Review: Jesus of Nazareth (Maurice Casey) (Part III)

Title: Jesus of Nazareth – An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching

Author: Maurice Casey

Bibliographic info: XVI + 544 + 16 (indices)

Cover: Soft

Publisher: T&T Clark (2010)

ISBN-10: 0567645177

ISBN-13: 9780567645173

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to T&T Clark for the review copy!

See Part I of the review here.

See Part II of the review here.

Chapters 6-9 cover various aspects of Jesus’ teachings and interactions with society. In chapter 6 (pp. 199-235), Casey discusses Jesus’ view on God which he breaks down into two main components: 1) the fatherhood of God, and 2) the kingdom/kingship of God. An interesting feature of this chapter is Casey’s Aramaic reconstruction of the Lord’s Prayer.

The topics of exorcism and healing are the focus of chapter 7 (pp. 237-79). Casey maintains that Jesus was the most successful exorcist and healer of his time, but not unique. Casey also provides his own definition of a “miracle” suited to the purposes of historical investigation:

A miracle is a remarkable deed performed by an unusual person believed by their followers to be in close touch with a deity. (pg. 239)

The subject of what exactly Jesus’ ethical teaching entailed is discussed in chapter 8 (pp. 281-312). Casey focuses upon such topics as Jesus’ view on divorce, wealth and poverty, Torah, repentance, and the parable of the Good Samaritan. When he discusses the issue of observing Jesus’ ethical teaching, he says:

[Jesus' teaching] belonged originally to a vigorous attempt to recreate Jewish identity from a prophetic perspective. It was not a set of systematic propositions, to be taken literally and observed literally at all times and in all places. It was a deliberate attempt to move people’s behaviour in certain directions. It is thus perfectly consistent with vigorous criticism of the stinking rich, and of those people who sought to impose the orthodox form of identity on other Jews. It was also consistent with Jesus’ vigorous action and with cleansing the Temple, an action which was bound to upset the chief priests and scribes who ran it, especially as he taught daily in the Temple, controlled the halakhah in the outermost court, and condemned them in terms which made quite clear that they would end up in Gehenna as punishment for the damage they did to Israel. (311-13)

Chapter nine (pp. 313-52) pertains to the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents (e.g. Pharisees, Herodians, etc). Christological terms and titles are the subject of chapter ten (pp. 353-400). Casey explains the terms of “prophet” and “teacher” as applied to Jesus, as well as the three major Christological titles of “Son of Man”, “Son of God”, and “Christ”. Those of you who are familiar with literature on the “Son of Man” will no doubt know that Casey is a chief expert on it and has written a definitive book on it: The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem, (LNTS 343; London: T&T Clark, 2007). Here, in Jesus of Nazareth, Casey discusses the meaning of the Aramaic term bar(e)nash(a) that underlies the Greek ho huios tou anthropou. Also discussed is which of the sayings in the Synoptic Gospels are authentic sayings of Jesus, as well as a fascinating explanation of how the Aramaic term became a Christological title. Naturally this brings up the issue of the Gospel’s midrashic use of Dan. 7.13. Casey does not, however, view this reference (e.g. Mk. 14.62) as going back to the historical Jesus. He says:

[...] Jesus used the ordinary Aramaic term bar(e)nash(a) in an idiom which people used to avoid speaking directly of themselves in humiliating circumstances, including their deaths, and in circumstances where they would be especially important, as when he forgave sins, and would be vindicated by resurrection. After his death and Resurrection, the term was translated into Greek and found in Scripture in Dan. 7.13, where it referred to his second coming. The early church and the evangelists then produced secondary sayings. (399)

In summary of how Jesus spoke of himself, Casey writes:

During the historic ministry, he [Jesus] was convinced of the central importance of his role, but he sought no title of any kind. He used of himself the terms ‘prophet’, ‘teacher’ and ‘son of man’, all of which were used of other people too. He used ‘beloved son’ of himself only once, indirectly in a parable [Mk. 12.6]. (398)

