2010-03-21

“Why Christianity Happened”. Reviewing chapter 2 of James Crossley’s book

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Why Christianity Happened, James Crossley

Why Christianity Happened, James Crossley

There’s a lot I like about James Crossley’s publications. I found myself relating in many ways to his views expressed in “Jesus in an Age of Terror”. We have a lot in common politically, and I share some of his views on the peculiar scholarship that Christian dominance of biblical studies has generated. I have  referred to his observation on the relationship between a scholarly emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and broader socio-political changes since World War 2 , alongside April DeConick’s similar views of the evolving treatment of Judas in the same context, and built on both of these to suggest a similar explanation for the post War changes in scholarly views on the evidence of Josephus for Jesus.

I have also appreciated his calls for far more involvement of traditionally nonbiblical methodologies to be applied to biblical studies. However, here I only go along with half his proposal. Crossley expects nonbiblical scholars to engage seriously with the insights of Christian scholarship (p. 33 of Why Christianity Happened). There are many insights worth serious attention.

What Crossley is calling for is an application of secular models and explanations for the origins of Christianity. A history of ideas and theology needs to take second place to hard economic and social realities as dynamics that explain Christianity. Fair enough, but I see a bigger problem with Jesus studies that Crossley overlooks.

What need addressing are flawed methodologies and assumptions that would never be tolerated in historical historical studies of other academic disciplines, and that even Crossley appears accept without question.

I get these out of the way first before going on to discuss the specifics of his socioeconomic explanation for the rise of Christianity.

The fallacy underlying nearly all historical Jesus studies

Hobsbawm on method

Crossley draws in part on insights of the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm’s studies of bandits and bandit culture in South America. But Hobsbawm’s statements about methods for evaluating sources and determining whether or not a narrative (whether oral, written or even an eye-witness report) has any historical basis to it, ought to embarrass any and all biblical historians who study the Gospel narratives with the assumption they must contain some historical core.

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Schweitzer on method

This echoes a remark by Albert Schweitzer about the presumption of historicity that cannot be brought to the Gospel narratives about Jesus simply because they lack “independent evidence” or external controls:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

This basic principle is really simple logic and normal “street smarts” and should not even be controversial. But when it comes to the studies of Jesus, my experience tells me it is very controversial, so controversial that it is silenced and excluded from the discussion, or scorned and ridiculed if it intrudes.

Davies on method

It was controversial when applied to “Old Testament” studies by Philip R. Davies in 1992. Back then he argued in a ground-breaking monograph, In Search of Ancient Israel, that we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It is naïve to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know when it was written and if its stories have any truth behind them. (See my outline of notes from Davies’ book on my vridar.info website.)

Schwartz on method

And I never tire of reminding anyone willing to listen that this basic method of determining historicity of a narrative was warned about way back in 1904:

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

The exceptionalism of biblical/Jesus studies

So why do nearly all historical Jesus or Christian origin studies begin with the assumption that the Gospel narrative, without any independent evidence or external control, contains evidence of real history?

How is it that scholars of biblical studies can get away with declaring a particular action or saying as “historical” ultimately on the basis that they can’t think of a reason why anyone would just make it up, or that it is so embarrassing (to somebody, usually the author, although we don’t know who the author was) it must be true?

How is it that in the case of the Gospels, scholars can determine what is “historical” solely on the basis of analyzing the narrative details themselves and comparing these details with what we know from independent sources of the geographic or other background setting of the narrative?

Can anyone imagine Eric Hobsbawm declaring a particular bandit to have been genuinely historical on the basis of this sort of analysis of a written narrative? Goodness, he had a reputation to maintain!

The need for independent attestation of the Gospel narrative does not exist with this area of biblical studies.

Why does it appear that biblical studies, in particular any studies relating to the Gospel narrative, are exempt from the norms that require independent witness to verify their historical status?

But this is just the beginnings of what I find lacking in Crossley’s attempt to find a socioeconomic cause for the birth of Christianity.

