Study Resources for the Historical Jesus

On this page, we will offer multiple recommendations of books that are useful for the reader in understanding the historical Jesus. Books are grouped according to author last name.

Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus

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The sub-title to this work is A Guide to Sources and Methods and the content of the book serves this goal admirably. Bock begins with a 30 page introduction to the sources that inform readers about the historical and cultural background of Jesus and his ministry. He gives an excellent overview of works such as the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books, Philo and Josephus, as well as an analysis of the four canonical Gospels and their relationship to those other works.

Next, Bock leads the reader on a tour of Jesus in his cultural context (this section is especially appropriate for Tekton readers). This is the strongest section of the book. Bock surveys and analyzes the non-biblical literary evidence for Jesus concluding that the historian can be very confident that Jesus, as a historical person, indeed existed. This is followed by an incredible analysis of the sociocultural and political history of Second-temple Judaism up to the time of Jesus.

Bock helps the reader learn about the main social values of the ancient peoples such as honor/shame, purity and the patron-client relationship, issues that are essential to a proper understanding of the Gospels. His review of the political history of Judaism is especially helpful due to several charts and maps summarizing the political leaders and High Priests from the pre-Maccabean period until the time of Christ.

Finally, Bock discusses the various critical methods that have been used to study the Gospels throughout the last several centuries. He gives an excellent presentation of Historical, Source, Form, Redaction, Tradition, and Narrative criticisms by highlighting their respective strengths and weaknesses as well as how they have been abused by skeptics. Bock is especially effective in showing what can and cannot be demonstrated historically using each respective critical method. For example, some skeptics using the Historical critical method have tried pitting different versions of stories in the Gospels against each other as though the two texts are competing (especially where the words of Jesus are concerned).

Bock points out that the Gospel writers were usually trying to capture the ipsissima vox ("very voice") of Jesus as opposed to his ipsissima verba ("very words"). Therefore, the texts are not competing against each other at all, but rather are trying to capture the gist of the teaching of Jesus and convey it to the church. The chapter on Source criticism is the most useful, especially for quick review, since it includes charts showing the literary relationships among the synoptics as well as the content of the hypothetical Q document.

Overall, Darrell Bock has written a wonderful gem of a book that is perfect for the beginner or intermediate student of the Gospels. It is especially well-suited to act as a "springboard" book that can help readers advance to more technical material. After reading this work one would surely be ready for The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington or Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity by David deSilva. Though very dense with information, the book is very cogently presented-a highly recommended work.

-P. F. Wheatly

Gregory Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God?

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One of the current discussions in certain NT circles today—most notably among members and supporters of the Jesus Seminar—is the idea that Jesus began as some sort of basic “Cynic sage” who was (rather rapidly) transformed into the Son of God by his followers. Boyd’s book is a welcome prescription for that particular line of thought, which we see as merely the latest attempt to find a Jesus that “don’t bother nobody” with outrageous claims to divinity.

Boyd begins with a helpful overview of the “quest“ for the historical Jesus—a quest that began as early as 1778 with Reimarus’“political Jesus” whose disciples stole the body and proclaimed a resurrection. The modern quest finds itself in two basic divisions:

  1. The “third quest” party, in which many conservative commentators find a home; and,
  2. The “post-Bultmannian“ quest—from which we have the Jesus Seminar. Naturally, this is also where the “Cynic sage” theory finds its roots.

Boyd continues with an analysis of the “Cynic sage” theory from two of its leading proponents: Burton Mack and John Crossan. This includes a discussion of who the ancient cynics actually were, as well as an exposition of some of the basic presuppositions of the Cynic thesis (for example, heavy reliance on non-canonical materials, such as “Q” [Mack] and the Secret Gospel of Mark [Crossan] . He then moves to a specific analysis of the methods and backgrounds of Mack and Crossan, devoting a full chapter to each.

The chapters following offer strong critiques of the post-Bultmannian assumptions required for the Cynic sage theory—which turns out to be far too reliant on questionable research and premises. Most notably, the series of assumptions required about HOW Jesus was transformed from a simple Cynic sage to the Son of God is of particular concern; even Mack comments on how astonishing the speed of this “transformation” was. Included are helpful discussions concerning anti-supernatural bias, Jewish oral tradition, diversity in the early church, relevance of non-canonical Gospels (notably Thomas and Q), and the stripping of eschatology from the historical Jesus.

Boyd then focuses more closely on the central arguments of the Cynic thesis, with particular concern for the influence of Hellenism in Galilee (a strongly “hellenized” Galilee is quite essential to the Cynic thesis) and a study of the parallels offered between Jesus, Paul, and the Cynics.

The last several chapters address the works of Paul, Mark, and Luke in terms of defending their historicity and veracity and howing how the Cynic thesis deals with them (mostly, by either a) ignoring them or b) putting them off as wholesale fabrications, which is what Mack particularly does with the works of Mark and Luke). Included are discussions of the church’s kerygma, and Paul’s links with Jesus; defended also are the traditional assignments, accuracy, dating and authority of the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Acts.

The last chapter critiques Crossan’s and Mack’s view of the resurrection. Included are defenses of some necessary components of the traditional view, and a summary of how Crossan and Mack treat the evidence of the Gospels and Paul.

While not as detailed as some might like, Boyd’s work offers an excellent starting point and provides an accessible set of discussions for understanding (and refuting) one of the more prominent, latest editions of the “Who Was Jesus?” question to emerge from the post-Bultmannian camp. Ample notes and an impressive bibliography give direction for further study. This work is highly recommended for those with an interest in contemporary issues in apologetics.

There is also a more popular version of the book we can recommend, titled Jesus Under Siege.

Paul Copan (ed.), Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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If you want to read this book because you think you'll see John Dominic Crossan get defeated in debate, you won't be disappointed. He does get defeated, but I still found the book disappointing as a whole. Now let me explain why.

It is a peculiarity of our culture to think that declarative assertions (e.g., "sound bites") solve problems and give answers. Only in a society that thinks 20 minutes of Mike Wallace interviewing less than 5 people equates with "complete, unbiased" coverage of any given issue can we think that a debate solves anything. Unless the topic is very, very narrow, it seldom does. The oral debate format favors he with the best show to offer, regardless of who is actually right, and no one ends up being any better informed.

Evaluations of the debate between Crossan and Craig, given by Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington, make exactly the same point, and Craig himself admits to these shortcomings in the format in a closing essay. As Witherington puts it: The debate "had some interesting moments but often failed to grasp the nettle."

So as to content. We start with opening statements by Craig and Crossan, with Craig offering the usual outline of arguments he has presented in several places (and in some cases, as Blomberg points out, overstating scholarly support for his position -- another hindrance of the debate format).

Crossan does -- nothing in response. He almost completely ignores Craig's arguments; he equivocates with terminology; he involves the emotional spectre of respecting the faith of others; he brings Bultmann back into the picture -- and nothing is accomplished. By this virtue alone does Craig win the debate, since it seems Crossan showed up for a different one. The metaphor of trying to nail jello to a wall applies well when reading what Crossan has to say in response to Craig.

From here there is a discussion moderated by Bill Buckley, and again little is accomplished. Then there are comments from four scholars who read the debate.

Robert Miller, a Jesus Seminar fellow, prefers to ignore the debate in favor of a lengthy comparison of apologetics to the spread of kerygma, along with some psychoanalytic commentary for explaining the differences in the Resurrection accounts. Marcus Borg promotes Bultmaniann faith and fails to properly comprehend the nature of the resurrection body (see here).

