A serious take on Maurice Casey’s “Jesus of Nazareth”

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone has posted a favourable review of Dr Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone disappointed with my own difficulties in finding much of value in the book (my various references and discussions relating to it are archived here) may be pleasantly surprised to find that this “independent” scholar’s treatment has found a most favourable reception with a series of reviews on the Remnant of Giants blog: Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Maurice Casey’s doctoral student, Stephanie Fisher, is effusive in her praises of these reviews, complementing them for their

careful attention to detail, clear argumentation, and refusal to reply on accepted authority for its own sake. No embarrassing amateurish agenda driven groupie opinions. Compared to other reviews generally by other reviewers, your reviews of this book are exceptional. I had no doubt of your independent mind or sophisticated, broadly learned, honest scholarship before, but you are inspiring. There’s hope for this discipline and a point to honest historical inquiry after all.

What I find most remarkable in both Casey’s book and among such impressed readers is how the presumption of historicity can so completely blind one from obvious indicators narrative fiction. There is not the slightest indication in any of the canonical gospels that any of the resurrection appearances of Jesus are “visionary experiences”. Those events are narrated as matter-of-factly as the accounts of Jesus calling the disciples, debating with Pharisees, walking on water, stilling storms, casting out demons, miraculously feeding multitudes with a few loaves and raising the dead. But since there can be no serious questioning of the presumption that the basic Christian narrative is an elaboration of core historical events, even the gospel tales of the resurrection are rationalized as reports by authors who are motivated by a desire to record history as honestly as they can within their pious understanding.

The process is, of course, a classical fallacy of circular reasoning. How do we know the gospels are based on historical events? Answer: Their authors are sincerely dedicated to conveying an honest account of events. How do we know the authors were so piously honest? Answer: The gospels contain an accurate account of events or what witnesses believed or understood had really happened.

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35 thoughts on “A serious take on Maurice Casey’s “Jesus of Nazareth””

    1. Given what you’ve written, one can be forgiven for thinking that you presume historicity.

      Consider this line from your blog: “…and some appear to have later given up on Jesus (see Matthew 28.17), others continued to believe in Jesus’ message that he was the Son of Man.”

      Or this line, in which you agree with Casey’s assessment of Jesus as a visionary: “Casey notes Jesus’ call vision at his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1.9-11) and his vision of the spiritual consequences of the sending out of 72: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10.18; p. 490).”

      Using the New Testament as proof text for stories and sayings alleged to have happened, but attested only in the New Testament, is circular, and strongly suggests that you presume that it contains history. If there are no external controls, you’re left with an appeal to plausibility. And if you think plausible material in the NT is by definition probable, then you’ve made a logical jump that presumes historicity.

      Oddly enough, you’re able to notice the fallacy when it’s committed by William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, or some other apologist, notably when discussing the so-called Empty Tomb. Maybe that’s because they’re defending an implausible event (the Resurrection).

      This fallacy is more clearly stated here: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2006/03/07/tomb/

      1. Well who would’ve thought. I point out that the somebody who blogs on “Vridar” is making a presumption about my alleged “presumptions”, and somebody else comes along and makes the same pig-ignorant statement. It must be contagious aroung here. You just can’t teach some people. You know, if you’re going to accuse somebody of a “circular argument”, it helps to actually have somebody who has made any argument at all. If not, well that’s what is called “presumption”. I’m glad you’ve found out about fallacies, and that you can explain what one is – but you might actually want to identify a fallacy out of the words people use, not the absence of words. For if you make arguments from silence, it just begins to sound like you’ve got a theory that you want to impose on any evidence, no matter what the particular are. There is a term for such people. We call such people “fundamentalists”.

        1. Let me try again. Casey argues that we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus’ followers saw visions — which is what the post-Resurrection appearances were all about. As proof of the notion that Christians would be predisposed to visions, he cites passages in the gospels (in Mark and Luke) that show Jesus experiencing prophetic visions.

          It’s fine to say that this analysis establishes a plausible scenario, but to put as much stock in it as you and Maurice do, to claim that it’s probable is an unsupportable assertion. And I assume you do think it’s probable, because you write: “Casey is right to conclude, therefore, that it was to be expected that Jesus’ own followers would have followed their leader and experienced visionary experiences…”

          This is no silent argument. Casey “concluded” that his hypothesis was right, and you agreed with it, based on the NT as proof text.