Peasant Unrest and the Emergence of Jesus’ Specific View of the Law

This is the title of Crossley’s second chapter, and where I begin with this post. This title indicates that there is something unique or special about Jesus’ particular view of the Law that can be directly explained as a response to the socioeconomic conditions of Galilee. However, in his explanation, he grants that the same “specific view of the Law” is one found “deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition”. So I am forced to wonder what was so “specific” about Jesus’ view that requires a particular socioeconomic situation to explain.

Jesus’ view of the law reflected a key aspect of his general teaching: the immense problems that come with socioeconomic inequality. The relationship between socioeconomic reality and the Torah is quite explicit in such texts as Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 16:19-31. These related concerns are not difficult to find in Jewish law: they are deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition. But why do such concerns run consistently and densely throughout Jesus’ teaching? Why specifically did Jesus’ concerns emerge when and where they did? These questions are crucial because Jesus emerged at a time and in a place of socioeconomic upheaval that eventually resulted in full-scale revolts against Rome. (p. 35)

The particular passages Crossley uses as illustrations [the rich young ruler and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man] could come from any era and any place where there is the normal human consciousness of the distinctions between rich and poor. There is nothing about them that ties them to any particular time or place. Their popularity through eons of Christian teaching — beginning with second century patristic discussions — is testimony to this.

Mark’s pericope of the rich young ruler is even more problematic in this regard since the author of this gospel intimates that all he writes is a parable, and some commentators have seen the rich young ruler as originally intended as a metaphor for the Law and the Prophets. The message is that Jesus completely replaces the riches that come with the law. Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man is but one piece of a larger mosaic, beginning with the exaltation of Mary, that builds up his Gospel theme of reversals of fortunes.

The themes of warnings against allowing riches to turn us away from God, and against pride in our own works of righteousness, and fortune’s reversals that symbolize the justice of the ideal future kingdom, are embedded in the Law and Prophets and are not specific to Jesus. Deuteronomy 6:110-12; Isaiah 64:6 and Job throughout; 1 Samuel 2:6-8. Jesus taught much else besides, as did the Law and the Prophets.

Thomas L. Thompson‘s brings out the very lack of historical specificity of the Gospel sayings of Jesus in The Messiah Myth:

There are many sages in the ancient world who shared the voice of Jesus we find in the gospels . . . . Ancient literature swarms with the figures of wisdom: sages, prophets, priests and kings, each with their collected sayings reiterating one another. Separating the sayings of Jesus from the gospels [to place in the mouth of a Cynic teacher or peasant protest figure] makes it impossible to identify them as sayings of Jesus, for their contexts in the gospel is their only claim to being the sayings of Jesus. (pp. 107-8)

What was so different from previous centuries?

With reference to other Second Temple literature, in particular Sirach 38:24-34, Crossley acknowledges that “we can see that the agrarian society in which Jesus lived was likely to be highly exploitative”(p. 39). What he is looking for is something specific that triggered the Jesus movement. He surveys the peasant studies of Eric Hobsbawm and John Kautsky, discussing specific reasons for the rarity of peasant uprisings, and how the introduction of commercialization appears to be related to these. As for the specific development that brought Galilee to a new pressure point, “more complex changes” were introduced with the building of two major cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias.

The Sepphoris factor

Suspending for a moment the problematic assumption (discussed above) of Crossley that there is any evidence that the Jesus movement really did begin in Galilee in the 30s (apart from “the Bible says it happened that way”), Crossley’s reference to the changes wrought in Galilee by the building of these two cities may not be quite as strong as he implies. Sepphoris was not a “new” city. It had been razed by the Romans during rebellions after the death of Herod, and it was rebuilt soon afterwards. The models of Kautsky and Hobsbawm to which Crossley refers speak of the introduction of new economic factors into a society where they were previously unknown. This is not the case with Sepphoris.

That leaves Tiberias, built around 20 c.e.

The Tiberias factor

Crossley attempts to link the introduction of these cities with the same types of unjust land dispossessions discussed by Hobsbawm and Kautsky.

