Thomas L. Brodie Reviews ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’

The following review is published in full with Thomas L. Brodie’s permission:


In 1977 the London-born historian Michael Grant stated that no serious scholar would postulate the non-historicity of Jesus (Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, New York, Macmillan, 1977, 200). And, almost as if to vindicate Grant, the following years saw an extraordinary flow of books each setting out a reconstruction of Jesus’ history.

Yet a problem remained. While these many books essentially agreed on Jesus’ historical existence they agreed on little else. The reconstructions were so diverse that when Luke Timothy Johnson was writing his introduction to the New Testament (1985)—a serious scholarly writing—he omitted any summary of the quest for the historical Jesus, and when, due to demand, his second edition included an appendix, ‘The Historical Jesus’, he first listed some of  the proposals about Jesus’ history and then said of them ‘one  may well wonder whether anything more than a sophisticated and elaborate form of projection has taken place’ (The Writings of the New Testament. An Interpretation. London: SCM, 1999, 629).

Very recently several books, some not as serious as Johnson’s, have denied that Jesus existed, but Bart Ehrman has responded to them (Did Jesus Exist, The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, March 2012). Ehrman’s case rests largely on long-standing arguments, especially on the idea, very popular in the twentieth century, that the gospels are based ultimately on oral traditions.

Into this situation steps the Thompson/Varenna volume bearing the views of thirteen writers (July 2012). The contributions are diverse, but overall the book reflects a seismic shift: it claims that the primary background for the gospels is not oral tradition but the world of ancient writing/literature. And the most basic question raised by this book is whether Jesus existed historically or whether he is a literary figure:

 The essays…have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of a historical Jesus not possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our  hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the  spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine (editors’ Introduction, p. 11, emphasis added).

The essays form three parts, the first on Scholarship.

  Into the Well of Historical Jesus Scholarship

  • 1. Jim West (Quartz Hill School of Theology, California) – A Very, Very Short Introduction to Minimalism
  • 2. Roland Boer (University of Newcastle) – The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer
  • 3. Lester L. Grabbe (Univ. of Hull) – “Jesus Who is Called Christ”: References to Jesus Outside Christian Sources
  • 4. Niels Peter Lemche (Univ. of Copenhagen) – The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Doesn’t Want Jesus
  • 5. Emanuel Pfoh (National University of La Plata) – Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem

For West, the Bible is so focused on theology that it is not possible to affirm or deny historical propositions. ‘Minimalism began…with the Chronicler…. Maximalism… distorts the theological message of the text by transforming it into historical source materials’ (p.31).

Boer reviews the complex heritage of Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer, notes the economic decline of the West in relation to the East and then concludes ‘it is good time to return to a more sceptical position in relation to the founding documents’ (p. 56).

Grabbe maintains that the evidence provided by Tacitus and Josephus to the existence of Jesus ‘is minimal but nevertheless significant…Its value lies in its independence from Christian tradition’ (p.69). Comment: It does not seem clear how one can be sure that Josephus, for instance, who for thirty years lived in the same city as a Christian community, is independent of some knowledge of what Christians were saying.

Lemche wrestles with the long-standing perceived divide between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and with the present division between those who engage biblical research and those who avoid it.

Pfoh’s field is historical anthropology of Syria/Palestine (c. 3300-600 BCE) and his ‘main aim is to reflect from strictly historical and anthropological perspectives, on what we can know about the figure of Jesus and what we cannot’ (p.79). He hopes to make ‘a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual world supporting such’ (p.79). For him ‘our historical conclusions regarding [Jesus]…cannot be very positive…My opinion is that such an inquiry is doomed to failure…We cannot test a mythic figure historically….’ (pp. 91-92).

