Sunday, January 27, 2013

Priest 'Jesus didn't exist' shock

I don't often copy a Sun headline but today I'll make an exception. For unless you read the Irish Sun you'll have missed this one entirely.

Hot on the heels of the Father Flannery affair (silenced for denying the priesthood) comes the next strange story involving an Irish priest. Now it's the turn of Fr Thomas Brodie, who has taken unorthodoxy a step further by suggesting that Jesus never existed, and has resigned as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick, which he helped set up. Whether voluntarily or otherwise, isn't clear.

Irish Sun 21 Jan 2013. Left hand column: Fr Flannery story. Main story: Fr Brodie. The headline is a play on John 11:25 "I am the resurrection and the life.” In British editions the headline was “Pulpit Fiction”
This story appeared in the Irish Sun but nowhere else in mainstream media, except a single mention on RTÉ radio that morning at 6:15. 

I have to say that until I read the Sun’s story I had never heard of Thomas Brodie. But now that I've looked him up I see he is widely described as a renowned biblical historian and New Testament expert.  And amongst New Testament scholars he caused something of a sensation last October when he published his book describing how he came to the view that Jesus never existed: Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery (cover illustrated below). A book I was quite unaware of, as I've never seen it reviewed. I've written to the Irish Catholic to complain about this silence, so we'll see where that leads. It has however been big in the blogs that concern themselves with New Testament studies.

It needs saying that there's nothing new about suggesting Jesus didn't exist, as this Wikipedia article attests. But until this week I used to regard the denial of the historical Jesus as the work of cranks and amateurs. Clearly this is now no longer the case.

By the way it turns out there is something called HJ studies. Amongst aficionados that’s shorthand for Historical Jesus studies.

Fr Tom Brodie and his book.
Portrait from Irish Catholic April 10 2014

Adaptations of other literary works

New Testament scholars routinely assume that the Gospels reflect oral traditions that go back to Jesus. Tom Brodie, it seems, argues there is no case for making this assumption: the gospels are adaptations of other literary works according to him, borrowing extensively from the Hebrew bible, other Jewish writings and in some cases (like the virgin birth) Greek mythology.

To suggest that the gospels rely heavily on these literary sources isn't new in itself.  Biblical scholars have long accepted this.

The standard line on the gospels (as I understand it) is yes, a bit of mythology has crept in, and quite a lot of fixing the facts to accord with Old Testament prophesies; but you can peel all that away and underneath there's a real historical Jesus who lived, preached, was executed by the Romans, and started a new religious movement. During his lifetime and after his death, stories circulated about him orally, and after a period, perhaps 40 years, perhaps more, perhaps less, these stories got written down, mixed in with other stuff. New Testament scholars try to work out which are the most accurate versions of the stories, and what the other stuff is.

Fr Brodie is saying no, the gospels are other stuff from start to finish. This is known as the ahistoricity of Jesus.  Note that what's really new is that a respected bible scholar and a priest should say this. That’s what justifies the headline I've used today.

Here are three blogs I've consulted:

(1) The Way Out There.  This is by a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest. He can't see why one would wish to remain a Christian, much less a priest, while believing in the ahistoricity of Jesus. “It is beyond me how one could do so while questioning the very existence of the founder of our Church.”  This is an interesting question. Maybe it's the football supporter analogy I toyed with in my post about Tony Flannery. Or maybe Brodie finds quite as much inspiration for a religious life in a myth as in an historical personage.

(2) Dr Richard Carrier - a professional historian and published philosopher who claims to be a prominent defender of the American freethought movement, and a world-renowned author and speaker. Writing of his initial reaction to Brodie coming out as a Jesus mythicist, he says the book is a “huge development”. “There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars.” Later he reviewed Brodie’s book, and while he thinks Brodie’s case is invalid, the fact that a scholar of such standing is a proponent of ahistoricity adds to its respectability. I can’t give links because as at April 2018 his blog appears to be deleted.

(3) Vridar (a pen-name) who was expelled by his church (unsure which, not Catholic) for going public with critical questioning. He's in full agreement with Brodie.

Subsequent note, October 2015

In March 2014, an international church commission found that Fr Tom Brodie’s work was “imprudent and dangerous for the faithful”, and the Master of the Dominican Order, Fr Bruno Cadoré confirmed that the sanctions already imposed by the Irish Province should remain in place. Not sure what these sanctions were. Possibly just to be sacked from his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute. There was a question of him being dismissed from the order, but I don't know if that was ever proceeded with. The biblical institute was wound up in 2015. This information comes from the The Irish Catholic 10 April 2014 & 15 October 2015.

Brodie for his part claimed his book aims to “develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God’s presence in the world and in human history”.


