An age of seismic cultural shifts
America is, apparently, reaching the acme of polarization in just about everything: politics, cultural values, distribution of wealth, opportunity for advancement… The current presidential election is a gut-wrenching, seismic shift, as an old paradigm of power gives way to something new and still uncertain. New, of course, can be good or bad—a Donald Trump, a Hillary Clinton, a Bernie Sanders, a Ted Cruz, a Marco Rubio—choose your poison/panacea… The pundits say the electorate is “angry.” That’s pretty obvious, and it must be because things just aren’t working for the vast majority of Americans. You’ve heard the list of complaints: long work hours, low wages, no raises in a decade, problematic health insurance (do you have a $5,000 deductible?), astronomical cost of education… All this while a few at the top have become insanely wealthy. Ordinary people feel snookered. For most of us, the American Dream is exactly that: a dream…
I happen to live in Eugene, Oregon, near the fault-line of the Pacific Plate—a huge chunk of the earth’s surface that is shifting ever-so-slowly, about 4 centimeters a year. That’s about as fast as my hair grows. It wouldn’t be worth getting excited about except that scientists tell me and everyone else around here that we’re long overdue for the great BO (the “Big One”): “there is a 37 percent chance that a monster earthquake will occur in the state sometime during the next 50 years.” Hundreds of thousands of casualties are expected, and presumably we all need to be ready at a moment’s notice to live in the woods for about two weeks. Dang! I don’t even own a sleeping bag…
The coming earthquake in biblical studies
Similarly, enormous stresses have been building for generations in biblical studies, as scholarship increasingly threatens to tear the clothes off the ‘emperor’ who for two thousand years has strutted the world stage—in the garb of the Christian Jesus. What most of us learned in Sunday School, catechism class, or even in college religion courses has little relation to what is now being seriously discussed (and published) by cutting-edge investigators of Christian origins. One (Dennis MacDonald) points to the influence of Homer on the New Testament, another (Thomas Brodie) shows that the biographies of Jesus are largely based on Old Testament models, while another (Markus Vinzent) is—perhaps most astonishingly—in the process of demonstrating that all four canonical gospels postdate Marcion of Sinope, the “heretic” who flourished towards the middle of the second century CE. Now, these are not uncredentialed loners, self-published ‘crackpots,’ or ‘misguided’ atheists. All three are highly credentialed and extensively published scholars from within the guild. And that is precisely what frightens traditionalists so much. The ground is already shaking, and profound fissures are appearing in the very bedrock of Christianity.
Of course, the cutting-edge scholarly views mentioned above are encountering predictable opposition from the ‘usual suspects’—an endless list of Christian apologists who teach principally in the Bible Belt, who publish mostly via conservative outlets, and who often encourage the public to vote only for “born-again” Christian candidates. The middle ground is fast disappearing as American life dissolves into black and white, “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:3), and the shrill apocalypticism of current antagonisms…as gun-toting Christians invoke the Second Amendment, as Christian extremists take over a vast expanse of Oregon backcountry, and as some disgruntled rightwingers still refuse (after seven years!) to accept Barack Hussein Obama as their President. Things aren’t working for the vast majority, people are angry, and—as the political and cultural center disappears—there’s suddenly talk from both the right and the left of revolution. We used to be able to talk our differences out. But now, neighbors, co-workers, and even families are divided. We’re not talking anymore. We’re fuming.Without negotiation there’s no compromise. That’s a dirty word for much of America today. And so, without talk, positions harden. The dysfunctional U.S. Congress is a perfect example of what happens when people stop talking, negotiating, compromising. Something similar is happening in the area of religion. People sense that their core values are under attack and they refuse to compromise. Those who believe in the literal Genesis account of creation also seem to be the ones who deny global warming, evolution, a woman’s right to abortion, and guaranteed health care for all. For many, giving in on any one of these is like giving in on them all. In the old days, born-again Christians were appeased with cultural tokens such as the words “In God we Trust” on American currency, the phrase “one country under God” in the declaration of allegiance, and prayer in public schools… But today that is not enough. It seems that conservatives (many of whom are born again Christians) demand the right to “stand your ground,” to condemn homosexuality, to close abortion clinics, and to purchase assault weapons (for hunting?!).
At the same time, on the left we are witnessing a burgeoning of atheism, “humanism,” as well as a big decline in church attendance. “Wedge” issues (i.e., issues that divide us) now include massive topics like global warming, burning fossil fuels, GMO foods, Citizen’s United… The polarization of society is everywhere, from the enacting of laws to acceptable greetings in the street. People don’t know if their neighbor is a born-again Christian or “a Godless atheist,” a conservative supporter of Ted Cruz or a devotee of the socialist Bernie Sanders.
A generation ago, the Overton Window of acceptable discourse was fairly restricted, but clear: socialism (not to mention communism) and atheism were unworthy of polite discussion—as also was the non-existence of Jesus. Well, some of these topics are, ahem, rather significant… So, rather than talk about them—ordinary people aren’t talking!
And that’s important, because we now have a socialist running for president, and there are some people (such as yours truly) who claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. Wow. That’s still a radioactive opinion, but it’s becoming less so with every passing month. I’ll admit that it’s still most impolitic (and professionally suicidal) for a religious studies professor to claim Jesus didn’t exist. S/he is very much expected to cleave to long-standing conservative tradition, or at least to “majority opinion.” But those who (a) have tenure, (b) are near retirement (or have retired), or (c) teach in publicly-owned universities—they are today relatively free to speak their minds on issues like the ahistoricity of Jesus, of Paul, of the Apostles and, heck, of practically the whole cast of New Testament characters.
