Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 3 (What Christianity Can Mean If Jesus Did Not Exist)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

This post addresses the next to last chapter. It gives Brodie’s answer to the question:

What can a Christian still believe in if Jesus never existed but was entirely a literary-theological creation?

In Thomas Brodie’s view Jesus was an imaginative literary creation of the New Testament writers. But that does not lessen his religious and spiritual significance for anyone who believes in and seeks to deepen their understanding of God. The Jesus figure was “not a petty literary exercise” but a vehicle for a new revelation or vision of the nature of God. Not just one but several people contributed their own inspirations to what this figure represented and that’s why we have diverse views of Jesus in the New Testament writings.

The name “Jesus” was the natural one given that it is the Greek form of the name of Moses’ successor, Joshua. He encapsulated a new understanding of God that succeeded the Mosaic revelation. He emulated and surpassed the old figures of Moses, Elijah, the Anointed One (Christ) and, being identified with the Yahweh of old, widened and deepened “for all time” the believer’s vision of the nature of God.

Brodie’s conceptualization of this vision of Jesus as “the heart of reality . . . the measure of reality; and . . . the enigmatic form of reality — shadowed beauty” surpasses my own naturalistic comprehension and view of reality so I can only leave it to those more mystically minded than I to read Brodie’s explanation for themselves. (Brodie himself says he does “not have a clear sense of what Jesus Christ means”, so I suspect I should not feel embarrassed for failing to understand some of his attempts to explain.) I think I can grasp some of the details, however.

(Moreover, hopefully word will leak out of this further evidence that I am not interested in “attacking” religion or anyone’s sincere religious beliefs. It is the blatant hypocrisy, snobbery and intellectual dishonesty of a handful of Bible scholars and students that I have derided.)

Brodie might complain that I attempt to reduce the points to comprehensible brevity here and miss the “inexpressible” nature of what he wishes to express, but I will object to Brodie’s failure to comprehend the alternative vision of reality as found among the likes of naturalists like Dawkins (whom he appears either to have had no interest in reading for himself or to have misunderstood). I hope to give a reasonably fair idea of Brodie’s position here, however brief.

Symbol of “Heart of Reality”

Christ died for our sins and rose to save us:

These words are beyond full comprehension (how does someone’s death actually redeem others from sins?) but they convey “a vision of reconciliation with fresh strength and clarity, so fresh that the revealing of the figure of Christ brings creation to a new level and inaugurates a new covenant. . . . It brings life to a new level.

The idea of reconciliation with the divine is itself old. Contrast the Christ method with one of its earliest images, that of God “repenting” or “regretting” having wiped out all sinners in a great flood.

Reconciliation is linked with something radically new — God’s son/Son:

How could “the one and only God” have a child? Intimations of such a concept are found in the Old Testament. Recall Isaiah’s Emmanuel and the parable acted out by Hosea. Recall also the sending of the beloved son Joseph to Egypt to save the lives of his sinful brethren.

The ultimate implication is that within God and God’s creation there exists a dynamism that absorbs the world’s forces of sin and death — an idea which overlaps with that of Buddhism that the heart of reality is compassion. It also overlaps with Muslim tradition, where Allah is known, above all, as ‘Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate’. (p. 205)

Brodie compares God’s nature to the way a person can simultaneously have different roles: parent, child, colleague. . . .

Conclusion (my bolding, as in all quotations):

Ultimately the picture of God giving his Son is a vivid way of saying that God gives God’s own self, so that within God reconciliation is already established. This is the universal that is pictured in the New Testament account of Jesus . . . . The challenge for humanity is to tune in to this space where reconciliation already exists. (pp. 206-207)

What of the crucifixion? Brodie sees this image as conveying the understanding that

God in some sense is at the heart of evil . . . Only something as horrendous as the crucifixion can communicate the full complexity of God’s presence, and so the crucifixion became central to Christianity. The horror, of course, is part of something larger, something involving a form of resurrection, of greater life. Childbirth captures the apparent contradiction, often mixing pain and life. (p. 207)

