Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Snap: Thomas Brodie's "Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus"

This is a short version of a review that I'll have in the next E-Block, which will come out tomorrow.
Continuing my watch over materials related to the existence of Jesus, I was pointed to a work by Thomas Brodie titled Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Brodie is a minor Biblical scholar who has bought into the Christ myth, and this book (hereafter “QHJ”) is part personal memoir and part argumentation for his views (such as they are).
What Brodie's arguments are, in fact, is an extended exercise in non sequitur. 

Brodie's case is based on what he perceives to be the use of mimesis in the New Testament -- a process we analyzed in some depth in many other contexts. Brodie's treatment of the matter, naturally, is no better than these others, and commits all of the usual fallacies and failures. For one, he assumes that mimesis is an automatic sign of non-history being reported. As we have noted repeatedly with this quote from oral tradition specialist Albert Lord, however, that is not at all the case: 

Traditional narrators tend to tell what happened in terms of already existent patterns of story. Since the already existing patterns allow for many variations, and are the result of oft repeated human experience, it is not difficult to adjust another special case to flexibly interpreted story patterns. For example: the fact that the Entry (of Jesus) into Jerusalem fits an element of mythic pattern does not necessarily mean that the event did not take place. Actually, I assume that it did take place, since I do not know otherwise. Further, it was an incident that traditional narrators chose to include, at least in part because its essence had a counterpart in other stories and was similar to elements in an existing story pattern that was consonant with elements in a traditional mythic (i.e., sacred) pattern. All of this is simply to say that it adds a dimension of spiritual weight to the incident, but it does not deny, or for that matter confirm, the historicity of the incident.
Additionally, like other mimesis theorists, Brodie demands a great deal of imagination from the reader to discover most of his parallels, which have a tendency to be forced, contrived, or based on his own descriptions of the text rather than the texts themselves. Indeed, I would have to say that he is more guilty on this point than any of the previous authors we have examined. 

My great curiosity when dealing with Christ-mythers like Brodie is to see if they can exceed other Christ-mythers in terms of how badly they deal with secular references to Jesus. Brodie does not win the top prize on this account, but he does come close. Josephus is dismissed because Brodie has strained to find mimetic connections between Josephus and the New Testament, and so assumes that Josephus is dependent on the NT. Tacitus is dismissed in one small paragraph as simply getting his information about Jesus from Christians. [167] As our extended material on these subjects shows, this is simply appalling scholarship by Brodie.

In terms of mimsesis, Brodie spends most of the time in the book arguing that the story of Elijah's experiences in 1 Kings 19:4-21 were the basis for Jesus' reported teachings in Luke 9:57-62. Brodie employs the usual tools of the dishonest mimetic obsessive by freely defining what makes a match. He refers to Luke making "several adaptations" [53] and argues that Luke moved around material in different order, or used it different numbers of times. [55] In this, Brodie emulates Dennis MacDonald's appeal for "transvaluations" as an unethical explanation for why the data doesn't cooperate in making a true parallel. 

For this Ticker summation, one example will be enough to establish Brodie's dishonesty. Here are two heading descriptions Brodie uses at one point: 

Elijah, fearing death, receives divine instruction
Jesus, facing death, instructs would-be followers
This parallel is both forced and dishonest. For one thing, Brodie himself chooses all the words for the description (save the character names), and chooses them in such a way as to create similarities out of whole cloth. In particular, note that he has chosen two descriptive words that begin with "f" and end in "-ing" to describe two very different activities, and in such a way as to make it seem that there is a parallel. In reality, "fearing" and "facing" are vastly different activities. 

Then there is the reference to "death." This is dishonest because Jesus' death is nowhere referenced in Luke 9:57-62, although one finds reference to "Jerusalem" in v. 53 that could be strained into service. One could in fact say that Jesus was "facing death" anywhere in Luke's Gospel, even as early as the birth narrative, so this claimed parallel is worthless. 

Brodie is also semantically dishonest in using "instructs" to broadly describe what occurs in both stories. What Elijah was given would far more accurately be described, in English, as "divine commands," not "instruction." Even so, it is once again a case of Brodie carefully selecting a broadly-definable English word to encompass both stories. 

I would close with some personal observations of Brodie that make it rather clear where his problems and motivations lie. Brodie is a person not in control of his emotions and who overstates and overplays matters to an obsessive degree. He refers, for example, to a "throwaway remark" by an early teacher of his that "the words in the Gospels were not necessarily the exact words of Jesus." Because of this, Brodie says, "My heart sank." [4] Why it should have done so is not clear, unless Brodie was, perhaps, wedded to a form of literalist fundamentalism. As it is, his heart missed the points that 1) the words in the Gospels could never be Jesus' exact words, since Jesus didn't speak Greek; 2) in pre-literate societies, getting the words "exact" isn't at all important whereas getting the substance right is. Brodie's heart would never have been troubled had he received a contextual education and used some critical thinking skills beforehand. 

At the other extremity, Brodie manifests a tremendous egotism, one that is often needed for a fringe theorist to ply his trade. Just as Dennis MacDonald was hard pressed to explain why no one ever noticed Mark imitating Homer before, Brodie is compelled to contrive some reason why he's the only one to see these amazing parallels. He notes that one of his books on this didn't convince any reviewers, and explains the problem by saying: "Apparently the material was too strange and time-consuming," and he comments on "the gap between me and reviewers", which did not allow them to appreciate his genius. The reasoning is thus that others simply cannot see the truth of Brodie's ideas because he's a tremendous prodigy and we're just a bunch of unintuitive, lazy, brainless peons. 

But as I've said in other contexts, that's the sort of attitude one has to have in order to live life as a Christ-myther.


Nick Peters reviews this book on 3/24/17 here.


  1. I think Jesus probably did speak greek. He was from nazareth, which means he most probably would have had dealings in the nearby greek city of sepphoris.

    1. I agree he would have spoken some Greek, but most of his teachings to peasants would have had to have been in Aramaic.