One reader asked for an easier way to review the various posts on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. So here it is. Posts directly dealing with a chapter by chapter overview of the book, those in the “Making of a Mythicist” series, are in bold font. Other posts in which the same book had a key focus are right-aligned. All are in chronological order of posting.
I have not included here several other posts on Brodie’s ideas that have been posted on this blog. These can be found through the “Index of Topics / Select a Category” button in the right hand margin.
Brodie’s final chapter* is essentially an attempt to justify religious faith or belief. How can one believe in the New Testament (or God)? (This is the final post on this book: the complete series is archived here.)
He begins by suggesting it is quite possible to believe the New Testament’s message “as a parable”. One can “believe a parable”, he writes. He means that one can believe that its story conveys “an ultimate truth”. The details of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son stories are not true but “we believe” their message. One can even accrue some reassurance from reflecting upon all the witnesses of countless others who have believed through the ages.
Recall John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. As pointed out here over three posts Crossan argues that the Gospels are not historical reports but theological “parables” about the meaning of Jesus. One may wonder if he is stretching the meaning of “parable” to breaking point, but larger argument is really not very distant from Brodie’s. Naturally readers will ask themselves whether Jesus himself is a parable if all the stories about him are parables, so Crossan reassures readers that yes, Jesus was historical nonetheless. Indeed, it was his remarkable character that inspired all the parables about him. John Shelby Spong argues the same (Liberating the Gospelsand Jesus for the Nonreligious). No doubt Crossan and Spong are not the only scholars to have settled upon such a view.
Virtually all the stories about Jesus are judged to be adaptations of Old Testament narratives in the judgment of Crossan and Spong (not too far from Brodie’s own argument) but Jesus himself was real. Jesus is real even though he is the central character of “parables” and “theological fictions” and his own name is itself a pun on his role in those “Gospel myths”.
Unlike Crossan and Spong, Brodie has concluded that the character Jesus is just as “parabolic” as any other person in the Gospels. (Even the historical Pilate was turned into a fictional character of “parable” in order to fit the theological agendas of the different evangelists.) In the same sense that he can “believe” the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son he can “believe” the parable of Jesus Christ.
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.”
Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .
. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.
That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.
As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:
In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)
It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.
Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)
Coincidentally, a Westar Fellow of the Jesus Seminar I met a few years ago acknowledged the theoretical possibility of Brodie’s conclusion here when I asked him what it might mean for Christianity if it were learned that there had been no historical Jesus. His reply as I recall it, “Well I suppose if Judaism can get by without a literal Abraham . . .”
Some time in the 1980s as Brodie was continuing to ponder what he truly believed he concluded that he “was really sure of the Abraham story, not of its history, but of its meaning.” It turned out that this belief in the meaning (as opposed to the literal history) of a biblical narrative would point the way forward to a Christian faith without a literal, historical Jesus.
Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)
[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.
. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .
. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.
To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .
Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)
This post begins with the final section of Brodie’s book, Part V, Glimmers of Shadowed Reality: Some steps towards clarifying Christianity’s origin and meaning.
In this final section Thomas Brodie attempts to offer an explanation for Christian origins without an historical Jesus. He then shares his own reflections on what it means to be a Christian and to abide in a deep faith in God even though he no longer believes Jesus walked this earth. For Brodie, Jesus becomes a profound symbolic expression of the nature and character of God.
Chapter 18, “Backgrounds of Christianity: Religions, Empires, and Judaism”
Brodie opens with a panoramic sweep of the worlds major religions and laments that in all cases we are left without answers to the questions of exactly how and through whom they originated.
Nonetheless, Brodie finds cause for some optimism from our ability at least to know something of the world from which Christianity emerged. So he covers here the usual story of ancient empires — Persian, Hellenistic, Roman — and the way they led to the concept of a universal imperial peace and more effective bonds of communication, culture, language, law, and so forth.
Add to this the diversity of Judaism and even the chaotic disunity of the Jews politically, culturally and geographically, and the catastrophic consequences of the Jewish War of 66-73 CE.