          You seem upset.

    2. I would add to Tim’s comments the context from the post where you follow Casey in clearly agreeing with a presumption of historicity. (Tim beat me to it, basically, but I’m adding my 2 cents anyway.)

      Casey concludes, “Jesus himself was a visionary” (p. 489). Casey notes Jesus’ call vision at his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1.9-11) and his vision of the spiritual consequences of the sending out of 72: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10.18; p. 490). Jesus’ visions taught him that his Movement was beginning to displace Satan from the heavens (and, I would add, that Jesus himself would be glorified as leading power under God in the highest heavens, following the similar belief recorded in the Similitudes). Casey is right to conclude, therefore, that it was to be expected that Jesus’ own followers would have followed their leader and experienced visionary experiences based expecially on his teachings about his own resurrection and glorification in Heaven.

      If the episodes in Mark 1 and Luke 10 are literary fictions, which they must be on any other hypothesis than that Jesus of Nazareth was a figure of history, then that entire quotation makes no sense.

      So no one needs to presume that you and Casey presume historicity as you accuse Neil. When something you’ve written is incoherent on a mythicist hypothesis, there’s nothing else to call it. I understand, though; the entire field of NT scholarship does it, constantly, and I also see why its practitioners feel no compulsion to stop and check if what they’re saying would make sense if they were provisional about their belief in HJ: they’re not. It’s only when the arguments are a tight loop rather than a long winding trail back to the starting point that it becomes glaring.

        1. Why do I end up warning so many apologists for historicity of Jesus — in particular those who express partisanship for the “independent” scholars — about their all too frequent resorting to foul language and abusive insults? As I have also made clear to James Crossley and Stephanie Fisher in particular you are quite free to engage in civil discourse here. No one will think the less of you for it.

      1. See Professor Larry Hurtado’s blog entry http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/crucifixion/ for his blind acceptance of the crucifixion tales, and his total inability to register what Paul said.

        Paul does not say what Hurtado expected him to say, so Paul becomes silent for New Testament scholars.

        Such blind acceptance of the New Testament stories of only Jesus being arrested (after Peter waves swords at Roman soldiers) is indicative of a profession where ‘The Bible says it. I believe it’ is the default position – one that Casey adheres to.

        1. Well, it’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Hurtado writes: “A ‘critical’ reading of the Gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ execution involves an awareness of the polemical purposes that helped to shape what the authors wrote.” (Note: The quotes around “critical” are Larry’s. Perhaps that was a Freudian slip.)

          He’s willing to concede that the evangelists might have had a polemical purpose in portraying Pilate in a completely unbelievable way — thoughtful, merciful, reluctant to use the unbridled power of the state against an innocent subject. Still, in an effort to salvage as much of the text as possible, he theorizes that “If he hesitated, it would more likely have been simply to give the temple priests the gears, not because he was a man of delicate conscience.”

          We might call this the Messing with Caiaphas Theory. Pilate engaged in a theatrical show of wanting to release Jesus just to make the temple priests pull their hair out.

          And what are we to make of the following statement? “It’s probably significant that Jesus alone was seized and crucified.” Probably? It isn’t just significant; it’s a miracle. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the HJ hypothesis. There is no credible argument that explains why a Roman governor would kill a political agitator but not even try to arrest his armed followers. But rather than question the presumed truth of the “fact” that Jesus was crucified alone, they’ll come up with all sorts plausible explanations as to “how it must have happened.”

          I have recently been informed that my expectations that scholars should use consistent logic and the normal rules of historical evidence is “pig-ignorant” and that my line of argument makes me a “fundamentalist.” Sigh. I have so much to learn and so little time.

    3. Can you lay out the steps showing how you begin with a neutral position on the historicity of the narrative and then proceed to discard the view the text is nonhistorical and why you conclude it is historical? (Try to do it without using four letter crudities.)

  1. Hey, Neil! I see from Steph’s comments that she thinks you’re unlearned, depend on out-of-date elementary work, and are incapable of understanding dear Maurice’s “arguments from Aramaic.” Thanks to her remote psychoanalysis, I’ve also discovered that you’ve traded in one crazy belief system (Worldwide Church of God) for another one (mythicism).

    She thinks you hate her, Casey, and Crossley, because they don’t believe the way you do. She accuses you of probably not even reading dear Maurice’s book (except perhaps by Internet Voodoo) — not that you could ever possibly understand it, since you don’t know Aramaic and your mind is closed. How ya gonna read them wax tablets if you can’t read Aramaic?

