Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching

This engaging reconstruction of Jesus’ life provides an up-to-date critical overview of the historical Jesus debate, covering the Jewishness of Jesus’ teaching, the foundation of the earliest groups of his followers, and the location of Jesus within his wider context. Casey’s masterful treatment of Aramaic sources draws us closer to the historical Jesus than ever before. This major contribution will be of interest to anyone studying the historical figure of Jesus and the roots of Christianity.

‘In several important respects this lively book goes against the grain of recent scholarship, both conservative and radical. But it is a needed and challenging reminder of the fragility of much that passes as the ‘assured results’ of scholarship. The detailed attention to the relevance of the Aramaic language for constructing Jesus is particularly noteworthy and consistently provocative.’ – Dale C. Allison, Jr., Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, PA, USA.

‘Only a handful of New Testament scholars can deal with Hebrew and above all Aramaic sources as well as Maurice Casey. After an extensive career concentrating on the life and teaching of Jesus, and at the pinnacle of his intellectual prowess after writing a number of specialized studies, he now generously shares his deep and manifold insights with a larger audience. With neither ecclesiastical nor atheistic baggage to weigh him down, Casey caustically comments first on those who do not take Jesus’ Jewishness seriously, especially his native tongue Aramaic. This criticism of older and the most recent secondary literature is – unfortunately – well-deserved. Yet the following chapters with positive analyses by far prevail, making this volume a must read for all those seeking a balanced, yet deeply scholarly view of the life of Jesus by an independent historian. Casey candidly points out what we can reasonably know about Jesus, but just as importantly, what we cannot know. This fascinating volume deserves close reading and a very wide audience.’ – The Rev. Dr. Roger David Aus, Berlin, Germany (Roger David Aus )

‘This learned and comprehensive book should prove to be the major historical Jesus publication of the decade. While we all know that much has been written on the historical Jesus, Casey still manages to provide a distinctive slant, most notably with his reader-friendly use of Aramaic reconstructions of Jesus’ words and actions. The review of scholarship, which combines savage humour with scholarly insights, hits hard at numerous approaches to the quest for the historical Jesus, from famous historical Jesus scholars to ‘mythicist’ and conspiratorial theories in popular culture. This book should reinvigorate a tired scholarly quest and raise the bar in the learning required to do serious historical Jesus work.’ — James G. Crossley, University of Sheffield, UK. (James G. Crossley )

‘Maurice Casey has devoted himself to the study of Aramaic… and now puts this knowledge to use in his heavy tome on the Historical Jesus.’ (The Pastoral Review )

‘this book is in many respects an impressive achievement.’ (The Rev Dr Petor Ensor¬†Methodist Recorder¬†)

‘The book is an admirable, fascinating, and stimulating study of Jesus against the background of a Judaism shaped by Aramaic speakers, and, as such, it is well worth reading.’ (The Church Times )

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching

  1. Review

    This book is a scholarly and challenging contribution to the on-going Quest for the Historical Jesus in Galilee and Judea within the early first century C.E.   

    Some “questers” have gravitated towards a mythical, non-existent Jesus, as a result of  excessive scepticism and  in the spirit of “Minimalism”. Others are happy to appropriate a theologically-inspired, supernatural Christ, an Anointed Messiah, as a result of their literalistic appropriation of the Gospel texts and of their deep belief  in its doctrines and  in the spirit of the “Maximalism”.

    However, between these two extreme positions, many “questers” are also locating their Jesus research somewhere on a  factual-fictional Continuum  between the above two opposite  poles. 

    An Aramaic Jesus 

    Maurice Casey appears to follow a moderate and mediating perspective. This allows him the flexibility to pursue all of the documentary and artefactual evidence available in relation to his Jesus research and to formulate rational and coherent arguments, in order to draw his conclusions (p.2). He then presents these conclusions clearly in each of his chapters.  One of his aims is to   recover and to recreate the original sayings of Jesus in the Aramaic language, which was actually spoken by Jesus, who during his life was probably called Yeshua or Yeshu, meaning “Yahweh Saves”. The author sees these original Aramaic sayings in Mark’s Gospel, as lying behind many of Mark’s translations of such sayings into Greek. 

