Maurice Casey (Part 1 of 2): An Academic Life

Maurice Casey, picture from Mark Goodacre’s blog

As he was fond of telling people, Maurice Casey (1942-2014) was born during an air raid in Sunderland. While memories of his family were warm, those of his school years were not. At what he simply described as ‘a minor public school’, he began his life-long study of ancient languages. As was typical, he started with Latin and Greek and when he went to Durham University in 1961 to study Theology he would begin learning Syriac and Aramaic, languages which would become central to his academic career. Other languages, such as Ge’ez, would soon follow.

Maurice had gone to Durham with the expectation of becoming an Anglican priest like his father but within a year of starting would find himself no longer identifying as a Christian. He regularly cited the Theology degree as the cause of his loss of faith though it seems he particularly enjoyed the debates that followed with his fellow students and staff. It was also at Durham where he would meet his PhD supervisor, C.K. Barrett, who steered Maurice towards what would become the defining theme of his career: the Aramaic background to the sayings of Jesus.

Before he began his more advanced study of Christian origins, Maurice would gain another degree in Classical and General Literature and then teach Classics at Spalding High School for Girls (1967-1971). This too was a time he remembered fondly but problems concerning his non-belief were beginning to emerge when he was barred from teaching Theology. It was such intellectual and educational restrictions that spurred him on to do doctoral work relating to the reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus and he would turn to Barrett to supervise his work on the ever controversial ‘son of man problem’. Rather than a wide-ranging study of the sayings of Jesus, Barrett guided Maurice more specifically towards the influence of the term ‘son of man’ in Daniel 7 which led to Maurice looking at receptions and translations in Syriac, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, and Ge’ez. The PhD was awarded in 1977 and a shortened version was published in 1979 under the title, Son of Man: Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7.

Maurice, of course, published extensively on the ‘son of man problem’ throughout his career. Put crudely, he argued that the phrase ‘son of man’ was an Aramaic idiom (bar enasha, and variants) which a male Aramaic speaker like Jesus could use to refer to himself while incorporating a generic reference to a wider group of people (a rough analogy might be the English ‘one’, as in ‘one does not behave in such a manner’). Once the Aramaic idiom was translated into Greek by the Gospel writers it inevitably began to take on the status or look of the more familiar title, the Son of Man, which the Gospel writers creatively developed. Maurice argued that it was possible to detect and reconstruct the sayings which go back to the Aramaic idiom (and, he would further claim, probably the historical Jesus), such as Mark 2.27-28, and those sayings which were inventions of the Gospel writers, such as Mark 13.26.

After his PhD, Casey held a research scholarship at the University of Tübingen and temporary teaching positions, including two years at St Andrews where he worked closely with the Aramaic specialist, Matthew Black. In 1979 he was appointed to a permanent position at the University of Nottingham where he remained for the rest of his career. The early years of this appointment were stressful, not least because he identified as ‘irreligious’ in a Theology department at a time when overt non-belief was far less common in the field. He would face similar issues in trying to publish his second book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology. Maurice argued that the historical Jesus should be seen as a prophetic figure who never identified himself with God in any significantly ‘strong’ sense that would have compromised Jewish ‘monotheism’. Early speculation about Jesus after his death was, he claimed, in line with Jewish speculations about exalted and ‘divine’ figures but again without compromising Jewish ‘monotheism’. It was not until John’s Gospel at the end of the first-century that the now more familiar full identification of Jesus with the God of Israel was made as Johannine Christians began to take on ‘Gentile self-identification’ over against Judaism. This is not to be confused, as it sometimes is, with the old idea that ‘Hellenistic’ rather than ‘Jewish’ views generated the highest Christology; identity and conflict were central to Maurice’s thesis on the development of Christology. The book was based on the Cadbury Lectures delivered at the University of Birmingham in 1985 at the invitation of Michael Goulder, a fellow non-believer who had been supportive of Maurice. Yet despite the prominence of the Cadbury Lectures, the contents were perceived to be ‘anti-Christian’ by certain scholars and it was not until 1991 that the book was published.

In the decades following the publication of From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, Maurice’s career developed rapidly as he was awarded major research grants and promotion to reader and then professor. He published on why John’s Gospel was not a suitable source for reconstructing the historical Jesus (Is John’s Gospel True?) and highly technical books which reconstructed Aramaic sources behind Mark’s Gospel (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel) and behind material common to both Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel (An Aramaic Approach to Q). In 2007 he finally published a comprehensive study on ‘son of man’ under the confident title, The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem.

During the 1990s, Maurice was also among the first to work on topics that have since become popular in New Testament scholarship. Alongside his technical work on Aramaic and translation studies, Maurice was utilising detailed cross-cultural studies of psychosomatic illnesses to understand the healings and exorcisms attributed to Jesus. Maurice also highlighted some of the antisemitic contributions to, and assumptions of, the still influential Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the first volumes of which were published under the shadow of Nazi Germany by scholars with strong Nazi sympathies. However, Maurice also looked at the anti-Jewish and antisemitic influences on those scholars who did not identify so readily with the Nazi party and the of ‘unconscious’ influences on scholarship. He also began to look more at the anti-Jewish tendencies in contemporary scholarship, claiming that New Testament scholars, especially Christian ones, were afraid of the ramifications of ‘Jesus the Jew’, despite rhetoric to the contrary.

After his retirement Maurice started working with his close friend, Stephanie Fisher. He published the book he had always wanted to complete and which would solidify his reputation as one of the leading figures in historical Jesus research: Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching (2010). The book is an extensive development of his ideas about locating Jesus in Jewish prophetic traditions, often with some surprisingly ‘conservative’ conclusions about the reliability of the Gospel tradition. But what was most distinctive about Maurice’s work was that he produced a series of Aramaic reconstructions of sayings and passages attributed to Jesus. Few of his peers were or are sufficiently competent in Aramaic to carry out such a task, let alone make such reconstructions accessible for a general audience.

While he intended to write a history of Christian origins, his final publication was his most polemical book, a critique of ‘mythicism’ called, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (2014). As many readers of the blogs will know, central to the phenomenon of ‘mythicism’ is the argument that there was no such figure as the historical Jesus and it is a phenomenon that, while not new, has gained a degree of online prominence outside academia. This book seemed an unusual move for Maurice given the technical nature of his previous work and because ‘mythicism’ is often identified as being ‘anti-Christian’, much as Casey was. However, he was concerned at what he saw as a similar sort of dogmatism that had tried to exclude his earlier work and, alongside a number of mainstream scholars, he was concerned at the popular influence of the idea that Jesus did not exist.

Details of Maurice’s early life and early career are found in Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (2014) and in this article/interview. C.K. Barrett also wrote a foreword to Maurice’s festschrift. Maurice’s life has been discussed on other blogs by e.g. Jim Davila, Mark Goodacre, Larry Hurtado, Chris Keith, Dominic Mattos, and Jim West.

Part 2, on Maurice’s influence, can be found here.



4 responses to “Maurice Casey (Part 1 of 2): An Academic Life

  1. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Thank you, James, for a wonderful remembrance.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this James. I am sad that I didn’t get chance to meet Maurice when he came to Sheffield. Having read comments and tributes from other scholars alongside this piece, I can see he would have been my kind of guy.

  3. Pingback: Academic Obituaries | Harnessing Chaos

  4. Pingback: Book giveaway: Maurice Casey’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (2010) | The Bible & Class Struggle

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