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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