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

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by Neil Godfrey

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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.

But the fact that few ever seem to think about in the context of historicity is that Galilee in the Gospel of Mark arguably serves a symbolic function. The Gospel of Matthew declares its relevance as a fulfilment of a prophecy in Isaiah. And then we have all those other place names that fortuitously have Gospel-appropriate meanings, leaving historicists puzzling over why Jesus did not go into more populated cities like Tiberius and Sepphoris that coincidentally did not have such appropriately symbolic names. Now if a narrative detail is said to be included as a fulfilment of a prophecy, or a name is selected because of its double meaning advances a literary theme, its historicity is normally at least open to some suspicion and a modern reader is entitled to question and test it on other grounds for historicity. But not so when it comes to the Gospels. Anyone who does so is labeled, even by an “independent historian”, as “extremist”.

Most scholars would place the New Testament epistles, especially Paul’s, as earlier “primary sources” than the Gospels. In those epistles there is scant evidence, if any, that Jesus is “placed within a context of first-century Judaism”. They are certainly far from “unambiguous” in this respect: Christ being said to be crucified before the eyes of the Galatians, and elsewhere being said to be crucified by “princes of this world”, offering a sacrifice in heaven, and no reference to Palestine as the scene of Christ’s activity at all.

Casey, however, places the Gospel of Mark before the epistles. And if readers wonder why Mark seems to have so little by way of a clearly unambiguous “first-century Judaism” Casey argues it is because Mark (and his first readers) took it for granted and had no need to make it so explicit. I have examined a couple of Casey’s detailed arguments to this effect in Make a Path and Why Jesus Was Not As Hungry As His Disciples.

Then, of course, there remains the question of what exactly constitutes “first-century Judaism”, particularly in early first-century Galilee. Casey will draw on the Old Testament laws as if there can be no question that first-century Jews and Galileans all accepted the normative role of these in their daily lives. Once he does acknowledge the lack of external evidence for this sort of assumption, but counters that the Gospels themselves are the evidence. Casey’s arguments do make very nice round circles.

Finally, plausibility, as everyone knows, is as much a characteristic of fiction as nonfiction. A criterion is meant to tease out the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Plausibility fails to do this, and labeling it “historical” (“historical plausibility”) only underscores the circularity.

Historical plausibility demands that we take seriously the whole of Jesus’ life in first-century Judaism . . . . (p. 107)

Is not the point of criteria supposed to be to help determine what Jesus life actually consisted of? What is the point of beginning with the assumption that the “whole of Jesus’ life” was historical and using this to decide what criteria we need to affirm our assumption of historicity?!


Casey makes “the use of Aramaic an important aspect of the application of the criterion of historical plausibility.” (p. 108)

Here Casey’s examples look to me to be inconsistent and some of them questionable.

Casey sometimes justifies his argument that Mark was translating an Aramaic source by explaining his awkward Greek as a literal translation of an Aramaic phrase. I discuss the weakness of one of Casey’s major examples in the post I linked above, Make a Path. Others have added additional critical comments to that post. In that particular example, and in others, Casey does not argue that Mark’s Greek can be explained by a literal translation of an Aramaic word, but rather by Mark’s misreading an Aramaic word! So as one of the commenters noted, the argument often relies on Mark being incompetent in both Aramaic and Greek!

I argue that simpler explanations for the Greek construction are to be found within the thematic and literary context of the Gospel itself without any need to resort to multiple layers of hypotheticals to explain an Aramaic source. Of the various scholarly Q reconstructions, Casey faults them over the “central fact that this document does not exist” (p. 79).

Other times, as with the words Jairus speaks to Jesus, Casey explains that Mark writes in “such idiomatic Greek that an Aramaic reconstruction is difficult” (p. 268). This does not prevent him from making the attempt, however! So his argument for an Aramaic original is sometimes justified on the grounds that

  • some of Mark’s grammatical constructions can be explained as literal translations of Aramaic,
  • other times as a misreading (incompetence) in Aramaic,
  • and other times there is no justification at all — as when an Aramaic source is assumed even where Mark’s Greek is “idiomatic” and unable to be explained as a literal translation of Aramaic.

One misreading of a word that he gets right and repeats ad nauseam elsewhere

Another questionable argument for an Aramaic source is in Mark’s account of Peter’s denial of Jesus:

. . . Mark says ‘throwing, he wept’ (Mk 14:72). In Greek, this is nonsense, but in Aramaic people could ‘throw’ (shedha) threats and curses, much as in English people can ‘hurl’ abuse, and this is exactly what Peter has just been doing. That is what Mark meant.

