Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 4 (The Crumbling Evidence for Paul)

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by Neil Godfrey

brodie3Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.


Chapter 15



Chapter 15 of Thomas Brodie’s discovery memoir (Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery) surveys what can happen when one applies comparative literary analysis to the letters attributed to Paul. The third case study Brodie outlines is one I particularly love. How can one not be attracted to a scholarly synopsis that introduces a case for a view that one has long held independently as a consequence of one’s own personal analysis?

When I compare the conclusion of Acts (a conclusion generally regarded as problematic or otherwise incomplete) with other ancient (including biblical) literature I am almost sure there is nothing problematic about the ending of Acts at all. It is based upon the conclusion of Israel’s “Primary History”. That is, the conclusion of Acts is strikingly similar to the concluding chapter of 2 Kings. (I have posted detail on this before.) And of course once one recognizes that, the logical question to ask is whether the events of Acts leading up to that conclusion bear a similarity to the events in 2 Kings leading up to the liberal captivity of the king of Judah. In other words, does Paul’s journey to Rome evoke substantial literary connections with the exile of the captive “Jews” to Babylon? I believe it does. So I cannot help but take pleasurable notice when Brodie makes the same point.

Regrettably there is a dark side to this chapter, or at least to the way a key point the chapter makes was completely botched in a review by a certain associate professor and world authority on parallelomania studies between science fiction and religion. But I will save that for the “Who holds the pen?” section.

It’s an interesting time to be posting this review and overview. We currently have a series by Roger Parvus with a quite different take on the nature and origins of the Pauline letters. So plenty of scope to exercise our synapses.

What does a study of Paul have to do with the Gospels?

Thomas Brodie took up a serious study of Paul’s epistles in the 1970s when he came to believe that they were a key to truly getting to the bottom of understanding the origin of the Gospels.

And in order to understand Paul’s letters, one usually attempts to get some sense of how they relate to each other. Which comes first? Brodie decided that 1 Corinthians was of central importance in that it appeared to set the pattern for other epistles.

So Brodie’s trajectory is essentially from 1 Corinthians to other epistles to the Gospels.

1 Corinthians, however, was indebted in part to Numbers and Deuteronomy, according to Brodie’s study. And this is where the problems get interesting.

Alter alters everything

I have posted recently some thoughts on the Gospel of Mark initiated by my reading of Robert Alter’s Art of Biblical Narrative. My application was tame by comparison with where Brodie took Alter’s ideas on the role of dialogue in the Bible. Alter led Brodie to see the dialogical nature of Romans as being modeled upon the pattern of dialogue in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible.

For Brodie,

It eventually became clear that dialogical thinking is not just an occasional feature of Romans. It is a key to its structure.

English: manuscript of the Epistle to the Roma...
English: manuscript of the Epistle to the Romans (fragment) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Note: Romans has

  • two introductions (1:1-7; 1:8-15)
  • two conclusions (15:14-33; 16:1-27)
  • A body of 10 diptychs or dyads — each in 2 parts, except . . .
  • The 7th (chapters 9 to 11) “which, with climactic grandeur, consisted of three parts.”

This diptych (or triptych) structure is not a matter of trivial curiosity. It sets Romans more firmly within the larger biblical tradition, and it provides a clue to its meaning and to emphasis. (p. 138)

I understand Brodie here to be referring to the way the Hebrew Scriptures so often are found telling stories in doublets. Compare the two narratives of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, the two accounts of David’s rise to power, etc.

Now I know Brodie’s point here will be a challenge to many who have long been deeply immersed in the conviction that Romans is a pastiche of “original” and “proto-orthodox redactional” material. Or as Roger Parvus has put it, original “zigs” countered by redactional “zags” in an effort to make Paul’s teaching appear to be supportive of what became orthodoxy.

I would have to make time to do a far more serious study of Brodie’s thesis to know how to comment on the pros and cons of his point. There are no doubt others who have long been way ahead of me in this department.

The Quest for the historical Paul

We have an abundance of literature that appears to be by and about Paul but it proves to be problematic when we attempt to uncover the life of Paul behind it.

