Tag Archives: Historical Jesus

Podcast: An Interview with Robert Myles and Michael Sandford

BSOThe latest Biblical Studies Online podcast is an interview with Robert Myles and Michael Sandford. It is available on iTunes. If you don’t have/want iTunes, it also available here. RM&MSThey have both recently published books on the Gospels an issues relating to class, poverty, homelessness, and scholarly assumptions. The interview is set in a pub and you may also want to pick out your favourite tunes as you go along. 80s songs include Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ and The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?’

Also of interest are the publications of Myles and Sandford:

Robert Myles, The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014)

If homelessness typically entails a loss of social power and agency, then why do New Testament scholars so often envisage Jesus’ itinerancy as a chosen lifestyle devoid of hardship?

In this provocative new reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Robert J. Myles explores the disjuncture between Jesus and homelessness by exposing the political biases of modern Western readers. Drawing on the ideological politics of homelessness in contemporary society, Myles develops an interpretative lens informed by the Marxist critique of neoliberalism and, in particular, by the critical theory of Slavoj Žižek. Homelessness, from this perspective, is viewed not as an individual choice but rather as the by-product of wider economic, political and social forces. Myles argues that Jesus’ homelessness has become largely romanticized in recent biblical scholarship. Is the flight to Egypt, for instance, important primarily for its recasting of Jesus as the new Moses, or should the basic narrative of forced displacement take centre stage? The remedy, Myles contends, is to read directly against the grain of contemporary scholarship by interpreting Jesus’ homelessness through his wider economic, political and social context, as it is encoded in the biblical text.

To demonstrate how ideology is complicit in shaping the interpretation of a homeless Jesus, a selection of texts from the Gospel of Matthew is re-read to amplify the destitution, desperation and constraints on agency that are integral to a critical understanding of homelessness. What emerges is a refreshed appreciation for the deviancy of Matthew’s Jesus, in which his status as a displaced and expendable outsider is identified as contributing to the conflict and violence of the narrative, leading ultimately to his execution on the cross.


Michael Sandford, Poverty, Wealth, and Empire: Jesus and Postcolonial Criticism (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014)

Poverty, Wealth, and Empire presents an antidote to the liberal Jesuses that are constantly being constructed by theologians and historians in universities and seminaries in the West. Sandford’s programme is to pay attention to those texts where Jesus appears hostile to his audiences, or even invokes the idea of divine judgment and violence against certain groups. Drawing on a variety of texts in the synoptic gospels, Sandford finds violent denouncements of the rich and those who neglect the needy to be a consistent theme in Jesus’ teaching.

Rather than deploying biblical texts to support an anti-imperial or liberationist agenda, Sandford foregrounds troubling and problematic texts. Among them are wisdom sayings that justify poverty, texts that denigrate particular ethnic groups, and the ideology inherent in Jesus’ teachings about the ‘the Kingdom of God’. On such a basis Sandford is able to call into question the effectiveness of mainline Christian scholarly interpretations of Jesus in dealing with the most profound ethical problems of our time: poverty, domination and violence.

Always alert to the assumptions and prejudices of much Western New Testament scholarship, Sandford draws attention to its intellectual contradictions, and, furthermore, to the way in which this scholarship has sometimes served to undergird and justify systems of oppression—in particular by its demonstrable dodging of the issue of material poverty and its causes. Building on recent debates in postcolonial biblical criticism, Sandford offers a decidedly ‘illiberal’ reading of Jesus’ sayings on divine judgment, focusing on the paradoxical idea of a ‘nonviolent’ Jesus who nevertheless pronounces divine violence upon the rich.