    So I guess you two won’t be trading Christmas cards this year?

    Good news! Dear Maurice is halfway through his debunking book. I’m all tingly.

    1. ‘ How ya gonna read them wax tablets if you can’t read Aramaic?’

      How ya gonna read them Hitler Diaries if you can’t read German?

      The Hitler Diaries must be authentic. They are in German. This is the very language that Hitler spoke. That is all you need for authenticity. Casey says so.

      ‘As proof of the notion that Christians would be predisposed to visions, he cites passages in the gospels (in Mark and Luke) that show Jesus experiencing prophetic visions.’

      Macbeth also experienced visions. Does Casey know that reading Macbeth is not doing history?

    2. I don’t know where Steph has said all of that about me — on the Remnat of Giants blog? She has indicated in the past she is very concerned I hate her and has suggested that to me a few times. Each time I have tried to reassure her that is far from the case and she has responded with a “thankyou” and an appreciation that I don’t — at least she did the last time. So I don’t know why she has changed her mind again now. As for trading in my old cult beliefs for mythicism, that’s a new one on me. It was quite some years after I discarded the cult before I eventually ever even heard of mythicism, and I was a pretty slow on the uptake even then — and have wavered once or twice since.

      I have offered Dr Casey an opportunity to test his ideas in defence of his book and attacks on atheists and mythicists but Steph told me he declined because I sounded like “a bully”. Oh dear, that’s another new one on me. Anyone who knows me seems to think I’m the most unbullying type of guy they ever met.

      Steph or her mentor only have to point out in unabusive and unaccusing manner where my arguments are flawed and I will be willing to discuss with them.

      As for out of date material, yes, I am an amateur and do read a lot of dated material. But hey, I also read some of the newer stuff too, such as Casey’s book, though that’s probably a bit dated by now, too.

      I know I sometimes compare bad, abusive and childish behaviour to unflattering exemplars, like behaving like a “naughty school child” and such, and she has blasted me for being abusive for daring to make such comparisons. I wonder what she has to say about her fan joining in the comments here with four letter crudities.

        1. Neil,I don’t know what to say re the comments from steph on that other blog. No, I’m not angry – I feel like hanging my head in shame – shame that someone could write in such a manner regarding your blog and your integrity. If this is an example of what serious scholarship amounts to then heaven help us all. So sorry that you have to read this type of nastiness. The best response is just to keep doing what your are doing so well – taking those scholars to task who are peddling nonsense….

        2. Unfortunately Steph used to get very hostile here because people, me included, simply did not accept her argument no matter how many times she repeated it, and how more emotively she repeated it each time. The idea of actually engaging with alternative arguments and grappling with them point by point simply bypassed her. Her only response was to say how ignorant alternatives were and to repeat her own point of view with a little more acid each time. From that point all the insults flow.

          But Steph has in the past seemed to indicate that if I turn up at a conference or such where biblical scholars like herself, and McGrath and co, all meet, then everyone will be hunky dory friendly with me. It seems that some of these scholars have trouble maintaining civility on the internet, however.

          1. She also used to (and still does) fall back on the argument they we simply lack the depth of knowledge necessary and/or are predisposed not to understand her arguments. But as I recall, most of what you took issue with in Maurice’s magnum opus on Jesus had to do with basic reasoning, and I fail to see how being fluent in Aramaic changes the rules of logic.

            I mean, even if we concede that a 21st-century scholar can with a high degree of confidence reconstruct the Aramaic sources behind the Greek text of Mark, how does this prove any more than “Mark had Aramaic sources”? Yes, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but so did almost everyone else in the area. As Robert M. Price said, it isn’t as if we have a voiceprint and only Jesus could have said such and such.

            1. This is why I had no worries putting out my little challenge to Casey to respond on this blog some time back. Some thought I’d get done over, but it’s not a matter of knowing Aramaic or Greek even — as you say, it’s the basic logic of the methodological approach that makes his whole argument a bubble just waiting to burst.