Jesus rising from the dead:

The account of Jesus’ resurrection . . . is . . . a symbol of truth — of an extraordinary mystery of life and of the renewal of life. (p. 209)


Jonah Under the Gourd Vine (280 -290 AD)
Jonah Under the Gourd Vine (280 -290 AD) (Photo credit: Spherical Bull)

Comparing the image of Jonah:

The image of God’s compassion in Jesus need not be taken literally — just as, in its own way the image of God’s compassion in the book of Jonah need not be taken literally — but the image of Jesus clarifies something important about God. (p. 209)

What in the Church would change?

It is possible . . . to maintain essentially the same gospel accounts, rituals and devotions as before, not because they reflect specific events of the past, but because they use life-like stories set in ancient times to evoke the deepest truth . . . (p. 211)

Symbol of “Measure of Reality”

I can understand people wanting and finding comfort in spiritual ideas such as those listed above, but of course to sustain belief in those spiritual concepts it follows that they must believe in something beyond the material and measurable universe itself. (I use “material” and “measurable” loosely and mean to encompass those units of incomprehensibly small things/energies being discovered and all those weird phenomena beyond Newtonian physics.)

So Brodie believes that there is much more to “everything” than what he perceives as a crude reductionism that is being popularized today by Richard Dawkins and his like. Brodie specifically refers to “altruism”:

Richard Dawkins . . . reduces everything in humans to the mechanics of selfish genes, mechanics that know nothing about altruism. Altruism may indeed by tainted at times, but the evidence for its existence is solid, and Dawkins’ refusal to allow such features to human beings means that his picture of the human mind is fiercely reduced. The mind is rendered absent . . . (p. 212)

I don’t know how anyone who has read anything more than a few extracts of Dawkins works could think that “reductionism” robs us of meaning, awe and beauty so it may be pertinent to note that not a single work of Dawkins appears in Brodie’s bibliography. Rather, Brodie links his comments on Dawkins and the view he represesnts to is a work (Absence of Mind) by a kindred religious spirit, Marilynne Robinson. Learning more about what we have always thought was “the mind” and about motivations of human behavior does certainly confront our traditional beliefs and assumptions. But just because we increasingly understand the mechanisms of, say, altruism, does not in the slightest diminish its value for us personally or socially. No parent is going to think any less of their feelings towards their children because they understand parental love in biological and chemical terms.

No, the fact that the mysteries and overwhelming dimensions of life and the universe, of consciousness, of beauty and all things we associate with the “human spirit”, can all be explained (or are on their way to being explained) as the products of simple chemical and electrical interactions, only adds to the wonder of all that we experience. Every life is all the more precious, not less, if it is really so fleeting with no hope for a resurrection. Altruism is no less real or valued and honoured for our understanding of its genetic causes. We lose none of our humanity for more deeply understanding humanity. I personally think the naturalistic view calls for a certain courage to face reality “as it is”.

But I can understand how another person will disagree and think differently. I know I could not understand the way I think now when I was infused with a God consciousness (or some might less kindly call it a God complex, as I know I do in other contexts). I know I could not comprehend life without a belief in a hereafter or belief that there was something more than the material.

So we have different world views. The religious mind will still see something beyond “nature” and for Brodie and Christians that will be the idea of Jesus.

Symbol of Shadowed Beauty

Brodie turns to spirituality and religious concepts to find beauty in human existence and key themes in the Bible.

Beauty occurs yet again in the various images of God or the the Lord God; taking clay to form a human; providing companionship; walking in the garden, making clothes; showing concern for the victim, Abel; and concern for the killer, Cain; . . . . The presence of beauty continues in Christ, especially in giving him names and titles. . . . (p. 214)

And when there is horror Brodie speaks of encountering the “divine figure” even there and even there encountering “the underlying beauty”.

