Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

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by Neil Godfrey

Missed it by that much
Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes.

Invalid historical methodology

McGrath wrote “The Burial of Jesus” in order to “seek to clarify precisely how historical study works” (p. 8) and I think he has done a good job of explaining exactly how it generally works in NT and early Christian or historical Jesus studies.

McGrath probably speaks for many biblical “historians” when he explains that there are “two major different approaches to the Gospels that one may adopt: historical and literary.”(p. 56)

A “literary” study is relegated into a different room altogether from “historical” studies.

He sharpens the divide by continuing (with my formatting):

In essence, a historian is not interested in the story that is told in a written text for its own sake. The historian is interested in getting back behind the text, using the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier.

A literary approach, on the other hand, reads a text at face value, and may tell us what a particular author appears to have been concerned to emphasize, or what the character of Simon Peter is like in one of the Gospels. A literary approach, however, cannot answer the question of whether the portrait of Simon Peter as a character in a particular book reflects the actual personality and characteristics of an actual person by that name. To answer those sorts of questions, one needs to use the tools of historical study.

In a nutshell, both these approaches are useful, but they are useful for answering different sorts of question (sic).

A literary approach enables one to grasp the meaning of a story on the level of the text itself. A historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind a text to see what if anything can be determined about the actual historical events. (pp. 56-57)

This approach is logically invalid and self-contradictory. Firstly, the historical approach described here does indeed begin with a judgment about the texts at a literary studies level. But failing to realize this, the historian begins his study on a circular premise. This particular historian begins by judging (simply assuming) that the literary nature of the text is such that it is an expression of an attempt to create a narrative based on actual historical events and characters, that the narrative is a gateway to some historical person or event behind it. That is necessarily a literary studies judgement. It is a judgment about the very nature and function of the text at the literary level itself.

To assume that the narrative of the text is indeed some sort of indicator of real history and / or oral traditions about past events is to make an assumption about the literary nature of the text. It is a literary studies question.

As for the “historical tools” that are applied, this means for most part applying various criteria to certain historical and theological questions as they appear expressed in the different textual narratives. I have discussed the circularity and built in assumptions of these of these criteria so often now so won’t repeat that here. The posts can be found by doing a search on “criteria”, “criteriology”, “historical method” in the search box, or scrolling through the categories to see the posts on Sanders and Historiography.

The conclusion of all this is that the NT historian who follows such a method does indeed fall into trap of logical circularity. They begin by assuming that the narrative is a gateway to real historical events and persons. And then they apply “historical tools” such as various criteria to verify and refine the details of their assumptions!

(Unfortunately McGrath is incapable of accepting or comprehending the circularity at the heart of his methodology and continues to repeat his unsupported and lying or (more charitably) wilfully ignorant mantras that “mythicists” (a) fail to engage the scholarship of the historical Jesus or “take seriously” the extant studies of the historical Jesus, (b) charge the scholars with some sort of conspiratorial agenda, and (c) argue that because a narrative depicts a literary rather than a real person therefore the real person does not exist, and other such ignorant falsehoods.)

Brodie’s methodology

Thomas L. Brodie writes:

The first commandment of exegesis is that the literary question comes first, before history and theology. History and theology many be more important, and they have rightly been the basic goals of exegesis for centuries, but the first task is to attend to what is certain, to the words on the page, and to the relationships among the words.

He then elaborates in the fine-print of a footnote:

In comparison to theology and history, the literary aspect is more tangible and verifiable. No one has ever seen God, and therefore one is careful speaking about theology. Furthermore, the origin of Christianity is two thousand years away, so one is careful also in speaking about the events of the first century. But the text is here. This means that on an issue such as the evangelists’ possible use of the epistles, the primary guide is not theology, such as the difference between Luke and Paul. Nor is it the primary guide to history, such as a picture of Jesus and of early communities. Rather, it is appropriate to concentrate first of all on the texts and on the relationship between them.

In understanding the texts and the relationship between them the primary guide again is not history or theology: it is literature. Many introductions to the New Testament do not understand this basic principle: they discuss history, sociology, and theology, but not literature. . . .  We have forgotten the priority of the literary. (pp.104-5)

Now this sounds wonderfully justifiable. First look at the evidence we have. Study what is before our eyes. That is, the words on the page, how they are put together, their narrative structures and images etc, and compare them with other texts we know or have substantial reasons for thinking from the same era or were part of the same broad set of texts.