  1. The letters of Paul often contradict the teaching of Paul in Acts;
  2. “Many researchers see evidence that Luke’s account in Acts is historically unreliable.” (p. 139)
  3. The thirteen letters supposedly written by Paul are so divergent in style and content that few scholars accept they were all written by the same person;
  4. Some of the seven letters widely attributed to Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon) are widely divergent in style:
    • e.g. the stylistic differences between 1 and 2 Corinthians are “far greater” than between Romans and Ephesians — yet virtually every scholar agrees Paul wrote both 1 and 2 Corinthians!

That last point leads Brodie to ask if anyone really does follow the criteria they claim to believe in for sifting the genuine Pauline letters from the collection.

As for the second point above, it appears that Brodie works within the assumptions of biblical scholarship that, as far as I have been able to assess, begins with the assumption that Acts is based on genuinely historical sources and only abandons this if the contrary can be demonstrated. That, to my mind, is not a valid approach. Historians are usually taught to test their sources before making such assumptions about them. The valid approach to Acts, I believe, is to hold it in abeyance until sound arguments (and evidence) can be adduced for treating it as largely based on history or otherwise.

Despite many biographies of Paul that have been produced by scholars, Brodie notes that Gregory Tatum was able to write in New Chapters in the Life of Paul, 2006:

The jigsaw puzzle of Paul’s life and thought lies in disarray, . . Older syntheses of Pauline biography and theology have been demolished by successful critiques. . .

Creating Paul’s Life from the Scriptures

Brodie ran a conference session in August 2008 titled “The New Testament Use of the Septuagint and the Increasing Difficulty of Writing a Life of Paul”. His focus

was on the way that down-to-earth details concerning Paul are composed on the basis of specific Old Testament texts — details of plot and scene and emotion. (p. 140)

Brodie issued a twenty-page handout, two of those pages in Greek, with coloured lines linking correspondences in wording and content.

I am not in a position to comment on the following points. Before I could do that I would want to take time to study more thoroughly the phenomenon of literary re-writing and to compare the evidence for this in the case of Paul’s letters a careful scrutiny of the arguments for interpolation in related areas of the letters.

I imagine some readers will not be convinced that a letter expressing an author’s emotional outburst would likely be a studied literary artifice. Habits of thought and approach to Paul’s letters are culturally ingrained. I have referenced often enough on this blog one scholar’s study that should disturb any tendency to take such an assumption for granted. See my post on the ancient art and craft of letter-writing — and how pupils were indeed taught to artfully compose epistolary fictions drenched with all those little touches of verisimilitude. See Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

1. Galatians 3:1-5, Jeremiah’s anger becomes Paul’s anger

I shared Brodie’s argument here in a post last year: Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians.

So I won’t repeat Brodie’s outline of it in his Memoir of a Discovery. His summing up will do:

Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah. (p. 141)

2, Ancient Israel’s need for wise judges becomes Corinth’s’ need for wise judges

1Cor fragment

Brodie’s next study was 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 (New King James):

6 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? 4 If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!

7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals,[a] nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.

The author heatedly warns the Corinthians of their need for wise judges lest they lose out on their inheritance altogether.

A comparison with the opening of Deuteronomy should give us pause, argues Brodie, before we jump to the conclusion that this is really a spontaneous piece of writing.

Deuteronomy 1 also begins with a need for ancient Israel to choose wise judges. It concludes with failure and loss of inheritance. The motifs of daring and defeat that bracket the Corinthians passage are found to bracket the sad conclusion of the message of Deuteronomy 1.

There are a whole series of precise links between the texts, and the plot thickens when it emerges that the beginning of Deuteronomy (Deut. 1) is not about something trivial, some bizarre change of fortune, which went from goodness to losing the land. It is itself a distillation of the narrative at the beginning of Genesis, when humanity went from goodness to losing its original place with God (Gen. 1:1-4:16). Paul’s scene at Corinth emerges as a distillation and adaptation of the dramas surrounding the emergence of God’s people, the emergence even of humanity. (p. 142)

Brodie concludes with the comment that thirty pages, not just a few words, are required to present all the links here. In the Greek, too, of course.

