Explaining Christian Origins Without Jesus
In this final section Thomas Brodie attempts to offer an explanation for Christian origins without an historical Jesus. He then shares his own reflections on what it means to be a Christian and to abide in a deep faith in God even though he no longer believes Jesus walked this earth. For Brodie, Jesus becomes a profound symbolic expression of the nature and character of God.
Chapter 18, “Backgrounds of Christianity: Religions, Empires, and Judaism”Brodie opens with a panoramic sweep of the worlds major religions and laments that in all cases we are left without answers to the questions of exactly how and through whom they originated.
Nonetheless, Brodie finds cause for some optimism from our ability at least to know something of the world from which Christianity emerged. So he covers here the usual story of ancient empires — Persian, Hellenistic, Roman — and the way they led to the concept of a universal imperial peace and more effective bonds of communication, culture, language, law, and so forth.
The destroying of the temple meant that for Judaism the institutional centre was not merely in trouble; it was gone, and with it the traditional priesthood — a numbing moment for many, but for others a time to build something new. (p. 181)And so we have many Jews eventually falling in with rabbinical traditions — with new writings coming to form the Mishnah and eventually the Talmud, while some others followed a new way of a new Joshua (=Jesus) . . . .
Chapter 19, Christian Origins: Writing As One KeyNot that Brodie sees the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple as catalysts for the birth of Christianity. Critical though the events of 70 CE were, Brodie believes that the letters of Paul are sure evidence that
a role should also be given to the inspirations and divisions that existed within Judaism prior to 70 CE. (p. 182)Brodie suggests that Christianity’s gestation will be found to be closely associated with a well developed process of writing from its beginning. He brackets this possibility with a similarly critical role for writing in other major historical events, such as the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the US Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, and so forth.
But what is certain is that, while the Jewish people became known as the People of the Book, the Christians became de facto the primary developers of the codex, the bound book which replaced scrolls, and which, whatever its origin, emerged energetically about the same time as Christianity. (p. 182)The bottom line for Brodie is that coordinated writing played a significant part in Christianity’s origin. To support his claim he addresses six points.
1. Christianity was founded significantly on a process of rewritingBrodie sees both the foundational narrative and the institutions of Christianity “to a large degree” as “an adaptation of the narrative and institutions of Judaism.” We have seen in previous posts in this series how Brodie saw Jesus and Paul as intertextual (re)creations of various Old Testament characters. As for the institutions, he quotes Nodet and Taylor’s The Origins of Christianity:
The central elements of Christianity in their entirety, including the eucharist, the cross and the system of excommunication, are directly derived from the Jewish “sects” of the most traditional type claiming to represent the renewal of the true Covenant, especially in Galilee (Nodet and Taylor 1998: 437) (p. 183)The cross, too? From Jewish sects? That one sent me to the source and luckily the relevant pages — pp. 353 ff — are available via a keyword search (“cross” “Justin” “spit”) on amazon.com
Justin Martyr gives a precise description of what the paschal lamb looked like: “When the lamb is roasted, it is arranged in such a way as to represent the cross: a spit goes right through it from the lower limbs to the head, another spit is at the shoulder, to which the paws arc fastened.” This description, which is not drawn from the Bible, may well show the influence of Christian symbolism, but it must have been close enough to actual Jewish custom for it to have made some sense to the Jew Tryphon.Nodet then explains the reasons to think that this custom was still being continued despite the destruction of the Temple. He also alerts us to Melito of Sardis (fragment 9) and his phrase “like a lamb he has been crucified (or: spitted).” He then notes that
The Jewish custom referred to by Justin is attested by rabbinic sources . . . .So Christianity started as an adaptation of the story and institutions of Judaism. Jesus and Paul were also modeled on figures from Judaism. Who was responsible for these re-writings?
* * *
2. The rewriting indicates coordination — a group or schoolI find myself wholeheartedly in agreement with Brodie’s statement about the New Testament as evidence for Christian origins:
The first major evidence concerning the origin of Christianity comes not so much from what the New Testament says — otherwise we would begin Christianity with the angel Gabriel — but from what the New Testament is, and what it does. (p. 184)It is clear that the New Testament’s collection of books are rooted in Old Testament scriptures. What is becoming increasingly clear is the extent to which they are all rooted and grounded in one another. Indeed,
the connections of the writings to one another are so many and so deep that as they were being written, the writers generally must have had access to those already written. They built on one another. . . .