Scholars of intertextuality and mimesis versus the traditional scholars

That process should help us understand something of the nature and function of the texts, where and how their words and narratives fit in the broader scheme of things. That’s what Thompson L. Thompson attempted to do in The Messiah Myth; and what Dennis R. MacDonald attempted with The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; and Brodie himself in The Crucial Bridge (exploring the Elijah-Elisha narrative as the narrative template for the Gospel of Mark).

Neither MacDonald nor Brodie thinks the Gospel narrative itself is entirely fictitious.

Nonetheless, their method of attending first to the literary nature of the texts in order to understand their nature or character as literature does, to my way of thinking, have decisive implications for questions of the history contained in or lying behind the narrative story of Jesus.

What their approach does is to undermine the assumption that the Gospels were based primarily on “oral tradition” (and a few written snippets such as Q) handed down from the days of real historical events.

Attempts to demonstrate the relationships between the Gospel narratives and other texts, insofar as they are successful, are demolishing any need for the traditional oral links assumed to connect the Gospel narratives with History. If the Gospel narratives can be shown to derive directly or indirectly from other texts, what need is there for assuming they are “recordings” of “oral traditions” that go back to “history”?

Furthermore, once one starts with an understanding of a relationship between a Gospel narrative and a narrative in some other textual source, then questions immediately arise about why those relationships exist, and sometimes the answers may mean that questions about history behind the narrative can never arise. If a narrative can be demonstrated fairly convincingly to be derived from a tale in the Book of Jonah or 2 Kings or Euripides, then is not that the relationship that the historian must explore.

What the historian ends up studying, then, is the culture, the mindset, the ideas, functions of the author or text and the use he/it made of other literature. The historian is left without any evidence to justify him or her opting to assume the narrative additionally contains something historical that must have also come from oral tradition.

Brodie and other scholars who do invest in this literary studies approach to the Gospels may not see it entirely that way, but perhaps their critics do. And maybe that’s why they have so many critics among mainstream NT historical studies.

Others have seen the logic of this

So on the face of it, Brodie’s discussion about the importance and priority of literary study sounds awfully close to what Thompson writes in The Mythic Past (also titled The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past)

It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians have often done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales. (p.45)


Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (p.44)


It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all of the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. (p.38)

And to what Philip R. Davies said about method in In Search of Ancient Israel (1992):

[H]istorical research by biblical scholars has taken a . . . circular route


[The] logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself.

(This is the basic methodological error of the McGrath method. Note that the logic of the method is not contingent upon any time factors between text and event. To reject this logic on the grounds that in the case of Jesus and the Gospels we have a shorter span of time between the events and the narrative is to miss the point of the logic entirely. Such a complaint falls into the very trap it is attempting to deny — assuming that the literary constrtuct is an historical one and will be thus made to confirm itself.)

And to what Niels Peter Lemche wrote in, The Israelites in History and Tradition:

Everything narrated by them may in principle be historical, but the biblical text cannot in advance be accepted as a historical source or documentation; it has in every single case to prove its status as a historical source.


To assume the historicity of a biblical narrative in advance is unscholarly . . .

And to what David J. A. Clines wrote in What Does Eve Do to Help?

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . .

But Brodie “Missed it by that much!”

On the face of it that’s what it sounds like Brodie is saying. But not quite, because Brodie goes on to write this:

The possible dependence of the gospels on the epistles is just one of the literary tasks that needs to be undertaken before embarking on a quest for the historical Jesus.

Brodie comes “That Close!” to the Kingdom of God but then fails to see which way the door opens. (I think he’s a Dominican monk so one has to give him credit with a koala stamp for getting as far as he does.)

He is still assuming that despite uncovering the literary sources for the Gospel narratives that those narratives are nonetheless the end point in of an emerging tale or set of tales that were passed on from historical happenings.

Now that assumption would be totally justified if there were external controls — reliable independent evidence — to substantiate the historical events that are central to the narrative. That’s what we have in the case of other figures of ancient times where we can be as certain as anyone can be certain that they were historical.

But to maintain that assumption, as it appears very many mainstream NT historians do, despite clear evidence at hand of other sources that are tangible, visible, palpable, is to add unnecessary hypotheses after we already have a solution in hand.

So even despite evidence to the contrary, “The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself.”

I was originally going to write about Brodie’s methodology, but got started on a favourite topic of mine that I’ve surely done to death by now. Will have to do the criteria and discussion of the Gospels using the Epistles as sources in another post.

