Tag Archives: John’s Gospel

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.