    At the same time, he is very quick to point out when the Greek translation has moved well away from the Aramaic or away from an earlier version of a text, such as Mark’s Gospel. He can therefore label much of the later editing and re-writing of borrowed parts of Mark’s Gospel by Matthew and Luke as factually worthless for historical reconstruction. This process of expansion and redaction of  Mark’s Gospel  provides many examples of Casey’s scholarly and confident scepticism. 

    Contents 

    The author’s thirteen chapters in this enlightening book reveal lengthy research into and a most comprehensive exploration of Casey’s postulated historical Jesus of Nazareth. He begins with an overview of the previous and on-going Quests for the Historical Jesus, including its interesting Nazi phase, a presentation of historically reliable sources and a historical methodology essential for a scientific and socio-cultural investigation. 

    Jesus of Nazareth then becomes the focus and these chapters include his birth and early days, John the Baptist, the Fatherhood and Kingdom of God, cases of exorcism and healing, Jesus’ ethical teaching. He also deals with Jesus’ conflicts with his opponents, Christological terms such as Prophet, Son of Man, Son of God and Christ, death in Jerusalem and Easter’s empty tomb and appearances. 

    The Appendix presents comments about six further Gospels, including the Gospels according to John, Thomas, Judas, Mary and Philip, as well as the Secret Gospel of Mark. Casey leaves no doubt in his readers’ minds that these Gospels are not of much help in reconstructing the actual words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth within the context of  Jewish and Roman history during the early first century C.E. However, he considers their edited, modified and often embellished contents to be important for providing insights both into their much later historical period or context and into the life and concerns of the later community which produced them. 

    Dr Roger Aus from Berlin has recommended on the book’s cover that “this fascinating volume deserves close reading and a very wide audience.”  I heartily agree. 

    Readers of book reviews tend to look for a reviewer’s summary and assessment of the book’s contents, as well as some interesting highlights. From the many challenging ideas which appear on almost every page, these selected few should illustrate Casey’s  fresh insights, his honesty and his challenges to all who are questing for the “historical Jesus” and who are  located somewhere along  the  current “Jesus-research Continuum” from the Mythical to the Messianic Jesus. 

    Quests for the Historical Jesus 

    Casey begins by clarifying his intellectual position as that of an “independent historian” of “the historical Jesus”. He does “not belong to a religious or anti-religious group” and he is open to gaining insights from “the best work done by many other scholars, regardless of their ideological affiliation”. His own “historically valid conclusions” are then established by the use of “evidence and argument” and by drawing on “our oldest sources” (p.2). 

    The author’s lengthy discussion of the previous quests provides sixty pages of familiar names like Albert Schweitzer but also some novel names.  There are the German scholars Paul Fiebig and Walter Grundmann, whose writings in the 1930s  related to  the Nazi Party’s  policy of anti-semitism and its quest for a non-Jewish Jesus (p.6). Also included is the unexpected analysis of the dubious Christian history put into the mouth of the fictitious “Sir Leigh Teabing” by Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code. On the same page, Casey reminds himself and his readers that there are still scholars who are animated by “the desire to find the truth” (p.25)! No doubt, he has in mind current reliance on the “old-time” ecclesiastical and biblical traditionalism. 

    Casey’s quest for reliable sources includes the postulated Q source and the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, with his focus on Q and Mark. Mark’s often crude Greek words and sentences and his unedited text are viewed as assets, in that these are “perfectly comprehensible as a literal and unrevised translation of an Aramaic source” of accurate but mostly brief accounts of the actual incidents recorded (p.63). This view is supported by Casey’s interesting agreement with James Crossley’s dating of Mark’s composition to about 40 C.E. , during and as a response to “the Caligula crisis” (p. 71) and not during  the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Titus in about 70 C.E. 

    The mentions of Peter and other Disciples as apostolic sources of information by Papias and other Church Fathers may of course be legitimating exercises in support of Apostolic Succession but Casey gives these claims substance by describing Mark’s recording of Peter’s oral traditions on wax tablets and on sheets of papyrus. For such a compositional task, Mark is presented as “a bilingual Christian” who is able to record the Aramaic traditions as he has heard them and then to translate them into mostly literal, popular Greek. The conclusion drawn is that Mark’s Gospel is “the most important single source for our knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus” (pp.77-78). 

