Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Pt. 2

Though himself a priest, Brodie is alive to the faults of the Church. He writes:

[F]or many, the message about Jesus Christ is mired beneath layers of pain and anger, because, regardless of how you interpret the Christian vision, history is strewn with sickness, accidents and disasters; and the religious institution or its representatives have done harm: crusades; inquisitions; imperious use of authority; involvement with brutal regimes and conquests; mistreatment of people, of peoples, of women, of children, and of those who are different in some way; unduly black-and-white rulings on wrenching moral and medical issues; cover-ups; and thousands of diverse kinds of offenses committed by members and ministers of the church. How could anyone believe the message given by such a messenger? [219, cf. 159]

Today, Jesus mythicism—the idea that Jesus didn’t exist—is neither novel nor confined to an outer-outer fringe of pseudo-scholarship, as so many academics insist. It has been current for two centuries and is quite well-known in Russia, Scandinavia, and Holland. Brodie cites a surprising quote from John Meier (A Marginal Jew):

In my conversations with newspaper writers and book editors who have asked at various times to write about the historical Jesus, almost invariably the first question that arises is: But can you prove he existed? (160)

Even if this statement is somewhat exaggerated, it shows that Meier routinely encounters doubt regarding the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The truth may be that Jesus mythicism is far more broadly known than publicly acknowledged in the anglophone world.

Jesus not ‘a marginal Jew’

In Chapter 17 Brodie offers a scathing yet probative critique of the influential multi-volume work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001) by John P. Meier (Notre Dame University). Brodie begins: “First, like many other studies, [Meier’s work] uses an unreal compass—oral tradition”… [B]acked by Josephus, it starts with an early claim that Jesus existed…” (156). Brodie then takes Meier to task for using unreliable criteria:

… Two such criteria, for instance, include ‘contradiction’ and ‘discontinuity’: 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 its reality in history, in the life of Jesus. But there is a problem here. Contradiction and discontinuity are integral parts of a biblical literary artistry that, from Genesis to the epistles, is pervaded by multiple forms of dialogue and dialectic…
        A further criterion (‘multiple attestation’) is the occurrence of some features in several diverse documents of the New Testament (e.g. Mark, John, Paul). If these documents are independent of one another, then the points on which they agree would seem to be historically reliable. But again there is a problem. Despite the huge differences between them, the documents are not independent of one another. [157]

Whereas Brodie sees the gospels as literary mimesis based on the Elijah-Elisha narrative (below), Meier concludes that Jesus understood himself as standing in the line of Elijah and Elisha. Brodie says this is not “reliable history,” and that the claim that Jesus modeled his life on Elijah or Elisha “goes beyond the evidence.” For him, the parallels can be adequately explained on the basis of literary source criticism. In fact, “What the Gospels show is continuity in the portrayals of the Creator, Elijah and Jesus. The conclusion that accounts for the data is literary…” (158).

Brodie suggests that the characterization of Jesus as a tektôn (“craftsman”) is based on several passages in the Book of Wisdom:

“Beginning in Wisdom 10, several chapters of the book of Wisdom speak of both God’s role as creator and life-giver and of the failure of many people to recognize God as the true technitês, the supreme craftsman (Wis 13:1; cf. 13:22, wisdom is technitês pantôn, ‘the worker of all things’). Instead these people’s vision is limited to the kind of vision found in the woodcutter (the tektôn, Wis 13:11); that is all they can see.

Josephus and other ‘ancient witnesses’ not evidence of historicity

Brodie devotes several pages to the alleged witness of Josephus regarding Jesus (160-67). For the purpose of example, he notes that New Testament scholar John Meier considers Josephus to be the principal evidence for a historical Jesus. Of the three Josephus passages variously claimed as authentic evidence for Jesus, Brodie concludes that the passage in War is clearly spurious (it is lacking in most mss. and “is a mixture of passages from the Gospels” etc). Regarding the Testimonium (Ant. 18.63-64) Brodie does not claim that it is an outright forgery. He simply shows that it is, in all likelihood, dependent on one or more gospels:

What is important in the present context is the availability of a relatively simple working hypothesis: Josephus the writer, in accord with his general practice of adapting sources, especially scripture and scripture-related sources, knew enough about the writings of at least two specific New Testament authors, authors to whom in various ways he seems to have been close, that he could adapt and summarize what they had said, and so could make reference to Jesus. [166]

Brodie’s conclusion: “[I]t is not possible, in any reliable way, to invoke Josephus as an independent witness to Jesus. Unreliable witness cannot be used to condemn someone to death. And neither can it be used to assert that someone lived” (167).

