“Jesus did not exist as an historical individual”: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

My copy of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus happily arrived today. I have a few other posts in the pipeline waiting final editing so that will give me a little time to prepare discussing some aspects of this new book here.

Meanwhile, here’s the back cover blurb, also found on the Amazon site — here with my own highlighting and formatting:

In the past forty years, while historical-critical studies were seeking with renewed intensity to reconstruct events behind the biblical texts, not least the life of Jesus, two branches of literary studies were finally reaching maturity.

  1. First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from;
  2. and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts’ unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed.

The primary literary model behind the gospels, Brodie argues, is the biblical account of Elijah and Elisha [My post on Brodie’s earlier book making this case is at The Elijah-Elisha narrative as a model for the Gospel of Mark], as R.E. Brown already saw in 1971. In this fascinating memoir of his life journey, Tom Brodie, Irishman, Dominican priest, and biblical scholar, recounts the steps he has taken, in an eventful life in many countries, to his conclusion that the New Testament account of Jesus is essentially a rewriting of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, or, in some cases, of earlier New Testament texts. Jesus’ challenge to would-be disciples (Luke 9.57-62), for example, is a transformation of the challenge to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19), while his journey from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and beyond (John 2.23-4.54) is deeply indebted to the account of the journey of God’s Word in Acts 1-8.

The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual.

This is not as negative as may at first appear. In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God’s presence in the world and in human history.

And just one more tidbit for now — the second paragraph of Brodie’s Prefatory Introduction:

The essence of what I want to say is simple. Having joined the Dominicans because it seemed right to do so, and having been assigned to study the Bible, there came a period in my life, 1972-1975, which eventually led me to overwhelming evidence that, while God is present in creation and in daily human life, the Bible accounts of Jesus are stories rather than history.

The accounts are indeed history-like, shaped partly like some of the histories of biographies of the ancient world, and they reflect both factual aspects of the first century and God’s presence in history and in people, but they are essentially symbolic, not factual.

This idea is not new, but new evidence — from recent literary studies that trace the transformation of sources and methods of composition — tips the balance decisively in its favor. Symbolism is no small thing. It helps bring reality into being. Yet it is not an individual historical event. (my formatting)

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on ““Jesus did not exist as an historical individual”: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus”

  1. Intellectual honesty of this sort is brave in any field, but in Biblical Studies it is rare. The expected attacks and dismissals are sure to follow from the Jesus Guild, whose careers depend on there being a historical Jesus to study.
    They have invested too much in Jesus not being a myth to turn back now. Perhaps the fourth “quest for the historical Jesus” will use attacks on Brodie as its starting point. It’s all sadly become black cats in a dark basement at midnight who aren’t there, and the “historic Jesus” hasn’t suffered as much as academic honesty and scholarship.

  2. The links below lead to an essay and a table of passages extracted from gospels. The essay is not completely relevant to this discussion, but table seems to demonstrate that there is a group of synoptic gospel miracle stories which are interrelated literary constructions.



    It looks like healing miracle stories are really the same story recycled many times in slightly different form.

  3. The Historicist community is clearly biased against Mythicism. Dr. James McGrath has already criticized Brody’s book … even before it appeared. (In his criticism of it, as a “Nail in the Coffin of Mythicism.”). Clearly illustrating the bias in Historicism: McGrath reviewed and panned the book – even before he had read it. Even before it appeared.

    However, in spite of much bias against Mythicism, some elements of the scholarly community are now coming around to seriously considering Mythicism. Neil’s blog here has been usefully surveying scholarly contributions to the New Mythicism. Including Brodie’s book.

    Another useful online scholarly review of Brodie by the way, revealing especially his anthropological base, specifically focusing on Brodie’s attention to the problems with “oral culture,” can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20110803043220/http://www.ocabs.org:80/journal/index.php/jocabs/article/viewPDFInterstitial/57/28

  4. Actually, Jesus was a prince of Edessa in northern Syria. Not only are there many similarities between the Edessan princes and the NT account, one of the princes of Edessa had the same names as Jesus.

    The Biblical monarch was called ……. King Jesus EmManuel.
    The Edessan monarch was called …… King Izas Manu(el).

    And all of the Edessan monarchs wore a plaited Crown of Thorns. The biblical Jesus was crucified wearing this exact same plaited Crown of Thorns and purple royal robe, because he was this very same prince and king of Edessa.

    See “Jesus, King of Edessa”. This is a scholarly study of all the available historical evidence, including the Tanakh, Talmud, Josephus Flavius, the Roman historians, and venerable Syriac historians like Moses of Chorene and Yohannes Drasxanakertci.

    1. And you are its author? In what sense is it a “scholarly study”? The web data makes the book look more like von Daniken’s thesis of space aliens civilizing earth or Acharya S’s astrotheology or a new theory of Atlantis . . . . It certainly smacks of conspiracy innuendo.

  5. I prefer to call the gospels tales or sagas about a character called Jesus. The approaches of “Mark” and “John” are totally different, even though some details appear to be common. The sagas produced by the authors of “Matthew” and “Luke” contain contradictory details, apparently independently attempting to tie the character to mainline Judaism (“Mattjew”) or to the Babptist’s Essenism (“Luke”).
    They each seem to be aimed at providing different groups of Messianisns with a substitute for the Septuagint.

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