Maurice Casey’s Mind “Boggles” Reading Thomas L. Thompson’s Messiah Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

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Maurice Casey (Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths?) critiques Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth without giving his readers any idea of its stated purpose or overall argument. I suspect Casey himself did not know what it was about and could not explain its argument if he tried since he had made up his mind before reading it that it was an attempt to prove there was no historical Jesus.

Casey is already on record as being quite perplexed when he encounters new perspectives on old problems and he remains true to form when confronted with Thomas L. Thompson’s work.

I will explain what Thompson’s was attempting to achieve with the book in a moment but notice that Casey from the start faults it for not being about what he thought it should be about:

A supposedly scholarly attempt to cast doubt on the historicity of the teaching of Jesus is an extraordinary book by the Old Testament ‘scholar’ Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, published in 2005. It demonstrates lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and of New Testament scholarship, and has remarkably little to say about Jesus. (Jesus: Evidence and Argument, p. 221)

Casey cannot even bring himself to fully acknowledge Thompson’s credentials as an Old Testament scholar of high international standing. What Casey means by The Messiah Myth‘s “demonstration of lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and NT scholarship” and its paucity of information about Jesus is that the book is not about Casey’s assumptions of what first-century Judaism looked like, nor is it about NT scholarship or Jesus as these are traditionally addressed in studies on the historical Jesus. Casey might as well have added that the work “demonstrates a lack of knowledge of” knitting and abseiling.

Thompson’s book is about the messiah myth as it is found throughout ancient Middle Eastern literature. It is an attempt to offer a new perspective for how scholars might approach the Bible as historians. Too rarely biblical scholars have stopped to ask if the authors of the historical books of the Bible had the same sense of past history as we do. The first task of historians should be to fully grasp the literary and theological nature of the works they are studying. Full justice to that enquiry can only be accomplished if the historian first and foremost has a thorough grasp of comparable literary and theological sources throughout that region’s cultural history. Before we assume that the narratives in the biblical works are windows to historical events it is better first to acquaint oneself with other literature of that cultural region and what it often meant to convey when speaking of the past.

The assumption that the narratives of the Bible are accounts of the past asserts a function for our texts that needs to be demonstrated as it competes with other more apparent functions.

. . . . Are archaeologists and historians dealing with the same kind of past as the Bible does? This, I think, is the central question of the current debate about history and the Bible, rather than the questions that have dominated. Can biblical stories be used to write a modern history of the ancient past — whether of the individuals or of the events in which they participate? . . . The Bible uses . . . historical information for other purposes, in the way that literature has always used what was known of the past. (The Messiah Myth, p. x)

At this point I think I can justly point to some recent posts I have written about the nature of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were quite capable of fabricating stories about the past when it suited their ideological or pedagogical purposes. Those fabrications could well be considered “true” if they were written “true to life”, that is, realistically.

One thread of evidence for this sort of fabrication throughout the Bible’s historical narratives is in the form of reiterated motifs that evidently were created to convey theological meanings. The divided waters at the time of creation resonate through the dividing waters of the Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and stream that Elijah and Elisha needed to cross, and the dividing of the heavens and temple veil in the narrative of Jesus. Here is the same sort of intertextuality that is found throughout other literatures of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Authors borrowed and adapted from other literary works to create new stories meant to recall past events and usually to emulate the significance of the past in some way. That’s how Virgil composed his epic the Aeneid. He adapted scenes from the Homeric epics, the Iliad and Odyssey and wove a new — and heavily ideological — history for Rome from this raw material. Aeneas was based on the characters of Achilles and Odysseus and faced adventures that proved he was more favoured of the gods than his predecessors.

The public debates on the historicity of the Bible have tended since the mid-1970s to focus on questions about the historical existence of individuals such as Abraham, Moses, David, Josiah, Ezra and Jesus, rather than on literary and theological more significant questions of understanding and interpreting biblical texts.

I, therefore, have chosen to focus on the role of the king, and in particular on his presentation as savior of his people and servant of the divine, which we meet in the myth of the messiah.

