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Casey & the “Mythical” Jesus

January 30, 2014

I’ve just learned of the publication of another book addressing the “mythical Jesus” issue, by Professor Maurice Casey (Emeritus Prof, Nottingham University), with the provocative title: Jesus:  Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? (London:  Bloomsbury, 2014).  The link to the publisher’s page on the book is here.

It will be apparent from the title that Casey (along with practically every scholar who has considered the matter) doesn’t buy the “mythicist” case.  He is a long-time acquaintance and a well-published and noted scholar in NT.  Because identifying a person as a traditional Christian is sometime invoked (by self-styled “sceptics”) as an excuse to ignore whatever he/she says about Jesus or anything to do with Christian origins, I’ll also mention that this hardly applies to Casey.  He doesn’t argue with a view to trying to protect Christian belief or believers.  Whatever the strength of his arguments, he’s not doing apologetics!

I haven’t yet read it (it just appeared), but I suspect that it will feature the no-nonsense and pull-no-punches approach for which he is so well known in NT studies!

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  1. Jim Deardorff permalink

    You have yet to point out an error in the Immanuel-to-Jesus name-change hypothesis.
    . . . . . there is no 1st-century mention of Immanuel unless it’s in Matthew 1:23; further, no 2nd-century mention of Immanuel either except in brief quotes of Isa 7:14 by Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and perhaps the redactor who lengthened Ignatius’s epistle to the Ephesians. These early Christians believed in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy, and so presumably did many others. . . . .

    Why did they think the Immanuel prophecy was fulfilled if the child’s name had not been called Immanuel at birth? If “Immanuel” is construed to be a characterization rather than the name as it is written in the Great Isaiah Scroll, then the prophecy still wasn’t fulfilled, seemingly, because no literature exists to show he was called Immanuel in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Yet those who believed it was fulfilled, including Paul, were no dummies. So why is it bizarre to adopt the simplest solution – his name had actually been Immanuel at birth, but after Paul’s initiation of the change to “Jesus” won out, “Immanuel” was not to be uttered. The writer of Matthew, Justin, Irenaeus, et al. still knew what the original name was, and that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, but knew it was forbidden to use the name “Immanuel” (outside of an occasional quote of Isa 7:14). This then explains the lack of 1st- and 2nd-century writings about Immanuel and 1st-century writings about Jesus except by Paul (& 1 Clement).

    This simplest hypothesis has the advantage that one does not need to dismiss the four (or more?) writings that indicate there was a name change and/or the original name had been Immanuel. I regard the foregoing arguments (and other supportive ones) as straightforward, not “dodgy.”

    • OK, Jim, one last go-round on this, and then it’s finished here.
      –If you can’t see the refutational force of what I’ve written to you earlier, then it’s a problem on your part, not a lack of refutation.
      –There is no indication that Matthew or any other writer ever claimed that Jesus’ real name (or other name) was “Immanuel”. That’s a supposition on your part, and suppostions can’t serve as proof of anything else but themselves require evidence.
      –There is no evidence that Matthew or Justin or anyone else thought “immanuael” a forbidden name that had been put under wraps by Paul. That’s simply another wild claim on your part that has no evidence, and all that is required by way of refutation is to point this out.
      –Why did Matthew et al. regard Isa 7:14 as fulfilled in Jesus’ birth? Well, because they came to see Jesus as the Messiah and that on a grand scale, and found him prefigured then (in the logic of ancient Jewish regard for the OT) in many texts. The Hebrew “immanu el” (and in the Heb MT it’s not a name but a two-word appellative) obviously seemed to them a fitting expression of their faith that Jesus was the unique agent and expression of God’s purposes.
      –There is no evidence (again, only your assertion) that Paul suppressed “Immanuel” as a name for Jesus and invented the latter. This is so wildly improbable that it would generate a hearty laugh at any mooting of the claim among scholars, Jim. It’s not up to me to refute such a groundless claim; it’s up to you to establish the claim with evidence, not assertions.
      –It is never the “simplest” theory that involves so many dubious and groundless components, Jim.
      We’re done.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I am on page 60 of this book and it has still to say anything substantive about Jesus himself, historical or otherwise. So far it’s all been biographies of mythicists and bloggers.