Regarding alleged references to Jesus in other Roman sources (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Lucian of Samosata), Brodie writes: “[B]asic contact with Christians would have yielded such information… Consequently, none of [these] provides reliably independent witness to the existence of Jesus” (167-68). In sum, Brodie concludes that there is no persuasive ancient literary witness to the man Jesus of Nazareth.

The mythical Paul

Brodie’s careful researches have led him not merely into Jesus mythicism but also into Pauline mythicism. In Chapter 16 he concludes that Paul is fictional. In Brodie’s words:

… like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are historicized fiction.
        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 [The Art of Biblical narrative] 1981:27).

Thus, for Brodie, “the figure of Paul joined the ranks of so many other figures from the older part of the Bible, figure who, despite the historical details surrounding them, were literary, figures of the imagination” (146). The view is not new. Brodie himself notes that Bruno Bauer held the Pauline mythicist view, as also did continental scholars at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. But “the methods used by these scholars were very undeveloped” he writes (147).

The idea that Paul is not the author of several of the epistles is no longer a minority opinion; it is now widely accepted among scholars. Once the principle is established that Paul’s name, plus details about his life, do not necessarily establish the history of Paul, then the road is open for further questions about Paul’s history. The situation becomes even more unstable when the criteria (such as content and style) for establishing Pauline authorship are not reliable. [148]

For Brodie, Paul was a persona created by the early Church. His autobiography is “a paradigm of the gospel of Christian freedom” (149, quoting George Lyons). Brodie writes that Paul’s teaching is “a distillation of the age-long drama of God’s work on earth” (147). The fashioning of ‘Paul’ was not the act of one man but, in Brodie’s view, the creation of “some form of group or school” for which Paul was the image of “the new Moses” (153-54). The methods used by this “school” was cumulative: “The writers of the epistles were aware of one another, and in diverse ways, while each built something new, they also built on one another” (154).

Christianity created by a literary ‘school’

Brodie expands on the ‘literary school’ concept in his chp. 19. His thesis that the New Testament texts “built on one another” (184) suggests if not proximity, at least communication—which, Brodie notes, was quite advanced in the Roman period. He cites Bauckham:

The early Christian movement was a network of communities in constant communication with each other, by messengers, letters, and movements of leaders and teachers—moreover, a network around which Christian literature circulated easily, quickly, and widely. [R. Bauckham, The Gospels for all Christians, 1998:44]

For Brodie, we owe the creation of the New Testament to “some kind of school or writing community, diverse people who were in communication with one another” (185). He notes that “Matthew’s use of the Old Testament resembles that of a particular school, namely Qumran, with its Habakkuk commentary… Matthew evokes both Ben Sirach and Qumran, and his work falls within a tradition of creative ‘charismatic’ exegesis” (190).

In Part 1 of this review we considered Brodie’s thoroughgoing emphasis on rewriting (mimesis) and his own rather nuanced solution to the synoptic problem. He considered that Christianity was founded significantly on a process of rewriting, and that the rewriting indicates coordination—a group or school. In Chp. 19 he expands on the mimesis model by exploring the “role of the process of writing” in ancient times. He notes that the codex came into its own about the turn of the era, eventually replacing papyrus as the dominant medium.

At the center of Brodie’s mimesis model are two parallels: the patterning of Paul after Moses, and of Jesus after Yahweh.

Along with many others, I have begun to show the increasing evidence that the New Testament portrayal of Paul is modeled significantly on the Old Testament picture of Moses, and that the portrayal of Jesus is largely a synthesis of the Old Testament account of God and of all that God does, often through people. [183]

So the 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. But the leading figures in the story, Jesus and Paul, were not the originators either of the story or institutions. Rather, the account of them is modeled on the old story in such a way—complete, complex, detailed, artistic—that they emerge as scriptural figures formed by others. [184]

In the third and final part of this review I will consider some limitations to Brodie’s approach and a few of the drawbacks of his book.


About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


Thomas Brodie, mythicist priest:
Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus—Pt. 2
— 1 Comment

  1. Hi, As a Catholic, I find your summary very interesting, thank you. Although not an academic, I agree with Brodie: Jesus and Paul are figments of the imagination; Jesus ‘represents’ Jewish culture and Paul represents the converted ‘Roman centurion’, hence ‘Paul’s’ travels back to Rome were, in fact, Roman Jewish sympathisers – soldiers (or Roman chaplains) having been ‘touched’ by Jewish belief. The roots of Christianity lie in Greek poetry (Homer), Greek theatre and Greek mythology (Orpheus & Eurydice). Thanks.

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