Monday, April 25, 2011

The best book ever on the historical Jesus?

Lovely few days in Hanmer Springs, its Easter overcrowdedness compensated for by the brilliance of the autumn colours. Good congregations too: around 50 on Good Friday and 120 on Easter Day. (Aside: why do more people turn out for the latter and not the former?). Between preparation and leading of services there was some time for reading. Lots of reading as it turned out. In my box were two thick New Testament books and an Old Testament book. One of the NT books was truly appalling (by which I mean "where was the editor?"). I had not realised it was possible to have such a convoluted, repetitive, and ultimately vacuous book published in the name of the academy. You will note that I am not mentioning author, title, or publisher: I do not wish to re-incur the charge of 'denigration' of a few posts back! One reason it is vacuous is that it fails where the other succeeds: in the detail that counts.

The Old Testament book is the late Brevard S. Childs' The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (2004). In this book Childs compresses an extraordinary amount of reading through millennia of interpretation of Isaiah. Apart from admiring his scholarship, I admire him as a writer: he is clear, concise, and very well organised into short readable sub-sections.

The NT book in which the details count is Maurice Casey's Jesus of Nazareth: an independent historian's account of his life and teaching (2010). At the heart of British academic Casey's argument for what is historical in the gospels are the Aramaic sub-strata. If a plausible Aramaic original can be formulated then likely this part of the gospels goes back to the days of Jesus himself. Casey is the man to do this formulation: study of Aramaic and its use in gospel scholarship has been his life's work, notably on the problem of the Son of Man. Consistently acknowledging with gratitude the availability of the Dead Sea Scrolls, without which reconstruction of Aramaic in the time of Jesus would be impossible, Casey is a whizz at translating (say) Mark's Greek (our oldest source, as argued by Casey) backwards into what Jesus likely said.

I have enjoyed what I have read so far. Casey writes well and is not above skewering some big names in historical Jesus scholarship, while always fairly acknowledging when those big names are correct.

This is not a formal let alone a full review. Cutting to the chase, the challenge in writing a book about the historical Jesus is to critically analyse the gospels, burn away the myth/legend/invention dross, while not letting go for a moment either the cultural context of Jesus or plausible explanations for Jesus being executed or the effectiveness of Jesus, that is, taking care not to burn away so much that the Jesus leftover is (say) not Jewish or (say) inoffensive to authority or (say) lacking inspiration to fire up followers willing to die for him. Gentile academics keen to retain university tenure in Western liberal democratic societies are in grave danger of concluding their quest for the historical Jesus with a mirror image of themselves. No danger of being crucified there. The history of historical Jesus scholarship has thrown up many precedents. Casey is aware of this challenge in spades. Cleverly he recognises one means to meeting the challenge is take a via media between the most impressive recent liberal and  conservative scholarship. From each side impressive correct results are welcomed. On each side the traps previously fallen into are avoided.

Casey's Jesus is Jewish (and Aramaic speaking), constantly in conflict with the orthodox Judaism of his day, and regarded as a great prophet who was so grieved that after his death his followers saw him alive. Simply by being the latest 'historical Jesus', the Casey version improves on (what Casey sees as the) shortfalls of recent versions (Dunn, Wright, Crossan, Meier). His book could be the best ever on the historical Jesus ... until the next (quality) one is written.

I shall keep an eye out for reviews. Some initial scouting about the internet suggests that Casey's sharp sword skewering those to the left and to the right of him has drawn some daggers in response!


Some things I am pondering as I continue to read Casey are these ideas:

- a chaotic theory for Q (common material in Matthew and Luke not shared with Mark) (i.e. Q was not a single document; a mixture of material). I think he is onto something there.

- John's Gospel contributes absolutely nothing to the history of Jesus (all its genuine historical notes are derived from the other gospels). I had been going along with the idea that some genuine history can be excavated from John.

- Mark is the oldest gospel source (much of it is readily retrotranslated into Aramaic). But is it as old - 40 A.D. - as Casey argues for?

- There was no empty tomb, Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead. I may post on this. I think Casey may have missed a weak point in his argument.

Nothing is new here, but Casey brings much fresh insight and vigour to the arguments.

Final note: in one way this book is not the best book ever on the historical Jesus. It is full of learning, of erudite comments on other scholarship and of profound work in individual verses and pericope but it has only a general subject index and no verse index.


Father Ron Smith said...

"Good congregations too: around 50 on Good Friday and 120 on Easter Day. (Aside: why do more people turn out for the latter and not the former?)." - Peter Carrell -

Possibly because most people, if they have a limited amount of time to devote to the practicalities, the facility for meeting Christ and partaking of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist is their principal 'duty' - bound on them by the disciopline of the Church.
Sad about Good Friday, which you and I, Peter, consider to be of equal importance theologically. Most people don't think that way.

James said...

A good friend and sociologist of religion has pointed out to me that in early 19th Century America, Easter was not generally celebrated in reformed churches, and only in Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches. The following text is from Harpers' Magazine, 1863:

"We have carefully noted the gradual increase of observance of the day, and can remember when it was a somewhat memorable thing for a minister, not Catholic or Episcopal, to preach an Easter sermon. Now Easter sermons are very general in all pulpits, and Easter flowers are making their way into churches of all persuasions."

This could have been the Puritan influence in the U.S.; I do not know if it was the case of reformed churches in other areas.

In the U.S., these congregations can remind their parishoners: their church's forefathers did not even celebrate Easter.

In all likelihood, however, they did not celebrate Good Friday either; I suppose the lack of Easter celebration was from Puritan influence, and the Puritans also did not celebrate Good Friday. So if we are honest, this argument will only have limited traction for getting people to join in Good Friday services.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi James
There are all sorts of factors at play in our varying situations.

In a holiday resort like Hanmer, for example, it could have been that some people did not arrive there for the weekend until after attending their local church (in Christchurch) service on Good Friday morning.

But generally in NZ I think my observation holds good: numbers at Easter Day services far exceed numbers at Good Friday services.

Paul Powers said...

I imagine it's true just about everywhere that Easter Sunday attendance far exceeds Good Friday attendance. Part of the reason is probably that at least in most Western countries Sunday is generally a holiday. Good Friday is a holiday some places but not others. Whatever the reason, it's a shame. The two holy days complement each other. Neither makes complete sense without the other.

Steven Carr said...

Did you manage to work out why the disciples (but not Jesus) were scrabbling for food to eat in fields, while Casey is certain 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 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.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Steven,
In my life I have known plenty and shortage. It is possible that at one point the mission was not well supported and at another point it was.

I have also been well fed and still found the delights of food on the road to be tempting.

Perhaps the economics of the mission of Jesus was complex!

Steven Carr said...

Well, I'm sure those disciples enjoyed scrabbling for raw grain to eat.

After all, they were on the breadline, so had to eat raw grain to get through a Sabbath.

Oh , Casey says they weren't on the breadline.

Another theory of mine shot down in flames.

I guess Casey's practical support sometimes vanished, as though it had never existed.