James Crossley’s argument for the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus (in The Date of Mark’s Gospel) demonstrates the hollowness of biblical historical assumptions generally. It’s not that James Crossley is any different from other biblical “historians” (e.g. E.P. Sanders, James McGrath, Craig Evans, James Dunn, Maurice Casey, Richard Bauckham, etc) in what he does. I am using here his response to David Seeley’s argument that Jesus Temple Act never happened to illustrate how biblical “historians” base their arguments for historicity on arbitrary assumption.
A surreal game
Seeley takes the view, in effect, that if Jesus had really gone into the temple and started throwing tables around and angrily shouting for the money-changers to get out, the most natural thought that would have come to the minds of onlookers was that he lost his cool on discovering he was cheated over the price of a dove. (D. Seeley, ‘Jesus’ Temple Act’, CBQ 55, 1993 pp. 263-283)
He is specifically responding to Craig Evans’ claim that Jesus was protesting against a corrupt priesthood. There are two problems with this, he argues:
- Jesus is giving the money-changers the hard time, not the priests.
- There is no evidence for such financial abuse anywhere outside the gospels.
The first thing to notice here is that Seeley does not address any evidence for historicity that Evans might have advanced. Evans is
- simply making an assumption that the Temple Act is historical
- attempting to find plausible rationales for what he assumes really happened.
Seeley responds by challenging Evans’ rationales and showing they are either not plausible or lack supporting external evidence.
This is a strange game being played here. In order to knock down one scholar’s rationale, another scholar declares that it lacks supporting external evidence. Yet neither scholar appears to notice that the absence of supporting external evidence for the very historical existence of Jesus or historical origin of any of the gospel narrative! It’s like those cartoon characters who are so preoccupied with making the most of a task at hand that they fail to see that they have run off a cliff and are standing in mid-air while continuing obliviously in myopic “reality” until they decide to look down. But these scholars never seem to look down. They are standing on nothing but tradition.
But Crossley takes Seeley to task and attempts to restore grounds for believing this Temple Act really did happen in history. Recall the first of Seeley’s points in which he discounted the rationalization that Jesus was protesting against corrupt priests:
1. Jesus is giving the money-changers the hard time, not the priests.
Crossley’s response: Jesus was “a very angry man”; who can ever tell what an angry man will do?
Nor is it valid to reject the historicity of Jesus’ Temple action because Jesus would have been wrong to attack the ‘little guys’. This may be a valid ethical question but it is totally out of place in historical reconstruction. If Jesus did not behave in the way in which we would like then that is too bad. It should not be rationalized too much about what we might think an angry man like Jesus should have done. (p.64)
That is half of Crossley’s argument. He does not present evidence for historicity. He argues that Seeley’s “common sense” (I would think) view cannot validly “reject the historicity of Jesus’ temple action”. Historicity is the default assumption. There is no evidence for it — only attempts to rationalize its motives. If those rationalizations fall, then historicity falls. So Crossley says that when it comes to rationalizations, we can in this case at least think of something to save the “historicity” of the event. (My aside here: It may make Jesus look bad, but hey, we always have the criterion of embarrassment up our sleeve to confirm it.)
This is called “doing history”?
Always read the fine print
Let’s look at the other half of his argument, directed against Seeley’s second point.
2. There is no evidence for such financial abuse anywhere outside the gospels.
Crossley says, Not so, and finds some.
The rabbinical material . . . For example, (pp. 63-4) was fiercely critical of the price of doves being many times more expensive than they ought to have been (m. Ker. 1.7). This strongly parallels Jesus’ concern and is attributed to a first century Jew alive c. 10-80 CE so it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Jesus’ attack on dove sellers could reflect pre-66 Judaism and, for what it is worth, the attitude of the historical Jesus. . . . This suggests that there were people concerned with the price of doves at the time of Jesus and that such rabbinical material should not be dismissed because it is late, either this or posit a remarkable coincidence . The Dead Sea Scrolls should not be dismissed so lightly either. Attacks on perceived economic exploitation are common and at the very least they bear witness to a tradition of perceiving the Temple authorities to be exploiting people.