Craig Blomberg's entry, along with Ben Witherington's, fill in the many gaps we wish had been in Craig's arguments -- in fact, one wishes that either of them had been on stage that night rather than Craig, although perhaps time constraints would have turned either of them into less-impressive presenters as well.

Finally, Crossan and Craig offer some final thoughts, with Crossan mostly (irrelevantly) offering a list of his motivations. Apparently, he understood his instruction to reflect on the debate to mean, "Tell how you got involved and why" as opposed to "Reflect upon your position." Craig spends him time focussing on the issues and refuting Borg and especially Miller. In other words, just as in the debate, Craig pressed the case, and Crossan did no. And thereby nothing new was accomplished (although we did see some fine intellectual sport).

So, then -- pick up this slim, inexpensive tome if you like, but except for the last entires by Blomberg, Witherington, and Craig, expect little useful.

James Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus

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In this book, James Dunn argues for the primacy of oral tradition in a revised form along the lines of Kenneth Bailey, as per chapter 4 of Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God. The recommendations are an interesting read, as is the publisher: You’ve got Gordon Fee and Darrell Bock plugging the book with the likes of Bruce Chilton and Dale Allison, and the book is published by Baker Academic (not the first place I would've pictured Dunn publishing). That combination intrigued me enough to buy the book, and it proved to be what I think is a brilliant little introduction on how to handle oral tradition properly in relation to the Gospels.

The book is only 125 pages of text (136 in total) and nearly 50 pages of that is an appendix, from which fairly large chunks were basically cut and pasted and placed in the main text, which is annoying. It’s a good size, but could possibly have been 10 or so pages shorter without losing anything.

It presents some (what were to me anyway) novel ideas on the oral tradition of the Gospels that provide some rather powerful arguments in favour of their reliability. He undercuts Kloppenborg and Co.’s take on Q (Dunn still waves the Q flag, but not as vigorously as most) by demonstrating that much of that material has been preserved reliably from an oral tradition started in a pre-Easter, pre-Passion Galilean setting, as opposed to postulating a post-Easter Galilean community that knew nothing of the passion. If the so-called ‘Q community’ (an idea he summarily destroys elsewhere in the book) didn’t know anything about Jesus’ death, it’s because it hadn’t happened yet! Whatever one’s take on Q, I find that rather amusing.

He says that this book is a condensation of the key methodological arguments he makes in his Jesus Remembered, which I haven’t read. If that’s the case though, I think that could be a good read too (except it’s apparently over 900 pages long -- And he throws out the birth narratives, but he stakes for the resurrection). A New Perspective on Jesus sort of parallels Wright’s Who Was Jesus? without going over the exact same ground all the time, and I think they complement each other well.

This is not a direct attack on the way-out Jesuses of the Da Vinci Code variety (that sort probably wouldn’t know who Dunn was), but it’s a strong indictment on mainstream historical Jesus research on ignoring the importance of oral tradition. It also serves as a great primer on oral tradition in the gospels.

Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?

I'll start with what would be the most obvious point from me: No, Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) has no prospect of displacing my own edited volume, Shattering the Christ Myth (STCM), as the most thorough volume on the subject of the existence of Jesus. Far from it. Though Ehrman does cover exactly the same range of subject matter within that question -- everything from "pagan copycat" charges to the "silence of the epistles" canard to the existence of Nazareth -- he does so overall with such breezy incompleteness that we may easily predict that the mythicist crowd will immediately claim he didn't come anywhere close to doing the job.

Which of course, he did not, and yet for good reason. In DJE I detected something in Ehrman's tone that I didn't find in his other books: A sort of hapless, "why me," "what the %&$#@ am I doing this for" exasperation which, if I drew Ehrman as a cartoon to represent it, would have him lying on the floor with his tongue hanging out. Not that he wasn't right to be this way, which represents the paradox of dealing with the mythicists. Their clear objective is to confuse and overwhelm readers with so much information -- so much of it bad information -- that it would take, as Ehrman rightly says, three times as much effort to refute them point by point.

Years ago, when G. A. Wells made the mistake of writing a response to my evaluation of him, I noted that Wells was rather typical of those whose chief tactic is to "hurl the elephant" -- throw out a huge complex of ideas and arguments all at once in order to make their ideas seem more formidable. It was for this reason that I determined that STCM would be as comprehensive as it was -- the way to reply to a hurled elephant is to have a blue whale at your disposal to hurl back. Under such pressure, Wells and other mythcisists like Doherty, Price, Humphreys, and even Murdock collapse like a house of cards.

DJE, as noted, doesn't succeed in this respect; it serves as warthog rather than elephant. Even then much of it seems to be padding, especially the last chapters where Ehrman goes on about Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. And yet Ehrman can hardly be blamed for this. Even as lacking in honesty as I consider him to be, I believe he doesn't deserve to waste time on issues like this one. It takes a lot of time, patience, and fortitude -- and a good deal of personal masochism -- to deal in detail with such inanity as the Christ myth theory.

As expected, and even as Ehrman predicted, the process of fundy atheists throwing him under the bus has already begun. It's sort of fascinating and amusing to watch, and we might comment on it here again in the future. For now, I'd like to spend this Ticker entry discussing the contents of DJE which struck me.

18 -- One new bit of information DJE offered to me: Robert Price has released a new book titled The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Naturally, it's not with a credible academic publisher; American Atheist Press is doing the job. It's available by Kindle and I've already picked it up. (A word search shows that neither I nor STCM are mentioned – and that Tacitus is dismissed as merely repeating hearsay. Nice of know Price is continuing his personal tradition of violently ignoring or dismissing anything that would cause his insane theories any difficulties.)

49 -- One of Ehrman's more frequent themes has to do with the paucity of information about ancient persons as a whole as a retort to the alleged problem of lack of information about Jesus. On this page, for example, he notes that although there are no eyewitness accounts of Jesus (he of course dispenses, we think wrongly, with the relevant Gospels), there are also none of Pontius Pilate. He rightly notes that low literacy is part of the reason for this, as well as the simple lack of survival of source material.

54 -- Naturally, I was interested in comparing Ehrman's treatments of certain subjects in DJE with my own in STCM. One I'll compare with is Tacitus. Ehrman spends barely three pages on Tacitus, half of which is descriptive. Then he spends a paragraph on the notion that Annals 15.44 is an interpolation, rightly noting that this is not believed by any classicist or historian, and suggesting that mythicists just don't want the passage to be there. That's likely true, but it doesn't do much for an argument.

From there, Ehrman goes off the deep end: Whereas STCM spends pages establishing Tacitus' reliability and professionalism as a historian, Ehrman simply decides that Tacitus based his information on hearsay, and even -- incredibly -- accepts as valid the argument that Tacitus wrongly identifies Pilate as a procurator (the alleged significance of this as assigned by mythicists is debunked in detail in STCM). In this at least Ehrman plays himself right into the mythicists' hands.

66 -- Ehrman also notes that the argument that Jesus' miraculous powers ought to have drawn the attention of historians, and he answers with the expected response from him that the historical Jesus actually had none. Our own answer is quite different, which is that a snob like Tacitus would immediately discount such notions as false and not dignify them with a report, even if they were true. Even so, since mythicists share Ehrman's disbelief in the miraculous, this is an argument they are compelled to modify or reckon with. Indeed it reflects a hidden inconsistency in their own epistemology!

134 -- A critical argument of many mythicists -- particularly Wells and Doherty -- relates to epistalory silence about life details and other aspects of Jesus. Ehrman rightly notes that such things mean little even on the surface: There is no reason for Paul to mention certain sayings; the epistles were written to people who had long been Christians and knew about these things; and Paul is also silent about a lot of his own personal information. Here Ehrman did a fairly good job, even if a summary one, but there is no mention of the NT world as a high context society -- a coup de grace to mythicist arguments in this regard.

