Review of Maurice Casey, Chapter 3: Historical Method
By Mike Kok
Here Casey covers the standard methodology in the study of the HJ: multiple attestation, double dissimilarity, embarrassment, plausibility, Aramaic, and so on. He remarks that the criterion of multiple attestation only works if the sources can be shown to be independent (e.g. his example of Jesus exorcizing demons by power of the devil is in Mark and Q material) rather than later Gospels relying on Mark, though some might quibble with the dismissal of John or Thomas as late/secondary and thus of no value as independent testimony (it depends on whether John or Thomas are judged to be dependent on the Synoptic tradition, but cf. Casey’s treatment on both in the appendix pg. 511-534). Casey rightly critiques dissimilarity for producing a Jesus that existed in a vacuum, neither influenced by his native Jewish heritage nor influencing his immediate followers. It also strikes me as historically dubious to label anything as “unique” and without parallel, as even the example given of “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44/Lk 6:27) has some precedent (Prov 25:21-22) and Paul appealing to the scriptures (and Jesus’ logion?) issues similar commands (Rom 12:14-21). Much better is the criterion of embarrassment, which argues that it is unlikely that the early church would invent material that was counterproductive to their missionary efforts, and the growing discomfort with the baptism of Jesus is a perfect case in point (Matthew has John desire to be baptized by Jesus, Luke has John imprisoned before the baptism, John drops the baptism altogether but keeps the Baptist as a witness to Jesus, Gospel of the Hebrews has Jesus ask what sin he committed that he should get baptized). However, Casey notes, “[t]he early church was originally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus, and very little that he said or did was embarrassing to it” (105). Finally, historical plausibility helps avoid anachronisms and emphasizes the HJ as an identifiable, albeit crucifiable, first-century Jew, yet it depends on how one reconstructs the cultural milieu of first century Galilee or Judea.
Casey’s distinctive contribution is his ability to reconstruct the underlying Aramaic behind the sayings material, helpfully transliterated for those like myself who cannot read it. Even those who may not share Casey’s judgments on the historicity of certain sayings or who have no interest in the HJ whatsoever may still find difficult passages in the Synoptic Gospels to be illumined by Casey’s approach. For instance, instead of reading the jarring Mk 2:23 “to make a road” (o9do_n poiei=n) as suggesting that the disciples are preparing a royal highway for a Davidic king who has the authority to override a biblical command (cf. Hooker, St. Mark, 102-105), Casey suggests there is a simple mistranslation of the Aramaic lema ‘ebhar (“to go along”) as lema ‘ebhadh (“to make”). Thus, Mark’s disciples do not transgress any Law in taking the Peah, grain left in the edges of the fields for the poor (Lev 23:22) (110, 64-65). In another example taken from Q material, Matthew correctly identifies the proper herbs to be tithed (Matt 23:23) while Luke seems to wrongly suggest that “rue” was tithed (Lk 11:42), but Luke coming from a Greek cultural background may have misread the Aramaic for “dill” (sh-b-th-ā) as “rue” (sh-b-r-ā) (110, 82-83). A third example is Mk 1:41 “being angry” (o0rgisqeij), which is the harder reading so likely changed by a scribe to “being filled with compassion.” Scholars puzzle over the anger, suggesting it was directed at the man himself or demonic forces causing the affliction, but Casey argues the original Aramaic regaz can mean “angry” but has a wider range of meanings including “tremble” or to “be deeply moved” (113). Casey finally hints towards the argument later in the book that the Greek title “the Son of Man” developed from an Aramaic idiom (115- 119), so eventually I will go where angels fear to tread and engage the thorny Son of Man debate with the foremost expert on it. However, Casey makes two important qualifications: the need to have controls when hypothesizing Aramaic sources (e.g. on pg. 111-112 he critiques two scholarly attempts to find an Aramaic original behind John’s prologue as he finds no evidence for Aramaic sources behind John’s Gospel and the pericope is understandable on its own terms), and even if a passage can be translated into Aramaic does not entail it must go back to the HJ (e.g., pg. 119-20 gives reasons for why Lk 17:20-21 is probably not historical even though Meier attempted to reconstruct an Aramaic original). Granted, some reviewers may be more hesitant about hypothetical Aramaic sources or propose that these Greek texts can be understood on their own terms without appealing to translation errors or interference from one language to another. For instance, the reference to “anger” may reflect that an earlier exorcism underlies the account in Mark as e0cebalen (he threw/casted out) in 1:42 also seems to evoke the language of exorcism. Yet Casey’s proposals merit further attention and succeed in demonstrating the importance of Aramaic to study of the HJ or to source/form/redaction criticism of the Gospels.
Finally, the closing section of the chapter has an eye towards the beginning student or the educated layperson in covering some of the critical texts (Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls, Sirach, 1 Enoch, etc) and archaeological discoveries in reconstructing the Jewish world of Jesus. Of special interest is the abuse of archaeology by both the faithful and the faith-less. Here he discusses frauds like the Turin Shroud or the James Ossuary (127-128); even if the latter is proven authentic it does not tell scholars what they do not already know (Jesus’ had a brother named James, cf. Gal 1:19). He also critiques the extreme view that Nazareth did not existed (Zindler, Salm) based on a problematic handling of archaeological and textual evidence (128-32). To his observations I would add Acts 24:5 “Nazarenes” was likely an early name for Jesus followers deriving from Jesus the Nazarene and still in use by Jewish Jesus followers according to Epiphanius and Jerome, but the theory that the evangelists invented a small insignificant village like Nazareth as Jesus hometown has more credibility on the internet than among trained scholars. Casey’s overview of scholarship (ch 1), analysis of the source material (ch 2) and discussion of method (ch 3) has set the stage for his reconstruction in the rest of this massive and very learned book (**note: we will not review every chapter in depth but only now highlight particular chapters and leave it to the reader to judge how these methods are applied to the Baptism, the Twelve, kingdom of God, Last Supper, birth/resurrection traditions, etc).