Mike Kok: concluding thoughts on Casey and the historical Jesus

Review of Casey, “Ch 9: Jesus’ Conflict with His Opponents”, “Ch 10: Christological Terms”

By Mike Kok

This will be my last review of Casey’s magnus opus before I retire back to the world outside of blogdom J.  I skip sections on upbringing, baptism, monotheism or ethics, for though I differ on an interpretation here or there, overall I agree with Casey’s portrait of a pious eschatological prophet.  I would further like to wed Casey’s reconstruction with the social implications noted by a Horsley or a Crossan, such as how Jesus’ reign of God or ethics confronted social or economic disparities in first century Galilee/Judaea or Roman imperialism mediated through the native aristocracy and temple elites (he touches on this with a footnote to James Crossley on the impact of urbanization on pp 166-167, poverty & riches on pp. 305-8, opposition to Herod Antipas on pp 338-44, perceived abuses of Temple administration on pp. 413-15).

So to turn to Ch. 9, Casey introduces Scribes, Pharisees, or Priests.  It is notoriously difficult to reconstruct Pharisees by critically sifting later rabbinic literature, as well as ideological biases in Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls (“seekers of smooth things”), Paul or the Gospels (cf. Neusner & Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees) but the sources at least agree on a distinct party who tried to be accurate interpreters of Torah and apply it to all aspects of life by handing down expanding oral traditions.  Casey defends conflicts over Sabbath, purity, tithing, etc. as belonging to the ministry of Jesus.  For example, Mk 2 has a conflict when the disciples take the Peah (Lev 19:9-10) on the Sabbath, which is not against biblical law but restricted in some later sources.  Against commentators who interpret Jesus’ reply to mean he possesses a greater authority than David to overrule the Sabbath, or judge his analogy as so irrelevant or muddled (e.g. reference to a wrong high priest, but Casey’s solution on p. 323) to be historical (J.P. Meier, “The Historical Jesus and the Plucking of Grain of the Sabbath,” CBQ 66 [2004]), Casey argues it was assumed David took shewbread on the Sabbath (1 Sam 21:4; cf. Lev 24:8; Jos. Ant. 3.255-56).  Again, when challenged why he healed a withered hand on the Sabbath when not a life-threatening condition, Jesus extends the principle to save a life to include healings as saving the person (Mk 3).  The same applies to “overthrowing” food laws in Mk 7: this cannot be the case for Jesus as the context is eating with unwashed hands (non-biblical tradition) and non-kosher food was not an issue, it is contradictory to attack tradition (qorban) for overriding the Law (honour parents) and then violate a clear commandment on food, and further debate in the church (Gal 2; Rom 14; Acts 10:11-16) makes it unlikely Jesus erased distinctions of clean and unclean. Casey does not push it as far as Crossley, for on the parenthetical aside ‘cleansing all foods’ (7:19b) Casey writes “this comment satisfies an important need of the early church, which really did need to drop Jewish food laws, because of the success of the Gentile mission” (329).

His case for a halakhic Jesus is convincing and in line with solid Jewish or Christian HJ scholars (e.g. Vermes, Sanders, Fredriksen, Levine).  It is time to stop talk of Jesus “transcending” the Law or contrasts of “compassion” with “purity”, “universalism” with “ethnocentrism”, and so on to denigrate Judaism.  Coming from the Christian tradition, I would add Christian identity does not need to construct Judaism (or Islam for that matter) as a negative foil.  To quote Judith Lieu in Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World, “[t]here can be other relationships with difference and alterity than the oppositional, although it is the latter that has tended to dominate studies of identity and otherness in antiquity as well as in the present” (269).  But a few critiques: I question if the Pharisees plot to destroy Jesus as early as Mk 3:6 is historical rather than Mark’s literary portrait to foreshadow deadly opposition from the beginning, as opposed to  Luke-Acts’ more sympathetic portrayal (Pharisees dine with Jesus, warn of Herod’s plot, defend apostles [Gamaliel] or Paul).  Would Pharisees plot to kill a non-Pharisee who rejected their extra-biblical traditions?  Jesus’ death is satisfyingly explained in he formed a popular movement centred on a kingdom, had a demonstration in the temple and was executed as a royal pretender.  Second, I am not sure about “orthodox” as a scholarly descriptive term, though Casey defines it carefully as “[t]he embodiment and defence of Jewish identity by applying the Law to the whole of life, a process which has always involved the expansion of detailed enactments” (320).  JZ Smith insists on a polythetic mode of classification that jettisons notions of a single definitive feature possessed by everyone in a class, revealing considerable diversity over a basic marker like circumcision (cf. “Fences and Neighbours: Some Contours of Early Judaism,” Imagining Religion). “Orthodoxy” is insider language where those who violate “our” socially-constructed boundaries are seen as “deviants.”  This should not detract from his excellent discussion.

