VINE VOICEon 22 March 2014
Let me begin by saying I don't profess to be an expert in New Testament studies, I'm just a humble numismatist who specialises in the coins of the ancient world, including those of the Holy Lands, and inevitably have an interest in the period. I guess over the last couple of years I've read about a dozen books on the Christ myth theory of which the oldest was by Arthur Drews published in 1911. I don't suppose this was the first on the subject and certainly extreme scepticism about the historical value of the four canonical gospels can be traced back to Reimarus in the late 18th century and David Friedrich Strauss in the 1830s. But I think it's probably true to say that for much of the 20th century the theory did not attract much scholarly attention or capture the popular imagination. The theory picked up a modest tailwind in the 1960s with the works of G.A.Wells but it's only in the last 20 years or so that we've seen an explosion of books and Internet blogs aggressively promoting the theory (and, perhaps not coincidentally, an explosion of books with an atheist agenda by Messrs Dawkins et al). I have to say that none of the books I've read have convinced me that Jesus never existed but they have persuaded me to the view that most of the material in the gospels are mythical and legendary accretions, sometimes based on ancient models (eg Mark's empty tomb or Luke's Road To Emmaus stories) or midrash or rewritings of OT material.
We now have this counterblast to the mythicists by Professor Maurice Casey. He begins by introducing us to the main proponents of the Christ myth theory both those who have published works and those who maintain popular blogs, and he gives us brief biographical information about them as well as their academic qualifications gleaned either from their published works or from the Internet. He appears to have a twofold intent in doing so (both highly contentious in my opinion): 1, to demonstrate that many of them are former Christian fundamentalists or conservatives who have simply transferred their uncritical fundamentalist mindsets to exposition of the Christ myth (once a "fundie" always a "fundie"); and 2, to expose their apparent lack of academic credentials and grounding in NT studies which accounts for their poor methodology in reaching their fallacious conclusions. He grudgingly concedes that Robert M. Price (in my opinion the most effective scourge of the Christian apologists) is "a more or less qualified New Testament scholar" before adding that he "lends an air of scholarship to his personal opinions". In fact many of the proponents of the Christ myth have excellent academic qualifications (eg Price and Richard Carrier), most of them seem to have higher university degrees and some have held senior academic positions (eg Thomas L. Thompson, a 16 year tenure as Professor of Theology at the University of Copenhagen!) Casey makes no reference to Thomas L. Brodie whose 2012 book Beyond The Quest For The Historical Jesus posits that Jesus is a literary creation derived from OT narratives and, again, Brodie's academic credentials surely qualify him to advance his admittedly controversial thesis. I noticed that Casey rarely singles out Price or Carrier in this book, reserving most of his comments and ire for the work of Acharya S (aka Dorothy Murdock) whom he accuses of being over-reliant on old out-of-date scholarship that wasn't much cop to begin with; and the works of Earl Doherty and three bloggers Steven Carr, Neil Godfrey and Tim Widowfield all of whom he describes (quite unfairly I think) as "ignorant". Yes, Professor Casey cannot resist engaging in the kind of uncharitable language that so often characterises opposing parties in the Christ myth debate. It is apparent that Carr, Godfrey and Widowfield have commented unfavourably on aspects of Casey's work in the past and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Casey uses his introduction, the entire book in fact, to settle some old scores and to engage in point scoring. In short, his characterisation of his opponents (some of whom I understand reject the mythicist label) as academically-challenged "fundies" is not to be trusted and maybe the good professor should stick to theology and not attempt to dabble in pop psychology.
In his introduction Casey gives us some biographical information about himself including the fact that he "left the Christian faith in 1962", but it isn't clear to me what if anything he now believes in. Is he simply a disinterested scholar in search of the truth? If ex-fundamentalists cannot shake off their old mindsets cannot the same be said of former Christians in general? I was struck by how Casey's acerbic language and arguments often resemble those of arch Christian apologist and fundamentalist J. P. Holding, although I realise that Holding is more likely to be dependent on Casey or his sources. In fairness to Casey he appears to have no time for fundamentalist arguments and he makes the point that some mythicists spend too much time firing their ammo in the direction of the fundamentalists rather than taking account of modern liberal criticism that accepts the bible is not inerrant.
This book contains no detailed discussion on the early secular and non-canonical attestations to Jesus which I thought was a bit surprising as their paucity normally forms a central plank in the arguments of the mythicists. If, like me, you hold that both references to Jesus in Josephus are non-authentic (including the abridged version of the testimonium which most apologists clutch at) then we are left with the puzzle that the two foremost Jewish writers of the first century, Philo and Josephus, whose works are literally voluminous, show no awareness of Jesus Christ and yet Josephus mentions at least 20 other Jesuses. Mythicists would cite this as evidence that Jesus Christ never existed, sceptics would claim that he was such a marginal figure as to go almost unnoticed. As to the mythicists' argument that the NT epistles, especially those of Paul, show little or no evidence of the historical Jesus we find in the gospels and Acts, Casey has recourse to the popular apologists' explanation of high context/low context cultures - we moderns live in a low context culture with unrealistic expectations of what Paul and the other epistle writers should have written, whereas they lived in a high context culture, informed by "reliable" oral tradition, in which it was unnecessary to remind people of what they knew already. But as blogger Steven Carr points out in a comment attached to his review of this book (in which he labels Professor Casey a "liar") Paul in his letters frequently reminds his flock of what they knew already although none of it has a bearing on a historical Jesus. Am I alone in judging the high context/low context argument a convenient excuse to explain an inconvenient fact? The application of the Occam's Razor principle suggests that the best and simplest explanation is that much, if not most, of the gospel material was invented after Paul wrote his letters.
