Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

The new addition to my bookshelf and I are going to get along just fine. I feel like I’ve found a long-lost friend, someone who has published exactly the point I have been making on this blog for so long now, only this new friend was saying it long before it ever crossed my mind.

Chapter 13, “The Quest for History: Rule One” in Thomas Brodies’ Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, begins:

On leaving the foggy swamp created by the theory of oral tradition I came again to the search for well-grounded history, and was brought back to the person who, amid hundreds of ancient rules, asked Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” And so amid the complexity of searching for history, I wondered if there was a Rule One.

This is not unlike my experience of wondering how historians can know anything at all about the existence of persons millennia ago. Few biblical scholars seem ever to have given this serious attention. The existence of certain persons seems to be mostly taken for granted. When Bart Ehrman attempted to grapple with this question (apparently for the first time) in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, it was clear he was merely opining off the top of his head and had never before seriously thought through the question in relation to a range of persons and sources. He began by saying a photograph would be proof — failing to grasp what should have been the obvious fact that a photograph is meaningless to anyone who has no idea of the existence and identity of the person in the first place. He had never thought the question through. Nor have scholars like McGrath and Hurtado who merely parrot as a given that scholars agree Hillel and Socrates existed so they did. When pushed, they can do nothing better than fall back on “scholars in their collective wisdom agree”. (Two posts in which I discuss this question: How do we know anyone existed. . . . , and Comparing the evidence. . . .)

Thomas Brodie speaks of an SBL meeting at San Diego in 2007 where Richard Bauckham

reminded his huge audience that he was unusually well qualified in history.

Accordingly, Brodie suggest, it seems that Rule One is to “attend to history”.

But Brodie also reminds us that another highly influential scholar, Brevard Childs, disagreed and would put “the meaning of the finished (canonical) text” as Rule One. The Bible’s historical background was too elusive to be a foundation, he said.

Brodie narrates a pregnant moment that registered with him in class:

I remember one day in class, as Childs was holding forth with strength and depth, he noticed how the text seemed to be structured or organized in a very specific way, and wondered if the structure was significant — in effect wondered if a purely literary feature, neither history nor theology, made any real difference. He paused, and then, almost verbatim:

‘We have no evidence that these things were important.’

The moment passed, and we returned to theology.

Recollect Churchill’s famous saying:

Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.

Brodie acknowledges that “ultimately” both Bauckham and Childs are right: that history and theology (the meaning of the Bible) are of “supreme value”.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Being first in importance does not necessarily mean being first in the order of investigation. The first thing to be sorted out about a document is not its history or theology — not the truth of background events or its ultimate meaning — but simply its basic nature. For instance, before discussing a will — its possible many references to past events, and its provisions for distributing a legacy — the first thing to be established is whether it is genuine, whether it is a real will. (p. 121, my bolding)

Its basic nature! The nature of the text we are reading! That’s exactly what I have been saying is the first task in an exploration of Christian origins. We need first to understand the very nature of the evidence or sources we are using. And yes, that means at some level literary analysis if the sources are literary. McGrath is flat wrong when he says literary analysis is not of interest to the historian. It is of the first and utmost importance. How else can the historian know how to interpret the literary source unless he or she understands its literary nature? I told you I think I have found a new like-minded friend for my bookshelf!

Brodie elaborates:

The text [Genesis], the finished writing, is the number one artifact, and no amount of historical background or theological acumen can substitute for taking that artifact seriously. Before asking ‘What was the historical background?’ one must first ask ‘Historical background of what?’ To do otherwise is like trying to figure out ‘who done it’ without knowing what was done. . . .

As an artifact, an object, Genesis is literary, at least in the basic sense that it consists of writing — . . . . And the first step in taking it seriously is to be sensitive to writing — to the full text and to the procedures normally involved in writing, in other words, to literary procedures. The literary aspect has ‘operational priority’ (Robert Polzin . . . 1980 . . .) . . . . Literary procedures are like the foundations of a house: on their own they are unimpressive and almost useless, but to build without them is to invite disaster.

