Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 6 (Two Key Problems with Historical Jesus Studies)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Chapter 17



Thomas Brodie selects for discussion John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best work that has been published on the historical Jesus by a range of great scholars (Wright, Dunn, Levine, Freyne, Crossan, Theissen “and many others”). The five volume Marginal Jew was singled out because it is so well-known and among “the most voluminous”. To begin with, Brodie clarifies that he is not at all writing a “polemic”. That he apparently feels a need at this point in his book to stress such an obvious thing is a sad commentary on the forces he knows he is facing with the scholarly establishment. If anyone was left wondering if the mood of that establishment was softening they should be pulled up by Bart Ehrman’s recent comments:

As most of you know, I’m pretty much staying out of the mythicist debates. That is for several reasons. One is that the mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….) . . . . and my colleagues sometimes tell me that I’m simply providing the mythicists with precisely the credibility they’re looking for even by engaging them. It’s a good point, and I take it seriously. . . . . . The other reason for staying out of the fray is that some of the mythicists are simply unpleasant human beings – mean-spirited, arrogant, ungenerous, and vicious. I just don’t enjoy having a back and forth with someone who wants to rip out my jugular. So, well, I don’t. (They also seem – to a person – to have endless time and boundless energy to argue point after point after point after point after point. I, alas, do not.)

In other words, the encounters this blog has experienced with the likes of James McGrath, Joseph Hoffmann, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey and a few others — encounters characterized by sarcasm and insult and avoidance in response to mythicist arguments — are apparently the norm to be expected, according to Bart Ehrman. He expresses frustration over the failure of the standard answers to answer newly engaged questioners. The answer is to despise those who are not persuaded and rather than seriously engage them in depth retreat into the authority of his ivory scholarly tower. This is not how evolutionists publicly respond to Creationist arguments in their publications that do address the serious Creationist questions. Meanwhile, Bart is effectively admitting what is clear to many of us, and that is that he is simply ignoring the mythicist counter-arguments to his claims and repeating the standard catechisms for historicity as if anything contrary or seriously challenging should be shunned as the work of intellectual lepers. Accept the arguments of the first point and don’t question the assumptions or the logic or the evidence of those answers, because the likes of Ehrman do not have time or energy to re-examine such “point after point after point” of their Conventional Wisdoms. It is interesting, too, that Ehrman uses the language of a persecution-complex, as if “mythicism” — that is said to be so marginal as to be irrelevant — is nonetheless a serious threat to the status and credibility of scholars of early Christianity. It seems that the language of persecution, with its consequent polarizing of the debates into some sort of war between good and evil, and the lurid dehumanizing of those challenging the status quo (Ehrman speaks of mythicists as “unpleasant human beings, . . . vicious . . . who want to rip out his jugular”; Hoffmann speaks of mythicists as “disease carrying mosquitoes”; etc.) has been with these scholars ever since the fourth century. But no-one can accuse Thomas Brodie of having some sort of anti-Christian agenda. Brodie in fact seeks for Christianity a deeper understanding of God. He invites Christians to courageously come to acknowledge that Jesus is something far more than any historical person could ever be: he is Truth, Reality, expressed as a literary parable or metaphor revealing great truths about God. Brodie reminds me of Albert Schweitzer’s wish for Christianity to abandon a faith based on some contingent historical event or person that would always remain open to question and to establish itself upon a deeper metaphysic. (He expressed this wish for Christianity at the conclusion of his critique of mythicist arguments of his own day.) So into the Circus to face the lions walks Brodie, pleading his innocence and freedom from polemic.

If I am to maintain that the figure of Christ needs to be radically reinterpreted, then I need to address the work of great scholars such as John Meier . . . . (p. 155)

Is Brodie suggesting that all the works on the historical Jesus by these scholars have been a waste?

