Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Multiple Attestation

Casey ascribes only “limited” applicability to this criterion. It is “useful” but only “when properly used” (p. 102).

Thus when Dunn, for example, says that “all four canonical Gospels agree” that Jesus was crucified for claiming to be the king of the Jews, he is falsely implying that this detail is supported by multiple sources. Casey rightly points out that the charge “King of the Jews” was an inscription ordered by Pilate to be fastened on Jesus’ cross, and not a claim of Jesus’ himself; and that the Matthew and Luke are dependent upon Mark, while John is too late and secondary to be considered in any discussion of multiple attestation.

And when Crossan finds multiple attestation for a saying in both the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, Casey dismisses the relevance of this for establishing an authentic saying of Jesus on the grounds that both sources are far too late.

Here is how Casey describes Crossan’s use of multiple attestation in this example. (I will follow with the words of Crossan himself, and readers can assess the extent to which Casey has been diligent to exercise due care and honesty in his critique of Crossan.)

. . . Crossan lists under ‘Double Independent Attestation’ what he calls “Seeking Too Late”, citing Thomas 38.2 and Jn 7.34a, 36b. He does not offer a detailed discussion, but he appears to mean this:

The days will come (when) you will seek me (and) you will not find me.
(Thomas 38, second part)

You will seek me and you will not find (me) . . . you will seek me and you will not find (me).
(Jn 7.34a, 7.36b)

Both these sayings are found in heavily secondary contexts in very late sources. The chances that a genuine saying of the historical Jesus underlies them are therefore negligible. (p. 103)

Casey is arguing that Crossan is invalidly applying the criterion of multiple attestation because he fails to understand that its relevance decreases as the sources are further removed from the time in question. This follows a savage critique of Crossan and the “American” Seminar in chapter 1.

But here is how Crossan himself presents that very example:

Complexes have been marked with a plus (+) or minus (-) sign according as I judge them to be from the historical Jesus or from the later Jesus tradition. . . .

(c) Double Independent Attestation . . .

83 -. Seeking Too Late: (1) Gos. Thom. 38:2; (2) John 7:34a, 36b (pp. 434-439 of The Historical Jesus)

Notice the minus (-) sign? That is, Crossan himself argues exactly what Casey himself argues: that he does not believe that this example of double attestation is an indicator of the words of Jesus! Casey has tried too hard to find fault with Crossan and his argument for multiple attestation and ended up unwittingly agreeing with Crossan! Crossan is not as silly as Casey wants us to believe!

Crossan himself argues strongly for primary (almost exclusive) reliance on the earliest sources, those he labels as the “first stratum” of evidence:

The investigation must begin with the first stratum and work from there to the second, third, and fourth. But this step emphasizes the tremendous importance of the first stratum. It is, in terms of methodological discipline, data chronologically closes to the time of the historical Jesus. Chronologically most close does not, of course, mean historically most accurate. In abstract theory, a unit from the fourth stratum could be more original than one from the first stratum. But in terms of method, that is, of scholarly discipline and investigative integrity, study must begin with the first stratum. This book, for instance, will work almost exclusively with that stratum. (my emphasis, p. xxxii of The Historical Jesus)

Casey has another reason for limiting the use of multiple attestation across a number of sources in any historical inquiry: it means that anything that appears independently in only one source has to be excluded. Now that argument is, of course, circular. Casey simply rejects the idea that we cannot justify the authenticity of anything that appears only one independent source.

It is however of limited application because too little of the surviving evidence about Jesus is independently attested more than once in our oldest sources. (p. 104)

Again he takes aim at Crossan for arguing otherwise:

The major problem with multiple attestation by source is also found in the work of Crossan, who casts doubt on the authenticity of anything which is not multiply attested. He comments on attestation:

The final element is a bracketing of singularity. This entails the complete avoidance of any unit found only in single attestation even within the first stratum.

Casey is very short on argument addressing the specifics of those who stand as challenges to his own methods. He simply dismisses Crossan’s sentence (quoted above) as “not satisfactory because of the nature of the surviving primary sources.”

But when one reads Crossan one finds that Crossan argues far less by dogmatic assertion than does Casey, and justifies his approach with a reasonable argument that Casey simply ignores. To continue with Crossan’s justification that follows directly on from the sentence Casey cites:

It is intended as a safeguard and an insurance. Something found in at least two independent sources from the primary stratum cannot have been created by either of them. Something found there but only in single attestation could have been created by that source itself. Plural attestation in the first stratum pushes the trajectory back as far as it can go with at least formal objectivity. Let me insist here, again, on the distinction between theory and method. I agree that, in theory, a unit found only in a single source from the third stratum might be just as original as one found in fivefold independent attestation from the first stratum. . . . (my emphasis)

Casey subsequently argues that if a unit is “plausible” according to an early first-century Jewish Sitz im Leben, and he can imagine no reason for “the church” to have made it up, then it is almost certainly historical. I suggest Crossan’s argument here carries a more reasoned justification. Casey’s argument assumes that we can know what the original authors would have and would not have written, and in fact simply ignores studies that do indeed show strong reasons why certain units (e.g. the baptism of Jesus, the Judas betrayal) that Casey declares historical might well have been fabricated.

So Casey has limited use for the criterion of multiple attestation. What this seems to mean in practice is that it is not a criterion at all, but an optional extra to be enlisted into the fray whenever other criteria find something to be “historical”.