I recall recently checking up Crossley’s reference to Josephus for evidence that the construction of Tiberias would almost certainly have entailed forced removals of people from their land. But a quick check of the relevant passage showed that the city was built on what had been a cemetery, so the only forced removals were those of the inhabitants of grave plots. So having been warned once, I checked the Talmudic reference (m. Ker 1.7) Crossley uses here:
IT ONCE HAPPENED IN JERUSALEM THAT THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF DOVES ROSE TO A GOLDEN DENAR. SAID R. SIMEON B. GAMALIEL, BY THIS SANCTUARY, I SHALL NOT GO TO SLEEP TO-NIGHT BEFORE THEY COST BUT A [SILVER] DENAR! THEN HE ENTERED THE BETH DIN AND TAUGHT: IF A WOMAN HAD FIVE CERTAIN BIRTHS OR FIVE CERTAIN ISSUES SHE NEED BRING BUT ONE OFFERING, AND MAY THEN PARTAKE OF SACRIFICIAL FLESH, AND SHE IS NOT BOUND TO BRING THE OTHER [OFFERINGS]. THEREUPON THE PRICE OF A PAIR OF BIRDS STOOD AT A QUARTER OF A [SILVER] DENAR EACH.
“It once happened”? One sleepless night cured the problem? That does not sound to me like a systemic overpricing of doves. That the attribution of the saying to Simon ben Gamaliel reflected its genuine historical origin and provenance from the time of Jesus is inevitably suspect. Attribution of sayings to past “heroes” was a common enough practice. (Besides, if we take Crossley’s dates for this rabbi as roughly accurate, 10-80 CE., then he would have been only 20 years old when Jesus was in Jerusalem. Awfully young to be a rabbi, I would have thought.)
I also find the comparison of how Jesus and this rabbi responded to overpriced doves intriguing. And we are even informed that the latter’s action worked.
Even if Crossley’s evidence could be nailed to the setting of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus (the specific DSS writings Crossley mentions certainly cannot), they would no more be evidence for Jesus or this “temple action” than is the fact Tiberius was emperor of Rome and Pilate a governor of Judea.
Literary criticism is good when it supports “historicity”, bad when it doesn’t
Crossley finds “literary criticism” is inimical to the process of historical enquiry because it keeps finding literary explanations for what we read in the Gospel literature instead of historical ones. This is bad because there is no evidence for the historical events apart from the literature itself. There are no external controls which can support the facticity of any of the narrative’s plot details. So when Seeley questions the plausibility of the narrative as an historical event,
In so large an area, would Jesus really have felt that eliminating the money changers and traders would make that much difference? . . . how would one man drive out all the traders and money changers?
This is misleading. The extent of Jesus’ actions are not known and it is quite possible Mark exaggerated them, just as he does elsewhere in reports (sic) that look very much like they refer to historical events (Mk 1.5, 32-33; 7.3; 11.11).
I use “sic” here to draw attention to the language of historicity and “news reports”. No one would think to use the word in relation to fiction. But such tendentious language is common among those who have done no more than simply assume historicity of a narrative. It helps condition both authors and readers into the right frame of reference.
Despite his little foray into literary criticism here when it served to demonstrate that there is exaggeration in the text, Crossley does not like literary criticism when it counts against historicity (as it so often does).
Seeley’s points, like many other scholars working with . . . literary criticism on Mark, are over-exaggerated. (p. 66)
In other words, if literary critics leave the text stand as it is, and don’t allow for it meaning something else (e.g. exaggeration, as determined by literary criticism itself) that supports historicity, they are “over-exaggerating” their arguments against historicity!
And there is another example where Seeley is inferred to be “over-exaggerating”. Crossley observes:
Mark does not say Jesus drove out all the money changers and traders anyway! He many not have wanted any of them in the Temple . . . . For all we know the historical or Markan Jesus may simply have wanted them outside the Temple precincts. . . . nothing in the text says that Jesus prohibited the sale of sacrificial animals . . . . it does not matter that Jesus prohibited the money being carried through the Temple: it need only be an attack on a symbol of the exploitation and a plea for the financial dealings to be done elsewhere. (Crossley cites Bauckham and Casey for this final point.)
