Casey on the Mythicist Jesus

28 July 2014

caseyDon’t I have a heart, to write a piece about an unsuccessful book by a writer who has died only recently? Mustn’t a reviewer stick to the principle that of the dead, we say nothing unless it is something good?

Yes, of course. Except when the author has raised a topic of particular interest. Maurice Casey’s Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is such a book and if I am quite critical about it, it is because I think the author has recognized the urgency of a very serious problem that deserves much more attention.

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Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>

A Marginal Jew, vol.4

16 June 2009

The most important book on ancient history, at this moment, is John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus. I am aware that many scholars think that investigating the life and opinions of the Jewish woodworker from Nazareth is the subject of theology, but that is simply a misunderstanding of the “third quest“, which is historical in nature. As a matter of fact, it belongs to the most innovative and methodologically advanced parts of the discipline of ancient history. And within this advanced part, Meier’s Marginal Jew is simply the best book.

Well, books, actually. Originally, there were supposed to be three volumes, which have appeared in 1991, 1994, and 2001. The main conclusions, however, will be presented in the fifth book of the increasingly inaccurately named Marginal Jew trilogy. But the fourth installment is now finally here, bringing the grand total of pages to 2990, and dealing with Jesus as teacher of the Law –  as a rabbi, to use the ancient Jewish expression. Meier stresses that the historical Jesus is a Jewish Jesus and explains this truism by repeating almost ad nauseam that a Jewish Jesus is a halakic Jesus. It is boring, it is shocking that this stress is still necessary, but he is of course right.

The issues Meier addresses are divorce (permitted by the Law, but Jesus was nevertheless opposed to it), the prohibition to take oaths (something that the Law not just permits, but even demands), activities allowed on the sabbath (as far as we know, Jesus did not break with the Law), and ritual purity. In the final chapter, we learn that Jesus, as a charismatic, felt that he could abrogate individual commandments (e.g., on divorce); this claim relates somehow to the double command to love God and one’s neighbor, but Jesus was not a system builder and it is not entirely clear how these are related. This may not be a very surprising conclusion, but at least this is solid knowledge, obtained by applying a clear, careful method. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or atheist scholars would arrive on exactly the same conclusions.

The point that impressed me most was that Jesus was not just a teacher of the Law, but that his opinions, which we like to call “humane” and “liberal”, were in fact nothing but “the commonsense approach to halaka that probably many ordinary Jewish peasants had no choice but to follow in their pinched and fragile existence” (page 267).

Any ancient historian should read A Marginal Jew to see how one tackles an historical problem. The books are not only meticulously researched – I counted two notes Forschungsberichte that were twelve pages long! – but Meier also proceeds methodologically and shows, page after page, that he is interested in the past for the past’s sake. “Relevance is the enemy of history”, as he summarizes his position.

How ministers and pastors can apply this historical knowledge, is an altogether different question, but those who fear that historical research may in the end lead to nihilism, can rest assured: the book received an imprimatur.

Jews and Christians (1)

24 April 2009
Coin of Bar Kochba: the temple with the Ark of the Covenant and a messianic star

Coin of Bar Kochba: the temple with the Ark of the Covenant and a messianic star

Historical fact: Jesus of Nazareth founded a new religious movement. But what kind of religious movement exactly? A new religion that competed with Judaism? Yes, used to be the common Christian view, stressing the use of expressions like “New Covenant”, the polemic against the Jews that can already be found in the Gospels, and the story that Jesus appointed Peter as leader of his church. Yes, agreed the Jews, and answered the polemic with several stories in the Talmud.

Now, we’re not so certain anymore. The expression “New Covenant” can also be found in the Death Sea Scrolls, and was probably common within Judaism. The Christian polemic is, when we look more carefully, often directed against the Judaeans (Jesus was from Galilee) and specific groups. And finally, Jesus appointed Peter as leader of his ekklesia, but this word could be used to describe any Jewish community (for example in the Diaspora) or the adherents of any Jewish religious leader (the World English Bible translates “assembly”, not “church”). None of this points to Jesus as founder of a religion that competed with Judaism – or even superseded it, as Christians have often thought.

I am preparing a book in which I describe how Judaism was, at the beginning of our era, very pluriform, consisting of Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, the sect that appears to be responsible for (parts of) the Dead Sea Scrolls, the movements of men like John the Baptist, Jesus, Bannus, and Theudas. This pluriformity came to an end when the Temple was destroyed, a disaster that only the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus could cope with: the first, because they had a network of teachers; the second, because salvation was possible through faith in Jesus, the Temple being of only secondary importance.

In this way, Roman imperialism was the cause of the rift between the two remaining types of Judaism, one of them still called Judaism, the other now known as Christianity. Both claimed -and usually still claim- to be the only continuation of Temple Judaism. Often, they have chosen diametrically opposed positions in the theological debates of the late first and early second century: e.g., when the Christians opened their ranks to pagans, the rabbis decreed that one could only be Jewish when one had a Jewish mother. And because rabbinical Judaism could claim the title of rabbi, the Christians -who worshipped someone who had also been called a rabbi- gave the leadership to priests, which is odd because there was no temple left.

These examples show that the two branches were still communicating – after all, you need to communicate if you chose opposite positions. But there must have been a more friendly dialog, and I think that the teachings about Good Works that are attributed to Yohanan ben Zakkai (‘Avot de rabbi Nathan 4.5) and are mentioned in the Epistle of James 2.14, may be examples of this. As I see it, this dialog continued as long as there were Jewish Christians, which appears to have been the case until the revolt of Bar Kochba.

[To be continued]