I know I said I would not touch Casey’s book (Jesus of Nazareth) again for a while, but Mike Kok’s review of chapter 3 (Historical Method) on the Sheffield Biblical Studies blog does call out for some response.
No archaeological evidence for Nazareth in early first century
I ignored Casey’s critique of Zindler’s and Salm’s arguments over the evidence for the presence of Nazareth and Capernaum in the supposed time of Jesus largely because I thought anyone reading Casey’s book would clearly see that Casey gives no evidence at all in his rebuttal of their claims, and the claims of “trained scholars” whom they each cite. (I like the word “trained” as a descriptor of biblical scholars as it is used by both Kok and Casey. Training has connotations of Pavlov’s dog-like behaviourist conditioning to say the right things in order to be accepted by the academic guild.) But Kok failed to notice what I took to be obvious, so presumably others will overlook the weakness of Casey’s argument, too:
He also critiques the extreme view that Nazareth did not existed (Zindler, Salm) based on a problematic handling of archaeological and textual evidence (128-32).
Once again we see one of these comparative adjectives (“extreme”) used by biblical scholars or students where an absolute either/or would be more appropriate. This is yet one more of those smokescreens or red herrings that biblical apologists toss out to avoid addressing the actual arguments of mythicists. Conceptual analysis rarely seems to be a strong point among mainstream biblical scholars/students. Nazareth either existed as an urban area in the early first century or it did not. There are only two views possible: it did exist as a town/village/urban dwelling of some sort or it did not. “Extreme” implies that one has a view that lies at the very end of a continuum allowing for varying degrees of a quantitative question.
No, Casey argues that the small town of Nazareth DID exist in the early first century and that Salm and Zindler are flat wrong for daring to argue that we have no evidence that it did exist.
So how does Casey rebut these scandalous arguments that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus? (I will focus on Casey’s René Salm’s study of the archaeological evidence for Nazareth because Salm has addressed the archaeological evidence most extensively in his publication and online discussions.) Here is Casey’s response to the claim that there is no material evidence for the existence of a village of Nazareth at this time:
However, there does not seem to be any serious doubt among competent investigators that some finds are of sufficiently early date, and that these include a vineyard with walls and a tower, which show that there was some sort of settlement, and shards which are said to date from the Herodian period. (p. 129 of Jesus of Nazareth)
Firstly, it is the published finds of “competent investigators” that Salm is addressing. Secondly, Casey has as likely as not taken his “vineyard with walls and a tower” from Salm’s own book. Thirdly, Casey’s assertion that this specific evidence points to “some sort of settlement” does not come within a cooee of “a village”. Villages or small towns are not usually identified by “vineyards with walls and a tower”. Yet this is the strongest rebuttal Casey can make against Salm’s argument that archaeology does not give us reason to believe that Nazareth existed as a township in the early first century. Casey ignores the remainder of Salm’s book that does clearly demonstrate, from the archaeological evidence as published by “competent investigators”, the subsequent construction of the ancient village. Salm’s argument is not simply the lack of evidence at the right time period, but the stark contrast between this lack and the abundance of evidence at other times. Salm’s argument is both positive and negative, but Casey does all he can to denigrate Salm personally by accusing him of “extraordinary incompetence and bias” to turn readers off reading his book for themselves.
As for the “textual evidence” which Kok says Salm and Zindler handle problematically, the details are too much to go into here. Kok does not address the details of Casey’s arguments, and just as well. On one hand Casey faults Salm for even addressing literary evidence that is both very late and full of inaccuracies, yet on the other hand he himself addresses the same evidence as if, despite its inaccuracies, it supports his view and its lateness has no relevance.
Casey even turns to the Gospels as “evidence” to support his argument that Nazareth existed, despite this claim being the very point under dispute!
Salm’s conviction that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus is obviously contrary to the evidence of Mk 1.9, ‘Jesus came from Nazaret of Galilee.’ (p. 131)
Er, yes. That is the reason for the debate in the first place. Casey argues that all the manuscripts contain this line in Mark, so we presumably have no reason to doubt the historicity of its detail. How seriously are we meant to take this towering intellect?
Mike Kok unfortunately compounds his uncritical acceptance of Casey’s attack by adding his own untested assertion:
To his observations I would add Acts 24:5 “Nazarenes” was likely an early name for Jesus followers deriving from Jesus the Nazarene and still in use by Jewish Jesus followers according to Epiphanius and Jerome, but the theory that the evangelists invented a small insignificant village like Nazareth as Jesus hometown has more credibility on the internet than among trained scholars.