The impossibility of the quest does not mean that the . . . volumes will lack value. They contain huge information and commentary on biblical-related matters of the first century — an achievement far greater than I could do. But on the central issue of reconstructing on individual life, they try to do what cannot be done. (p. 156)

The First Problem

The first problem Brodie identifies in Meier’s work is its unexamined assumption (derived from undue reliance upon the work of form critics of the 1920s) that the Gospels reflect oral traditions going back to Jesus himself. Brodie refers to page 41 of A Marginal Jew and from there I quote Meier:

The form critics of the 1920s rightly pointed out that behind Mark, our earliest Gospel, lie collections of oral or written traditions tied together by common forms, themes, and key words. Such collections are still visible in Mark. . . .

Brodie responds:

At no stage, despite several references to oral tradition, does Marginal Jew stand back and examine closely how we know such tradition existed. (p. 156)

I have discussed before Brodie’s and other’s examinations of the oral-tradition hypothesis so won’t repeat any of the arguments here. So what is Meier’s starting point for historicity? Meier’s answer: Josephus! Brodie refers to page 68 of A Marginal Jew and there we read the following:

[The Josephus passage about Jesus] is of monumental importance. In my conversations with newspaper writers and book editors who have asked me at various times to write about the historical Jesus, almost invariably the first question that arises is: But can you prove he existed? If I may reformulate that sweeping question into a more focused one, “Is there extrabiblical evidence in the first century A.D. for Jesus’ existence?” then I believe, thanks to Josephus, that the answer is yes. The mere existence of Jesus is already demonstrated from the neutral, passing reference in the report on James’s death in Book 20. The more extensive Testimonium in Book 18 shows us that Josephus was acquainted with a few salient facts of Jesus’ life. Independent of the Four Gospels, yet confirming their basic presentation, a Jew writing in the year 9-94 tells us that during the reign of Pontius Pilate . . . there appeared on the religious scene of Palestine a man named Jesus. . . . Fortunately for us, Josephus had more than a passing interest in marginal Jews.

The problems with the Josephan evidence have been addressed here and elsewhere many times and to my knowledge not one scholar has attempted to grapple with them. Perhaps they fall into Ehrman’s “point after point after point” of assumptions, decontextualized readings, circular methods, blind spots, that scholars have no time or energy to re-examine. Brodie later in this chapter does examine the arguments around Josephus — something I will cover in a subsequent post.

The Second Problem

Recall an earlier post, Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (and its companion, Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 2 (“What Is Rule One?”). There I quoted Brodie’s “Rule One” of historical investigation:

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)

The second problem with Meier’s work, Brodie writes, “is that it largely bypasses Rule One of historical investigation, the priority of the literary aspect.” What is it we are reading? How did it come to be composed? From what sources and how and to what end? As other biblical scholars (Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman in their work on the relationship between Herodotus and the Hebrew Bible) have pointed out, texts need to be studies “iconically” before we think of interpreting their narratives as windows into real events. Not that Meier is devoid of all literary discussion. He isn’t. But Brodie’s concern is that

At no stage does [he] 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. (p. 157)

Will continue this chapter in the next post. . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 6 (Two Key Problems with Historical Jesus Studies)”

  1. “One is that the mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….)”

    At first I was wondering how this can be reconciled with the view that many scholars *do* find at least agnosticism about Jesus to be credible… but then I’m reminded that these scholars are too afraid to come out with their views due to comments like Ehrman’s.

    The standard name for this phenomenon in the psychological literature is pluralistic ignorance.

  2. Bart is effectively admitting what is clear to many of us, and that is that he is simply ignoring the mythicist counter-arguments to his claims and repeating the standard catechisms for historicity as if anything contrary or seriously challenging should be shunned as the work of intellectual lepers.

    In other words, as “heresies” created by “heretics”.

    I’ve come round to the idea that the HJers are loath to battle the MJers or even those who state there is no way of knowing, for an unexpressed fear that they might lose the battle! So they still chooose to laugh at us all. But you know the old saying: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.

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