As the pattern of connection becomes clearer so does a basic conclusion: Christianity was founded not just by one or two people but by a whole group. (p. 184, my bolding as in all quotations)
Brodie sees this literary (intertextual) evidence pointing to a group that was in fact some sort of school or community. How else to account for both the diversity and coordination of the twenty-seven writings of the NT?
So Brodie argues that Christianity was founded by a school of writers, most likely a religious community, most likely bonded by specific events and religious experiences.
This idea should not seem like something from out of left-field, Brodie explains, since researchers have concluded very similar origins behind other collections of books in the Bible. As for Luke-Acts, recall John Collins’ observation that the “eyewitnesses” referred to in the Preface very likely is speaking of “ministers of the word” and to a literary process sanctioned and taught by the community.
This leads Brodie to discuss comparable schools in the ancient world. . . .
* * *
3. The existence of other schools gives support to the idea of a New Testament school/groupAmong the best known schools are
- the Pythagoreans — a group that was both a religious community and a scientific school (southern Italy, ca 500 BCE)
- the Academy, a philosophical school founded by Plato in 387 BCE and continuing a thousand years
- the Lyceum, founded 335 BCE by Aristotle
- the Epicureans, founded at Athens by Epicurus in 306 BCE, and renowned for sending out members to establish branches far and wide.
The Epicureans’ journeying did not occur in a vacuum. The whole Mediterranean was a crossroads. In the fourth century BCE, the Mediterranean saw a proliferation of small schools and a tradition of mobility. Later, when there was a ‘tendency for teachers to congregate in certain cultural centres, notably Athens, Alexandria and Tarsus, mobility . . . became characteristic of students as much as teachers’ (Alexander 1992: 1007) (p. 188)(I am reminded here of some scholarship that suggests “gnostic” types of schools were sending out “apostles” by the time “Paul” came on to the scene.)
Judaism was also known for its schools, both rhetorical schools and synagogues. Brodie writes that the synagogues dotted the Diaspora, Galilee and Judea, although I have not encountered any archaeological evidence for synagogues in Galilee prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Yes, their being part of the Gospel landscape, along with Pharisee-“Christian” dissension, are, I believe, anachronisms that point to late first-century/early second century compositions.)
We are aware of the Jew Philo’s phenomenal literary output. Some scholars suggest that a “school of Philo” was responsible for much of this output rather than one individual. Philo himself
located the bulk of his scholastic activity with the sabbath-day teaching of the synagogues, which he describes (in an intentional comparison with the Greek philosophical schools) as “schools of Moses” (Alexander 1992: 1010). (p. 189)
* * *
4. The scholarly linking of biblical books with schools gives further support to the idea of a New Testament school
- M. Weinfeld identifies a “Deuteronomic school” that evolved in its ideas over the duration of its existence
- P. Davies applies Weinfeld’s reasoning to other biblical works and sees schools behind all the (OT) biblical literature.
- K. Stendahl finds a “school of St Matthew” – Matthew’s use of the OT resembles that of the Qumran school (cf its Habbakuk commentary). Further, a scribe cannot work alone. He works in conjunction with peers — a school.
- D. E. Orton thought Matthew sees himself in the tradition of prophets and apocalyptic scribes, of Ben Sirach and Qumran.
- Loveday Alexander and J. N. Collins have shown in different ways the importance of the idea of schools to Luke, and to his adaptations of the Old Testament and compositions of historical and biographical writings.
- Many scholars have published arguments for a “school of John” to explain the various Johannine writings.
- R. B. Hays and D. A. Koch think the Pauline writings are so engaged with the OT that their author/s were surrounded by manuscripts and some scholars have suggested that the various letters of Paul were written by “co-workers” or “co-writers”.
- The Letter of Aristeas contains a somewhat fanciful account of how the OT was translated into Greek by 72 elders, but the idea it expresses of a community of writers engaged in a single project may not be far off the mark.
* * *
5. The quest for the sequence of the booksA more fruitful inquiry than trying to outline the rise of earliest Christianity, Brodie writes, would be to try to analyse the writings of the NT and work out their relationship to one another — in particular what was written first, what the response was, etc. To some extent that has been done with the establishment of Markan priority and identifying Deutero-Pauline epistles.
Eventually, when the essential sequence of the New Testament documents has been reasonably well established, there will be a backbone concerning the history of writing, and around that backbone it should be possible to build further history. (p. 194)
* * *
6. The truth of writingThis final section of chapter 19 is a segue into the final three chapters where Brodie shares his thoughts on the meaning of Christianity without an historical Jesus, on the meaning of faith, of God, of life and spirituality.
