Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Twelve Disciples: New Insights from Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey

Let’s make this my last post for a little while on Maurice Casey’s ad hominem stained book on the historical Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth) that will surely long stand alone as a truly independent tribute to the Huckleberry Finn criterion for historical authenticity. (robertb will heave a sigh of relief.)

This post looks at the biblical seven number of topics:

  1. Casey’s unassailable proof for the historicity of the Twelve
  2. A schizophrenic case for the disciples being filthy rich (or dirt poor)
  3. The clear evidence that Matthew wrote much of the Q material
  4. How Peter and Jesus changed the course of history by exchanging a bit of idle and nonsensical banter (in Aramaic, of course)
  5. Why the Twelve disappear from history (almost) as soon as the Gospels finish their story
  6. What Jesus did every time one of his Twelve disciples went and died on him
  7. And the evidence Jesus never tolerated a political rebel among his followers.

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The historical truth about Judas Iscariot

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Maurice Casey has explained the motive of Judas Iscariot, his level of literacy, his religious interest, his worship customs before he met Jesus, and along the way has proved the historical factness of Mark’s account of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. This is all included in Jesus of Nazareth.

Firstly, the key to understanding Judas’s motive lies in understanding his place of origin. Casey begins by explaining that his point is only a “may have been”, but by the time he finishes his explanation all such qualifiers have disappeared.

The last man in Mark’s list is Judas Iscariot. . . . This means that his name was Judah. His epithet [of Kerioth]. . . locates him as a man from a village in the very south of Judaea rather than Galilee. It is accordingly probable that he could speak and read Hebrew as well as Aramaic. His origins may have been fundamental to his decision to hand Jesus over to the chief priests, for he may have been more committed to the conventional running of the Temple than the Galilaean members of the Twelve. (pp. 191-2) read more »

Nothing the Early Church Would Want to Make Up?

In his newly published Jesus of Nazareth, one of Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey’s criteria for deciding if a Gospel detail is truly historical is that the passage “contains nothing that the early church would want to make up”.

Though I have read very many works of history, I never heard of this as a rationale for establishing anything as a historical fact till I picked up books by biblical scholars writing about Jesus.

Casey does not exclusively rely on this criterion to declare something in the gospels as historically factual. Another test must also be passed. The event must also have a “perfect setting in the life of Jesus.” I leave aside the obvious circularity of this latter point in this post, and discuss a just one particular critical shortcoming in his use of the first criterion — what is essentially a “can’t see why not” argument from credulity.

Avoiding the literary fact 1: Luke 13:31-33

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Casey writes of this passage that it contains two or three reasons we should accept it as a genuinely historical exchange between Herod and Jesus.

Once again, a Gospel passage has clear signs of translation from an Aramaic source [he is referring here to the use of the words for “jackal” and “reach my goal” (which is sometimes more literally translated as “be perfected”)] just at the point where the traditions in it must be authentic because they have a perfect setting in the life of Jesus, and contain nothing that the early church would want to make up. (p. 324, my emphasis)

But this latter rationale is invalid for a number of reasons. read more »

Prophecy, a useful tool for legitimizing a new order

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The most accurate prophecies are made after the events. What the prophecy does is bestow the event with an aura of fate, destiny, divine edict, legitimate authority.

The Gospels inform us that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. This itself is not evidence, however, that early first century Jews were generally expecting a messiah as a fulfilment of some ancient scripture.

A Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, was lauded as a prophesied saviour. Virgil placed his own age, with the advent of Augustus, as the fulfilment of a divinely inspired prophecy, in his fourth eclogue. He again shows Augustus was prophesied from ancient times in book 8 of the Aeneid. I doubt that Romans had been generally longing for Augustus with such prophesies on their lips during the period of the civil war that preceded and led to his rise to power. But after Augustus was in power, Virgil’s poems and epic praises of him found a very receptive public audience.

I know of no evidence that Jews of the early first century were any different from Romans in their expectations and focus during punishing times — the Jews being subject to Roman rule and the Romans to civil war. When one side or group found peace (or ‘peace’ through a form of spiritual escape from reality), that peace — the new order, the new institution — was legitimized, and given comforting assurance, through timely prophecies. Christianity went overboard with this technique and hijacked a whole collection of books from the Jews, declaring their exclusive function was to prophesy of their Saviour.

The Myth of a General Messianic Expectation in Jesus’ Time

It is standard practice to classify Jewish messianism as national, ethnic, political and material, and to mark Christian messianism as universal, cosmopolitan, ethical and spiritual. That Jewish anticipation of the messiah’s arrival was unusually keen in first century Palestine and constituted the mise en scène for the emergence of Christianity is a virtual axiom of western history. (p. 1 of Judaisms and Their Messiahs, my emphasis)

But there is little, if any, evidence for this “axiom of western history”!

The opening chapter of Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era, though over 20 years old, appears not to have been read or accepted among theological and other scholars who even now still argue that the generation of Jesus was possessed by expectations of a messianic deliverer. Many such scholars still argue strenuously that some of that generation reinterpreted the life, execution and post mortem psychic experiences of their renowned rabbi, Jesus, as the life, death and resurrection of the long-awaited (but spiritual) Messiah. Sometimes even professorial insults will be directed at less learned individuals who dare question, and persist in asking to be shown, the hard evidence for this model.

