Author: Maurice Casey
Bibliographic info: 272 pp.
Publisher: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014.
Buy the book at Amazon.
I wasn’t planning on reading this book for a while, but I couldn’t resist. What can I say… I find it quite amusing that there are people who do not believe Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. Sure, you might not consider him to be the miracle-working, divine Son of God that the New Testament portrays him to be, but to say that he didn’t even exist is quackery.
And quackery it is. Jesus mythicism is not a mainstream view in the field of historical Jesus studies. It is a silly fringe theory that, as Dr. James McGrath has pointed out many times before, is the atheist version of Young Earth Creationism (YEC). Both Jesus mythicism and YEC reject the overwhelming consensus in regards to the conclusion that should be drawn from data (the Earth is billions of years old; Jesus was a historical person), and both positions seem to be primarily driven by an agenda rather than the data (adherence to a particular interpretation of Genesis; the need to one up Christians by saying, “Not only do we not accept that Jesus was resurrected but we also reject that he was even a historical person”).
Nevertheless, Jesus mythicism seems to have attracted a small crowd on the interwebs. I’ve spent a decent amount of time on various atheist internet forums (e.g. reddit.com/r/atheism, thinkingatheist.com/forum/, etc) and have seen that there is definitely a stream of thinking in the atheist crowd that readily accepts the Jesus mythicist position. Unfortunately, they also seem to mostly be people who also think that Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great are scholarly works on religion, leading them to miss out on the intellectual and critical rigor one finds in actual academic religious books, thus leaving themselves susceptible to lapping up any absurd anti-Christian drivel they come across (such as Jesus mythicism).
This book by Maurice Casey is divided into the following chapters:
- Historical Method
- The Date and Reliability of the Canonical Gospels
- What is Not in the Gospels, or Not in ‘Q’
- What is Not in the Epistles, Especially Those of Paul
- What is Written in the Epistles, Especially Those of Paul
- It All Happened Before, in Egypt, India, or Wherever you Fancy, but there was Nowhere for it to Happen in Israel
If you’ve read Casey’s book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, then some of the stuff you read in this book will be familiar. But while Jesus of Nazareth did not really engage Jesus mythicism, Jesus: Evidence and Arguments or Mythicist Myths is a direct response to mythicist arguments.
The introductory chapter was a bit peculiar. It begins with Casey arguing at length with people who have disagreed with him in the past. The point of this was to show how people’s presuppositions can color the conclusions they arrive at, but the time spent on this seemed a tad bit excessive (and not terribly relevant). Casey also discusses the key players in mythicism, saying that they “claim to be ‘scholars’, though I would question their competence and qualifications”. This list includes Dan Barker, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, L.P. Gandy, N.T. Freke, Thomas Verenna, Dorothy Murdock, Robert Price, Thomas L. Thompson, Frank Zindler, Steven Carr, Neil Godfrey, and a few others.
A key point that Casey is making in the introduction (and which is repeated throughout the book) is that Jesus mythicists simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The writings of many of these folk (Gandy, Murdock, Carrier) clearly display their lack of knowledge of the appropriate fields of knowledge (the only real exception being Robert Price, though his work on the subject isn’t that much better than Dorothy Murdock’s). Another point Casey is making is that Jesus mythicists are often found to have been raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment, thus their mythicism is driven more by an agenda than a legit appraisal of the data. Casey remarks that a mistake mythicists “make repeatedly” is to let their presuppositions color their conclusions and cherry-picking evidence to get the answers they want. Mythicists do this “because they cannot even realize that their notion that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical figure is a product of their present faith, not of historical research”.
I will not go into detail about the rest of the chapters. Suffice to say, Casey does a very adequate job at dismantling some of the absurd mythicist arguments. And he does so with a very sharp and caustic wit. For example:
[Jesus mythicism] belongs in the fantasy lives of people who used to be Fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now.
Another example (containing Casey’s take on Thomas L. Thompson’s work The Messiah Myth):
In short, this is the most incompetent book by a professional scholar that I have ever read.
Maurice Casey sure doesn’t hold anything back when he writes!
One thing which I wish Casey had of done was spent more time interacting with Richard Carrier’s looney ravings. Sure, a lot of what Carrier says can’t really be distinguished from the paranoid delusions of the Zeitgeist crowd (e.g. his pointing to the Sumerian goddess Inanna as an earlier example of a deity that was “crucified” and “rose again”), but Carrier at least attempts to give mythicism a veneer of legitimacy with his grandiloquent writing style. If only Carrier would try to rectify his ineptitude in biblical studies then maybe his writings would be taken more seriously!
Overall I enjoyed the book and I will be reading through it again. I definitely recommend the interested reader to purchase it. Amazon says the paperback version will not be out till mid-March, but the Kindle edition is already available (and is quite inexpensive).