Two Key Problems with Historical Jesus Studies
A MARGINAL JEW : RETHINKING THE HISTORICAL JESUS —
THE MONUMENTAL WORK OF JOHN P. MEIERThomas Brodie selects for discussion John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best work that has been published on the historical Jesus by a range of great scholars (Wright, Dunn, Levine, Freyne, Crossan, Theissen “and many others”). The five volume Marginal Jew was singled out because it is so well-known and among “the most voluminous”. To begin with, Brodie clarifies that he is not at all writing a “polemic”. That he apparently feels a need at this point in his book to stress such an obvious thing is a sad commentary on the forces he knows he is facing with the scholarly establishment. If anyone was left wondering if the mood of that establishment was softening they should be pulled up by Bart Ehrman’s recent comments:
As most of you know, I’m pretty much staying out of the mythicist debates. That is for several reasons. One is that the mythicist position is not seen as intellectually credible in my field (I’m using euphemisms here; you should see what most of my friends *actually* say about it….) . . . . and my colleagues sometimes tell me that I’m simply providing the mythicists with precisely the credibility they’re looking for even by engaging them. It’s a good point, and I take it seriously. . . . . . The other reason for staying out of the fray is that some of the mythicists are simply unpleasant human beings – mean-spirited, arrogant, ungenerous, and vicious. I just don’t enjoy having a back and forth with someone who wants to rip out my jugular. So, well, I don’t. (They also seem – to a person – to have endless time and boundless energy to argue point after point after point after point after point. I, alas, do not.)In other words, the encounters this blog has experienced with the likes of James McGrath, Joseph Hoffmann, Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey and a few others — encounters characterized by sarcasm and insult and avoidance in response to mythicist arguments — are apparently the norm to be expected, according to Bart Ehrman. He expresses frustration over the failure of the standard answers to answer newly engaged questioners. The answer is to despise those who are not persuaded and rather than seriously engage them in depth retreat into the authority of his ivory scholarly tower. This is not how evolutionists publicly respond to Creationist arguments in their publications that do address the serious Creationist questions. Meanwhile, Bart is effectively admitting what is clear to many of us, and that is that he is simply ignoring the mythicist counter-arguments to his claims and repeating the standard catechisms for historicity as if anything contrary or seriously challenging should be shunned as the work of intellectual lepers. Accept the arguments of the first point and don’t question the assumptions or the logic or the evidence of those answers, because the likes of Ehrman do not have time or energy to re-examine such “point after point after point” of their Conventional Wisdoms. It is interesting, too, that Ehrman uses the language of a persecution-complex, as if “mythicism” — that is said to be so marginal as to be irrelevant — is nonetheless a serious threat to the status and credibility of scholars of early Christianity. It seems that the language of persecution, with its consequent polarizing of the debates into some sort of war between good and evil, and the lurid dehumanizing of those challenging the status quo (Ehrman speaks of mythicists as “unpleasant human beings, . . . vicious . . . who want to rip out his jugular”; Hoffmann speaks of mythicists as “disease carrying mosquitoes”; etc.) has been with these scholars ever since the fourth century. But no-one can accuse Thomas Brodie of having some sort of anti-Christian agenda. Brodie in fact seeks for Christianity a deeper understanding of God. He invites Christians to courageously come to acknowledge that Jesus is something far more than any historical person could ever be: he is Truth, Reality, expressed as a literary parable or metaphor revealing great truths about God. Brodie reminds me of Albert Schweitzer’s wish for Christianity to abandon a faith based on some contingent historical event or person that would always remain open to question and to establish itself upon a deeper metaphysic. (He expressed this wish for Christianity at the conclusion of his critique of mythicist arguments of his own day.) So into the Circus to face the lions walks Brodie, pleading his innocence and freedom from polemic.
If I am to maintain that the figure of Christ needs to be radically reinterpreted, then I need to address the work of great scholars such as John Meier . . . . (p. 155)Is Brodie suggesting that all the works on the historical Jesus by these scholars have been a waste?
