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.
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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