167 -- Interestingly, Ehrman takes on some of Richard Carrier's claims in his Not the Impossible Faith (NIF) concerning the idea of a humiliated messiah. In this Ehrman is on the same side as I am where I responded to NIF in its online version. What makes it interesting moreso if that if he is aware of NIF, he must also be substantially aware of what and who Carrier was responding to -- yet there's no hint or explanation of it whatsoever. Hmmm...

(Update for those looking for problems: And no...I'm not "miffed" about it. I simply find it curious given Ehrman's use of arguments that somewhat resemble mine in TIF with respect to crucifixion. Why would I be "miffed"? Because I want to sell TIF? Gee, if people look up Carrier's book because of Ehrman, they'll learn about mine too, right? Guh...golly... :D )

193 -- Rene Salm's Nazareth-myth is also briefly treated but here as well Ehrman does a fairly good, even if summary, job of it.

199 -- Ehrman also makes much the same response I do (borrowed from Albert Lord originally) to those who claim the story of Jesus was ripped off from the OT: It would be easy, he says, to tell the story of Richard Nixon using the template of a Shakespearian tragedy -- especially of one is allowed to select freely from the bard's vast works.

212 -- Alleged correspondences between Jesus and Mithra are another of my fave projects. Ehrman spends only 2 1/2 pages on this, much of it descriptive, but he does well to make the point succinctly that there are no Mithraic texts that show Mithras was born of a virgin on 12/25, died to atone for sin, and was raised. I'd have liked to have seen more detail, but at least the footnote refers readers to the works of Mithraic scholars (Beck and Ulansey).

244 -- On the downside, Ehrman responds to one of Wells' theories that Jesus was based on the figure of Wisdom in Jewish literature, and this section offers some amazing howlers, and also resorts to dodgy answers such as Col. 1:15-20 not being applicable because Paul didn't write Colossians, and dismisses the direct designation of Jesus as Wisdom in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 as meaning only that Jesus' acts embodied God's wisdom -- the same excuse made by some Unitarians, which fails to respect Paul's direct language of equivalence. Ehrman also does not grasp that meaning of Paul designating Jesus as God's "power" in context (it's also an indication of hypostatic identity), and doesn't even touch the consistent equivalence of Jesus with the Proverbs 8 figure (and that of intertestamental Jewish works) throughout the NT.

252 -- Some detailed attention is offered to Doherty's thesis of a "spiritual realm" in which Jesus was thought to be crucified. My own treatment of Doherty's other arguments made it unnecessary for me to discuss it in STCM (some of my guest writers do), but Ehrman does well to point out that Doherty's thesis in this regard is simply created out of whole cloth. Unfortunately it's not all complete: He dismisses Doherty's suggestion of 1 Thess. 2:14-16 as an interpolation by merely saying it is a explanation of convenience for Doherty.

332 -- Ehrman recounts a personal story in which he received an award from the American Humanist Association and was surprised by two things. The first was how "religious" many of the atheists and agnostics there were -- and I find it significant that Ehrman fails to recognize the same symptoms in himself, even as mild as his "fundy atheism" is. The second surprise he has was how many of them were mythicists -- and how many of them were surprised that he wasn't one.

That's what struck me most from DJE; I'd say that most readers won't want to order it, but it might be worth a look in your local library, which is sure to carry it. I'll be keeping an eye on it and what the atheists out there say about it -- it's sure to make for an interesting time.

Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus

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I'm going to encourage you to buy this book with the same caveat as another I recommended with a similar title (Reinventing Jesus): Buy it not because it has a lot of new material in it (for veteran readers of this site, it will not; for new readers, it will), but becauase if you don't, publishers will not produce more quality material we need like this.

Evans covers some of the same territory as that prior book, but he covers a lot of different ground too. The one regret I have is that Evans did not cover some authors in depth (such as Tom Harpur, who gets a scant few paragraphs). One senses that Evans, as a serious scholar, preferred not to give such persons credibility by addressing them.

Still and all, there are many gems here and "aha" moments, as when Evans looks at Ehrman and Price, and his descriptions will bring to mind the concept of "fundy atheist" we've seen here more than once. The parody of the opening page of The da Vinci Code is exceptionally funny. Some of the topics covered are passe' in the popular lit (such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Cynic sage thesis) but they're still floating around, so don't think this is out of date. It isn't. I also have never seen some of the claims addressed ever made (such as, "Jesus was not interested in Scripture," which seems remarkable to have been posed) but yes, they were. Pick it up and add it to your library.

Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend

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Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd have put together a substantial volume that deals another hard blow to the critical assumptions of the school of "Form Criticism", but also wages war against the views of hypercritical popular writers and scholars in regards to the New Testament.

It was this latter task, in fact, which was the primary target of the authors. In this work Eddy and Boyd provide responses to the likes of Robert Price, Randel Helms, Earl Doherty, and others whose views are not (for better or for worse) taken seriously enough by mainstream scholars for which we are able to find more than a scarcity of resources providing answers to their assertions. In fact, in this sense, it puts one in the mind of the kind of work that James Patrick Holding and Glenn Miller have been performing for a number of years, with some expected overlap of the pertinent material.

The book is divided into 10 chapters, the first of which argues that truly objective historians should be open to the possibility of supernatural explanations for historical data. The second chapter deals with the impact (or lack thereof) that Hellenism had on 1st Century Judaism (and how this may have influenced the formation of a "Jewish legend of Yahweh embodied"). The third chapter deals in the ever-present issue of "parallel legends and/or heroes", with helpful discussions of Sabbatai Svi, Simon Kimbangu, and of course Apollonius of Tyana.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal, respectively, with extra-biblical sources of Jesus (including discussions of the two famous Josephus passages and that of Tacitus, plus others), and the alleged problem of Paul’s silence in regards to details of Jesus’ life. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the reliability of oral tradition and the role of memory and eyewitness testimony as it relates to New Testament studies. Chapter 8 discusses the issue of Gospel genre, which includes helpful discussions responding to such proposals as "the Gospels as fiction" and "the Gospels as ancient romance novels", etc. Finally, chapters 9 and 10 evaluate features of the Synoptic Gospels themselves and how the sum total of the data should give us the impression of their general reliability.

As one might imagine from the above list of objectives, the scope of the book is quite broad and gives, as a spatial necessity, only enough for a general overview of much of the pertinent data. While it is difficult to find fault in any chapter (given the fact that a thorough traversing of all of these issues might require a wheelbarrow full of pages), certain chapters were more compelling than others given the detail that was included. For instance, I thought that the authors made a very compelling case that truly objective historians should consider supernatural explanations plausible if all naturalistic counterparts are found wanting.

Particularly poignant in this regard was the authors’ demonstration that the so-called "anti-supernaturalistic bias" is not only limited almost exclusively to modern Western culture, but even the majority of those people within this modern Western culture do not share in this bias. Rather, this bias is largely (though not entirely) restricted to a certain scholarly guild and based on questionable assumptions. The authors provide solid defenses of the much-maligned extra-biblical sources of Jesus (particularly those of Tacitus and Josephus), and also deal adequate blows to many of the assertions made by the aforementioned hypercritical authors. Also valuable was the authors’ refutation of the basic assumptions behind "Form Criticism", the school of thought institutionalized by Bultmann and company, the influence of which is still powerful today (even among many conservative scholars). Eddy and Boyd demonstrate, based on the proliferation of studies of many cultures dealing in aspects of oral tradition that have surfaced over the past few decades, that there is no longer sufficient merit behind form critical assumptions and the resultant skepticism that the Gospel authors could have retained accurate historical information and testimony in a purely oral culture.

