Brodie’s Argument that Jesus Never Existed

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by Neil Godfrey

I was sitting with Everard Johnston, Lecturer in scriptures and dogma, at his house in Picton Street, Port of Spain, discussing the manuscript. By then his young wife, June, had gone to bed, and amid the sounds of the tropical night we sipped rum and coke as I tried to explain the basic idea of rewriting.

I handed him page 128 on connections between 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament.

He took his time perusing it, then he put it down, muttering, ‘In the same order . . . the same order apart from minor modifications’.

We turned to the gospels, discussing the extent to which they too are a product of the rewriting. Suddenly he said, ‘So we’re back to Bultmann. We know nothing about Jesus.’

I paused a moment.

‘It’s worse than that’.

There was a silence.

Then he said, ‘He never existed’.

I nodded.

There was another silence, a long one, and then he nodded gently, ‘It makes sense’. 

(pp. 35-36 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, T. L. Brodie)

Brodie does not make an explicit connection in any of his earlier publications on the relationship between the literary origins of the New Testament writings and the question of the historicity of Jesus. Most of his earlier books explored the literary structures of the Gospels and some of the epistles. Brodie was especially struck by the way the Gospel authors not only seemed to borrow so heavily from the Old Testament but also appeared to be re-writing of so much of those Jewish scriptures. In 1980 an exchange with Joseph Fitzmyer led Brodie to broaden his scope by investigating the wider literary practices of the early Christian era and to see if such borrowing and re-writing was a known feature of the literary customs of the day. (Didn’t someone recently write a review claiming that Brodie never listened to advice?)

It was. I discussed a range of these literary ways in How Literary Imitation Works.

If the Gospel narratives can be explained as a re-writing of Jewish Scriptures, then what place is left for the hypothesis that these narratives came to the evangelists (authors of the gospels) by oral traditions that could supposedly be traced back to historical events and the historical Jesus?

Brodie’s argument for mythicism boils down to this: If the narratives of Jesus can be explained as re-writings of other literature, and if the arguments for oral tradition are found wanting, then there are no grounds left for assuming that the Gospels owe anything to historical events and traditions.

Sobering Implications

Dennis MacDonald was conscious of this question when he wrote The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Markso in his conclusion he was sure to explain (p. 190, with my emphasis):

It is entirely possible that before Mark picked up his quill no one had heard of Jesus stilling the sea, manifesting his glory to three disciples, sending disciples to follow a water-carrier, or agonizing all night about his death. Homer, not history or tradition, explains the Gerasene demoniac, the anointing woman, the fleeing naked youth, Joseph of Arimathea, the women who came to anoint Jesus, and the youth sitting in the tomb. This is not to deny the historicity of other information in Mark . . . but it is a reminder that the evangelist was no mere editor; he was an artist uninhibited by his creation of theological fiction. Mark not only handed on tradition; more than anyone else in the early church with the possible exception of Luke, he created it.

But Brodie did not quickly hasten to add that the gaps left unexplained by literary borrowing and re-writing can be explained by oral tradition. In fact, he argues that many of the arguments used by New Testament scholars to justify the oral tradition hypothesis are seriously flawed. See my own posts addressing several of these in the Oral Tradition archive.

Brodie’s publications that argue the Gospels and some of Paul’s letters are re-writings of the Old Testament are a mix of strong and weak, if one is to be guided by the reviews of them in the scholarly journals.

Some Reviews of Brodie’s Works Addressing His Method

It is interesting that one reviewer who notices immediately the implications of Brodie’s literary argument for oral tradition and the historicity of the events in the Gospels is the most scathing

Over the years the thesis has developed from a plausible literary theory about the influence of a portion of Old Testament historiography on the composition of Luke–Acts into a broader claim about rewriting and literary imitation in the ancient world and its tentative application to much of the New Testament. The implication of the theory for questions of historicity is not considered, and it is unclear whether Dr Brodie draws the radical consequences which his theory suggests. . . .

All these hundreds or thousands of possible echoes deserve to be followed up, but it is hard to believe that they justify the far-reaching claims made for them. However, it is the literary relationships discovered within the New Testament itself which will make most specialists set the work aside as eccentric. Here a large edifice is built on a very precarious hypothesis about a new version of Proto-Luke . . . .  (doi:10.1093/jts/flj005 ROBERT MORGAN)

Another review by, one by David M. Reis (DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-0922.2006.00116_40.x)

Brodie’s weighty tome connects much of his previous work on the intertextuality and the literary development of the Gospels. Specifically, he argues that Proto-Luke reflects a dependence upon the Septuagint (especially the Elijah-Elisha narrative) as well as 1 Cor and logia from Matt 5 and 11. Moreover, he maintains that this text becomes the core of the Gospel tradition that the Evangelists creatively engaged. . . . . These are bold strokes, and although Brodie perceives the wide-ranging implications that his proposal would have for early Christian history and theology, he restricts himself to a narrow problem. . . . Calling attention to the intertextual connections within the Gospels represents an innovative direction in NT studies and merits further examination. It is perhaps unavoidable, however, that the volume’s highly technical argumentation will restrict readership to specialists and advanced graduate students.