Thompson similarly demonstrates that biblical narratives are so often reiterations of a theological motif. Look how many retellings there are — I can count seven or eight off the top of my head — of the new creation being born through divided waters, from Genesis right through to the Gospels were the motif is transvalued (MacDonald’s term) into the dividing of the heavens.

As an example Brodie cites the biblical narrative of the fall of Jericho and archaeological efforts to establish the truth or otherwise of the story.

However, without ever lifting a spade, the literary aspect provides a further clue.

The drama of the victory at Jericho and ensuing defeat at Ai

is part of a larger pattern of texts concerning success-and-failure, texts that ultimately reflect the Bible’s foundational drama of success-and-failure, namely, the creation-and-fall . . . .

What is essential is that literary context gives decisive clues on how to understand a text. If a newspaper announces cheap flights to Mars, it is important to note whether the advertisement occurs in the Travel Section or in the Cartoons-and-Jokes Page. Clarity on the literary factor is Rule One. (pp. 121-122, my emphasis)

Brodie acknowledges Richard Bauckham’s significant contribution to biblical studies by “helping to show that oral tradition does not work in explaining the development of the Gospels, and he has gone on to replace oral tradition by invoking formal transmission and eyewitnesses.”

However, there are problems with Bauckham’s proposal. John N. Collins of Australia maintains that Bauckham misreads Luke’s prologue (Lk. 1. 1. 1-4); Luke is referring back not to eyewitnesses but to a process that is literary.

. . . It takes little more than a glance at the preface of Luke to realize that Luke’s focus is [not on ‘some process of teaching and learning’ but] upon a literary tradition. (Collins 2010:451)

[Since posting this I have read J. N. Collins’ article quoted by Brodie, and it is clear that Collins’ argument for the prologue referring to a literary tradition complements (not contradicts) “some process of teaching and learning”. Collins is especially interested in that “process of teaching and learning” in the community.— Neil Godfrey, 15th November, 2012]

Collins, in Brodie’s words, faults Bauckham’s work thus:

[I]t shows historical erudition but without the necessary preliminary literary homework. Bauckham reads the New Testament data on transmission and witness as historical, without asking sufficiently whether it is actually historical or whether it is simply written to look like history. (pp, 122-123, my emphasis)

The Gospel of John, for example, is written in the tradition of Hebrew narrative. Its author, therefore, had every reason to make it look like history. We know that the Old Testament Biblical narratives could look like history even when it is clear they could not be historical. Furthermore, John’s Word is being made flesh, so it is coming “in history” — and hence the narrative for theological reasons must look history-like.

But whether it is actually historical must be decided on grounds other than its appearance. (p. 123)

A most elementary fallacy

Brodie then targets the common fallacy found in the writings of many biblical scholars, including some recently discussed in my reviews of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. Although Bauckham is correct to say that historians were expected to have a thorough knowledge of the places of which they wrote, it does not follow that references to geographical features is evidence of genuine historical writing. Accurate geographical details in fiction, including ancient fiction, are legion. Brodie drives the point home by citing every local geographical feature of the setting used by film-makers to show Superman taking flight. “But that does not make Superman historical.”

And likewise, John’s precision in mentioning places may give a close imitation of the style of historians, but again that alone does not make history. Style is not substance. What Bauckham has has clarified is not that John is a historian but that he has imitated the conventions of historians. He has made his work history-like. This is an important contribution to clarifying John’s literary form, but the issue of history must be decided on other factors. (p. 123)

I believe this is where I believe Michael Vines’ study of genre theory and its application to the Gospel of Mark is a golden contribution. Burridge’s What Are the Gospels? drew entirely on superficial appearance and style to conclude the Gospels were biographies. Vines, on the other hand, dived into literary theory and discovered what the authors were really doing and that superficial appearances were badly misleading.

Locating the sources

Another central factor for the historian is the identification of the sources of a text like the Gospel of John and how the author uses them. Brodie refers to Jesus’ journey from Jerusalem and Judea (in the Gospel of John) to Samaria and Galilee – John 2:23-4:54 – and how it is unlike any journey in the Synoptics. It does, however, correspond to the journey of the Word of God in Acts 1-8. There are many details to corroborate John’s dependence upon Acts (Heffernan 2009).

