|Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.
This post begins with the final section of Brodie’s book, Part V, Glimmers of Shadowed Reality: Some steps towards clarifying Christianity’s origin and meaning.
In this final section Thomas Brodie attempts to offer an explanation for Christian origins without an historical Jesus. He then shares his own reflections on what it means to be a Christian and to abide in a deep faith in God even though he no longer believes Jesus walked this earth. For Brodie, Jesus becomes a profound symbolic expression of the nature and character of God.
Chapter 18, “Backgrounds of Christianity: Religions, Empires, and Judaism”
Brodie opens with a panoramic sweep of the worlds major religions and laments that in all cases we are left without answers to the questions of exactly how and through whom they originated.
Nonetheless, Brodie finds cause for some optimism from our ability at least to know something of the world from which Christianity emerged. So he covers here the usual story of ancient empires — Persian, Hellenistic, Roman — and the way they led to the concept of a universal imperial peace and more effective bonds of communication, culture, language, law, and so forth.
Add to this the diversity of Judaism and even the chaotic disunity of the Jews politically, culturally and geographically, and the catastrophic consequences of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE.
The destroying of the temple meant that for Judaism the institutional centre was not merely in trouble; it was gone, and with it the traditional priesthood — a numbing moment for many, but for others a time to build something new. (p. 181)
And so we have many Jews eventually falling in with rabbinical traditions — with new writings coming to form the Mishnah and eventually the Talmud, while some others followed a new way of a new Joshua (=Jesus) . . . .
Chapter 19, Christian Origins: Writing As One Key
Not that Brodie sees the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple as catalysts for the birth of Christianity. Critical though the events of 70 CE were, Brodie believes that the letters of Paul are sure evidence that
a role should also be given to the inspirations and divisions that existed within Judaism prior to 70 CE. (p. 182)
Brodie suggests that Christianity’s gestation will be found to be closely associated with a well developed process of writing from its beginning. He brackets this possibility with a similarly critical role for writing in other major historical events, such as the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the US Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, and so forth.
But what is certain is that, while the Jewish people became known as the People of the Book, the Christians became de facto the primary developers of the codex, the bound book which replaced scrolls, and which, whatever its origin, emerged energetically about the same time as Christianity. (p. 182)
The bottom line for Brodie is that coordinated writing played a significant part in Christianity’s origin. To support his claim he addresses six points.
1. Christianity was founded significantly on a process of rewriting
Brodie sees both the foundational narrative and the institutions of Christianity “to a large degree” as “an adaptation of the narrative and institutions of Judaism.” We have seen in previous posts in this series how Brodie saw Jesus and Paul as intertextual (re)creations of various Old Testament characters. As for the institutions, he quotes Nodet and Taylor’s The Origins of Christianity:
The central elements of Christianity in their entirety, including the eucharist, the cross and the system of excommunication, are directly derived from the Jewish “sects” of the most traditional type claiming to represent the renewal of the true Covenant, especially in Galilee (Nodet and Taylor 1998: 437) (p. 183)
Justin Martyr gives a precise description of what the paschal lamb looked like: “When the lamb is roasted, it is arranged in such a way as to represent the cross: a spit goes right through it from the lower limbs to the head, another spit is at the shoulder, to which the paws arc fastened.” This description, which is not drawn from the Bible, may well show the influence of Christian symbolism, but it must have been close enough to actual Jewish custom for it to have made some sense to the Jew Tryphon.
Nodet then explains the reasons to think that this custom was still being continued despite the destruction of the Temple. He also alerts us to Melito of Sardis (fragment 9) and his phrase “like a lamb he has been crucified (or: spitted).” He then notes that
The Jewish custom referred to by Justin is attested by rabbinic sources . . . .
So Christianity started as an adaptation of the story and institutions of Judaism. Jesus and Paul were also modeled on figures from Judaism. Who was responsible for these re-writings?
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2. The rewriting indicates coordination — a group or school
I find myself wholeheartedly in agreement with Brodie’s statement about the New Testament as evidence for Christian origins:
The first major evidence concerning the origin of Christianity comes not so much from what the New Testament says — otherwise we would begin Christianity with the angel Gabriel — but from what the New Testament is, and what it does. (p. 184)
It is clear that the New Testament’s collection of books are rooted in Old Testament scriptures. What is becoming increasingly clear is the extent to which they are all rooted and grounded in one another. Indeed,
the connections of the writings to one another are so many and so deep that as they were being written, the writers generally must have had access to those already written. They built on one another. . . .
As the pattern of connection becomes clearer so does a basic conclusion: Christianity was founded not just by one or two people but by a whole group. (p. 184, my bolding as in all quotations)
Brodie sees this literary (intertextual) evidence pointing to a group that was in fact some sort of school or community. How else to account for both the diversity and coordination of the twenty-seven writings of the NT?
So Brodie argues that Christianity was founded by a school of writers, most likely a religious community, most likely bonded by specific events and religious experiences.
This idea should not seem like something from out of left-field, Brodie explains, since researchers have concluded very similar origins behind other collections of books in the Bible. As for Luke-Acts, recall John Collins’ observation that the “eyewitnesses” referred to in the Preface very likely is speaking of “ministers of the word” and to a literary process sanctioned and taught by the community.
This leads Brodie to discuss comparable schools in the ancient world. . . .
