Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Pt. 1

brodie_beyondI have just finished reading Thomas L. Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012). A friend gifted me his copy (thanks Alan) and that prompted me to immediately read this important monograph and to delay the rest of the “to read” pile on my desk. Being a painfully slow reader, I spent several weeks on the book and now offer my extended comments on this signal publication in the history of Jesus mythicism.

Beyond the Quest is a mixture of two things: autobiography and historical-theological analysis, all (except chp. 7) written in an accessible style—like having an extended cup of coffee (p. xv). Jesus mythicists may not be that interested in the autobiographical material, but I find it welcome, for the contemporary assaults on Christianity—from the Catholic Church’s sex scandals to the Vati-leaks to the inexorably mounting questions regarding the religion’s historical roots—inevitably represent personal challenges to those of faith. Brodie is uniquely well positioned to address the academic challenge of Jesus mythicism for, while he himself is a protagonist attacking the historicity of Jesus, he is also a distinguished man of faith. How he reconciles (and fails to reconcile) these conflicting positions is interesting and perhaps unprecedented.

Thomas Brodie is a 70-year old Dominican priest. He joined the order some four decades ago and, despite pushing the academic envelope throughout his career, he rose in the order to the position of Director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick, Ireland, an Institute he himself founded. The list of his publications in the Bibliography takes up two full pages and attest to Brodie’s longstanding commitment as a researcher into Christian origins. His skeptical views have generally been balanced by a faith which dispenses with the ‘letter’ in favor of the ‘spirit’ (Part 2 of this review). However, the explicitness of Brodie’s latest book goes well beyond the pale and, in this regard, stands outside the usual ambit of his oeuvre. Immediately after the book’s publication Brodie was (for the first time) forbidden to teach. The book has also caused considerable discussion in Jesus mythicist circles (cf. Vridar; Carrier; Salm).

Dealing with contradictions: the mythicist priest

Brodie has long been a closet Jesus mythicist. In the course of his life his views, when made public, have brought him professional grief. He writes:

Fr. Thomas L. Brodie

Fr. Thomas L. Brodie

In Spring of 1975 I produced a manuscript and immediately showed it to a British publisher, and then to a second, but their responses indicated that it was not at all what publishers wanted. What ruled it out above all else was its conclusion that Jesus had not existed. As the first publisher said, ‘It’s not just that we won’t take it. Nobody will take it.’ The second publisher said no Christian publishing house would take it…

        A key problem in speaking and writing was that I could never give the full story, I could never say, in crude terms, that Jesus Christ never existed. When I first gave my hand-written manuscript to be typed, in March/April 1975, I made the crucial paragraph on Jesus’ existence illegible and typed it in later myself. I could not say it, partly because I would not be believed and would effectively be shut out, and partly because the crude statement of non-existence seemed grossly inadequate. It may be true, but it is so far from the whole truth that it is a radical distortion. [198]

Ironically, Brodie could meet with acceptance from non-academics. He relates how one parishioner accepted his view:

…Our conversation was relaxed until it somehow turned to my work, and she asked what it was that most concerned me about the Bible.
        Eventually I said, ‘It’s just about Jesus.’
        Her questions were gentle, but she did want to know more. I was physically holding myself together, and looking down at the carpet. Then looked up.
        ‘He never really existed.’
        ‘Oh, that’s what I believed since I was a little girl.’

In the academic world Brodie also occasionally encountered a sympathetic ear. The following passage from his book is classic:

        [Prof. Everard Johnston took his time in perusing Brodie’s page on connections between 1 Corinthians and the Old Testament], then he put it down, muttering, ‘In the same order… the same order apart from minor modifications.’
        We turned to the gospels, discussing the extent to which they too are a product of the rewriting. Suddenly [Johnston] said, ‘So we’re back to Bultmann. We know nothing about Jesus.’
        I paused a moment. ‘It’s worse than that.’
        There was a silence.
        Then he said, ‘He never existed.’
        I nodded.
        There was another silence, a long one, and then he nodded gently, ‘It makes sense.’

And so, for probably the first time in Christian history, one New Testament scholar has persuaded another that Jesus Christ did not exist. Furthermore, to my knowledge Father Brodie is the first active Catholic priest (not “ex-Catholic” priest) with the courage to publicly espouse this ultra-radical position. Thus, he has broken new ground in several ways. In sum, Brodie’s book represents a signal step forward for Jesus mythicism and inaugurates mythicism’s incursion into ‘normative’ Christianity.