Although I concentrate on the rich development of this figure in the works of the Hebrew Bible, I also stress the antiquity and continuity of this tradition. The Pentateuch and the early Jewish biblical tradition present Samaritan and Jewish versions of ancient Near Eastern intellectual understanding of the late first millennium BCE; the gospels present and share this same intellectual and literary tradition in the Greco-Roman period of late Hellenism. (The Messiah Myth, p. x, my formatting and bolding)

So Thompson has written a book that

  • deals with the gospels as they build their narrative figures on myth drawn primarily from Jewish tradition;
  • discusses the way the Hebrew Bible recycles three of the most central figures of ancient Mid-Eastern royal ideology:
    • the good king;
    • the conquering holy warrior;
    • the dying and rising god;
  • explores the way the biblical texts recycle and revise the holy war ideology and the way this tradition has influenced the narratives about the kings of Judah and Israel as well as the development of the messiah figure in narratives and songs.

If anyone is looking for an argument debunking the historicity of Jesus they will be sorely frustrated reading this book. It is addressing the nature of the evidence from a quite different perspective.

Maurice Casey apparently failed to understand any of this argument and complained because the book was not addressing the same arguments in the same old familiar ways.

Faulting Thompson for agreeing with the consensus

The most dogmatic Casey then accuses Thompson of “dogmatically” beginning with the conventional wisdom about the nature and dates of the gospels — the wisdom accepted by probably all critical scholars (except for two that I am aware of: Casey and his former student James Crossley):

Thompson begins with very dogmatic comments on the canonical Gospels as ‘four variants of a legend-filled, highly stereotyped “biography”‘, supposedly written ‘many decades after the date ascribed to their stories‘. He does not justify these comments. (Jesus: Evidence and Argument, p. 221)

Here are Thompson’s “dogmatic” comments. Note the scholarly use of tentative language throughout and the most undogmatic qualifiers that Casey seems not to have noticed:

The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Knowledge of that life is based almost entirely on four variants of a legend-filled, highly stereotyped “biography.” These four “gospels” were written many decades after the date ascribed to their stories. An exact date for them is uncertain, available as they are in a manuscript tradition from the second to fourth centuries CE.

Whether the gospels in fact are biographies — narratives about the life of a historical person — is doubtful. Their pedagogical and legendary character reduces their value for historical reconstruction. New Testament scholars commonly hold the opinion that a historical person would be something very different from the Christ (or messiah), with whom, for example, the author of the Gospel of Mark identifies his Jesus (Hebrew: Joshua – saviour), opening his book with the statement: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son.” (p. 3)

Apart from the doubt Thompson raises about the gospels being real biographies I don’t know if there is a single line in there with which most critical New Testament scholars would disagree. Even those who do argue they are biographies would generally agree that their mythical or theological elements greatly damage their value as historical records. That’s all standard stuff that one would learn in any introductory lesson about the Gospels. More advanced students would question whether the last two words of the quotation from Mark, “God’s son”, were original or a later copyists slip-up.

What offends Casey and prompts him to insinuate that Thompson is making unsubstantiated dogmatic assertions is that Casey himself holds fringe views and opposes mainstream scholarship. I only know of two others (one of them still his PhD student and the other one who was his PhD student) who agree with Casey’s tunnel-visioned and circular arguments for dating the first gospel between 35 and 45 CE.

So when Casey leads his readers to think that Thompson’s statements about the date of the gospels are left unjustified, he is presenting himself and his own quirky view as The Authority on the true gospel dates in defiance of virtually all of his peers.

Casey unaware of Thompson’s wider published work

Casey who prides himself on being a polite and gentlemanly scholar then mocks Thompson for making the “ludicrous comment” that the sorts of apocalyptic figures some scholars think best describes the historical Jesus are not found in the evidence for early first-century Judaism.

But the assumption that this mistaken prophet of the apocalypse is a figure appropriate to first-century Judaism is itself without evidence. This is a ludicrous comment . . . . (p. 221)

Bang! Bang! Casey immediately pulls out the recent books by Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman that argue the opposite. What Casey is clearly ignorant of is Thompson’s own publishing history and his several published arguments (in concert with other scholars often enough) that argue there is no evidence for such apocalyptic expectations or prophets in the time of Jesus; such figures do not appear in history until the time of the Jewish War and afterwards. Elsewhere such figures are confined to literary texts, not the reality of history. Casey is also unconcerned (or unaware) that Dale Allison has admitted in a subsequent work that all arguments of the historical Jesus are “necessarily” circular. I have discussed all of these things often enough in posts on this blog. Anyone interested in following them up is welcome to ask for references.