    Historical Plausibility 

    Although the author has labelled both the previous quests and his own  almost life-long quest for the historical Jesus, as “a difficult enterprise”, he has investigated the various tools for historical analysis and has chosen those considered to be most appropriate. These include the customary multiple attestation, dissimilarity, coherence, embarrassment and historical plausibility. Casey then reveals his preference for coherence and historical plausibility in relation to the early Christian Aramaic sources and the valuable Jewish material, such as the writings of  Josephus (p.119). 

    The Aramaic Criterion is therefore for Casey most important and it is applied at some length to the “Son of Man”, which can be generic as describing a human being or specific as a given or chosen particular title of Jesus. When it is translated literally into Greek as “The Son of the Man”, it then loses its idiomatic status as a human or Son of Adam and becomes a specific title. Casey’s earlier 359-page book, The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem” (Continuum imprint, 2009) has helped greatly to clarify this elusive concept. 

    The Birth-stories of  Jesus 

    Casey begins his actual 365-page exploration of what we can establish about Jesus of Nazareth by recalling the birth stories and by reminding his readers that the name “Jesus” and its variant “Joshua” actually  means and was understood to mean  “YHWH saves”, as depicted in Matthew 1:21.  In Greek, “Jesus” was Iesous and its Semitic form was “Yeshua”  or “Yehoshua” (p.143). The four consonants YHWH are usually written and pronounced  with vowels as Yahweh.  Recalling all of this can help to explore Jesus as conceived as an emanation or representation of Yahweh, whom Jesus called “ABBA”.  It may also shed light on the solar associations of Yahweh and Yehoshua/Yeshua/Jesus as the Sun, as researched within the context of ancient archaeological and textual artefacts by Glen Taylor in his scholarly book, Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel   [JSOT Press Sheffield 1993]. 

    Not surprisingly, Casey considers dogmas like the “perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary” to be later, post-first-century articles of faith  and he labels these  as pieces of “imaginative doctrine”. He also points out  the poor or faulty translations from prior texts, such as “almah” translated as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 (p.150). 

    On the other hand, he describes archaeological artefacts from the early first century C.E., which provide material evidence relating to the early first century, such as the 27 feet long boat with a shallow draft found under the water  in the north-west corner of Sea of Galilee and the mosaic of a one-masted ship at Magdala, which in Aramaic is Migdal Nunya, meaning “Tower of Fish” (p.165). The coins known as Tyrian shekels indicate that the Semitic deity Melkart was pictured on one side and that the process of hellenization resulted in its identification with the famous hero “Hercules”. (p.168). 

    Reliance on Mark’s Gospel 

    Within the context and range of first century documents and artefacts, the author has chosen to focus on and put his trust in the Gospel of Mark and in the Q source.  He clearly indicates this confidence in Mark’s Gospel, when he states that “it is important that the basic information found in Mark is unquestionably accurate” (p.177). Some of his more critical readers will view this as an over-reliance on Mark’s content, fully aware that its dating, which Casey has pushed back from about 70 to about 40 C.E, the location of its composition and its over-all purpose or aim are still subject to much ongoing debate and controversy. Casey anticipates this sort of criticism when he writes, in the context of his discussion about Jesus’ Baptism, that “while fiction could be written in Aramaic as much as in English, most of the story is obviously true, for it makes excellent sense as an event in the life of Jesus, and none at all as an invention of the early church” (p.177). Does the author perhaps have in mind here the form critic Rudolph Bultmann or the more recent Jesus Seminar? 

    In regard to Mark’s depicted duration of Jesus’ earthly mission, he presents Casey with a mission lasting for one year,  although Casey also holds the view “that we have no idea of how long it lasted” (p.183). This year-long mission has appeared to most readers to take place at first  in Galilee during the northern hemisphere’s Spring and Summer, with Jesus depicted mainly as the miracle-working Son of God; and then in Judea and eventually Jerusalem during  Autumn/Fall and Winter, when Jesus is depicted mainly as the suffering and crucified Son of Man. 

    Mark’s Gospel thus begins at Jesus’ adult baptismal initiation, with no prior birth stories included, has a mid-summer solar-like epiphany at the Transfiguration  and it ends with an empty tomb, with no subsequent recorded appearances, assumption or ascension. It is no wonder that Casey views Mark’s Gospel as being unrevised and incomplete, although it can be argued that the ending with the empty tomb simply leads the reader back again to the start of Jesus mission at his baptism and heavenly vision, which is repeatable each and every year when viewed cyclically! 