Casey’s purpose in chapter 11 (pp. 401-53) is to reconstruct the events surrounding Jesus’ death in Jerusalem (e.g. the triumphal entry, the betrayal, the last supper, etc). Interestingly, not only does Casey think that Jesus really expected to die in Jerusalem but he even viewed his own death as an atoning sacrifice for Israel’s sins. Casey does not agree with the Markan narrative which places the charge of blasphemy as the reason why the chief priests  wanted to put Jesus to death. Regarding the burial, Casey believes that Joseph of Arimathea wanted to bury Jesus to prevent the land from being defiled (cf. Deut. 21.22-23) and not because he was a follower of Jesus (Casey thinks the other two crucified people were still alive and thus did not need to be buried). He also thinks that Jesus was probably buried in a common criminals’ tomb and that the empty tomb tradition is not true and furthermore, that it did not even originate in the early church.

Chapter twelve (pp. 455-98) tackles the million dollar question of whether Jesus really was resurrected from the dead. As a summary of what Casey thinks on this issue, I present the following two quotes:

The following conclusions may therefore be drawn. Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind. He was probably buried in a common criminal’s tomb, where his body rotted in the normal way. He had however predicted his Resurrection in terms which did not imply bodily resurrection or an empty tomb. After his death, his bereaved followers, including Simeon the Rock and some other members of the Twelve, as well as Jesus’ brother Jacob, had visions of him, which they interpreted as Resurrection appearances.  (497)

[...]

It follows that we should not blindly accept the traditional Christian view that the Resurrection of Jesus was God’s vindication of him. Some people will prefer the view of most Jews who were in Israel at the time, that the Resurrection did not really take place. On the other hand, there should be no doubt, even on the most rigorous of historical criteria, that some of the first followers of Jesus has genuine visions of him after his death, and that they interpreted these as appearances of the risen Lord. In other words, the historical evidence is in no way inconsistent with the belief of the first disciples, and of many modern Christians, that God raised Jesus from the dead, and granted visions of the risen Jesus to some of the first disciples, and to St Paul on the Damascus Road. (498)

The book closes with a chapter presenting the overall conclusions of the book. Strangely, the book contains no Scripture index which I would have really liked to have been included. Also, the bibliography is just a paragraph pointing to a few footnotes which contain key literature on the historical Jesus but I think that type of bibliography in this type of book is fine.

Overall, Casey’s main contribution to the study of the historical Jesus is his emphasis on the criterion of an underlying Aramaic tradition. Did he prove the centrality and value of this criterion for understanding who the historical Jesus really was? Only to a certain degree in my (uninformed) opinion. Even if you grant that Aramaic reconstructions of possible Semitic sources are useful in determining the plausibility of whether a saying in the Gospels actually does goes back to Jesus, it is flawed logic to then assert it provides us with the actual words of Jesus (e.g. “Once again, we have Jesus’ exact words…” pp. 418-19). Even if Casey’s hypothesis of an Aramaic source underlying Mark’s Gospel is true, I don’t see how it necessitates that the source is providing us with the ipsissima verba of Jesus instead of just the ipsissima vox (if even that).

Personally, I found Dunn’s emphasis on the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition (in Jesus Remembered) to be more compelling than Casey’s emphasis on an underlying Aramaic tradition. Needless to say, anyone interested in the historical Jesus is going to have to read this book by Maurice Casey.

2 responses

  1. Wow, amazing where some of these so-called scholars will go!
    K, myself I liked Craig Keener’s book: The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Again, we are “stuck” with both the historical Church and Her Canon! Here we have more than “moderate confidence”, but the place of ‘faith seeking understanding’. :)

    • Hey I just thought I would point out that Larry Hurtado and I have just published a book on the “son of man” issue, a good portion of which is devoted to interacting with Maurice Casey’s research. It’s entitled, Who Is This “Son of Man”? The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: Continuum, 2011). Larry Hurtado is currently discussing it on his personal blog.

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