Essentially Brodie reminds readers that imagination, stories, symbols, can be gateways to deeper truths. If Jesus is a story, that story is packed with meaning and truth about God. This chapter’s concluding paragraph:
The essential point is basic: ‘Art’, ‘fiction’, and ‘imagination’ may at first suggest something unreal, but in fact they can be the surest guides to the deepest truth. The accounts of Jesus may in one sense be fiction, and may be shaped by many older accounts, including for instance the account of the death of Socrates. But art at its best can reach to the core of the truth, and symbols do likewise. The word ‘fiction’ is ambiguous. It can indicate what is untrue, but it can also refer to a writing which, though not historical, is a searing depiction of reality, of radical truth, and the Gospels are a supreme example of such writing. (p. 196)Brodie’s obvious love for God and “the Christ myth” as a deeply meaningful way to that God reminds me to some extent of another mythicist, Paul-Louis Couchoud, who, though not a Christian, expressed the highest admiration for that faith. (See Mythicism and Positive Christianity; see also Couchoud’s last chapter of Creation of Christ)
It is time anti-mythicists stop their absurd mud-slinging and bracketing of all mythicists as some sort of “angry atheist” types filled with all sorts of sinister or fatuous motives and actually make the effort to hear and address the actual arguments, — not straw-man fabrications conjured up to match their theories of sinister and perverse God-haters hell-bent on destroying Christianity.
The final scene will give us a glimpse into Brodie’s faith in God and ongoing love for Christianity.
Staying Christian With a Symbolic Jesus
Come writers and critics
who cauterize with your pen . . .
You’ve spoken too soon,
the wheel’s still in spin . . .
. . . Mythicism is compatible with Christian faith.That is certainly the argument of Fr Thomas L. Brodie in chapter 20 of Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery.
As Brodie was becoming increasingly aware of the extent of the debt the Gospels owed to the Old Testament narratives, his faith did not waver:
In September 1972, when I was first struck by the deep similarities between the Gospels and the Old Testament, I immediately had two responses: ‘This is strange stuff that may have radical implications’; and, ‘It’s OK’. Rightly or wrongly, my sense of God’s presence at the time reassured me that whatever was happening would be alright (sic). (p. 197)It was within two years that Brodie finally saw the way 1 Corinthians had synthesized various sources in order to “[compose] the very figure of Christ and [lay] that figure down as a foundation for others” and it was only then that the foundations of his belief-system were fully impacted.
Still it seemed that, in some way I did not understand, things would be OK. God was still God, and eventually things would work out, they would become clear. However, while I kept trying, as usual, to be faithful to the practices of the Catholic faith, I often wondered what that faith really meant. (p. 198)
Brodie calls upon imagination and mysticism. I am reminded of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels. By the time I finish reading the main text I am wondering why Spong believes in Jesus at all. Then I read the epilogue only to find he speaks of being “overwhelmed” by his “God consciousness” and the “mystical presence” of God. He calls for a new way of looking at Christianity, a non-literal way of reading the Gospels. (Spong emphatically does believe there was a historical Jesus who was crucified, however.)
I am also reminded of Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my bolding):
[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.Schweitzer, of course, did believe there was such a historical figure and he argued against Christ-myth theorists of his day. That’s what makes the above passage all the more significant. He seems to be approving of a view of Christianity that transcends faith in literal interpretations and historical events. (Please Stephanie F., do not come back here with your undergrad essays on some tangential argument about another and quite unrelated aspect of Schweitzer’s faith.)
. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .
. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.
To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .
By “imagination and mysticism” Brodie means
the role of imaginative literature in communicating truth, and the role of spiritual experience, including mysticism, in understanding the Gospels and Christ” (p. 199)If the the first fundamental revolution in orthodox Christianity’s thinking was ushered in by the heliocentric view of the solar system of Copernicus and Galileo — that is, with the Biblical understanding of Creation itself — Brodie raises the question of whether a corollary of that revolution in understanding might be a revaluation of the place of Jesus Christ in God’s relationship with humanity. In one sense it took over 450 years before a Pope admitted some measure of failure on the Church’s part in its dealings with Galileo. We can expect nothing easier when it comes to Jesus.
Thomas Brodie was pained for some decades over his inability to come out and make plain the conclusion that his studies were pointing towards. The reasons, he makes clear, were two-fold:
- the very idea that Jesus had not historically existed, and anyone seriously arguing it, would be rejected, outcast, condemned without a hearing;
- the idea that Jesus had not historically existed would simply not be believed or even entertained: doctrinal historicity was too deeply entrenched.