Meanwhile, I will post a footnote to this post in my next post explaining why I think the evidence for a little known Roman mentioned in tertiary literature is stronger than the evidence for Jesus.

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29 thoughts on “Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies”

  1. Interesting. Does Brodie only discuss Paul’s epistles or does he also consider the influence of James and 1 Peter on the Gospels (and Matthew’s sermon on the mount in particular)?

  2. Hey Neil,

    I looked up Thomas l. Brodie on wikipedia, and could not find anything for him, then I backed out and tried a general google search, and found these two links; http://www.librarything.com/author/brodiethomasl, http://www.librarything.com/work/149492, but no general over view or web page of his.

    Who is this Thomas L Brodie? where does he teach? what is his degree in, etc… I am trying to start to make a list of the people you are mentioning, and just who they are.

    Cheers! webulite.com

  3. I see I will have to do another post on Brodie’s “crucial bridge” book linking the Gospel of Mark to the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 & 2 Kings. Michael Turton’s online commentary on Mark refers to it, too.

    In the book I cited Brodie is listed as being with the Dominican House of Study, Dublin, Ireland.

    See also http://www.google.com.au/search?q=Thomas+l+Brodie+Dominican+Dublin&ie

    He has a number of publications with Sheffield Press, which can be seen as a worry or a plus – Sheffield seems to publish the best and worst.

    I would love to gain access to his PIBA articles to assess his work in more detail. (Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association)

    In the chapter I refer to he lists the following published studies:

    1. Mark 10:1-45 as a creative rewriting of 1Peter 2:18-3:17

    2. Matthew 1-7, (especially Sermon on the Mount) drawing on Romans.

    3. John 17 synthesizing much of the unity theme of Ephesians.

    4. Acts 1-5, on community unity, reversing the disunity of 1 Corinthians 1-5.

    In the Mimesis chapter he explores Luke 22 an 1 Corinthians 11 and the supper texts.

      1. This is why I would like to see his explanations in the PIBA papers. I have some problems with his discussion of the Luke 22 an 1Cor 11 idea. I’m more interested in his discussions on method than some of his “source studies”. There are some I interesting points in his Mark-Elijah/Elisha study, too. But he does not get down into details of semantic relationships that would do more to anchor his ideas.

        1. Yes, I’d say that the influence of the Elijah/Elisha circle on the Gospels is strong enough to be considered fact for me (and much stronger than MacDonald’s Homeric influences). Anyway, I definately agree with Brodie that literary analyses should precede historical questions. This includes both an examination of the literary relationships as well as narrative criticism. The study of early Christianity should not start with a historical Jesus or a historical Paul (whether one “believes” in them or not), but with the texts without presupposing that anything in a text is or is not historical.

  4. Could we perhaps learn something about what the gospels are (i.e., what is their purpose, genre, etc.) by the way their authors treated their source material? Whether you think Mark or Matthew came first, the subsequent gospel writers showed no restraint in redaction. They jumbled the narrative to fit their purposes. They rewrote quotes from Jesus himself as they saw fit. They changed chronologies, settings, and dramatis personae.

    If you’re like me and think John was aware of the Synoptics and was in some instances writing an alternative interpretation, then it comes as no surprise that he moved the Cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He even rewrote the words Jesus uttered as he drove out the merchants. This isn’t the act of a later historian using an earlier historian’s work; it’s a deliberate change to fit a theological agenda.

    Matthew’s uninhibited use of Mark as a source, with his willingness to change story structure, dialogue, and visual details, shows us that he didn’t see himself as a historian whose job is to portray the past as it actually happened. No, his business was to create a story to convey a higher, theological truth — the good news about Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and the coming Kingdom of God.

    Consider the robe the soldiers put on Jesus in order to mock him as the fool/king. Mark says it’s purple. Matthew knows that the only likely royal purple robe in Jerusalem belonged to Pilate. He can’t imagine Pilate giving up his robe for such a purpose, so he changes the color to red. (Recall that John says the robe was purple and that the crowd saw Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and purple robe.)

    NT scholars would waste their time arguing over “what color was the robe, really?” when the correct question is, “Why should we treat the gospels as historical sources when their authors clearly did not?”