“Biblical Scholars” means ALL biblical scholars or none

Poor Casey’s mind “boggles” when he reads what Thompson has to say about the Westar Jesus Seminar. That was the seminar led by Robert Funk and well known for some of the controversial views of Jesus published by seminar fellows like Crossan. They concluded that Jesus probably spoke very little of what the gospels attribute to him.

Thompson moves on to the Westar Jesus seminar, and some of his comments on it are equally extraordinary. For example, he declares that ‘Biblical Scholars outside the United States find the seminar’s conclusions consistently conservative.’ For this extremely general statement, he offers not one jot of evidence! The mind boggles to imagine what he has read, and who he has been talking to. (p. 222)

So Casey mounts his faithful Rocinante and charges with Dunn, Tuckett, Stanton, Okure, Gnilka, Sabrina, Schlosser, to prove that some biblical scholars outside the United States are so conservative themselves that they did see the Seminar’s conclusions as liberal by comparison with their views.

They make nonsense of Thompson’s declaration that ‘Biblical Scholars outside the United States find the seminar’s conclusions consistently conservative’, and show that this comment is false.

Well I can’t argue with that. As we have seen before, Casey seems to have lost his ability to process any nuance. Thompson’s statement is interpreted as a black and white all or nothing declaration. A few exceptions to the rule is all Casey needs to prove Thompson of peddling falsehood.

Cannot compute

Unfortunately Casey evidently cannot process an argument or perspective foreign to all he has even known, especially from a scholar who has crossed him in public debate. He interpreted Thompson’s preference for quoting from Matthew as evidence that he was still mired in his Catholic upbringing. Casey then faults him for not seeing the problem through his own monomaniacal interest in Aramaisms. Casey has no ability, it seems, to even process Thompson’s argument, let alone discuss its pros and cons.

The bulk of Thompson’s book is devoted to discussion of what he calls ‘tropes’. Much of this has nothing to do with Jesus at all, let alone the historical Jesus. For example ch. 5, ‘The Myth of the Good King’, ch. 6, ‘The Myth of the Conquering Holy Warrior’, ch. 8, ‘Holy War’, ch. 9, ‘Good King, Bad King’, and ch. 10, ‘The Figure of David in Story and Song’ hardly mention Jesus at all. Those chapters that do mention Jesus are pitted with mistakes. Some comments appear to presuppose traditional Catholic belief in the priority of Matthew, though Thompson now appears simply _ to prefer Matthew rather than believe it was literally earlier. For example, Thompson’s discussion of the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ depends on Mt. 21.10-17, so that the story ‘closes on a cryptic scene of healing the lame and the blind [who] have come to Jesus (Mt 21.14) in obvious imitation of Isaiah’s foreigner and eunuch’. He does not explain why Mark’s account is significantly different, nor why it contains so many Aramaisms.

If he’s right then he’s still wrong

And when Thompson does agree with something Casey also believes and that is even believed by most other NT scholars, Casey tells his readers that Thompson only “apparently” has the correct view for the wrong reasons:

I have already criticized Thompson in a brief article in Bible and Interpretation, in which I pointed out that he is not a competent New Testament scholar. In the (pretty appalling) debate which followed, he claimed that he does not believe in the priority of Matthew. He appears not to ‘believe’ in the priority of Matthew simply because he has given up faith-based scholarship altogether. (p. 224)

Tricky tricks!

That Thompson is discussing the way tropes that have a long history in the wider culture from which the biblical texts emerged found their way into the gospels is lost on Casey, too. If Thompson says Jesus was described as the good shepherd Casey quibbles because only one of the gospels described him as such. Actually Casey is wrong here. Jesus is also depicted as fulfilling the function of the good shepherd in the Gospel of Mark in its account of the miraculous feeding of the 5000.

Other comments presuppose even later parts of the Gospels, or still later Christian belief. For example, Thompson declares that Jesus ‘is the servant of God and the good shepherd’. But Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’ only at John 10.11 in the New Testament, and he is not ‘the servant of God’ in the New Testament at all.

So what does Casey conclude from all of this trenchant analysis? Thompson is pulling “tricks” on readers!

These tricks make it easier to imagine that Jesus was a mythical figure, because the later the sources used, the more mythical parallels can be found. They have nothing to do with the historical Jesus, whom Thompson rejects. (p. 224)

And of course Casey misrepresents Thompson’s argument totally with that last comment. Thompson is not “rejecting” the historical Jesus. He is tackling the texts from a perspective that leaves the question irrelevant. I have seen little evidence in any of Casey’s writings that he copes well with ambiguity.

I could go through Casey’s treatment more completely but this is enough to give anyone the idea of the nature of Casey’s criticisms.

Lost in the world of Pharaohs and symbols

And when Casey does appear to be getting close to addressing Thompson’s point he stumbles and misses it entirely:

He does not explain how Matthew might have known the ‘songs of Thutmosis III and Ramses IV’, nor does he quote any of them, to the point where it is not clear what Matthew is supposed to have drawn from them. He also declares that the ‘metaphor of “new wine” draws on the biblical tradition of royal ideology …’ Does he not know that new wine was a real substance which real people drank when they could afford it, and that everyone who could drank wine at Passover? (p. 226)

Thompson nowhere suggests that any of the evangelists were quoting Thutmosis or Ramses. He is demonstrating the pervasive nature of certain literary traditions. Casey cannot grasp this point. He cannot even grasp the possibility that the gospel scenes might be created from literary tropes if he can imagine they just might be describing a literal historical event.

Once a Catholic always a Catholic

So because Thompson has not argued along the traditional lines within the well-worn furrows Casey knows so well, he concludes:

Like other mythicists (sic), Thompson has not followed evidence and argument. Having begun as a Catholic who followed the convictions fed him by the church, he has been converted to a different set of convictions. (p. 226)

Casey finally turns to an essay by Thompson in “Is This Not the Carpenter?”. One of Thompson’s major points in The Mythic Past and The Messiah Myth is his challenge to New Testament scholars that ultimately they have simply assumed that there was a historical Jesus behind the gospel narratives. They have not demonstrated that this is so. Beginning with this assumption they have introduced criteria to help them decipher what he said and did, but his existence itself is taken for granted. Thompson argues that a case for historicity requires demonstration. Casey cannot process something so foreign to how he has always thought so he shouts his assumptions more vociferously:

I also take issue with Thompson’s own essay, ‘Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King’. First, in Mark’s account, unlike that of Matthew, this is simply the end of the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, which Thompson hardly discusses. He treats it as a story told by Mark, and assumes that it was not a historical event, whereas it was a major event in the life of the historical Jesus.

And on it goes.

It is pitiful to read. Gentleman scholar Casey clearly has no comprehension of Thompson’s argument and can do no better than retort with a litany of non sequiturs and insults. This is the book Jim West, Larry Hurtado and James McGrath have praised as putting to rest any doubts about the historicity once and for all.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Maurice Casey’s Mind “Boggles” Reading Thomas L. Thompson’s Messiah Myth

    1. Most certainly. No-one is all bad. On page 119 he gives a citation for Chancey’s “Myth of a Gentile Galilee” (2002). I have since followed that up. It’s an interesting case that Galilee was far more homogeneously Jewish than sometimes thought. If so, that would, I think, reinforce my suspicion that Galilee was chosen as the setting for the Jesus narrative by the first evangelists not because of historical coincidence but because of the meaning of the place in Isaiah’s prophecy.

      Casey, of course, would be “appalled” at the conclusion I draw but I do have him to thank for bringing this to my notice.

  1. Well I for one am glad that Mr. Thompson has concluded that the HJers must demonstrate the historicity of the NT Jesus. For it seems to me that if there were an historical Jesus (Yeshua), he was probably some zealot whose identity got stolen by “Paul”. Of course, I have zero proof for this, such is the doctoring, redaction and even forging of evidence by the early Imperial Christians, etc. (325 CE on)

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