Dissimilarity, Coherence and Embarrassment

Casey dismisses the criterion of dissimilarity because it means that the only securely historical deeds and words of Jesus must be those judged dissimilar from typical Judaism of the day or later Christianity. The criterion of coherence, being closely tied to that of dissimilarity, is likewise dismissed.

But the criterion of embarrassment is important, not least for its use in rebutting “extremists” who deny the existence of Jesus.

It is however important in refuting the view of extremists that Jesus did not even exist, because it focuses attention on aspects of his life and teaching which would not be found in the Gospels if this were not so. (p. 105)

Casey has read Price, but appears to have completely forgotten the weaknesses and fallacies a the heart of the criterion of embarrassment that Price addresses. But not only mythicists are aware of these deficiencies. Yet Casey repeats this particular criterion like a mantra without any discussion of the potential fallacy at its core.

He pulls out the classic example used just about whenever the criterion of embarrassment is explained, that of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Since this story could be interpreted as indicating Jesus was sinful, it could not have been made up by the church, and is therefore surely historical. Of course, this argument assumes that the story originated within a church that taught that Jesus was always sinless by nature. It does not allow for the possibility and indications in Mark — one also argued by other (non-mythicist) scholars — that the story was created by Christians who embraced an adoptionist or separationist Christology. (That is, one that Jesus was only the Son of God from the moment of the entry of the Spirit after his baptism.) It also bypasses the obvious pointers that the scene was an artificial creation to demonstrate the fulfilment of the prophecy that Elijah was to introduce the Christ to the world.

Given the oversight of such details that increase the plausibility, even likelihood, that the story was fabricated by early Christians, it is a little amusing to read the following discussion about the “problem” or lack of it regarding embarrassment over Jesus:

This example (i.e. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus) shows that the criterion of embarrassment can be useful. Like the criterion of multiple attestation, it is of limited value because it is of limited application. The early church was originally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus, and very little that he said or did was embarrassing to it. (p. 105, my emphasis)

So why not accept that there is absolutely no suggestion of embarrassment in the way the earliest Gospel (Mark) told the story, and that the only evidence of embarrassment is on the part of later evangelists who knew and disliked Mark’s gospel enough to change it?

Historical Plausibility

Casey links this closely with his Aramaic “criterion” so I will discuss it in connection with that — but in a future post. Time has run out for this one for now.


I began this post with a claim that these methods are unlike those used by historians of other ancient peoples and topics. I will need to address that more specifically in a future post again, too, though I have posted several times on it already.

In brief, the first thing historians generally establish is the nature of the evidence they are working with to determine the most appropriate way to understand its contents. This means literary and textual criticism of some sort must be applied first before assuming any historical intent at all in its contents or any core historical event at its base. It also means the importance of external (independent) attestation for the provenance, nature and/or contents of the text. These concerns are generally taken for granted in studies of, say, Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Justinian, even Socrates. Casey follows pretty much most historical Jesus scholars in overlooking these practices that are standard in scholarly studies of ancient persons outside the Bible.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies”

  1. Good article. The item on the criteria of embarrassment is especially useful. Embarrassment should be embarrassing. For instance that Matthew the baptism has an odd protest, obviously Matthew is a bit troubled by this in a way Mark isn’t. If Mark was lost to us, we might suspect usage of an earlier work due to the odd protest. But for Mark it seems to show that this isn’t a a big deal for him, note that Mark doesn’t make a big fuss over Jesus being sinless, if it weren’t for theology clouding our heads we might just assume that Mark doesn’t think the messiah is perfect.

    On the other hand In Matthew 10:23 we have a line that is odd. It would look to us as though Matthew has presented Jesus as giving misleading information. Either Matthew doesn’t think they’ve hit all the towns of Israel, even by this late date, or he understands it in a way that is not clear to us(we have all said things that makes sense to us but others misunderstand), or he doesn’t think Jesus was all wise, or he is dropping in and older saying (not necessarily Jesus, just some one who still has some towns to go to) either without giving it full thought or not thinking he has the authority to correct it.

  2. One detail I overlooked discussing in this post is Casey’s distinction between multiple attestation by source and multiple attestation by form.

    Casey says that if a unit is found in a narrative, in a summary, in a parable and in a controversy, then that is “very strong evidence” for its historicity. The logical connection fails me, but others may see it.

  3. The other fallacy behind the supposed embarrassment of Jesus’ baptism by John is that if it really were embarrassing, then why is it that we don’t find apologies for it until Matthew? Applying this criterion to JtB’s dunking of Jesus assumes that Mark’s narrative was written immediately after the events. If we take it that Mark was written either during the First Jewish War or after the fall of the temple, we have over 40 years (whenever Matthew was written) until Christians were embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism.

  4. The methodologies of Crossan and Crossley et al are predicated on the model of a historical Jesus and are designed to somehow find him hidden within narratives without external corroboration.

    If such a methodology could be found it would mean humans have made a historic breakthrough in finding a way to reliably expose fiction from fact in self-testimony.

    The “minimalists” initiated progress in methodology for the study of the OT and Israel by dragging into it (against protests still screaming ‘foul’ in North America) the basics of the centuries old independent/external corroboration and textual and narrative content analysis vis a vis matching historical settings. These have been the bread and butter of nonbiblical histories and biblical scholars who have for a century attempted to point this out have been ignored. By contrast Dale Allison can quite unabashedly admit that HJ studies are based on a circularity of method. Others less secure will mock and insult anyone from outside the guild who says the same.

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