Review of Thomas Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus

Review of Thomas Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus February 27, 2013

Thomas Brodie’s book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery is in fact what the subtitle describes – a memoir of one individual scholar’s life and journey. It illustrates well that an academic career is not an isolated phenomenon, unaffected by the things that may be going on in the context we live and teach in – as Brodie had the opportunity to live, work, and teach in a wide array of national and cultural contexts.

The book is also the tragic tale of how a powerful idea grabbed hold of an individual, who became so persuaded of it, that he focused his life’s work on it and nothing else. Brodie indicates that he had this conviction even before he had learned to do scholarship, and that his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42). But although his idea was concocted prior to his learning how to do scholarship, I never had the impression that he ever questioned whether his intuition about this was itself scholarly or correct.

Brodie’s core conviction is that Christianity was a phenomenon produced by creative writing (p.231 n.2), by authors taking literature (the Jewish Scriptures) and turning it into new literature (the Gospels), inventing the figure of Jesus in the process. The fact that Paul proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah before those texts were written is not allowed to interfere with this thinking. And ultimately Brodie claims that Paul too was fictional – although for some reason, in this instance he is willing to entertain the possibility that there was a historical Paul, although not the figure depicted in Acts or behind the letters (pp.146-147). This inconsistency is never satisfactorily explained.

His treatment of the case of Paul, like Brodie’s work on Jesus, illustrates both the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings, and the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked paralellomania. His argument that mundane details about Paul were fabricated on the basis of earlier literature includes the claim that the reference to Paul having been a tentmaker was inspired by references to tents in the Jewish Scriptures, including God spreading out the heavens like a tent (p.151). Using such an approach, being willing to claim even identical prepositions as evidence of literary dependence, is a method which could claim that absolutely anything is derived from absolutely anything else. The sad thing is that the bizarre extremes to which Brodie is willing to go to make one text wholly derivative from another cheapens and detracts from the legitimate points he makes about the smaller number of texts and points of contact that have strong evidence in their favor.

Brodie also botches ancient authorship completely, claiming on p.143 that “If Paul is not the person holding the pen, then he is not the author.”

Brodie mentions several famous figures in his book, with whom he compares and contrasts himself, such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Albert Schweitzer. The irony is that one could easily apply Brodie’s method to his own writing, and conclude that his book had been produced by taking such figures and reworking them. It is not clear that there is any literature, any memoir, that could not be “explained” in terms of literary borrowing, as long as one’s penchant for parallelomania knows no restraints. And an “explanation” that can be appealed to as explaining everything in fact explains nothing. And so, rather ironically, the book itself illustrates precisely why the “evidence” that persuaded Thomas Brodie that Jesus did not exist proves nothing of the sort. Either his “memoir” could have been produced by anyone on the basis of earlier texts and stories about individuals, and we should dismiss any claims to its historical factuality, or Brodie has in fact disproven his own thesis quite decisively.

I recommend that this book be widely read. It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, such as that either Jesus himself or an author like Luke deliberately made a comparison and contrast between Jesus and Elijah.

The book can serve as a warning to young scholars to be open to criticism and feedback (and to more established scholars to provide honest and clear feedback, since I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results). Early in our years of reading, we regularly find ourselves thinking that we have a decisive insight. More often than not, further research shows we were wrong. Being unwilling to change one’s mind in light of evidence, and consider the possibility that we were not as insightful as we thought, will undermine one’s effort to be a productive scholar, and perhaps interfere with the attempt to become a scholar at all. Brodie’s memoir illustrates this amply, and I am grateful that he put it in writing and shared it with others – assuming that, contrary to the implication of Brodie’s own method, I can treat what he wrote as about a real person, and not just fiction based on the stories of others.

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  • Steven Carr

    I think No True Scholar would ever reach the conclusion that this Dominican priest reached.

    • William J E Dempsey

      “No True Scotsman,” certainly.