3. The crude statement of non-existence seemed grossly inadequate. It may be true, but it is so far from the whole truth that it is a radical distortion. (p. 198)“A radical distortion” in the eyes of a man of steadfast faith, indeed.
Intellectual honesty comes with a price — an aphorism I also learned painfully not long enough ago. (But had it come much later I may not have been writing this blog.) Brodie
To gather some hint of the direction of Brodie’s argument, think of the biblical image of Christ being the author of a “New Creation”. If it took 450 years for the Church to come to terms with the exploding of its doctrinal understanding of Creation, what can we expect to be the response to our discovery of the nature of the author of its New Creation?
Brodie sees further revolutions on the horizon. Just as the Church stepped out from Judaism into an embrace with Gentiles as understood by the world of the first century CE, so the next step is for the Church to extend itself to become a “world Church” as understood by the modern age. (Brodie addresses a 1979 speech by Karl Rahner.)
The past is the signpost to the present. So Brodie points readers to Timothy Radcliffe and his grasp of the meaning of the nature of Jesus Christ according to the Council of Chalcedon:
[T]he Council of Chalcedon was not the end of our search to understand the mystery of Christ but another beginning, exploding all the tiny coherent little solutions in which we had tried to box him. (p. 201)Brodie’s next words are:
No question, then — our understanding of Christ can indeed change. The only issue is how far?I am an atheist and a strict naturalist and rationalist. Brodie would not at all like my pro-Dawkins view of the world, as I will explain in future posts. So it is only fair that I leave the last words of chapter 20 with Brodie himself:
Far enough to see Christ not as an individual human, but as a symbol of God among us, God within us? It is a challenging change. It is disturbing. But perhaps it is not greater or more disturbing than the re-imagining of Creation and the Church? And it calls once again for ‘a conversion of the imagination’ (see Hays 2005). It would seem that it is time — adapting Radcliffe’s image — it is time that Jesus Christ emerge from our tiny boxes. (p. 201)I had expected my coverage of the last section of Brodie’s book would be limited to a single post. I have since decided to break it down by chapters in order to be fair to Brodie and try to let his views shine through and invite blog-readers to become his book-readers and so be in a better position to evaluate his views for themselves.
This post addresses the next to last chapter. It gives Brodie’s answer to the question:
What can a Christian still believe in if Jesus never existed but was entirely a literary-theological creation?
In Thomas Brodie’s view Jesus was an imaginative literary creation of the New Testament writers. But that does not lessen his religious and spiritual significance for anyone who believes in and seeks to deepen their understanding of God. The Jesus figure was “not a petty literary exercise” but a vehicle for a new revelation or vision of the nature of God. Not just one but several people contributed their own inspirations to what this figure represented and that’s why we have diverse views of Jesus in the New Testament writings.
The name “Jesus” was the natural one given that it is the Greek form of the name of Moses’ successor, Joshua. He encapsulated a new understanding of God that succeeded the Mosaic revelation. He emulated and surpassed the old figures of Moses, Elijah, the Anointed One (Christ) and, being identified with the Yahweh of old, widened and deepened “for all time” the believer’s vision of the nature of God.
Brodie’s conceptualization of this vision of Jesus as “the heart of reality . . . the measure of reality; and . . . the enigmatic form of reality — shadowed beauty” surpasses my own naturalistic comprehension and view of reality so I can only leave it to those more mystically minded than I to read Brodie’s explanation for themselves. (Brodie himself says he does “not have a clear sense of what Jesus Christ means”, so I suspect I should not feel embarrassed for failing to understand some of his attempts to explain.) I think I can grasp some of the details, however.
Brodie might complain that I attempt to reduce the points to comprehensible brevity here and miss the “inexpressible” nature of what he wishes to express, but I will object to Brodie’s failure to comprehend the alternative vision of reality as found among the likes of naturalists like Dawkins (whom he appears either to have had no interest in reading for himself or to have misunderstood). I hope to give a reasonably fair idea of Brodie’s position here, however brief.
Symbol of “Heart of Reality”Christ died for our sins and rose to save us:
These words are beyond full comprehension (how does someone’s death actually redeem others from sins?) but they convey “a vision of reconciliation with fresh strength and clarity, so fresh that the revealing of the figure of Christ brings creation to a new level and inaugurates a new covenant. . . . It brings life to a new level.”