In fact, this book, along with Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, serves as a great 1-2 punch to form-critical judgments (in my view leaving this school of thought on the ground to remain). The authors include a great discussion on the issue of "contradictions", and I think compellingly demonstrate why the presence of discrepancies (even if actual contradictions) should not steer us away from maintaining the general reliability of the New Testament, as doing so would call into question virtually any historical incident for which we have multiple, independent attestation (though for which the historians studying these other incidents do not typically become skeptical of merely because of such discrepancies).

They also speak of harmonization and how certain features of oral societies (such as those in which the Gospel authors lived) could contribute to such apparent discrepancies (though are, in fact, merely examples of acceptable variations within ancient oral tradition). The authors give a great overview of certain features within the Synoptic Tradition that suggest their general reliability (e.g. the inclusion of embarrassing details/episodes, the Aramaic substratum detectable from many of the Traditions, the inclusion of incidental details, and archaeological corroboration), though the reader may be frustrated by the lack of examples in some of these subsections. I was surprised, for example, that the authors did not discuss the massive archaeological corroboration for the book of Acts (granted that while the authors’ goal was to defend the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke’s proven general reliability in one document would give us a priori confidence in that of his Gospel as well).

Of course, it is difficult to be too critical in this regard. The book is already 454 pages in text alone, and a wheelbarrow may have been needed to include every possible detail and discuss it in an in-depth manner.

I shudder to imagine the hours of research that must have been poured into this volume by Eddy and Boyd. This is evidenced by the authors’ copious footnotes in each of the diverse sections. In fact, while the material within the book can only give us an overview of many of the pertinent issues, such as why oral tradition behind the Gospels should be viewed as leading to a generally reliable written product penned 40-70 years after the events in question, the footnotes themselves serve as helpful guideposts pointing to locations that serious researchers can go next should they wish to pursue the topic(s) in more detail.

As anticipated, we found the book to be a masterpiece, and one that is essential reading for those immersed in popular theories such as "The Christ Myth", "The Gospels as Fiction", and of course the ubiquitous practice of "parallelomania" (to name but a few). However, in the scholarly world, this book should also substantially contribute to the painfully-slow demise of Form Criticism.


Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus

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Although the Jesus Seminar has been out of business for a while now, and this book is even older, it remains a classic. Johnson offers a sensible, scholarly voice from a moderate perspective (one that cannot be accused of adherence to "fundamentalism," the "televangelical" form of which he is just as critical) criticizing both popular theorists (such as Spong) and scholars (such as Mack, Crossan, and at the far fringe, Thiering). Johnson pulls no punches here; readers will find his evaluations (such as to Spong's "narcissistic self-referentiality") refreshing and candid.

Johnson's book is more than a scholarly critique, however. It is also part social analysis (looking at the clash between Seminar-types and fundamentalists in social terms, and looking at the former in terms of an agenda that drives them) as well as a critical analysis of the state of scholarship. Readers will find familiar, via comments on this site, Johnson's comments about how ultra-specialization [73] has created Biblical scholars who write inferior work devoid of broader contextual study. Johnson also offers discussions of historical epistemology, and explains how the Seminar and related theorists fail to adhere to proper models.

One aspect that may be found disagreeable is Johnson's inclination to put all Christian eggs in a basket of "faith". However, this is not a significant part of the book and readers will benefit greatly from Johnson's observations.

Stanley Porter and Stephen Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ

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I wish this book were LONGER. And some of you may balk at the price. Please don't. We need more books like this, so buy a few. Maybe don't rent a forklift as I said for Reinventing Jesus, but try to get at least a large wheelbarrow full.

In this volume, two NT scholars give Tom Harpur the rebuttal in print he's neeed since he wrote The Pagan Christ. Porter and Bedard survey the positive evidence for the historical Christ and also briefly undermine the credibility of Harpur's favorite sources, Kuhn and Massey. I wish they'd have done more on these guys, but having done a few articles on them myself I can understand why they wouldn't want to.

Porter is a name readers may recognize: I have used his work on rhetoric in the NT and also on Luke's census. These two authors produce quality, and you won't go wrong with them (even if much of the information will be familiar to readers of this site). The chapter on Egyptian religion is also helpful.

Buy it for two reasons: To counter Harpur and to show your support for MORE stuff like this to be on the market.

Review by Nick Peters.

Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament

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The references to Jesus outside the NT are a specialty interest of mine, and I found some good material in this book that I have added to my article on it. Not that I agreed with all that Van Voorst has to say. I think he undervalues the references by Tacitus and Lucian on quite inadequate grounds, and misses a lot of data that could have helped his case. His material on the Jewish references is much better.

On the other hand, this is one of those books I'd have liked to tear down the middle and pay only half for. The material on the Gospel of Thomas, Secret Gospel of Mark, and alleged pre-sources (Q, L, Signs source, etc.) rest so much on speculative source material that they are practically useless. I get the impression that Van Voorst did these chapters only to make the book longer. Certainly I would have preferred more critical analysis of GThom rather than a full recounting of it's text.

Overall, I was disappointed with this book, which could have accomplished much more. We recommend it as a minor supplement.

Ben Witherington, The Jesus Quest

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Everywhere we look these days we find a different Jesus being foisted upon our imaginations: Jesus, the Cynic sage. Jesus, the Eastern swami and international traveller. Everything, it seems, but the most frightening, Jesus the Savior. Ben Witherington does not look at all of these alternative Jesuses, but he does examine some of the major players, notably the Jesus Seminar's "Talking Head" Jesus, Mack and Crossan's cynic Jesus, and - indeed so - the Jesus who is our Savior. The result is a top-flight introduction to the current "Third Quest" to "recover" the historical Jesus.

Witherington's careful and sober analysis, his clear and often humorous writing style, combine to make Jesus Quest both scholarly and entertaining. This is one of the best general interest items to come out on the subject in recent years, and you won't regret taking the time for it.

N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?

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This tiny book reminds me of a strange sort of sandwich: The slices of bread are very thin and get soaked through by the juicy meat inside.

For indeed, there are only five chapters, and the first is a breathtaking tour of the modern Jesus Quest in 18 pages, while the last chapter is a likewise whirlwind preview of arguments that Wright will make in his enormous books elsewhere. It is what you find in between these slivers that make the book worthwhile, as Wright deconstructs in turn the three following modern portrait-painters of Jesus:

This book is a delightful little read --- even if you never have had occasion to run into one of the three persons above.

Ben Witherington, What Have They Done With Jesus?

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Review by Nick Peters. Summary quote:

"Recently, I received an announcement in my email that this book was on sale on Kindle. Unfortunately, it is no longer at the sale price, but I scooped it up as soon as I saw it was. Why? Because frankly, Ben Witherington is one of the most phenomenal scholars that there is. I have been told that he has an excellent memory down to the page numbers of a book that he has read and is quite knowledgeable in many other fields outside of the New Testament." "Yet in this one, he’s talking about the New Testament and taking a shot at the bad history that is often presented. I knew I was in for a treat when the very first chapter was titled “The Origins of the Specious.” This is more of a classical humor that we often see from Witherington. Witherington says we live in a culture that is Biblically illiterate and yet Jesus-haunted. Jesus is seen all around us, and most of us have not done any real study on Jesus and that consists of more than just going to church every Sunday. The way that our culture buys into ideas on Jesus immediately has had Witherington tempted to write a book called 'Gullible’s Travels.' " "He gives an example of this when he talks about being interviewed by a major network and being asked if it could be possible that Mary was a temple prostitute who was raped and Jesus was the result. That would be why he said in Luke that he had to be in his father’s house. Yes. That was an actual question that was asked and the tragedy is that was his first question asked by this network as was said and not presented apparently as some crank theory to get his take on."