    One very interesting comment Casey did make is that his book “From Jewish Prohpet to Gentile God” was initially rejected for publication because a reviewer found it “anti-Christian”! Imagine how much poorer the field of early Christology studies would be without that book. I wonder how many other such works by authors not as tenacious as Casey have been suppressed.

    • Casey’s book, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God WAS published, widely reviewed, and cited in bibliographies. It wasn’t “suppressed”. And it was published in the USA by Westminster/John Knox, which is the publishing house of the US Presbyterian Church! So, that doesn’t look like some “suppression” on account of being seen as critical of some traditional views. It is a book worth noting, but I have published my reasons for regarding the argument as simplistic in vital matters, and so in the end unpersuasive.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Yes it was published, but only after “massive delay” (page 3) and Casey explains that it was “accepted for publication by T & T Clark, but later turned down by Geoffrey Green, who was in charge. It has been suggested to me privately that this may have been due to Christian prejudice under the guise of peer review, including the comment ‘Maurice’s work is sometimes anti-Christian’. Consequently, the resulting book was not published until 1991.” (Page 39)

        How much confidence should we have in the integrity of a discipline where that sort of thing goes on?

      • Donald: We can’t place any confidence at all on rumours, slurs, and generalizing “drive-by shooting” of publishers and un-named reviewers such as you commit. Shame on you! Casey’s book was published, perhaps later than he would have wanted, but that’s perhaps an author’s pique. It got published, has been noted in scholarly discussion, and its weaknesses shown. There is no basis for your taunting stance. (And even less credibility from someone who himself doesn’t engage in the scholarly process, I might add.)

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Professor Hurtado, I did not make these claims, Casey did, and published them. So why shame on me?

        “Shameful” or not Casey’s “rumours” have a distinct ring of truth about them and surely come as no surprise to most with any hard headed acquaintance with the patterns and discourses of biblical scholarship.

        But if rumour is ruled out of order (although we could ask how else we could ever find out about bias specific cases of bias in peer review apart from rumour?) then the systematic documentation of structural bias in biblical scholarship of James Crossely should suffice. Have you read his excellent books: “Jesus is an Age of Terror” and “Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism”?

      • Donald: Repeating an unsubstantiated slur against others is shameful. And I find no “distinct ring of truth” in the accusation that critical scholars are prevented from having their views published simply because they offend religious faith. Absolutely not. (And, BTW, I presume that you don’t imply that you have “hard headed acquaintance” with the process of biblical scholarship.0
        As for the “systematic documentation of structural bias in biblical scholarship” that you say Crossley alleges, well, he has yet to make that charge stick to the satisfaction of most of us. Nevertheless, isn’t it interesting that he gets his work published? Hmm.
        In any case, Donald, you’re once again tearing down a rabbit trail away off from the posting. So, let’s end it here.

  3. As somebody mentioned in the book, may I beg Professor Hurtado’s indulgence and say a few words?

    Professor Casey gives out my date of birth, place of residence, profession and one of my degrees (I have two)

    All without ever asking my permission,

    He is a class act, isn’t he?

    And Professor Casey invents episodes in my life when I went to Tyndale House while at Cambridge and imbibed a version of Christianity from there.

    I have never been to Tyndale House in my life.

    Professor Casey’s inability to reconstruct episodes in my life tells badly on his inability to reconstruct episodes in the life of ‘Judah of Kerioth’.

    And inventing mythical episodes in somebody’s life is not good if you are trying to refute mythicism.

    • Haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on inaccuracies. But inaccuracies aren’t “myths”. I presume that there is a Steven Carr, even though I have no definitive proof. The blogger under that name . . . could be a fake, an impersonator, or someone trying to construct a “mythical” figure. There is a Tyndale House, but can’t vouch for whether a Steven Carr ever visited it. All in all, although it’s a bit of a stretch, I’d guess that Steven Carr is a real figure, even if Casey has committed some inaccuracies in portraying him.