The idea of reconciliation with the divine is itself old. Contrast the Christ method with one of its earliest images, that of God “repenting” or “regretting” having wiped out all sinners in a great flood.
Reconciliation is linked with something radically new — God’s son/Son:
How could “the one and only God” have a child? Intimations of such a concept are found in the Old Testament. Recall Isaiah’s Emmanuel and the parable acted out by Hosea. Recall also the sending of the beloved son Joseph to Egypt to save he lives of his sinful brethren.
The ultimate implication is that within God and God’s creation there exists a dynamism that absorbs the world’s forces of sin and death — an idea which overlaps with that of Buddhism that the heart of reality is compassion. It also overlaps with Muslim tradition, where Allah is known, above all, as ‘Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate’. (p. 205)Brodie compares God’s nature to the way a person can simultaneously have different roles: parent, child, colleague. . . .
Conclusion (my bolding, as in all quotations):
Ultimately the picture of God giving his Son is a vivid way of saying that God gives God’s own self, so that within God reconciliation is already established. This is the universal that is pictured in the New Testament account of Jesus . . . . The challenge for humanity is to tune in to this space where reconciliation already exists. (pp. 206-207)What of the crucifixion? Brodie sees this image as conveying the understanding that
God in some sense is at the heart of evil . . . Only something as horrendous as the crucifixion can communicate the full complexity of God’s presence, and so the crucifixion became central to Christianity. The horror, of course, is part of something larger, something involving a form of resurrection, of greater life. Childbirth captures the apparent contradiction, often mixing pain and life. (p. 207)Jesus rising from the dead:
The account of Jesus’ resurrection . . . is . . . a symbol of truth — of an extraordinary mystery of life and of the renewal of life. (p. 209)
Comparing the image of Jonah:
The image of God’s compassion in Jesus need not be taken literally — just as, in its own way the image of God’s compassion in the book of Jonah need not be taken literally — but the image of Jesus clarifies something important about God. (p. 209)What in the Church would change?
It is possible . . . to maintain essentially the same gospel accounts, rituals and devotions as before, not because they reflect specific events of the past, but because they use life-like stories set in ancient times to evoke the deepest truth . . . (p. 211)
Symbol of “Measure of Reality”I can understand people wanting and finding comfort in spiritual ideas such as those listed above, but of course to sustain belief in those spiritual concepts it follows that they must believe in something beyond the material and measurable universe itself. (I use “material” and “measurable” loosely and mean to encompass those units of incomprehensibly small things/energies being discovered and all those weird phenomena beyond Newtonian physics.)
So Brodie believes that there is much more to “everything” than what he perceives as a crude reductionism that is being popularized today by Richard Dawkins and his like. Brodie specifically refers to “altruism”:
Richard Dawkins . . . reduces everything in humans to the mechanics of selfish genes, mechanics that know nothing about altruism. Altruism may indeed by tainted at times, but the evidence for its existence is solid, and Dawkins’ refusal to allow such features to human beings means that his picture of the human mind is fiercely reduced. The mind is rendered absent . . . (p. 212)I don’t know how anyone who has read anything more than a few extracts of Dawkins works could think that “reductionism” robs us of meaning, awe and beauty so it may be pertinent to note that not a single work of Dawkins appears in Brodie’s bibliography. Rather, Brodie links his comments on Dawkins and the view he represesnts to is a work (Absence of Mind) by a kindred religious spirit, Marilynne Robinson. Learning more about what we have always thought was “the mind” and about motivations of human behavior does certainly confront our traditional beliefs and assumptions. But just because we increasingly understand the mechanisms of, say, altruism, does not in the slightest diminish its value for us personally or socially. No parent is going to think any less of their feelings towards their children because they understand parental love in biological and chemical terms.
No, the fact that the mysteries and overwhelming dimensions of life and the universe, of consciousness, of beauty and all things we associate with the “human spirit”, can all be explained (or are on their way to being explained) as the products of simple chemical and electrical interactions, only adds to the wonder of all that we experience. Every life is all the more precious, not less, if it is really so fleeting with no hope for a resurrection. Altruism is no less real or valued and honoured for our understanding of its genetic causes. We lose none of our humanity for more deeply understanding humanity. I personally think the naturalistic view calls for a certain courage to face reality “as it is”.
But I can understand how another person will disagree and think differently. I know I could not understand the way I think now when I was infused with a God consciousness (or some might less kindly call it a God complex, as I know I do in other contexts). I know I could not comprehend life without a belief in a hereafter or belief that there was something more than the material.