The impossibility of the quest does not mean that the . . . volumes will lack value. They contain huge information and commentary on biblical-related matters of the first century — an achievement far greater than I could do. But on the central issue of reconstructing on individual life, they try to do what cannot be done. (p. 156)
The First ProblemThe first problem Brodie identifies in Meier’s work is its unexamined assumption (derived from undue reliance upon the work of form critics of the 1920s) that the Gospels reflect oral traditions going back to Jesus himself. Brodie refers to page 41 of A Marginal Jew and from there I quote Meier:
The form critics of the 1920s rightly pointed out that behind Mark, our earliest Gospel, lie collections of oral or written traditions tied together by common forms, themes, and key words. Such collections are still visible in Mark. . . .Brodie responds:
At no stage, despite several references to oral tradition, does Marginal Jew stand back and examine closely how we know such tradition existed. (p. 156)I have discussed before Brodie’s and other’s examinations of the oral-tradition hypothesis so won’t repeat any of the arguments here. So what is Meier’s starting point for historicity? Meier’s answer: Josephus! Brodie refers to page 68 of A Marginal Jew and there we read the following:
[The Josephus passage about Jesus] is of monumental importance. In my conversations with newspaper writers and book editors who have asked me at various times to write about the historical Jesus, almost invariably the first question that arises is: But can you prove he existed? If I may reformulate that sweeping question into a more focused one, “Is there extrabiblical evidence in the first century A.D. for Jesus’ existence?” then I believe, thanks to Josephus, that the answer is yes. The mere existence of Jesus is already demonstrated from the neutral, passing reference in the report on James’s death in Book 20. The more extensive Testimonium in Book 18 shows us that Josephus was acquainted with a few salient facts of Jesus’ life. Independent of the Four Gospels, yet confirming their basic presentation, a Jew writing in the year 9-94 tells us that during the reign of Pontius Pilate . . . there appeared on the religious scene of Palestine a man named Jesus. . . . Fortunately for us, Josephus had more than a passing interest in marginal Jews.The problems with the Josephan evidence have been addressed here and elsewhere many times and to my knowledge not one scholar has attempted to grapple with them. Perhaps they fall into Ehrman’s “point after point after point” of assumptions, decontextualized readings, circular methods, blind spots, that scholars have no time or energy to re-examine. Brodie later in this chapter does examine the arguments around Josephus — something I will cover in a subsequent post.
The Second ProblemRecall an earlier post, Quest for History: Rule One — from Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (and its companion, Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 2 (“What Is Rule One?”). There I quoted Brodie’s “Rule One” of historical investigation:
And yet, and yet, and yet. Being first in importance does not necessarily mean being first in the order of investigation. The first thing to be sorted out about a document is not its history or theology — not the truth of background events or its ultimate meaning — but simply its basic nature. For instance, before discussing a will — its possible many references to past events, and its provisions for distributing a legacy — the first thing to be established is whether it is genuine, whether it is a real will. (p. 121, my bolding)The second problem with Meier’s work, Brodie writes, “is that it largely bypasses Rule One of historical investigation, the priority of the literary aspect.” What is it we are reading? How did it come to be composed? From what sources and how and to what end? As other biblical scholars (Sara Mandell and David Noel Freedman in their work on the relationship between Herodotus and the Hebrew Bible) have pointed out, texts need to be studies “iconically” before we think of interpreting their narratives as windows into real events. Not that Meier is devoid of all literary discussion. He isn’t. But Brodie’s concern is that
At no stage does [he] stand back and consider systematically the possible lessons that might be learned from the way in which the great writers of the ancient world composed — how they rewrote existing texts, and how they chiselled their own works into powerful art. There are over three hundred pages on Jesus competitors (III, 289-613), but not one complete paragraph on Homer or Virgil, the two mountains who dominated the world’s literary landscape, including the Gospels. Without a clear handle on the Gospels, it is impossible to get a handle on Jesus. (p. 157)Will continue this chapter in the next post. . . .
ch 17 . . . Unreliable Criteria
Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here. (I am breaking up Brodie’s chapter 17 into a series of smaller posts, and adding more of my own commentary in the process. I hope I keep the distinction between my own thoughts and Brodie’s clear.)
In the previous post we reviewed what Brodie sees as “two key problems” in John Meier’s A Marginal Jew:
- reliance upon oral tradition,
- inadequate engagement with the literary features of the sources.
Brodie explains that by beginning with the assumption that the Gospels are derived from oral tradition, scholars are led to the “delicate operation” of trying to sift what is historical from the final narratives. So criteria of historicity have been developed. A Marginal Jew (like probably most historical Jesus works) relies heavily upon these.