Paul and Early Christianity: Historical and Exegetical Investigations

  • 6 Robert M. Price (Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary) – Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?
  • 7. Mogens Müller (University of Copenhagen) – Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus
  • 8. Thomas S. Verenna – Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles

Price and Verenna argue strongly for Paul’s independence of an historical Jesus. For Müller, however, the effect of Jesus on Paul’s life is such that it presupposes Jesus’ historical existence, and he concludes, ‘If Paul is assumed to have been a historical person, the same must be assumed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth’ (p. 130).

The Rewritten Bible and the Life of Jesus

  • 9. James Crossley (Univ. of Sheffield) – Can John’s Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View
  • 10. Thomas L. Thompson – Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King
  • 11. Ingrid Hjelm (Univ. of Copenhagen) “Who is my Neighbor?” Implicit Use of OT Stories and Motifs in Luke.
  • 12. Joshua Sabih (Univ. of Copenhagen) – Born Isa and Baptized Jesus: The Quranic Narratives about Isa
  • 13. K. L. Noll (Brandon University, Manitoba) – Investigating Earliest Christianity Without Jesus

Concerning the historicity of the gospels, Crossley expresses caution about recent efforts to squeeze more history from John than the gospel allows. Thompson and Hjelm illustrate how the gospels’ content and shape are governed by something other than history, namely by Old Testament features such as patterns, themes, stories and motifs.

Sabih postulates that the Quranic figure of Isa is not identical with the Jesus of the NT, but the Isa of later Muslim tradition is (p. 219).

Finally, Noll’s thesis is that ‘any quest for a historical Jesus is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity. This is the case even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind’ (p. 233). For Noll the origin of Christianity has a kinship with the origin of Islam and the processes of evolution.

Overall, this volume contributes to a crucial development, namely moving historical investigation beyond the usual restrictions of the historical critical method, particularly beyond reliance on the theory of oral tradition, and bringing it into new terrain, especially that of literature.

However, having reached new terrain, this volume tends to rush further ahead into areas of theory, history and theology without doing justice to the full demands of engagement with literature. The problem is not just that its task is unfinished—as its editors would acknowledge—but that it seems unclear how to advance, unclear about the need to settle down to the slow detailed work of mapping the literary terrain in detail, often verse by verse, so that, before saying much about the history of Christian origins, it first establishes a reasonably clear map of the history of the literature, in effect the history of the composition of the New Testament, both of its many parts and, where possible, of its totality. In David Gunn’s words, ‘Write the history of the literature and then the [larger] history can be written’ (‘The Myth of Israel’, in L. L. Grabbe, Did Moses Speak Attic, JSOTSup 317, Sheffield Academic, 2001, 182).

Such prior mapping is indispensable. If, for instance, the investigation cannot account for the data underlying the theory of Q, or at least give some idea of how that can be done, its proposals regarding history and theology will have fatal gaps.

However, it is of the nature of the hermeneutical circle not only to establish the details that clarify the whole, but also to allow a vision of the whole to clarify the details, so it is appropriate from time to time to leap ahead into theory and into wide historical and theological vistas. And that is what this volume has done. Its writers are like explorers who have been parachuted at night into terrain that is still largely unknown and they are sending back preliminary reports. They do not always give a clear picture, and at times they may get lost, but the land must be crossed, and they are worth listening to.


Thomas Brodie also reflected upon my chapter on Paul in the following way:

As I see it your chapter on Paul reflects both the volume’s strength and limitations.

On the one hand it has wonderful broad lines of thought, especially on the crucifixion. In fact given what Bart Ehrman (Did Jesus Exist?)  wrote about the impossibility of a Jew envisaging a crucified Messiah, I wondered would it be worth your while writing an article that discusses Ehrman’s view and elaborates your own proposal.

On the other hand—and this is very understandable (if nothing else time and space would not allow)—you did not greatly engage the nuts and bolts of the epistles, the more prosaic fabric that holds the text together, verse by verse, and that shows just how detailed and complex is the process of rewriting.