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God

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Those who have read my writings know that I am not easy to impress. Let it be noted, then, that Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God is a work I consider to be the best work on the historical Jesus in existence. If you buy only one book this year, make it this one.

The book starts with the expected survey of Jesus research, but after that, where we enter upon Wright's key thesis, we are in for sheer delight. Using the very tools of critical history that have so often been wielded to mold a Jesus that is a Cynic sage or a political patsy, Wright shows that the most likely identification of Jesus is as one who viewed himself as God's agent for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth and as the Messiah. Wright's assembly of the pieces for his conclusion is remarkable and completely believable, and made all the more effective by the wealth of detail he amasses to prove his case.

Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna, Is This Not the Carpenter?

I've taken it upon myself, as editor and primary author of Shattering the Christ Myth, to keep abreast of any new works on the subject of Jesus' existence, and produce any needed replies. The volume Is This Not the Carpenter? (INC) edited by Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna, repsents a mixed-interest entry into the subject matter, with contributors ranging from the moderate (Lester Grabbe, Jim West) to the fringe lunatic (Robert Price, James Crossley, Thompson himself). A reader generously donated the volume (which costs nearly $100!) so well devote some entries to a somewhat selective examination. As it turns out, many of the chapters do not side with the Christ-myth thesis at all.

The introduction is credited to Thompson and Verenna, but based on the content is clearly mostly Thompson at work (whether directly, or indirectly), so I'll save some time by just referring to Thompson as author. I'd have to say the intro typifies a certain naivete found in fringe scholarship, one in which absurd ideas are concocted to explain textual phenomena because far more prosaic and contextualized interpretations are either ignored, or more likely, are off the fringe writers' academic radar screen. Some time ago I reviewed Thompson's Messiah Myth (MM -- link below) and the introduction to INC repeats the same fallacious patterns, so that if you read my review, you have a refutation of the introduction in principle. But you might want them in terms of specifics, so let's have a look at some of those.

The focus is on the story of Jesus healing in his hometown (Mark 6:1-6 and variants). As with MM, Thompson excels in esoteric readings that quite frankly seem to have been pulled out of thin airt. Thompson's ignorance of more prosaic explanations emerges from the get-go; he is on from the start about an alleged "leifmotif of hands" in Mark's version (which is excessive in and of itself, as mark mentions "hands" only twice in the account), which he goes on to connect to "the figure of the Greek god Hephaestus, who was the god of crasftsmen, who himself had forged the magnificent equipment of the gods...Does the question about the carpenter identify Jesus as Jewish Hephaestus?" Let's try for something more contextual and prosaic, shall we? Mark does mention "hands" twice, but it's not because he's dreaming of Vulcan's forge (we can only be glad Jesus never healed anyone with a hammer and an anvil). Rather, the emphasis is on the hands as "zones of interaction," as we have explained elsewhere:

The "hands and feet" bit has to do with one of three "zones of interaction" recognized by anthropologists. Malina and Rohrbaugh in their social science commentary on the Synoptics [356] note that the hands and feet were a "zone of purposeful action" and "of external behavior or interaction with the environment." It includes the hands, feet, fingers, and legs. Thus the hands and feet are not presented as evidence of crucifixion but as evidence of physical ability to interact.

Of course, this is all a mountain out of an anthill by Thompson in the first place; if indeed the historical Jesus had been out healing people, and being a carpenter, the hands are the obvious instruments to use; he is obviously not going to be sawing wood, hammering nails, or performing healings with his toes, elbows, or glutes. As we noted in the review, Thompson needs to learn Albert Lord's Lesson. The one thing he does get right is that Mark is certainly being ironic by comparing the deeds done by Jesus' hands. But all that about Hephestus is just plain silly.

In other aspects, Thompson's presentation is, as in MM, remarkably high on assertion and remarkably low on real argument. Bias or trickery is seen under every rock; it is said of John's version, for example, that John "is so committed to a Christian supersessionist polemic against Jews that he freely compares the Jews negatively with Samaritans, Galileans, and foreigners in support of the presentation of Jesus as 'the savior of the world'. " Well, could it be that John is committed to that polemic because it happens to representa a certain truth? That Jesus really is the savior of the world, offering a new covenant to succeed the older? Nah, couldn't be. It's so obviously wrong we don't even need to argue it, right? (And not so incidentally, Thompson here hints at, but does not explicitly state, the usual error of turning John into an anti-Semite; if he's under that illusion, he needs the contextual clue that "Jews" = Judeans, not religious Jews.)

We also have Thompson up to his usual efforts of finding "thematic elements" repeated from an older story to a newer one, and using this to hint at ahistoricity; this is again a failure to learn Lord's Lesson, so we need not take that aspect further. He also embarks on a rather comparison of Mark's version of the story to that of Matthew and Luke, and the Lesson applies just as well.

From there, there is a brief discussion of the "Quest for the Historical Jesus." It is rather ironic for Thomspon, as a fringe author, to speak disparagingly of the "assumption of a historical Jesus" and "unquestioning acceptance" of the historical Jesus as though it were some sort of lunacy in itself. His own theory of imagined "motifs, themes and tropes" (discussed, again, in the review of MM) is suppsoedly providing the genius element all those other schoalrs are missing; they are misunderstanding the "implicit functions of our texts." Yes indeed. Alvin Boyd Kuhn felt the same way, didn't he? And he was no better at providing evidence for his views, or arguments that were any less circular than Thompson's.

As noted in the review of MM, Thompson's claims of "mythic and theological representations" are little better than the same sort of arguments produced by Acharya S. An unhealthy combintion of imagination, semantic machination (involving crashing two highly different situations together by using vague, generalizing descriptions), and selectivity is all that it amounts to, and it is simply an arbitrary exercise that can be used to dehistoricize Lincoln as easily as Thompson dehistoricizes Abraham, Moses, or Luke. It can even be used to dehistoricize one of his own contributors, Robert Price. Is this not the fringe Bible scholar?

The intro closes with descriptions of chapters to follow, but we'll deal with those on their own terms in further entries.

Chapter 1 is by formerly prominent blogger Jim West, discusses the phenomenon of "minimalism" in history. There is not much to address here; West appeals to some of the typical canards common to those who accuse the Gospels of historical error (including the rather strained idea that Matthew and Luke put the "Sermon on the Mount" in entirely different places). West uses this to argue that the Gopel authors were themselves "minimalists" in reporting history. Here, however, West is merely imitating the "higher critics" who don't even bother to look for or evaluate solutions to these alleged problems, and simply opts for the simplistic idea that such differences are best explained as efforts to make esoteric "theological points." As with Thompson, such views require more imagination than consideration.

Chapter 2 by Roland Boer is a historic survey looking back at the work of David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach. I have read Strauss alone of these three, and can certainly attest that he would fit in well with the Thompson crowd: Like them, he owed much more to imagination for his findings than practical consideration, and was well versed at inventing problems either out of ignorance or thin air. In any events, as little more than a "look back" at the history and roles of these three authors, Boer's chapter contains nothing that concerns me.

Chapter 3 by Lester Grabbe is a brief survey of non-Christian references to Jesus. It is naturally not as comprehensive as our own treatment in Shattering the Christ Myth, but does contain a handful of the same points, and in general agrees with our own conclusions. Grabbe apprently believes Jesus exists, so that he represent the reasonable sector of INC.