Shortly before Beyond the Quest went to press, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? appeared (March 2012). Brodie adds a short Epilogue to his book treating Ehrman’s tome. Brodie writes here mostly in generalities, but it is clear that—like so many other mythicists—Brodie finds Ehrman wanting. Above all he faults Ehrman for not taking advantage of research since the 1980s and for basing his writing on research of the 50s (229). While Ehrman sees the occasional use of Aramaic in the Gospels as indicating authenticity, Brodie sees it as a technique of archaism which fits in perfectly with biblical literary tradition. The countercultural nature of the crucifixion is for Brodie not suggestive of historicity but “a fresh synthesis of several Old Testament/Septuagintal texts.” In any case, as Tom Dykstra writes, Did Jesus Exist? “repeats over and over again the assertion that no reputable New Testament scholars deny the historicity of Jesus, and Brodie’s book certainly blows that assertion out of the water.” Amen.

A digression
While Ehrman is persuaded that what seems plausible on the surface of the ancient Christian texts amounts to authentic history, Brodie is much more skeptical. Underneath such conflicting attitudes, of course, is the burden of proof issue. To be convincing, is it enough for the mythicist to show that Jesus of Nazareth (as set forth in the Gospels) could not have existed? Probably didn’t exist? (Who determines what is ‘probable’?) Or does the mythicist have to prove that such a Jesus did not exist? (An impossibility.) On the other hand, is it enough for the historicist to merely show that mythicist arguments are imperfect? (Thus arrogating the high ground and placing the entire burden on the mythicist.) Or, does the historicist have to show that Jesus of Nazareth (as set forth in the Gospels) could have existed? Probably existed? (Again, who determines what is ‘probable’?) Or does he have to prove it? (An impossibility.) Of course, if nobody really cares any more about the Jesus of Nazareth “as set forth in the Gospels” (as both historicists and mythicists commonly aver) then what, in fact, is at issue?

My answer to the last question is that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is not at the heart of the matter. Where Jesus of Nazareth does or does not fit in is merely a stepping stone (though a very important one) to the larger historical enterprise—understanding Christian origins.

‘Deep source criticism’ or parallelomania?

Brodie is the quintessential detective-scholar, one who looks below the surface for half-hidden clues. When it comes to early Christian texts he is suspicious of surface appearance. His inveterate digging over the past four decades has led him to embrace numerous controversial theses, not only relating to Jesus. For example, he is squarely in the camp of the Old Testament minimalists and posits that there was no First Temple: “Solomon builds a splendid temple, of which nothing has yet been found, not a stone” (20). He also questions the conquest model of Israelite origins, noting that “the Jericho site contains no remains from the centuries when the conquest is said to have happened” (121). Evidently, Joshua never did “fit the battle of Jericho.” Brodie questions the Documentary Hypothesis; he suggests that the Pentateuch depends on the Prophets (39), dispenses with “Q” (75), and with oral tradition (Chp. 12). By all accounts, this cleric must be deemed in the forefront of skeptics among the latest generation of biblical scholars.

Brodie divides his book into five parts. The first three are devoted to what he calls the three “revolutions” in Jesus studies: (1) historical investigation; (2) literary sources; and (3) literary art, including form/genre. The “literary sources” is the meat of this book, and history will certainly consider Brodie’s most enduring contribution to New Testament studies to be his close literary analysis which shows that the canonical gospels—and even the Pauline epistles—represent a “vast phenomenon of rewriting” (86). Already in 1975, his doctoral thesis was entitled “Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2 Kings” (46). He there announced, among other things, that Deuteronomy “is like Matthew” and that the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6-7) draws systematically on the account of the false accusing and stoning of Naboth (1 Kgs 21). For Brodie, the work of the evangelists was meticulous, sophisticated, and even masterful. Regarding Luke’s use of 1 Kgs 19 he writes:

Like a patient shipbuilder who draws on models of older craft, and who shapes details with the patience and precision of a watch-maker, or like a literary Michelangelo who combines mastery on a grand scale with equal mastery over detail, Luke has made several adaptations…

Regarding the Fourth Gospel, Brodie finds it ahistorical—a text where “history was not required,” “imparting a sense of wonder,” and a “literary unity that is tightly woven” (84). Lest one suppose that Brodie is out on a limb all by himself, he frequently reminds the reader that his work rests on that of others, e.g., Raymond Brown, Bultmann, Crossan, and Bauckham. Brodie is also conversant with very recent skeptical developments in the field, including Dennis R. McDonald’s thesis that the Old Testament drew extensively on Homer (96).

