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.)
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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