Instead of caving in to despair or bitterness, a person keeps their sights on something true and good and genuinely beautiful . . . (p. 217)

For Brodie,

What is important is that, while the loss of Jesus as a specific individual human may bring sadness, union with the living Jesus — the universal living figure of truth and goodness and shadowed beauty, the Gospel figure who touches the leper, embraces the children, and lays down his life for our sins — union with this Jesus brings new life. (p. 218)

The final chapter of Brodie’s Memoir is about belief and reason. That will be the final in this series.

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19 thoughts on “Making of a (Christian) Mythicist, Act 5, Scene 3 (What Christianity Can Mean If Jesus Did Not Exist)”

  1. What I find odd about this memoir is the way he seems to have virtually no contact with the radical critical tradition. No Couchoud, no Detering, no Robert Price, and certainly no Earl Doherty. There is some mention of the very old German critic, Bauer. There seems to be no political dimension to his assessment of the NT, no sense of theological disputes causing biases and forgeries. For instance, I don’t believe Marcion gets a single mention (I’ve almost finished the book), though he is probably the most important figure lurking behind the canon.

    1. I find it intriguing that a Christian scholar, apparently without any radical inclinations, can examine the evidence and, without any help from Detering, Price, Doherty, et al., reach the conclusion that Jesus never existed.

    2. It is interesting, isn’t it. Think, also, of the number of times we come across a theologian or bible scholar finding a way to apologize or defend what he/she realizes are the implications of the argument they have been advancing by explaining that no reader is to think they are discounting the existence of Jesus. It is as if they do know, in the backs of their minds, that it is natural to conclude that there is no reason to believe in historical persons or events behind our narratives — but this thought must be shut out as quickly as it arises.

      And such a guilty sense would, of course, explain the savage way they attack those who do dare speak out that thought.

  2. So, according to Brodie—what happens to “salvation”? Christians are supposed to be “saved” because of crucifixion? but if it did not actually happen in history…..?……

    1. I am no theologian so I surmise that Brodie would consider the crude image of a God who condemns those who do not hear and believe one particular gospel is a very narrow and limited understanding of what God is all about and a fundamentalist-type of literal interpretation. The images in the Bible are human and limited, but point to larger realities beyond the human. We are not to aspire to be like Abraham in being willing to kill our children, but in being willing to surrender ourselves totally to God’s service and will. And God is all comforting and loving, etc.

      So God is not a condemning God who only saves those few who learn the magic formula. That is the doctrine of salvation as generally understood and because of its “literalness” and “inability to grasp complexity” is a form of fundamentalism according to Brodie. So the doctrine of salvation needs to be understood more deeply. The literal message needs to be opened up to allow the spiritually minded who seek God to sift through the deeper complexities and mysteries of God’s real nature and his relationship with us all.

      Recall that for Brodie, as for other “mystics”, Christianity overlaps with the highest concepts of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism — you name it. They all have their own stories and myths as windows into the Ultimate and our relationship with It.

      But I’m only a poor, benighted, bereft atheist who sees no reason to believe in anything other than the universe as we experience and measure it. I believe in the reductionist linguistic codes of poetry, not spirituality. Such questions are better directed to the Brodies, the Spongs, the Borgs, (even the McGraths?) than me.

  3. The Jesus figure was “not a petty literary exercise” but a vehicle for a new revelation or vision of the nature of God. Not just one but several people contributed their own inspirations to what this figure represented and that’s why we have diverse views of Jesus in the New Testament writings.

    Reminds me exactly of the US Constitution — except theirs was a new vision of Government. (both, big “G”s)

    ‘Tis amazing what a bad name “reductionism” has. If you look at ngram, you get a steep rise in it from the 1940. I’m curious if it started as a pejorative or as a positive methodology word.

    1. In its philosophical sense, the word “reductionism” entered the English language only shortly before 1920. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has always tended to have a negative connotation. Since reductionist thinking is nearly always unfriendly to religious thinking, this ought to be surprise nobody.

      1. Sorry for the typo. I was wavering between “this ought to be no surprise” and “this ought to surprise nobody.” I decided on the latter, but apparently my subconscious still wanted to have it both ways.

