Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Pt. 3

(Published Easter Sunday)

stormy-churchOn this Easter Sunday, ‘year of our Lord’ 2013, we may note that Father Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus offers the world a closely reasoned analysis showing that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a fiction, a literary construct cunningly based on Jewish scripture. Brodie has done nothing less than deconstruct normative Christianity based on literary source criticism. Of course, Thomas Brodie is no Johnny come lately, no dillettante, no wild-eyed hater of Christianity… He is both a Dominican priest and a distinguished bible scholar with an extensive resumé of published work going back many decades. Throughout his academic career, Brodie’s specialization has been literary source criticism. In this domain, he is the expert.

Brodie demonstrates in detail that the New Testament texts are sophisticated works of fiction produced by a “school” primarily engaged in rewriting Old Testament scripture. He shows that Jesus is prefigured in Yahweh, Paul (whom he suggests is also a fictional figure) is prefigured in Moses, and that the Son of Man, the doctrine of atonement, and many other elements central to Christianity have direct Jewish models. Most importantly, he reveals that the biography of Jesus was essentially ‘pilfered’ from the Elijah-Elisha narrative. For all this, mythicists owe Brodie a good deal of appreciation.

In these first decades of the third Christian millennium, “Jesus of Nazareth” is clearly in trouble—and not merely because of Brodie’s work. The contemporary assault on the historicity of “Jesus” is gaining momentum and threatens now to metastasize in many directions. Let us count the ways: (1) CHRONOLOGY. Numerous independent lines of investigation have been suggesting since the time of Couchoud that most of the New Testament texts are products of the second century CE rather than the first. Internal evidence supports this conclusion. (2) ARCHAEOLOGY. Nazareth did not exist at the turn of the era (as my own work shows, of which Brodie apparently is unaware), Bethlehem did not yet exist at that time either (as archaeologist Aviram Oshri has shown), Pharisees and synagogues were not in the Galilee before the first Jewish war, etc. (3) TEXT. Brodie now demonstrates that the New Testament is a creative ‘pastiche’ drawn from the Old Testament. Dennis MacDonald also shows how Christian scripture is greatly indebted to Homer. Ehrman and others have shown that the received texts have been much reworked by a tendentious Christian tradition. This (and other) scholarship increasingly demonstrates that the gospels are far less ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ than formerly thought. They are hardly unprecedented—except in form. (4) THEOLOGY. The Nag Hammadi texts and other gnostic tractates show that alternative Christianities existed, some of which may have preceded the formulation known as the Pauline kerygma. (On the existence of a ‘pre-Christian’ gnosticism without a redeemer figure and without mythological characteristics, see here.)

Already few New Testament professors today take the biography of “Jesus” at face value. Most are willing, to a greater or lesser degree, to admit the tendentious nature of the texts—that the Christian documents are not history but the ‘proclamation of good news.’ Thus history inexorably becomes fiction, and today’s universal religion gradually becomes tomorrow’s myth. We are now in the midst of that momentous paradigm change.

Over-emphasis on orthodoxy

I would now like to consider a few drawback’s to Brodie’s book. One should not suppose that the author offers a comprehensive solution to the origins of Christianity. He cannot, for Brodie restricts himself to orthodoxy. In Beyond the Historical Jesus, he focuses exclusively on the New Testament. Brodie scarcely mentions the Nag Hammadi texts, the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scriptures, and gnosticism—all of which have received intense scholarly attention over the last half century. In my opinion, this is a major oversight, for it is becoming increasingly clear that orthodoxy was a late development of the second century CE and beyond, antecedent to which decidedly unorthodox roots are to be found in the Jewish Pseudepigrapha, in the Dead Sea Scriptures, and in a non-mythological form of gnosticism.