Professor Casey has one advantage over many NT scholars and his mythicist opponents in that he is well-versed in Aramaic and I think the strongest part of this book is his attempt to prove that material in Mark and Luke can be traced back to Aramaic sources and is thus likely to be very early, although whether it logically follows that we are dealing with the authentic words and deeds of Jesus, or whether this is proof of an historical Jesus, I'm not so sure. His most startling argument, at least for me, is his dating of the gospel of Mark as early as AD 40 and Matthew as early as AD 50 which flies in the face of mainstream scholarship (although Casey doesn't acknowledge this.) I understand that in his dating of Mark he is following the work of James Crossley (which I haven't read) and he adduces a number of arguments such as the "abomination of desolation" passage in Mark 13 being better understood in the context of Caligula's attempt to install his statue in the Temple in AD 39 rather than as a prediction of the Temple's destruction in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 which has usually been key to the dating of Mark. He believes that the gospel of Matthew may well contain written material from the disciple of that name who, being a tax collector, would have known how to read and write. His dating of Luke's gospel to AD 80-90 is more conventional (although still earlier than the 2nd century dating that most mythicists and sceptics favour) with Acts presumably datable to the late first century. He rather too readily accepts the "we passages" in Acts as evidence that the author of Luke-Acts was a sometime companion of Paul and he confidently asserts that members of Paul's family had at one time been enslaved to the family of the Roman gens Pauli, which is presumably how he came by his Roman citizenship, this claim deriving from the 1994 work of classicist Peter van Minnen which Casey says has been ignored by most NT scholars (he does not discuss the strong possibility that Paul's Roman citizenship is a Lukan invention.) Casey is sceptical about the existence of Q and he argues that the existence of the so-called Q material in Luke can be explained by Luke's reliance on Matthew. Given all this, you may be left puzzling, as I was, why Luke should have waited thirty years or more, after his encounters with Paul, and as much as forty to fifty years after the publication of Mark and Matthew, to put pen to parchment in his old age.
Christian apologists and scholars like Casey who are determined to find history in the gospels tend to adduce arguments for early dating and mythicists and sceptics arguments for late dating. For me, the dating of Mark to within a few years of Jesus' death and Matthew to within twenty raises all sorts of questions and problems, in particular vis-a-vis Paul whose authentic letters have long been regarded as the earliest of the NT documents. Paul shows no awareness of Mark's empty tomb story and it is clear that Paul does not understand resurrection to be the reanimation of a corpse as per Matthew. And if Matthew can be dated as early as AD 50 and presumably his gospel had been widely circulated by the time it reached Luke why did Luke decide to invent a whole new batch of nativity stories? Furthermore, Casey's frequently repeated claim, one usually advanced by apologists, that Luke is "an outstanding historian by ancient standards" and should not be judged by modern standards or expectations I find frankly absurd. I say this not simply because the last book I read before Casey's was Richard I. Pervo's Mystery Of Acts, which convincingly argues that Luke is totally unreliable as a historian, but because Luke is self-evidently a poor historian even by the standards of the ancient world. You have only to compare him with his contemporary Suetonius. No one would argue that Suetonius is in the front rank of ancient historians but once you have removed his scandalous stories and gossip you are left with a solid core of hard historical facts for his subjects - ancestry, childhood, education, marriages, birth and death dates, physical appearance etc - information which often enables me as a numismatist to date or find the historical context of coins and which is conspicuously lacking in Luke except in the form of invention. If Luke's gospel and Acts resemble any ancient history it is surely the wretched Historia Augusta which mixes a few historical facts with a mass of invention.
There is much in this book, then, that is controversial. Professor Casey effectively pinpoints some of the weaknesses of the mythicist arguments, and his thesis as a whole, combining some "fringe ideas" with what strikes me as some very retrograde scholarship, will inevitably recommend the book to Christian fundamentalists, evangelicals and conservatives. But Casey is selective and doesn't always address the strongest arguments of the mythicists, hardline sceptics and Jesus-minimalists - they too know how to identify and expose the logical and methodological weaknesses in their opponents' arguments including those of Professor Casey. And even if you can adduce plausible arguments to prove that Jesus existed, it's another matter to prove that the Jesus of history is recoverable. The corpus of works that comprise the New Testament are profoundly unsatisfactory both as theology and history. If that were not so we would not have so many "brands" of Christianity or seen so many heresies; and we would not have all those books that clutter the listings of Amazon offering us different interpretations of the historical Jesus (eschatological prophet, Galilean charismatic, cynic sage, magician, zealot, revolutionary and so on.) As Albert Schweitzer famously observed long ago, "there is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus". Or as Hector Avalos observed more recently in his book The End Of Biblical Studies "the quest for the historical Jesus is an abject failure."