The Work of Thomas Brodie

The Work of Thomas Brodie July 16, 2013

In several recent posts at Vridar, the blog has been focusing a lot of attention on Thomas Brodie’s work.

One can find there all the tactics one will expect if one is familiar with mythicism. For instance, they bring up Geza Vermes’ suggestion that the reference to Jesus as a carpenter in the Gospels could reflect a misunderstanding of a rabbinic technical term for a learned individual. They ignore the question of whether that suggestion has been found persuasive (including, in more recent publications by Vermes himself). But more importantly, they seem oblivious to the fact that Vermes’ proposal fits perfectly within his approach to Jesus as a historical figure. To suggest that that somehow justifies Brodie’s very different proposal regarding Paul’s status as tentmaker is not at all persuasive. I can only assume that the hope is that by mentioning reputable scholars, much as creationists do, they hope that no one will notice that they are mining those scholars for quotes in order to make a case that none of those scholars would find credible

Jonathan Burke has posted a long response to Tim Widdowfield’s post about my review of Brodie’s book. In it he focuses in some detail on the appeal to Vermes, as well as rightly indicating that I think that Brodie’s work is absolutely fascinating when it deals with echoes that are clearly in a text. It is insisting that there must always be a prior text from which a New Testament one derives, no matter how slim the evidence for a connection, that is the problem.

At Vridar, one will find an increasingly detailed presentation of Brodie’s claims and arguments, but without any sort of depth of analysis. Does the latching onto occasional related words in two texts really provide a method for determining literary dependence? Are all stories in the later of the two texts explicable in such terms? Are there any stories which are historical which contain similar degrees of correspondence? Such questions are thus far not addressed.

In a nutshell, one can compare Brodie’s work to the proposals we have seen on a couple of occasions that the entire Greek New Testament is translated from Aramaic. In some instances, there is indeed a strong case to be made for an Aramaic original for some words or a sentence. Where things go wrong is when that insight, which makes excellent sense of some pieces of the evidence, is then forced onto the whole, even when it does not fit.

In the same way, Brodie insightfully detects some places where a passage in the New Testament probably was directly inspired by or retelling an earlier story from the Jewish Scriptures. Where it goes wrong is where this is insisted upon as being the case everywhere, even in the very many places where the connections are slim and/or tangential.

And of course, relating Jesus to earlier Scripture is something that we know the early Jesus movement did, just as Paul related his own sense of calling to earlier Scripture. Religious people sometimes do the same thing today. To suggest that any time Scripture is echoed, history must be absent, is simply not persuasive. There is far too much clear evidence to the contrary.

And of course, this is characteristic of mythicism in general. It takes the clear historical evidence that some things in the Gospels were invented, and insists that therefore they all must have been, even when the evidence suggests otherwise.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Joel Watts tries to explain to the folks at Vridar that you can appreciate a scholar’s work without finding everything they conclude persuasive.

Of related interest, see Paul Regnier on a recent book by Tom Holland, discussing and comparing the historical evidence for Muhammad and Jesus; and Ben Stanhope’s criticisms of Ray Hagins’ mythicist claims.


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  • Jonathan Burke

    “At Vridar, one will find an increasingly detailed presentation of Brodie’s claims and arguments, but without any sort of depth of analysis.”

    That is precisely the problem; there’s no depth. Brodie’s view is stated, then there’s a bit of ‘hmmm, seems legit!’, and it gets a rubber stamp. There’s no discussion of ACTUAL METHODOLOGY, nor ever any attempt to establish how conclusions are to be validated. There are no falsification criteria at all.

    As you noted, Vermes has an actual methodology. Casey has an actual methodology. Both of them make testable claims within a logically coherent methodology with falsifiability criteria. Then they submit them to peer review; subsequently, some of their claims are validated, some are falsified. That’s the way proper research is conducted.

    As I noted, Vermes even changed his mind on the very point concerning which Widowfield quoted him (Widowfield may not have been aware of anything Vermes wrote after 1981). That’s a mark of good scholarship.

    • this isn’t entirely accurate. Vermes kind of muddles along, with his principle criteria being evidence of Aramaism, and Rabbinic parallel.

  • Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Joel Watts tries to explain to the folks at Vridar that you can appreciate a scholar’s work without finding everything they conclude persuasive.

    Unless of course you are a mythicist, in which case it is illegitimate to appreciate parts of a scholar’s position if you ultimately reach a different conclusion. It seems to me that there is a double standard at work here.

    • But what mythicists do, in my experience, is try to claim that the logic of the arguments of those scholars actually support their mythicist view, rather than the conclusions the scholars themselves draw. That seems to me to be something different in crucial ways from appreciating a scholar’s work on one point while disagreeing with their conclusion about something else.