Casey argues that Mark misread an Aramaic word (again confusing the single letter resh for a daleth, and in this case a common Aramaic word meaning “begin”) and produced nonsense in Greek. But in this case he excuses the Greek nonsense by declaring that Mark meant something that makes even less sense.

Peter had “thrown” curses, yes. But then he heard the cock crow a second time. He then recalled and repeated to himself the words of Jesus. THEN he “threw out curses against Jesus” and wept?? No, Mark did not mean this. Casey’s explanation does not work. It is far easier to accept the suggestion that Mark was writing in the language of everyday nonliterary, idiomatic speech. Presumably Peter was shocked within himself in some way, perhaps threw himself down or broke down weeping.

But it goes “from bad to worse” (Casey’s description of historical Jesus studies in the wake of the “American Jesus Seminar”). The word that Casey argues Mark misread in this instance is in fact the word he elsewhere says Mark reads correctly and translates literally so frequently that he has composed bad Greek in doing so. Casey says Mark uses the Greek word for “begin” 26 times, and that Matthew and Luke clearly worked to remove many of these superfluous uses. Casey explains this repetitive use as the result of reading the Aramaic for “begin” (sheri) meaning “nothing very much” and thus used more frequently than its counterpart (but more meaningful) Greek word would be used.

So it beggars belief that Mark would not recognize this word in an Aramaic original, as Casey argues to explain Peter’s action in Mark 14:72.

Cumulative weights

Casey’s arguments for an Aramaic original text thus several times fudge the edges of decisive argumentation. This, however, is excused by Casey because he explains that:

Aramaic sources should be proposed only in cases where they are at least part of an argument of cumulative weight . . . . (p. 112)

Unfortunately, what both Casey and Crossley seem to mean by this injunction is that many tenuous arguments “cumulate” into a strong argument. Not so. Any argument is only ever as strong as its weakest link.

Casey finally explains that “the Aramaic criterion” “must be used as part of the criterion of historical plausibility, not as a criterion on its own.”

So we come full circle. Plausibility is no assurance of historicity. Simply removing some texts to an otherwise unknown Aramaic source and arguing that the narrative conforms with Old Testament teachings does not bring us any closer to ensuring that a narrative is describing a genuine historical event.

(To be contd in a future post)

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Neil Godfrey

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26 thoughts on “Casey’s historical method (2): Aramaic and the fallacy of ‘historical plausibility’”

  1. “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.”
    you mention that alot, where do you get that factoid? I thought i heard Pharisees went back a while and Synagogues to, when did those emerge? these folks http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue have the first in the 3rd century bce the article on pharisees has them in macabean times, how accurate is that?

    “And then we have all those other place names that fortuitously have Gospel-appropriate meanings,”
    How appropriate? there are a series of prophecies I’ve seen that consist of vague lines of poetry and it is supposed to predict the lives of popes, and those who believe it have made list of how these lines of verse accurately describe a pope. names can be made to fit by the imaginative. the cites however are mostly limited to historical Galilee, maybe a couple we haven’t heard of. I agree though, everything is open to suspicion in some degree, though some degrees of doubt cannot be profitably entertained. I would have to see the town names and the supposed symbolic event or however.

    1. Synagogues in Galilee (NOTE: Not Synagogues, period, but Synagogues “in Galilee”) — got that from chasing up some publications on synagogues in Galilee — publications in archaeology. Quite some years ago in the State Library. Don’t have the references on hand at the moment.

      Pharisees in Galilee (Not Pharisees, period, but Pharisees “in Galilee”) — got that from various scholarly publications, too, but again will have to find some time to dig out the references (most of my books and photocopies are packed and in transit). I recall that Josephuus is part of the evidence for this.

      If you try to follow up books about Galilean culture etc (e.g. Hellenism in Galilee) from BC to AD you are likely to come across that sort of information. Pharisees are said to have moved there after the fall of Jerusalem.

      But my studies were in days of early computers and slow internet and not-very-much-online. Web has changed since, and you might be able to track down info online now.

        1. Okay, call me confused. The synagogue that was discovered was dated around 400 CE (or AD, if you prefer). The article you provide, Jon, mentions that this synagogue “points to the existence of a close-knit network of synagogues on the north-west banks of the Sea of Galilee dating from the sixth to the first century before Christ.”

          First of all the wording says “points to”. Secondly, where do they (or the article’s author) come up with those dates? Is there some explanation elsewhere for this?