    In fact, Mark’s lack of a wider historical chronological context outside of Jesus’ annual mission may reveal a seasonal, cyclic agricultural and ritual sequence, which highlights progressive and sequential themes, rather than a linear, temporal and chronological sequence. This idea of sequential but varying themes has been previously explored by both Philip Carrington in his book The Primitive Christian Calendar: A Study in the Making of the Marcan Gospel [Cambridge University Press, 1952]    and more recently by  Bill Darlison in his book “The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret truth about Jesus” [Duckworth Overlook, London 2007]. 

    Like the above, Casey also realizes that Mark’s Gospel has serious chronological limitations, so he draws on the “outstanding” work of Richard Burridge, whose book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography [Cambridge University Press, 1992] to show that similar first-century “lives” (Greek Bioi or Roman Vitae) included both important events and achievements which were highlighted and also less spectacular incidents, events and discussions, which were presented in a topical rather than chronological order (p.184). Mark’s Gospel follows this same sort of mixed pattern and Casey himself presents his chapters 6 to 10 in a similar topical manner as he discusses such topics and themes as God, exorcism, ethical teaching, conflicts with opponents and titles such as Prophet, Teacher, Son of God and Son of Man. 

    Prophet and King 

    Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom or Kingship of Yahweh on Earth, whether within the first century or at a later time, is presented as dangerous to Jesus because opponents could convincingly point out to the Romans that Jesus  “was preaching the downfall of the Roman empire” (p.215). 

    However, in view of the failure of either this Kingdom of Yahweh to be established on Earth or of the anticipated Second Coming of Christ, Casey notes that part of the editing and rewriting of the received traditions by Matthew and Luke entailed making the story more miraculous and supernatural (p.242). 

    In relation to Jesus’ role, Casey places him firmly in the prophetic tradition, which he thinks is a suitable and “broad enough term to be used for his ministry as a whole”.

    This includes being an eschatological prophet with a name meaning “Yahweh saves” or Yeshua and who is dependent on the Spirit of Yahweh. When Jesus is given the title “Son of God” by the Jewish people, Casey thinks that they meant “a faithful Jew” and not a literal “Son of God” (pp.271-278). 

    The Golden Rule 

    Jesus’ ethical teaching is presented as being “entirely coherent and easy to fit into his teaching as a whole”  and as being concerned more with basic principles like the Golden Rule and “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” rather than in almost endless particulars, which were the delight of the Pharisees (pp.293-94). 

    Josephus enters the story with his descriptions of some of the elaborate costumes and symbols worn by the Chief Priest, including two sardonyxes on their shoulders which represented the sun and the moon and had the names of the twelve tribes engraved on them. The ornate headdress and golden crown had written on it in the old Hebrew script YHWH (p.345). 

    The Marcan “Messianic Secret” also arises and Casey thinks that “the term Messiah or Christ does not belong to the historic ministry of Jesus” but that the Son of Man was used by Jesus as “an idiomatic reference to himself” (pp.398-9). 

    Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection 

    The Last Supper is depicted in Mark as a Passover Meal at which a sacrificed lamb was roasted and eaten with bitter herbs, whereas the Eucharist was first instituted by Paul. Jesus, who is depicted as being “crucified as a bandit”, is also presented as knowing “exactly what he was doing” (pp.429-39). 

    Golgotha means “a skull” and it is described as “gruesome”, not because its hill is shaped like a skull but because the dogs and vultures preferred to retrieve the bones from the arms and legs of crucified victims, while the skulls were usually left on the ground (p.446). 

    Casey’s final chapter and its forty-three pages reveal that there is no short or simple answer to his blunt chapter-heading, which is in the form of the often-asked question:  “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” This question is still giving rise to many apologetical and confessional Christian pamphlets, as well as to lengthy and scholarly books, all seeking to provide an answer or perhaps even the answer. Our present concern therefore is the question: Does Maurice Casey have the answer? 

    For a start, he leaves no doubt in his introduction to this chapter that he is fully sensitive to this very delicate and faith-based Christian issue and is fully aware that “The belief that Jesus rose from the dead has been a central feature of Christianity from the earliest times” (p.455). He acknowledges that this Resurrection issue has also given rise to associated and theologically-oriented Christological concerns like a bodily or spiritual resurrection, an empty tomb, viewings and appearances to people, visions, the assumption and the ascension. His discussion of a bodily or physical resurrection includes such names and proponents as William Lane Craig and Bishop Tom Wright (p.455). 