Chapter 4 is little more than a historical survey/sermonette by Niels Lemche, the point of which appears to be that 1) higher criticism is wonderful; 2) even moderate like Willieam Dever are brainwashed by their religious upbringing. If Lemche had an argument of any sort intended to prove his points, he neglected to include it, and so there is really nothing to address here; and if there were anything to address, it would be difficult to find it among Lemche's stream-of-consciousness meanderings.

Chapter 5 by Emmanuel Pfoh begins with the assumptions asserted by Thompson -- that the Gospels are myths reflected by motifs, not history ,and come of the "mythic mind" of ancient persons who, after all, were too primitive to properly relate the difference to us clearly. Pfoh relates a sort of agnosticism about a historical Jesus (he says there "might have been a person" by that name). However, the essay barely gets out of the realm of methodological survey otherwise; overall it merely assumes, rather than arguing for, the Jesus of the Gospels as a "mythic figure," and so contains nothing that can be seriously addressed.

Chapter 6 by Robert Price asks the question of whether a Christ-myth theory requires that the Pauline epistles be dated early. Price uses the opportunity to resurrect some of his favored corpses (like Raglan's theories), Since the date of Paul's epistles is the main focus for Price, there is little else new here. Price is still oblivious to the high-context nature of the NT world, and why that is a reason why we would not, despite Price, think that Paul had "ample occassion to revisit [materials about Jesus]" -- and here Price even commits the profound error of drawing an analogy to a "modern preacher" (from a low context society!). He also notes Dunn's similar argument (without the knowledge of high context) that Paul's readers were expected by him to recognize allusions to Jesus' teachings. Rather than educate himself about high context socieities, Price chooses a Monty Python allusion in mockery ("wink, wink, nudge, nudge") and alleges that it is merely an argument made to "wriggle out of a tight spot." He asks, "Given the whole point of appealing to dominical words, who would neglect to attribute them to explicitly to the name of Jesus?" Who would? Members of a high context society, that's who.

Other than that, Price offers a survey of views by varied outdated parties, including mythicists like Drews with no relevant qualifications, and floats the trial balloon that Marcion was the author of the Pauline epistles, and that Marcionite thought lies behind the Gospels. This is accomplished via his usual taffy-pull method of exegesis, to wit, on John's Gospel, which we will use as a sample.

John is Marcionite because "Moses and his Jews knew nothing of God." That's a wacky statement that ought to get some significant support, but here is all Price has to offer:

  • "Despite all that Deuteronomy says about Moses seeing God face to face, John denies that any mortal has ever seen the true God." Price is, as usual, oblivious to ancient idiom and too wedded to his former fundamentalism; as we have noted in other contexts, "face to face" simply means "on a personal level." It does not mean Moses "saw" God in any form other than a hypostatic manifestation.
  • "Jesus' Father is not the same God the Jews worship." (8:54-5) Oh? That makes John Marcionite? Then that also makes followers of Artemis Marcionite. And followers of Zeus. And followers of Booga, Lord of Road and Streets.
  • "All who came to the Jews before Jesus, presmably the Old Testament prophets, were mere despoilers." (10:8) That "presumably" is a failure. The reference is rather to those prior to Jesus with what Price would call messianic pretensions -- people who presumed to broker God's covenant grace -- or other false prophets of the same quality.
  • "The Father is unknown to the world," (17:25) Er -- yes. The world had no covenant with the Father. Marcion may have believed this, but so did the Jews.
  • "The Torah has nothing to do with grace and truth." (1:17) No, I have no idea how Price gets that out of John 1:17.
  • "Jesus raised himself from the dead (10:17-18)." Again, what makes this uniquely Marcionite? It isn't.

    Chapter 7 by Mogens Muller will not detain us long, as Muller does not adhere to the Christ-myth. He does, however, take for granted a number of ridiculous and/or radical ideas (e.g., dating Luke's Gospel 120-30 AD!), and since he only does take these for granted rather than arguing them, there is little to be engaged that is not conceptually covered by what we have already noted.

    Chapter 8 by Thomas Verenna is one we cannot pass by without noting that Verenna was formerly known as Rook Hawkins of the Rational Response squad. I would like to say that Verenna's scholarship has improved since those days, but while he has become more adept at assuming a scholarly tone, his ideas have not made the same graduation. His chapter is one of the longest in INC, and is narrowly focussed on Paul's "born under the law" description of Jesus in Galatians. Verenna flies with the premise that Christians created history from texts, and is apparently unaware that he has this precisely backwards; he only briefly alludes to the idea, but merely dismisses it quickly as only being a "suggestion based on a continuing trend of assumptions rather than one founded on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence." As the link below shows, that is simply false. This is no mere "assumption" but a reality of the social world of the NT. Verenna's lack of awareness here is so deep that though aware of the processes used (e.g., imitatio), he nevertheless repeatedly gets the process backwards.

    However, in the end, although exceptionally verbose (especially where Verenna reassures himself that his way of reading the texts really isn't fringe nonsense which departs from the actual use of imitation procedures), the chapter boils down to Verenna digging out past textual echoes which he feels render "born under the law" into a non-historical statement.

    Especially laughable is Verenna's tendentious effort to beg for the existence of an otherwise unknown, unattested Jewish acceptance of a crucified, humiliated Messiah, which amounts to Verenna asking "how do we know there weren't some that did accept such a thing" ten different ways; appealing vaguely to diversity in views about the Messiah in pre-Christian Judaism (while still failing to give any reason to expand that diversity into the "crucified and humilated" range), and picking out texts like Ps. 22 that only Christians after Jesus related to a crucified and humiliated Messiah.

    If this sounds familiar to veteran readers, it should. Verenna here is merely repeating the same arguments used by Richard Carrier in response to my first point in The Impossible Faith. He even has the temerity to use the figure on Inanna as an alleged crucified and resurrected deity, which, as we have shown in reply to Carrier is also false. In eessence Verenna here simply repeats Carrier's errors while either ignoring, or being unaware of, my responses.

    Even more outlandishly, Verenna interprets Paul's profession to have been "crucified with Christ" as an indication that the crucifixion happened in the realm of myth. This is yet another example of what I said to begin: It typifies a certain naivete found in fringe scholarship, one in which absurd ideas are concocted to explain textual phenomena because far more prosaic and contextualized interpretations are either ignored, or more likely, are off the fringe writers' academic radar screen. What is below Verenna's radar here is the social fact of the collectivist mindset, wherein one's identity is rooted corporately in an ingroup leader. This is what Paul means when he says he has been crucified with Christ: Because he shares a collective, virtual identity with Christ, he, too, has been crucified. Thus this statement does not, as Verenna supposes, render the crucifixion non-historical.

    Further on, Verenna simply chooses to ignore vast argument to the contrary in rendering the "rulers of this age" in 1 Cor. 2 as heavenly beings, and proceeds to argue as though it is proven that they are.

    It gets even more outlandish, as Verenna reads Paul's report of Jesus as of the seed of David, offering a false dilemma of only two possible readings: 1) Jesus' mother was impregnated by a "celestial seed" of David or 2) it is an allegory. What about it meaning Jesus was a descendant of David? Verenna dismisses it because Paul doesn't include more to satisfy Verenna, e.g., also naming Mary, or using the word "descendant" -- although in fact neither of these is necessary, nor shown to be by other appeals to Davidic remote lineage (e.g., Matt. 9:27).

    Verenna similarly mistreats 1 Cor. 11:23 and the reference to James as "brother of the Lord"; we need no treat those in detail ourselves, as Verenna's analysis is not even to the depth of Earl Doherty's on those passages, and so does not overcome our own replies to Doherty. As strained as it becomes, Verenna points out that Luke nowhere explicitly names James as Jesus' brother. This is true, but how much is needed to connect the dots here?