So we have different world views. The religious mind will still see something beyond “nature” and for Brodie and Christians that will be the idea of Jesus.
Symbol of Shadowed BeautyBrodie turns to spirituality and religious concepts to find beauty in human existence and key themes in the Bible.
Beauty occurs yet again in the various images of God or the the Lord God; taking clay to form a human; providing companionship; walking in the garden, making clothes; showing concern for the victim, Abel; and concern for the killer, Cain; . . . . The presence of beauty continues in Christ, especially in giving him names and titles. . . . (p. 214)And when there is horror Brodie speaks of encountering the “divine figure” even there and even there encountering “the underlying beauty”.
Instead of caving in to despair or bitterness, a person keeps their sights on something true and good and genuinely beautiful . . . (p. 217)For Brodie,
What is important is that, while the loss of Jesus as a specific individual human may bring sadness, union with the living Jesus — the universal living figure of truth and goodness and shadowed beauty, the Gospel figure who touches the leper, embraces the children, and lays down his life for our sins — union with this Jesus brings new life. (p. 218)The final chapter of Brodie’s Memoir is about belief and reason. That will be the final in this series.
To Believe Or Not To Believe the Parable) — ConclusionBrodie’s final chapter* is essentially an attempt to justify religious faith or belief. How can one believe in the New Testament (or God)? (This is the final post on this book: the complete series is archived here.) He begins by suggesting it is quite possible to believe the New Testament’s message “as a parable”. One can “believe a parable”, he writes. He means that one can believe that its story conveys “an ultimate truth”. The details of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son stories are not true but “we believe” their message. One can even accrue some reassurance from reflecting upon all the witnesses of countless others who have believed through the ages.
Recall John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. As pointed out here over three posts Crossan argues that the Gospels are not historical reports but theological “parables” about the meaning of Jesus. One may wonder if he is stretching the meaning of “parable” to breaking point, but larger argument is really not very distant from Brodie’s. Naturally readers will ask themselves whether Jesus himself is a parable if all the stories about him are parables, so Crossan reassures readers that yes, Jesus was historical nonetheless. Indeed, it was his remarkable character that inspired all the parables about him. John Shelby Spong argues the same (Liberating the Gospels and Jesus for the Nonreligious). No doubt Crossan and Spong are not the only scholars to have settled upon such a view.
Virtually all the stories about Jesus are judged to be adaptations of Old Testament narratives in the judgment of Crossan and Spong (not too far from Brodie’s own argument) but Jesus himself was real. Jesus is real even though he is the central character of “parables” and “theological fictions” and his own name is itself a pun on his role in those “Gospel myths”.
Unlike Crossan and Spong, Brodie has concluded that the character Jesus is just as “parabolic” as any other person in the Gospels. (Even the historical Pilate was turned into a fictional character of “parable” in order to fit the theological agendas of the different evangelists.) In the same sense that he can “believe” the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son he can “believe” the parable of Jesus Christ.
What good is Reason?Brodie acknowledges the “struggle” many have with believing in a deity or spiritual dimension and this leads him into a discussion of belief and reason. Of course we know reason alone is not enough to create a good society, but Brodie appears to assume that what is missing is a spiritual dimension. For Brodie, the big questions revolve around reason and belief.
(It’s interesting that such discussions assume that “belief” or “faith” is the natural complement (or diametric opposite) of “reason”. Surely there are many other attributes that could be considered good complements. Any of the emotions or mental states would surely do. Why not love, affection, a sense of community? Surely those states go a lot further than “religion” and “faith” in tempering the sharper edges reason has given us.)But since our history has given us the religion-science dialectic it is within that framework that Brodie writes. (And I’ll continue to keep my own views down to whispered asides.)
For Brodie, reason provides “clearance” for belief. Reason can tell us if something is possible or probable, so we can thus be “cleared” to believe. (I would ask, Why not just accept something as “possible” or “probable” and wait for confirmation?) Brodie goes further, however, and suggests we might find “possible” or “probable” the idea that there is a “higher power” and Jesus is a “true symbol of that higher power”. (Now Brodie has me stumped. I tend to exclude from “possible” and “probable” fantasy concepts like imaginary sentient beings.)
Reason can prove something is impossible. That has to be respected. It makes no sense to believe in something that is impossible. (Like life after death; miracles.)
Reason can balance the probabilities. (Yes, Bayes!)
