Saturday, December 25, 2010

Maurice Casey on the historical Jesus

MAURICE CASEY'S new book on the historical Jesus is given lengthy coverage in Maclean's:
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

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.
I'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:
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.

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 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.

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.

Merry Christmas

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all those celebrating.

Historical and related notes from Christmases past are collected here. And let's not forget the newly-translated Revelation of the Magi. Go here for Brent Landau's doctoral dissertation, which has the translation and critical text.

Friday, December 24, 2010

More on suppressed Comtroller's report on Temple Mount

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: That suppressed Comptroller's report on the Waqf and the Temple Mount continues to cause controversy:
Censoring of Temple Mount Report Sparks Anger

by Hillel Fendel (Arutz Sheva)

The State Comptroller has prepared a report on the wanton destruction caused by the Waqf on the Temple Mount, and on Israel’s response. The Committee to Prevent Destruction of Temple Mount Antiquities is up in arms that the lion’s share of the report will not be publicized.

Attorney Yisrael Caspi of the above Committee responded on Arutz-7’s Hebrew news magazine to remarks by MK Otniel Shneller, who chairs the Knesset subcommittee that determined which parts of the Comptroller’s report may be publicized. Shneller told Arutz 7 on Monday that the Waqf – the Muslim religious body that administers the Temple Mount site, Judaism’s holiest location and Islam’s third-holiest – caused much destruction to Temple Mount artifacts in the course of digging and building a mosque there.

However, he said, “the situation has now changed totally… Many improvements have been made over the past few months, and everything is now done there in full coordination with the police, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Attorney General’s office, the relevant ministerial committee, and the Jerusalem municipality.”

Caspi says this is not enough: “The report must be publicized in order to disclose the mistakes of the Olmert government that allowed the Waqf to operate on the Temple Mount freely… To censor the report because of ‘security’ considerations is a violation of previous promises made by the committee members.

Shneller had said that other countries are very interested in the Temple Mount, indicating that if Israel releases the full report, it might result in other countries gaining a stronghold there.

I have no idea what that last quoted paragraph means. I have seen no good reason for the report to remain suppressed. If it causes embarrassment or discomfort or offense to some, that's probably all to the good.

Background here.

Aramaic-speaking Russians

ARAMAIC WATCH: Aramaic-speaking Russians.
The Assyrians -- Russian сitizens who even now ‘speak the language of Christ’

Yesterday at 19:52 | Paul Goble (Kyiv Post)

The Assyrians, one of Russia’s smallest and least known nationalities, not only have kept their religious and national identity in tact despite the vicissitudes of the past century but also to speak the language of Christ, according to the leaders of that community.

The current issue of “Vera-Eskom,” a newspaper directed at the Christians in the Russian North, provides a remarkable glimpse of this ancient people whose ancestors fled from the persecutions of the Ottomans and helped keep Christianity and its principles alive in Russia during the depradations of the Soviet period.

In the early years of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Assyrians fled from the Ottoman Empire and Persia to Russia. Because of Soviet persecutions and intermarriage, that community has shrunk to only 13,000, Mikhail Sizov of “Vera-Eskom” points out. But its members are among the most socially active Christians in the country.

The occasion for this unusual article was a visit to the editorial offices of the journal by Tamara Gurmizova, an ethnic Assyrian pensioner who came to get a copy of the obituary “Vera-Eskom” published earlier this year when Mikhail Sado, probably the most famous Russian Assyrian passed away.

Sado who died on August 30th at the age of 76 played a remarkable role in Assyrian and Russian Christian life. The son of Assyrians who fled from the Ottoman Empire in 1916 only to be repressed by Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, Sado left Leningrad at the time of the blockade and settled in Krasnodar kray.