The destroying of the temple meant that for Judaism the institutional centre was not merely in trouble; it was gone, and with it the traditional priesthood — a numbing moment for many, but for others a time to build something new. (p. 181)
And so we have many Jews eventually falling in with rabbinical traditions — with new writings coming to form the Mishnah and eventually the Talmud, while some others followed a new way of a new Joshua (=Jesus) . . . .
Chapter 19, Christian Origins: Writing As One Key
Not that Brodie sees the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple as catalysts for the birth of Christianity. Critical though the events of 70 CE were, Brodie believes that the letters of Paul are sure evidence that
a role should also be given to the inspirations and divisions that existed within Judaism prior to 70 CE. (p. 182)
Brodie suggests that Christianity’s gestation will be found to be closely associated with a well developed process of writing from its beginning. He brackets this possibility with a similarly critical role for writing in other major historical events, such as the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the US Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, and so forth.
But what is certain is that, while the Jewish people became known as the People of the Book, the Christians became de facto the primary developers of the codex, the bound book which replaced scrolls, and which, whatever its origin, emerged energetically about the same time as Christianity. (p. 182)
This post concludes chapter 17 where Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
Brodie’s discussion of the four Greco-Roman source references to Jesus is brief.
Tacitus (writing c. 115 CE) writes:
Nero . . . punished with . . . cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the common people [the vulgus] styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate (Loeb translation). (p. 167, from Annals, 15.44)
Brodie essentially repeats John Meier’s own discussion found on page 91 of volume 1 of A Marginal Jew, commenting that there is nothing here that would not have been commonplace knowledge at the beginning of the second century. (Brodie relies upon the reader’s knowledge of Meier’s work to recognize this as Meier’s own position.)
Brodie adds that Tacitus regularly used older writings and always adapted their contents to his own style. As pointed out by Charlesworth and Townsend in the article on Tacitus in the 1970 Oxford Classical Dictionary Tacitus “rarely quotes verbatim”. By the time Tacitus wrote, Brodie remarks, some Gospels were decades old and “basic contact with Christians would have yielded such information.” His information could even have been inferred from the work of Josephus.
As for Suetonius (shortly before 120), Pliny the Younger (c. 112) and Lucian of Samosata (c. 115-200), Brodie quotes Meier approvingly:
[They] are often quoted in this regard, but in effect they are simply reporting something about what early Christians say or do; they cannot be said to supply us with independent witness to Jesus himself (Marginal Jew: 1, 91). (p. 167)
Moss shows us that it was only from the fourth century that the stories of martyrdoms and persecutions that so often dwelt luridly on the gory details of bodily torments became popular. The passage in Tacitus with its blood-curdling details of tortures fits the mold of these later stories. (Moss herself, however, does not make this connection with Tacitus.)
This brings us to the late fourth-century monk Sulpicius Severus (discussed by Earl Doherty in Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 618-621) who supplies us with the first possible indication of any awareness of the passage on Christian persecutions in the work of Tacitus. This topic requires a post of its own. Suffice it to say here that I believe there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that this detailed passage on the cruelties inflicted on the Christians was “borrowed” from the account written by Sulpicius Severus.
Conclusion regarding the five non-Christian authors
Brodie thus concludes that none of the five non-Christian authors provides independent witness to the historical existence of Jesus.
None met Jesus; none claimed to have met anyone who had known him; none claimed to have met someone who knew a friend who knew someone who had known him. None supplies us with any information that is not already found in the Gospels or Acts. (Josephus even lived within walking distance of Christians in Rome.)
In chapter 17 Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
We saw from the opening post on Brodie’s seventeenth chapter that John Meier rests his case for the historicity of Jesus on the evidence of Josephus. Josephus is an independent witness to the existence of the Jesus of the Gospels and therefore is decisive, or in Meier’s words, “of monumental importance.”
