Thomas L. Brodie: Two Core Problems with Historical Jesus Arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

brodieBeyondNow seems an appropriate time to say something significant about Brodie’s arguments. I quote here sections from his now infamous book that The Irish Times reported as “caused quite a stir and some considerable upset”, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (I don’t know. From what I hear from the likes of lots of mythicist critics, Brodie should have attempted to publish his views in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal if he thought he could mount a serious argument. He would have been guaranteed a fair hearing then, wouldn’t he?)

I was expelled by my church for going public with critical questioning and giving others materials to help them do the same, so I think I understand a little of what Brodie is experiencing. It is a nice coincidence that we appear to have come to a conjunction of views on Gospel origins despite our divergent scholarly statuses.

In chapter 17 Brodie addresses the four-volume work by another Catholic priest, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. I select here two core criticisms by Brodie that resonate with me because

  • (1) they address what is fundamentally wrong with most books on the historical Jesus;
  • and (2) they have also been basic to many of my own discussions of the Gospels as historical sources.

Brodie writes, beginning page 156 (my formatting and bolding):

Marginal Jew has two key problems. First, like many other studies, it uses an unreal compass — oral tradition.

By relying unduly on form critics . . . it assumes that the Gospels are something that they are not, namely, that they reflect oral traditions that go back to Jesus, back to about the year 30 C.E. (Marginal Jew, I. 41).

At no stage, despite several references to oral tradition, does Marginal Jew stand back and examine closely how we know such tradition existed.

Rather, backed by Josephus, it starts with an early claim that Jesus existed (I. 68), and with the essential answer to the whole inquiry thus in place, it needs something to fill the gap of about forty years between Jesus and the Gospels. And since oral communication is basic to humans — even more so in antiquity — it seems wonderfully plausible to fill the gap with oral communication, which is then turned into the idea of oral tradition. As we saw already, it is an idea that badly needs a funeral.

Refer to my earlier posts on Brodie’s argument undermining the assumption of oral tradition being behind the Gospels:

The second fundamental problem in Marginal Jew is that it largely bypasses Rule One of historical investigation, the priority of the literary aspect, and as a result misreads the origin and nature of its main sources — the Gospels.

It does not do justice either to where the Gospel text came from (especially its traceable literary sources), nor to what it is and where it is going (to how the sources — the raw materials — have been shaped into sophisticated literary writings).

And the reality is that the shaping of those sources is guided by considerations of literary and theological artistry that do not need the figure of Jesus to be historical, in themselves they are independent of the life of Jesus.

There are usually some teasing hints about these things in these HJ studies, but they always fizzle.

At first sight Marginal Jew does seem alert to the literary aspect of the task. It quickly acknowledges the principle of incorporating contemporary literary criticism (I, 12), and it sometimes traces links between texts. But the engagement is brief. At no stage does it stand back and consider systematically the possible lessons that might be learned from the way in which the great writers of the ancient world composed — how they rewrote existing texts, and how they chiselled their own works into powerful art.

There are over three hundred pages on Jesus’ competitors (III, 289-613), but not one complete paragraph on Homer or Virgil, the two mountains who dominated the world’s literary landscape, including the Gospels. Without a clear handle on the Gospels, it is impossible to get a handle on Jesus.

Brodie then discusses the use of criteria in NT studies, and their flaws. Two of these are ‘contradiction’ and ‘discontinuity’. These refer to the assumption that if something in the Gospels is out of line with what has been said elsewhere, then there must have been a compelling reason to include it. And that reason must have been that it ‘really happened’. Brodie points out, however, that such contradictions and discontinuities are standard motifs throughout biblical literature, beginning with Genesis.

There is more, of course, but we may touch on some of these in future posts.

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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Thomas L. Brodie: Two Core Problems with Historical Jesus Arguments”

  1. Neil,
    I really enjoy all the fine post and points of view over here at vridar. Im hardly a scholar in my own right, but as an exJw and all of the christian brainwashing that nearly lead me to commit suicide, it has been the works of critics and skeptics as well as a little eastern philosophy that really “SAVED” me! So thanks, keep up the great work


    1. Hi Jason. I understand. It was reading the books we were discouraged from reading and coming to understand the views we were taught were Satanic that led me, like you, to find “life” and leave behind the coffin of religion. (Yet while in that “put-on” religion (“put on the new man” etc) we were, ironically, so absolutely convinced we had “abundant life”.) Suicides in cults are something others know too little about. In my own time in a cult not unlike yours so many of my friends and acquaintances did commit suicide. And it was clear that in many cases this was the direct result of the way they were treated by cult authorities. They saw themselves as “professionals” but it was the primitive literal rules of the Bible that guided their treatment of others.