    In contrast, Casey’s stated aim is to “refute the most important arguments” of the conservative Christian apologists, who have “offered vigorous defences of the literal historicity” of  the four Passion Stories in the Gospels (p.473). This matches his overall aim of engaging with the “historical Jesus” as an “independent historian”. 

    Historians by definition are engaged in human-based research and analysis and in the recording of human-related characters, events, locations and ideas which are in the immediate or remote past. Since ideas can be formulated into concepts and then can be literalised as having external reality, humanity’s many religious and theological ideas and concepts thus externalised as existing realities, can become highly problematic. Such reification includes super-natural miracles and events, super-human beings physical and spiritual and super-cosmic places. Casey has no place in his “Quest for the Historical Jesus” for such metaphysical realities and reifications. 

    Taking up his textual analysis chronologically, Casey begins with Paul’s formulaic description in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection and appearances. To most scholars, this was recorded in Paul’s Epistle well before the composition of Mark’s Gospel, but Casey’s new dating of Mark as 40 C.E. places Mark’s writings before those of Paul. 

    Casey next explores Mark and not surprisingly, he proposes that Mark 14:28, in which Jesus says: ‘But after I am raised to life, I will go to Galilee ahead of you’, “is not historically probable” (p.477). However, Matthew, in his chapter 28:16-20, presents this Marcan prediction as being fulfilled: “The eleven disciples went to the hill in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, even though some of them doubted. Jesus drew near and said, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age”, Casey points out that this “is the earliest written narrative of a resurrection appearance” (p.479). He also contrasts this with a previous described appearance “to over 500 brethren at once”, which has no connected narrative but creates a few issues. 

    The author continues to express his scepticism relating to the post-Marcan, edited and rewritten information in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John and offers the view that the appearances of Jesus to close relatives and associates may be explained as “bereavement experiences”, an explanation which was also explored by Dale Allison in his book, Resurrecting Jesus (p.492). 

    Casey therefore concludes that “Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind”. On the contrary, “he was probably buried in a common criminals’ tomb where his body rotted in a normal way” (p.497). He sees the reported and recorded “Resurrection appearances” as being “interpreted” and as being apologetical ways to legitimate the early beliefs in the actual Resurrection. He also sees them as being defensive beliefs to legitimate the divine revelations and sayings received from the Resurrected Jesus, as claimed by some of his disciples, apostles and others.  Human history can certainly record both sincere beliefs relating to a supernatural realm of beings, events and places and also to genuine visionary and aural and tactile experiences relating to Jesus, who was believed to have been resurrected. It is the humanistic expression of supernatural explanations and metaphysical interpretations of such human beliefs and experiences, which make the place of the Resurrection (or of Yahweh’s resurrecting of the Son of Yahweh) within the context of a naturalistic human history problematic. The question therefore  arises: How can an empirical, humanistic science in the context of a naturalistic cosmos come to terms with an experiential and faith-based study and system of a cosmos viewed as super-natural, miracle-based, super-human and supra-cosmic?   

    Author as Independent Historian 

    Casey has faced this challenge and has repeatedly described himself as an Independent Historian, who is guided by empirical evidence and excellent argumentation. He therefore most appropriately ends his enlightening and refreshing Aramaic-oriented “Quest for the historical Jesus” with this summary statement: “This book is my attempt to reconstruct what we can know of the  Jesus of history from the surviving primary sources”. He also confidently states that he has not tried to fit his version of Jesus or Yeshua “into the picture of Jesus required by any social subgroup, whether Christian, Jewish or atheist”. His sincerely-expressed hope is “that it will be of interest to people who are genuinely committed to evidence and argument” (p.508). 

    Some readers my regret the lack of a bibliography but all of the books which are actually quoted are fully documented in the footnotes at the bottom of each relevant page.  No doubt a listing of all of the books actually read or browsed for this Quest by the author over most of his life-time would constitute a second book. However, the list of Abbreviations of academic journals and the Index of subjects, which is often omitted from scholarly publications, are helpful inclusions. 

    As the reviewer, I am pleased to express my full agreement with Dr. Roger David Aus of Berlin in Germany, who states on this book’s back cover that “this fascinating volume deserves close reading and a very wide audience”.

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