Brodie, “with a prayer to heaven, along with many saints and scholars, and also to Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Watson”, undertakes to examine how Meier came to this critical conclusion about the nature and significance of the evidence of Josephus.
Brodie sees two problems with the references to Jesus in Josephus:
Authenticity: Do they really come from Josephus or from some later Christian writer/s?
Independence: Even if the references are authentic, are they truly independent witnesses, of did Josephus get his information from other Christians or the Gospels?
The Question of Authenticity
Bypassing the Jesus reference in The Jewish War as spurious according to virtually all scholars, Brodie zeroes in on Meier’s case for the evidence in Antiquities of the Jews.
In Book 20, in a passage about a certain James, there is a passing reference to Jesus in order to identify this James: James was “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ”. Meier reasons that this passage appears to be referring to a Jesus mentioned earlier. It is very likely, then, that Josephus had earlier written about this Jesus.
And there is an earlier passage, in Book 18, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (the “Witness of Flavius (Josephus)”) that
summarizes the work and character of Jesus
tells us that Jesus was accused and crucified under Pilate
says Jesus still in Josephus’s own day maintained a following, the Christians
and in the course of that summary, the same passage says
Jesus should perhaps be thought of as more than a man
that Jesus was the Christ
that Jesus appeared to his followers alive again three days after his crucifixion as the prophets had foretold.
For alternative views of the passage in Book 20, especially those arguing against its reference to “the Christ” being original, see the posts in the James Passage archive.
Some scholars still see the entirety of this passage as a total interpolation. But given the implication of the passing reference in Book 20, Meier believes it cannot be a complete forgery. Josephus must have said something about Jesus here.
We have, then, three possibilities to explain this passage:
It is entirely original to Josephus
It is entirely an insertion by a Christian hand
It is a mixture of original and insertion.
Meier excludes the first two options:
It cannot be entirely by Josephus because it proclaims Jesus as the Christ
It cannot be entirely inserted because Book 20 implies something was said earlier about Jesus
Therefore #3 is Meier’s conclusion. Josephus said something, but he would not have said Jesus was more than a man, that he was the Christ, or that he rose from the dead.
That is, omit the phrases that Josephus would not say and, presto, we are left with what Josephus would have said! And with these omissions “the flow of the thought is clear”, Meier adds.
Brodie is happy to provisionally accept Meier’s conclusion as “a reasonable working hypothesis”. So he moves on to the next question.
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.
On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Brodie argues that the common scholarly interpretations of this passage fail to take into account its literary background. Scholars have seen this passage as historical (not addressed by Brodie, but common among the scholarly works, is the view that this scene is “embarrassing” for early Christians because it shows Jesus being rejected by his family, so therefore must be historical) and Brodie singles out the disparaging dismissal of Jesus as a mere tekton (‘carpenter’ or ‘woodcutter’) as seeming to provide solid historical information.
(Of course, other scholars who are more interested in the literary analysis of the Gospels recognize that there is nothing embarrassing at all in this account of how Jesus’ family failed to recognize him. It puts Jesus in the wake of all the other great prophets whose greatness was accentuated by their enduring the rejections of their families — Abel, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, David . . . . Or maybe Jesus was trying to model himself on these prophets so behaved badly to make his family hate him? (I’m kidding.))
. Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
Having begun by identifying the two key problems of Meier’s work as (1) reliance upon the oral tradition model and (2) misreading the sources as windows to historical events as a result of failing to appreciate the true nature of those sources by means of literary analysis, Brodie next showed how these two problems misled scholars into the daunting task of attempting to sift the genuinely historical elements from the Gospel narratives.
That task of divining the historical from the non-historical has led to the development of criteria. But Brodie argues that all of those criteria are flawed in some way (a point few of Brodie’s peers would disagree with; that is why they believe they are on stronger ground if they use several of them, never just one, and use them “judiciously”) but that several of them in particular are best and most simply and directed answered by a deeper and wider understanding of how ancient literary artists worked. Contradictions and discontinuities are a pervasive feature of the literary makeup of the Biblical texts and function in consciously planned ways.