      • Indeed I am a real person, but the moral of the story is that it is possible to disagree with Maurice Casey’s reconstructions of somebody’s life, and if you do so, there is still no need for him to regard you as the Antichrist.

        It also shows just how wear Professor Casey’s ability to reconstruct the motivations of somebody is – something to bear in mind when he confidently tells us that the disciples were bound to be a bit sleepy in Gethsemane because they had had a drink.

      • Well, maybe Casey was feeling a bit “tetchy” when he dealt with you. Not commendable. And, yes, some of his assertions over the years have been judged a bit over-confident. We’ve disagreed over some much larger matters, and he’s hardly liable to the accusation of being some “orthodox” Christian. My notice of his book was simply to alert people to it, and with the observation that (along with Ehrman) he’s another such “non-creedalist” scholar who is critical of the current “mythical” Jesus fad (and fads come & go without much effect).

  4. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, what exactly do they mean by the term mythicist?

    Do they mean that the stories about Jesus are myths in the sense of say Greek myths with no historical origin?

    Or do they mean something like atheist?

    Or do they mean that the stories about Jesus were invented by people who saw an opening to exploit others, financially or politically?

    The mythicists want to have their cake and eat it? Some are scholars. They know Greek or Hebrew. They can think and talk on your level, and write books as you do. Yet they cannot do the history.

    • The “classic” claim (which has been refuted several times over the last century or more, but has now reappeared in “zombie” fashion) is that “Jesus of Nazareth” is a fictional character whose only “existence” is in the narratives of early Christianity. Some, however, (who would hope to present themselves as somewhat more scholarly in tone) seem to say that there may well have been a historical figure named “Jesus” but that the narratives about him are so totally fabricated that it’s impossible to connect them with the historical figure. So, to all intents and purposes, the “Jesus” narrated in the Gospels is a “myth” (which they mean in the pop sense of “fiction”).
      As to the people in question, I’m not aware of anyone recognized as a contributor to the field of NT/Christian origins who is allied with the current “mythicist” stance.
      Bultmann, of course, for profoundly theological reasons, professed disinterest in “historical Jesus” work. But that’s not really the same thing as the current “mythicist” stance.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, I can’t see how the people who are described as mythicists (Jesus is fictional) can hope to prove it using the very same biblical texts that are used to prove otherwise. Doesn’t it become a merry-go-round of argument? With such arguments, there is no definite proof of Jesus’s existence, or non existence, either way.

      • Geoff: What would count as “definite proof of Jesus’ existence”? For pretty much the entire scholarly guild who work in ancient history, the sort of data that we have (e.g., references to Jesus in texts written ca. 20-25 yrs after his execution and drawing upon personal acquaintances of Jesus) seems pretty strong evidence. It is a mistake to think that it’s all up in the air. That the texts are “biblical” is irrelevant. The historical point is that they’re early and commonly regarded as authentic, with strong textual bases for determining what Paul wrote. There are other data as well, but this will serve by way of illustration. Jesus’ existence just isn’t an issue in scholarship. Only on the internet and among some advocates of the “zombie” notion of the “mythical” Jesus.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, but is that because most scholars have a vested interest in what they have been taught, and they have all had training in a similar traditional fashion, and they like to talk to each other on a similar wavelength?

      • No. Geoff. If you think that, it shows your lack of familiarity with the world of scholarship. Many scholars (and most PhD students!) would seriously LOVE to come up with some radical new idea, some revision of accepted “orthodoxy” in the field, PROVIDED that they could produce sufficient reasons to question current opinion and make their own proposal sufficiently more plausible than alternatives. I’ve done that a couple of times. It can be done, but it rightly takes a serious effort and demonstrated expertise in the relevant data and questions. Simply asking hypothetical questions doesn’t get one very far.