Maurice Casey (Part 2 of 2): Influence

Maurice Casey’s influence and impact is difficult to assess because there are not many New Testament scholars who have worked so extensively with Aramaic. I was at a seminar which involved the discussion of sources for Matthew and Luke. One scholar dismissed the significance of Aramaic sources and influence solely on the always shaky grounds that ‘most scholars don’t think that’. I have no idea if this is mathematically correct but what I think is more likely is that ‘most scholars don’t work with Aramaic’. There has been a solid tradition of biblical scholars (e.g. Wellhausen, Nestle, Jeremias, Black, Vermes, Chilton, Casey) and a number of their specific arguments about Aramaic sources or influence have not yet been seriously debunked or disproved (e.g. the translation ‘errors’ involved in Luke 11.39-41//Matt. 23.25-26, the language of ‘debtors’, or the specific/generic use of ‘son of man’ in Mark 2.27-28). Whether these arguments are right or wrong, and whether or not Aramaic can be used in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I think a reason why the Aramaic background is not as widely discussed is the reason Maurice always gave (often polemically): learning Aramaic has not been prioritised by New Testament scholars. The same applies to the ‘son of man’ problem. Maurice would get especially polemical about those scholars who did not have the ancient languages to discuss this complex issue. After all, to carry out a comprehensive study of the ‘son of man’ problem would require (at least) Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Ge’ez, Latin… On the need for such languages, at the very least, Maurice obviously had a point.

While not a major part of his work on ‘son of man’, there was one aspect of his work on the reception of Daniel 7 which should have been noted more often: the Syrian tradition. By ‘Syrian tradition’ Maurice meant a tradition particularly (but not exclusively) preserved in Syriac speaking churches which interpreted texts such as Daniel in light of their ‘original’ contexts (in the case of Daniel, of course, the Maccabean crisis). While it is obviously correct that books such as Daniel were reinterpreted in light of Rome, it is less commonly observed that the Maccabean reading of Daniel was also preserved. This is not a particularly controversial point and it is the sort of point that should have been picked up in New Testament studies when discussing the reception of texts like Daniel.

Maurice’s work on ‘son of man’ is obvious one of the areas where he will be most remembered and where he has been most influential. But this work was part of a larger project on understanding the development Christology (see part 1). While discussed at the time, and continued to be discussed by specialists, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God is, I think, his most underappreciated work. C.K. Barrett believed the book should have been discussed more widely but was not because of Maurice’s polemical critique of Christian understandings of ‘truth’. This is partly accurate but I think the overriding reason was that the book as a whole was perceived to be ‘anti-Christian’ and certain scholars blocked its publication for that reason. But the field has changed since the 1980s and the past 15 years or so has seen a sharp rise in debates explicitly constructed as ‘atheist’, ‘secular’ etc. versus ‘religious’, ‘evangelical’ etc. Whether this is a good or bad thing can be debated but From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God would have had a much better chance of being more widely discussed and had a far bigger impact if it had been published more recently. As Bart Ehrman’s latest book and the numerous responses show, the development of Christology often complementing the case advocated by Casey, and connected with a ‘non-Christian’ scholar, is now popular. There is also a basic economic reason why it would be more likely to gain a wider audience: there are now more publishers and if certain people do not like the perspective of the book or its author, it could easily be published elsewhere. Maybe it is time for another edition of From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God

Maurice faced related problems in the reception of Is John’s Gospel True? (1996) which took a similar line in critiquing notions of ‘truth’ in relation to Christian influences on the Gospel of John. But in many ways this book is a particularly clear presentation of why John’s Gospel cannot be used in the reconstruction of the historical Jesus, a view held by plenty of critical scholars. Given the latest debates on the historicity of John’s Gospel, it still functions as an important critique and its precise arguments continue to carry much weight (see also here). It does not, as certain critics have conveniently but wrongly claimed, pitch ‘theology’ versus ‘history’ but rather it claims that Johannine ‘theology’ is late (late as in sometime around the end of the first century) and was the key moment in the full deification of Jesus. One of the more controversial elements of the book is that it suggests that the phrase hoi Ioudaioi should be translated as ‘the Jews’ and that John’s Gospel was constructing an identity over against ‘the Jews’. Scholarship, Casey argued, has consciously or unconsciously avoided the problematic conclusion that John’s Gospel is a potentially anti-Jewish text and has made it more palatable for modern Christian sensibilities. I think he was also right in arguing that this also made Is John’s Gospel True? a book to be avoided and so the difficult questions he raised have yet to be properly answered.