      After I left (I knew that by distributing certain information to members I would be kicked out) I had to make a choice: either to leave all my years studying the Bible and gaining the experiences I had behind me or to turn them into something positive. I decided to continue studying the Bible, to understand it and how it came to have the place it does in the culture and lives of millions today. It’s a personal interest, but I’m glad it’s one I can share with others who also find the information and ideas of interest and use. Knowledge and understanding really does liberate.

  2. Brodie’s arguments appear to be gleaned from some rather weak inductions. It’s not enough to say that the historical Jesus isn’t necessary for the existence of the Gospels because the Gospels are an assemblage of myths about this person; that’s comparing the character of Jesus to, say, the character of Sherlock Holmes, whose fictional–or mythic–deeds were recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A more appropriate comparison would be between the character of Jesus with Socrates, Siddhartha, or Confucius; plausibly historical people whose histories have been mythologized for religious or cultic purposes. The historical Socrates, Siddhartha, or Confucius aren’t any more necessary for the myths that shroud them than Jesus is, but for some reason, most people lend some plausibility to their historicity.

    By the way, sorry I didn’t respond to you earlier. I’m in the middle of a job transition and work has been busy, so I’ve given our conversation little thought since then.

    1. You are missing the basis of Brodie’s argument. We are not in a position to make any comparisons of Jesus with other types of figures until we first ascertain the character of Jesus in the gospels on its own merits.

      Brodie does not argue that the an historical Jesus is unnecessary because the Gospels are an assemblage of myths. NT scholars of all stripes have been saying the Gospels portray a “Christ of faith” as opposed to the historical person.

      Brodie argues that the most parsimonious explanation for the Gospels is that they are adaptations of other literary works. He analyses the way other ancient authors re-wrote earlier works of the literary masters and identifies the same literary processes at work in the Gospels. He also demonstrates that the models or oral tradition proposed by NT scholars cannot account for the features of the Gospels.

      So the simplest explanation for the Gospels as we have them is that they are the same type of creative literature as we find elsewhere in the literary culture of the day.

      1. i. I’m not sure what you mean by “ascertain[ing] the character of Jesus in the gospels on its own merits”, and I don’t see why we need to do that before we make comparisons with other mythical-historical figures.

        ii. Given what Brodie says, (“And the reality is that the shaping of those sources is guided by considerations of literary and theological artistry that do not need the figure of Jesus to be historical, in themselves they are independent of the life of Jesus.“) I think my summary of it is fair. All Brodie is saying here is that the character of Jesus is purely fictional, that the stories about Jesus don’t require an historical person—that the myths exist independently of a real person, much like, say, Sherlock Holmes.

        iii. I don’t find Brodie’s “simplest explanation” to be very persuasive. If all the Gospels are is creative literature, why would they have been wildly mistaken for, for lack of a better word, history. That hypothesis doesn’t contribute very well at all to a theory of the origins of Christianity.

        1. On your point #1, you are assuming Jesus is yet one more mythical-historical figures, but we don’t know that yet. That is what has to be decided.

          On point #2, no, Brodie is saying he can find the sources for the Jesus stories in other literature. It’s important to be clear. Now that alone does not demonstrate Jesus was at the same time not historical. But it does offer an explanation for the origin of Jesus in the absence of other evidence that he is historical.

          On point #3, you are here getting to the heart of the problem that faces us when we don’t know the provenance of our documents. But at the same time there is no evidence at all that the Gospels were interpreted “historically” from the beginning — and certainly the internal evidence of Mark’s gospel is that it was not interpreted that way. The evidence we have shows that the evangelists were quite happy to re-write other gospels so it is clear they did not take each others’ accounts as historical facts.

          1. I wouldn’t say that I’m assuming so much as I am lending some credibility or plausibility to the idea that Jesus existed. Our explanadum, i.e., the origins of Christianity, makes much better sense if our explanans incorporates a historical Jesus, just like it makes better sense to posit a historical Socrates to explain the Socratic tradition, or a historical Siddhartha to explain the Buddhist tradition. I still don’t see why we need to assess the Jesus of the Gospels on his own merits before making such comparisons.

