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Competence and New Testament Scholarship

I would like to say in closing that the broad comparative development of the kind of literature which the gospel sayings reflect and the symbol system which they engage, seems seriously to undermine the consistent claim of so much of Casey’s work; namely that such sayings originate with an historical person who both thought and lived such thoughts. Such a disagreement has substance and should be addressed openly and directly rather than covertly and by way of innuendo.

See Also: Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?

Is Not This an Incompetent New Testament Scholar? A Response to Thomas L. Thompson

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
December 2012

In his critique of my response to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? Maurice Casey alleges as the foremost mark of what he sees as my incompetence that I, at odds with all critical scholarship, presuppose a Matthean priority, rooted in a ‘Traditional Catholic doctrine’ or ‘a Catholic dogma,’ in which I was supposedly ‘brought up!’ His assertion surprises me by both its arbitrariness and its prejudice. There is no such Catholic doctrine or dogma; nor have I claimed it in any way. I studied New Testament in Tübingen from 1963 to 1972, where my teachers were Karl Hermann Schelkle, Otto Michel and Ernst Käsemann. I also studied at Temple University in 1975/6, where I took my doctoral examinations in New Testament studies with Gerald Sloyan. My teachers were, internationally, well-recognized scholars. Only the very formidably competent Otto Michel ever flirted with Matthean priority. He must, however, be forgiven this—from Casey’s perspective—heresy, for he held his chair before Maurice Casey had made the 19th century theory of Marcan priority mandatory for all critical scholarship.

Casey’s misses the implied Marcan priority adhering to the title I gave to the response to Ehrman, which his own title so brutally mocks. ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?, in Matthew 13:55, is a well-known historicizing gloss on Mark 6:3! This gloss—far from being prior to Mark—historicizes Mark, even as much as Ehrman—and indeed Casey—historicize Mark’s mythic figure of the Hephaestus-miming craftsman with oh such wonderful hands: the figure of the title for the collected essays Thomas Verenna and I have edited: Is This Not the Carpenter? (Sheffield: Equinox Press, 2012)! Similarly working on the assumption of a Marcan priority is my article in this new book: ‘Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King.’ This exegetical article deals with Mark’s ‘narrative’ of the temptation and its expanded variations in the other gospels.1

The bulk of Casey’s critique is primarily directed against the much earlier book I wrote some seven years ago (The Messiah Myth: The Ancient Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). His critique, however, hardly betrays a reader’s engagement, but rather that of a polemicist, defending a hidden agenda, perhaps related to Casey’s attempts to date Mark even earlier than Paul—a not insignificant argument that our present collection of essays unwittingly undermines. Alternatively, one must consider Casey’s life-long effort to reconstruct an Aramaic ‘original’ of the gospel sayings, supporting his assumption regarding their historicity; for this research’s assumption and dependence on a nearly verbatim preservation of such sayings in oral tradition and old theories about ‘Q’ is absolute—a line of research which is rendered wholly irrelevant if these same sayings are understood to have their roots rather in the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature, as my 2005 book has argued.

Before going into this, I should say something about why I used so much of Matthew and Luke, in contrast to Mark, in my book on the roots of the Bible’s messiah myth, in spite of the fact that I do not hold to either Matthew or Luke’s historical priority. In the course of my The Messiah Myth, I refer to some 125 different passages in Matthew and about 100 from Luke, but yet only some 70 in Mark. Why the imbalance? If I were a historical-critical New Testament scholar, dealing with questions of Jesus’ historicity, one might, with Casey, expect me to respect Mark’s historical priority and deal with the historical questions, which most serious New Testament scholars are accustomed to deal. Would, however, the fact that I have also referred to some 210 passages in Isaiah bring Casey to wonder about the obvious priority of Isaiah that I not only imply but explicitly argue for throughout my book? And if I am correct that Isaiah, with his roots in ancient Near Eastern literature, is to be given priority for such sayings, then that old 19th century theory concerning Marcan priority among the gospels takes on the nature of a priority of respect (like a pope among his bishops), otherwise of limited use for my critical historical questions regarding literary sources and ideological roots.

The Messiah Myth, moreover, is neither a book dealing with the history of the New Testament, a history of Jesus nor of the early church.2 It rather analyzes and attempts to trace the antiquity and nature of the sources for the messiah myth. It is a study in comparative literature. It deals only indirectly with the historicity of Jesus, as it treats many of the proverbs and parables that have been associated with such a figure and it comes to deal with the use of the Gospels’ for such historical questions, only insofar as they are related to the many sayings found in Matthew and Luke—such as the sermons on the mount or, respectively, the plain, which some conservative New Testament scholars, such as those involved in the Jesus seminar—and Maurice Casey—have considered ipsissima verba of Jesus. My purpose was quite different: to demonstrate that they were, in fact, sayings and tropes that were considerably older than either the gospels or any hypothetical, historical Jesus. I preferred to concentrate on Matthew, Luke and Isaiah in this study, because it is in these texts that many messianic tropes, not least those associated with the literary stereotype I have called a ‘Poor Man’s Song’ and the ancient Near Eastern tale-type ‘A Testament of the Good King.’ To give priority to Mark in such a monograph would make no sense whatever, as many New Testament scholars have been able to recognize.

The critique I have given of some conservative New Testament scholars who see gospel sayings as rooted in oral tradition and, in particular, ‘Q’ points out an obvious attempt to prejudge issues related to the historicity of Jesus. Such efforts are not and cannot be based on oral traditions from antiquity. This issue has serious problems with sound historical method as I argued in regard to the work of Antoinette Clarke Wire.3 It also has great problems with any comparative literature rooted in the intertextuality of the Hebrew Bible’s reception history: particularly under the genre of ‘rewritten Bible.’ They are questions which an historian and scholar of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature is at home with and I had offered my reflections as an invitation for New Testament scholars to engage in changing the habits of biblical studies and to take up the whole of the tradition for which we are jointly responsible.

I would like to say in closing that the broad comparative development of the kind of literature which the gospel sayings reflect and the symbol system which they engage, seems seriously to undermine the consistent claim of so much of Casey’s work; namely that such sayings originate with an historical person who both thought and lived such thoughts. Such a disagreement has substance and should be addressed openly and directly rather than covertly and by way of innuendo.


1 That Casey’s critique regarding competence applies to all of my work and not merely my intrusion into New Testament territory is clear from his further comments on my comparative literary studies related to the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. It does not help to expand such an ad hominem argument by adding the names of two such respected New Testament scholars as Bart Ehrman and Mogens Müller.

2 Thompson, The Messiah Myth, 16.

3 A. Clarke Wire, Holy Lives; Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Story Tellers (Atlanta: SBL, 2001); Thompson, The Messiah Myth, 21-26.

Comments (1)

I fear that another outbreak of vituperation is upon us. But what exactly is the point at issue? Whether Mark has priority in time or priority in respect - such different things? Whether the historical trustworthiness of a text about certain events is reduced or enhanced by the visible influence upon it either of earlier texts, concerned with different events, or else of orally transmitted traditions about the events it describes? I would have thought that there's no necessity either way.
We may be more convinced by the account written second if in fact we think it more effectively connects its story, Matthew-style, with the ancient texts that are essential to the legitimacy of what it says. Or we may be more convinced by the second account if it is - or if we can persuade ourselves that it is - plain and simple (Mark-style)and depends less on exotic accretions.
#1 - Martin - 12/04/2012 - 17:34

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