Casey versus Bultmann; and why Jesus was not as hungry as his disciples

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by Neil Godfrey

Maurice Casey in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, is sharply critical of Form Criticism and Rudolph Bultmann. Casey repeatedly expresses disapproval of scholars’ attempting to understand the “historical Jesus” by burying their noses in exegetical studies of the texts (which form criticism requires) of the canonical Gospels instead of looking primarily at what he believes are the sources of those texts. So he faults Bultmann on these grounds and also for being “anti-Judaism”:

Bultmann concludes that ‘Jesus . . . opposes the view that the fulfilment of the law is the fulfilling of the will of God.’ That conclusion is clean contrary to the teaching of Jesus. It was however just what German Christians needed from the Christ of their faith, for it bluntly contradicts the centre of Judaism. It was moreover produced by means of detailed exegesis of selected texts. It also illustrates the centrality of anti-Judaism in the work of a distinguished member of the Confessing Church, the opposite wing of the German churches from the Deutsche Christen movement. Bultmann’s general cultural environment led him to write Judaism out of the teaching of Jesus, using spurious intellectual arguments which wrote most of Jesus of Nazareth out of history altogether. (p. 12)

One passage Casey uses to challenge and reject Bultmann’s exegesis is Mark 2:23-28

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Casey writes:

Bultmann argued that this story was entirely the product of the early church, and gives us no information about the historical Jesus. Bultmann’s first point is that Jesus is questioned about his disciple’s behaviour rather than his own. Bultmann does not however discuss why the disciples might be going through fields plucking grain, so no reason for the difference between the behaviour of Jesus and that of his disciples could possibly emerge. (p. 10)

Casey’s presumption of the historical truth of the narrative

This argument brings out the basic assumption underlying all that Casey writes. This is indicated where Casey presumes that there must be a reason behind the narrative itself that explains why Jesus and the disciples are going through the fields plucking grain. He cannot accept that it could be an authorial construct that bears no relation to any historical reason or event.

Casey scarcely argues, but essentially assumes, that Mark (“the author was certainly Mark”, p. 67) wrote his Gospel to record historical information about Jesus. Casey believes that

  • the early church would have had no reason to invent many of the stories in the Gospel;
  • that Mark often relied on a number of small Aramaic documents each of which contained a narrative or two about Jesus;
  • and that these written Aramaic sources were written within a handful of years after Jesus’ death and recorded real historical events in Jesus’ life.

The first point I address in some detail below. The next two points carry no logical necessity for historicity, even if we are persuaded by Casey’s reasons for thinking Mark used Aramaic sources.

In his chapter titled “Historically Reliable Sources”, Casey first discussion is about the Gospel of Mark, but nowhere in that chapter does he explains how we can know that the Gospel of Mark really is any source at all about “the historical Jesus”. The closest he ever comes to such an argument is to declare that

  1. the early church had no reason to make up many of the stories about Jesus since they “do not meet the needs of the early church”,
  2. and the details of some of the narratives, or at least the “Aramaic sources behind the narratives”, are so typical of “first-century Judaism” and have a “perfect setting in the life of Jesus” that “the historicity of such stores is very probable.” (p. 10)

Fiction can just as easily have a “perfect setting in the life” of its characters, too. How such a point advances the historical probability of is beyond me. “Perfect setting” (“Sitz im Leben”) is a given whenever plausibility is required whether for fact or fiction.

As for not seeing any reason why the early church would have no reason to make up any particular narrative or character (e.g. baptism of Jesus, disciples fleeing, Judas), one suspects that in such cases that it is Casey (and so many of his peers who agree with this same argument) who are lacking diligence in seriously looking for a possible reason. The scholarly literature does inform anyone interested of very plausible reasons for early Christians fabricating narratives such as those of the baptism of Jesus, the disciples deserting Jesus in Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, etc. The latter two incidents are clearly intended to portray Jesus as experiencing the same as the holy men of old, and to demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecies in his life: thus like Joseph and David and others (including the Psalmist) Jesus is rejected, deserted and even betrayed by those closest to him (the prophecies are explicit in the Gospel narrative); the baptism of Jesus sets up a powerful irony that is matched by the anti-climax of his later entry into Jerusalem as the Messianic King (Camery-Hoggatt), not to mention the various indications in the Gospel that its author is portraying an adoptionist or separationist Christology.

But back to Bultmann.

Bultmann rejected the historicity of this pericope because the challenge made by the Pharisees is directed against the followers of Jesus, not Jesus himself. This suggests that the incident was created to meet a situation in the life of the early church which was under some pressure from Jewish associates over the sabbath.

Others might deepen their scepticism over its historicity on the grounds that other evidence, in particular Josephus, indicates that Pharisees were not a part of the common landscape in Galilee until after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

Casey’s argument contra Bultmann: how we know Jesus was not as poor (or hungry) as his disciples

Beginning with the presumption that the narrative is merely the surface indicator that there was a historical event that remains to be uncovered behind that surface narrative, Casey looks for a “Sitz im Leben” or perfect setting in real history for the event behind the narrative.

He believes he finds it in the gaps where Mark does not explain it. The reason Mark did not explain it, Casey reasons, is that he took the setting for granted. He assumed his readers understood what was not stated.

I don’t recall that he ever refers to his method as an argument from silence. He would insist that other voices speak if not those found in the narrative in question.