          1. Interesting. Steph’s vitriolic comment has been stripped out, and the major search engine caches never caught it. All that remains as a hint of what she wrote is a comment by Antonio Jerez:

            I suppose that you meant that Godfrey and Carr hate you, Casey and Crossley because you are atheist scholars who nonetheless think Jesus existed. According to Godfrey and Carr any true nonreligous person who has studied the Jesus puzzle should see as clearly as these gentlemen that we are just chasing a mirage. Yes, and I find it pathetic when Godfrey tries to trump Casey without having any knowledge whatsover about Aramaic.”

            Someone needs to tell Winston Smith to erase that comment, too.

            1. My reply to that comment (at http://remnantofgiants.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/caseys-jesus-7-visions-of-jesus-resurrection/#comment-419) has also been deleted from that blog. Or if not deleted, maybe it simply never passed moderation.

              In my reply I explained that I certainly had no hatred for Stephanie, and cited evidence in our correspondence to verify this, nor for Crossley nor Casey. I wrote that to suggest I hated them was a slanderous untruth.

              I did express some dismay that Deane, Steph and Crossley had all left either crude comments on my blog or simply repeated their arguments without any attempt to engage with the logic of my critique. I also made passing reference to Steph’s increasing vitriol when I pointed out that that she was merely repeating her arguments and failing to address the logic of the criticism against them, and another passing reference to Casey’s attacks on atheist scholars of the historical Jesus.

              I also explained that a knowledge of Aramaic was irrelevant in dealing with the disucssion of the logic of methodology and the role of prior assumptions.

              I also left a remark to the effect that if anyone wanted to understand my progression through various beliefs in my life, then they were welcome to simply ask me for details instead of imagining scenarios from disparate notes of mine here and there.

              That was the gist of my reply to that comment, from what I recall, and I see now that it has been either removed from their blog or denied their moderator’s approval.

              I wonder why.

            2. My last communication from Steph was a personal email from her demanding not to see anything more from me in her mail box. So I immediately cancelled her subscription to this blog. Strangely, she quickly resubscribed!

  2. There is also a glowing review dated Jan 19, 2011 by a compatriot of Doherty on Amazon.ca titled The Historical Jesus Book I Have Been Waiting For All My Life. I suppose that several factors account for the fact that there are no additional reviews there and none at all on Amazon.com: 1) the $30 American price of the paperback edition, 2) the fact that the reviewer indicates Casey to be an admitted non-Christian, and 3) the fact that he came to “a non-conservative conclusion on the virgin birth and the resurrection.” From a glimpse in inside the book, I see that section 9 and 10 of Chapter 11 are respectively titled “Crucifixion: A Bandit’s Shameful Death” and “A Bandit’s Shameful Burial.” Sounds very inventive.

  3. I see Stephanie Fisher is not as great a scholar as Casey, as she lacks some of his psychic abilities. (But which other mortal could rival Casey’s ability to read wax tablets that were long destroyed?)

    While Casey can psychically read Aramaic wax tablets better than people who have them in front of them, Steph cannot even psychically read my background – ‘Carr appears to have a similar background, and constantly writes anti-Christian comments all over the internet. They both hate and constantly misrepresent Casey, Crossley and myself…’

    While I cannot read Aramaic, I can detect junk scholarship and bad reasoning, and Casey’s work is full of both.

    Casey’s arguments have got almost nowhere in mainstream NT circles.

    I think that scholars who read Casey and then just ignore his arguments do so not because they are unable to read Aramaic, but because they are able to read Casey.

  4. Does this series of reviews manage to work out why the disciples (but not Jesus) were scrabbling for food to eat in fields, while Casey is certain (because the Bible says so) that this mission was financed by well-to-do women, ‘sufficiently well off to give practical financial and organisational support to the ministry’.

    No wonder people in the ‘ministry’ were reduced to scrabbling for raw grain, when they had to rely for food on Casey’s visions of well-to-do women giving them practical financial and organisational support.

    After all, Casey explains that ‘the practical support of all these women must have been extremely welcome and fundamental to the conduct of the ministry.’

    I bet as the disciples plucked raw grain on the Sabbath, they found all this practical support extremely welcome, and not at all a figment of Casey’s imagination.

    Casey know this is all accurate because he says about some women ‘neither of them played any known role in the early church either, another clear indication that Luke’s tradition is accurate.’.

    They must have existed, because they disappeared from history as soon as there was an early church! How’s that for an argument from silence!

    Casey claims traditions are accurate if they are about people that vanish from history.

    This is just sheer junk scholarship. Why am I paying taxes to finance Casey’s work? I want my money back.

