Last month I completed Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery by Thomas Brodie (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012) and have only just now found the time to review it here (I’ve been so busy I haven’t even had internet access for most of the last two weeks–buried in the moors and quaint villages of England–sorry about that!).
In this book Brodie (a major biblical scholar) drops a bombshell: he has been convinced that Jesus never existed as a historical person since the 70s. Only now (in this much-anticipated book) has he felt free to say so publicly, and explain the path of discovery that took him there. This book is as the subtitle says: a memoir. It isn’t really a good book for arguing his case. In fact, it’s terrible at that. Consequently, I cannot recommend this book to anyone who wants to see a good case for Jesus not existing. You simply will not be convinced by his treatment of that here. All it does do is explain, autobiographically, the steps that took him to this conclusion, with some brief outlines of the kind of arguments he could perhaps gin up if he were to do a full-force defense of the thesis.
However, even were he to write that hypothetical book, I still don’t think he’d have a case. Not that there isn’t a good case for the conclusion (that Jesus probably did not really exist historically as the Gospels claim). Rather, I think Brodie has come to that conclusion invalidly, from a rather weak series of arguments. Others will complain of his theology, as he attempts to argue in Beyond that he can still be a good Catholic (and a member of the church hierarchy) even if he believes there was no historical Jesus. His attempt to make sense of that is nonsense, IMO, worse even than the dubious “have it both ways” theology of the Episcopal skeptic, John Shelby Spong. But I really don’t care about that. That’s for the superstitious goons at the Vatican to argue over. Atheists can be satisfied with the gut punch to all such kinds of hyper-liberal reasoning in Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies (which smartly treats and refutes both conservative and liberal attempts to rehabilitate the bible as anything but awful ancient woo).
My interest is in this book’s value toward advancing the historicity debate. Assessment: it unfortunately won’t. It’s one merit is its honesty, and its setting an example that one major well-qualified expert does not deem the notion of Jesus’ ahistoricity to be implausible or out of bounds. I cannot say it adds to any argument from authority. Since his case is invalid in my opinion, his being a proponent of ahistoricity does not itself support ahistoricity, only its respectability. Why? Well, he rests on one non sequitur and one false premise.
The non sequitur is common among myth proponents: the Gospels are obvious contrived myths, therefore Jesus didn’t exist. The premise is true (many have well proved it already, but I will marshal the best evidence in my book on this next year). But the conclusion does not follow. Brodie also does not make a very good case even for the premise in this book, though I know he can. His treatment in The Birthing of the New Testament does a better job of that, albeit flawed in the same ways MacDonald’s Homeric argument is: the case is made with enough strong arguments, but those are buried under many weak arguments, so people tend to dismiss the whole thesis because of the latter, not taking proper note of the former. But in any case, if you want to see the best case for that, Beyond is not it. I don’t think he will convince anyone with what’s presented here. It’s possible I’m too jaded, though, and that the material in Beyond will be fresh and intriguing enough to someone not already familiar with the Brodie thesis.
Meanwhile, the false premise has to do with his treatment of the Pauline epistles. Really the only evidence for historicity there is is a scant few obscure passages in the Pauline epistles (e.g. references to “brothers of the Lord”), so they are really the most important evidence to deal with, and he deals with them almost not at all. In fact, his answer to them is to declare them all forgeries, and Paul himself a fiction. Brodie makes no clear case for this conclusion, and what arguments he does have are fallacious (e.g. the letters have certain features that forged letters sometimes share–except, so do authentic letters), and the position as a whole is too radical to be useful. Not that it hasn’t had serious defenders before this. But it constitutes a whole additional fringe thesis one must defend successfully first, before one can use it as a premise in an argument for the ahistoricity of Jesus. And I am skeptical that that can really be done (see my comments here and here). Certainly none of his arguments in Beyond are convincing on this subject.
To be clear, Brodie’s view appears to be that the authentic Paulines were written in the early first century by Christians who would have known the original apostles. So he is not advancing the Detering thesis, for example, that they are all mid-second century forgeries. But he doesn’t explain how their contents can still make sense within the context of a non-historical Jesus. In fact, Brodie presents absolutely no theory of Christian origins at all. And that is perhaps this book’s most decisive failing. You simply cannot argue successfully for ahistoricity without testing a theory of Christian origins without Jesus against the best (i.e. most defensible and least speculative) theory of Christian origins with Jesus.
So, methodologically, this book is just as unsound as Ehrman’s book arguing the contrary (which is rife with fallacies cover to cover). Does it have any merits? As autobiography, it is very informative. As a précis of why he believes what he does, it’s adequate, just not persuasive. His treatment of the presumption of an oral tradition behind the Gospels is spot on (no one has summed it up quite so well in so short a space: pp. 115-19, cf. also p. 156). His rebuttal to Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? is over-brief but on point (pp. 226-31). And he has sound opinions on the criteria used to defend historicity (they suck: p. 157) and the extrabiblical evidence (they prove nothing: pp. 16-68; I disagree with some of his premises here, but his conclusions follow all the same, e.g. here you will find the best argument that Josephus doesn’t matter even if everything he says is authentic). And there are occasional gems (e.g. he has an intriguing thesis as to why Jesus was mythically construed to be a carpenter or the son of one: pp. 159-60; and his conclusion of Josephus is eminently quotable: “it 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.”).
But these do not constitute enough of a merit to warrant recommending this book to most readers, who will not much benefit from it, I’m sorry to say.