Review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?

Review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? June 26, 2015

My review of Maurice Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? has been published in Review of Biblical Literature.  Below is an excerpt from the end of the review. Please click through to read the rest.

I suspect that many will find the tone of Casey’s volume rather too acerbic—especially if they have never had to deal with online mythicists themselves. One must keep in mind the risks that were involved in writing a book like this. As scientists and historians who have tackled pseudoscholarship of other sorts have often learned, the very act of engaging proponents of these views, even in the interests of debunking them, can seem to add credibility to their claims, since they are being deemed “worthy of engaging with.” It seems to me that Casey’s approach, while not above criticism, strikes an important balance. He took the highly problematic character of mythicism seriously enough that he thought it worth showing unambiguously why it does not deserve to be taken seriously. Casey shows in detail the ways in which mythicism is not merely wrong in the ways that scholars are often wrong but rather grossly incompetent, shoddily argued and evidenced, utterly lacking in plausibility, and often seeming to willfully distort the evidence, all while its proponents maliciously malign mainstream scholars.

Casey’s book does not address every possible permutation of mythicism, and there is always more that can be said. Be that as it may, it provides ample evidence that mythicism is thoroughly unconvincing (to say the least). Yet despite dealing thoroughly and persuasively with the subject, it is probably too much to hope that Casey’s scholarly treatment of mythicism will lay the matter of the existence of the historical Jesus to rest, any more than scientists addressing young-earth creationist claims have managed to bring about the end of that pseudoscience. Casey’s book will, however, provide for the realm of historical Jesus study what a number of biologists have provided in relation to evolution: a clear and sufficiently detailed explanation of what mainstream scholarly conclusions are, why and how they are reached, and why professionals in the field all but universally find the denialist alternatives not merely unpersuasive but unscholarly, inasmuch as they fail to even implement the appropriate methods of scholarly investigation and argument.

Beyond that, however, Casey’s book offers important evidence regarding the historicity and development of material in the Gospels, their date, and the language in which they were formulated and transmitted. This material is of interest in its own right. Mythicism is the unifying thread of the book, but the volume works well as a general overview of mainstream historical Jesus studies, presented in response to popular misconceptions. Casey’s book will thus be of great interest even to those who could not care less about what Internet cranks think. In the process of responding to their claims, Casey offers his own insightful and distinctive perspective on the methods, sources, and conclusions of historical Jesus study, so whatever one’s interest in the historical figure of Jesus, this book is to be highly recommended.

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  • Paul E.

    I had just run across mythicism online not too long before this book came out, so I tried reading it. I must admit I didn’t get very far. It felt like a flame war, the context of which was missing and about which I’ll never really care. Beyond that, the (at least what I viewed as) pseudo-psychoanalysis of online personalities was off-putting and (again, just in my view) a complete waste of time. Based on your review, however, I seemingly gave up too early and missed out on the best parts. I will pick it up again and give it another chance.

    • I think you had it right the first time Paul.

    • ccws

      I’m adding it to my already out-of-control Bucket Reading List too. B-)

  • Steven Bollinger

    “I suspect that many will find the tone of Casey’s volume rather too
    acerbic—especially if they have never had to deal with online mythicists
    themselves.”

    Hahahaha, ahhh, yes. Yes, they do tend to be quite annoying, many or most of them. However, under the working definition of “mythicist” as anyone and everyone who is not a strict historicist, as anyone and everyone who is not convinced that Jesus historicity is certain and that there’s nothing left to debate — using that definition, I remain a mythicist.

    I may have said this to you before, but it bears repeating: just because there are a lot of bozos arguing a case, that in and of itself doesn’t mean that the case is fundamentally unsound, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be argued well. I can agree with you and Casey that Carrier and Price are bozos and that they’re far better than all of the other prominent mythicists (excepting Wells), and still disagree with you that the case for Jesus’ historicity has been made.

    • John MacDonald

      What parts of the historicists’ case do you find less than compelling?

      • Steven Bollinger

        The part that makes me say, “Oh, I see, this means Jesus’ existence couldn’t have been made up along with the Star of Bethlehem and the virgin birth and the Magi and the census which brought the Holy Family to Bethlehem and the miracles and the Resurrection.” That part. Over and over, I miss that part completely.

  • For a detailed critical look at this book (including examples of reasoning errors, poor scholarship, and possible dishonesty), see Richard Carrier’s review:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4282

    EDIT: From the comments on Carrier’s article, I see that McGrath has already written a response of sorts. The comments there on the subject may be of interest to readers here.

    • And for a detailed look at how Carrier accuses everyone who disagrees with him of those things… http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2015/12/bringing-a-gun-to-a-review-fight.html

      Carrier regularly claims that everyone who disagrees with him is doing poor scholarship and reasoning erroneously. And yet, having read mainstream scholarship as well as Carrier’s fringe offerings, I find the latter to be far more full of errors, weakly evidenced, and unpersuasive than what is offered by the actual professional scholars that Carrier insults. I am not sure why anyone finds Carrier more persuasive than the people who actually work and write as professionals in history and Biblical studies, but I suspect that it is a combination of motivated reasoning, a lack of acquaintance with the actual scholarship Carrier talks about other than through his own misrepresentation thereof, and perhaps also the belief that the sheer length of Carrier’s books and blog posts must mean they are saying something substantive.

      • Steven Bollinger

        And perhaps also they haven’t yet dared to disagree with Carrier about something and gotten the treatment themselves. I must say, it’s unpleasant.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Carrier has a talent for using a lot of words to say very little. It would be tedious to dissect the whole post; so I’ll just consider what he says about 1 Corinthians 2:8 – “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Supposedly, the “rulers of the age” are demons, and if demons crucified Jesus, then it must have happened in outer space.

      Maurice Casey says quite a lot about this, which Carrier ignores. Instead, he focuses on one casual remark of Casey’s which has nothing to do with the overall argument. Casey’s point is that the context of the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians indicates that the “rulers” who crucified Jesus must be human rulers, not outer space demons. In the first two chapters, Paul has a lot to say about people who think they are wise but who are not really wise:

      Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor. 1:20)

      For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:26-27)

      Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Cor. 2:6)

      Paul is talking about people, not demons. Carrier doesn’t address this, or any of the other real arguments that Casey makes.