But professorial insults notwithstanding, William Scott Green (the author of that opening chapter) is several times quoted in relatively recent publications by the renowned Thomas L. Thompson:

These arguments [for a general Jewish expectation of the advent of a Messiah around the time of Jesus] . . . appear to suggest that the best way to learn about the messiah in ancient Judaism is to study texts in which there is none. (Green in Judaisms and Their Messiahs . . . p. 6)

Green continues: read more »

The meaning of “Anointed-Messiah-Christ” in the time of Jesus

One resolution I made to myself after leaving my experience with religion was never to embrace any argument or account of the world without checking out and testing the evidence for it. One detail I regularly read as if it were an established fact was that around the time of Jesus there was a general expectation among the Jews for a Messiah to appear to deliver them from subjugation to the Romans. I read much, and even asked a few academics specializing in New Testament and early Christian studies, but was never able to pin down a clear piece of evidence that this cultural ethos ever existed before the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70. I found this mystifying because even the academics I asked appeared to accept that this was the state of mind of “the Jews” generally at the time of Jesus.

The closest a number of scholars came to offering evidence was to point to books I had already read, and/or to refer me to texts such as certain Old Testament writings. I had little success when I responded by asking how we can know that OT texts dominated the minds of Jews throughout Palestine and/or the Diaspora, and in particular from around year 0 to year 30ish or so. read more »

Mark’s Ambiguity Fools Some Scholars

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How quaint to debate whether Jesus originally meant “an ordinary man” or the titular “THE Son of Man” when in Mark’s Gospel he says: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, or, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath”.

Mark’s Gospel is a work of ambiguities. Especially in the first part of his Gospel the central theme is the very ambiguity of Jesus himself: to the human characters in the Gospel he is a mere man, to the spirit characters and readers of the Gospel he is The Holy One of God. He astonishes innocent bystanders and disciples alike with his God powers of twice subduing the forces of watery chaos, speaking with authority and commanding demons, and performing all sorts of miracles.

So when Mark has Jesus say that “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath”, the natural literal meaning of “son of man” in this context is, “man” and nothing more. But at the same time the reader of the Gospel knows more about Jesus than any of the characters ever do. For them Jesus is THE Son of Man. read more »

Biblical Studies: Surely the Softest of Options!

Jesus was born in Israel, into an observant Jewish family. . . . His father was Joseph, called after a major patriarch who ruled over Egypt under the Pharaoh. Jesus’ mother was Miriam, whom we call Mary, so she was called after Moses’ sister. Jesus’ own name, Iesous in our Greek Gospels, is the Greek equivalent of Yeshua’, which we usually render into English as Joshua. Thus Joseph and Miriam called Jesus after the major figure of Jewish history who succeeded Moses and led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land. At the time his name was understood to mean ‘YHWH saves’ or the like, with the name of God at the beginning, so effectively ‘God saves’. Joseph, Miriam and Jesus must have been aware of this understanding of his name, and it is reflected at Mt. 1.21, where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph that Mary will bear a son ‘and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.

Jesus had four brothers. The most famous was Jacob, whom we usually call James, who later led the Jerusalem church and became famous for his piety. He was called after the eponymous patriarch of the whole nation, Jacob who was also known as Israel. The other brothers were Judah, who was probably the author of what we call the epistle Jude, Joseph and Simeon. . . . All known names are patriarchal names. Thus the names of the men in Jesus’ family are straightforward evidence that he was born into a traditional Jewish family, who were expecting the salvation of Israel. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 143)

There you go. What evidence do we have that Jesus’ parents were an “observant Jewish family”? Why, the father was named Joseph and the mother Mary. That alone tells us — obviously Joseph was named after the patriarch and Mary after Moses’ sister! What other explanation could there possibly be for anyone being given these names? (Anyone curious about the frequency of biblical names in Palestine around this time can thank Richard Bauckham for providing lists for us. These can be accessed via my Bauckham’s Names Tables post.) read more »

Casey’s historical method (2): Aramaic and the fallacy of ‘historical plausibility’

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Maurice Casey considers historical plausibility to be “of central importance” (p. 106).

Our early and primary sources are unanimous and unambiguous in placing Jesus within a context of first-century Judaism. It follows that our picture of Jesus should be comprehensible within that cultural framework, and further, when a piece of information about Jesus or those present during the historic ministry fits only there, that is a strong argument in favour of its historicity.

Surely this is begging the question. Casey has declared what is historical before he begins the inquiry, and then writes the rule to justify it. The Gospels place Jesus within a context of synagogues and Pharisees but external evidence indicates that these are anachronisms, not becoming features of the Galilean landscape till after the year 70. Casey has simply declared them by fiat to be historical of early first-century Galilee.