    1. I think you are hitting on very significant points that “mainstream HJ scholars” fail to “take seriously”.

      It is quite amusing to see how one scholar attempts to get around this problem. He can see the Gospels are not history, but he is trapped by the prevailing paradigm that they are history and biography. So he has to explain in what sense they really are history — against the evidence he cannot avoid. So he says Mark “evokes” history, but it’s a history that “reflects a deeper dimension” and “bubbles up from beneath the surface”!!! 🙂

      “Mark’s Gospel is usually reckoned as a form of history or biography. Adela Yarbro Collins, for instance, speaks of “apocalyptic history,” and Christopher Bryan emphasized biography. It seems best to accept both dimensions: Mark evokes history, not flat history (“the bare facts”), but history as reflecting a deeper dimension, something apocalyptic that bubbles up as it were from beneath the surface.”

      Then again it is biography, so many scholars agree, but Brodie has to be honest and say that though it is biography it is not really about the life of Jesus!

      “But Mark is also biography, not that Mark gives a life of Jesus, but Mark uses Jesus’ life to express the larger reality of history. Thus biography is at the service of the portrayal of mystery-filled history.”

      After all his caveats leading up to that last sentence I don’t know what his last sentence means. A narrative that is NOT about the life of Jesus is at the service of a narrative that reflects a deeper dimension than flat history and from which history bubbles into an apocalyptic mystery tale.

      Why on earth can’t he just say it’s NOT history Nor biography! 🙂 It sounds as complicated and mysterious as trying to explain the trinity.

      (The quote is from Thomas L. Brodie in The Crucial Bridge, which is actually quite interesting in a lot of other respects.)

      1. I think we should help the scholars out of their categorization conundrum. We need to stop pretending they’re histories or biographies. The name for the genre is sitting right there in front of us. They’re gospels. It’s a perfectly useful and appropriate term. Mark wrote the first that we know of, so he gets to name it. “Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησου Χριστοῦ.” Bingo. It’s a “goodmessage” about Jesus Christ.

        What I’ve found quite frustrating over the years is the way NT scholars continue to draw water from the poisoned well. For example, a few years ago I went to the local library and checked out a copy of Ehrman’s TTC course on the Historical Jesus. In one lecture he shreds the nativity stories by comparing them to each other and to known historical events. There is no way to harmonize Matthew and Luke, and they both present strings of events that strain credulity. The worldwide census that forces everyone to hit the road is implausible. Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents, had it occurred, would surely have been reported by someone besides Matthew. And the list goes on. It’s clear that Matthew and Luke needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, so they invented stories (mined from the Bible) to get him there. It’s a clear case of “prophecy historicized.”

        But not too long after that, Bart tells us that it’s a reasonably certain historical fact that Jesus was born around 4 BCE, because that’s the last year of Herod’s reign. Say what? The nativity stories are complete fiction, but we know Jesus was born around 4 BCE because Herod was still alive. And we know this because of Matthew’s testimony? Shouldn’t we have roped off those chapters of the gospels?

        Ehrman isn’t alone. E.P. Sanders firmly states that the nativity stores are pure fiction, but then in The Historical Figure of Jesus he writes, “Most scholars, I among them, think that the decisive fact is that Matthew dates Jesus’ birth at about the time Herod the Great died. This was in the year 4 BCE, and so Jesus was born in that year or shortly before it…”

        I think this phenomenon may be unique to the field. Where else in academia do you find scholars saying in one breath that the evidence is utter garbage, and in the next breath rummaging through that very same garbage for edible chunks?

        1. Touche! I think this sort of thing is the reason someone like McGrath goes bananas and refuses to engage with mythicist arguments. He is in denial over the circularity and hollowness of his own methodology. He has to continually claim mythicists don’t engage with the mainstream scholarship to cover what they expose about that scholarship.

          (As some readers probably know, he challenged me to address the evidence in a scholar like E.P. Sanders and when I did he went quiet, and when I pointed to Doherty’s lengthy reviews of the scholarship, he went quiet again; yet he has subsequently continued to write that mythicists never engage the mainstream scholarship! And some people think I’m not justified in letting words like li_r come to mind.)

        2. Of course, there’s always the option taken by critical Catholic scholars like Meier and Brown: trash the nativity narratives as historical evidence, but still somehow believe that they sctually happened. The wonders of the theological mind never ceases to amaze!

      2. Well, some of it could easily be history of course. I have no problem with the view that Jesus was crucified and that he was a disciple of John the Baptist. Even if all the words attributed to Jesus were not really his we cannot exclude the possibility that some of it is historical. Of course there is no hard evidence for this (although some would argue that there is good evidence for the crucifixion), but that’s not really that surprising given the late textual evidence we have. Perhaps Jesus agnosticism is not such an unreasonable position.

