Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Move over Sherlock, Jane Austen was there first


Cork County library celebrated the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice on Monday with three actors depicting scenes from the book, of which I've become a complete devotee. My obsession started only a year ago when PD James brought out Death Comes to Pemberley, a crime novel conceived as a Pride and Prejudice sequel. More of this another day. But crime does have some connection to what I want to say now.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice last month, my interest was piqued by something I had previously missed. The reprobate Wickham having eloped to London with Lydia, Mr Bennet attempts to track them down. He traces them from Brighton as far as Epsom, where, he finds out, they had transferred to a Hackney coach. Now comes the interesting bit.  Mr
Bennet’s next move is attempting to discover the stand and number of the hackney-coach Wickham had hired, in order to get what information he could from the driver.  (Sadly this initiative was not crowned with success.)

Two surprises for me here. Firstly, that in 1813 a licensing system for Hackney carriages was already in place. And secondly, I was full sure that Sherlock Holmes was the first fictional character to detect using this method.  But no, almost 90 years before the great detective tracked down a villain by means of a Hackney carriage number, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Jane Austen anticipated this detection technique.


A Hackney coach around 1800 from a Jane Austen blog
As to the licensing of Hackney carriages, this, I now discover, was instituted in 1654. That’s about two centuries earlier than I would have guessed.

I have further and better particulars if you want them: extracts from Pride and Prejudice and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and some information about a 1654 Parliamentary ordinance for the regulation of Hackney-coachmen. Also some comments on the word Hackney.

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. Two posts worth reading:


    >  23 Oct 2012  Carrier's initial reaction to Brodie coming out as a Jesus mythicist. 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.” 

    >  29 Nov 2012  Review of Brodie’s book. Thinks his case is invalid. But the fact that
Brodie is a proponent of ahistoricity adds to its respectability.
 

(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 commission found that Fr Tom Brodie’s work was “imprudent and dangerous for the faithful”, and the Master of the 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”.