Brodie begins with the criteria of contradiction and discontinuity. That is,
if something in the Gospel is seriously out of line with what is said elsewhere in the Gospels or Epistles, then the reason for including it must be very strong, must be due to reality in history, in the life of Jesus. (p. 157)Most of us have read the methodological and logical flaws in these criteria, but Brodie does not address these here. Instead, he points out something about “contradictions and discontinuities” in the Biblical literature that only a handful of his peers seem to be conscious of. Contradictions and discontinuities are, Brodie reminds us, are prevalent throughout the books in the Bible. They are integral features of biblical literary artistry. It starts with Genesis. Man is first created in the image of God (1:26); then he is made of clay (2:7). First he is made to rule the earth (1:28); then he is made to serve it (2:5).
Next, Brodie considers the criterion of multiple attestation.
If something appears in diverse works that are independent of one another (e.g. Mark, John, Paul) then we have strong grounds for considering it historically reliable.
(I disagree with this as expressed here — though Brodie is pointing out that this is the apparent logic of most historical Jesus scholars. Much more than independence of multiple sources is required before we can conclude a common point is historical. As with any historical study of primary and secondary documents, other factors such as provenance, function and purpose, genre, must also weigh in to the discussion; often the best that can be concluded is that there was another independent source for what they all have in common. Many myths, historians know, have been relayed as “facts” by multiple independent sources.)
Brodie’s comment is that the documents are not independent of one another.
They were written within the context of a world of rewriting and transformation, and, as I have partly indicated elsewhere (especially in Birthing of the New Testament), detailed comparison shows that they built upon one another. (p. 157)As pointed out in another post recently, we know a significant number of scholars do see the Gospels of Mark and John as closely related — with John based on Mark. This would be the kind of transformation and re-writing that Brodie points out was part of the literary culture of the day. I once posted on reasons given by Hock for why biblical scholars should read ancient novels. Brodie’s work goes beyond Hock’s, though, by its emphasis on literary style and methods of imitation, transvaluation and construction. (Not that Brodie is alone. An increasing number of scholars appear to be publishing studies around such literary relationships in the Bible, but Brodie has probably gone further than most with the comprehensiveness of his work.)
Brodie’s point is surely of critical importance. How many biblical scholars have actually studied the ancient literature that was well-known and influential at the time the New Testament works were being written? How much of Herodotus, Virgil, Homer, Livy, Seneca, the famous playwrights, even Josephus and Philo, have they actually studied? How can their judgments on the literary relationships between the Gospels of Mark and John, for example, be soundly based if they are unaware of the realities of how, say, Virgil re-wrote Homer? Are they even aware of the complexities of Virgil’s plot reconstructions and his transvaluations of scenes and characters in Homer’s epics? Are they aware of the literary commonalities between Primary History (the books from Genesis to 2 Kings) and Herodotus’s Histories? Can Gospel and other New Testament literature be validly studied in isolation from their wider literary context?
Such studied would save a lot of time. Relationships between John and Mark would not be dismissed on what are really superficial grounds, and studies of genre would be more theoretically grounded (as we find in Michael Vines work on Markan genre) and not shallow grab-bags of dot-points of superficial features as we find in Burridge’s influential book arguing the Gospels are ancient biographies.
Baseless dismissals with labels like “parallelomania” would be withdrawn as scholars came to understand that such studies do involve controls, criteria, and new worlds of understanding. The word “parallelomania” would be put back in its original Samuel Sandmel context of referring to uncontrolled and almost random selections of points to draw together to delineate a mere shape in the clouds.
More recently we have seen an emerging postmodernist attempt to tackle the historical Jesus question from scholars like Anthony Le Donne and Dale Allison. But even these are ultimately based on varying mixes of the same criteria of authenticity when it comes down to establishing whether or not Jesus was historical.
The irony is that criteria are introduced because there is no clear evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Criteria are called upon in order to help scholars find something approximating primary evidence for the mere existence or factness of their person of interest. Is there any other field of historical study that is based not first and foremost upon any firm evidence but entirely on an assumption that an event or person was historical?
But I’m veering away from Brodie’s own approach here.
Next section of this chapter is a most interesting one: Did Jesus consciously model his life upon the prophets?
ch 17 . . . Did Jesus Model Himself on Elijah?
Brodie is analysing John Meier’s work, A Marginal Jew, as representative of the best that has been produced by notable scholars on the historical Jesus.
Having begun by identifying the two key problems of Meier’s work as (1) reliance upon the oral tradition model and (2) misreading the sources as windows to historical events as a result of failing to appreciate the true nature of those sources by means of literary analysis, Brodie next showed how these two problems misled scholars into the daunting task of attempting to sift the genuinely historical elements from the Gospel narratives.