He was arrested by the KGB and taught Aramaic in the prison camps. Wow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Relaunch of TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism

TC: A JOURNAL OF TEXTUAL CRITICISM is relaunching with a 2010 volume containing four articles. AWOL has more details. Actually, I didn't know TC was on hiatus, and it hasn't missed any years lately, but I'm glad it's on track again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Iranian goverment wants extension on Cyrus Cylinder loan

THE IRANIAN GOVERMENT wants to keep the Cyrus Cylinder longer than was agreed:
Islamic Republic asked Britain to keep Cyrus the Great Cylinder for a longer period; Iranian cultural figures called it a bad idea

Tuesday, 21 December 2010 13:18

LONDON, (CAIS) -- CAIS was informed that the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has requested an extension of loan of the Cyrus the Great Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder was loaned to the National Museum of Iran in early September for a period of four months.

The extension of the loaning this priceless artefact is a matter of great concern, particularly when the Islamic Republic’s National Security and Foreign Policy Council voted in favour of completely cutting ties with the United Kingdom on Saturday.

I would say that's putting it temperately.

The same article notes that the British Museum has affirmed that the original cylinder and not a replica was loaned out.

I hope they get it back.

Background here with links going back to 2004.

The curse of Ezra?

IS THE CURSE OF EZRA having a corrosive effect on Jewish-Arab relations in modern Israel? Gershom Schocken:
This is not meant to be an advocacy piece on behalf of mixed marriages. Even if these unions were possible, they would presumably remain a marginal phenomenon. But to ensure the formation of an Israeli nation composed of all the ethnic groups in this country, the barriers between them must be knocked down. That includes restrictions on marriages between members of different groups. Had we not granted the rabbinate a monopoly on matrimonial law, and if there were a civil marriage law in Israel, a substantial obstacle would have been eliminated. Ezra the Scribe's prohibition may have been justified for an ethno-religious group. But for a sovereign nation that needs to coexist with another nation from a different background and establish normal relations with neighbors beyond its borders, this prohibition, which symbolizes Jewish alienation, has become a curse. If it persists, it will perpetuate ethnic tensions within the country and guarantee the permanent isolation of Israel in the region. We must liberate ourselves from the curse of Ezra.

Book of Genesis profiled by Jane Williams

THE BOOK OF GENESIS is thoughfully profiled here and here in the Guardian by Jane Williams, tutor and lecturer in theology and wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Aramaic course at Oxford

Christ's endangered language gets new lease of life in Oxford
An Aramaic course offered by Oxford University is drawing scores of scholars from as far afield as Liverpool and London

* Maev Kennedy
*, Tuesday 21 December 2010 16.34 GMT

It is the language that Christ spoke, but is regarded as "endangered" with ever fewer scattered groups of native speakers.

But in Oxford, Aramaic has been flourishing again, with a course in the ancient language drawing people from as far afield as Liverpool and London. There are now 56 people learning Aramaic at the university, including three classics professors, solemnly completing their weekly homework tasks and regularly attending the free lunchtime lessons, more than the numbers studying Greek.

Their first lesson might have surprised the writers of the books of David and Ezra in the Bible, and of the Talmud, both originally written in Aramaic: the scholars pored over a translation of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

David Taylor has previously taught the language to groups of two or three people in his study, and was astounded by the turnout for his first public lesson. Though a few fell by the wayside, more than 40 stayed the course until the classes ended in time for Christmas.

Well done! As it happens, I'm teaching biblical Aramaic next semester. I can't compete with those numbers, but I have six registered for credit and two or three have told me they want to audit. I am content.

Incidentally, there is no "book of David" in the Bible. I think the writer must have mis-heard "book of Daniel." Daniel and Ezra are partly written in Aramaic.

Oh, and this looks exciting:
The lessons were organised by Oxford University's classics faculty and faculty of oriental studies as part of Project Arshama, a collaboration between the universities of Oxford and Liverpool, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project is focused on one of the treasures of the vast Bodleian library, the 13 Arshama letters, written on leather in the Persian empire in the 5th century BC – priceless to scholars because so many documents on parchment or clay have not survived. There will be a seminar and an exhibition on the letters next summer.