      • Isn’t that often how knowledge advances? Joseph Priestley is often credited with the discovery of oxygen, but he never abandoned the phlogiston theory. Others saw implications in his work that he was never able to recognize or accept.

        Mythicists may be wrong in their conclusions, but how can it be wrong to suggest that there may be implications to the work of respected scholars that those scholars themselves do not recognize?

        • If mythicists were to start from an honest recognition that these mainstream scholars find or found their views unpersuasive, and sought to argue step by arduous step that the implicit logic in the work of those mainstream scholars leads to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a historical person, I might or might not be persuaded, but I would have no complaint about their procedure. But what I see is not that, but something much closer to or identical with quote-mining.

          • To me, quote mining is when William Lane Craig repeatedly claims that Bart Ehrman affirms the historicity of Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea based on a single sentence from a Great Courses lecture despite the fact that (a) the historicity of specific stories was not the topic of the lecture; (b) in the lecture, Ehrman qualified the statement with “possibly” two sentences later; (c) Ehrman has challenged the historicity of the honorable burial in writings and lectures where he addressed the issue directly both before and after he produced the lecture in question; and (d) Ehrman told Craig that it was not his position.

            I don’t ever feel like I have been misled by Price, Carrier, Godrey or Doherty concerning the ultimate position of any scholar they quote. I may not always agree with their interpretation of a scholar on the intermediate point for which they are citing him, but on the occasions where I have checked, I think they have generally done a pretty good job of getting the context of the quotes right. The mythicists with whom I am familiar may occasionally be guilty of cherry picking, but I don’t think that they can fairly be accused quote mining.

            With all due respect (which of course means I am going to say something disrespectful), I think you will always find something in the mythicists’ procedure to complain about.

          • I think Doherty quote-mined Barrett. It’s an equivocation on “sphere” that only works in English, and clearly wasn’t intended (Barrett meant sphere like “sphere of knowledge,” not locationally). That said, there’s a case to be made for Earl’s reading, but in his first book he didn’t make it. Only mined Barrett, and called it “quite useful.”

          • I think you may be defining “quote mining” more broadly than I would. I think we are all guilty from time to time of jumping to the conclusion that a scholar supports our position when we fail to really think critically about what it is he is saying. When I think of “quote mining,” I think of base indifference to what it is that the scholar is really saying as long as the quote can be interpreted as saying what we want it to say.

          • Pseudonym

            I think I agree with Vinny here. I think of “quote mining” as removing a sentence, phrase or even word from its context. That’s different from misreading or misunderstanding it. Or, at least, they’re at different points along a continuum.

            At the very least, I think we can all agree that Craig and Doherty are in a completely different league, even if neither are in the “academically rigorous” league.

  • “To suggest that any time Scripture is echoed, history must be absent, is simply not persuasive. There is far too much clear evidence to the contrary.”

    An interesting example of this is the prophecy of the fall of the temple. While the prophecy is clearly a literary invention, it’s describing a real event.

  • Bob

    Would you mind giving an example of one part of the New Testament which you’re happy to agree was probably a reworking of older stories, and one where you think Brodie is stretching too hard to find parallels?
    I haven’t read his work but I’d like to sometime.

    • A good example of a story that is best interpreted as a creation based on earlier texts is the Q account of the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus goes into the same setting as the Israelites are in in the post-Exodus narrative, for a related time period, faces the same temptations they faced in the story, and gives the responses that the Book of Deuteronomy says the Israelites ought to have given.

      At the other extreme is the suggestion I mentioned in my review that Paul being a tentmaker could be based on the reference to God stretching out the heavens like a tent.

      In many cases, the situation is somewhere in between. In those cases, it may well be that a Gospel author is trying to highlight a similarity between Jesus and Moses, or Elijah, or whoever, but it does not read as naturally as an instance of the story being a result purely of rewriting of earlier stories in Jewish Scripture and nothing more.

      • Bob

        Thank you for those examples, Dr. McGrath.

  • Herro

    “Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Joel Watts tries to explain to the folks at Vridar that you can appreciate a scholar’s work without finding everything they conclude persuasive.”

    I don’t think that the “folks at Vridar” need that explained to them.

    What is remarkable is how an incompetent insane idiot (Watts says stuff like this about mythicists) can also write great scholarly works (Watts says stuff like this about Brodie).

    • I don’t think that Brodie is comparable to the internet and self-published mythicists who are happy to bypass scholarly publishing entirely. I personally think that Brodie is wrong, and I find his approach to the New Testament literature inherently problematic. But as long as he is a scholar doing scholarship, he is approaching the matter in the appropriate manner, as part of a scholarly conversation. That’s very different from the internet mythicists who denigrate mainstream scholarship.

      • Herro

        James, ok, good for you. But when Joel says stuff like “Mythicists are idiots!”, that includes Brodie (even if Joel didn’t know it at the time of writing).