Thomas Brodie’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Brodie has an epilogue in his latest book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, in which he responds to Bart Ehrman’s purported attempt to address the arguments of mythicists, Did Jesus Exist? (I say “purported” because although Ehrman has vehemently denied the charge, he has never, to my knowledge, addressed the actual evidence that he did not himself even read the books by Doherty and Wells that he critiqued. But Brodie is a kinder reviewer than I am.)

Brodie summarizes the three parts to Ehrman’s book and then responds. A summary of his summaries follows. It dwells mostly on Ehrman’s argument about oral traditions since Brodie (as I have posted recently) is particularly critical of the way biblical scholars “uncritically” rely upon oral tradition to make their reconstructions of Christian origins work.

Part 1: The Evidence for Jesus’ Historical Existence

Ehrman’s argument is that all Gospels, canonical and noncanonical, all testify to an historical Jesus, and they are all so varied, each with its own unique material (despite some undoubted borrowing from Mark), that they have to be considered to be relaying to readers independent witnesses of this historical Jesus.

Examination of the Gospels further “indicates that they all used many diverse written sources, sources now lost to us. . . .” — known as Q, M, L, a Signs Source, a Discourse Source, a core version of Thomas, etc. All of these “sources” also speak of Jesus as an historical person. It is also clear that they are independent of one another, so they can all be considered independent witnesses. It is thus inconceivable that they all derive from a single source. They must all ultimately derive from various witnesses to the historical Jesus.

Further, some scholars date Q to the 50s, 20 years after Jesus’ death. And others have “mounted strenuous arguments that” — and one recent study “makes a strong . . . literary . . . argument that” — sources underlying Peter and Thomas date even earlier than 50 CE.

And behind all of these very early (now lost) written sources were oral traditions that dated much earlier. Evidence of oral traditions:

  • revised form criticism that assumes oral traditions were the core of written sources
  • we have no way of explaining the written sources unless we assume oral tradition was behind them
  • Aramaic traces in the Gospels indicates that their sources were originally Aramaic oral sayings

These oral traditions were old. For example, we “know” Paul persecuted the Christians before his conversion. How could he have persecuted Christians if they did not exist? And how could they exist unless they knew orally transmitted reports about Jesus? (Brodie is a kind reviewer. He does not embarrass Ehrman by pointing out the raw logical fallacies in these arguments.)

Brodie notes Ehrman’s insistence upon the importance of oral tradition in the case for Jesus’ historicity:

The role of oral tradition as a basis for all our written sources about Jesus is not something minor; it ‘has significant implications for our quest to determine if Jesus actually lived’ (p. 85 of Did Jesus Exist?, p. 227 of Brodie’s Beyond the Quest)

Other NT sources, the letters of Paul and others, as well as the writings of Ignatius, 1 Clement, Papias — all, according to Ehrman — speak of Jesus as historical and they are all either independent of one another or demonstrably independent of the Gospels, so we can only conclude they acquired their knowledge of Jesus from oral tradition.

Besides — a key point —

the message of a crucified messiah is so countercultural for a Jew that it can only be explained by a historical event, in this case the crucifixion of someone the disciples had thought was the messiah. (p. 227)

Brodie aptly sums up Bart Ehrman’s case:

Overall then, the evidence shows a long line of sources, all independent — all with independent access to the oldest traditions — and all agreeing in diverse ways, that Jesus was historical. Such evidence is decisive. (p. 228)

Part 2: Contrary Claims

Ehrman’s argument is, Brodie summarizes, that mythicists like Price and Thompson exaggerate the similarity of the stories of Jesus with other myths. Besides, saying that the life of Jesus could be written as a paraphrase of the Old Testament stories is a “weak and irrelevant” argument. One does not conclude that the French Revolution never happened because The Tale of Two Cities by Dickens is fiction.

Part 3: Jesus’ Life

Jesus was a “carpenter” who became an apocalyptic prophet. He may have been like an Essene but was not an Essene. He preached the imminent advent of the kingdom of God, and was somehow misunderstood by the Roman authorities as one who claimed to be a self-appointed king. That’s why he was crucified.


Brodie’s Response

At first this thesis seems plausible. The idea of Jesus as historical corresponds to age-old perception, and the three-phrase picture of gospel development — oral tradition, adaptations, and gospel writing — corresponds largely with the picture developed early in the last century, first in form criticism, and, by the 1960s, in some church documents. (p. 228)

But we know there has to be a ‘but’.

But the thesis has internal weaknesses. The key role attributed to oral tradition corresponds to no known model of oral tradition, and makes no reference to recent concerns about invoking oral tradition . . . (p. 228. Brodie here points to his criticism of oral tradition in chapter twelve of Quest, but I posted a four-part series on his more expansive criticism of oral tradition from his Birthing of the New Testament.)

