Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Unreliable Criteria

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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. (I am breaking up Brodie’s chapter 17 into a series of smaller posts, and adding more of my own commentary in the process. I hope I keep the distinction between my own thoughts and Brodie’s clear.)

In the previous post we reviewed what Brodie sees as “two key problems” in John Meier’s A Marginal Jew:

  • reliance upon oral tradition,
  • inadequate engagement with the literary features of the sources.

These two shortcomings in turn lead to further problems. The first of these is criteria.

Brodie explains that by beginning with the assumption that the Gospels are derived from oral tradition, scholars are led to the “delicate operation” of trying to sift what is historical from the final narratives. So criteria of historicity have been developed. A Marginal Jew (like probably most historical Jesus works) relies heavily upon these.

Brodie begins with the criteria of contradiction and discontinuity. That is,

if something in the Gospel is seriously out of line with what is said elsewhere in the Gospels or Epistles, then the reason for including it must be very strong, must be due to reality in history, in the life of Jesus. (p. 157)

Most of us have read the methodological and logical flaws in these criteria, but Brodie does not address these here. Instead, he points out something about “contradictions and discontinuities” in the Biblical literature that only a handful of his peers seem to be conscious of. Contradictions and discontinuities are, Brodie reminds us, are prevalent throughout the books in the Bible. They are integral features of biblical literary artistry. It starts with Genesis. Man is first created in the image of God (1:26); then he is made of clay (2:7). First he is made to rule the earth (1:28); then he is made to serve it (2:5).

Next, Brodie considers the criterion of multiple attestation.

If something appears in diverse works that are independent of one another (e.g. Mark, John, Paul) then we have strong grounds for considering it historically reliable.

(I disagree with this as expressed here — though Brodie is pointing out that this is the apparent logic of most historical Jesus scholars. Much more than independence of multiple sources is required before we can conclude a common point is historical. As with any historical study of primary and secondary documents, other factors such as provenance, function and purpose, genre, must also weigh in to the discussion; often the best that can be concluded is that there was another independent source for what they all have in common. Many myths, historians know, have been relayed as “facts” by multiple independent sources.)

Brodie’s comment is that the documents are not independent of one another.

They were written within the context of a world of rewriting and transformation, and, as I have partly indicated elsewhere (especially in Birthing of the New Testament), detailed comparison shows that they built upon one another. (p. 157)

As pointed out in another post recently, we know a significant number of scholars do see the Gospels of Mark and John as closely related — with John based on Mark. This would be the kind of transformation and re-writing that Brodie points out was part of the literary culture of the day. I once posted on reasons given by Hock for why biblical scholars should read ancient novels. Brodie’s work goes beyond Hock’s, though, by its emphasis on literary style and methods of imitation, transvaluation and construction. (Not that Brodie is alone. An increasing number of scholars appear to be publishing studies around such literary relationships in the Bible, but Brodie has probably gone further than most with the comprehensiveness of his work.)

Brodie’s point is surely of critical importance. How many biblical scholars have actually studied the ancient literature that was well-known and influential at the time the New Testament works were being written? How much of Herodotus, Virgil, Homer, Livy, Seneca, the famous playwrights, even Josephus and Philo, have they actually studied? How can their judgments on the literary relationships between the Gospels of Mark and John, for example, be soundly based if they are unaware of the realities of how, say, Virgil re-wrote Homer? Are they even aware of the complexities of Virgil’s plot reconstructions and his transvaluations of scenes and characters in Homer’s epics? Are they aware of the literary commonalities between Primary History (the books from Genesis to 2 Kings) and Herodotus’s Histories? Can Gospel and other New Testament literature be validly studied in isolation from their wider literary context?

Such studied would save a lot of time. Relationships between John and Mark would not be dismissed on what are really superficial grounds, and studies of genre would be more theoretically grounded (as we find in Michael Vines work on Markan genre) and not shallow grab-bags of dot-points of superficial features as we find in Burridge’s influential book arguing the Gospels are ancient biographies.

Baseless dismissals with labels like “parallelomania” would be withdrawn as scholars came to understand that such studies do involve controls, criteria, and new worlds of understanding. The word “parallelomania” would be put back in its original Samuel Sandmel context of referring to uncontrolled and almost random selections of points to draw together to delineate a mere shape in the clouds.

More recently we have seen an emerging postmodernist attempt to tackle the historical Jesus question from scholars like Anthony Le Donne and Dale Allison. But even these are ultimately based on varying mixes of the same criteria of authenticity when it comes down to establishing whether or not Jesus was historical.

The irony is that criteria are introduced because there is no clear evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Criteria are called upon in order to help scholars find something approximating primary evidence for the mere existence or factness of their person of interest. Is there any other field of historical study that is based not first and foremost upon any firm evidence but entirely on an assumption that an event or person was historical?

But I’m veering away from Brodie’s own approach here.

Next section of this chapter is a most interesting one: Did Jesus consciously model his life upon the prophets?

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Unreliable Criteria”

  1. Yes, this series on Thomas Brodie’s memoir is very excellent! Although I don’t have a chance in the forseeable future to read it, I do have access to Meier’s A Marginal Jew at a nearby public library. That, at least, I can put down on my “must read” list.

  2. “Is there any other field of historical study that is based not first and foremost upon any firm evidence but entirely on an assumption that an event or person was historical?”

    Christianity is not really a field of serious historical study. It is first and foremost a theology, with history only being important insofar as it can prop up and justify the theology. This was as true in the first century as it is today, the chief difference being that the ancient Christian theologians were better read in Homer, Virgil, Herodotus and Josephus than their modern counterparts.

    1. Agreed. But it’s worse even than that. Christian theology is itself defined by its belief that God acted in history. Without history Christianity (as generally understood) collapses. Schweitzer had the nous to recognize that so he called for a review of Christianity’s foundations — founded on history it would always remain vulnerable. Brodie seems to be one of the few to pick up and run with Schweitzer’s admonition.

        1. By history I mean the reality of the Jesus as historical, including the historicity of his preaching, healing, death and the historical conviction among his followers that he rose again.

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