            1. “Parallelomania” is not the way to establish a case for either a mythical or a historical Jesus. So it “makes better sense to posit” a historical Socrates, a historical Abraham, a historical Rama, a historical Dionysus, . . . ?

              You are still beginning with the conclusion that needs to be determined. You write: “the origins of Christianity, makes much better sense if our explanans incorporates a historical Jesus”. But that must be a conclusion based on the evidence, not a starting position before we assess the evidence.

              You need to argue how or why you believe a historical Jesus is the best explanation for Christianity’s origins. That is what the debate is about.

              I have no problem with the idea that there was a chap called Jesus living in Galilee and making a bit of a name for himself as a teacher and exorcist. And I don’t have any problem with the plausibility of the notion that this fellow for some reason or another ended up crucified outside Jerusalem. The idea is perfectly credible and plausible. But to explain Christian origins we need to start with the evidence and work backwards to see what makes best sense of it. Or we need to see if we can test our assumed historical person against the evidence. Now anyone can mount piles and piles of arguments to argue for their preferred theory. But that’s not how scientific inquiry works.

              1. Is this, strictly speaking, really scientific inquiry? We are arguing whether Jesus existed or not. That’s not something we can reproduce in a controlled laboratory environment, and there’s always room to doubt someone’s existence. The best I can do–that anyone can really do, mythicist or otherwise–is build an abductive case, based on literary remains and the existence of Christianity, which means there’ll be lots of fancy guesswork involved.

              2. You seem to have a very narrow definition of “experiment” (and of science). Would you consider cosmology a science? what are the experiments performed there? How about geology? Not to mention evolutionary biology.

                If you don’t consider this questions amenable to scientific inquiry, what is your opinion of the comparison of people who are not convinced about the conclusions of HJ scholars to creationists?

              3. No, I don’t think so. What conclusion did I jump in? I’ve reached some preliminary conclusions but I hardly jumped in to them.

                Care to answer my questions though?

              4. No, we can do much, much better than abduction and fancy guesswork.

                1. We can follow scientific principles such as testing hypotheses with predictions.

                2. We can also choose to start our investigations and analysis of the data from the vantage points of where we are best informed and only from there work back into the unknown. The opposite process is currently the norm for most NT scholars who attempt to determine dates for the gospels and who attempt to assess what details in the gospel narratives have some degree of historical probability at their core.

                Let’s, for example, apply #1 to the hypothesis that the Gospel narratives are derived, at least in significant part, from oral traditions that originated as eyewitness accounts of Jesus. We can study oral traditions generically and instances where these are put down in writing; and we can make predictions of what we would expect to find in the Gospels if they did indeed originate via a similar process. We can then examine the Gospel narratives to see if they do confirm our predictions.

                Another example: we can study other literature that is known to be biographical or historical narratives interested in glorifying the deeds of a real person, and from that study formulate what we would expect to find in the Gospels if they were a similar kind of literature. We can then examine the Gospels to see if they meet those expectations.

                As for #2, we can start from where we have the clearest testimony to the existence of the gospels, and then see if the contents of the gospels can best be explained in terms of the conditions of that time and context, or if they are better explained in terms of a previous context. That can give us a valid method for determining when the gospels were written. Currently, most scholars start at the earliest conceivable date for the gospels and rationalize that, leaving a huge gap before we have any evidence of their existence.

                Another example: We can study the type of literature the Gospels are known to be by comparison with other forms and genre theory, including the contents of their narratives and the evidence for their origins. We can then in the light of these studies ask what sorts of portrayals of the characters and events would we expect if they are entirely literary in origin.

                So you can see we can work with methods that are grounded in testing both hypotheses — that of an historical Jesus and that of a literary/theological figure. It is such methods I have often tried to explore in posts on this blog.

              5. Neil, you’re constructing your case by saying that we need to find parallels between the Gospels and something similar enough to them. First of all, that’s something you just chastised me for. Secondly, your examples of scientific inquiry require the abductive reasoning, i.e., they require inferring a plausible, intermediary explanation–not, logically speaking, a conclusion–between the Gospels and a rule or hermeneutic for interpreting them. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. (Indeed, I think that that’s as good as it gets. Clearly, I’m a dedicated Peircean.) However, you think that there’s a stronger case to be made (or, at least, it seems that way). Now if I don’t think there’s a stronger case for historicity beyond mere plausibility, and you think otherwise (or so it seems), then I say that we have reached an impasse and we should shelf this conversation for a bit—unless, of course, you want to argue about everything and anything.

