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The online sceptics taken to task

24 October 2014

Henry Wansbrough  on a defender of the historicity of Jesus

Jesus: Evidence and argument or mythicist myths?
Maurice Casey
Bloomsbury £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT912 )

THERE are two main points of interest in this remarkable book. Maurice Casey, who died in May, was Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Nottingham, and a figure of world stature in the field of New Testament studies. His authority as an academic is perhaps increased by the fact, of which he made no secret, that he left the Christian faith in 1962 while still studying for his undergraduate degree in theology. Clearly, this did not diminish his zest for the study of the subject; and it enabled him to speak with a certain objectivity that a professed Christian may seem to some to lack.

The first point of interest is that the book takes the lid off a whole world of New Testament discussion on the internet. Free access, both active and passive, to the internet can give a suppositious air of authority to the expression of a casual or unfounded opinion without its undergoing the criticism or censorship of publishers, editors, or even peer review. There is no knowing the status or reliability of an internet screed: it may be the product of serious research, a maverick try-out, a jeu d'esprit, or a total spoof.

Casey here set himself against a school, perhaps a shoal, of bloggers who were intent on showing that Jesus Christ never existed, that he was a complete myth. Casey contended that this shoal relied on secondary sources that were now outdated, and were unreliable even in their own time, and that the bloggers simply lacked the elementary skills required to use and evaluate the primary sources.

The second, and more positive, point of interest is the contention, in partnership with one of his students, for a very early date for the composition of St Mark's Gospel, followed by those of St Matthew and St Luke. The eschatological discourse of Mark 13 refers not to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but to the uproar produced in the early 40s of the first century by the Emperor Gaius's threat to set up a statue of himself in the Temple.

This idea is in itself not new, and its opponents maintain that, just as the flier or pamphlet of the early 40s re-used the Book of Daniel, so Mark re-used the flier. Nevertheless, the contention is backed up by some neat and convincing demonstrations of traces of Aramaic in Mark (e.g. 1.7 and 2.23), which show the fingerprints of the world of Jesus himself. This is all part of the "Criterion of Historical Plausibility", which shatters the bloggers' ill-documented claim that the whole story is simply a repetition of the ancient myths of other cultures.

Casey's vigorous argumentation was clearly shaped to match that of his opponents, and at times the tone can even be a little shrill; but it is crystal-clear that their grasp of the material was no match for his.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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