Some say Reason can prove the existence of “a higher power”? But not all are convinced of this, Brodie adds. (Why the circumlocution of “higher power”? Why not be up front and say “God”?)
Reason can also provide “confirmation” of belief. (Confirmation bias?)
After a person has believed, reason may find indications or signs that the belief is true, that, as symbolized in the figure of Jesus, the higher power — God in shorthand — did make humans for a purpose. (p. 220)(There are a lot of enormously complex hypotheses in there: a “higher power”, a higher power “who”, a higher power who “makes”, a higher power who makes “humans”, ….. for a purpose. . . )
Brodie holds up “two such signs”: the universe itself and the human mind. Most readers here no doubt wonder how either of these could be considered “signs” for the existence of a human-creating God, but Brodie goes on to explain that he really means something else. He is referring to some sort of “connection” between the human mind and whatever lies at the “base” of the vast universe in which we live. (Recalling here Douglas Adams’ lovely “parable” of the “proof” that a grand Designer is behind all of this, “the puddle!”: the water in the hole in the ground fits perfectly every bumpy contour of that hole! Perfect design!)
Brodie’s first point is that the “cosmos is tuned for us”. Brodie has another dig here at Richard Dawkins and the supposed “randomness” of evolution. (Evolution is not simply a random process according to any variant of evolutionary theory I know of so I suspect Brodie’s objection here is disappointing.)
Brodie’s idea that “we” and “ours” are somehow the goal and purpose of the Big Bang also falls flat. Anything in the universe can make the same claim for being the product of “special intent”. The Goldilocks principle enters here. If this or that little force had been a micro-whatever either way different we would not be here. True. Nor would anything else as we know it. Egocentric? And what of other universes with those myriad alternate forces — if ours is the only one lucky enough to have produced (against incomprehensible odds) sentient beings, does that mean “God Got Lucky Here!”?
Mind tuned for the cosmos
Brodie appears to believe that human minds “are tuned for the cosmos”, are somehow “connected” or have a longing to be connected to the higher power that generated the cosmos.
He looks at “three stages of history” through which “humans” have perceived the human mind. He limits these historical stages to
- ancient Greek classical philosophy, in particular Aristotle;
- “modern science” since 1900 as typified by his understanding of Freud and Dawkins;
- “present day science”.
Our energies can only derive from, and express, the larger phenomenon of energy. And there is the haunting compatibility of our means of knowing with the universe of things to be known.Thus Brodie follows the thoughts of “spiritual explorers and writers, including scriptural writers” who have, in some way similar to the ancient Greek philosophers, concluded that
we are built for connection with the supreme reality or presence underlying everything. (p. 222)Brodie laments what he calls “the next stage” of “modern science” that has
tended to flatten the mind, to reduce it. (p. 222)He points the finger at the likes of Freud and Dawkins! Once again he does not quote Dawkins but quotes fell0w-spiritual-traveller Robinson’s interpretation of Dawkins. (Robinson attributes the “authority” of Dawkins’ ideas to successful publicity and popularization.) He even asserts that the science of Dawkins, being “reductionist”, is “woodenly sure” and lacking in a “sense of wonder”. (Had he read Dawkins himself and not relied upon Robinson’s filtering he would have known Dawkins has written much over the years about “the sense of wonder” that we find him addressing in the video posted here recently.)
Brodie appears to have some hope that “present day science” will somehow provide insights into the some sort of connection between the mind and the universe. Here at last we find a science that is imbued with “a sense of wonder”. He writes
To begin with, the larger world, with its quarks and photons, is emerging as much more mysterious than had been thought, and if we are part of that larger world, then it is not easy to reduce us to one dimension. Beside, present-day science is now uncovering a new picture of the brain, mind and soul (sic!). . . . Some neuroscientists claim we are ‘hardwired for God’. However, so far the scientific evidence is not clear. (p. 223)
Brodie appears to be hoping that “modern science” is thus not “antagonistic to believing” in the way Dawkins personally is.
Perhaps . . . science and religion, instead of being seen as enemies, will emerge as the allies that they are by nature. (p. 223)For Brodie, we are even engaged “from birth” in “believing” as is apparently evidenced by our “trusting things [and] people”. (Babies don’t “believe” anything.)
Further, “we also seem to be built for connecting with the heart of the universe.” We do this through “reason” to a limited extent, but more importantly for Brodie there is something deep within us that is supposedly oriented towards “the infinite, towards God”. Here he refers to various writings of Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.