Brodie concludes that the evangelists not only used Old Testament material to fashion their texts, but also used each other—as well as some “Pauline” epistles. “Gradually the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place,” he writes. “Matthew 18 had used first-century materials, including Mark, but it had also absorbed Deuteronomy 15.” His source critical literary studies culminated in a seminal 2004 book, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the NT Writings.

Already in 1973 Brodie sketched out a source critical sequence for the canonical gospels—his solution to the Synoptic Problem. It is on p. 33 of his book and merits careful examination:

Greek Old Testament, particularly Deuteronomy (Devarim, logoi)

–> Matthew’s logia, distilling Deuteronomy (and Sirach)
(beatitudes, antitheses, revelatory cry; cf. Mt. 5 and 11)

–> Early epistles, esp. 1 Corinthians

–> Initial form of Luke-Acts, modeled on Elijah-Elisha

–> Mark

–> Matthew (with further use of Deuteronomy)

–> John

–> Canonical Luke-Acts

Regarding the Pauline epistles, Brodie has offered several significant insights during his long research career:

Many epistles had transformed the great Old Testament narratives, especially the Pentatuch, and—apart from building on one another (itself a huge phenomenon)—they in turn had been transformed into one component of the Gospels and Acts. The process was particularly decisive in 1 Corinthians. Despite its distinctive first-century content, it was pervaded by the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, and it had contributed decisively to the early shorter version of Luke-Acts, the proto-gospel modeled on Elijah-Elisha, what might be called Proto-Luke.

In the New Testament, some thought that Jesus was Elijah “come back to life” (Mt 11:14; 16:14; 17:10-13). In fact, the Elijah-Elisha narrative is Brodie’s special object of study. For him, the chapter 1 Kgs 19 encapsulates much of the Old Testament as well as provides much of the basis for the New Testament:

[T]he Elijah-Elisha narrative is a ready-made synthesis of the Old Testament’s foundational epic (Genesis-Kings), of its narrative and theology. If you were writing a narrative about Jesus, and wanted to ground that narrative in the older scriptures, you could scarcely find a more suitable foundation than the ready-made synthesis, the Elijah-Elisha narrative. [93]

Brodie devotes Chapter 7—the longest chapter in the book—to the technical aspects of his source critical arguments. The chapter extends to twenty-five pages and includes much small print. In a sense this is the core of the book, where Brodie argues the actual evidence for his OT-NT parallels. It’s doubtful, however, that many readers will do more than skim this very dry chapter. Nevertheless, Brodie did well to include it, for his book is something of a compendium of his life’s work and would not be complete without this academic foundation of his overall thesis. In a sense, Chapter 7 is a frontal assault on the inerrancy of scripture, or at least on its originality. It is the antipode to his Chapter 21 (the next longest chapter) which assuages his more traditionalist readers on the other extreme—the many non-academic people of faith. So, Beyond the Quest tries valiantly to offer something to everyone.

And therein lies the book’s—and its author’s—dilemma. Brodie’s life has been, as it were, not only a journey to the edge but a journey on the edge—on the knife-edge of heresy/inclusion, respectability/exclusion. Outwardly, he has fulfilled the assignments given him by the Dominican order—teaching in South Africa, Trinidad, and Ireland, all the while muting his more controversial discoveries as necessary.

No oral tradition

In the short but important Chapter 12, “The Funeral,” Brodie categorically debunks oral tradition. “Why impose an oral model on a literary phenomenon?” he asks (115). “The core presumption is that Jesus Christ was a specific historical person, and within that theory, something is needed to bridge the gap between the death of Jesus (generally placed around 30 CE) and the composition of the Gospels (generally placed around 70-100).” Brodie gives a pithy account from his own experience of how direct memory remains vibrant for at least a century—being no more than one person removed from the source (“My friend told me that when he was young he heard …”). Brodie logically concludes: “It would make elementary sense, if the evangelists wanted to bridge a gap of several decades, that they would speak directly to those who had been present” (117).

Richard Bauckham claimed to have found evidence of formal transmission and eyewitnesses in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11:23; 15:1-8; Lk. 1:1-4; Jn. 21:24-25; cf. 19:35-37; 20:30-31). But Brodie notes problems with Bauckham’s proposal and sees no reason to go beyond purely literary processes. He cites Collins in this regard (122) and notes that what is merely “history-like” is not necessarily “history” but could well be “literature.” Brodie’s detailed analyses, which often reveal unsuspected sources of texts, rest on the conviction that literary dependence is a more natural explanation than “history.” Thus, Brodie can write that “it is impossible to make a historical claim about John 1-4 without first examining its dependence on Acts 1-8” (124). For him, this is one more straw added to the “mimesis model” (below). Where traditionalists see history, Brodie sees textual imitation and rewriting—going all the way back to Jewish scripture. The growth of the tradition is entirely literary.