Such adaptations, such creative rewritings, were not unusual. They were central to ancient literary compositions. So it is impossible to make a historical claim about John 1-4 without first examining its dependence on Acts 1-8.

But here is the problem.

But some who claim to find history in John do not examine such literary links. (p. 124)

Brodie tells us that in September 2007 he contacted Bauckham to ask him if he ever explored the question of the relationship between John and the Synoptic Gospels “in the context of the literary relationships of the ancient world, Greco-Roman and Jewish.”

A few days later, on 26 September, he replied and said quite simply ‘No’.

I had to admire his promptness and honesty. But it reminded me of London’s Metropolitan Police when they were first offered fingerprinting. The Metropolitan Police were no slouch outfit. Based in Scotland Yard, they had a proud professional tradition. It was they who maintained order in the capital city at the heart of the largest empire the world has ever seen. They did not need these flimsy-looking spider-lines. (p. 124)

Let me quote part of the following paragraph here:

Tracking creative rewriting is like looking for fingerprinting. In comparing texts it often shows similarities that may appear as virtually invisible as fingerprints. But the phenomenon of creative rewriting is not going away. It is like a technology that is improving steadily. Virtually every year now brings some new discovery of how it contributed to the making of a biblical or biblical-related text, and with each discovery comes an increased opportunity to learn how rewriting can work. New Scotland Yard and London’s Metropolitan Police have long since become leaders in solving difficult cases. Solving what exactly John did will take time. . . .

Failure to connect John with Acts is part of a larger neglect around literary matters — whether about sufficiently recognizing literary art, including literary form, or the strange ancient method of creatively adapting sources. This neglect violates Rule One of historical research.

Brodie footnotes another case-study to illustrate this. James Dunn, for example, can detect that Luke is “something distinctive” in the creation of his speeches in Acts, but instead of checking to see if there are verifiable literary explanations, particularly whether Luke might be using the epistles and translating them into new form, he assumes that Luke is drawing on undefined tradition.

No solution in eye-witnesses or social memory

In my earlier posts on Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity and related posts on Le Donne, I address the new scholarly trend to look to social memory to replace the traditional construct of oral traditions. Bauckham has kicked at the weaknesses of the oral tradition explanation for the Gospel narratives, but by replacing it with eye-witness testimony and formal processes of teaching and learning through authoritative persons he has merely replaced “one ghost” with another.

One forgets there is a chasm beneath the impressive edifice.

The chasm is so deep that, like the theory of oral tradition, it threatens to devour decades of research energy, until, someday, some future Bauckham will arise and say ‘That dog don’t hunt! It does not deal with the data — with the text and its links to other texts.’

The problem is not solved by moving from one imaginary foundation to another — from eyes to memory, in other words from eyewitness testimony to social memory.

It seems so elementary to me. Why are Brodies’ words not taken as a given among scholars?

Social memory does not necessarily prove the historical existence of the individual remembered. There is a social memory of Superman . . . . The discussion of the social memory of Jesus rests on the presupposition of Jesus’ historicity . . . . Historical existence provides a foundation for social memory; but social memory does not provide a reliable foundation for historical existence. (p. 125, my emphasis)


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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus”

  1. Great post! I am looking forward to the next ones on this book.

    “Luke is referring back not to eyewitnesses but to a process that his literary.”

    Looks like a typo. Perhaps it should say “that is literary.”

  2. The problem with the hypothesis that John 1-4 is dependent upon Acts 1-8, is that John makes its appearance in the paleographically DATED archaeological record prior to Acts (160-200 CE for gJohn as opposed to 200-300 CE for Acts). Furthermore, there is no mention of Acts until the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons, 175 CE. Yet Justin Martyr in 150 CE is knowledgeable about Jesus as the preincarnate Word, a concept found nowhere in the gospels except gJohn, and the rest of the NT except John’s Epistles and Revelations.