Specifically here, Brodie describes Ehrman’s reliance upon the “hypothetical documents” of Q and the core of Thomas as “skating on thin ice”.

As I quoted above, Ehrman refers to a “strong argument” dating the core of Thomas to earlier than 50 CE, but Brodie points out that Ehrman does not attempt to summarize the logic of that argument, and furthermore,

the reader who tries to track down that logic by going back to the cited author will discover that the argument, which remains elusive, presupposes having read the author’s yet earlier work.

Thomas Brodie gently leads up to a damning indictment of Ehrman. Ehrman is way behind the times. Ehrman is regurgitating scholarship of the 1950s apparently completely unaware of any developments since the 1980s.

There is no need to skate on thin ice, says Brodie. Nor is there any need to resort to oral tradition to explain the contents of the Gospels or other New Testament literature.

Since around 1970 an alternative explanation of the New Testament and related texts has been emerging. Researchers are recognizing precise ways in which New Testament texts are explained as depending not on oral tradition but on older literature, especially older scripture. The New Testament books are Scripture reshaping Scripture to speak to a changed situation, and they may also reshape one another. Yet, whatever its source, each text is worked into something distinctive, and in that sense is independent. The dependence of the gospels on the Old Testament and on other extant texts is incomparably clearer and more verifiable than its dependence on any oral tradition — as seen, for instance, in the thorough dependence of Jesus’ call to disciples (Lk. 9:57-62) on Elijah’s call (1 Kgs 19). The sources supply not only a framework but a critical mass which pervades the later text. (p. 229)

This is a theme I and others have often raised in recent years. Brodie does not mention here the fall of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 CE, but surely we know enough of the diversity of Second Temple Judaism to postulate the possibility that the rabbinic movement was not the only response to that destruction. Or just how diverse was Second Temple Judaism? Brodie calls upon the conservative N. T. Wright (2005) to testify that recent scholarship, with “its eyes newly opened by contemporary literary study”, is testing Paul’s works for all kinds of “implicit and explicit [Old Testament] storylines”, and adds that the Gospels, likewise, are being exposed as being built upon the same foundations.

Where is Ehrman in all of this?

But Ehrman’s study does not take account of this new research. It does not concentrate on discerning the literary nature of the various documents and so breaks Rule One of historical investigation. It summarizes the criteria developed in the 1950s for tracing the historical Jesus, but makes no mention of the criteria developed since the 1980s for detecting literary dependence. So it cannot deal adequately with Price and Thompson, and shows little awareness that — whatever some of their opinions — their work has a place in a central new field of biblical research. (p. 229, my emphasis)

It is these literary studies (that Ehrman avoids as if they have had no existence) that answer Ehrman’s questions that he thinks can only be explained by speculating oral tradition. Examples:

  1. Occasional use of Aramaic fits the literary technique of archaism and the biblical literary tradition of inserting Aramaic into Hebrew (see Ezra-Nehemiah, later imitated in Daniel; Wesselius 2001: esp. 299-303);
  2. the references to processes of going back to older material and handing it on (e.g. Lk. 1:1-4; 1 Cor. 11.2, 23; 15.1-5) are being recognized as referring to handing on a literary tradition (cf. J.N. Collins 2010), as being literally ‘according to the scriptures’;
  3. New Testament texts are independent in the sense that each one has a unique mix of sources and artistic shaping;
  4. the Elijah-Elisha narrative provided a foundational literary model for the Gospels (Brown 1971; Winn 2010) and its contents were reshaped and interwoven with other texts;
  5. the material attributed to the hypothetical gospel sources — Q, M, L, the Signs Source, etc — is being recognized slowly as a reshaping of extant texts;
  6. as seen earlier . . . Pauline letters construct features such as readers and opponents, and Paul’s autobiographical texts (e.g. Gal. 1-2) are likewise a construct, not reliable history, so regardless of Paul’s apparent assertiveness and intensity, the picture of Paul meeting Peter in Jerusalem and Antioch cannot be evoked as history, nor can it be used to explain the origin of Ignatius’s information about Jesus;
  7. if Ignatius did not get his information about Jesus from reports about Paul’s visit, his dependence on the gospels becomes more likely. In any case, to claim in effect that neither Clement (c. 90), nor Ignatius (c. 110), nor Papias (c. 125) had ever learned directly or indirectly from any of the canonical gospels is high-risk history. (pp. 229-230, my formatting)

Note #6 above! Recall or read for the first time my 2006 post!

