Michael Kok on Casey

Review of Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth Chapter One: The Quest for the Historical Jesus

by Michael Kok

The 00s has been much quieter compared to the heyday for the study of the historical Jesus in the 80s/90s (Sanders, Horsley, Wright, Crossan, Borg, collectively Jesus Seminar, etc) and recently William Arnal questioned the academic legitimacy of the quest (cf. Symbolic Jesus, 73-78), so time will tell if Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth or Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus (see Loren Rosson’s review) help revitalize this area.  I approach this review of select chapters with a fellow postgraduate with a bit of trepidation, knowing Prof. Casey’s expertise on the subject far exceeds my own.  This book is a must-read, especially Casey’s proficiency in reconstructing the underlying Aramaic of the sayings material (close to the ipsissima verba?), detailed knowledge of the Jewish background and unrivalled expertise on the Son of Man debate.  He describes his agenda clearly: “The purpose of this book is to engage with the historical Jesus from the perspective of an independent historian.  I do not belong to any religious or anti-religious group.  I try to use evidence and argument to establish historically valid conclusions” (2).  This statement may strike some as too positivistic, but since Casey is not so ideologically invested in the texts (unlike apologists/debunkers) I think he does attain a level of scholarly “objectivity.”

Chapter one provides a lay-out of the land.  He rightly rejects categorizations of a “first quest” ended by Schweitzer, a “no-quest” period interested in the kerygmatic Christ, a “second quest” initiated by Käsemann and finally a “third quest.”  Instead, he examines ideological trends that lead to certain reconstructions of Jesus.  Thus he surveys the de-Judaized Jesus of Nazi scholarship (Fiebig, Grundmann, Kittel) (4-9), the radical Form critical approach pioneered by Bultmann (9-12), Vermes and Sanders work in situating Jesus within Second Temple Judaism (13-15), the non-apocalyptic Jesus of Crossan and the Jesus Seminar (18-21), or the work of Wright, Chilton, Dunn, Hengel & Schwemer, and Meier (45-58).  Many criticisms are on target.  He complains that the Form Critics often arbitrarily assigned specific episodes such as typical halakhic debates (e.g., Sabbath in Mk 2:23-28) to the church rather than Jesus, a trap even Vermes and Sanders fall into when they want to minimize conflict in Jesus’ ministry by appealing to form critical conclusions.  He critiques Crossan for using Hellenistic Jewish sources that there is little evidence Jesus came into contact (Philo, Wisdom of Solomon, the Sentences of Sextus, also for pointing to Greco-Roman Cynicism) and the Seminar for constructing a Jesus in opposition to fundamentalism that “suits their intellectual ambience” (20-21).  Criticisms of more conservative scholars such as Wright and Meier are fair and balanced, noting their distinctive contributions yet also reserving criticism at some points such as Wright reading apocalyptic metaphorically or particularly Meier’s 4th volume for misunderstanding Jewish expansions on Torah.  However, the polemic really flies in the section “From Bad to Worse” (21-45), where chief targets appear to be the backlash resulting from the Seminar (and much less reputable sources a la Da Vinci Code) vs very conservative evangelicals/Catholics whom the author judges as lacking a truly critical historical methodology (e.g., Witherington, Blomberg, the Pope), the Context Group (especially its first full reconstruction of Jesus in Pieter Craffert’s The Life of a Galilean Shaman) or some high-profile mythicists (Price, Wells, Zindler).

Overall, this is an excellent introduction for readers who may not be aware of developments within historical Jesus scholarship.  My only criticism is that it is maybe a bit too polemical at times against specific scholars or institutions, or is in risk of positing an essentialized “Jewishness” in critique some scholars reconstruction as not Jewish enough (e.g., on the flight from apocalyptic “Whether explicitly or part of a hidden agenda, this has been a significant aspect of attempts to avoid the Jewishness of Jesus ever since” p. 3; Crossan’s method “reduces his Jewishness” p.20; Arnal’s “rejection of Jesus’ Jewishness” p. 24; “Meier’s work is not that of a first-century Jew immersed in Judaism” p. 58).  It seems to me that reconstruction depends on how one solves the source-critical issues.  If one argues for Q as a single Greek document that shows signs of redactional activity (e.g., the coming Son of Man sayings), Thomas as an independent work that preserves at least some authentic sayings that multiply attest with an early layer of Q and Mark a post-70 CE product as a new “myth of origins”, then it is possible for Jesus to be a non-eschatological sage within the Jewish wisdom tradition and even to use Greco-Roman Cynicism as an analogy (not to say Jesus was a Cynic, but that Cynicism may be useful only for comparative purposes).  On the other hand, if one agrees with Casey on the general reliability of the Synoptic tradition, Mark as a much earlier text loosely translated/edited from Aramaic, a more chaotic model for “Q material” (variety of Aramaic or Greek sources) and of Thomas as a late secondary work, than an apocalyptic, halakhic Jesus is certainly preferable.  This is what makes Casey’s second chapter on the sources so valuable and Casey presents a solid case in support of his source critical conclusions, but my fellow reviewer will take up the next chapter.

Michael Kok


3 responses to “Michael Kok on Casey

  1. Pingback: Historical Jesus: chi lo ama lo segua « Paulus 2.0

  2. Pingback: Mark and the Historical Jesus « Euangelion Kata Markon

  3. Pingback: How to Do a Responsible Book Review | Euangelion Kata Markon

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