My eyebrows have an inbuilt “Be Upstanding” response whenever I read on the internet biblical scholars and students rubbishing the value of what they themselves post on the internet. Casey (and Kok) seem to be unaware that Salm has engaged with “trained scholars” on the INTERNET’s scholarly discussion list “Crosstalk”. One can read of his exchanges with “trained scholars” on this Crosswalk list beginning from this page here. One can find further engagement on Salm’s own Nazareth Myth website. If one does not trust the internet one can still take a chance and use the internet to order a hard copy of his book.
As for Kok’s own observation that he adds to Casey’s (that Jesus’ followers were named after the town of his boyhood), I would ask where anyone has ever found any religious following being named after the village of their founder’s childhood. I can understand an epithet identifying some critical corner of their belief system. But I think Kok and anyone else would be hard-pressed to come up with any evidence that a religious group is given a name to link them with their leader’s home town. Kok in the same review says that it is “historically dubious to label anything as “unique” and without parallel”, so by his own standards he will need to find another religious group named something like “Cretans” (Jim Jones was born in Crete, Indiana) or “Houstonites” (Dave Koresh grew up in Houston).
[Correction: see my comment at #7 below]
No, there are many scholarly arguments linking the “Nazareth” epithet, or more “transliterally” “Nazorean” etc, with words related to “observer”, “keeper”, etc. and that make far more sense as an attachment to a religious leader than the supposed village of his upbringing.
As indicated above, Kok’s assertion that Christ myth proponents argue that the evangelists (Gospel authors Matthew and Luke) invented the Nazareth hometown is a bit of sloppy mischief. The same proponents, I believe, all acknowledge that the town of Nazareth really was in existence by the time they wrote, which was no earlier than very late in the first century. But the biblical “Nazarene” epithet applied to Jesus relates more literally to the word for “keeper” (of covenants, etc.).
Capernaum, another pun?
Kok does not address Casey’s criticism of Zindler’s argument that Capernaum was likewise unknown in the first century. The best Casey can do is reassert that when Josephus spoke of a similarly named place he really meant the biblical Capernaum, and that Josephus used a different name from the one we find in the Gospels because he pronounced the Semitic place name differently and/or transliterated it differently into Greek. The fact that Capernaum is a most appropriate pun (meaning “village of comfort”) for the place of Christ’s teaching and healings, and that the first Gospel (Mark) is replete with theologically potent puns, is never mentioned by Casey.
Casey’s “distinctive contribution” – reconstructing a needless Aramaic underlay
Kok writes what he must about Casey’s work:
Casey’s distinctive contribution is his ability to reconstruct the underlying Aramaic behind the sayings material, helpfully transliterated for those like myself who cannot read it.
He selects an unfortunate example to demonstrate how Casey’s “distinctive ability” can throw light on difficult passages, however:
Even those who may not share Casey’s judgments on the historicity of certain sayings . . . . may still find difficult passages in the Synoptic Gospels to be illumined by Casey’s approach. For instance, instead of reading the jarring Mk 2:23 “to make a road” . . . . as suggesting that the disciples are preparing a royal highway for a Davidic king who has the authority to override a biblical command (cf. Hooker, St. Mark, 102-105), Casey suggests there is a simple mistranslation of the Aramaic lema ‘ebhar (“to go along”) as lema ‘ebhadh (“to make”).
Yet towards the end of the same paragraph Kok writes:
Granted, some reviewers may be more hesitant about hypothetical Aramaic sources or propose that these Greek texts can be understood on their own terms without appealing to translation errors or interference from one language to another.
This latter statement completely undermines the example Kok cites as an illustration of the enlightening value of Casey’s Aramaic hypothesis. The context of Mark’s Greek phrase for ‘make a road’ does indeed suggest “that the disciples are preparing a royal highway for a Davidic king who has the authority to override a biblical command”, since that is the imagery with which Mark introduces Jesus in his Gospel with John the Baptist’s call for people to make such a highway for their coming king. There is no need to appeal to a hypothetical Aramaic source. The Greek text “can be understood on [its] own terms.”
Casey refuses to read Mark’s Gospel as a coherent literary composition and thus misses such literary allusions.