But he can find no specific evidence for such injustices of the kind he needs in the case of the building of Tiberias. The most he can say is that “it is also notable that those bribed to live in Tiberias were given gifts of land, something that would no doubt be at the expense of another”, and quotes Josephus:

Tiberias

Tiberias: Image by Cajie via Flickr

He also admitted poor people, such as those that were collected from all parts, to dwell in it. Nay, some of them were not quite free-men, and these he was benefactor to, and made them free in great numbers; but obliged them not to forsake the city, by building them very good houses at his own expenses, and by giving them land also (from Antiquities)

But Crossley’s unsupported “no doubt at the expense of another” claim falls apart when we read the next sentence of Josephus:

for he was sensible, that to make this place a habitation was to transgress the Jewish ancient laws, because many sepulchers were to be here taken away, in order to make room for the city Tiberias whereas our laws pronounce that such inhabitants are unclean for seven days.

People had to be bribed and forced to live there because no-one wanted to live there! It was a cemetery area before the new city was built.

There is thus no basis in the evidence — the evidence in fact contradicts it — that Tiberias was linked with unjust land dispossession of the kind that led to peasant rebellions.

Sepphoris and Tiberias in context

At most, the fact that nearby Sepphoris existed as a major centre before Tiberias was built informs us that it potentially had a quantitative impact on existing conditions of peasant societies, but it cannot be said that its appearance introduced a radical new change to those conditions. Still, both cities do signal broader socioeconomic changes that began to be introduced with Roman conquest some decades earlier. To that extent, one might still find the Kautsky model applicable. But the changes that Crossley attempts to portray with these 2 cities may not be as sharp or sudden as he claims. Nor do they suggest that there was anything remarkably different about Galilee from any other area conquered by Rome. The evidence we do have about them does not justify Crossley’s suppositional claims for them.

No evidence is no coincidence

Despite Crossley’s attempts to magnify the importance of the introduction of these cities as catalysts for the Jesus movement, he can only point to their total absence in the Gospels as evidence of their significance to the Gospel narrative!

What should also be clear is that these cities were not only centers and symbols of political and economic domination, but certain cultural and religious features were also tied up with paganism, although it is easy to overexaggerate the extent of pagan features. It is highly unlikely that this connection would have been lost on the Jewish populace of Galilee, and the importance of these building projects occurring in the lifetime of Jesus right in the heart of his home region cannot be stressed enough. Moreover, we should not underestimate the effect of introducing these building projects, along with a different set of values from those of the traditional rural Galilean peasantry, in only a matter of years. Given these factors, it is presumably no coincidence that there is no mention in the Synoptic tradition of Tiberias and Sepphoris. (pp. 45-6, emphasis added)

So if these cities were referenced in the Gospels then Crossley’s argument would be weakened?

Rebutting counter claims with a leap to the future

In responding to Douglas Edwards’ argument that “various material finds in Galilee point to a greater two-way urban-rural economic interaction and that the rural peasantry was not as hostile as is usually believed”, Crossley turns to a period forty years after the supposed time of Jesus:

Crucially, however, there is some good evidence to back up the position of social and economic unrest in Galilee linked with Sepphoris. Josephus provides plenty of evidence from around the time of the Jewish war of massive discontent among Galileans with Sepphoris and Tiberias. (p.46)

Of course we may well suspect (as Crossley does) that the grievances were simmering long before the time of the war, but the evidence Crossley suggests is speculative extrapolation. Worse, there is absolutely no evidence to link any of these events with the Gospel narrative.

Linking the socioeconomic conditions with the teachings of Jesus

Crossley suggests that there is a significant reflection of the dire conditions involving absentee landlords, the hiring of day laborers and the acquisition of tenant farmers, landless workers and slaves “right across the Synoptic tradition”.

If these Gospel passages had a hint of socioeconomic complaint then I would find his case more persuasive. But the Gospel passages he cites in support do nothing more than build theological arguments within the context of the roles of different peoples in that time. Some of them actually place God in the role of the landlord (the one who is supposed to be the enemy in the economic conditions that Crossley says generated the Jesus movement) and attack the landless poor as the villians in God’s eyes. The Gospel sayings do not really support Crossley’s claim that they are born out of the injustices of the time.

The passages cited are:

Mark 10:17-22 — the story of the rich young ruler, of whom the Gospel says “Jesus loved”. This does not support Crossley’s claim that such a passage reflects class hostility!