          Another detailed article discusses this synagogue discovery and does not mention those proposed dates, that I could find:

          Taken all the available evidence together, it seems very likely that the Kinneret Regional Project 2010 has discovered a part of the western wall of yet another ancient Galilean synagogue. Together with the well-known synagogues at Capernaum and Chorazin (both around the fifth and sixth century AD, the new synagogue at Horvat Kur — tentatively dated to the fourth or fifth century AD — adds new evidence for a very tight net of synagogues in a relatively small area on the Northwestern shores of the Lake of Galilee.

          But perhaps someone could point me to further explanation.

          Also, there are very specific criteria in determining whether a building is a Second Temple synagogue.

            1. Yes, could be. It would make more sense. But what a heck of a word order mix-up! Sixth to the first? Or first to the sixth? The ramifications would be mindboggling. LOL

              1. I think the school was Finnish or something, bad translator. i didn’t spot it till you did, but then i thought extensive evidence of synagogues in in 6th century bce seemed weird.

              2. Before reading this I responded below to the same comment. The find is no indication of synagogues in Galilee in the early first century at all. There is so much stuff published supposedly proving some detail of the Bible — even on university sites — that I have a built in reaction now of simply ignoring anything I read in the mainstream or public venues along these lines. Always check the fine print, usually only found in some scholarly paper.

              3. “ignoring anything I read in the mainstream or public venues along these lines.” I can’t advise that as a good way to develop ideas, look at the U.S. “tea party” movement.

              4. Neil is saying (I think) that the right thing to do is to check the source material and the scholarship behind the mainstream stories. The mainstream press tends to err on the side of the apologists, because that’s what sells. In addition, if they comfort the faithful, they get less hate mail and fewer death threats. I’m not saying that’s the only reason they do it; sometimes it’s just a case of ignorance and laziness.

                Yeah, the Teabaggers are suspicious mainstream media, too, but their trusted “sources” are Faux News and hate radio.

              5. Absolutly Tim, one should check sources. I think mass media might be a better term however than mainstream media. Popular science is less reliable than scholarly science but more reliable than alternative science. If your getting ideas from Atlantis Rising or Living Marxism, then your in bad shape.

              6. Neil:
                Always check the fine print, usually only found in some scholarly paper.

                Good advice, of course.

                The first university article seemed suspect, even though we find names of the acting field directors of Kinneret Regional Project 2010, Jürgen Zangenberg and Stefan Münger, at the bottom of the article.

                The second “mainstream” article in ScienceDaily I referenced because it was written by those same two directors, plus Raimo Hakola (representative of the University of Helsinki team)( with “editorial adaptations” by the ScienceDaily staff), and it didn’t corroborate questionable proposed (or incorrectly stated) dates of the first article.

                So, with all this questionable data in the first university article, we are nonetheless offered a link at the bottom of the article to “Scholarly articles on the excavations in the Galilee region”. This is the same link offered by John Hobbins in his “Cautionary Tale” (which you offer below) as “scholarly publications of KRP to date.” Jürgen Zangenberg and Stefan Münger appear prominently on this list.

                So, it would seem that if there were obvious errors in online articles, it would be an easy process to make corrections. Of course, either the editors or scholarly authors associated with an article would have to care about the content.

                I don’t have time to read through the whole list of scholarly publications, but some fine print somewhere might clarify it all.

                Regardless, it does appear, as you say, Neil, that “the find is no indication of synagogues in Galilee in the early first century at all.”

    1. Maurice Casey is an “independent historian” who produces other “independent” scholars who think and argue and even often express themselves just the same way he does.

      Hopefully his book will drive the nail into the coffin of historical Jesus studies.

    1. Thanks, for the link Jon.
      Neil, I would have to see the evidence before assenting to those proposals on Pharisees and synagogues in Galilee. My assumption, is if the phenomenon is known in nearby Jewish communities, then it is not unlikely that would be in Galilee, particularly if it is wide spread. Essentially I would presume the presence of Pharisees and synagogues unless evidence precluded that. For instance I wouldn’t need evidence of Christianity (crucifixes, bibles, whatnot) being practiced in a particular 12th century French village to believe Christianity was practiced there, arguing the opposite would require some evidence for why this place is unusual. i think most objection I’ve seen to Jesus debating Pharisees is that Jesus own ideas were closet to theres, and Sadducee’s, herodians, and “scribes” would be more likely targets. The Pharisees were a danger however to later Christians as a the main competitor for Jewish souls. Thus the idea some have is the Pharisee Jesus rap battles are played up by the gospelers, but it couldn’t be precluded that Jesus debated Pharisees in the same way we can dismiss St. George battling a fire breathing snake monster.