        1. Bill: “Perhaps Jesus agnosticism is not such an unreasonable position.”

          I agree. It seems eminently reasonable. But I don’t know how any NT scholar could get to that point. I mean, shouldn’t we start from the null hypothesis and demand that the evidence prove itself? However, since most NT scholars start from the assumption that Jesus was historical and that he lived when the gospels said he lived and that he was from Galilee, then for them agnosticism is never an option. Their assumptions create half the biography.

          1. It is the Kuhnian paradigm that every student of biblical studies takes over and like any Kuhnian revolution something special needs to happen to break it down. A bunch of fringe atheist Jesus mythicists will never be able to accomplish this.

            1. Again, I agree. In fact, the “atheist mythicist fringe” (with whom I sympathize) serves a sinister, albeit unwilling, purpose. Biblical scholars in the mainstream can point to the apologists on the right and the mythicists on the left and say, “Look how rational, mature, and moderate we are. Get a load of those crackpots!” As long as the mythicists remain outside the citadel they remain quite useful.

              I think it’s worse in the US, but I could be biased since I live smack in the middle of the country. We tend to erect guardrails around intellectual debates, and if you step outside the very narrow confines, you’re called a “radical,” which of course means nobody has to engage with you seriously and honestly. The mainstream’s controlling interests determine the vocabulary and the borders of our political, economic, and religious debates.

              I’d better stop this tirade before I reveal myself as a radical.

  5. In defense of the mainstream, these are people with their own ideas to promote and jobs to perform so I can understand if they aren’t interested in spending a lot of time with the worlds Graham Hancocks, Simcha Jacobovicis, and Earl Dohertys of the world. There are a lot of good minimalist NT and OT history ideas around but Christ Myth just hasn’t put forward a sound enough case to to catch the interest of too many with experience in the field. I didn’t mind looking into it because I don’t have experience and have lots of time. I also have a soft spot for odd ideas, you never know which one might have a gem in there, and some times I just like the quirkiness. I collect old books on ancient astronauts, Atlantis, and hollow Earth theories. Pseudo science is a hobby of mine.

  6. ‘What their approach does is to undermine the assumption that the Gospels were based primarily on “oral tradition” (and a few written snippets such as Q) handed down from the days of real historical events.’

    Does this mean that mainstream Biblical scholars think the primary method of one Christian teaching another was to pass on the ‘oral tradition’ about the teachings, life, sayings, parables and deeds of Jesus?

    1 Corinthians 3
    I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

    The teachings of their Lord and Saviour would never have been regarded as mere ‘milk’, fit only for infants who were not ready for solid food.

    Whatever the ‘milk’ was that the Corinthians had been given, it was not a detailed biography of Jesus – of the kind that apologists assure us Paul never mentions because everybody had already been taught it in such detail that there was no longer a need to expound upon it.

    That sort of detailed oral tradition about what Jesus had said and done would not have been ‘milk’.

    However a basic analysis of how the Messiah was in the Old Testament would have been regarded as ‘milk’, and the ‘solid food’ could have been the detailed exegesis of the kind which led early Christians to see the cross in the number of servants Abraham had.

    You can imagine that new Christians would not have been ready to start reading the Bible to find the cross in passages about Abraham, just as new converts to Jehovah’s Witnesses are spared some of the more bizarre intepretations of the Bible, being fed ‘milk’ first about Revelation is about the end of the world.

    But mainstream Biblical scholarship has to maintain that the ‘milk’ new Christians got was such a detailed account of Jesus life that Paul could simply assume it was all understood and not allude to it.

    How could that have been ‘milk’, given to Christians who were not ready for the juicy stuff?

    1. Not only Paul’s Christianity, but also that expressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews — Hebrews 6:1-2 lists “repentance” and “faith”, two of the fundamentals taught by Jesus, and “baptism” and “resurrection”, the first and last works of Jesus himself, as the “elementary principles of Christ”. The author says all of those things are for the neophytes, and there is no need for those seeking perfection or completion to continue to dwell on those things.

      So he goes on, then, to explain the Priesthood of Melchizedek, the things that exist in the heavenly temple as discerned through the physical counterpart on earth, the examples of the Patriarchs and Moses (but not of Jesus — who represented mere “elementary principles” that were just the foundational teachings of all these things). The examplars for those who would be perfect, he explains, are to be found in Abraham, Isaac (who was offered up like Christ), Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. But Christ himself epitomizes the mere fundamental principles that the spiritually mature are to leave behind as the mere starting line.