  5. Jim Deardorff permalink

    Please let me put in a partial plug for the mythicists. This is their contention that “The failure of ancient non-Christian writers of the 1st century to mention Jesus shows that he did not exist” (Wikipedia). It was his name being “Jesus” that did not exist until Paul and followers made it so. Hence the dearth of “Jesus” evidence in the 1st century. But thanks to the Gnostic writers of Acts of Thomas, Martyrdom of Isaiah, Gospel of Philip, Testament of Solomon and perhaps more, we can learn that his original name had been Immanuel and/or was not to be uttered. Among other things, this explains why the name “Immanuel” is absent from the early literature except in quoting Isa 7:14,, and even then why the clause “and shall call his name Immanuel” was incorrectly expressed in the passive voice.

    Thanks to Larry for allowing me to air this on his blog. Details are in . If there is any irrefutable logic or argumentation that would negate this claim, I would like to hear of it.

    • Jim, YOur summary of a “mythicist” argument gives a splended example of the fallacies that make the argument utterly unpersuasive to scholars. “Jesus” (the Graicized form of the Aramaic “Yeshua”) is in fact one of the most common names of Jewish males of the time. See, Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Part 1: Palestine 300 BCE – 200 CE, TSAJ, no. 91 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002). Moreover, this is reflected in the several people bearing the name in NT writings. See, e.g., Margaret H. Williams, “Palestinian Jewish Personal Names in Acts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, Volume 4: The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, ed. Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 79-113, as well as numerous figures bearing the name in Josephus, etc. So, it’s not a made-up name, but one very common in the time of . . . Jesus!
      Second, Paul didn’t make up the figure but presupposes him. Indeed, his opposition to early Jesus-followers seems to have commenced very soon, such that his “conversion” is typically dated, ca. 2-5 yrs at most after Jesus’ execution. So, in fact, letters of Paul convey of, and reference to Jesus from within these early months, and from circles of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem (e.g., Kephas, James, et al.).
      Third, it is idiotic historical method to ignore all these lst-century data and rest a theory upon sources of the 2nd/3rd cent CE such as the “gnostic” sources that you reference.
      For these and other good reasons, Jim, you’re touting a totally unpersuasive, methodologically wrong-headed, and seriously mis-informed (and misleading) case. Repetition of it does not increase its credibility.

      • Jim Deardorff permalink

        Thanks for the detailed response, Larry. I had not meant to imply that in initiating the name change from Immanuel to Jesus that Paul did not realize that the name Jesus or Joshua was not uncommon. Indeed, in his accepted epistles Paul always lets it be known from the first that he was not speaking of any “Jesus,” but rather Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. My assertion was “It was his name being ‘Jesus’ that did not exist until Paul and followers made it so,” _his_ name referring to Immanuel’s name. He was known as Immanuel until Paul started referring to him as Jesus Christ some years before his epistles of the 50’s.

        If so, his earliest followers, from the early months, were Immanuel-followers; calling them “Jesus-followers” would be anachronistic. Since Paul initiated the name change, the Immanuel followers must have been his key opponents, especially Kephas and James. Paul’s epistles remain silent about Immanuel because his key opponents were followers of the man by that name – silence is the first weapon of suppression. Paul most strongly reveals this behavior in referring to the “root of Jesse” as being Isaiah’s Messiah (Rom 15:12), while avoiding any mention of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy.

        Therefore, Paul’s references to Jesus and lack of same to Immanuel merely signify his blame in initiating the name change. Presumably there were some other 1st-century writings that debated or contested the name change, and these had to be wiped out by the winners then and in the 2nd century. This led to the near absence of 1st-century evidence demanded by the mythicists. For obvious reasons the Jewish clergy must have independently aided in this suppression of the “Immanuel” evidence.

        We should be thankful that some of the cryptic revelatory writings of the 2nd- and 3rd-century Gnostics survived to point out this name change. Their writers had learned that overt mention of “Immanuel” would bring about certain destruction of their works.

        So I’m still awaiting any valid argument against the historical reality of this name change.