      2. Funny, I’ve know reductionism in a positive light — looking for the smallest meaningful component of some phenomena. A tool to help understand the connection between otherwise apparent unsimilar things.
        We use it in biology, physics, linguistics, and even religious studies.
        I think people speak negative of reductionism because they don’t understand systems.
        A thing is greater than the sum of its parts because the part have relationships — understanding parts without the relationships is a hollow reductionism indeed.

        1. “Funny, I’ve know reductionism in a positive light”

          Oh, I’m quite in favor of reductionism, but people like you and me seem to be quite outnumbered by people who think there is something sinister about it.

  4. An HJ-less mystical “Christianity” might make a certain amount of sense for someone in the Protestant tradition, but I’m honestly at bit of a loss to see how Brodie can possibly view his mythicism as theologically tenable in a Catholic context. The thing that always has to be remembered is that in the Catholic theological tradition, the ultimate foundation on which the faith rests is not the Bible per se; rather, it rests on the Church and its unbroken succession of flesh-and-blood saints. The faith is not a text, but rather (in St. Vincent de Lerins’ famous turn of phrase) “what has been believed everywhere, always and by all [the faithful]”. In other words, the very idea of Catholicism is rooted in its own history to a degree far exceeding any form of Protestantism.

    As far as we can tell the idea of an HJ has been taken for granted since the early centuries of Christianity – the venerated saints of known history all certainly seem to have spoken as though though they believed in one. To deny the existence of an HJ is therefore a far more radical step for a Catholic than for a Protestant; the latter has merely to reinterpret a handful of basic texts, while the former has to reevaluate an entire 2000-year-old institutional tradition. That’s a pretty tall order; to call the possibility “doubtful” would be generous.

    1. No doubt this is uppermost in Brodie’s mind when he contextualizes this revised understanding with the Catholic Church’s centuries long angst before it formally came to terms with the Copernican revolution. The Church had always taught the Bible’s reading of Creation and earth’s place in it, too, and had to eventually rethink that. So Brodie tries to link this struggle with a revision of understanding of the one through whom creation happened, the author of the Second Creation.

      He also points to the excitement of Timothy Radcliffe (who later became head of the Dominican Order) “discovering that the Council of Chalcedon was not the end of our search to understand the mystery of Christ but another beginning, exploding all the tiny coherent little solutions in which we had tried to box him”. (p. 201)

      1. The difference, of course, is that the issue of heliocentrism is ultimately a sidebar with regard to the Church’s basic mission. Granted, I’m not deeply familiar with the specific theological objections raised by Galileo’s antagonists, but it’s difficult to see how the question of whether the Earth revolves around the Sun or not has much bearing on ecclesiastical matters – I don’t believe it’s intimately connected to any sacramental practice. To deny the existence of an HJ, on the other hand, would call into question not only the reality but the very meaning of the “apostolic succession”, which lies at the root of Catholic practice. It would almost certainly mean a radical renovation of Catholic ecclesiology and (by extension) soteriology. It would be nothing less than a second Reformation – only this one would be far more thoroughgoing; a transformation without precedent in the history of Christianity.

  5. “The Jesus figure was “not a petty literary exercise” but a vehicle for a new revelation or vision of the nature of God.”

    From where does his justification come — both for the claim that it is new and that it is revelation? I suppose that Brodie is fine with reductionism when it deals with the function of microchips or the history of Abraham Lincoln but his long training in religion blinds him to the unsupportable grand epistemic claims he makes. It’s rather interesting that someone who can work through the arcane field of Jesus Studies by way of reductionism rejects such regarding claims for theology.

    1. I can only say that I agree. It’s been a bit of a struggle to try to try to understand B’s point of view and express it as fairly as I think I can, although I know I surely lose a lot of the original sense with my own “reduced” summary. I have to forgive him, however, since he is writing for his fellow-faithful. I did the same when I left a religious cult. I wrote for my former “brethren” and any would-be converts. It was only after leaving religion and belief in God altogether, if I recall my own history correctly, that I moved on to other things.

