Monday, April 25, 2011

Select Review: Maurice Casey's "Jesus of Nazareth," Part 1

This is an interesting book in many ways, but requires a certain number of hedging cautions. Casey is widely reckoned as something of a curmudgeon with an arrogant streak, and it does show here often – even if in sometimes entertaining ways.

We’ll start with a broad summary before taking some time to comment on specifics within over the next few entries.

This book is interesting because Casey makes it his business to take on what he sees as extremists in Jesus research. On one side, this includes scholars like Witherington and Blomberg. But on the other side it includes the likes of Robert Price, Rene Salm, and Frank Zindler. Casey allots far more space to the latter group, though, and reserves particular scorn for Zindler. And to be fair, he does have mostly positive words for the work of N. T. Wright.

While we might find this amusing, I am also inclined to take nearly everything Casey says with a grain of salt – even when he’s roasting someone like Zindler. This is because I have found Casey to frequently be someone who seriously overestimates his own prowess and critical thinking abilities. Casey specializes in an area where there are few other specialists (Aramaic) and plays this to the hilt, often pouring scorn (and often rightly) on those who err for lack of knowledge or curiosity on that subject matter. But he also grants himself thereby the right to pour scorn on persons with more knowledge than he has in other areas of specialty, and as a result, frequently makes mistakes.

For example, in this book he commits several errors from lack of knowledge of the social world of the Bible - the specialty of the Context Group. But his sole treatment of the Context Group is a mere two pages on one of their more idiosyncratic members (Craffert) and his theories. (Not surprisingly, one of the book’s endorsees is James Crossley – himself a frequent victim of his own arrogance and lack of knowledge – who issued a rather misplaced critique of the CG which I examined in the November 2009 E-Block.)

Casey also bathes his importunings in the designation “critical history,” but it becomes clear sometimes that “critical” means little more than what Casey wants to be correct. I do not say this of the entire book; it is only at isolated places – where what Casey wants to be true becomes endangered – that he turns on the faucets full force.

With that preliminary made, let’s engage a few points along the way.

21-23 As noted, Casey has a little scorn for everyone. Here, the Jesus Seminar is taken to task as having “grievously misled anyone who believed what it said.” In particular, the Seminar is critiqued for not having anyone on board who knew Aramaic.

On the other hand, this section also criticizes Witherington for an alleged dishonesty involving the hiring practices of Sheffield University. The only source for this claim, however, is the testimony of a shrill blog entry which itself shows little evidence of being a reasoned account of any related matter, and is supported as well by untrustable sources like Crossley. It is too late to untangle the matter at this point, but it is rather telling that Casey seeks to broadly dismiss Witherington as a scholar (he is mentioned nowhere else in the book!) on that basis of such a petty incidence.

27-8 Blomberg had claimed – rightly – that Casey dismissed stories such as the changing of water to wine based on the presumption that the miraculous did not happen. Casey claims rather dishonestly that this is “not the position I took,” and describes his view rather as being that:

I drew attention to the obvious fact that changing water into wine ‘is, in normal circumstances, impossible,’ whereas Jesus does it abundantly, producing no less than 120 gallons.

But this is exactly what Blonberg said it was – Casey has simply dismissed the event based on the presumption that the miraculous could not happen.

Casey also adds the he pointed to parallels to Dionysus, and directs and accusation at Blomberg for not mentioning this, but here, Casey commits the standard errors in appeal to those stories (link below), to say nothing of erring in assuming that such parallels would prove anything about historicity in the first place.

Here also, Casey makes far too much of John 2:6 referring to the stone pots at the Cana wedding as being for “Jewish ceremonial washings,” as though this somehow was at odds with Jesus’ disciples being Jewish. This is an example of what Casey calls “critical history” – he reads into this identification some sign of “Gentile self-identification of the Johannine community in conflict with the Jews.” This (and the note of a “chief steward” for the wedding) may well indeed signify that John’s audience has Gentiles, and would sensibly indicate John explaining things to them in terms they understood – a variation on what Casey elsewhere rightly calls bilingual interference, but of a cultural sort.

However, to go as far as Casey does, and hypothesize some sort of “conflict” with the Jews, is simply imaginative nonsense. Likewise, it goes too far to see this as indicating a “Gentile origin” for the story. Casey also offers the standard canard about the Temple cleansings (see link below).

Related to this, Casey now and then asserts that a source being able to be translated back into Aramaic is a pointer to authenticity. It may be helpful as a point, true, but it is not definitive either way. The first Christians spoke Aramaic too, and a Skeptic could easily point out (in fact, they have) that people who speak Aramaic can make up stories in that language, too. It does place a burden on the doubter, of course, and to that extent Casey would be correct.

On the other hand, that Casey cannot turn a story back into Aramaic is hardly the indication of inauthenticity he wants it to be. His own studies on “bilingual interference” should tell him that it is not always possible to communicate so precisely between two languages, and that compromises may be needed to effectively get a point across to speakers in another language. Here, Casey falls victim to the modern perception that “word for word” relation of a story is of more relevance than relation of the substance.

37f Readers will find of interest Casey’s treatment of various Christ-mythers, including Price, Wells, and Zindler. Although Casey’s treatment is far from thorough, some of his general points mirror my own. It is rather ironic, though, to have Casey accuse Zindler of ruling out the miraculous a priori when he has done the same thing himself now and then (as above).

63 Of interest as well is Casey’s account of Mark 1:41. Readers may recall that Bart Ehrman makes much of the textual variants in this verse, in which Jesus either has “compassion” on a man he heals, or is “angry” with him. According to Casey, the answer is that what underlies both translations is an Aramaic word which means to “tremble” or be “deeply moved” – and can also indicate anger. But to that extent, Casey thinks Mark was incorrect to render the word as “anger” and was suffering from “bilingual interference” – whereas apparently he thinks Matthew and Luke (assuming Markan priority) made a judicious and accurate correction.

It would be interesting to see what Ehrman would make of this!

65f One of Casey’s ideas – apparently derived in part from Crossley – is that Mark, though written mostly in 40 AD, is an “unfinished first draft.” However, it is apparent that by this, it would have been more correct for Casey to say it was unpolished, not unfinished. Here Casey makes the unwarranted logical leap that simply because Mark had various imperfections that could be improved upon, that Mark himself thereby would have considered his work unfinished. This is manifestly a non sequitur.

I have just pinpointed a few points of interest, and will do so in future entries. Overall, it would be fair to say that this book contains mostly non-controversial claims, and one might even find some use for some of Casey’s points within his own specialty interest (Aramaic). However, it remains advisable, because of Casey’s tendency to play the curmudgeon, to take what he says with a grain of salt and sift it critically.

Links:

Dionysus

Temple cleansing



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