  5. Well I haven’t caught up with Steph’s comments about me yet, but I have caught up with comments by Deane or “someone who posted a favorable review” here, and have removed three of them. The reason I have done this is because I considered them abuse of this blog space. Instead of refraining from further foul language he chose to increase it.

    What is it about supporters of Maurice Casey that seems to compel them to resort to trolling and abuse on this blog?

    There was another comment I also assigned to spam for its crude response to Deane.

  6. Outstanding discetion of this book. You certainly cut to the quick in saying “The gospels contain an accurate account of events or what witnesses believed or understood had really happened.” This is spot on the mark.

    One of the world’s foremost experts in lines of evidence was Simon Greenleaf, an American attorney and jurist (1783-1853). In his book the “Testimony of the Evangelists”, he views the multiple eye-witness accounts of Jesus and His death and resurrection (in the New Testament) as valid lines of evidence that would be admissible in a court of law. They meet or exceed evidential requirements, so much so that Greenleaf saw the “martyrdoms, exponential church growth and the persistent-through-persecution faith of the believers (often, even up to death), as solid as evidence that there can possibly be. And in the legal process, there is no statue of limitations for murder.

    The world’s most famous ex-atheist is Antony Flew, a leading British philosopher, who after 50 years of atheism, came to the conclusion that God must exist, saying “The evidence for the resurrection alone is better than for claimed miracles of all other religions. There leaders are buried and still in their graves. Jesus tomb was found empty!

    Dr. Thomas Arnold, 19th-century history professor at Oxford, said, “I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer…”. Scholar Gary Habermas has pointed out that five historical facts about Christ, agreed to by nearly all ancient Historians that He was crucified, buried and was seen again afterward. Even Jewish authorities acknowledge the empty tomb in their histories, particularly Josephus‘ Antiquities of the Jews.

    Lets’ see. I wonder if 500 + witnesses have ever had a mass hallucination?

    1. Your lame apologetics are out of place here, quite frankly. You’re not going to convince any of the regular readers and I doubt if anybody wants to start at Sunday School level all over again just to correct your numerous errors and misconceptions. I sure don’t.

      When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
      But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you

      Live it.

    2. Jack, you misread the context of my statement that “The gospels contain an accurate account of events or what witnesses believed or understood had really happened.” I wrote that as the conclusion of faulty (circular) reasoning.

      As for the 500 witnesses, let’s not forget the 70,000 witnesses at Fatima in 1917. Nor overlook that sometimes some people have been known to write fiction.

      As for multiple eyewitnesses and courtroom standards of evidence, have a look at Tim’s post on this.

      Empty tomb? I read of empty tombs in ancient novels and plays (e.g. Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe), and how they convinced witnesses the occupant had joined the gods. How is the gospel story different?

    3. Simon Greenfield wrote: “Every document, apparently ancient, coming from the proper repository or custody, and bearing on its face no evident marks of forger, the law presumes to be genuine, and devolves on the opposing party the burden of proving it to be otherwise.”

      He’s demonstrating a passing knowledge here of a very important point in US law, what we call “chain of custody.” Sadly, many people in my country have had the experience of being compelled to testify himself by means of urinalysis for the privilege of gaining employment. At the time the evidence is relinquished one signs paperwork and seals the bottle with a numbered sticky label. If later the label is compromised (i.e., the number on the sticker doesn’t match the number on the recorded form), or if the state cannot produce the signed document from the witness, the evidence becomes invalid.

      In the case of the gospels, do we have an unbroken chain of custody? Clearly not, since we do not have autographs of any of them. In fact we have only copies of copies of copies. Every document in the New Testament can truthfully be called a “reconstruction.” Brilliant textual critics have put them together as best as they can, but only an optimistic fool would say we have any gospel in its original form.

      I could continue by saying that the gospels are anonymous (despite Greenfield’s pleas to the contrary), which would be a problem in a court of law. However, I’m betting by this point every apologist out there has stopped reading. At any rate, Jack, the idea that a person with a history degree in the 21st-century could cite Simon Greenfield with a straight face is absolutely astonishing. Greenfield clearly had no idea what he was talking about, evidently blinded by his irrational belief that it all had to be true, and that it was his duty to make the facts fit — even if it required him to feign ignorance and engage in pious lying.

      In short, Simon Greenfield was a miserable hack, and only the most desperate apologist would be swayed by his writings.

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