Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Mythicist Book by a Catholic?

The Internet has been a hotbed for the fringe position of biblical studies known as Jesus mythicism--the idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure. This is certainly outside the mainstream of academic Bible scholars, and it is often ridiculed. However, there are some in the field that are giving it a fair shake. Robert M. Price, for example, finds it to be quite plausible, and Richard Carrier will argue it in his upcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus probably next year. Earl Doherty used the Internet to promote his version of the mythical Jesus as the root of Christianity, and that had inspired Price and Carrier. A few other scholars seem to give it the time of day as well, and it received some methodological consideration in the book Is this Not the Carpenter? by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna, which I look forward to reading soon.

But it looks like there will be another book to enter in on the side of the mythicist camp later this year by Thomas L. Brodie, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. I have read this scholar's work before, and he focuses on literary aspects of the Bible. He also worked by Dennis R. MacDonald in forming criteria for intertextuality between ancient texts. (See their book Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity for some background.) And now it looks like his research has gone into the following conclusion:

The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual.

While the parallels between the Old Testament and Gospels does seem to take down the accuracy of the reports in the latter, it is still surprising to see this conclusion because Brodie, as far as I know, is a Catholic. After all, he is the director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick, Ireland. It seems that Brodie has found some way of reconstructing what his faith in Jesus would mean, but it is an astounding position nonetheless. And if his upcoming book is like his previous work (and like the work of his student Andrew Winn in Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material), then it should be very interesting. (The table of contents suggests a lot of historical background of the scholarship, and I am strangely interested in that.)

Now, there seems to be some backlash to the book in the biblioblogosphere, such as James McGrath here suggesting that by even publishing the book it will demote the position of mythicism. James sees too much parallelomania in Brodie's work, though he doesn't try to demonstrate that in his post. Now, certainly mythicist proponents of the past have done that (and some, such as Acharya S., seem to do that today), but this knee-jerk reaction seems out of place for an academic approach. Brodie's position also belies the belief that no trained New Testament scholars argues Jesus didn't exist.

I can imagine what the reaction of Brodie's book will be down the party lines, but I suspect the impact of such work won't be understood for another decade. Which way will the academy go? We'll have to tune in and see. In the mean time, I am excited to find out what is going to be said in this book and the next few both promoting and demoting the hypothesis.

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