    Chapter 9 by James Crossley is on the topic of the historicity of John, and so will not detain us for now when our concern is the Christ-myth; we may return to it later.

    From here there is nothing of substance to address that concerns us. Chapter 10 by Thompson, and Chapter 11 by Ingrid Hjelm, are case studies using Thompson's mystical motit methodology, in which the two authors use varying degrees of hypercreativity to dig out motifs and themes in the NT that mirror the OT. Chapter 12 by Joshua Sabih is about Jesus in the Quran (!). Chapter 13 by K. L. Noll does not deal with the issue of Jesus existing, but does demonstrate a level of insanity even worse than that of Robert Price, as Noll applies Dawkins' outlandish idea of memes to Christianity and makes up ridiculous arguments out of thin air and paranoia (e.g., "...Matthew's Jesus seems to attack Paul directly in Mt. 5:19 and 7:21.").

    Thus it is that INC contributes little to the issue of Jesus' historicity. The $100 price is better spent on a night at Outback Steakhouse for four.

    Messiah Myth review

    Scripturalizing history

    Thomas Brodie, Quest for the Historical Jesus

    Continuing my watch over materials related to the existence of Jesus, I was pointed to a work by Thomas Brodie titled Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Brodie is a minor Biblical scholar who has bought into the Christ myth, and this book (hereafter “QHJ”) is part personal memoir and part argumentation for his views (such as they are).

    What Brodie's arguments are, in fact, is an extended exercise in non sequitur. Brodie's case is based on what he perceives to be the use of mimesis in the New Testament -- a process we analyzed in some depth in many other contexts (links below). Brodie's treatment of the matter, naturally, is no better than these others, and commits all of the usual fallacies and failures. For one, he assumes that mimesis is an automatic sign of non-history being reported. As we have noted repeatedly with this quote from oral tradition specialist Albert Lord, however, that is not at all the case:

    Traditional narrators tend to tell what happened in terms of already existent patterns of story. Since the already existing patterns allow for many variations, and are the result of oft repeated human experience, it is not difficult to adjust another special case to flexibly interpreted story patterns. For example: the fact that the Entry (of Jesus) into Jerusalem fits an element of mythic pattern does not necessarily mean that the event did not take place. Actually, I assume that it did take place, since I do not know otherwise. Further, it was an incident that traditional narrators chose to include, at least in part because its essence had a counterpart in other stories and was similar to elements in an existing story pattern that was consonant with elements in a traditional mythic (i.e., sacred) pattern. All of this is simply to say that it adds a dimension of spiritual weight to the incident, but it does not deny, or for that matter confirm, the historicity of the incident.

    Additionally, like other mimesis theorists, Brodie demands a great deal of imagination from the reader to discover most of his parallels, which have a tendency to be forced, contrived, or based on his own descriptions of the text rather than the texts themselves. Indeed, I would have to say that he is more guilty on this point than any of the previous authors we have examined.

    Poor Scholarship Miscellany

    Before beginning on Brodie's case for mimesis, however, we will offer a customary survey of a few other points which make it clear how dismal his scholarship is.

  • Regarding Romans 12:20, Brodie says, "...Paul was also an example of Christian manipulation; the purpose of his charity was to heap fire on the person who received it." [22] As we have noted in reply to atheist Ken Schei, who made the same error:

    As Klassen shows in his article "Coals of Fire: Sign of Repentance or Revenge?" (New Testament Studies 9, 1963, 337-50) the phrase in Proverbs is alluding to an Egyptian ritual of repentance in which the subject willingly carried embers in a bowl on their head as a public sign of repentance. It is unlikely that people in NT times were aware of this detail, but the Targum commentaries Paul would have been familiar with did still grasp that the person in Proverbs was a former enemy who had been turned into a friend.

    One can only wonder how much research Brodie did -- or wanted to do -- before reaching his conclusion.

  • Brodie naturally accepts the priority of Mark among the Gospels uncritically, but he makes an extra effort to be more uncritical than usual. He does not defend the thesis, save by pointing out that it "has taken decades of testing, of trial-and-error" along with what he believes to be careful line by line consideration. [27] For Brodie, apparently, that a lot of work has been done is sufficient to settle the issue and make dissent useless.
  • My great curiosity when dealing with Christ-mythers like Brodie is to see if they can exceed other Christ-mythers in terms of how badly they deal with secular references to Jesus. Brodie does not win the top prize on this account, but he does come close. Josephus is dismissed because Brodie has strained to find mimetic connections between Josephus and the New Testament, and so assumes that Josephus is dependent on the NT. Tacitus is dismissed in one small paragraph as simply getting his information about Jesus from Christians. [167] As our extended material on these subjects shows (see the book Shattering the Christ Myth on Josephus, and link below for Tacitus), this is simply appalling scholarship by Brodie.
  • Most stunning of all is Brodie's breezy dismissal of the role of oral tradition and transmission, which he waves away in all of four pages. It is clear from his treatment that he has not even looked into the matter in any depth. For example, noting how the text of the Gospels reflects an oral environment, he says, "But such orality was still not oral tradition, not oral transmission, it was simply a quality of ancient writing." [116] It escapes Brodie that it was a quality of ancient writing precisely because of the processes of oral transmission and tradition, by which even the contents of a text would be related to nearly all people in a society where more than 90% were illiterate. Brodie fails to put the horse before the cart, and then argues that there can't be any progress because there is no horse to begin with.

    Just as evident of Brodie's carefree approach is his response to James Dunn's observation that a presumption of oral tradition is "inescapable," and Brodie answers with a mere "nah nah nah", saying in context: "With due respect, it is not." Sadly, Brodie does not explain why it is not. The most he does is insult the scholarship of those who appeal to it, supposing that they are just taking an "easy or convenient" route to call on oral tradition. He further says that it is "incomparably easier to call on irretrievable oral tradition than to try to follow the retrievable but complex processes of literary transformation and genius." [117] Rather, he says, it is "time to free the study of forms from unnecessary complications and to bring it to a new level of maturity." [119] This is a sign of poor scholarship, to be sure, but it is also a sign of Brodie's rather inflated self-perception, a point we will return to at the end of this article. The main point here, however, is that Brodie utterly fails to grasp the overarching influence orality had on persons and literature in the NT period (for more on this, see chapters in our book “Trusting the New Testament”, and the link provided herein below).


    We may now embark upon a discussion of Brodie's case for mimesis, and it is thematic to begin with reference to an admission by Brodie that in one earlier study on the subject, he had omitted crucial information and "forced the evidence" [47] to reach his conclusions. It is fair to say that he does the same thing pretty much throughout his entire presentation on mimesis in QHJ, as he argues that the story of Elijah's experiences in 1 Kings 19:4-21 were the basis for Jesus' reported teachings in Luke 9:57-62.

    Initially, we can already see a bit of deck-stacking as Brodie is comparing five verses to 17 verses. Expanding your data pool by three times is an excellent way to assure results, though not a particularly helpful or honest one. However, it is typical of "mimetic obsessives" like Brodie, who must create as expansive a data pool as possible, in order to force or discover parallels.

    Brodie also employs the tools of the dishonest mimetic obsessive by freely defining what makes a match. He refers to Luke making "several adaptations" [53] and argues that Luke moved around material in different order, or used it different numbers of times. [55] In this, Brodie emulates Dennis MacDonald's appeal for "transvaluations" (link below) as an unethical explanation for why the data doesn't cooperate in making a true parallel.