    1. There’s no mention of the Gospel of John until Irenaeus, either. Justin Martyr does not quote from it, unlike the other gospels, and the Epistles of John and Revelations were most likely written long before the Gospel was. (You do realize that the person who wrote that gospel was not necessarily the same person who wrote the epistles and almost certainly not the same person who wrote Revelations, right?)

  3. Thanks for the typo note.

    Paleographic dating is fraught with well-known difficulties that I can address later or someone else can do so far better than I can. On reading the literature about Justin Martyr some years ago I was struck with how many unknowns we have to accept about his works, too. Again we are relying upon the self-witness of the text itself – a methodological questionable I have addressed many times; we also have indications that his writings have been interpolated through copying and transmission. And though we appear to read passages in his works that remind us of Paul and John, the fact that he does not mention their names raises other questions. (Roger Parvus has a view on this re Paul.)

    Let’s sift through all the evidence we have — including the literary — before taking sides. (I have long liked the idea that Luke and Acts knew and used the Gospel of John. But I have lots more to learn and understand before I start making arguments.)

  4. A bit off topic, but aside from Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, Aristotle could also count as evidence for the reality of Socrates. If we accept the standard view of Aristotle, we accept that he was a student of Plato and knew people of Plato’s generation. These people would have known whether Socrates was real or a literary device, and Aristotle would have learned that from them. And Aristotle writes of Socrates as if he were a real person.

  5. “Historical existence provides a foundation for social memory; but social memory does not provide a reliable foundation for historical existence.”

    If only more historical Jesus studies could have arrived at this basic but profound insight.

  6. “Brodie drives the point home by citing every local geographical feature of the setting used by film-makers to show Superman taking flight. “But that does not make Superman historical.”

    But, but, but ….
    I have seen the setting for Superman’s hideout.
    When we visited the Athabasca Glacier in Canada in one of those ice buses the guide pointed out the site of Superman’s Castle!
    I’ve even got a photograph of it – which is proof positive its’ real.
    And if Superman’s home is real then ,,,Superman is real!

    1. Not only that? I’ve seen movies of Batman in the actual streets of New York City. That of course proves that Batman is as real as New York?

      By the way: this makes proving the actual existence of Nazareth unnecessary. The actual existence of Nazareth c. 0 AD does not prove the existence of Jesus. Since writers of fiction often interlard their writing with a few real facts, to give their narratives plausiblity, the appearance of factual history.

      Here Neil has a useful phrase: maybe the New Tesament is not history theologized; it is “theology, historicized.” After the initial theological musings of Old Testament mystics and Philo’s philosophy, a “real” figure was made up to illustrate these principles.

  7. A bit confused by Brodie’s report of my critique of Bauckham’s appeal to ‘eyewitnesses’ in Luke’s preface, but glad to see the issue surfacing at least here. The summary of my critique above (a critique which developed solely on the basis of a new analysis of Luke’s preface in the light of the misunderstanding of ancient usage of the Greek word we translate as ‘eyewitnesses’) is rather confusing. So be it. I actually read the preface as evidencing the existence of a local school of some generations which has been deepening its theological understanding of the Jesus narrative by standard theological – not ‘historical’ – processes.

    Who reads the academic journals anyway? I had half-expected Bauckham to take up some sort of stance: to help him notice my paper, I had it published in his nearby Expository Times, whose home is about as far from Melbourne as it is possible to get on this planet but is right next door to Bauckham, as is this or any other electronic post.

    1. I do not have access to “Expository Times” but would love to read your article. Any discussion related to the prologues of Luke and Acts grabs my attention. Are you able to provide an abstract at least here?

  8. Correction: Since writing the above post I have read J. N. Collins’ article quoted by Brodie, and it is clear that Collins’ argument for the prologue referring to a literary tradition complements (not contradicts) “some process of teaching and learning”. Collins is especially interested in that “process of teaching and learning” in the community. Brodie’s quotation of Collins as presented in the post is misleading. I have added a correction in the post itself. I plan on doing a much more detailed post about Brodie’s views in which he quotes Collins at considerable length. The clarification of Collins’ views will come through loud and clear in that post.

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