That task of divining the historical from the non-historical has led to the development of criteria. But Brodie argues that all of those criteria are flawed in some way (a point few of Brodie’s peers would disagree with; that is why they believe they are on stronger ground if they use several of them, never just one, and use them “judiciously”) but that several of them in particular are best and most simply and directed answered by a deeper and wider understanding of how ancient literary artists worked. Contradictions and discontinuities are a pervasive feature of the literary makeup of the Biblical texts and function in consciously planned ways.
To add another illustrating example from the one I gave from Brodie himself in my previous post, this one not from Brodie but from my own reading of scholarly works comparing Herodotus’ Histories with the Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings), a number of scholars have argued that the contradictory accounts of such events as David’s rise to power are set side-by-side just as Herodotus likewise pairs contradictory accounts of certain events in Greek history. The notable difference with the biblical literature is that in the work of Herodotus the author has intruded into the narrative the voice of a narrator to comment on these differences. The Gospels are following the style of the OT “histories” of removing, for most part, the directly intrusive narrator’s voice.The criterion of multiple attestation also fails since, according to Brodie, the various sources are not at all independent but are re-writings of one another. Re-writing and transforming texts was a singular feature of the literary compositional techniques of the day.
Disastrous consequencesSo when some scholars see the clear allusions in the Gospels of Mark and Luke to the stories of Elijah, failing to understand the how ancient authors more generally imitated and emulated other writings, they conclude that Jesus himself was deliberately (historically) modeling himself upon Elijah! John Meier, for one, concludes that Jesus historically saw himself as standing in the line of Elijah and Elisha (Marginal Jew, III, 48-54). But as Brodie points out,
To claim that Jesus modeled his life on Elijah or Elisha may be a very welcome idea, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not reliable history. (p. 158, my bolding)
Jesus’ call of his disciples as a case study
Meier views the call of the disciples as found in Mark, Matthew and Luke as reflecting an historical event. Reasons? I don’t have volume 3 of Meier but Brodie sums them up thus:
- The call involves a distinctively sharp command, “Follow me”
- And it is backed by texts independent of one another (including Q and L)
An alternative theory, more complex, but more solidly grounded, shows that these texts depend on one another . . . and once the links are traced, the independence disappears. (p. 158)What of the first point, the “distinctively authoritative command”?
It not only reflects Elijah’s authoritative call of Elisha (1 Kgs 19.19-21; cf. Marginal Jew: III, 48); it is also a variation on the command-and-compliance pattern at the beginning of the Elijah account (1 Kgs 17.1-16). ‘This “command and compliance” pattern is common not only in the Elijah stories but elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as well’ (Walsh 1996: 228).I first read of the pattern of creation being repeated like a unifying thread across the narratives throughout the Bible in Thomas L. Thompson’s, The Mythic Past. His reference was to the dividing of the waters to symbolize the emergence of a new creation, a refrain found in Genesis 1, the Flood, the Exodus, the Crossing of the Jordan, Elijah’s and then Elisha’s crossing of the brook, the baptism of Jesus (the waters have been superseded here by the dividing of the heavens!)
In fact, it adapts the pattern of command-and-compliance that occurs both at creation (Gen. 1) and in the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-5; cf. Brodie 2000: 31-46).
So, Jesus style of calling disciples, his calm authoritative command, is patterned as a continuation of God’s way of creating the world. What the Gospels show is continuity in the portrayals of the Creator, Elijah and Jesus. The conclusion that accounts for the data is literacy: the portrait of Jesus is modelled ultimately on that of the Creator. To claim an individual history behind the text goes beyond the data. (p. 158, my formatting and bolding)
Brodie turns Meier’s own words against his own interpretation of the evidence:
Elsewhere, Meier expresses the principle (Marginal Jew: 1, 67):Surely there are other major hurdles to the notion that Jesus consciously modelled himself on biblical figures. Maybe others have studied the ins and outs of this argument more than I have and can explain away some of my objections. As it stands, surely any effort by someone to model himself on another person requires the support of others. The image of the call in Mark and Matthew is that of a miracle, of a supernatural event. It makes absolutely no sense as historical reality. Were the disciples so easily hypnotized that they simply dropped their livelihoods at a laconic command from a passing stranger? But the image makes every sense as, Brodie points out, an image of a divine command wielding power to create a new beginning.