To add another illustrating example from the one I gave from Brodie himself in my previous post, this one not from Brodie but from my own reading of scholarly works comparing Herodotus’ Histories with the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), a number of scholars have argued that the contradictory accounts of such events as David’s rise to power are set side-by-side just as Herodotus likewise pairs contradictory accounts of certain events in Greek history. The notable difference with the biblical literature is that in the work of Herodotus the author has intruded into the narrative the voice of a narrator to comment on these differences. The Gospels are following the style of the OT “histories” of removing, for most part, the directly intrusive narrator’s voice.
The criterion of multiple attestation also fails since, according to Brodie, the various sources are not at all independent but are re-writings of one another. Re-writing and transforming texts was a singular feature of the literary compositional techniques of the day.
So when some scholars see the clear allusions in the Gospels of Mark and Luke to the stories of Elijah, failing to understand how ancient authors more generally imitated and emulated other writings, they conclude that Jesus himself was deliberately (historically) modeling himself upon Elijah! John Meier, for one, concludes that Jesus historically saw himself as standing in the line of Elijah and Elisha (Marginal Jew, III, 48-54). But as Brodie points out,
To claim that Jesus modeled his life on Elijah or Elisha may be a very welcome idea, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not reliable history. (p. 158, my bolding)
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).
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. Continue reading “Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 6 (Two Key Problems with Historical Jesus Studies)”
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.
So who or what was Paul and where did this character come from?
For Brodie, the answer hit him (“with a shock”) in 2008 after years of absorbing the contents of the work of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. To see Brodie’s thoughts on his first encounter with Alter’s work return to Act 3, Scene 1 (Too Strange!). In one of those light-bulb moments it suddenly occurred to Brodie that almost every chapter of Alter’s book aptly explained the New Testament epistles.
Like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are reticent. And composite. And repetitive. And, standing out from the list: like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are historicized fiction.
A mass of data had suddenly fallen into place.
What hit me was that the entire narrative regarding Paul, everything the thirteen epistles say about him or imply — about his life, his work and travels, his character his sending and receiving of letters, his readers and his relationship to them — all of that was historicized fiction. It was fiction, meaning that the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). (p. 145)
No doubt some will dismiss such an idea as unrealistic but to those people I would highly recommend reading Patricia Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions — some critical details are discussed in an earlier post. (Brodie does not list Rosenmeyer in his bibliography.) Brodie refers to other known cases of epistolary fictions: the letters between Paul and Seneca, as well as more recent examples.
My own thoughts in response to Brodie’s view is that such a Paul would explain how it was so easy for so many different Pauls to appear, each one representing a different type of Christianity. We have more than one Paul represented in the canonical epistles. We have another Paul in Acts; and another in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And so forth. The many Paul’s appear to have been sculptured out of various theologies, not biographical memoirs.
Brodie nonetheless wants to emphasize that such a notion does not mean Paul has no value for the faithful. The Good Samaritan is a fictitious character but represents an inspiring “truth”. Similarly, Paul remains an inspiring character who captures the essence of Christianity. Brodie quotes C. Martini (The Gospel According to St Paul):
Paul is a representative figure for all of Christianity. (Martini 2008:15)
Paul is a figure to be imitated, a model for the faithful. Christianity is encapsulated in his persona. There may have been an inspiring figure on which the literary person was based, but that historical person is not the literary one.
Brodie was not the first to come to this view. Bruno Bauer had also concluded that both Jesus and Paul had been “non-historical literary fictions”. Bauer’s doubts were taken up by many of the radical critics among the “Dutch, French, Anglo-Saxon scholars at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century”. Brodie intimates that their doubts faded from the scene because their methods were largely undeveloped. (I’m not so sure that their views were sidelined because of criticisms of their “methods”. Brodie is surely being very optimistic in relation to his peers.)
Paul as a Literary Figure – Direct Evidence from the Epistles
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.