St. Dominic, founder of Fr. Brodie's preaching order of Dominicans,  by Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, founder of Fr. Brodie’s preaching order of Dominicans,
by Fra Angelico

While Brodie’s book considers Jewish scripture, it does not investigate the immediate precursors of Pauline Christianity, including the status of “John the Baptist,” of his disciple Apollos “who taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25), the implications of Acts 24:5 where Paul is denominated “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans,” the tension between “Hebrews” and “Hellenists” in Acts 6:1 ff., and the sect of the Nasarenes “who existed before Christ and did not know him” (Epiphanius, Pan. 29.6.1). Brodie simply goes all the way back to Jewish scripture. Thus, he skips over many of the intervening forces which formed the New Testament.
 
Involved in any discussion such as this is the problem of definition, namely, the terms “Christianity” and “Gnosticism.” Most bible scholars equate “Christianity” with what I’ve labeled “Paulinism” above—the form of the religion based on the kerygma. In common parlance, that which is non-Pauline is, by definition, “non-Christian.” Many traditionalists are therefore quick to conclude that whatever is non-Pauline is hence inapplicable, hence irrelevant, and hence unimportant. Thus, through a circular series of a priori assumptions and essentially arbitrary definitions, that which is unorthodox is marginalized and relegated to oblivion. Only Paulinism matters because only that is “Christianity.” This has been going on for a very long time.
 
As regards “Gnosticism” a similar situation obtains, for there were two forms: an early gnosticism without any redeemer figure, and a later development with the florid symbolism of one or more mythologies. This distinction is not currently observed, and the result is that only the later Gnosticism (generally capitalized) is admitted as historical and the earlier form (evident in Jewish ‘mysticism’) is ignored.
 
As noted above, the current debate regarding Christian origins largely ignores clear attestations to a substratum of Christianity which immediately preceded the Pauline version of the religion. Scholarship has also failed to ‘connect the dots’ in any significant way between Christianity and Jewish mysticism, the Dead Sea Scriptures, and the Enochian tradition. These hallmarks of the turn of the era furnish a bridge between Judaism and Christianity and, in my opinion, are also reflected in many of the logia and parables of “Jesus” in the canonical gospels, not to mention in many Nag Hammadi texts.
 
In his search for precursors to Christianity, Brodie leaps over all this intertestamental material and goes directly to orthodox Jewish scripture—the Tanakh. The New Testament, he writes, “consists of twenty-seven writings that, despite many differences, are all rooted, directly or indirectly, in the Old Testament…” And: “[T]he starting point for the history of Christianity is as follows. The story/narrative and institutions of Christianity are an adaptation of the story and institutions of Judaism.” This is a narrow view which is indeed valid for Paulinism, while it ignores the patently gnostic elements in and behind the Christian record. Thus, though Brodie accomplishes a great deal, he also omits a great deal relevant to Christian origins.
 
The Nag Hammadi texts and the Mandean corpus have miraculously survived, despite repeated attempts at their complete destruction long ago. In my opinion, the roots of these heterodox gnostic religions go back to ‘Nazoreanism’ which, the evidence shows, was in existence before the creation of the New Testament.
 
A minor quibble: Brodie’s book was not copyedited and a fair number of typos and misspellings are evident. These are easily spotted, however, and the reader will quickly pass over them.
 
Over-emphasis on literary traditions
 
Brodie writes: “Christianity, insofar as it was a new religion, was founded by a school of writers, or more likely, by a religious community many of whose members were writers” (185). This view is only defensible for certain elements of the New Testament, most especially those informing the grandiose story of Jesus of Nazareth (drawn from Elijah-Elisha, Samson, and other sources). Brodie can similarly explain individual doctrinal elements of the Pauline kerygma, elements which can be found in normative Judaism (including Son of Man, sin, atonement, redemption, resurrection, and a last judgment). But, as noted above, many of the pseudo-gnostic logia and parables in Christian literature have no such antecedents, and yet they form an integral part of the teaching of “Jesus”—perhaps even the heart of his teaching. These ‘sayings’ do not appear to be scribally based nor to go back to a “school.” Rather, they preserve the ‘voice’ of a forthright and nonconformist prophet with a predilection for parable and metaphor, one who must have lived towards the turn of the era. He certainly was not “Jesus of Nazareth” and his biographical details are, as yet, unknown to us. We can suspect that he challenged Yahwism, including the authority of the Temple, the concept of the Chosen People, that he taught the way of gnosis rather than the way of obedience to Yahweh, and that he opposed the powerful Jerusalem priesthood. We can further suspect that his boldness and public teaching led to his execution. There are strong indications that his story also overlaps in essential ways with that of John the Baptist.
 