Matt. 25:14-30 par. Luke 19:11-27 — here the good and bad roles are the reverse of those Crossley says generated the Jesus movement

Matt. 18:23-34 par. Luke 7:41-43 — this parable is about relations among the rich and powerful (a servant who owes ten thousand talents is hardly a peasant!)

Matt. 13:24-30 — parable of the wheat and the tares in which the enemy is Satan who planted tares.

Matt. 18:21-35 — a repeat of 18:23-34 above

Matt. 20:1-15 — parable of the workers in the vineyard in which God appears to the churlish as the enemy landlord

Luke 12:16-21 — parable of the rich fool which has no contact with treatment of the poor

Luke 12:42-43 — parable of the faithful servant that urges servants to keep working in their station diligently and without complaint

Luke 15:11-32 — parable of the prodigal son

Luke 16:1-12 — parable of the unjust steward — again a parable using relations among the rich and powerful.

Mark 12:1-12 — parable of the wicked vine dressers in which the poor landless workers are the enemy of God

Matt. 9:37-38 — the prayer for God to send out more harvesters

Luke 13:27 — Jesus orders to depart all those who worked iniquity in his company

Matt. 5:25 par. Luke 12:57-59 — Jesus tells people to make peace quickly with their adversaries to whom they are in debt

Matt. 5:40 — Give your cloak as well as your tunic if someone wants only the latter

Matt. 5:42 par. Luke 6:35 — Give to anyone who asks you for something

Luke 4:18 — Jesus quotes Isaiah that he is to preach liberty

Matt. 6:12 — the Lord’s prayer in which we are asked to be forgiven our debts

Matt. 11:8 par. Luke 7:25 — Who did you go out to see? One clothed in soft garments, such as those in king’s houses? (This is said to illustrate “plenty of hostility toward the rich and powerful”)

Mark 13:9 par. Matt. 10:17-19 par. Luke 12:11 — prophecy of persecution before councils and synagogues (This is said to illustrate “a hostile attitude toward urban institutions”)

Luke 16:19-31 — parable of the rich man and Lazarus

Luke 6:24-25 — woe on those who are rich and eat well

Mark 10:17-20 — Do not defraud

Matt. 25:31-46 — to feed the poor and hungry is to feed Christ

Luke 6:20-21 — Blessed are the poor and hungry

Crossley can’t avoid the obvious, however:

Of course, much of the language just outlined will be cliched, particularly the traditional wisdom (e.g. Lukan woes), but the fact that it occurs so frequently and given that the everyday language of parables makes assumptions about the socioeconomic situation of Jesus’ audience, we should regard it all as an important reflection of Galilee at the time of Jesus. (p. 49, my emphasis)

The frequency of the passages cannot change their cliched and traditional character into some indicator of a unique situation in Galilee. As I quoted Thomas L. Thompson above:

There are many sages in the ancient world who shared the voice of Jesus we find in the gospels . . . . Ancient literature swarms with the figures of wisdom: sages, prophets, priests and kings, each with their collected sayings reiterating one another. Separating the sayings of Jesus from the gospels [to place in the mouth of a Cynic teacher or peasant protest figure] makes it impossible to identify them as sayings of Jesus, for their contexts in the gospel is their only claim to being the sayings of Jesus. (pp. 107-8)

Most people have seen in the above passages an ethic of subservience that hardly fits any context of subversion or passive rebellion.

The evidence of what Jesus was not

Crossley next focuses on studies of banditry. We know bandits were common enough throughout the ancient Roman empire, and not only in Galilee, as Crossley acknowledges.

He points to specific bandit activity cited in Josephus, the destruction of debt records in Jerusalem as a first target in the Jewish revolt against Rome, the contributing factor of the famine in the late 40’s, corrupt rulers who sometimes paid bandits to do their work for them, indications in some instances of public support for a bandit, public fear of bandits, and so forth. These phenomena are discussed in the context of Hobsbawm’s and Kautsky’s studies of banditry.

Crossley attempts to link the rise of banditry with the origin of the Jesus movement, even though the examples of banditry from Josephus all post-date the supposed time of Jesus. The tool he uses to establish this link is Josephus when he speaks of “imposters and brigands” joining forces.

If this does indeed allow for the Jesus movement to be associated in any way with the rise of banditry, then Crossley has just delivered the death blow to the Testimonium Flavianum that many post-World War 2 scholars have desperately clung to as non-Christian evidence for Jesus.