  7. Hebrews 5
    But God said to him,
    “You are my Son;
    today I have become your Father.”And he says in another place,
    “You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”

    The author of Hebrews is not just claiming that God spoke to Jesus, quoting the Old Testament while doing so.

    He is claiming that Psalm 110 actually IS God talking to Jesus. The ‘other place’ where God spoke to Jesus is Psalm 110, not planet Earth.

    How could there have been an historical Jesus, if early Christians pointed out Psalm 110 as the place where God spoke to Jesus?

  8. Hebrews 5 has other interesting points.

    During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

    But Jesus prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene was not ‘heard’, which is jargon for a prayer being granted. Quite the opposite.Jesus prayed for the cup to pass away, but was not granted salvation from death.

  9. When Dunn argues that differences like this that occur among the variant canonical gospels testify to various oral traditions (different oral strands would see the mutation of the original eye-witness accounts into varying “traditions” for the later gospel authors to pick and choose from), Price points out what probably most bible students learn — that the differences we find in the different gospel accounts are unmistakably expressions of different doctrinal views of the authors.

    They are not random selections of variant eye-witness or Chinese-whisper traditions. The differences within each gospel reflect a consistent doctrinal bias that is opposed to the view of another gospel. John’s Jesus is consistently a divine man in total control without any human weakness — he even essentially orders the crucifixion upon himself and raises himself from the dead. Matthew’s Jesus is the legalist; Luke’s the martyr hero; Mark’s the one possessed, etc.

    Hebrews teaches a different Jesus from that found in the gospels, and in Paul. Revelation teaches another Jesus. The Pastorals yet another. Just within the NT canon alone we have about 8 different Christianities represented.

    In what other historical person can we find such an extent of contrasting variant ideas about who or what the person was, what he did, where and when and how he did or said anything attributed to him?

    1. Neil: “Just within the NT canon alone we have about 8 different Christianities represented.”

      Getting back to the stuff you mentioned about Crossan re Price today (viz., opposing traditions are proof of historicity?), NT scholars are quite adept at making a virtue of necessity. Vastly different Christology? Then it must stem from an historical Jesus. Divergent historical “facts”? That’s because it’s true but there was a rich, oral tradition.

      Does anyone doubt for one second that if the New Testament had a single, coherent view of Jesus with mere perspective variations, these same people would claim it proved the historicity of Jesus?

  10. JW:
    I’m going through Dr. Richard Carrier’s initial article demonstrating the secondary quality of The Long Ending and noticed his criteria for mimesis:





    I think at this point Dr. Carrier is likely one of the foremost authorities the world has ever known on mimesis. Neil, I’m not sure about the order of investigation above. I see investigation of evidence for Literary Style as just another responsibility on a checklist of investigation, not necessarily first or last. We would agree though that Literary Contrivance is good evidence for Fiction and if a complete examination indicates a high level of LC (Literary Contrivance) in general than the default for any individual story is Fiction. For “Mark” specifically the combination of the high level of LC and the Impossible produces that default here. The problem with subsequent Gospels that have lower contaminant levels is that their basis component is “Mark” which poisons their historical potential for individual stories. They edit “Mark” not because they know what was historical but because they do not like what “Mark” wrote. Comically we have the exact opposite situation from McGrath posturing that HJ is proved by historical stories/events. All of the original Gospel’s stories are probably either fiction or not proven. It is the GENERALIZATIONS they support that may be enough for HJ to be the best explanation.


    1. Literary contrivance can go with historicity like Lucan’s epic Pharsalia goes with the historical Battle of Pharsalus. So literary contrivance does not itself preclude historicity at some level. But I don’t think you find classicists examining the words of Pharsalia and applying embarrassment and plausibility criteria to tease out additional genuine historical fact from it.

      There are no “standards” to guarantee detection of fiction versus nonfiction in written documents, otherwise the world would have a sure guarantee to never allow a deception of any kind to pass by unnoticed ever again. The criteria offer some controls to give some measure of probability and superficially at least lessen the level of subjectivity.

      McGrath does not appear to have any notion of circular reasoning or question begging. He falls into the error with such consistent regularity he seems genuinely oblivious to it. His repeated strident assertionss that if we can prove an event took place from narratives that lack any external corroboration then we have be default proved the existence of X is a high school howler. But the entire HJ enterprise is built on circular reasoning so the blindness is not easy for insiders with vested interests in it to acknowledge.

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