The book’s closing ‘apologetic’ chapters
 
The last three chapters of Beyond the Historical Jesus stand out from the rest of the book in striking ways. Having effectively undermined the historicity of Jesus, the author now closes by attempting to assuage his more traditionalist readers. Thus, within the covers of the same book, he attempts to address two extremes and two very distinct constituencies—the skeptical scholar, and the traditionalist believer.
 
Chapters 20, 21, and 22 are not at all concerned with the ancient world but with Christians today. Perhaps Brodie’s address to his ‘congregation’ was inevitable, but I found these pages rather unfortunate and constituting a rambling, vague, and rather unsuccessful apology by a fine scholar for his own insightful life’s work. Naturally, good Catholics everywhere are aghast at the priest’s views which, after all, represent nothing less than a bombshell in the place of the usual sermon. It is quite understandable that, since publication of Beyond the Quest, Father Brodie has been forbidden to teach pending ‘review’ of his radical positions by the Dominican order.
 
in the pewIn the final chapters Brodie basically jettisons the historical Jesus while affirming the spiritual “Christ.” (Interestingly, this was also the view taken by gnostics, docetists, and mythicists in ancient times.) Brodie writes: “The old narratives may be read as if they were true, because they are true, but not literally” (211). The problem for me is that the gospels were not meant to be read as metaphor. After all, is the apostle Thomas not exhorted (Jn 20:27) to “Give me your hand; put it into my side” to prove that the bodily resurrection is not metaphorical but real? Brodie’s suggestion leads me to wonder what difference remains between a truth and an untruth, for if that which is literally false can be considered “true,” then we are certainly adrift morally…
 
Brodie relies on God’s presence: “Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time [of radical theological insights] reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright” (197). He also cleaves to rite and ritual: “[W]ithout fully understanding why, I held on to the Mass (Eucharist)” (198). But in the end, Brodie is forced to ask himself: “What do I believe? What do I really believe?” (198) He concludes: “What is essential is that the slow process of rethinking God’s creation provides a precedent for rethinking God’s Christ” (200). He finds this convoluted conclusion, however, to be entirely unsatisfactory and throws his hands up in exasperation: “For the moment I do not have a clear sense of what Jesus Christ means.” His interest then turns from historical considerations to “the implications of [God and Christ] for people’s lives” (202).

Brodie finally victoriously asserts that “the heart of reality is compassion” (205), a compassion “that knows us through and through” (211). In language familiar to any churchgoer, he expands on God’s compassion:

God’s basic presence and action towards creation and people are as generous and all-embracing as is imaginable, even to giving what is absolutely dearest to God’s own self. 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. [206]

Brodie’s philosophical meanderings lead to some strange assertions, including that God and evil are distinct but not separate: “while God and evil are distinct, and are not to be confused, they are not separate” (207). On the ensuing page we read of a vague and unspecified element in humans which transcends death: “there is something in humans, some inherent capacity, that calls for remaining with the divine, even after death.” Brodie cites a certain A.N. Wilson: “The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are” (208).
 
Personally, I am particularly wary when someone begins to expound authoritatively about “God,” as Brodie does when he discourses about how God is “churning” inwardly (and outwardly) towards people:

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. God may be self-possessed, but God’s whole being is churning within and outwards towards people, so that even as sin and death happen, God is processing them, constantly offering forgiveness, a process of healing, and various forms of life. [209]

Father Brodie then takes on Richard Dawkins, one of the current champions of the “New Atheism.” Unfortunately, Brodie engages in caricature—which is always false. He writes of “Dawkins’s flattening of the mind,” and of “Richard Dawkins who, in a peculiar adaptation of Darwin, reduces everything in humans to the mechanics of selfish genes, mechanics that know nothing about altruism” (212). On the other hand, Brodie takes refuge in the fact that “Christ is like another dimension of reality” (215). Indeed… Above all, however, Brodie insists upon wonder, upon mystery at all costs—even at the cost, it would appear, of correct data. He opines that “We need more than a matchstick Jesus” (213)—meaning presumably that a historical Jesus is not enough, while a metaphorical Jesus will fill the bill admirably.
 
