Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fr Brodie and the fiction of Jesus


Hot on the heels of the Fr Flannery affair, comes the latest strange story involving Irish priests. This time it is the turn of Fr Tom Brodie to be in the spotlight. Fr Flannery, you may recall, has been disciplined by his order for questioning that priests were part of Jesus' plans for his Church. Fr Brodie has taken this a step further by suggesting, if reports are to be believed, that Jesus never existed (here & here). Fr Brodie is a biblical scholar, who founded the Dominican Biblical Insitute in Limerick, and made his claims in a book published recently called 'Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus.' The 'blurb' on the back cover of his book reads as follows.

In the past forty years, while historical-critical studies were seeking with renewed intensity to reconstruct events behind the biblical texts, not least the life of Jesus, two branches of literary studies were finally reaching maturity. First, researchers were recognizing that many biblical texts are rewritings or transformations of older texts that still exist, thus giving a clearer sense of where the biblical texts came from; and second, studies in the ancient art of composition clarified the biblical texts' unity and purpose, that is to say, where biblical texts were headed. The primary literary model behind the gospels, Brodie argues, is the biblical account of Elijah and Elisha, as R.E. Brown already saw in 1971. In this fascinating memoir of his life journey, Tom Brodie, Irishman, Dominican priest, and biblical scholar, recounts the steps he has taken, in an eventful life in many countries, to his conclusion that the New Testament account of Jesus is essentially a rewriting of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, or, in some cases, of earlier New Testament texts. Jesus' challenge to would-be disciples (Luke 9.57-62), for example, is a transformation of the challenge to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19), while his journey from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and beyond (John 2.23-4.54) is deeply indebted to the account of the journey of God's Word in Acts 1-8. The work of tracing literary indebtedness and art is far from finished but it is already possible and necessary to draw a conclusion: it is that, bluntly, Jesus did not exist as a historical individual. This is not as negative as may at first appear. In a deeply personal coda, Brodie begins to develop a new vision of Jesus as an icon of God's presence in the world and in human history.

Essentially, he seems to be arguing that Jesus never existed, but was a literary creation of the Gospel writers. Fr Brodie is no longer in post at the Institute (whether he jumped or was pushed is a little unclear) and reportedly has been 'banned from any lecturing, teaching or writing while a probe is under way.'

The truly odd part of this story, for me, is that apparently Fr Brodie has held these views since the '70s but has only now chosen to make those views public. I'll leave aside the question as to why one would wish to remain a Christian, much less a priest, under such circumstances. It is beyond me how one could do so while questioning the very existence of the founder of our Church. But how could something like this go undetected for 40 years? Or if detected, unchallenged? Was there no one in his order looking after his faith life in any way? Or was he simply allowed to plough his own furrow until it blew up in his face (to really mix metaphors!)?

This of course is unlikely to end well. Fr Brodie's views are, if they truly are as reported, to put it bluntly heretical. If he continues to publicly espouse them I can see no way that he can continue as a priest in the Catholic Church (or indeed how he could function in any Christian denomination). Those who already do not love the Church will decry any action taken against him as bullying, suppressing scholarship, denying him his right to speak freely, etc. However, it will send message to the world that un-orthodox views are not to be tolerated within the Church, which is surely a good thing. People are already confused enough about what the Church teaches without others muddying the waters with this kind of material.

Please pray for Fr Brodie, his order, friends, & family, & all those affected by this situation. 

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