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3. The existence of other schools gives support to the idea of a New Testament school/group
Among the best known schools are
- the Pythagoreans — a group that was both a religious community and a scientific school (southern Italy, ca 500 BCE)
- the Academy, a philosophical school founded by Plato in 387 BCE and continuing a thousand years
- the Lyceum, founded 335 BCE by Aristotle
- the Epicureans, founded at Athens by Epicurus in 306 BCE, and renowned for sending out members to establish branches far and wide.
The Epicureans’ journeying did not occur in a vacuum. The whole Mediterranean was a crossroads. In the fourth century BCE, the Mediterranean saw a proliferation of small schools and a tradition of mobility. Later, when there was a ‘tendency for teachers to congregate in certain cultural centres, notably Athens, Alexandria and Tarsus, mobility . . . became characteristic of students as much as teachers’ (Alexander 1992: 1007) (p. 188)
(I am reminded here of some scholarship that suggests “gnostic” types of schools were sending out “apostles” by the time “Paul” came on to the scene.)
Judaism was also known for its schools, both rhetorical schools and synagogues. Brodie writes that the synagogues dotted the Diaspora, Galilee and Judea, although I have not encountered any archaeological evidence for synagogues in Galilee prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Yes, their being part of the Gospel landscape, along with Pharisee-“Christian” dissension, are, I believe, anachronisms that point to late first-century/early second century compositions.)
We are aware of the Jew Philo’s phenomenal literary output. Some scholars suggest that a “school of Philo” was responsible for much of this output rather than one individual. Philo himself
located the bulk of his scholastic activity with the sabbath-day teaching of the synagogues, which he describes (in an intentional comparison with the Greek philosophical schools) as “schools of Moses” (Alexander 1992: 1010). (p. 189)
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4. The scholarly linking of biblical books with schools gives further support to the idea of a New Testament school
- M. Weinfeld identifies a “Deuteronomic school” that evolved in its ideas over the duration of its existence
- P. Davies applies Weinfeld’s reasoning to other biblical works and sees schools behind all the (OT) biblical literature.
- K. Stendahl finds a “school of St Matthew” – Matthew’s use of the OT resembles that of the Qumran school (cf its Habbakuk commentary). Further, a scribe cannot work alone. He works in conjunction with peers — a school.
- D. E. Orton thought Matthew sees himself in the tradition of prophets and apocalyptic scribes, of Ben Sirach and Qumran.
- Loveday Alexander and J. N. Collins have shown in different ways the importance of the idea of schools to Luke, and to his adaptations of the Old Testament and compositions of historical and biographical writings.
- Many scholars have published arguments for a “school of John” to explain the various Johannine writings.
- R. B. Hays and D. A. Koch think the Pauline writings are so engaged with the OT that their author/s were surrounded by manuscripts and some scholars have suggested that the various letters of Paul were written by “co-workers” or “co-writers”.
- The Letter of Aristeas contains a somewhat fanciful account of how the OT was translated into Greek by 72 elders, but the idea it expresses of a community of writers engaged in a single project may not be far off the mark.
The above theories of schools are justified by a combination of the similarities and differences within groups of writings. Was such a community responsible for the New Testament writings? Brodie believes so. (I would suspect several may have been involved, some in rivalry — e.g. the Pauline and Johannine communities.)
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5. The quest for the sequence of the books
A more fruitful inquiry than trying to outline the rise of earliest Christianity, Brodie writes, would be to try to analyse the writings of the NT and work out their relationship to one another — in particular what was written first, what the response was, etc. To some extent that has been done with the establishment of Markan priority and identifying Deutero-Pauline epistles.
Eventually, when the essential sequence of the New Testament documents has been reasonably well established, there will be a backbone concerning the history of writing, and around that backbone it should be possible to build further history. (p. 194)
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6. The truth of writing
This final section of chapter 19 is a segue into the final three chapters where Brodie shares his thoughts on the meaning of Christianity without an historical Jesus, on the meaning of faith, of God, of life and spirituality.
Essentially Brodie reminds readers that imagination, stories, symbols, can be gateways to deeper truths. If Jesus is a story, that story is packed with meaning and truth about God. This chapter’s concluding paragraph:
The essential point is basic: ‘Art’, ‘fiction’, and ‘imagination’ may at first suggest something unreal, but in fact they can be the surest guides to the deepest truth. The accounts of Jesus may in one sense be fiction, and may be shaped by many older accounts, including for instance the account of the death of Socrates. But art at its best can reach to the core of the truth, and symbols do likewise. The word ‘fiction’ is ambiguous. It can indicate what is untrue, but it can also refer to a writing which, though not historical, is a searing depiction of reality, of radical truth, and the Gospels are a supreme example of such writing. (p. 196)
Brodie’s obvious love for God and “the Christ myth” as a deeply meaningful way to that God reminds me to some extent of another mythicist, Paul-Louis Couchoud, who, though not a Christian, expressed the highest admiration for that faith. (See Mythicism and Positive Christianity; see also Couchoud’s last chapter of Creation of Christ)
It is time anti-mythicists stop their absurd mud-slinging and bracketing of all mythicists as some sort of “angry atheist” types filled with all sorts of sinister or fatuous motives and actually make the effort to hear and address the actual arguments, — not straw-man fabrications conjured up to match their theories of sinister and perverse God-haters hell-bent on destroying Christianity.
The final scene will give us a glimpse into Brodie’s faith in God and ongoing love for Christianity.