                On a personal note, I hope I’ve recouped at least some of your respect. Sorry to have gotten off here on the wrong foot.

              6. A classic case of studying the Gospels by means of identifying parallels with other genres, in particular ancient biographies, is Burridge’s work which has become something of a standard to which HJ scholars so often appeal to justify their claim that the Gospels are a form of biography. I have argued that Burridge’s work is indeed a very shallow argument based on superficial parallelism.

                That’s not the sort of comparison I’m referring to at all. I’m referring to literary analysis, including genre analysis. No-one can say arguments that study the Gospel of Mark against oral tradition models, verse by verse, are shallow parallels. No-one can say that studies of the genre of Mark against genre-theory are a form of parallelomania.

                Testing hypotheses by formulating predictions and seeing if they can pass falsifiable tests or not is the core of scientific method. That’s what I argue for. (Scientific approaches to study obviously need to go beyond abduction.)

                Mere plausibility is not sufficient to establish an argument for anythiing in the realm of serious investigative research. Otherwise there would be no way of detecting forgeries, falsehoods, fabrications, misunderstandings, fiction or art as it imitates life, etc.

                If you are so dogmatic in your opinion that you think it is impossible to disagree with it without being someone who “wants to argue about anything and everything” then you are falling into yet another fallacy — the false dilemma.

              7. I might add that it appears “plausibility” in this context is not always clearly defined. Some people, such as Hoffmann most recently, appear to apply it to the question of whether the Gospels based their stories on a real person. Others apply the term to the question of the origins of Christianity itself.

              8. You are still beginning with the conclusion that needs to be determined. You write: “the origins of Christianity, makes much better sense if our explanans incorporates a historical Jesus”. But that must be a conclusion based on the evidence, not a starting position before we assess the evidence.


                Part of the problem is also to clarify what “makes better sence” means. When asked about that people often will respond with vague probabilistic terms like “its more plausible” or “more probable”, but unless you are in a rigorous mathematical framework these terms are meaningless. Human intuition is notoriously unreliable when it comes to assecing probabilities. for example often people argue as if “probably” is a logical connective that follows the same rules as “logically implies”. The thing is though that every time you use “probably” in your argument the actual probability of your concusion is smaller. Assume A is true with 90% probability, and if A is true then B has 90% probability to be true then the actual probability of B being true is only 81%. If you have a chain of say ten inferences, each with 90% probability, the final conclusion has only 35% probability of being true.

                Of course in many disciplines people have developed some “rules of thump” that allow them to reach valid conclusions wihtout really expressing their reasoning in a formal probabilistic framework, and these rules are justified by the result they produce. This is the case for example with the rules of historical inquiry that you have bloged about so often. And it turns out that when these rules are cast in a rigorous probabilistic framework they are valid, Carrier did that to some extend in his book “Proving History”, and so did Aviezer Tucker in “Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography”.

                On the other hand, the methods used in HJ studies are not justifiable from their results since starting from the same data and using the same methods different scholars arrive at wildly different conclusions, and when cast in a rigorous framework, as Carrier has shown, turn out to be invalid.

    2. GILLSON
      that’s comparing the character of Jesus to, say, the character of Sherlock Holmes, whose fictional–or mythic–deeds were recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

      Mythicists should really learn some history and realise that the Jesus of the Gospels might be based on a real life person, unlike Sherlock Holmes, a character based on a real-life person….

      I wondered when the Sherlock Holmes historicity defense would appear.

      Historicists love to say that just because Sherlock Holmes was fictional, that doesn’t mean Sherlock Holmes wasn’t based on a real living person – a person who really did exist in history.

      Popeye was based on a real person as well – something that ought to give mythicists pause for thought, before they dismiss as ‘implausible’ the idea that there could have ever been a sailor who got into fights over a girl.

  3. “Our explanadum, i.e., the origins of Christianity, makes much better sense if our explanans incorporates a historical Jesus,”

    That seems to beg a question or two about the actual origins of Christianity. It seems to me that 99 percent of what everyone thinks they know about Christian origins is based on what Eusebius wrote about Christian origins.

  4. Pingback: Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Book review (Part 1 of 2) |   Mythicist Papers

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