Again I cannot comment on this view of Brodie’s for the simple reason that I need to do more study and background reading. Brodie does briefly touch upon the relationship between 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 and Deuteronomy 1 on page 130 of The Birthing of the New Testament. To do his analysis justice here I would need to take time to structure the two texts in table format and with Greek fonts, so that will have to wait for another day. One should note that the same section of Birthing addresses other relationships between 1 Corinthians and Deuteronomy, and that Brodie explains in Beyond the Quest that he deliberately chose to avoid addressing in any depth the relationship between Paul’s letters and the Old Testament in order to keep that volume (approx 700 pages) at a reasonable length. (Some readers here will be reminded of the savage attacks upon Earl Doherty for writing a book of 800 pages while some of the same persons appear to have nothing but praise for a fellow relative-conservative like Raymond Brown for writing in excess of 1500 pages!)

3. The Jews’ deportation to Babylon the template for Paul’s journey as a prisoner to Rome

Fragment of Acts 27

Brodie self-consciously begins his discussion of Paul’s journey to Rome with the comment one hears so often among Bible students and scholars: the detail is SO REAL! And look at that “We” in the narrative! It HAS to come from an eyewitness report! Such protestations could only emanate from “true believers” who are ignorant of the wider world of literature and who know only what they are required to know to buttress their faith.

Brodie, like many of us here I am sure, was once such a believer. He admits it. But Brodie learned what many of us likewise came to learn:

The narrative is indeed precise, but the precision does not necessarily come from a diary. It has now been established that the account of the first great adventure voyage — the storm and shipwreck (Acts 27:9-41) — is modelled on well-known literary accounts of storms . . . . (p. 142)

Anyone who had read no further than Homer’s Odyssey could never have opined that the Acts narrative “MUST” have derived from an eyewitness report! What comes to mind at this point is Tim Widowfield’s recent post lamenting the ignorance among Bible scholars (and perhaps too many “true Bible believers”) of the wider world (“wider” in the sense of anything beyond Israel and the Bible).

The point here, however, is that Brodie noted many “striking similarities” between the Acts account of the prisoner Paul’s journey to Rome and the Old Testament account of the bringing of the people of God into captivity in Babylon.

The sequences of events match one another, except that the episode of the commander with the power of life and death is brought forward in Acts (2 Kgs 2518-21; Acts 27:42-44), and to a significant degree, the events are reversed: what is brutal in the journey to Babylon is matched by kindness on the way to Rome: the commander who kills the prisoners in 2 Kings 25 is matched in Acts by the commander who saves them. And after an account of the Judeans’ internal drama (2 Kgs 25.22-26; Acts 28:17-28), both conclude by telling of a prisoner who in fact is free, the king in Babylon, and Paul in Rome (2 Kgs 25.27-30; Acts 28.30-31). Again the texts need prolonged analysis, especially because the account of being brought to Babylon provides just one component of the account of being brought to Rome. (p. 142)

After delivering the above three cases at the 2008 conference, Brodie discovered others that he considered “much clearer”:

  • Luke’s account of the conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-30) — that Brodie had earlier linked to Damascus events in the Elijah-Elisha narrative — appears also to be “based strongly on” the call of Moses (Exod. 3-4)


So! If these three texts are enlisted in our attempts to reconstruct the historical Paul — his anger towards apostates, his agonizing over the Corinthians, his perilous sea-voyage — can be reduced to the literary art of imitation, can we honestly make double use of them and count them towards original “real Paul” expressions of “how it really historically was”?

And if this sort of evidence for Paul’s life really does crumble under the scrutiny of literary analysis then what is the way forward to explaining Paul?

Thomas Brodie laments his failure to respond cogently and persuasively when confronted with questions like these at the time of his conference (2008). He was still in the process of learning how to formulate his ideas. He was asked if such allusions to Old Testament passages might be nothing more than a speaker or writer idly alluding to something once read as a child as one spoke of contemporary events? Ronald Reagan as President would occasionally reference back to a film he had made. Are we reading something like that?

