on January 19, 2011
This book is the Magnum Opus of Dr. Maurice Casey, the Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, U.K. He has skillfully and understandably crafted one of the finest documents on the life and times of the historical Jesus. He does a thorough job of surveying many of the attempts from the last century or so, critiquing them fairly, wisely and in a deeply scholarly fashion. He is an expert in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke and uses this expertise to the fullest advantage in conveying a picture of Jesus which is neither so completely revised as to be unrecognizable as anything but what the author wishes to find nor so hopelessly literal as to discourage any kind of intellectual honesty. He takes neither path. Rather he, as a self-admitted non-Christian, goes where the evidence leads as an historian who has no preconceived conclusions. Using all the decades of learning at his disposal in every aspect of the texts handed down from before the first century B.C.E. including the fullest range of knowledge thus far gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls he takes us on truly honest search for the historical Jesus. If there are no explanations for miracles, he doesn't conjure them up. He describes them as they are in the text.
Of course, this document will not prove to be an apology for conservative Christianity because he clearly comes to a non-conservative conclusion on the virgin birth and the resurrection. However, he does so because of where his historical facts lead not because he deliberately removes them from the old old story of Jesus and his love.
This is a fascinating and important book, not least because its conclusions will satisfy nobody's agenda. Casey uses a high level of knowledge about the texts, and the Aramaic original that underlies it to painstakingly construct a picture of who the Jesus of history really was. Surprisingly, a great deal of Matthew, Mark & Luke are left intact. Unsurprisingly, the virgin birth and the resurrection retellings are not accepted as historical.
The value of this historic quest is open to question - Casey sticks with his chosen 3 gospels and this really is the open option left to anyone. The New Testament is, for better or worse, our only reliable or partly reliable source on the subject. What Casey has done is raise the bar very high on the qualifications required to tackle this subject. One wishes this would reduce the number of voices pretending to be knowledgeable but I expect this hope to be vain.
I don't agree with everything Casey suggests or argues in this book. But I do believe his effort to be honest and responsible, and for that this book should be valued and praised.
on September 25, 2011
This is really quite a book. Casey is certainly not shy of letting the reader know when he thinks another scholar is acting incompetently. In fact, I found his treatment of some other scholars to be a bit harsh at first, seeing how he cut down some scholars whom I like, but then after I found myself agreeing mostly with many of his assessments as he weaves his criticisms, and praises to be sure, of various scholars throughout his book as a whole.
His main arguments are as follows, the Gospel of John is useless for reconstructing the historical Jesus as are the apocryphal gospels (treated in an appendix Other Gospels), so we are left with the three synoptic gospels for garnering historical information about Jesus of Nazareth. Most scholars have down played the Jewishness of Jesus and too readiy dismissed the probable as the implausible because of this bias ie. Bultmann, the Jesus seminar, Jesus' illiteracy among other issues. He would also date Mark the earliest gospel to the 40's CE where most critical scholars would place it just before or shortly after 70 CE and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Mark and Q (more fragmented than the Q project proposes) are our earliest sources. Problems therein are to be solved by reconstructing an Aramaic original to see where linguistic interference caused "corruption" of the sources - however, his solutions are unlikely to convince all, perhaps many, since his evidence is his own Aramiac reconstructed original.
Some concerns of mine: since he cites so many authors works it would be beneficial to have a bibliography at the end of the book, also a better index is needed, certainly a scripture index would be helpful. Yes, it would make the book maybe 5% longer, but 70% more user friendly as it is not so obvious where he will treat certain topics and I do not remember so well just where he referred to x's other book and there is no bibliograhy at the back to remind me of the books with which he is interacting.
A more serious concern is his claim to be doing independent history as noted in the subtitle, An independent historian's review of his life and teaching. My question is independent of what? whom? etc. In all that I can recall he almost exclusively interacts with other biblical scholars, some scientists, and anthropologist but no classical scholars. One biblical scholar who was trained in classics at university, Paul Barnett he derides as a conservative defending John's historicity (44). However, he also fails to note that Robin Lane Fox first and foremsot a classical scholar, in his The Unauthorized Version 1991, argues that John's gospel is more historically reliable than the synoptics. So his independence seems to be that from many biblical scholars and also classical scholars. It my opinion, it would have been better for him to show why classical methodology does not apply to biblical studies in the manner in which this is typically employed in reconstructing ancient history, if that is his position, in his third chapter on historical method.
Yet, what I really liked about this book is that he treats his synoptic sources as reliable until proven to be otherwise, with the result that Jesus really did confront the Jerusalem leadership and direct the Isaiah Vineyard parable against them. What I am still a little concerned about is that he fails to identify that sometimes we are far more certain of our classical sources than we are of our biblical sources, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius were aristocratic administrative contemporaries, Suetonius worked for Pliny in Pontus-Bithynia and Pliny writes Tacitus to inform him of this. We have no such communicatiions preserved among the authors of the Synoptic Gospels as to their relationships, but later church traditions, so we are always on more shaky ground where reconstructing their relationships and awareness of the other's writings than for the forementioned classical writers, we even know that Pliny critiqued Tacitus's work for him, but can only guess as to how the Synoptic authors related to each other's writings and if they critiqued each other or did this internally within their community or just produced their writings without critique from anyone.
Overall a very good book which is a significant contribution to the debate on the historical Jesus of Nazareth, well recommended even if a little lacking in self-criticism at times.