A basic rule of method is that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation that also covers the largest amount of data is to be preferred.In this instance, the simplest explanation that accounts for the data is that the evangelists adapted the biblical figure of Elijah to draw the picture of Jesus. (p. 158)
And as for Luke’s version of the call, we can see that there the author is deliberately revising Mark’s account to support his own ideological agenda. I also recently showed how historical interpretations actually destroy the meaning of the Gospels. (This theme I have taken also from Thomas L. Thompson who demonstrated (again in The Mythic Past) the way attempts to remove the miraculous elements from the Bible’s stories do not bring us any closer to historical reality, but only succeed in destroying the point of the stories.)
Some scholars seriously suggest that Jesus was likewise modelling himself upon his biblical forebears at his entry into Jerusalem. Such an accomplishment would, of course, have required the payment of large numbers to come out and act their part as the welcoming committee. And why did the evangelists get confused about which person Jesus was supposedly deliberately imitating? Mark implies it was Elisha while John was imitating Elijah, Matthew implies it was Moses, and Luke Elijah only. Does it not make more sense to think each evangelist creates his own meaning for Jesus through a different hero?
And if Jesus was truly imitating the prophets or kings, why on earth did he allow himself to be called “Jesus of A-Town-Nobody-Has-Ever-Heard-Of”? Why not “Jesus Son of David” or “Jesus The Prophet-To-Come”? (Of course, I am referring additionally here to the fallacy of interpreting “Jesus of Nazareth” as having originated as a geographical reference in the first place.)
The objections to the view that the OT allusions in Jesus’ life are to be explained as attempts to Jesus to model himself upon biblical characters are monumental. They border on the ludicrous.
I am well aware that historical persons, ancient and modern, do deliberately create public images to associate themselves with historical or mythical persons. Emperor Hadrian promoted himself as Hercules. Alexander as Dionysus. Modern political leaders echo refrains from national heroes. But what we see across the different Gospels are the different attempts by the respective authors to create a Jesus according to their own thematic interests. For Matthew Jesus was a new Moses (see Dale Allison’s The New Moses) for Luke he was the new Elijah and we can see Luke taking pains to remove all of Mark’s Elijah associations from John the Baptist. We have direct evidence that Hadrian, Alexander and modern political leaders have modelled themselves on other figures — coin images, accounts of dress, political propaganda and speeches — but we only have narrative frameworks to associate Jesus with a range of sometimes contradictory figures. And those analogous characters are most simply explained as ciphers for how each author wants us to interpret Jesus theologically.
Scholars truly have badly stumbled when they fail to recognize the literary origins of the way Jesus is related to characters in other texts. Even laypersons can see how badly they have done so.
Bart Ehrman complains that some laypersons “seem – to a person – to have endless time and boundless energy to argue point after point after point after point after point.” That’s a very strange admission to make. What he is unwittingly conceding here is that many lay persons really have read his books, studied some of the topics deeply, engaged with the scholarship, a lot more than he wants to admit. They really do know that the standard catechisms of historical Jesus arguments have many logical and evidential flaws. And what’s worse, they have not been “trained” in the seminaries so they have been exposed to critical questions that the establishment has always brushed aside and that challenge the very foundations of historical Jesus studies. Such are the woes for scholars that the internet has ushered in.
Response? Don’t give those intellectual lepers any credibility by even engaging with them. Respond with a few tired old mantras, keep the details behind a pay-wall if one prefers, and insult those who seem to know too much for their own good and will no longer accept the Establishment interpretations. If they don’t accept the interpretations of the scholars and insist on challenging the scholarly assumptions and questioning logical flaws, then accuse them of being “untrained” and therefore “unqualified” and “arrogant” for refusing to stop questioning the evidence and logic of the Masters. How else can such scholars defend themselves from an increasingly informed lay public?
As for the few scholarly peers who fall by the wayside, pity them, and suggest they have psychological problems because of their past religious mistakes, or, like the elder John, suggest they were never “truly among us” academically minded folk in the first place.
A quaint little aside:
Serious grown men (scholars, even) in modern USA are currently exerting time and energy in attempting to find models that reconcile human evolution with the Bible account of Adam and Eve. Publications about Homo divinus indeed! Meanwhile, a larger number of scholars are endeavouring to reinterpret and revise the meanings of the Gospel evidence to make it fit with their assumption of an historical Jesus.
I do believe the “mythicists” — both Adam and Eve as well as Jesus mythicists — demonstrate a greater respect for the evidence of the Biblical texts and for the fundamental rules of scientific and historical methodologies than most Biblical scholars seem to do.