And, indeed, some bona fide professors are beginning to speak out in ways unimaginable a generation ago. The director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Dennis MacDonald, has stated quite directly that “Mark and Luke, if not also Matthew and John, composed historical fictions.” Jesus mythicists know MacDonald mostly for his pioneering work in mimesis criticism, a method whereby he concludes that the evangelists drew heavily on Homer’s epics. MacDonald writes:
Father Thomas Brodie is, to my knowledge, the first mythicist priest who has not been defrocked, excommunicated, or worse. He still wears the collar and can be seen at annual SBL conferences. But he, unfortunately, is no longer permitted to teach or publish. What a pity, for Fr. Brodie’s decades-long, careful, and detailed research convincingly shows that the New Testament gospels are heavily indebted to Jewish scripture—and that Jesus is a mythical figure based on Old Testament prototypes.
A Homeric-mimetic reading the Gospels is a seismic paradigm shift with enormous implications. As is the case with all paradigm shifts, one must expect resistance from those who have benefited from business as usual. I no longer expect scholars of my generation to accept my work with open arms; if acceptance occurs at all, it will come from future generations. That is why I am so delighted to be able to teach at an institution like the Claremont Graduate University and to direct the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, institutions of higher research dedicated to the training of just such scholars.
But I also teach at the Claremont School of Theology, and thus many of my students are studying for the Christian ministry. . . In the past scholars of the Gospels often used their craft to argue for their historical reliability or failing that at least to mine historical or traditional kernels to justify traditional Christian belief. My claim that Mark and Luke, if not also Matthew and John, composed historical fictions has called into question such endeavors. . .
Now, let’s consider this for a moment… Fr. Brodie is a Jesus mythicist, but he is also the quintessential insider as far as the establishment is concerned: a Catholic priest, highly trained, fully credentialed, founder-director of the Dominican Biblical Institute, and with a slew of erudite books and articles to his credit. For the tradition, the 2012 appearance (as he was nearing retirement) of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus was the first shudder of a nightmare coming true. For with Brodie it is no longer possible to maintain that Jesus mythicism is strictly an “outside” phenomenon with no standing in academe.Some Christian apologists, however, refuse to accept this disturbing turn of events. They still play a very old record where anybody who doubts the historical existence of Jesus must be a crackpot. Thus, James McGrath can blog a rather hysterical review of Beyond that treats Brodie more like an uncouth peasant than an erudite scholar. That Thomas Brodie is far more accomplished than his detractor adds irony to McGrath’s following over-the-top comments:
… bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme… into the realm of unchecked paralellomania… bizarre extremes… botches ancient authorship completely… illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers…
Good grief. Well, one has to wonder whose careers McGrath is really worrying about… After all, he seems to equate the “bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism” with “the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers.” Maybe that’s what really bothers him. Perhaps it’s not the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism (were that even true) that concerns this super-entrenched pundit, so much as mythicism’s potential to ruin his career! That is, his legacy, at any rate… Because if Jesus mythicism proves to be at all correct, McGrath’s legacy is, shall we say, in the toilet.
Thus, what comes screaming through, more than anything else, is the paranoia of an aging, entitled, and arrogant tradition. It all stands to reason. There’s a paycheck at stake. Reputation. Legacy. Ooh…
McGrath also writes: “I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results…” How silly. Perhaps McGrath should himself tell Brodie, and thus earn a well-merited lecture—or maybe a polite invitation to actually read Brodie’s articles and books.
Because McGrath presents such a good example of the polarization in biblical studies, I offer one more astonishing citation from his review of Brodie’s Beyond:
[Brodie’s book is] an extended exercise in non sequitur… simply appalling scholarship… Brodie’s dishonesty… This parallel is both forced and dishonest… This is dishonest… Brodie is a person not in control of his emotions and who overstates and overplays matters to an obsessive degree… Brodie’s heart would never have been troubled had he received a contextual education and used some critical thinking skills beforehand… Brodie manifests a tremendous egotism, one that is often needed for a fringe theorist to ply his trade…
The above does not qualify even as nonsense—much less as an objective book review. (For that, please see here.) It is the visceral spewing of bile, the literary eruption not of the intellect (which seems to be wholly absent) but purely of the emotions. Black is white, white is black, Brodie is accused of “appalling scholarship,” etc, etc. The accusations of “tremendous egotism” and “dishonesty” are especially curious for anyone who has met the soft-spoken and gentle priest. One has to wonder whether McGrath himself is “not in control of his emotions,” “overstates,” and is “dishonest.”
I close with a link to an informative article by Tom Dykstra, entitled “Ehrman and Brodie on Whether Jesus Existed: A Cautionary Tale about the State of Biblical Scholarship” (2015). Dykstra reminds us of the lack of civility on both sides of the current Jesus mythicist debate, of the inability of the majority of academics to give mythicism a fair hearing, and that many of the gospel stories are indeed “pure fiction.” He perceptively argues that amateurs “may well have an advantage over the professionals” in promoting the radical view of Jesus mythicism today. Dykstra also points out that humor is an effective and underused way of getting one’s argument across—a valuable tool that can defuse the overheated confrontations that are increasingly taking place everywhere. In talking with the McGraths and Holdings of this world, we will all need humor, firmness, energy, and good will, if we are to help shepherd biblical studies through the earthquake that has already begun.
A new world beckons, but it appears that a cataclysm must first take place. History has been decidedly against Jesus mythicists, but on the other side of the coming storm, the future is ours.—R.S.