  • A “tragic tale”? Aren’t we being just a tad melodramatic? That sounds an awful lot like the way fundamentalists like to describe Bart Ehrman’s journey to agnosticism.

    • I found it depressing, from the perspective of a scholar, to read of someone who wanted to be a scholar but struggled all along the way, apparently receiving very little guidance of a sort that he needed. You can read it and judge for yourself. I read Brodie’s work on John back when I was focusing on that Gospel for my PhD work, and I now understand better why, instead of producing a persuasive volume on literary influences on and archetypes for the Gospel of John, he instead produced the problematic work he did. Yes, now that I know the backstory, it is really saddening.

      • William J E Dempsey

        Mythicists are often accused of “hyper-skepticism.” But what is hyperskepticism? And why is it hyper- or over-skeptical – to doubt the historical existence of Jesus? Many alleged gods have been doubted before; the Greeks no doubt believed that Zeus was a real, historical individual. And yet we have come to doubt Zeus … and dozens of other Greek gods too. And we don’t try to say that there must have been some kind of real historical person behind Zeus, either; as many assert regarding Jesus.

        Why does there have to be any real historical being, behind legends of Jesus? Especially when it is clear there was a very long history of myths, very similar to the Jesus myth, often a thousand years long, before the moment Jesus was alleged to have been “born.” There was plenty of time for the Jesus myth to develop.

        So why is it now regarded as“hyperskeptical” to doubt historical Jesus? In fact, probably most academic thought,will always be regarded as hyperskeptica by some. Since the whole point of academic research, and science, is that our human knowledge of life is always imperfect – and that therefore, every element of the things we think we “know,” should always be up for questioning.

        Even the existence of the material world, for example, has often been
        in question, by both academic philosophy (cf. Solipsism and
        idealism). And for that matter, by Religion; both at times having
        questioned whether the apparently solid material world all around us
        is really, truly, firmly real – and not just a mental “illusion”
        or delusion, say. While in the same way that the very existence of
        the material universe is often in question, of course all the various
        different elements within material life are also always in question.

        Scientists are allowed – and even expected – to question the exact nature of DNA; we are not only allowed, but are expected, to question the truth of existing data on exo-planets; medical researchers are not only allowed, but are expected to perpetually question the prevailing wisdom on the right treatment for cancer.

        So in fact, a strong or “hyper”skepticism, is a fundamental part of the academic enterprise, and research. (And for that matter, part of Religion too). The assumption in academe, is that all our knowledge is always up for re-examination and correction; and that every area of knowledge can
        and should therefore, be even systematically questioned …

        In this climate therefore, it is surprising – and even a little shocking – to hear alleged objective, truth-seeking academic theologians and religion teachers … suddenly telling us that we should not be so skeptical about the historical existence of Jesus. In fact, that Historicist perspective is so unusual, so un-academic … that we immediately suspect that it is motivated not by real academic, truth-seeking inquiry … but by prior religious commitments and faith.

        And in fact? Is it really just a coincidence, that probably the two most prominent scholarly critics of mythicism in and around our immediate blogosphere – Dr. James McGrath; Dr. Hurtado – are also self-proclaiming Christians? While even Dr. Hoffmann, often confesses a lingering attachment to churches, and “stained glass”?

        In the complaints of “hyperskepticism” in fact, we should see clear evidence of a lingering religiosity – and a lingering religious faith bias – in point of fact. A bias completely out of keeping with real academic thinking and research.

  • Claude


    Because it follows that an appreciation for stained glass expresses faith in Jesus.

    How many times have these very scholars answered your quite reasonable questions? Many, many times.

    Yet you invariably reappear in all innocence to cry “Why, Academy, Why?”
    To this rhetorical question you invariably offer that “The game is rigged!”

    I do wonder what would persuade you otherwise.

    • William J E Dempsey

      Mssr. Claude:

      Is there religious bias out there, among Historicists?