Crossley attempts to bring in John the Baptist in the bandit context as well by depicting him as another who was perceived as an “insurrectionist”. What is the evidence supplied for John being perceived as an “insurrectionist”? Crossley finds it in the Gospel account that John preached a coming Kingdom (implying the overthrow of the current kingdoms); and “if Luke is to be believed”, he also commanded justice in the treatment of the poor. Other Gospel details such as Antipas not wanting to harm John, and being tormented when trapped into promising to give his head on a platter, are set aside. It is a wonder that Josephus apparently found no reason to mention any such “insurrectionist” message on John’s part, and that he demonstrates no knowledge of him being anything of the kind. Crossley’s reliance on Gospel evidence that has clear theological motives, and setting aside of the evidence of Josephus, to make his point, is not good methodology.

I find it very difficult to imagine any of the above Gospel teachings cited by Crossley having the sort of impact on grieved peasants that would jell them into a movement or a community of any kind. As often as not they are placing the rural poor in the role of the godless one who deserves punishment, or admonishing servants to submit in their tasks without slackening.

Who was Jesus and who were his followers?

Hobsbawm, Lenski and Kautsky all address the problem of leadership among peasants. This class traditionally is suspicious of outsiders, yet peasant rebellions tend to be generated only when there is leadership that does have connections with intellectuals or powers outside their class. Crossley therefore points to Zapata, a Mexican revolutionary from the peasant class who had connections with politicians and intellectuals, indicating parallels here with Jesus.

Judas Iscariot fits the Lenski-Kautsky model

Another requirement of successful peasant uprisings is that they have a base that extends beyond just one locality. Crossley finds evidence that the Jesus movement was more than a local one: one of his followers was named Judas Iscariot, which Crossley asserts is a reference to Kerioth in southern Judah. That some scholars dispute the very existence of Judas (because he appears to serve narrative and symbolic functions too neatly) is not addressed by Crossley. Nor does he address other possible understandings of Iscariot. Nor, most importantly, how this single name can justifiably be used as evidence of the widespread nature of the Jesus’ movement.

Artisan in spite of the evidence

The Gospels say Jesus was of the artisan class, and Crossley notes that this contradicts the claims of Sirach 38:24-34 and Cicero, Off. 1.150-51 that Jews and Romans did not believe an artisan can be “counted among the wise, educated, and learned”. Jesus, Crossley says, did indeed have a detailed knowledge of the questions that occupied the learned of his day.

So it seems, according to Crossley’s argument, that if the evidence is against what is taken as a historical claim about Jesus, then the evidence is wrong. If the Bible says it, that settles it. But Crossley appears to want Jesus to belong to this class so he more easily fits the Lenski-Kautsky model of peasant leadership.

But Crossley does nonetheless point to another possible bit of “evidence” that Jesus was a notch above the average poor. When his disciples were plucking grain on the sabbath they were criticized by the Pharisees, but Jesus was not. Crossley takes up Maurice Casey’s inference that Jesus was not as poor as his disciples and therefore did not qualify (according to Leviticus 19:9) to pluck grain. One hardly knows where to begin with such an argument if it is indeed meant to be taken seriously. It surely lends itself to caricature all too easily.

Prophet in disguise

Crossley finally concludes that Jesus must have presented as a prophet. This enabled him to traverse the different classes and speak to all, and to criticize those in power and speak up for the poor. (That the prophetic class has been argued by some scholars to have been primarily a literary construct is not addressed here.)

Prophets, like ancient philosophers, were known to have worn special clothing to identify their profession. Prophets were said to wear rough garments of hair, but Jesus was said to have worn linen. If so, how was Jesus recognized in his day as a prophet? And how could such a prophet who used parables condemning the poor as unrighteous and likening God to the landlords have ever won a peasant following? Crossley wants to avoid theological and supernatural explanations. But the Gospel narrative with its theological and supernatural elements is the only one that makes sense of Jesus being recognized as a prophet.

Death to the rich or fortune’s reversals?