Now this is reading speculation and assumption into the text with a vengeance! (I wonder how the money traders who lost their goods felt about being attacked as mere “symbols”.) I am reminded here of how some Second Temple interpreters read the Genesis narrative of Abraham’s offering of Isaac and interpreted the heavenly voice crying out twice to the name of Abraham as a hint that Abraham had not listened the first time and actually plunged the knife into Isaac, leaving God the messy business of having to resurrect him. Luckily Crossley can also draw on literary criticism to enable him to read a couple of details that the text does not actually say.
And how is all of this supportive of historicity? Crossley’s next sentence explains:
This attitude may well reflect the historical Jesus . . . .
Yes, it “may”. But I like my history served with a bit more than ‘maybes’.
The end of the matter (and its beginning)
Crossley is, however, dead right when he concludes:
All Seeley has done is to attack a set of assumptions and replace them with his own. (p. 65)
He has. And here Crossley admits that his own grounds for historicity of the incident are merely assumption. (I would argue, however, that at least Seeley’s assumptions are more directly related to the text as we have it, and require fewer layers of hypotheses to make their point.)
And this is about as good as most biblical or Jesus “history” gets.
There is no evidence. Only a single set of literary texts with no external controls. And the arguments are all about coming up with the most persuasive arguments for why it might have been that way — if it ever was that way at all, which we merely assume was the case.
It’s all a matter of imagination
Crossley opposes Seeley’s argument that it would have been “out of character” for Jesus to have demonstrated strong concern for gentile’s ability to pray in peace and quiet in the temple by quoting Isaiah 56:7 (My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations). Jesus, after all, showed little other evidence of concern for gentiles, nor for the particulars of Temple rituals.
Crossley is able to argue for the historicity of this saying by referring to Maurice Casey’s point that the “court of the gentiles” was packed with Jewish pilgrims at this time of year, so it would have been very much in Jesus’ consciousness. He even goes so far as to argue that the Isaiah passage in its Isaiah context referred to the gentiles bringing sacrifices to the temple. Therefore, a historian’s mind reading ability assures us, Jesus must have had this in mind, too, and he was therefore not trying to stop sacrifices after all! So it doesn’t matter that Jesus had little concern for gentiles per se. He can imagine other reasons for Jesus quoting the passage. Evidence is not invited into the discussion.
The substance of the evidence
So it looks as if Mk 11:15-17 is an accurate recording of the historical Jesus’ attitude. (p.66)
“Looks as if”, a “recording” (again).
In response to Seeley’s point that the crowds (historically) would not have known who Jesus was when he caused the Temple fracas, despite the gospel saying the priests feared the support the crowds gave him, even though they later turned against him anyway, Crossley writes:
This again is highly misleading. It is not so easy to predict just what will happen when someone gets angry. It cannot be assumed that they will react in the way Seeley believes. This enormous assumption is simply not backed up.
Seeley’s criticisms aimed at the historicity of this passage are pure speculations over what he things would happen if the passage were accurate, and nothing more. (p.70)
Yes, I agree. They are pure speculations. But at least they seem to me to cohere more closely to what one might reasonably expect from common human experience and the meaning of the text as it is. But even if that is wrong, and strange things do happen, then this conclusion of Crossley’s is itself a tacit admission that he has nothing better to offer in support of historicity. The only difference is that he believes his “pure speculations” are more reasonable when one allows for a little literary criticism to enter and modify the text so that it does not “over-exaggerate” the situation.
There is no room in here for any secular historical methods that say such “incomprehensible” things like:
In no case can we infer the reality of any specific [hero, person] merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm, quoted in earlier post.
And this is how so much of biblical history seems to go. Assumption, speculation, rationalization, and savage knives demanding evidence come out to support any of these secondary assumptions. But never once does anyone seem to think to look down to see if the whole charade is built on anything more than a tradition of assumption.
Wish I had known about Seeley’s article when I addressed the historicity of the Temple Act of Jesus in this earlier post.
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