Review of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.
Part 1: Countering the dominance of conservative apologetic works in New Testament studies
Released late in 2010, Maurice Casey’s historical reconstruction of the life and teachings of Jesus has become the major reference work in the controversial New Testament subdiscipline of historical Jesus studies. This seven-part review of Jesus of Nazareth will engage especially with the twelfth and final chapter of the book (“Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”) – each part to appear daily over “Holy Week”.
One of the great benefits of Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth for contemporary Jesus scholarship is the way it has taken a great big broom to the accumulated rubbish and detritus which has recently cluttered the field. Casey is never afraid to challenge head-on – often abrasively; always decisively – some of the more blatantly apologetic arguments and conclusions issued recently by more conservative scholars, in a field which has, in these latter days, become dominated by conservative reactionism. This particular quality of Jesus of Nazareth may very well be, if I dare to predict it, the major benefit of the book for critical posterity. Given the sheer volume of quasi-academic, faith-based approaches to the person of Jesus, Casey has arguably cleared the field – for a little while at least – allowing more critical scholars (whether Christian or otherwise) to offer genuine criticism without being bogged down with the sheer weight of defences of the faith presented in the guise of scholarship. At least… here’s hoping that will be the case!
As Casey observes, “The vast majority of scholars have belonged to the Christian faith, and their portrayals of Jesus have consequently not been Jewish enough” (p. 3). Echoing Géza Vermes, Casey notes that Christian scholarship has consistently failed to separate the historical Jesus from “the deified second person of the Christian Trinity” which “illustrates the domination of a supposedly academic ‘field’ of ‘study’ by members of a single religion, who usually set the agenda and determine what is to be commented on” (p. 15). Casey’s prime example of confessional blindness is the tendency of subsequent Christian scholarship to evade the consequences of Albert Schweitzer’s demonstration of the importance of Jewish apocalyptic for understanding the teachings of Jesus. Parallel to this is the denial of the comprehensive failure of Jesus’ central message – i.e. a failure to recognise and acknowledge that Jesus was simply wrong to predict the imminent end of human history and the arrival of a Kingdom of God. As Casey notes, the Christian conception of Jesus as Christ could not – at least, one suspects, without considerable cognitive dissonance – recognize “that Jesus might have made a mistake”. Furthermore, avoidance of this fact “has been a significant aspect of attempts to avoid the Jewishness of Jesus ever since” (p. 3). So, for example, N.T. Wright, in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), makes a highly questionable recourse to metaphor in order to deny the literal apocalyptic meaning of Jesus’ prediction in Mark 9.1 – an inventive interpretation which has struck many commentators as a perplexing treatment of the text. As Casey points out, Jesus’ failed prophecy is “a natural mistake by a first-century Jew, but any mistake at all by Jesus is inconsistent with orthodox Christian Christology” – with the consequence that, in Wright’s approach as in others, “the mistaken Jesus of history is replaced by the infallible Christ of faith”. Thus Casey identifies Wright’s tendentious proclivities, rather than any probative analysis, as the “driving force” behind Wright’s recourse to metaphor (p. 45).
Casey assesses recent conservative Christian discussion of the historical Jesus as ranging in quality “From Bad to Worse”, as his subtitle describes it on p. 21. His description of the tendency of conservative evangelicals to argue extensively by straw person and false dichotomy is right on the mark: “Some [conservative American Christians]… write books which appear to assume that, if they can demonstrate that the Jesus Seminar is wrong, they thereby demonstrate the absolute truth of Protestant fundamentalism or Catholic orthodoxy, whichever the perspective from which the author is writing” (p. 21). Casey takes no prisoners concerning the “appalling quality” of the recent North American debate concerning Jesus. On one hand, Casey condemns (with N.T. Wright) the Jesus Seminar as “almost entirely wrong” – Jesus is no “Cynic”; the Gospel of Thomas is mostly worthless as an historical source; etc – and on the other hand, he considers the lack of academic freedom with which many in the U.S. may discuss these very issues, the forced resignations, firings, and heresy trials(!) of academics, and the requirement to confess “inerrancy” at pseudo-academic institutions such as Asbury Theological Seminary (at which Ben Witherington teaches) represent a “scandalous” lack of scholarly standards (pp. 22-23).
Of Craig Blomberg’s conservative opinion that the Gospel of John – a work long acknowledged, and on demonstrably good grounds, to contain late, unhistorical, and inventive traditions – contains “valuable” historical material, Casey writes, “Blomberg’s arguments are extraordinarily feeble” (p. 27). In the discussion that follows, Casey more than makes his case. For Blomberg even goes so far as to uncritically accept as true and accurate both John’s placement of the temple cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public life as well as the Synoptic Gospels’ placement of the tradition in Jesus’ final week (John’s Gospel, 2001: 90) – which, as Casey notes, makes his position no more critical than the fundamentalist/inerrantist argument that the temple-cleansing must have occurred twice! Although Blomberg’s work is purportedly a scholarly one, Casey is ruthless, although not inaccurate, when he describes Blomberg’s method as defending “an uncritical tradition which rejects historical research altogether” (p. 28). Moreover, Casey is regrettably correct to view later developments in conservative scholarship on John as proceeding “from bad to worse”. In 2009, for example, Paul Barnett (Finding the Historical Christ) goes so far as to defend the resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John as an “historical” event, on the basis of what he detects are “authentic-sounding details” in the narrative! This is simply an absurd abuse of the term “historical”, and not one you would encounter in very many university History departments. Yet Barnett’s book, it should be pointed out – just in case one might incorrectly conclude that we are discussing fringe literature or tracts handed out by street-corner evangelists – is published by one of the major publishers within academic biblical studies (Eerdmans). So Casey’s big broom of critical discernment appears to be well overdue.
Casey is right to recognize that scholars frequently understand the Gospels “in accordance with the needs of the community to which they belong”, and that this community is almost entirely Christian (p. 7). But he does not follow through at this point and identify the myths of his own community, the historicist community which tries “to use evidence and argument to establish historically valid conclusions” (p. 1) – even though the rational-mythic dialectic of enlightenment has been exposed and extensively discussed for over half a century. The self-reference in the subtitle as “an independent historian” is undoubtedly intended to distinguish Casey from the great majority of confessional Jesus scholars, but “independent” surely claims too much, even accepting as I do that he avoids anything like the systematic and blatant bias that we see from so many others in his field, his demonstrably superior ability to deal with facts and argument, and the resulting excellence of his “representational economy”, as scholars of the Glaswegian School might term his reconstruction of Christian origins. Not all bias is equal, and the predictable evangelical Christian “tu quoque” response (“but we’ve all got presuppositions”) is as tiresome as it is disingenuous. Yes, we all have presuppositions, but in this book Casey uncovers a confessional blindness so pervasive that it is merely an act of avoidance to appeal to relativism and point the finger the other way.
That minor complaint aside, what I find clear, time and again, is that in Jesus of Nazareth Casey provides a refreshing and critical counter-voice to the conservative centre of Jesus scholarship, never content to rely on presumed authority or accepted opinion, but carefully examining and logically setting out the precise reasons for his conclusions. This method does not make him “independent” (who is?), but it certainly sets him apart from very many others in the field, and is decidedly worthy of emulation. The remaining parts of this seven-part review will examine some of Casey’s arguments and conclusions regarding the historical Jesus, with particular attention being paid to the resurrection narratives found in the four canonical Gospels.
Next part: (2) The Empty Tomb is not Historical