And another by Justin M. Smith shows confusion over the implications of Brodie’s thesis for oral tradition (my emphasis):

Brodie’s overall project is to place the development of the New Testament scriptures within the context of the greater literary development of the Greco-Roman and Jewish spheres, and by so doing replace the current models that trace the development of the New Testament texts through oral tradition and literary dependence and development. In this challenging and expansive treatment of New Testament literary development and origins Brodie seeks to isolate a portion of Luke-Acts or Proto-Luke which serves as the literary linchpin to the creation and development of the canonical Gospels. Brodie argues that Proto-Luke itself has a direct and verifiable literary dependence on the Elijah-Elisha narratives of 1 and 2 Kings, Matthew’s Logia or sayings source (which in turn has a direct literary dependence on Deuteronomy and Sirach) as well as at least one epistle (with an emphasis on 1 Corinthians). . . .

While these are important distinctions, Brodie does not do well with explaining how the earliest Jesus traditions moved from oral expression to written text. It is difficult to assume that the Gospel writers did not incorporate some oral traditions into the crafting of their narratives and while this sort of source material is less verifiable it does not make it any less possible. Brodie concludes this section by proposing that the gospel authors would have functioned in a setting similar to those of the ancient literary and rhetorical schools. Brodie seems to conclude that similarly minded Christians would have gathered in literary communities with the purpose of producing new texts. However, it is unclear how these literary communities would have functioned or whether they would have existed in the earliest stages of Christian development. . . . 

Despite the criticisms raised above, Brodie has done a fine job of placing the gospel texts in their broader literary context. This continues to be helpful as a way of orienting the reader to the norms and practices associated with the production of texts in the ancient world. Ultimately, Brodie has produced and interesting and stimulating proposal for scholars and graduate students that continues to further the discussions related to the development and growth of the gospel materials.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Brodie’s Argument that Jesus Never Existed”

  1. I hope this is seen to be relevant.

    Some time ago I checked out a newish blog.
    Seemed interesting.
    But what caught my eye, a couple of times, were these almost passing comments by the author on the ‘joys’ of finding an academic job in the field of bible studies [loosely described] .

    Such as:

    From Feb 26 entry

    “And as I continue to beat my head against the academic job market, and watch cash-strapped universities put revenue streams before pedagogy, I have to wonder how much life is left in “traditional” academia”
    Because, much to my chagrin, I have learned that a great deal of scholarly success is social. It’s about who you know, who invites you to what committees, who asks you to contribute to a book, and who on the search committee recognizes your name”

    From April 26

    “I am really going to have to reconsider how I approach next year’s search. I may have to start applying for New Testament/Early Christianity posts in addition to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament ones because once you eliminate all the posts that demand “doctrinal conformity” or “a dedication to preparing $DENOMINATION clergy,” there were barely a half-dozen TT HB/OT openings in the whole country this year.”

    The site is http://www.worthlessmysteries.com/

    I have the extracts above in a file marked “Who pays the piper …”

    I think its at least marginally relevant to this discussion.

    1. These are the sorts of connections that C. Wright Mills wrote about in The Power Elite in which he demonstrated the close ties between corporate, military and government leaders. These sorts of relationships are the focus of sociologists and anthropologists and justify the models that explain how those who become the leaders and spokespeople for institutions are conditioned (and weeded) to be sure they all think within certain parameters. As Chomsky points out, those who are “in” do not need to be controlled or censored. They are “in” because they already think the right way.

      I love McG’s protests that mythicists are free to publish in the peer-reviewed journals while at the same time saying that any such argument will be judged to be unscholarly, a lie, a rant, a fraud, by definition anyway. The gateways of correct thoughts are barbed with these sorts of insults.

      1. This is a quote from a book by journalist and press gallery member Keri-Ann Walsh recently published in Australia on the subject of the “Stalking of Julia Gillard” [former Prime Minister who recently was replaced by her party rival with the media being complicit in the process as the subtitle to the book says -‘How the media and team Rudd contrived to bring down the PM’].

        I don’t wish to discuss that domestic political issue but it is interesting to note the ‘guild’ like mentality of the media managers and their closed quasi incestuous society of self congratulation and mutual reinforcement of their own memes.

        “The press gallery can be a beast that feeds on itself,” Walsh writes. “Gallery journalists are shackled to their desks. Their company is each other; their sounding boards are each other; their judgements about the political angle of the day are formed out of exchanges with each other..”

        Sound familiar?

    2. I just noticed this by backtracing my blog hits, and as the author of the above quotes, I would like to clarify that the problem is categorically _not_ that I have been made to feel unwelcome, silenced, or shut out, by other biblical scholars, but that I’m shy around people I don’t know, especially those from different backgrounds. The failing is mine, not the system’s.

