Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies...

It's hard to know where to start on this issue but there's a lesson in here somewhere about intellectual honesty in biblical studies. I suppose I should start by giving a brief run down about Thomas Brodie and his latest publication. 

Thomas Brodie is a Dominican priest who is also a biblical scholar par excellence. He has done ground breaking work over the past 40 years into how the New Testament was constructed and how the gospel writers used their sources. Brodie saw the gospels as a form of rewriting which used the literary techniques of the Greco-Roman world in reshaping many texts to create the gospels and other New Testament texts. I think he is largely correct and I have done a lot of work on the Gospel of Mark which backs this up in relation to that author's reshaping of 1 Corinthians and converting a theological letter into a narrative gospel. 

His most recent book which was published last year is called Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The controversial part is right on the first page where Brodie writes:

"...the Bible accounts of Jesus are stories rather than history. The accounts are indeed history-like, shaped partly like some of the histories or biographies of the ancient world..."

While arguing for the non-existence of Jesus is nothing new and not unheard of in scholarship (where the term is mythicism) it is controversial when it comes from the pen of a Dominican priest. Sensing trouble over this publication Brodie did not consult the Church first - something which he was required to do. This resulted in a ban from publishing, teaching and preaching and Brodie resigned his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. This resignation was not of his choosing I am sure of that. I was a student of Brodie for the past 5 years and he would be in his office before 8am every day and would not leave until at least 9pm - 7 days a week. He was extremely dedicated and passionate and would not walk away from his work lightly.

The whole thing is a very sad end to a very significant career. Brodie, amongst other scholars, has helped further the notion that the Bible is literature and should be treated and approached like any other ancient text. However, I find that this is not the majority position in Biblical studies and this a matter of intellectual honesty. Something which I alluded to in my latest paper is how the religious stance of scholars unconsciously and consciously dictates how one approaches the text. My example was the Eucharist as presented in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and Mark 14:22-25. From a literary perspective there is no reason to posit that Mark may not be dependent on 1 Corinthians (I'm paraphrasing here a lot). The case satisfies most of the criteria for judging literary dependence as set out by myself, Brodie, MacDonald etc. Yet, most, while recognising the similarities, would reject any connection in favour of influence from liturgical tradition stemming from a 'historical' Eucharist event. In fact, I was told by the external examiner in my doctoral defence that liturgical influence was more likely. I argued against him that invoking an unknown tradition must always be in the weaker position against an earlier and similar extant text. He remained unconvinced. He was a priest. This did not surprise me. I believe that there is a tendency in biblical studies to re-affirm the historicity of the texts because of the religious beliefs of the scholar. Saying that - some of the of finest scholars I know are deeply religious men and women. It is not universal.

I am, in no way, saying that as an Atheist I am more objective. Objectivity is elusive and unobtainable in the search for history and the exploration of literature. There is always interpretation. However, I am not overly concerned with the historicity of the texts. I don't think history was their objective - although many treat it as if it was. Rather, I approach a text like a classicist would approach Virgil or Homer - and they don't believe in Zeus. I am not a mythicist but I think there is very little that we can know about the historical Jesus - but that's for a future blog post.

What it comes down to is intellectual honesty in biblical studies and that can be fairly limited depending on your background. Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it. He was a priest in the Catholic Church and as a scholar that cost him his intellectual freedom - freedom to say what he wanted was in a narrow window that wouldn't rock the ark. Too much and he was silenced. Someone remarked to me that he was intellectually dishonest in not saying this sooner and that this was underneath all his previous research and we did not have the full picture. My answer to that was that he had little choice until now. He made clear in the first page of this book that if he didn't say it now he never would as he is an ageing man. He threw caution to the wind and paid the price.

With the majority of biblical scholars coming from seminary backgrounds there are likely to be many out there who are restricted in what they say for fear of intellectual ostracism and also many others seeking to reaffirm the texts. What are we left with? We are left with a discipline lagging behind other in a similar area. Those studying intertextuality in the classical world are light years ahead of where we are in biblical studies. But there's change in the wind. Every conference I hear more and more papers from a literary perspective and see more studies on the impact a person's religious beliefs have on their research.

Ultimately intellectual honesty in biblical studies can be limited and depending on what background you are from you had better watch what you say...

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