Crossley dramatically heads a section of his chapter “Death to the Rich”. This of course sounds like the sort of catch cry we would expect from revolutionaries. But Crossley cannot deny that the sayings used by Jesus are not so revolutionary but are really part and parcel of a long tradition of wisdom.

this may partially reflect some of the harsher economic realities from the time of Jesus although some will no doubt reflect a pious, more aristocratic tradition. Given the scriptural background, it was almost inevitable that a language of future reversal of fortunes was going to be used by some Jews. In fact, it is extremely well attested. It was already present in biblical tradition, and the Targumim further emphasize it. . . . Judgment on the oppressive rich is a particularly common theme in 1 Enoch 92-105 . . . . (pp. 59-60)

This is the same as Thompson’s point in his chapter “The Song for the Poor Man” in The Messiah Myth, referred to above. It is to Crossley’s credit that he does recognize this, of course. But unfortunately he is unable to demonstrate anything unique about the application of these teachings to Jesus that necessarily points to a particular socioeconomic setting.

Nothing specific about Jesus’ teaching here

Crossley attempts to define Jesus’ teaching as somehow distinctive by virtue of his linking the observance of the Law to his supposed prophetic proclamations about the rich. This is an essential point in Crossley’s thesis. His argument, begun with his first book, The Date of Mark’s Gospel, is that the Jesus movement began as a strict Torah observant movement, and critiqued only Pharisaic additions to the law of Moses. As Christianity spread to gentiles, other contingencies arose that required this initial program to be relaxed.

However, Crossley’s citations of passages from Second Temple literature, from Qumran, and the Jewish scriptures, really only demonstrate that there was nothing unique about a teaching that linked law observance with the requirements not to oppress the poor. There is nothing in the Gospel teaching about the rich and poor that could not have been constructed by theologians any time between the first century through to the middle of the second century or even later. Crossley might disagree with the implications of this statement, because his Date of Mark’s Gospel is built on certain sayings of Jesus deriving from early first century times. But those sayings are about technical legal details and not about rich and poor conflicts.

For all of Crossley’s efforts to ground Jesus’ teaching in a bias towards the poor that is in lockstep with law observance, he appears to overlook one of the Law’s commands:

You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute (Exodus 23:3)

You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great (Deut. 1:17)

If Jesus was as particular about being law observant as Crossley argues, then he would not have been biased toward the poor as Crossley also argues.

Crossley stresses that it was in the context of “extreme social and economic inequality” that “Jesus damned the rich.” (p.63) But there is nothing here that localizes the teaching to any particular time or place. When Crossley writes that Jesus’ specific linking of law observance with condemnation of the rich who mistreat the poor, he is simply denying what he has already recognized — that this is nothing more than a time-honoured wisdom theme.

It is hardly a coincidence that this approach to the Torah emerges at the same time as notable socioeconomic change. (p. 64)

The evidence is that “this approach” did not “emerge” at this time at all. Even if there were a historical Jesus saying such things at such times, his message would have been no different from that of any other prophet at any other time (or even the same time) who would have repeated the standard wisdom found in the Law and the Prophets, and throughout the wisdom sayings of the Middle East throughout the preceding millennium.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Crossley attempts to localize this parable and argue that it came from the historical Jesus in response to the socioeconomic conditions of Galilee in the 20s.

Firstly he argues that the parable speaks of “someone” returning from the dead, and does not specifically refer to Jesus in this context. This strikes me as the sort of “tortured exegesis” that April DeConick recently complained about. The parable is a parable, after all, so does not literally refer to Jesus. One has to be deliberately blind, surely, not to see that in a Gospel whose primary theme and point of faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus that it contains some hint of Jesus nonetheless.

Secondly, Crossley argues that the theme of repentance is used very rarely to apply to gentiles in Jewish literature. It is something normally addressed to Jews and their need to return to the Law and the Prophets. So this parable, with its lesson of repentance, is, according to Crossley, “hardly the creation of a church with concerns for Gentiles.” (p. 67 — Echoes once again of “the argument from incredulity” here.)  The church never taught “repentance” or the importance of the Law and the Prophets that testified of Jesus?

Why the Jesus movement succeeded

I will skip to the end of the chapter. Much of what I omit is addressed in the comments already made here about the sayings attributed to Jesus being derived from common wisdom and Jewish scripture themes, and not therefore in any way distinctively related to a particular socioeconomic situation.