Ironically he accuses those whose views I share about Mark not being a historical work, but a literary parable or metaphor, of holding the “evidence” in “contempt”. I suggest that it is Casey who fails to respect the integrity of the evidence as we have it.
But before leaving this section, one more detail in Kok’s review should be addressed. Following on from his reference to Casey’s argument about “making a path” above, Kok adds a summary of the rest of Casey’s argument here:
Thus, Mark’s disciples do not transgress any Law in taking the Peah, grain left in the edges of the fields for the poor (Lev 23:22) (110, 64-65).
True, Casey argues that the disciples were so poor that they were entitled by biblical law to pluck grain from fields on the sabbath, and conversely argues that Jesus was not so poor and therefore he was not allowed to pluck the grain himself. However, in the following chapter Casey argues that at least half of the disciples came from well-to-do businesses and were not by any means “on the breadline”. Not only this, but that Jesus’ work was supported by a number of wealthy women. Casey leaves it for readers to notice and resolve or rationalize such contradictions in his book.
Dissimilarity and embarrassment
Kok repeats Casey’s misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the criterion of dissimilarity by arguing that it produces a Jesus who is unlike either Christianity or Judaism, and hence so “unique” as to be unable to influence any of his contemporaries. The dissimilarity criterion was never intended to reconstruct the historical Jesus, but only to find a way to determine with arguable certainty which sayings of his were “almost definitely original”.
On the criterion of embarrassment, Kok rightly points out Casey’s correct observation:
However, Casey notes, “[t]he early church was originally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus, and very little that he said or did was embarrassing to it” (105).
This truism undermines the argument usually brought out in defence of the criterion of embarrassment, and which Kok states a follows:
Much better is the criterion of embarrassment, which argues that it is unlikely that the early church would invent material that was counterproductive to their missionary efforts
Put the two points together and it ought to be obvious that if we find a story of Jesus preserved by the church, we can infer that it was preserved because it was in the church’s interests to do so. If we from 2000 years later do not immediately recognize the particular interest, then we can assume we have more to learn about the early church.
Casey’s Hostile Anti-Atheist Bias
Kok does not directly address the question of bias that Casey raises a number of times, but it is worth noting. Casey claims to be an “independent” historian and thus beyond the biases of those who write from a perspective of religious loyalties or from an interest in attacking religion. This is a curious dichotomy, or really triad. Casey allows no room for an intellectually honest critic of religiously biased arguments — apart from his own.
The vast majority of scholars have belonged to the Christian faith, and their portrayals of Jesus have consequently not been Jewish enough. Most other writers on Jesus have been concerned to rebel against the Christian faith, rather than to recover the Jewish figure who was central to Christianity in its earliest period. (p. 3)
I cannot be regarded as a Christian apologist since I left the Christian faith in 1962. (p. 39)
So Casey divides scholars as into two camps: the faithful on his right and the rebels on his left.
Even when disagreeing with them, Casey in fact refers positively or sympathetically to scholars who do write with a religious bias, often describing their worst fault as piety:
There are genuine problems with pious excavators . . . (p. 129)
This situation was made worse by the pious assumptions of early excavators, who interpreted what they found in accordance with what church traditions led them to believe should be there. (p. 129)
It is regrettable that I have had to discuss what not to do with archaeology as well as how illuminating some of its results are. It will be clear that there are three basic reasons for this. One is Christian piety, which leads to false belief about various sites and objects. . . (p. 132)
Contrast his treatment of those impious atheists:
The third is that there are atheists who are determined to oppose Christian piety, and who have therefore come up with negative comments which are no improvement on Christian piety. (p. 132)
Zindler’s second point is to make fun of Lk. 4.29-30, and of pilgrim traditions based on it. . . . Zindler proceeds to make fun of Franciscan excavations and of pious veneration of the supposed site of the Annunciation.
This underlines the importance of the literary evidence, which Salm handles with extraordinary incompetence and bias, which reflects his lack of relevant scholarly qualifications. (p. 130)
This last-mentioned charge reminds me of a frequent complaint made on this blog by Casey’s doctoral student. The student regularly raised someone’s lack of scholarly credentials as sufficient to refute an argument they were making.
And that is about as deep as Casey’s arguments get. I have discussed enough examples of their circularity, self-contradictions and all round lightness in other posts.
Now. No more Casey posts for a while.
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