Another question that occurs is whether the writer of the epistles, while they did not know a historical Jesus, knew that their work would be taken up by writers who would turn their work into a history-like form, as the prophets had been turned into history-like form by Hebrew narrative. In other words was there more coordination between the NT writers than we generally allow? I’m certain there was, but how much more?

Most of the essays in the volume, including your own, could become books. 

Overall I’m very happy with the review.  I thought his conclusions perceptive and useful, as were his questions.  On one brief note, I have commented on Ehrman’s book and interested readers can check it out here:

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Philip Davies asks ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ and Offers His Answer

Philip Davies has entered the discussion and his involvement is most welcome.  He concludes:

But why care? The issue of whether history or kerygma (let’s use the fancy theological term for such fabulation) should provide the basis for New Testament theology or Christian faith has been a persistent theme of New Testament scholarship since Strauss’s Life of Jesus (where myth reared its beautiful head). Still, both history and theology converge on a proper answer to this: the historical Jesus will always be a fabrication, and the search for him antagonistic to true religious belief. Yet some peculiar literal-minded historicist brand of (largely Protestant) Christianity finds impossible the temptation to replace the icons of Orthodoxy or statues and images of Roman Catholicism with the One True Image of the Lord: the Jesus of History. The result: poor history and, dare I say, even poorer theology.

via The Bible and Interpretation – Did Jesus Exist?.

You will want to go read the whole thing.  Go read it and then come back.  Back?  Good.

His discussion of the main issues in New Testament and the problems that plague those of us who even bother to *question* historicity are spot on.  The only minor issue that I might adjust is that he writes:

But one should not argue from these, as do Thompson and Verenna, that Jesus was invented.

But to my knowledge neither Thomas or I suggest that in our articles and I certainly haven’t suggested that Jesus was invented recently.  I make a point in my chapter to distinguish the claims that ‘Jesus was invented’ and ‘Paul’s Jesus is irrelevant to the Historical Jesus’ are entirely different.  One claim does not eo ipso lead to the other.  Indeed, even if Paul believed his Jesus was a completely heavenly, he could have been completely wrong.  My article was only to support the conclusion that Paul is useless as a witness to a historical figure, not that there couldn’t have been one because of it.

Though I would remark, and Philip might agree, that traditions can be invented and thus certainly most traditions surrounding a figure of Jesus are wholly invented (they have to be since only one tradition can be the ‘right’ one, presupposing historicity).  With that in mind, it isn’t so implausible to suggest that we haven’t even stumbled across the ‘right one’ (if there is one to find) and none of the ‘Jesus’ we have concocted in our academic quests resemble that historical figure.

Other than this one minor grievance, Philip’s article is wonderful and a welcome contribution to the conversation.

Animal Planet’s Mermaid Special and History Documentaries

If you are like me (and have a masochistic interest in watching pseudo-scientific documentaries) then you probably watched Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found over the weekend. And if you were like me, you probably knew that it was fake. You could tell just from the commercials, before the documentary aired, that there was something completely bunk about it (like the fact that it claims mermaids are real, for instance–usually sends up red flags for me). They even made a rather subtle disclaimer:

Although they were not very clear on which parts were fiction and which were based on ‘real science’. See below for details.

However, if you weren’t like me, you probably thought the documentary made a very compelling case and were convinced by its conclusions. Well, sorry to say, you were fooled (FOX News seems to think the doc was genuine). As reported by MSNBC:

If you were unnerved over the holiday weekend by Animal Planet’s special “Mermaids: The Body Found,” take a deep breath. It’s OK to go back in the water again, and you can quit eyeing your copy of “The Little Mermaid” suspiciously.

The two-hour program is fiction, but it’s presented in documentary style, with actors playing scientists who claim to have found the body of a mermaid on a Washington state beach.

via TV & Entertainment News – Reviews, Rumors, Gossip – The Clicker | TODAY.com Blogs – Were you fooled by Animal Planet’s mermaid special?.