It was notable that once his career at Nottingham settled down and concerns about being ‘irreligious’ became less of an issue, Maurice would return to the more technical work of his earlier career, particularly the work on Aramaic sources. This was, for Maurice, part of the overriding concern of his career: the reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth (2010) was the culmination of his lifetime’s work. It is a striking book in many ways, ranging from the ‘conservative’ in his reconstruction of a number of Gospel passages to the ‘radical’ (in biblical studies terms) of arguing that the bodily resurrection was Gospel invention. The book is high on the rhetoric of the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus but I think it differs from the standard line of using ‘Jewishness’ while simultaneously claiming Jesus was ‘radical’, ‘marginal’, ‘unique’, ‘subversive’ etc. Maurice’s book is more in the tradition of someone like Geza Vermes in that the figure of Jesus does not do anything obviously outside of, or unknown in, the scholarly construction of ‘Judaism’ and ‘Jewishness’, hence the deliberately provocative question raised in the title of one of his earlier essays: ‘Who’s afraid of Jesus Christ?’

Since the 1990s, and implicitly throughout his career, Casey was foreshadowing the developments in ideological criticism of scholarship that have since become increasingly common. In a similar way to his work on John’s Gospel, he had been paying close attention to how the quest for the historical Jesus was in fact a quest to avoid ‘truth’ (as Maurice would word it) so that, as he polemically claimed, ‘out from under the synoptic Gospels there could never crawl a Jewish man’ . In light of the work done over the past 10 years critiquing the rhetoric of ‘Jesus the Jew’, Maurice got this broadly right.

This understanding of Jesus in relation to (the scholarly construction of) Judaism will be the real challenge of Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps Maurice’s career as a whole. It is now clear that Jesus of Nazareth is being discussed more than any of his previous works and it should prove to be his most significant publication. In his quest for the ‘truth’ about the historical Jesus, he incorporated ideas he pushed throughout his career, from the ‘son of man’ to historical problems with John’s Gospel, from cross-disciplinary work on psychosomatic illness to ideological criticism, from Aramaic reconstructions to identity, conflict and the development of Christology. If it is read carefully, and his work is not conveniently pigeonholed, it will no longer be so easy to avoid the many uncomfortable questions Maurice raised over several decades as a biblical scholar.


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.


Life of Brian, Richard Burridge and the Media

Richard Burridge has recently found himself being discussed in the media for his positive comments on Life of Brian, partly to provide a point of contrast with the infamous negative remarks of Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge back in 1979. Our story begins with Richard’s comments on Radio 4’s Today programme and the Telegraph who picked up on this and (faithfully) published the following:

…one of Britain’s most respected theologians insists that Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is in fact a “remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus”. The Rev Prof Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod, said that those who called for the satire to be banned after its release in 1979 were “embarrassingly” ill-informed and missed a major opportunity to promote the Christian message.
Prof Burridge said that the fact that the Pythons had set out to write a satire about Jesus but had to resort to using a fictional failed messiah was a tribute to the uniqueness of Christ which Christians had failed to capitalise on.
He said: “What is interesting about what Cleese says is that when they sat down to read the gospels they were struck by Jesus, his teaching, and realised that you couldn’t actually make a joke of these things which is why the accusation from Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge that they were trying to use Jesus was so patently false.
“I think it is an extraordinary tribute to the life and work and teaching of Jesus – that they couldn’t actually blaspheme or make a joke out of it.
“What they did was take ordinary British people and transpose them into an historical setting and did a great satire on closed minds and people who follow blindly.
“Then you have them splitting into factions … it is a wonderful satire on the way that Jesus’s own teaching has been used to persecute others.
“They were satirising closed minds, they were satirising fundamentalism and persecution of others and at the same time saying the one person who rises above all this was Jesus, which I think is remarkable and I think that the church missed that at the time.”