      You yourself have never experienced censorship on any of these blogs? That censors out many really effective responses.

      Are you really sure, even from your own experience, that the game is not rigged?

      Even Hoffmann HAS expressed SOME kind of lingering emotional attachment to religion, at times. While Hoffmann is clearly allied with the likes of Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. Who are often clearly – and even explicitly in the case of Stephanie – defenders of the faith.

      Meanwhile, in the US, about 78% of the population or more, claims belief or “faith” in Jesus. A significant statistic when it comes to not just openly-confessional, but also many privately- or publicly-funded colleges.

      • Claude


        The only blog from which I was ever censored was Vridar!

        I made an accusation that Godfrey found slanderous. But otherwise I’m too harmless to draw the ire of blog admins.

        I’ve amused by your speculations on R. Joseph Hoffmann’s deep-down inner spiritual life based on his appreciation for cathedrals and stained glass. Really, who doesn’t admire the Catholic spectacle? It’s beautiful. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Hoffmann is an atheist or agnostic, though not 100% sure. I’m more confident that he’s a hopeless romantic.

        Maurice Casey is an atheist.

        You really think Steph is a believer?! For sure she’s passionate about the historical Jesus, but a believer in the Lord Jesus, Son of God? I think not.

        Anyway, you know me. I’m sanguine about the professionalism of the HJ and top-tier NT scholars. If I ever learn to read a sentence in Greek perhaps I’ll become more emboldened.

        • Claude

          OK, I fear I’m having a But Keith and Le Donne are Christian moment.

          “Maurice Casey is an atheist” may be inaccurate. I realized after posting that I had read he was not a Christian, not that he was an atheist.

          As for Steph, I don’t think so, but I don’t know.

          My apologies.

          • William J E Dempsey

            By the way? LeDonne apparently confessed on The Jesus Blog that he had at one time pretended to be “faux Jewish.” (Possibly to get a place to live at the local Hillel House).

            Steph at times claims to be a believer.

            Though to be sure, there’s lots of ambiguity among scholars, about what they believe or don’t believe.

            For that matter, the folks in the Bible are far more ambiguous about what they believe, than most have thought. Paul’s continuous equivocations about Jewish “law” are a case in point.

            I’d still say that generally though, those who attack Historicism the most around here, at some point or another, indicate some kind of lingering emotional attachment to religion.
            And by the way? My own missals to others’ blogs are usually about 50% censored. And not for libel; but for substantive content. The more substantive, the more censored.

          • I can imagine that you get mistaken for a spammer, since you use bizarre punctuation and repeat the same claims irrespective of the many times they are answered. But since you, like Steven Carr, have shown yourselves not to be bots despite your automaton-like behavior, I allow your inane comments. But I can understand why others would not, and when you refuse to engage in genuine conversation and your comments are removed, that cannot be called “censorship” in any meaningful sense. Try making your comments less spam-like and see what happens on those other sites.

            Do you care to provide evidence for your claims about Anthony Le Donne and Steph Fisher, given how spectacularly wrong you were about your previous claims about people on this blog?

          • William J E Dempsey

            Probably could. But why “out” atheists, for immediate execution?

          • Are you really going to try to pretend that all previous conversations on this blog never took place? This idiotic and rude behavior is presumably what has led to your being banned elsewhere. I do not have any interest in posting the same responses to your same inane posts and attempts at deception. If you wish to keep posting here, then have the basic human decency to not just plow ahead with nonsense when an issue has already been addressed.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Those discussions on belief took place. But obviously referencing exact locations is not so easy – or people wouldn’t be asking for references. And I’m happy NOT to furnish references for a witch hunt. Brody was fired in part, in my opinion, after anti-mythicists cried “heretic” over and over, on the blogs.

            So what IS the subject here? In my understanding, apart from 1) that, we are currently discussing, in part, 2) to what extent, Mythicists are genuinely qualified. And 3) whether there is a pro-Christian “faith” bias among Historicists, and scholars in religious departments generally.