While I was watching the documentary, the producers did some very interesting things. They used CGI to produce long segments of content (specifically about the ‘Aquatic Ape theory‘), they used real science (complete with DNA analysis, cellular analysis, the link between dolphins and humans, certain interesting evolutionary attributes of humans, and gave it credibility by using agencies like NOAA), drew upon real coverups (like the Navy’s coverup of sonar equipment testing which led to several beachings like the one in North Carolina), counted on the value of internet information (i.e., viral videos and the trust many people have in internet underground media), and also attempted to link mermaids culturally using archaeology and art history. They even used an image of a cave painting (completely CGI’d, of course) where humans and mermaids were either fighting or working together or something, but it is based on real cave paintings.

The CGI’d Mermaid cave art (left) is structured on cave art from places like the Lascaux Caves (middle) and San art in the Karoo, South Africa (right).

Behind the guise of credibility, the falsity–that mermaids are real–was neatly presented in a manner through which many of us have become accustomed: sound bites and edited clips. While I watched the production, I was on the net reading responses. Some were skeptical right away, as they rightly should have been. Many of the claims were debunked during the airing (like the fact that IMDB listed actors who played the roles of the scientists) and the website linked to the film, which has a fake DOJ/Homeland Security Seize order (determined to be fake just by looking at the name of the file under the page info). A quick Google search yielded no reference to a mass beaching in Washington or in South Africa during the years mentioned in the film. No intricately carved spearheads made of stingray tails and spines were found.

And while some were skeptical, many–too many–were persuaded (read the comments, some commenters believe that the government paid people to talk down the show!). They were persuaded even when the documentary presented itself as a fiction (at the end of the doc). Twitter is still blowing up with comments about how ‘mind blowing’ the doc was; it is downright upsetting that so many have bought into this fiction without even verifying their information. The most Wikipedia said about it during the airing was that it was a ‘mockumentary’, with no real discussion about the film until some time later the next day. Comments on blogs and on hype videos were full of people just accepting the conclusions of the film. And it reminded me of an episode of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files (because I love this show, even if they play up/hype the fakes a little for production value) where they faked a video of a lizard man and posted it on Youtube, and people claimed they had seen this very faked lizard man, and that clearly the thing was real (even though the team fabricated the whole thing).

This is why shows like Ghost Hunters are popular. When you produce a show well, and focus on your audience by feeding them semi-factual information and information which seems like it should be possible, they will more than likely accept your conclusions. Films about the historical Cain and Abel, the Shroud of Turin, Jesus nails, Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, Mary Magdalene, Atlantis, and others use this very same formula to produce believable stories which, unfortunately, are based mostly (or wholly) on fiction. Ancient Aliens is another presentation just like this. They prey on their audiences ignorance.

In the end, I enjoyed Mermaids: The Body Found, because I knew what I was going to be watching–I knew it was fiction and just made for entertainment. I thought a lot of the (faked) evidences were cleverly conceived and tied together. It was entertaining, the acting was decent (sometimes it was excellent) and if Mermaids did exist (don’t worry, they don’t) you would expect this sort of evidence to exist–you would need exactly this sort of extraordinary evidence in order to prove it. So I thought that was very interesting. The paranoid operative who remained anonymous was a good touch–really hammered home the fun factor for me. But I worry about those who are not as skeptical as I am; those who would watch it and accept it at face value instead of doing any additional research. That this happens with a documentary about mermaids–mermaids–is worrisome. Because when it comes to figures like Moses, or Adam and Eve, or even Jesus, I know people will be less likely to challenge what they see and more readily acclimated to accept what they see at face value.

So hopefully, maybe, this docufiction will be a lesson to everyone. We’ll just have to wait and see.


UPDATE (5/31/12):
Right now the twitter feed is blowing up at #mermaids; right now the show is re-airing and people still think, three days later, that it is a real documentary.  I’m talking hundreds of people on twitter really bought into this, without doing the slightest bit of research.  Hopefully someone is reading this and will pass this article along.

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