Allowing that orientation to blossom is central to becoming a Christian: ‘The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all‘ (Rahner 1981: 149). The mystic’s journey is not to the top of the Himalayas or to a distant planet, but, as Rahner goes on to say, to the core of our own being; it means ‘a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence‘. This is down to earth stuff (sic). (p. 224)So for Brodie the mind is “made for connecting to the source of all things“, and this connection brings the Johannine promise of a more “abundant life”. Those of us who go through life without this believing are “missing out”.
And that’s how I read Brodie’s “memoir of a discovery”
And that’s it. That’s how I read Brodie’s book. I find it most interesting that he appears to have come quite independently to his view that Jesus did not exist and that the New Testament constructs are derived from his symbolic meaning that was itself largely the product of reflections upon the Jewish Scriptures. It is particularly interesting that his faith in God was strong enough for it not to have been shaken by that discovery. I am sure there must be Christians who have gone along with Albert Schweitzer’s recommendation for Christians to go beyond resting their faith in an historical event and to be founded instead in a new “metaphysic”. Brodie naturally quotes fellow Catholic thinkers more than Schweitzer but within my limited range of reading in this field I have to say Brodie is the first I have encountered who has actually done the sort of thing Schweitzer advised.
Another aspect that comes through the book, one that is not unexpected but disappointing nonetheless, is Brodie’s painful awareness for years that he could never come out publicly to unambiguously point to the logical conclusions of his studies. The conclusion is potentially more shattering for believers than the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo were over 400 years ago. Brodie’s final chapters are attempts to soften the blow for his fellow believers.
It is understandable that his final chapters in his “memoir of a discovery” should be addressing most directly the spiritual and religious concerns of the faithful. One can understand and respect him for making the effort. It is probably a little unfair for me to be injecting my own contrary thoughts into this final chapter as I have done, but I think on the whole I have attempted to do justice to Brodie’s views and it is surely not wrong to make clear where I myself also stand, especially for the sake of new readers who don’t know this blog’s orientation. I hope I have done so respectfully.
The other Christ Myth theorist Brodie reminds me most of is Paul-Louis Couchoud. While not a believer himself he did nonetheless go to lengths to express his highest respect and admiration for the Christian religion. (I posted a lengthy series on his particular case for mythicism that has been archived here.)
The Parable of the Gospel JesusSo since this post opened with Brodie’s view that perhaps we can still believe the Gospels “as parables”, I choose to quote Couchoud making the same point in a response to M. Loisy in his day:
How did the Gospel, which was an apocalyptic revelation in the first century, become, in the second, a narrative in legendary form? If the transition escapes us, the persistence of the word “Gospel” through both phases is an assurance that the change was of form only. Between the time of the Apocalypse and that of the Gospels an entire generation, of which we know next to nothing, had passed away. Masses of men had entered the churches for whom a new presentation of their faith had become necessary.
A medium was found in the Parable which was, along with the Vision and the Precept, as we may see in Hermas, one of the familiar forms of inspired catechesis. By means of the Parable narrative form can be given to spiritual ideas and the colour of reality to spiritual truths. Hermas sets out to put the work of Jesus, whom he conceives in a way of his own, but not historically, into a long and formless parable. In the Gospels, among the parables preserved as such, many incidents seem to have been parables in their origin: walking on the waters, cursing the fig-tree, the resurrection of Lazarus. The whole Gospel narrative is, as it were, a synthetic parable admirably conceived and executed.
To one who makes a comparative study of the Gospels the creative liberty which each author allows himself is a matter for continual surprise. Matthew with Mark under his eyes recomposes, displaces, cuts down, and adds at his pleasure. John takes even greater liberties. He radically alters the type of the Gospel — setting, narratives, discourses. Is it not obvious that the manner of the evangelists throughout is not the manner of historians but of inspired catechists? They are composing on a theme, and feel themselves masters of their material, on condition always that faith in the God-Man is exalted by their treatments.
Shall we raise the cry of fraud? We know nothing of the life of religion if we do. Fraud would indeed be there if the foundation of the Gospel were a real biography neither malleable nor extensible. But if faith herself created the story of Jesus she can develop it endlessly and always renew it. Were all to be written the world would not contain the books, as one evangelist says (John xxi. 25).
The Gospels are different because they answer to the religious life and liturgical practice of diverse Christian provinces. . . . (“The Historicity of Jesus”, Appendix II in The Creation of Christ, 1939, pp. 445-446. My bolding and formatting)