    2. These sorts of reports should never be taken at face value but always investigated at a more scholarly or detailed level. This is what I learned when checking out the reports of synagogues in Capenaum. The field is loaded with apologists stretching any and every detail into something that supposedly supports the Bible, but that closer reading shows not to be the case at all.

      The 400 date is CE (Kinneret Regional Project) so how that is evidence for synagogues in early fist century CE is a mystery. Read also John Hobbins’ Cautionary Tale in respect to this Leiden report.

      I still have seen no evidence that synagogues dotted the Galilean landscape in the early first century. (Mikelioso’s Rumsfeld’s position that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence does not work with Galilee given the known cultural differences of this region.)

      1. Why wouldn’t synagogues “dot” the landscape? what does dot mean? 1 in every town? 10 in every town two in every village?
        I liked your summation of my argument it is very sharp. “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” very true

        1. If there is no evidence for X then I would be a fool to assume X as part of any argument. As long as there is no evidence for X then I am entitled to build an argument on the absence of X. If one day in the future we discover there is an X then I will modify or discard my argument. That is how knowledge advances. All knowledge is tentative — that is it comports with the current evidence — so it can be revised in the future if and when new evidence is discovered and/or research reveals new things. That is how all knowledge advances.

          1. I think it would be foolish to build an argument on the absence of X with no evidence that there is no X. If one is given a box, to treat the box as proven empty without examining it would be foolish. Empty is only one possible answer to the question, “what is in the box?”. It has no special place above any other option. A lack of known Carthaginian artifacts or elephant bones in the Alps would not prove that those who claimed Hannibal crossed the Alps wrong. You can make a case based on inference.

            1. There’s nothing wrong with argument from inference.

              But as a little assignment, check out the evidence for Hannibal and his campaigns and compare with that for Jesus.

              Your empty box analogy is hardly relevant. No one is aguing something they can’t test or see is one way or the other. The argument about Pharisees and synagogues in Galilee is about things we can see, or could see, if they really were there. And we do see those things when we look in another box that was put in the room a few hours later than the first one.

              We are looking for evidence for X and Y and despite our searching we see nothing at all until suddenly, after Year B, we find X and Y appearing. We are entitled to believe that X and Y did not appear until after Year B. Now if one day someone comes up with the evidence we have not yet seen, then we will modify our arguments.

              But we can’t simply think there “might be” a unicorn or pixie under the mushrooms in the garden despite never having seen them. No one has seen the teacup and saucer orbiting Saturn yet, but that doesn’t mean it might not be there. It might be, and theologian James McGrath’s exploringourmatrix fantasies might be real. Aliens might have brought life to earth as an experiment of some kind. Maybe we really are all just a dream of Buddha and all will end when he wakes up.

              Knowledge is assessed on what evidence we do have access to. We work with what we do see and know. That does not mean we are dogmatic and refuse to allow for new knowledge, new evidence, when it is uncovered in the future. But till then the only honest approach I know of is to work with what we can know here and now.

  2. Our early and primary sources are unanimous and unambiguous in placing Jesus within a context of first-century Judaism.

    Except that our earliest sources for the Jesus story show that Jesus departed from normative 1st century Judaism by being a 33 year old celibate.

    Mark says ‘throwing, he wept’ (Mk 14:72). In Greek, this is nonsense, but in Aramaic people could ‘throw’ (shedha) threats and curses, much as in English people can ‘hurl’ abuse, and this is exactly what Peter has just been doing. That is what Mark meant.

    So because Greeks could not throw insults, this means that the Greek word Diabolos must come from an Aramaic source! Who knew that Plato knew Aramaic.

    1. That Jesus was a 33 year old celibate my be more an assumption rather than stated, is there a line where a gospels states Jesus never boned anybody or was married? See here is an example of someone assuming something based on lack of evidence. At any rate, I do believe I have hearsd of other jewish celibates, Paul being one (if we should take his lack of refrence to being married as evidence of his celibacy, which we can, but it is not proven.) Ok, Neil, absence of evidence is evidence of absence, but not proof. I don’t think I argue that a lack of proof of something cannot be used to suggest doubt, only you cannot assume thing to not be unless you have some evidence to rule it out.

  3. I’m not surprised that Casey criticises reconstructions of the Q document.

    This is entirely sensible.

    From the sound of it, Casey’s exegesis techniques are clearly in a different league. Such superior skills would only appeal to someone who found Q nowhere near speculative enough.

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