The Quest for the Historical Jesus – Again!

The Irish media have drawn attention to the investigation by the Dominican religious order of one of its members, Thomas Brodie, the author of a 2012 book, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Allegedly, Brodie stands accused of Jesus Mythicism.

Jesus mythicism is the position adopted by some investigations into the New Testament that Jesus did not exist as an historical figure, that the accounts in the NT are likely to refer to a composite portrait based on a number of individuals and may not be based on the existence of a single person. This is a minority point of view. However, the Jesus myth idea has been revived, it would appear, Brodie’s book. Some see the conclusion that he has reached as undermining Christian faith. Maybe so.

However, it is important to note that the famous quest for the historical Jesus (Strauss, Schweitzer et al.) ran into the sands a long time ago. We have grown used to the idea that the Jesus of faith trumps the Jesus of history.

While saying that most scholars would accept that the balance of probability points to the existence of a real person called Yeshua who lived in the first century CE.

Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, has written:

“Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic [the Old Testament] anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.”

This is simply to acknowledge that the whole debate needs to be taken seriously. There are more than a few scholars from the discipline of academic history who would support the claim that Jesus as an ‘historical figure’ did not exist. What this would appear to mean is that the existence of Jesus does not stand up to a scrutiny when rigorous academic criteria for the attribution of historical existence are applied. This is what we mean by historicity. On the other hand it is traditionally argued that the historicity of Jesus is better attested than for many of his contemporaries. What is at stake is the field of historical enquiry into the person of Jesus as a ‘respectable academic discipline’. Some would argue that this may not be possible. Enter Brodie and his book. We simply cannot ‘prove’ the existence of Jesus.

And that, perhaps, is the nub of the issue. We need to desist entirely from a quest for the historical Jesus, a lesson we learned long before Thomas Brodie’s book appeared on the scene.

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