  6. Maybe I have a tin ear for religious metaphors, but the bits of Brodie you quote seem like vague hand-waving to me, and not like mysticism as I understand it.

    “revealing of the figure of Christ” – But is this “revealing” anything other than imagining? “brings creation to a new level” – some sort of video game? “The challenge for humanity is to tune in to this space where reconciliation already exists.” – Tune in? Space? “a symbol of truth — of an extraordinary mystery of life and of the renewal of life.” – So what is the mystery?

    And I think he might need to relearn Buddhism. I’ve studied and lectured on Buddhism and Buddhist Philosophy. I admire its precision and clarity. And I have never encountered the that the heart of reality is compassion.

  7. Not only is “Jesus” a form of “Joshua,” but it means “savior.” What better name for a savior?? Just as “Judas” is a form of “Judah,” meaning “the Jewish nation,” and we are to regard the Jews as an entire nation being deceitful betrayers, well, it just couldn’t fit any better, could it? There are all sorts of name-wordplays throughout the Gospels – remember the daughter of Jairus, who was supposedly raised from the dead (maybe) a la Elijah (see 1 Kings 17:19-23), and Jesus says, “The damsel is not dead, but sleepeth”? “Jairus” means “He will awaken.” How apropos…

    The reason Christians and churches will cling to a HJ with every ounce of energy they can channel into their bony, grasping fingers is that, without a real mangod to provide the divine “sacrifice/suicide” to atone for their inescapable and limitless sins and redeem them from “hell”, Christian theology collapses. First of all, if you actually read the Gospels, you see a lot of quite horrible stuff attributed to the supposed Jesus. Truly, we’re quite fortunate that most Christians pretty much ignore Jesus’s supposed teachings. I realize that is at odds with the popular culture Jesus mythology. What of the Eucharist, if no HJ? What of “original sin”, the theological backbone of Christianity?

    I think GA Wells sums it up nicely, in his book “Did Jesus Exist?” – here:

    “Grant, like nearly all commentators who mention the matter at all, sets aside doubts about Jesus’ historicity as ridiculous. That they are nevertheless felt to be dangerous to the faith is betrayed by those commentators who assure us that Jesus’ message can still be accepted as impressive even if we cannot be sure that he actually delivered it. Don Cupitt, for instance, on the final page of a symposium which allows that much of traditional Christian doctrine is myth, tells us that ‘the core of a religion does not lie in the biography or personality of the founder, but in the specifically religious values to which, according to tradition, he bore witness’. Such an insurance policy had already been taken out by Schweitzer. It amounts to this: so long as we can, we treat the view that Jesus is a myth as absurd and suggest that all right-minded critics have rejected it; but just in case we should one day find it impossible to maintain this position, we begin to spread abroad now the idea that the essentials of the Christian faith and institutions are independent of the historical truth of the traditional Christ story.” – p. 213.

    Nice try, I’m sure, but there’s simply no way to soften that fatal blow.

  8. Oh, yes, definitely! Thanks to the link to the John Moles page!! You know, even my devout Calvinist Christian father, seminary educated, from a long line of Christian missionaries, raised in a boarding school for missionaries’ children whose parents were more interested in preaching than parenting, whose brother was a career minister, acknowledged that “Jesus” is referred to in the Greek as “the jesus” (“the savior”). He did not want to continue the discussion any farther than that at that point – the acknowledgment made him obviously uncomfortable – and as he’s in early dementia, I didn’t wish to press it. Still, to get that acknowledgment from a devout, Christian-educated Christian who actually reads and studies the bible, both in English and koine Greek, that it is indeed possible that “jesus” was being used in the sense of a noun rather than a name, as in “the Baptist” (John the Baptist), another example of this usage, was HUGE!! His personal beliefs are Jesus as an actual existing person (though having none of the characteristics of existence that anything that actually exists does, of course) and he had a “bolt from the blue” conversion experience (though, having been raised immersed in Christianity, he DID regard it as inevitable), so against that backdrop, I found his acknowledgment astounding.

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