Jesus historians get an earful from Maurice CaseyI've read some of Casey's work that attempts to retrovert the Aramaic being the Greek Gospels and commented on it in my 2005 JSP article, "(How) Can We Tell if a Greek Apocryphon or Pseudepigraphon Has Been Translated from Hebrew or Aramaic?" If I may quote myself:
An academic who is ‘not serving the interests of any faith’ derides self-serving portrayals of Christ
by Brian Bethune on Thursday, December 23, 2010 2:00pm - 10 Comments
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.
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.
All this being the case, I confess myself skeptical of attempts at largescale retroversion such as, for example, Maurice Casey’s reconstruction of long Aramaic passages behind the Gospel of Mark. In his chapter on methodology Casey ignores the important methodological treatments of Beyer, Maloney, and Martin, interacts very little with Fitzmyer’s work, and also ignores the vast literature on the translation technique of the LXX, which lays him open to the charge of trying to reinvent the wheel. It is unclear how his discussions of translation theory and bilingualism theory feed into his method. He is right to look for passages that show signs of being translated literally (although a certain amount of circular reasoning is involved in finding them), but he underestimates the difficulty of retroverting vocabulary and idiom. The two must frequently be treated together, and he does not explain what principles he uses to find Semitisms in the Greek text and then reconstruct the mostly likely Aramaic behind them. He approaches the task as though each problem of retroversion had only one solution, which, as I have shown at length in this study, is by no means true. I do not deny that Mark probably drew on Aramaic sources or that Casey’s attempt to reconstruct them has some heuristic value. He has created some possible solutions to the problem of what lies behind Mark’s Greek, but it is unlikely that his solutions consistently represent something close to Mark’s sources.Full details of my supporting arguments can be found in this long article, which is online here, but requires a paid personal or institutional subscription to download. You can read a shorter conference-paper version here, although it does not discuss Casey's work.
Back to the Maclean's article:
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.I haven't read this book, but Casey's conclusions as summarized here sound temperate and sensible to me. For more on his book in the biblioblogosphere, see here.
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.
For my part, a reconstruction of Jesus as a wild-eyed apocalyptic prophet who thought himself to be a divine being seems to me well within the range of possibilities suggested by both the texts and Jesus' first-century Jewish context. I wish historical Jesus scholars would take it more seriously.