Finally, ch 10 covers Christology.  First, I agree Jesus was primarily understood as teacher and prophet; a comparison with John the Baptist throughout the tradition and aphorism “a prophet is not without honour except in his home town” points in that direction.  Casey notes to not read later Trinitarian categories into “son of god” as this could describe Israel collectively, holy persons (Hanina ben Dosa) or angelic beings and there is a marked evolution of divine sonship in the Gospel tradition (pg 388 – Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” once in Mk 13:32 [but implicitly in parable of the tenants or answering in the affirmative at Mark’s trial scene] and once in the “Johannine thunderbolt” in Q [Matt 11:27/Lk 10:22]) versus 12 times in Luke, 17 in Matthew and 23 in John).  About the category Messiah, Casey argues against its historicity on two fronts:  the absence of Christos in Q and few references in Mark (due in part to Mark’s own “messianic secret” theme first pointed out by W. Wrede, where almost all except supernatural agents are blind to Jesus’ messianic identity and Jesus silences the few who briefly perceive it, until his true identity in publically disclosed at the trial and the cross), and the term “anointed one” was not specific enough for the hoped for Davidic king.  After all, prophets, priests or kings were anointed and there was diversity in expectations (cf. Neusner et al, Judaisms and their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era; Collins, The Scepter and the Star).  However, there is some evidence Jesus envisioned himself as future king, from the Q promise that his own Twelve will sit on 12 thrones (Matt 19:28/Lk 22:30), messianic language of Q (Lk 7:22-23/Matt 11:4-5) with the Qumran parallel 4Q521, the “son” as distinct from servants as heir of the vineyard in the parable (the Davidic king is also god’s son [2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 2]), the titulus “king of the Jews”, to possibly vindication as Son of Man.  About the last item, Casey make a strong case (pp 358-88) that behind it is an original Aramaic idiom making a general statement about humanity in general, though with particular reference to the speaker.  This makes best sense in “foxes have holes, birds have nests, a/the son of man has no place to rest his head” or “the Sabbath was made for [the son of] men, not [the son of] men for the Sabbath, therefore a/the son of man is lord of the Sabbath.”  When rendered in Greek as ho huios tou anthropou (the Son of Man), it becomes a title and by the link with one like a son of man in the clouds triumphing over the beasts in Dan 7 comes to influence Christian belief in Jesus’ parousia (coming).  In support, the apocalyptic Son of Man reflecting a later Christian midrash of Dan 7, Ps 110 and Zech 12:10 (they will see one they pierced) was argued as early as Norman Perrin’s classic Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus.  I admit I don’t have the Aramaic competence to engage Casey expertise on this issue (see RBL reviews of his earlier volume on the Son of Man here and here) except to note possible arguments for future son of man sayings in the possible influence of the Similitudes (though both the dating and its “Son of Man” concept visa-vie Enoch are debated), they are multiply attested throughout the tradition (Mark, Q, M, L, perhaps behind John 1:51; 1 Thess 4:16-17) and as early as Paul the term Son of Man was quickly replaced by kyrios (Lord), but this may only indicate these oracles were formulated very early.  But could Jesus move from the idiom to understand the corporate symbol of the triumph of one like a son of man (i.e. the saints or Israel) as an adequate reflection of the vindication of saints in general and the speaker (Jesus) in particular, especially since Casey accepts the authenticity of a saying on the role of a/the son of man (human witnesses) with Jesus himself as chief witness in the heavenly court (Lk 12:8-9; Matt 10:32-33; Mk 8:38)?  Finally, Casey argues for an underlying authenticity of a prediction that a/the son of man will go (die) as it has been written and be vindicated after an indeterminate symbolic “three days”, but I wonder if virtually all precise predictions of death/resurrection are ex eventu and again part of Mark’s literary picture of dull disciples who cannot fathom the divine plan. But I will let readers chew on the rest of Casey’s brilliant volume.

Mike Kok

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2 responses to “Mike Kok: concluding thoughts on Casey and the historical Jesus

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

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

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