  1. I agree with the Church of Ireland priest. If Brodie's lost his faith in Jesus how can he continue to be a Christian, never mind a priest? Most people would define "Christian" as a follower of Christ (ie Jesus) or his teachings. So by definition he isn't Christian anymore and should find a new life as something else outside the priesthood. Not to say he's wrong in what he says and it's very interesting, but he can't possibly be a Catholic priest and hold those views any more than you could continue claiming to be an atheist if you'd started believing in God suddenly. BTW, can I be an aheist and a Christian? If I don't believe in God but do follow the reported teachings of Christ (as a man, not as God) is this possible?

  2. No. That’s being a humanist. To be a Christian you must believe Jesus was the Son of God and redeemed us from sin. Christians have debated what that actually means for 2000 years, but that’s the minimum. I can imagine Fr Brodie being able to believe all that and at the same time believe Jesus to be a mythic rather than historical being. The deeper you enquire into it, the less can be known of the historical Jesus, even if there was one. The myth is all.

  3. No, if he doesn't believe Jesus existed he can't believe he was the Son of God and redeemed us, ie the minimum requirement for being Christian!! Actually a brief "Google" makes it clear it's not as black and white as that - Websters dictionary apparently has a definition of a Christians as being merely one who follows Jesus' teachings, while the encyclopedia Britannica apparently (again, according to Google) somewhat unhelpfully defines a Christian as anyone who callse themselves a Christian. In which case I'm wrong, Fr Brodie can still be a Christian. But I'm also right because he can't continue as a Catholic priest!

  4. Well I am inclined to say "so what" if Jesus didn't exist?. The myth is definitely all. Whoever invented his ideas was onto a good thing anyway. The search for the divine and the wish (and I would say) ability to experience the holy seems to be part of human nature. Christianity is just one of many thought systems that have been invented to help people relate to this. At their best (?Buddhists, Quakers?) religions do offer people a method of relating to god as they experience him. Religions have definitely gone down some very damaging byways. Examples are too numerous to mention - the Crusades, the behavior of RC priests, 9/11, homophobia, the claim to be the only Way, to name but a few. But many people have thrown the baby out with the decidedly mucky bathwater. Babies are to be treasured.

    I am not sure that an atheist is in a position to say "To be a christian you must believe Jesus was the Son of God and redeems us from sin" . I hope this priest is able to stay within the church. It needs all the help it can get.

    Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday reminded us that Leviticus in addition to banning homosexuality also banned haircuts, tattoos, eating shellfish and wearing clothes made of two kinds of material mixed together. Everything changes.

  5. Fr Brodie belongs to a small band of people with courage, who speak up against the odds, who place their jobs on the line - and in many instances - their lives. 'Jesus' is the main character in a story which a Jewish scribe wrote in the first century BC. 'Jesus' obviously represents the Jewish people, for instance the episode of the two fish and five loaves is indicative of how the Jews shared and cared for one another, still do. The main players for the formation of Christianity were the Gauls, Romans, Greeks and the Jews. The philosophies and beliefs of these mentioned were instrumental in forming Christianity during the period 100BCE to 300CE.

    1. The success of Christianity is beyond reason. To preach a failed, crucified Messiah is the recipe for oblivion. Nevertheless something special happened at that time. Brodie cannot cite the «sources» of that «non sense». People joined the group and gave their lives for it. For a mythic creature?

  6. Does anybody have any more recent information on Father Brodie or any contact information for him? I am researching this story.

  7. Regret I have no info later than October 2015, and no contact details. I should myself be interested in any follow-up to this story. Feel free to email me on for any further comments. Peter

  8. Thomas Brodie has never realized the unique case of a religious Jew teaching against the mainstream Jewish teaching in a so extraordinary way. That was the case of Jesus. Revered as the Messiah by his disciples with such conflictive views as to be accused by the sacred hierarchy of Sanhedrin in full and then Crucified by the Romans. Where in the «mythology» is a case to be copied? Where among Hebrew text to be rip-off? Even Paul fought against this teaching being himself a Pharisee. But then, has Brodie meditated Paul’s letters? Why Paul converted his strong believes to this teacher new way to become one of the colonnades of that new «sect» the initial Christians? Is Paul also an inventio? What about his bones in Rome? No, impossible account. The Messiah hung like a criminal in a cross. Inimaginable. Even today the Jews expect that triumphant Messiah. If you want to go to oblivion, go and teach that the Messiah was crucified. Come on, Brodie. Show me the pagan sources of such «non sense». Peter and Paul gave their lives precisely for that «non sense».

  9. Thomas Brodie is a leading NT scholar (and a believing catholic to boot). He has beyond doubt taken all of these matters into account in reaching his conclusions. And his credentials make his conclusions worthy of consideration, even if most Christians will dissent from them.