Brodie terms the thesis of an oral tradition, so long a staple in Jesus studies, “convenient” and “incomparably easier” than the hard work of trying to “follow the retrievable but complex processes of literary transformation and genius” (117). He notes: “[W]hen an undefined oral tradition is combined with an undefined link to the Synoptics, then all bases seem to be covered. But the result is a world of vagueness where, despite fine erudition, logic is lost.” For Brodie, the positing of an oral tradition stage has introduced a “fog of confusion” and “blocked progress on central issues.” He concludes Chp. 12 thus:

        Oral tradition is like a theory of ether that has has clouded form-history (‘form criticism’) and created a vast vague world, often of simple isolated people or communities telling developing stories, a theory that by its very vagueness is evocative and engaging. It is time that this theory be laid to rest, time to free the study of forms from unnecessary complications and to bring it to a new level of maturity. We need a gentle funeral. [119]

The mimesis model of Christian origins

In Chapter 14 Brodie expands on “A Key Practice: Transforming Texts beyond Immediate Recognition.” He claims that “the hidden connections are vast” between texts whose association is not readily apparent. Brodie exhorts biblical scholars “to move out into the deep,” that is, beyond the superficial appearance of the primary texts (130). His next section is entitled, “Dealing with a Strange World: Criteria for Recognizing the Presence of Transformed Texts.” Brodie’s summation is on p. 134:

This new world is not a passive place. The New Testament authors did not just lie back and, in a process of hearing or re-reading, simply let the Old Testament flow over them. Far more than readers, they are writers, holding sensitive instruments in their hands. They bring to the older text the full apparatus of their sophisticated wide-awake craft, and they generally bring that craft not to isolated quotes but to the texts in their entirety. They are proactive. Some texts they swallow whole, almost; other they distil; or reverse; or adapt in ways that are strange—so that the old cloth becomes a new thread. And having thus produced something new—the new thread—the active writer does not cease. In a highly complex process, the thread is interwoven with other threads to produce a new text, literally a new *textus*, ‘woven’ (Latin *textere*, ‘to weave’), and the pattern of the weaving can open up a new country. So when the twenty-seven countries are placed together—the twenty-seven books of the New Testament—a whole new continent lies open.

Though Brodie’s Beyond the Quest does not attempt a thoroughgoing academic argument for the mimesis model (excepting perhaps Chapter 7), the book contains numerous ‘points of argument’ in its favor, including the following observations: “the Pauline writings are engaging large narratives from the Old Testament” (135); Galatians “contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah” (141); and the book of Acts borrows extensively from the Old Testament (142, 144). For a more rigorous substantiation of Brodie’s view, one must of course refer to his numerous published articles and to his 2004 book, The Birthing of the New Testament.

Brodie’s source critical summation is on p. 160: “[D]ependence on the Old Testament pervades all the Gospels and Acts. It will take decades to spell out all the details, but sufficient evidence is already in place that it is no longer plausible to base claims to the historical Jesus on the Gospels or Acts.”



Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Pt. 1

  1. Thanks for the review Rene, I look forward to part 2. As you say, the book has significance not simply for what it says but for who precisely says it. Slowly but surely the tide is turning.

  2. Courageous man, Fr. Brodie. Yet, there WAS a Jesus – Yeishu haNotzri, who was stoned to death and hung on a stake/pole. His crime: Heresy. This took place some time after the death of King Jannaeous, sixty or seventy odd years BCE. Fr. Schillebeeckx’s version of the Resurrection is in all likelihood quite correct, that it was a ‘Jesus revival’. The catalyst for this was probably John the Baptist’s life and death. Christianity is a follow-on from the Notzrim movement which probably existed in Samaria 100-200 yrs BCE. The Notzrim movement could have been adapted from the Tammuz worshippers, whose origins were in Mesopatamia.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think you’re largely correct, and also believe there was a prophet behind Christian origins–certainly not “Jesus of Nazareth” (see other pages on this site, esp. the tab “Christian origins”). Some Jewish traditions date Yeshu to the time of Janneus (cf. A. Ellegaard’s book). “John the Baptist” certainly has somehow been conflated with “Jesus.” I would suspect John to be the more authentic figure, Jesus the more fictive. The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (ed. George Howard) even goes so far as to state “John was Jesus.” The Samaritans (from Mesopotamia originally) also probably play an important role in Christian origins. Scholarship is only beginning to sort all this out. . .