Certainly:
Brodie also advises against dependence upon oral tradition, and follows his discussion here with one on oral tradition, something he considers “radically problematic.” (Mimetic, p. 21)
Later in Mimetic Criticism Watts is pleased to inform readers that another scholarly light he follows, Anne M. O’Leary, was also a student of Thomas L. Brodie. (p. 221)
There is one disappointing side to Watts’ treatment of Brodie, however. One will only find his name in his index under “Brody”.
Thinking it through
I wonder how Watts and Winn and others will react now that Brodie has publicly declared that the logical consequences of his arguments in The Birthing of the New Testament and other works, including his smaller monograph on the relationship between the Elijah-Elisha narrative and other writings in the Old and New Testaments, The Crucial Bridge, is that the authors of the Gospels were not relying upon reports of historical events and persons to create their stories. There is no need, nor indeed any room, for an historical Jesus when the full implications of the literary sources of the Gospels are understood.
Will they begin to slowly concede that Brodie was wrong after all? Will they quietly expunge Brodie from their bibliographies in future publications?
It is slightly amusing, in one sense, but also quite dismaying, to read the way many authors of brilliant scholarly works identifying Gospel sources in Jewish Scriptures, Haggadah and other writings, both Jewish and “pagan”, are simultaneously so quick and insistent to declare that they are not denying the historicity of words and deeds of Jesus.
The most recent one I chanced upon was yesterday evening, David Daube and his article from 1958, “The Earliest Structure of the Gospels”, published in New Testament Studies. After clarifying a very cogent argument that the four questions Jesus addresses in Mark 12 are constructed around the four ritual questions raised at the Jewish Passover ritual as found in the Haggadah, finds it necessary to explain:
This is perhaps the place to point out that the fact of a Christian exposition following the Passover eve liturgy does not diminish its historical value; rather the contrary. . . . There is no justification for doubting, on this ground, the happenings and sayings recorded . . .
More recently Dennis MacDonald must add in his conclusion:
Mark imitated Homeric epic and expected his readers to recognize it. This in no way denies Mark’s indebtedness also to oral tradition . . . Mark crafted a myth to make the memory of Jesus relevant to the catastrophes of his day. (MacDonald, Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, pp. 189, 190)
Some authors, perhaps the more devout ones, do not need to be so explicit in these protestations: they only need to make fulsome worshipful confessions about the benefit of their work to all believing Christians and the work of Christ, etc. Thus Willard M. Swartley concludes the opening chapter of his book arguing that the Synoptic Gospels owed their fundamental narrative structure and themes to Jewish theological traditions and scriptures:
This contribution is thus dedicated to both the religious quest of persons seeking to understand the Christian faith . . . and the formation of the identity of Christian communities that treasure Scripture in its canonical form as empowerment for thought and life. (Swartley, Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story, p. 31)
Can one imagine an impressionable child who, on learning that his parents leave the gifts beneath the tree overnight, desperately continuing to insist they come from Santa nonetheless?
As a post-script I should add –
Of course legends and myths accrue to historical persons and there is no reason the same could not have happened in the case of Jesus — except! — except that the only evidence we have for Jesus IS the myth itself. In cases where historical persons were embellished by biographers with mythical tales we have clear evidence of those historical persons quite independently of the myths attached to them.
Remove the myths around Jesus and one is left with an invisible man. There is nothing there. Only hypotheses. The historical Jesus rests on nothing but an assumption. And that assumption is sustained in the academy by hypotheses upon hypotheses. (Of course he is also sustained among Christian believers by faith and authority.) Sure, there could have been an historical Jesus. There could have been an historical David, or Moses, or Joseph, or Abraham, or Noah . . . , too. And that’s my point. It’s all hypotheses and could-have-beens all the way down.
- Blogging My Book (unsettledchristianity.com)