    We may also note the extremity of Brodie's theorizing: He argues that references and allusions to the Old Testament in Paul's letters means "the figure of Paul was a work of the imagination" and his epistles were "historicized fiction." This is, as we have noted, a non sequitur; beyond that, it also neglects the option that humans of the NT world purposely enacted the texts in their lives. This, in fact, is the best option from a social evidence perspective, but Brodie dispenses with it in a mere sentence, thusly:

    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. [158]

    It does? No, it doesn't! Instead, it fits in precisely with the evidence of how people of that era applied the Scriptures to their lives. Not reliable history? Why not? Brodie never explains why it is not; nor does he see that if the Gospel authors adapted Elijah to draw a picture of Jesus, Jesus himself could certainly do the same thing on his own.

    Now, let us look at some specific claims of mimesis by Brodie. Here are two heading descriptions Brodie uses at one point:

    Elijah, fearing death, receives divine instruction

    Jesus, facing death, instructs would-be followers

    This parallel is both forced and dishonest. For one thing, Brodie himself chooses all the words for the description (save the character names), and chooses them in such a way as to create similarities out of whole cloth. In particular, note that he has chosen two descriptive words that begin with "f" and end in "-ing" to describe two very different activities, and in such a way as to make it seem that there is a parallel. In reality, "fearing" and "facing" are vastly different activities.

    Then there is the reference to "death." This is dishonest because Jesus' death is nowhere referenced in Luke 9:57-62, although one finds reference to "Jerusalem" in v. 53 that could be strained into service. One could in fact say that Jesus was "facing death" anywhere in Luke's Gospel, even as early as the birth narrative, so this claimed parallel is worthless.

    Brodie is also semantically dishonest in using "instructs" to broadly describe what occurs in both stories. What Elijah was given would far more accurately be described, in English, as "divine commands," not "instruction." Even so, it is once again a case of Brodie carefully selecting a broadly-definable English word to encompass both stories.

    There are other examples of Brodie engaging the same semantic dishonesty in these selections:

    Elijah: Wilderness journey; cannot stay lying; food at head

    Jesus: Lonely wandering; cannot lay down his head

    Initially, "lonely" and "wilderness" are not parallels, especially since Jesus is not "wandering" but following a teaching itinerary through inhabited areas. Nor in fact is he here "lonely" since he is accompanied by disciples.

    Second, Brodie has mixed around the properties of lying down, and the head; the two elements are used in entirely different ways in each story, and are not connected with Elijah as they are with Jesus. Of course, Brodie would simply explain away the incongruence as an example of "adaptation" -- which should be counted as an admission, that in reality, there is no parallel except a forced one.

    Elijah: Elisha ploughing; "I will follow after you"; turns

    Jesus: "I will follow"; do not turn/look back from the plough

    On this one, it escapes Brodie that an agricultural society will be overflowing with agricultural metaphors, and that Jesus, quite naturally, uses many of them. In contrast, Elisha is very literally ploughing, which, of course, people do with great frequency in an agricultural society. Jesus would hardly need the Elisha account to come up with the metaphor and nor would Luke.

    The use of the word "follow" is likewise meaningless in terms of parallels. The word is used nearly 100 times in the New Testament, and it is the proper word to use of a teacher/disciple pairing. It would fit Elijah-Elisha, Jesus-Peter, or even Gamaliel-Paul. Given the prevalence of both agricultural metaphors and teacher-disciple relationships, even if these parallels were meaningful, Brodie would be hard pressed to explain why they would not reflect an actual historical event in the life of Jesus as a teacher in an agricultural society.

    Brodie uses another set of parallels that appeal to uses of specific words, in many cases resulting in abjectly ridiculous selections: Brodie finds parallels established in the use of common words like "then" and "on" and "first." The most meaningful (as if such a word could be used!) is in the use of the word "depart" (1 Kings 19:19; Luke 9:59). This is indeed foolish, as the Greek word in question is used 122 times in the New Testament, and the corresponding Hebrew word in 1 Kings is used over 1000 times in the Old Testament.

    A good proof that Brodie can't manage his case without cheating is the way he forces a parallel to Luke 9:57, "I will follow you wherever you go." Part of the phrase, "I will follow you," he finds sourced in 1 Kings 19:20, but to find the rest ("wherever you go"), he has to reach over to Ruth 1:16. It seems of no matter to Brodie that both phrases together are exactly what a person wishing to be a disciple might say to an itinerant teacher. Nor does it matter to him that all of the words used are semantic commonplaces; "follow" is the most unusual, and as noted in our last paragraph, it still appears literally 1000+ times in the OT and 100+ times in the New. From a statistical perspective, Brodie's case is a gross failure.

    A final example we will consider is 1 Kings 19:10, 14, 17 vs. Luke 9:59-60. Brodie notes that the former uses "killed" twice and "put to death" twice, while the latter uses "bury" and "the dead" twice. What this is supposed to signify is hard to fathom. Of course, to make a match, Brodie must resort to his usual excuse of semantic transformation. Luke, we are to believe, turned "killed" into "bury" and "put to death" into "dead." Why he (or Jesus) cannot have simply done this without transforming Kings is not explained. The verbal dualities certainly do not prove this as such matched pairs of words are nothing atypical for a society grounded in oral communication.

    Personal Problems

    I would close with some personal observations of Brodie that make it rather clear where his problems and motivations lie. Brodie is a person not in control of his emotions and who overstates and overplays matters to an obsessive degree. He refers, for example, to a "throwaway remark" by an early teacher of his that "the words in the Gospels were not necessarily the exact words of Jesus." Because of this, Brodie says, "My heart sank." [4] Why it should have done so is not clear, unless Brodie was, perhaps, wedded to a form of literalist fundamentalism. As it is, his heart missed the points that 1) the words in the Gospels could never be Jesus' exact words, since Jesus didn't speak Greek; 2) in pre-literate societies, getting the words "exact" isn't at all important whereas getting the substance right is. Brodie's heart would never have been troubled had he received a contextual education and used some critical thinking skills beforehand.

    In another telling incident, Brodie tells of an encounter with Christ-mythers, and as a result, three episodes in which he "experienced a sudden forceful cascade of crying such as I did not know was possible, like a wave that rushed from somewhere deep in my body." [41] Later he tells of being "deflated" when another scholar told him he wasn't convinced by Brodie's presentation of his mimesis thesis. [47] Isn't Brodie supposed to be an adult?

    At the other extremity, Brodie manifests a tremendous egotism, one that is often needed for a fringe theorist to ply his trade. Just as Dennis MacDonald was hard pressed to explain why no one ever noticed Mark imitating Homer before, Brodie is compelled to contrive some reason why he's the only one to see these amazing parallels. His excuse is that, having taken the Meyers-Briggs test, he found out that his "level of Intuition was heavily disproportionate. For the first time, I began to understand why what seemed clear to me -- for instance, in comparing texts -- was not at all clear to those whose primary strength was in one of the other three qualities, especially in Sense, in other words, in gathering sense data such as measurable facts and details." [85] Elsewhere he notes that one of his books on this didn't convince any reviewers, and explains the problem by saying: "Apparently the material was too strange and time-consuming," and he comments on "the gap between me and reviewers", which did not allow them to appreciate his genius. The reasoning is thus that others simply cannot see the truth of Brodie's ideas because he's a tremendous prodigy and we're just a bunch of unintuitive, lazy, brainless peons.

    But as I've said in other contexts, that's the sort of attitude one has to have in order to live life as a Christ-myther.


    Randel Helms

    Dennis MacDonald


    Oral tradition

    Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth -- Review Part 1 and Part 2