I did not answer the question well. I was not clear about the key issues of complexity and precision. The relationship between the previously mentioned New Testament texts and the Old Testament is incomparably more complex and precise than the relationship between President Reagan’s answers and the films to which he alluded. Highly precise literary complexity is not achieved without careful crafting. Recalling books or films spontaneously does not give the same precision as writing. . . . Detailed conscious work is needed. The way the Old Testament is used in Galatians 3, in 1 Corinthians 6, and in Acts 27-28 is incomparably more precise and complex than the way Ronald Reagan used film narrative. (p. 141)

I cannot deny I find some, but by no means all, of Brodie’s literary comparisons needing much more investigation and much more detailed argument than he has presented so far to be persuasive. Brodie appears to acknowledge this when he reminds readers that he did not include a detailed study of Paul’s letters in his Birthing of the New Testament volume. The thesis is so broad in its compass that it clearly takes more than the efforts of one scholar to present fully every aspect of it. And if that’s the case, it probably takes more than time than any one student has to cover all the bases, too. If so, then what Brodie has done is, hopefully, ignited interest among a range of students and scholars who are prepared over time to explore the new continent.

Who holds the pen?


Everybody has been told that ancient letters were sometimes dictated to a scribe. The scribe held the pen while sitting while the real author stood or pace around dictating what was to be conveyed. Everybody knows that and most of us have probably been taught to imagine that that’s the way Paul composed his letters.

Brodie believes that a literary analysis of the letters makes such a dictation method of composition highly unlikely.

In the detail of the epistles, adaptation is so pervasive, intricate, and coherent that the authorship seems inextricable from the person holding the pen — often not Paul. In 1 Corinthians, for instance, there is an indication that the letter as whole is not actually penned by Paul; he just adds a greeting and his name near the end (1 Cor. 16.21). If Paul is not the person holding the pen, then he is not the author.

[The paragraph break here is unfortunate. The directly related explanation for that last sentence follows in the next . . . ]

The situation in crafting an epistle like 1 Corinthians is not like chess, where someone on the sideline can dictate the moves and so effectively play the game from a distance. Rather, it involves a degree of complexity and precision, a degree of inner coordination in the person holding the pen, that, like holding a golf club (or bat/hurley/tennis racquet), the decisive movement of playing must come from within the player, and no mentor can be said to be the main player. *

Then there is this footnote to add further weight to the claim:

* A similar idea on the inseparability of a specific book’s substance from its authorship occurs in K. J. Van Hoozer’s analysis of the Fourth Gospel. ‘It is difficult to see how the substance of the witness could be preserved if the beloved Disciple were not also responsible for its . . . finely tuned . . . form’ (2002: 262) (p 143)

So when James McGrath writes of Brodie’s argument the following,

Brodie also botches ancient authorship completely, claiming on p.143 that “If Paul is not the person holding the pen, then he is not the author.”

we can see now that it is McGrath who has botched Brodie’s argument completely by apparently only reading that one sentence and skipping over the explanatory context. Are there any professional associations or systems of accountability that are meant to govern America’s public intellectuals?

The future?

If Brodie’s analyses are correct then it is clear that

the epistles and Luke cannot be taken at face value in writing a life of Paul. (p. 144)

One thing is clear. In recent years there has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Bible and an increasing awareness of the use of the Septuagint in the composition of the New Testament works. And if literary analysis increasingly sheds light upon the Septuagint as a source of the epistles and Acts, reconstructing the life of Paul must become increasingly difficult.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 4 (The Crumbling Evidence for Paul)”

  1. “Are there any professional associations or systems of accountability that are meant to govern America’s public intellectuals?”

    Apparently not — at least none that function effectively.

  2. There should be some interesting publications surrounding Paul’s sources in the next couple of years stemming from Brodie’s work at the DBI. Two post-docs worked on this in 2011-2012 and from what I can remember, one is hoping to publish an article and the other a monograph.

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