Hellenism and regional contrasts (Galilee and Judea are only two) were a reality of first-century Palestine. See, for example, Hellenism in the Land of Israel. Scholars like Crossan and Mack, whom Casey dismisses, grapple with the evidence for these realities. read more »

Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

Maurice Casey (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK) in his 2010 book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching devotes his third chapter to a discussion of his historical method, and becomes the latest New Testament scholar to demonstrate (once more) how studies of the “historical Jesus” follow their own idiosyncratic rules and are unlike any other studies of ancient historical figures.

Unfortunately, Casey also demonstrates in this chapter the all too familiar tendency of biblical scholars to carelessly misrepresent arguments and authors they do not like. In this case, Casey’s representation of Crossan’s methodology and arguments is, at best, a little unfair, as I will demonstrate by setting Casey’s and Crossan’s words side by side.

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John the Baptist’s head: a eucharist for the Herods

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Mark narrates in 6:14-29 the incident about Herod and John the Baptist in a way that makes the reader see it as endowed with a symbolic meaning. What we get is a perverted counter-eucharist: a deipnon among the Jewish political leaders which is dominated by the passions of the body (sexual desires) and in which the head of John the Baptist is served on a plate. (Fortunately, I am not the only one to read the story like this; cf. . . . . van Iersel B.M.F 1998: Mark. A Reader-Response Commentary, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 164, Sheffield).

This is from Henrik Tronier, Philonic Allegory in Mark [link downloads a 264 KB PDF file. Source:]. I feel incomplete not having read van Iersel, and feeling financially boa constricted when I see that the price of even a second hand copy is well in excess of $100!

Until I read this in Tronier’s article, almost the only literary criticism of this John the Baptist beheading passage that I had ever encountered was commentary on its rambling and irrelevant character, standing out as a curious out-of-place anomaly in the otherwise consistently terse pre-Passion narratives in Mark’s Gospel. The only exception to this pattern that I can recall at the moment is Dennis MacDonald’s linking it with popular stories of the murder of King Agamemnon (on his return from the Trojan War) by his wife Clytemnestra.

So in the absence of $130 to spare on Iersel, here are a few initial observations that might give reason to see this detailed anecdote as more meaningful than rambling after all: read more »

The acts and words (and person?) of Jesus as Parables in the Gospel of Mark

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To the outsiders “everything (ta panta) happens (ginetai) in parables”. -cf Mark 4:11

The Gospel of Mark makes little sense if read as literal history or biography. For example, Jesus is said to have explained to his disciples that he talks in incomprehensible mysteries to the general public in order to deliver divine punishment upon them, not to educate and save them.

Mark 4:10-12

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parables.

And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables:

that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them.

That last verse is a quotation from Isaiah 6. That Isaiah passage speaks of judgment that involves the destruction of the cities of the land of Israel, and from which only a tiny remnant will escape to become the new people of God. It is, of course, nonsense to imagine that Jesus could have always spoken incomprehensibly in public and still have gathered a following of any kind.

(Anyone who has read Henrik Tronier’s Philonic Allegory in Mark* will read nothing new in this post. This post is a simplified repeat of one section of his Tronier’s article, with a slightly modified twist at the end.) [* link downloads a 264 KB PDF file. Source:]
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God: Liar? Compromiser? Poet? Incompetent?

The will to believe is overpowering. And the idea of a single “God” as a real being who  epitomizes all Goodness lies at the heart of religions that can trace their historic influences back to ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, or maybe only as recently as late Mediterranean paganism when the lesser deities of the Olympian pantheon were being subsumed as mere manifestations or angelic agents of the Supreme Deity.

The efforts of modern believers to rationalize the God of their Book with pure Goodness are certainly quaint. A few of these were recently encapsulated in a theologian’s blog thus:

Many will say that the heart of the matter is whether God lied to humanity in the Bible. But that’s not the case at all. It is much easier to suggest that God accommodated the message in the Bible to what people could understand when it was written, or spoke in poetic rather than literal terms, or didn’t override the minds and understanding of the Bible’s authors when God inspired them, or perhaps didn’t even inspire the Bible at all, than to suggest that God lied and continues to lie to us through the evidence the universe itself provides. read more »

Religions Dreaming and Demonizing

IslamDreamingI was lucky enough to catch the last ten minutes of Aborigines Choosing Islam, the latest program on Rachel Kohn’s The Spirit of Things. Like Malcolm X some aborigines are joining Islam initially in frustration and anger, but then finding a new identity and peace, lost their anger and dedicated themselves to a more spiritual life, becoming positive role models. Aborigines who convert to Islam bring facets of their own cultural heritage to it, hence the “Dreaming” in the title of the book by Dr Peta Stephenson, Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia.

But what’s a religion that does not also have its dark side? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that. If one believes in a good man in the sky then why not a bad devil trying to rob him of his devotees? So the last couple of days bishops in the US have been following the Pope’s call for a return to traditional rituals and practices by holding a conference aimed at helping bishops become more exorcism savvy.

“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.

Of course it’s all very scientific nowadays. The bishops learn to diagnose who need a psychiatrist and who needs the crucifix. Also from The New York Times:

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

Looks like Jesus made a mistake in exorcising the epileptic that regularly tossed the boy into life-endangering fits.