            I have not to be sure, read all of Dr. McGrath’s responses to the latest iterations of these perennial questions. Perhaps he would like to summarize his major objections briefly here? My major statement in regard to 3) is that any professed “faith” committment, is intrisically antithetical to genuine scholarship. By dictionary definition, and according to common sermons.
            As regards to Brodie’s qualifications? It is possible he makes some minor factual errors on the Gospel of John. Though for that matter? 1) If he speaks of the Gospels, and not Paul, as foundational, that seems like a minor sin. Paul speaks of Jesus as a “messiah” … but probably every new Jewish king was hoped to be the foretold “messiah” or saving/avenging Lord; that was a stereotypical role expectation that had been popular in jewish culture for 1,000 years at least. It is the gospels that are more interesting.
            Then too on another related matter of the relevance of biblical expertise here: 2) the stronger argument against Jesus, is not biblical at all; it is historical. So any argument based on biblical passages, is not the stronger argument. It is not even the REAl argument.

          • So Brodie’s faith, about which he speaks quite a bit in the book, is in your opinion something that disqualifies him, as it presumably also disqualifies Robert Price? That doesn’t leave you with many mythicists that can be trusted, and no mythicists who are atheists with relevant expertise and who have published a scholarly case for their viewpoint, does it?

          • William J E Dempsey

            When Brother Brodie – who apparently taught at several local colleges – was suspended for heresy, for violating what many considered to be an important aspect of the Faith, that helped enormously to eliminate Mythicists from serious academic positions. Thanks to simply, the faithful.
            But the suspension of Brodie of course, was merely the latest however, of hundreds and thousands of similar expulsions, and the general control or censorship of the academic community by church interests. Dating back to the censorship and burning of “heretics”; the burning of the Alexandrian Library; the silencing of Leonardo Da Vinci; the 19th century firings of major academics who did not follow the teachings of the churches. These and other actions, did much to eliminate Mythicism and similar critical ideas, from our otherwise-objective academic communities.
            So that today, a faith-based religious academic can say with some evident satisfaction, that there are few if any Mythicists in important academic positions.

          • Claude

            I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Le Donne was just kidding. Why? Because those guys at The Jesus Blog are full of merriment and love to quip.

            I am very interested in your assertion that Steph “at times claims to be a believer.” I read the comments at New Oxonian obsessively and cannot recall one instance since the announcement of the Jesus Process when Stephanie Fisher made such a claim. But she does post on other blogs, so perhaps you will be so kind as to point us to the source!

            I’d still say that generally though, those who attack Historicism the most around here, at some point or another, indicate some kind of lingering emotional attachment to religion.

            You didn’t mean to write “Historicism,” but I’ll just note that many who attack “Historicism” here and elsewhere are former fundamentalists with deep grievances against Christianity. Over at Vridar Neal Godfrey mentioned in passing some of the reasons that drove him to research and blog about early Christianity, and indeed they were very sad.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Sad – but true.
            I myself, by the way, was never even remotely, a fundamentalist: I was raised in “high” “spiritual” Protestantism. And just went higher still. As many have.

            Can’t quite exactly reference Steph; but I remember it clearly. I had been making some kind of assumption that she was not still Christian – and she corrected me. All very indirect, to be sure. And at present, emphemeral – and therefore, apocryphal.
            Le Donne of course, jokes about everything; same as the Bible.

  • Claude


    You wrote: Brody was fired in part, in my opinion, after anti-mythicists cried “heretic” over and over, on the blogs.

    I doubt the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church was spurred by the blogosphere to act against a priest who embraced not only Jesus but Paul mythicism.

  • Jonathan Burke

    James, it seems Tim Widowfield was not impressed with your review. I didn’t find his criticisms persuasive.

    • Thanks for mentioning this – apparently when I moved to TheOldReader I lost your RSS feed, and so I have added it!