      • Jim,
        Your comment here is so rife with unsupported claims, misunderstandings, and errors in method and fact that at first I thought it not worth posting. But I’ve chosen instead to post it so that readers can see for themselves the dodgy nature of your stance. It’s a classic case of devising a view and then custom-cutting the data to fit it, Jim. E.g., no lst-century use of “Immanuel” for Jesus (except in the birth narrative in Matt 1:23, where it isn’t actually used for him, but involves one of Matt’s curious “fulfilment” quotations of OT passages)? So, your response is to make the desperate assertion that this only means that Paul was successful in making a name change!! Really, Jim! You can’t see the ludicrous nature of your reasoning?? Pretty much every sentence in your comment is equally faulty, Jim. But this will do to illustrate the problem.
        Oh, and such bizarre lines of argument don’t stand until they’re knocked down, Jim. When you’re trying to set up such a bizarre line of argument that has no support from scholars in the field, it’s up to you to make the case and overturn scholarly opinion. As said before, “You have a right to your opinion, but you don’t have a right to your own facts.” So, please, Jim, give it over, at least here. If you can’t see your errors, then peddle your wares somewhere else.

    • Tim Henderson permalink

      What other area of ancient history considers that a person be deemed as historical (i.e., actually existed) if, and only if, there are 1) written sources from the same century in which the alleged person lived, and 2) these sources were written by someone opposed to and/or outside of the alleged person’s demographic group?

      That’s a completely absurd historical method that, if put into practice in other areas, would eliminate entire fields of historical study that are generally accepted by historians today.

      • A point made often in the past to the earlier expressions of this “zombie” idea.

  6. Patrick permalink


    I’m no fundy, but, the praying in the garden of Gethsemane would be easy eyewitness testimony . How could Peter not have recalled this event?

    32 Then they came to a place called Gethsemane. He said to his disciples, “Stay here while I pray.”

    33 He took Peter, James, and John with him and began to feel distressed and anguished. 34 He said to them, “My anguish is so great that I feel as if I’m dying. Wait here, and stay awake.”

    Why is this passage questionable relative to any other?

    • Patrick,
      Engaging your comment to Steven would take us well away from the topic of Casey’s book. So, let’s not get into such matters here.

  7. I get a mention in the book! Most amusing.

    I like Professor Casey’s explanation that mythicists like Neil Godfrey are reacting against their former fundamentalist upbringing.

    Professor Casey has a point.

    If you are brought up on a diet of bogus, fundamentalist ‘scholarship’ (such as, for example, claims that Jesus prayer in Gethsemane is historical because the disciples weren’t really asleep while Jesus was praying), then your view of what constitutes scholarship is likely to be flawed.

    • Well, Steven, one must be careful about reacting emotionally against something . . . it will shape you, and not always for the good. Ex-fundamentalists tend to retain a similar mentality, and simply deploy it for another “cause”, the nature of which has been shaped by their former fundamentalist cause.

      • On a more interesting sidenote, if I may be allowed to ask a question not related to the thread :-

        Why are Paul’s letters so long? Is this not something worthy of comment?

        Paul was writing to address problems found in churches, with letters intended for public reading.

        1 Corinthians is 16 chapters long. Who is going to read all that out?

        Isn’t that longer than the letters of Seneca, or Pliny, both of whom were much more able to afford expensive paper than Paul?

        Does this mean Paul was very wealthy?

        By contrast, Acts 15 manages to include a letter summarising a hugely important conference resolving questions of vital importance for early churches.

        That letter is 7 verses long.

        Have any NT scholars contrasted the length of the letters of Paul with eg those of Tacitus, Seneca, Pliny?

      • Jerome: There is no distinction such as you assume in Paul’s reference to the dead and the living in 1 Cor 15:52. Had Paul wanted to make such a distinction, he could have used either “alla” or “de” (Greek terms signallying contrast), but instead he used “kai”, a simple connective.
        Further, in Philippians 3:21, Paul refers to the exalted Jesus “who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body”, suggesting that Jesus was transformed/glorified, and believers will undergo a similar transformation.

  8. Are you familiar with the discussion (and book) that took place in May between three participants (Dr. Price, Dr. Gilmore, Roy Varghese)?

  9. Professor Casey doesn’t pull any punches in the first chapter! Interesting discussion of the primary mythicist.

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