THE SHIPPING FORECAST: DEEPS BELOW AND A STORM AHEAD
Chapter 14 of Thomas Brodie’s Memoir of a Discovery is probably one of the volume’s most significant and it is to be regretted that some of Brodie’s critics have so totally avoided its message. This chapter strikes at the heart of what most of us at first find most challenging about Brodie’s thesis.
But first, let’s start where Thomas Brodie himself starts in this chapter. Let’s begin when he meets the new professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School, Richard B. Hays, in the 1980s. There is a new wind beginning to blow in New Testament studies and Hays’ work is among those ships that have felt its first gusts. (We will see that many are still in denial and refusing to prepare.) Meanwhile, Hays invited Brodie to speak on Luke’s use of the Old Testament to his New Haven class.
Since then, Brodie informs us, Hays has become “a pioneer in narrative theology — in showing how New Testament narrative often builds a story or narrative that is grounded on that of the Old Testament”. Others have come along to complement his work. Some of these:
Carol Stockhaussen 1989, Moses’ Veil and the Story of the New Covenant: The Exegetical Substructure of II Cor. 3:1-4:6; 1993, ‘2 Corinthians 3 and the Principles of Pauline Exegesis’, in C. A. Evans and J. A. Sanders (eds) Paul and the Scriptures of Israel.
In acknowledging the importance of the Old Testament “allusions” or “echoes” in the New Testament, these works (according to Brodie) are “a real advance for New Testament research.”
But there’s a but . . .
Brodie’s optimism is tempered, however. The above “pioneers” speak of “echoes” and “allusions” and for that reason do not really do full justice to the way the New Testament authors re-worked/re-wrote the literature of the Old.
If many scholars have jumped at doing “history” with the Gospels before they have taken care to explore the nature of their literary sources, Richard Hays has been too quick to jump into doing theology. By that Brodie means that Hays has failed to appreciate that questions of theology can be significantly influenced by understanding how the texts being studied came to be put together, how they were transmitted. By understanding how authors put the texts together one can better appreciate the questions of theology they posed in their final products.
Hays can appreciate that the continuity between the narratives of Luke-Acts and of the Old Testament functions to give readers the theological message that they can have assurance in the continuity and reliability of God’s plan. But what he misses, according to Brodie, is that one of the most central factors of God’s plan was the composing of Scripture itself. So by studying the way Scriptures were composed, how they were sourced and put together, we can understand how God worked, how he implemented his plan. For Brodie, such questions are fundamental to truly appreciating the theology of the New Testament writings.
Brodie appears to me to be suggesting that a scholar can trace the mind of God, at least as it was understood by the New Testament authors, through an analysis of the literary sources of the New Testament writings and the way the Old Testament writings were “reworked” into the New.
And the ineffectuality of “intertextuality”
The word intertextuality has been frequently used by scholars studying the ways New Testament authors made use of their literary sources but its meaning is also too often imprecise. The word originated with Julia Kristeva in 1966 and today is more commonly associated with anthropological questions of interaction between cultures, Several biblical scholars use the word to refer to concepts as light as “textual allusions” or “echoes”. This is fine insofar as it draws attention to the relationship between written texts. But Brodie is arguing that ancient writing involved much more than “allusions” and “echoes”:
The kernel of ancient writing was not in allusions: it was in taking hold of entire books and transforming them systematically. VIrgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole. And there are comparable systematic transformations within the Bible. Allusions and quotations were often little more than decorations and embellishments. (p. 127)
So what is the nature of the textual relationship that is at the core of Brodie’s argument if it’s more than “echoes” and “allusions”?
Transforming Texts Beyond Immediate Recognition
Spotting the differences between the following stories earns no points. But spotting the similarities AND being able to coherently explain them might yield rewards. Many scholars have discussed the comparisons of Luke’s narrative with its matches in Matthew 8:5-13 and John 4:43-54. Many commentators of the Lukan narrative have even been aware of the Naaman episode. Continue reading “Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 3 (Deeps Below, Storms Ahead)”