      As for questions of doctrinal conformity, etc., that is a problem for biblical scholars of ANY background other than the one specified by the school. The cause there is not with the culture of academia in the field, but that IN ADDITION to the academic study of religion, there are schools that where biblical scholars are hired to provide training for vocations in the clergy, or instruction in a specific faith tradition. I am not qualified for those positions, nor am I particularly interested in them.

      It’s worth noting that within the academy, the “doctrinal conformity” business is not very popular. It is college administrations, not scholars, who dictate such policies, and in cases where they have come to a head (as in the recent case of Christopher Rollston), scholars of all backgrounds have come to the defense of academic freedom over enforced doctrine.

      This isn’t to say that there aren’t some unique quirks to my field that I wouldn’t have encountered as a classicist, for instance. And the academic job market remains dismal across the humanities. I just wanted to make sure my own struggles are not incorrectly generalized as evidence of some exclusion from participation of those who don’t conform. That has not been my experience. I’m just a socially-awkward penguin.

      1. Hi Jack — I am not sure what quotes above you authored (your name does not seem to match any that appeared here), but I think you misread any suggestion that within biblical studies those arguing unconventional views are ” made to feel unwelcome, silenced, or shut out, by other biblical scholars”.

        We are very aware of the wide range of views encompassed in biblical studies and indeed, that is one of the reasons for this blog. Several critics of me have falsely accused me “hating” or “belittling” biblical scholars but the fact is I have posted many times on a wide range of biblical scholars with various views with great respect and interest.

        And in the series I have been posting on Brodie here I have tried never to miss an opportunity to point out that Brodie himself has been well respected and accepted by significant figures in the field of New Testament studies. That is one of my motivations for these posts — to demonstrate that Brodie’s views and Brodie himself have been professionally well received.

        But when it comes to an amateur attempting to make a case for the nonhistoricity of Jesus, even by basing the argument entirely through engagement with the scholarly literature, many of us know very well from experience and direct observation that a good number of otherwise courteous and civil academics resort to the most unprofessional responses.

        Further, when an academic does come out and suggest even the plausibility of the nonhistoricity of Jesus (e.g. Thompson, Price, Carrier) the responses of a good number of NT scholars is again less than civil.

        But I do know from personal correspondence that there are some scholars who do doubt the historicity of Jesus but that it is not in their own professional interests to make their views public. I have quoted on this blog — and at least one scholar himself (Hoffmann) has quoted on this blog’s comments — that the reason the nonhistoricity of Jesus is not more widely raised among scholars is because such a case runs contrary to their need for professional acceptance and continuing tenure.)

        And since Brodie has come out and said he doubts the historicity of Jesus, suddenly we find some scholars ridiculing arguments he made years ago and that — as I have pointed out — were received with respect and published in peer-review journals, etc.

        I do know that not all scholars are so uncivil. And I suspect that in coming years there will be a slowly emerging acceptance even of scholars who argue for Christian origins without an historical Jesus. Brodie’s experience may be one small step forward in this direction.

        For now, however, the amount of intellectual bullying, slander, and personal insult directed against “mythicists” is as disgraceful as it is real, especially if one is an amateur.

        Hope this explanation clarifies where I am coming from. No-one has suggested any scholars has been sent to Coventry by peers because of unconconventional views — at least as long as those unconventional views remain (up until now at least) within the acceptable boundaries.

  2. The New Testament is not my primary interest, so part of me is surprised that there is any insight in proclaiming that the New Testament is primarily a rewriting of the Old Testament. The fact is that most of the “Old Testament” is a “rewriting” of the Pentateuch (my primary interest).

    If you focus on the “heroes” of Judaism (Moses), Christianity (Jesus) and Islam (Muhammed), and the expected relationship of the followers of each to its hero, you will see a clear arc from less authoritarian to more authoritarian (but all authoritarian). My thesis is that all of these “religions” were actually designed as unchangeable political states based on laws that cannot be questioned because God mandated them (essentially Plato’s Noble Lie with some Aristotle sprinkled in here and there). And each successor state embraced the core cultic beliefs of its predecessor so as to legitimize itself politically. There was no separation of church and state when these so-called religions were formed, as can be seen from earlier traditions that existed in times closer to their formation, as well as by their reactions to the political power of one another. (Modern evangelical Christian concerns about Sharia law taking over the U.S. are but the latest “religious” fear mongering. Does anybody remember the concerns of American evangelical Christians that electing a Catholic would result in the Pope running the U.S.? The adherents of Abrahamic religions viscerally understand they are really part of a state and not just a cult.)

    1. Much to discuss and debate here. But I’ll stick to just one question: Can you elaborate on what you mean by being “surprised that there is any insight in proclaiming that the New Testament is primarily a rewriting of the Old Testament”?

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