On #7 I would like to say much, too, but here Brodie tags a lengthy footnote, so I think it would be unfair for me to raise my objections while not giving him a full hearing, too. Maybe this can be the topic of a future post.

On the crucified messiah being countercultural

The image of a crucified messiah is indeed countercultural, yet, given how biblical writers had long set narratives in opposition to one another and had refashioned older scriptures, it makes sense as part of a fresh synthesis of several Old Testament/Septuagint texts (e.g. Isa. 52.13–15.12; cf. Acts 8:30-35; Lk. 24.25-27) that deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope. What is especially new about the crucified messiah is not just the seemingly radical contradiction of combining goodness and suffering, hope and despair, messiah and crucifixion, but also the stark image through which that contradiction is portrayed — Roman crucifixion. Yet such a process of adaptation is not new.

When Luke was using the account of the death of Naboth to depict the death of Stephen, he replaced the picture of the old institutions, the monarchy and assembly, with Jewish institutions of the first century — the synagogue and Sanhedrin.

And when he was using the account of the exemplary foreign commander, Naaman, he changed the nationality from Syrian to Roman, Roman centurion.

So when there was a need to express the ancient contradiction of paradox between God-based hope and life’s inevitable sufferings it was appropriate to express those sufferings in a clear contemporary image — Roman crucifixion.

It was doubly appropriate in the context of a rhetorical world that sought dramatic effect and enargeia (graphic presentation) (Walsh 1961: 188). Further issues of historical background belong to another discussion. (pp. 230-231 — my formatting and emphasis)

Brodie’s hope

Though Ehrman seems to set up a false dilemma for his readers — believe Jesus was historical or abandon Christianity and God — Brodie offers an alternative hope.

Rediscover Jesus as a fresh scripture-based expression of suffering humanity’s deepest strengths and hopes, and thereby rediscover a new sense of the reality we often refer to glibly as God. (p. 231)

Many online critics have deplored Ehrman’s effort to supposedly respond to mythicism, but Brodie is always the quintessential gentleman-scholar. He says Ehrman’s book is “to be welcomed” because

it helps bring the issue of Jesus’ historical existence and other important issues about the nature of belief and religion to the centre of discussion. (p. 231)

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Thomas Brodie’s Review of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?”

  1. “recent scholarship, with “its eyes newly opened by contemporary literary study”, is testing Paul’s works for all kinds of “implicit and explicit [Old Testament] storylines”, and adds that the Gospels, likewise, are being exposed as being built upon the same foundations.”

    Yes there is a significant known source for the Christian Bible, The Jewish Bible, and the desired source of oral tradition is unknown. You can go beyond this to add that Paul explicitly and repeatedly testifies that Revelation showed him Jesus in The Jewish Bible and that Paul is likewise the only significant known author before “Mark”. Does Brodie miss this?

  2. I don’t know why it’s not understood that Pauline epistles don’t show up until Marcionites show up in history. And, worse, instead of writing an accurate and true history of the “orthodox”, proto-Catholic church – they chose to write a tale of fantasy known as “Acts”. Why didn’t someone write a true history? UNLESS, unless there was no true history for anyone to write. IOW, maybe they just made it up as they went…you know, like the Mormons did.

    1. The main reason is that when Paul does make his first explicit reference in the external record he is already a figure of high importance. This implies that he was not created at this time but was known and referenced at this time because of his already high reputation that necessarily came from an earlier era.

      A third option is that of Parvus, Detering and those who argue that Paul was a cipher for Simon Magus. In this case what we are witnessing in the second century is the first spin-off impacts of the orthodox re-casting of Simon as Paul.

      Personally, I simply don’t know what to do with Paul. I have ordered two books by Richard Hays about Paul because of their insights cited favourably by polar-opposite scholars T.L. Brodie and N.T. Wright. Maybe they will help resolve my quandary, or leave me more uncertain.

      1. I would think that the Simon Magus story sounds more like Marcion than Paul. Unless, of course, Marcion was actually the one who wrote the Pauline epistles using the name of Paul. Which, if Marcion did write, say Galatians, then those letters were edited to sound orthodox. I can’t imagine that Marcion would present a letter in support of Marcionism that had the Gal. 1:19 passage in it.

        Sometimes I think that maybe the whole NT Canon came about as the result of the Marcionite church and the orthodox church writing tracts against each other. But, how would anyone today ever know whether that was the cause or not?

  3. “the material attributed to the hypothetical gospel source — Q, M, L, the Signs Source, etc — is being recognized slowly as a reshaping of extant texts”

    Does he mean “extant when the Gospels were being written” (which is pretty much what the Q camp claims) or extant now? If now, which texts?

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