Not being the product of a Christian seminary, I confess to not being able to appreciate the force of statements such as: “it is only when the abiding deepens that the joy really blossoms” (217). My first question is: what (on earth) is “the abiding”? In the same vein, perhaps the reader can dissect the following passage better than I:

This shadowed living beauty that we call Jesus Christ is not a specific human being. It is visualized as a Jewish-born carpenter, and at one level it is personal and history-related. Jesus Christ is historical insofar as he symbolizes the aspect of a personal God that is interwoven with the fierce particularity of history and with the bloodied beauty of individual lives. [218]

“Shadowed living beauty” may be one thing, but this is the first time I have encountered the phrase “bloodied beauty.” In any case, it is an apt description for a very bloodied Christian tradition.
 
Brodie offers other curiosities. On p. 218 he asserts that the same Jesus underlies both Judaism and Christianity:

Christians have played a central role in visualizing and naming [the presence of Christ], but Jews had done so first—though without using the name Jesus Christ—and despite the variations in subsequent Jewish and Christian formulation, despite occasional better insights by one or the other, it is often the same Jesus who underlies both religions. [218]

Brodie’s final chapter is entitled “Reasoning with beauty.” The author considers the fundamental conflict between faith and reason. Ultimately he comes down on the side of faith by using what I consider a form of casuistry:

After a person has believed, reason may find indications or signs that the belief is true, that, as symbolized in the figure of Jesus, the higher power—God in shorthand—did make humans for a purpose. [220]

According to Brodie, then, it is critical that one first believe. Only then is reason permitted. To me, this is like stacking the deck of cards… After all, since one already believes, the dye has been cast. It is of little moment what reason then determines. The observation that reason may find “signs that the belief is true”—or it may not—is casuistry, for reason has already been rendered both optional and impotent.
 
Perhaps in all this Brodie does not realize the irony of such speculations. In the greater part of his book he has determined—on the basis of laboriously reasoned analysis—that the New Testament is not original and that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. Then, in the final chapters, he jettisons reason and essentially asserts, “It doesn’t matter.” The author scuttles his own ship.
 
I am too great an admirer of Brodie’s rational analyses to take the last pages of his book to heart. I prefer to suspect that he wrote them without real commitment and as an afterthought, perhaps even as an obligation. Those pages do not do honor to his fine intellect. Let us gently put them aside.
 
Overall assessment
 
Father Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a courageous and timely book, written towards the end of a long and productive academic career. It approaches scripture with an admirable dose of skepticism not shared by the author’s academic peers, a skepticism which allows him to go where they cannot, to see possibilities they do not, and to ask questions they dare not. As a result, Brodie’s results are well outside the permissible comfort zone of current Jesus studies. In Beyond the Quest (as also in his life work) Brodie makes a solid case that the evangelists mined Jewish scripture for the elements of the New Testament, and that they used complex, subtle, and creative methods to fashion the image and biography of “Jesus,” their invented savior. Though he does not address heterodox theological trends in antiquity, Brodie’s work undermines the dominant Christian paradigm by showing that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a clever idol created by human hands, a “Son of God” made out of Old Testament literary allusions. Brodie similarly shows that the Pauline epistles are based upon scripture as well as upon one another.
 
Thomas Brodie’s nuanced analysis furnishes academic support for the view that “Jesus” and “Paul” are both literary fictions. This is not only of great service to mythicists—it is mythicism. His work will also be of great service to all researchers interested in Christian origins. Through detailed New Testament source criticism, Brodie has convincingly shown that the central texts of the Great Church are creative fiction proclaiming an invented savior.

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