One of these other voices is the Pentateuch. In passages such as Leviticus 23:22 there is a command for reapers not to harvest the edges of their fields but to leave that grain for the poor and foreigners. Casey assumes, again with little supporting evidence, that such a biblical law was a well-known custom in early first-century Galilee. Such a command may certainly have been debated at the time it first appeared (very likely in post-exilic Yehud), and again among rabbis after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Some rabbis may well have attempted to legitimize their arguments by casting them back to earlier authorities. But I know of no evidential reason to assume that such a law was a widespread custom, especially in Galilee which was known for its deeper acceptance of Hellenistic influences. Some of the Old Testament literature even indicates that there was some division among Jews over the place of Mosaic law prior to rabbinic Judaism. The Prophets, for example, rarely if ever allude to Moses at all! Enochian circles in Second Temple Jerusalem appear to have followed the theology of visions and angels more closely associated with the Prophetic writings than with the Mosaic ones. Josephus testifies of three main religious groups at the time, but other scholars (e.g. Engberg-Pedersen) suggest that Josephus was painting a simplified hindsight view in order the better compare Judaism with the main gentile schools of philosophy.

So to claim that the disciples were going through the fields in accordance with a Levitical law needs to be argued, not assumed. This is especially so in the absence of any such indication in the narrative itself.

The next step in Casey’s argument is to explain why it was that the Pharisees criticized the disciples, not Jesus himself, for plucking grain on the sabbath.

According to Levitical law it was quite legitimate for the poor to take the grain from the edges of somebody’s field to eat. From this, Casey reasons that the disciples were poor. They had a right to take pluck the grain to eat.

So why was Jesus not seen picking grain? He was not poor. Or at least he was not so poor that he qualified according to Levitical law to pick grain from someone’s field. One must remember that the Gospels also speak of women supplying his needs.

I once on this blog questioned another “independent scholar” who coincidentally believes the same explanation for why the Pharisees were cross only with the disciples and not Jesus. I found it difficult to understand how close associates of Jesus, particularly one who had been a tax collector and was able to entertain a houseful of people, others who owned a house in Capernaum and had a fishing business behind them, could go so hungry that they were forced to eat on the spot raw grain picked with their hands. Had they not just been to the local synagogue on the sabbath day, and if so, weren’t they in the vicinity of other well-wishers who would be happy to invite them to share a little bread on their holy day? Or could not the disciples even ask a few to lend them a little morsel so they did not have to go out famished into the fields to pick a few grains? And what was the more well-to-do Jesus doing all this time? Refusing to share his packed lunch with them? The “independent scholar” questioned whether I had any idea how destitute and poor some people could be.

(Maybe one could speculate even further and fancy that Jesus was hungry too, but chose to suffer on the sabbath rather than violate the law. But then that would have violated his teaching that the sabbath was made for man.)

I suspect that the principle of Occam’s razor would favour Bultmann’s argument on the grounds that it requires fewer imaginary hypotheses to work.

The silence of Acts and the epistles

Casey, however, would still reject Bultmann’s explanation for the disciples being singled out by the Pharisees, on the grounds that the early church had no need or interest in finding a saying by Jesus to justify how they kept the sabbath. His confidence rests in the silence of Acts and the epistles on this question.

Bultmann next declares that the church ascribes the justification of her sabbath customs to Jesus, but he does not discuss the absence of all such disputes from Acts and the epistles. (p. 10)

I seem to recall Casey’s friend and colleague James Crossley arguing that Paul’s letters were addressing gentiles who did not keep the Jewish law, and Casey himself arguing against mythicists who point to silences in Paul as merely reminders of the sort of literature epistles are, occasional writings addressing only topics of immediate relevance. Acts, I think most commentators agree, is intended to show that Paul was law-abiding, keeping the customs of the Jews, and to stress the unity of the church. Calling on the words of Jesus to condemn the practices of Pharisees (Acts tells us many Pharisees were in the church) would not have fitted the agenda of Acts.

Besides, I think that Casey is here wanting to have his pe’ah and eat it too. He believes that Mark is the earliest source of information we have about Jesus, being composed as early as the year 40 or even earlier, and this particular narrative existed earlier in an Aramaic document. The epistles and Acts, I think, he argues are from a later period and for another audience for which such Jewish customs were no longer relevant. Or was it Crossley who argues this? I will have to check the detail and update this paragraph.

Typical, typical

Nor does Bultmann discuss whether this kind of legal dispute is typical of early Judaism, which it is, to the point that the historicity of such stories is very probable. Bultmann suggests that the scriptural proof, the use made by Jesus of the story of David, was used apart from its present context in the controversies of the early church, but he does not discuss the absence of any evidence that the early church had such controversies, nor the appropriateness of such an argument in Jesus’ Jewish culture. (p. 10)

Casey sees the scriptural sparring here as typical of Jewish debates of the day. That may be, but I don’t know that we have evidence of such debates earlier than the much later rabbinic literature. Just because some of those debates contain attributions of certain arguments to earlier times does not prove they do come from such times, or were the sort of thing any and every Jew was likely to engage in. Across pages 67 to 69 Casey warns against later testimony that “consists of unreliable legitimizing traditions.” (The context here is the writings of the Church Fathers about the provenance of Mark’s Gospel.)

More, but not now

Casey’s discussion extends to the final saying here about Jesus being Lord of the Sabbath. I am unable to address that point now. Another significant part of Casey’s discussion is the meaning and origin of the expression “make a path” in 2:23. That was discussed a couple of posts prior to this one.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Casey versus Bultmann; and why Jesus was not as hungry as his disciples”

    1. Now this is avoiding the anti-Christian bias of which Casey accuses many scholars, is thinking that is consistent with how many biblical scholars argue history should be done (hermeneutic of charity towards the texts), without undermining Casey’s central thesis.

      I think you have hit on something here, rey. We should expect to see how a 40 day fast was a “typically Jewish” cultural thing for aspirants to religious leadership status, the deprivation inducing hallucinations of confrontations with Satan and being waited on by angels. This will establish the sitz im leben and hence make historicity of both events almost certainly historical!

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