But at the end of his second chapter Crossley returns once again to the models of Hobsbawm and Kautsky to explain why the Jesus movement succeeded. Both H and K spoke of a peasant movement gaining enough momentum to succeed only if it is part of a much larger movement. They are speaking of other sectors in society, not only peasants, who express the same antagonisms and collective of complaints. If peasants can become part of a larger expression of national anger that includes intellectuals and other social groups, they can become a very powerful revolutionary force. So was the Jesus movement isolated? If so, then it could hardly have survived the death of its founder.

No, according to Crossley, because “there are passages that refer to financial support of the Jesus movement (e.g. Mark 15:41; Luke 8:2-3).” And don’t forget the woman who came to anoint Jesus with the very costly ointment (Mark 14:3-9) — she was obviously not poor. (p. 73)

Where to begin?

The woman with the costly ointment was criticized for not supporting the poor, so she is certainly not evidence of a wealthy outsider supporting “the movement”. (Granted, Crossley does not say as much, only that there were some supportive of Jesus who were not poor.)

Are readers really expected to see in these passages about women serving Jesus and his followers evidence of a wider national movement that would suck up the Jesus movement along with it and catapult it to the fore? I think Crossley is stretching the evidence a little to find a fit with the models he wants to apply.

Crossley is also aware of the implicit contradictions here with the rest of his argument. That Jesus is supposed to have been a prophet winning a large following because of his condemnation of the rich and identification with the poor, yet is himself supported by well-to-do persons, does bear a whiff of hypocrisy. It also makes the idea that Jesus built a strong following among the poor on the grounds of his identification with them just a little less plausible.

But in the realm of biblical studies, where lack of evidence and even contradictory evidence is all good evidence nonetheless, Crossley can argue that such contradictions point to genuine historicity, and the later attempts of the clerics to “water down Jesus’ tricky sayings” are nothing other than further testimony to their genuine historicity.

As Thomas Thompson said in another context, the attempts to historicize the Gospels by removing their supernatural and theological elements does not work. It only makes nonsense of the Gospel narratives.

Before biblical historians attempt to run with Hobsbawm’s models of peasant movements, it would be beneficial if they first learned to walk with the basics of his evaluation of the evidence itself.

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ [or prophet] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.

Enhanced by Zemanta

7 Comments

  • maryhelena
    2010-03-21 18:23:54 UTC - 18:23 | Permalink

    Great article, Neil. I particularly like the fact that you are continually trying to bring NT academics back to square one – their assumption that the gospel Jesus was a historical figure. Unless they can back up their claim in this regard all they are doing is building their scenarios upon wishful thinking; building sandcastles that will not be able to survive the growing wave of skepticism that is heading for their beach. Long live the internet and blogs like yours…

  • David Hillman
    2010-03-22 07:59:12 UTC - 07:59 | Permalink

    The praise of the meek and lowly, and of Gods – not man’s – revolutions are indeed common tropes in the torah. Hannah’s song (Samuel 2) is the basis for the magificat and, along with Isaiah 49-51 for much of the beatitudes, along with for example some familiar psalms (no real need for a Q document or Q community then). It is perhaps Luke and Matthew who need rich patrons while praising the poor as the salt of the earth, so to speek.
    The paradox is that while christianity spread largely because kings and Emporers were pursuaded it would give them more power (pacific and monotheistic religions being useful to bigger stronger states) aspects were also used, as in the English and German peasant revolts, as inspiring documents for real movements of the poor. I notice too that while the diggers did have rich patrons depite Winstanley’s inspiring writings, the Levellers who posed a real political threat did not.

  • Pingback: How (most) biblical “historians” work: a case study « Vridar

  • Pingback: Biblical history, literary criticism, assumption and logical method « Vridar

  • Pingback: Why Christianity Happened: Origins of the Pauline Mission” (reviewing ch.5 of James Crossley’s book) « Vridar

  • Pingback: Historicist Hocus Pocus (Or, What on earth would happen if a course on logic were introduced into biblical studies!) « Vridar

  • Pingback: Vridar » A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *