Jesus historians get an earful from Maurice Casey

An academic who is ‘not serving the interests of any faith’ derides self-serving portrayals of Christ
Jesus historians get an earful from Maurice Casey
The faithful may delight in Casey’s disdain for the revisionist theory that the virgin birth was cooked up to hide Jesus’s illegitimacy | Christian Heeb/laif/Redux; Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Maurice Casey is fed up. The emeritus professor of New Testament language and literature at Britain’s University of Nottingham—a scholar, that is, of the only sources we have for the life and times of Jesus Christ—knows that history is not done in his field like it is in any other. The stakes, and the passions, are simply too high, when those who study the central figure in Western history place him along a spectrum that ranges from God incarnate to mythic creation. What truly disturbs Casey, however, is the way the once vast middle ground in historical Jesus studies is being squeezed, just as it is in many aspects of the increasingly intense faceoff between religion and secularism in modern society.

A resurgence of conservative scholarship on one side, including historians (like Paul Johnson) who accept what Casey considers unbelievable miracles detailed in untrustworthy sources, and revisionism that stretches to outright denial of Jesus’s existence on the other, have led him to pen his own take, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. It’s less a full-blown biography than a vigorous defence of historical methodology—of the moral necessity of applying the same historical standards to the study of Jesus as we apply to, say, Julius Caesar. Casey’s magnum opus offers, for those who accept his reasoning, an impressive array of facts about Jesus Christ, and a slashing attack on almost everyone to the left or right of him.

It’s that self-identified “independent” in Casey’s subtitle that provides one of the two keys to his approach. Casey, 68, who once set out to complete a doctorate in theology en route to becoming an ordained Anglican clergyman, has not been a Christian since 1962. “So I’m not serving the interests of any faith,” he says in an interview. “But at the same time I’m not serving any anti-religious group either. I didn’t join the Humanist Society when I left the church, because even then I thought it too anti-religious. Some of the best people I know are religious.” He believes that he can (“I do my best”) follow the evidence where it leads, something he says the great majority of New Testament scholars simply cannot do. Most are Christians who are incapable, consciously or otherwise, of absorbing the essential Jewishness of Jesus. Their scholarship blends seamlessly into what Casey calls their social function, their duty to create portrayals of Jesus that serve the needs of their religious communities.

This impulse leads the traditionalists among them, whether orthodox Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants—including Pope Benedict XVI, whose 2007 biography of Jesus Casey calls a “regrettable work”—to accept as historically valid such sources as the Gospel of John, which presents Jesus as fully divine, capable of walking on water and raising the dead, and virtually a Gentile, embroiled in constant tensions, not with scribes and Pharisees, but with “the Jews.” Since Casey does not believe in Christ’s divinity, that is an utterly impossible portrayal of the Torah-observant Jewish prophet he does consider Jesus to have been. The traditionalists’ liberal Protestant counterparts, like the members of the Jesus Seminar—key players in “the appalling quality of American debates about Jesus”—are no better, in Casey’s opinion. They too end up with a Jesus they are happy with, usually some kind of cynic philosopher—that is to say, just as non-Jewish as the conservatives’ figure—also by mining documents of no historical value, including Gospels ascribed to the Apostle Thomas or Mary Magdalene.

The so-called mythicists, for whom Casey reserves an especial, if formally polite, contempt—his discussion is studded with terms like “most proponents are extraordinarily incompetent” and “a form of atheist prejudice”—also find the Jesus they want, a non-existent mythical figurehead for a new religion. Mostly former fundamentalists, in Casey’s waspish summation, the mythicists reject everything, a reaction to traditional Christian claims so extreme as to make Dan Brown’s image of a married-with-kids Jesus seem almost pious. (Not that Casey has any time for The Da Vinci Code: “such nonsense that it is quite amazing that anyone should believe it.”)

Among the best sections of Jesus of Nazareth in which to see Casey’s claymore in operation, whaling away on all sides, is in his discussion of Jesus’s origins. Christians, especially at Christmas, won’t appreciate his dismissal of the virgin birth. For him, as for all secular historians, the descriptions in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (but not in the Gospel of Mark or the Epistles of St. Paul) are the sort of entertaining stories that grow up around any towering figure, and all the more to be expected as Christianity expanded into a Gentile world accustomed to divine-origin stories about its heroes.

But the faithful may delight in his deeper disdain for the revisionist theory that the virgin birth was cooked up by early Christians to hide Jesus’s illegitimacy. (This is spun from Gospel references to Jesus as “son of Mary,” indicating his father, Joseph, was no longer around—he had died, say the faithful, while revisionists suggest he had left Mary, after he found she was pregnant by a Roman soldier. Since rumour had it that there was something unusual about Jesus’s origins, his disciples spread the virgin birth story.) But Casey easily shows, by dating the texts that relay either the son-of-God or son-of-a-soldier stories, that the latter claim is the newer. Thus the virgin birth was not crafted as a cover-up of illegitimacy: the accusation of bastardy was a Jewish polemical response to the very un-Jewish claim that the one true God had fathered a human son. As for feminist theologian Jane Schaberg’s later gloss on the Roman legionary theory—that Mary was not seduced but raped—it’s almost possible to hear Casey gritting his teeth as he answers her. Since there is no support for this idea in Jewish polemics, let alone in Scripture, “Schaberg is reduced to claiming, ‘It is necessary to read the silence’ in Matthew. There is no excuse for reading into the text what is not there.”

When he’s through eviscerating everyone and everything wrong with his field, Casey turns to the second, and more positive, pillar of his approach. He does respect “the text,” his Scriptural sources, and one mark of that respect is that he applies to them linguistic skills he thinks shamefully lacking in his colleagues. Jesus, his family, his disciples—his entire world—spoke Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Greek. And therein lies a huge problem. Separating later and less trustworthy material from older, more plausible writing is greatly helped by teasing out the Aramaic originals behind Greek Gospel accounts. For centuries this was almost impossible, because there wasn’t enough Aramaic writing, especially idiomatic writing, available. “Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found after the war, you just couldn’t do it,” Casey says. “And though most are in Hebrew, the Aramaic scrolls—the Book of Enoch for one—are written in a more popular style, full of stories and idioms.”

Now it’s possible to see how close to the surface Aramaic originals are in the oldest Gospel, Mark, the work of an unknown, educated but not particularly polished, and manifestly bilingual evangelist. In one telling example, Casey points out how the oldest manuscript versions have a puzzling opening to the story of a paralytic (Mark 1:41): “And being angry,” Jesus stretched out his hand and healed the man with a touch. Matthew (8:3) and Luke (5:13) offer the same story, in mostly the same words—that is, they took it from Mark—except they drop the opening because it made no sense. Jesus had no reason to be angry, or if he were, no reason to proceed with the healing. For Casey, though, Mark was simply translating from an Aramaic source and was in the grip of what the scholar calls interference, which affects all bilinguals when they translate. The original Aramaic word used was surely regaz, which can indeed mean “tremble with anger,” as does the Greek word Mark put in its place, orgistheis. But the latter only means angry, and does not carry the wider meaning of regaz, which stretches to include “moved [to sympathy].” In Mark’s mind, Casey argues, because the two words shared one meaning, they shared them all.

With numerous examples of the same sort of thing, Casey makes a compelling case that Mark’s Aramaic underlay makes it both old and genuine in its storytelling: “one short step away from eyewitness testimony.” And since Casey, true to his standards of historical methodology, asserts that there has to be good reason for rejecting authentic material, he pays close attention—neither accepting in faith as the divinely inspired word of Scripture nor rejecting as physically impossible—to Mark’s almost eyewitness accounts of miracles (which in his Gospel are far more muted than in John’s, mostly healings and exorcisms) and the Scriptural accounts of visions of the risen Christ after Jesus’s death. “I’ve done quite a lot of reading in the anthropology of medicine and in the history of psychosomatic illnesses,” Casey says. “There are very well-attested accounts after the First World War of doctors curing, by words, cases of hysterical blindness prompted by mustard gas attacks. A charismatic prophet could do it.” Similarly, Casey has investigated the widespread phenomenon of bereavement visions, when grief-stricken survivors have seen their dead loved ones appear to them.

In the end, a lifetime of weighing historical issues leads Casey to accept as fact much that the Gospels proclaim—a remarkable amount, in fact, for a non-Christian. Jesus was born about 4 BCE, and grew up in Nazareth; he was baptized by John the Baptist and called disciples of his own, appointing 12 of them as special apostles; he preached repentance, forgiveness and the coming of the kingdom of God in rural and small-town Galilee; his charismatic authority brought healing to many victims of psychosomatic illnesses, including the paralyzed, the blind and people with skin diseases; about 30 CE he went to Jerusalem, where the disturbance he caused chasing moneylenders out of the Temple led to his arrest and crucifixion by Pontius Pilate. After his death, Jesus was seen, in non-physical form, by some followers, including his brother James, in authentic bereavement experiences, while stories of the empty tomb and of his physical resurrection grew up afterwards to explain the visions inspired by raw grief.

“I have not made any attempt to fit [this portrayal] into the picture of Jesus required by any social subgroup, whether Christian, Jewish or atheist.” An appropriate summation from Casey, since it’s beyond doubtful that any one group would or could accept all his positions. But in his honest attempt to follow the sources, rather than an ideology, Casey has made a valiant effort to put the runaway train of historic Jesus studies back on the rails.