So far, so reasonable, at least in terms of presenting Richard’s comments. In Life of Brian style, interpreters (of the Telegraph piece) started to take these comments in different, even surreal, directions. The Sun managed to put a picture of Richard and Desmond Tutu on Jeremy ClarksonPage Three, i.e. the page which includes a young woman with her tits out. The Irish Independent attributed some dramatic (and not-particularly-faithful) claims to Richard in a headline effectively containing nothing more than the Telegraph piece: “’Life of Brian’ was true, theologian swears on Bible”. Even Jeremy Clarkson got involved by arguing the following in the Sun:

Monty Python’s epic film, The Life of Brian, mercilessly ridiculed the very core of Christianity and, as a result, it was banned by many local authorities and roundly condemned by the Church of England. But now a leading church figure, the Rev Prof Richard Burridge has stepped forward to say that the condemnation was wrong because the film, in fact, is a remarkable tribute to the life of Jesus. No it isn’t. Jesus only appears once, as a muttering Yorkshireman whose incoherent speech about blessing the cheesemakers starts a fight. Not really much of a tribute, is it?” (“Cheese’s Christ, what a miracle!”)

One thing interesting to me is the ongoing focus on whether the film is positive towards Jesus and should be celebrated as such. If the Facebook responses are anything to go by, then people seem to think it is a positive presentation. I’m not so sure it’s that simple…

The film does contrast Jesus and Brian but in the sense that they effectively represent the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history respectively. And the portrayal of the Brian/Jesus of history involves the following:

  • Born out of wedlock with a Roman soldier as a father who raped Mandy (/Mary) ‘at first’ with high Mariology attributed to her by deluded and stupid followers
  • Emphatically not the Messiah with (and through using Wrede) Messiahship attributed to him by deluded and stupid followers, including one who knows because he’s followed a few
  • A Jew loyal to Jews and Judaism with no intention of starting any new movement in his name (quite the opposite)
  • An anti-Roman insurrectionist
  • Enjoying non-marital sex with Judith (read: Mary Magdalene)
  • Death being the end with no resurrection
  • Key message is that we are all individuals who shouldn’t let anyone tell us what to do and should think for ourselves

I have discussed these issues in more detail, and the use of scholarly views of Jesus, here.

Some other points may be added. Biblical and parabolic language (including that attributed to Jesus) is clearly mocked in the proclamations by Brian and other prophets, not least as being silly and potentially confusing.

Also, Hans Wiersma has recently shown (as Philip Davies had earlier stressed) that an undermining of the brutal nature of crucifixion – and implicitly Jesus’ death and its theological significance – runs throughout Life of Brian and may be as jarring as any theme for Christians (or indeed anyone familiar with what happens to those crucified).

Obviously, whether any of these issues are offensive or blasphemous is a matter of perspective. Perhaps what could be the next stage in this debate is to see whether the positive voices think that a positive portrayal of Jesus would include the following: Jesus portrayed as a non-Messiah (with Messiahship simply invented by deluded and very stupid followers), Jesus’ mother being raped ‘at first’ (and likewise having exalted Mariology attributed to her by deluded and stupid followers), crucifixion being little more than a doddle that gets you out in the air, Jesus joining with violent insurgents, Jesus’ parabolic language being sometimes silly, death being the end, and no resurrection… And how about the very first followers being portrayed as idiots?

I can imagine certain liberal Christians seeing something like this as an acceptable portrayal of Jesus but there are obviously Christians who really wouldn’t. Has Life of Brian now been domesticated…?

On Jesus/Brian see e.g.:

J. Crossley, ‘Life of Brian or Life of Jesus? Uses of Critical Biblical Scholarship and Non-orthodox Views of Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, Relegere (2011), pp. 95-116

P. Davies, ‘Life of Brian Research’ in Davies, Whose Bible Is It Anyway? (London & New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004), pp. 142-155

R. Walsh, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)’ in A. Reinhartz (ed.), Bible and Cinema: Fifty Key Films (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 187-92

H. Wiersma, ‘Redeeming Life of Brian: How Monty Python (Ironically) Proclaims Christ Sub Contrario’, Word and World 32 (2012), pp. 166-77