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

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by Neil Godfrey

Arkansas Mass Baptism 2nd effortEarlier I reviewed chapter 2 of Why Christianity Happened by James Crossley, and here I look at his final chapter (5), “Recruitment, Conversion, and Key Shifts in Law Observance: The Origins of the Pauline Mission“.

I was curious to understand what Crossley had to say in favour of a social history approach to explaining how antinomian Pauline Christianity can be explained if the earliest Christian movement began among circumcising, sabbath-keeping, synagogue-worshiping, food-law observant Jews. Crossley seeks to explain Christianity’s origins through socioeconomic paradigms. Social history, he argues, is where the truly historical explanations lie.

Paul’s views on the law and justification by faith can thus be seen as an intellectual reaction to and justification of a very down-to-earth and messy social problem. (p.172)

I fully agree with attempting to explain Christian origins in secular terms and according to the models of the social sciences and socioeconomic models where possible. Unfortunately, his attempt to explain the origins of the Jesus movement through the Lenski-Kautsky and Hobsbawm observations of how certain social movements arise flounders on the absence of evidence, or misapplication of Gospel evidence, as discussed in my earlier review of chapter 2.

The problems facing Crossley’s explanation in that chapter, and in chapter 5 which I will address here, arise from the default assumption that the narrative outline of the Gospels and Acts is grounded in genuine history. Although he treats these texts as if their narratives contain allusions to the real historical origins of early Christianity, he at no time justifies this assumption. (See “footnote in the box at end of this post for further discussion of this point.)

The trap laid by the assumption of the historicity of Gospels-Acts

When Crossley (or any) historian locks himself into the Gospel-Acts’ narrative paradigm of Christian origins he is stuck with just a single form of Christianity and must find a way of explaining how so many extremely variant forms of Christianity — and perceptions of Jesus himself — emerged so soon afterwards, as evidenced by texts like the Odes of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Book of Hebrews, Revelation, Shepherd of Hermas, and if one can read them without Gospel preconceptions, most of the twenty or so epistles included in the New Testament.

I find a better explanation for this very early “riotous diversity” in those hypotheses that propose more complex origins for Christianity (e.g. Mack, Doherty).

So I was interested to know if Crossley can demonstrate a more plausible alternative — how a single law-observant Christianity could so quickly become a religion that was largely opposed to the observance of Jewish laws.

Social networks

Crossley says that “there is increasing awareness that the stories of mass conversions (e.g., Acts 13) and conversions in response to a miracle (e.g., Acts 8:6-7; 13:7-12; 16:30) are extremely improbable or at the very least hugely exaggerated.” (p.143) This increasing awareness he attributes to two things:

  1. historical research
  2. increasing awareness of social networks for conversions

Do we really need “historical research” to “increase awareness” among scholars that the things that we’re liable to read in the Bible — such as multitudes converting to Christianity on seeing miracles performed — ain’t necessarily so? Is there really any such “historical research” on the record? I wonder if little asides like this are a cover to justify a serious study of a tall tale.

But to the main point.

Crossley begins with the sociological study by Rodney Stark and John Lofland that explains the importance of kinship and friendship relationships in religious conversions. Crossley cites several scholars who acknowledge the importance of this Stark-Lofland explanation for religious conversions. One of these, Harry O. Maier, adds a qualification to this model that applies notably to ancient social networks:

Stark’s own network analysis would have benefited from a closer study of the hierarchical structure of ancient society. In fact, it appears that Paul’s own mission was targeted in the first instance to more well-to-do members of society who offered a wider network of potential contacts that the more disenfranchised members: as went the householder, so the household with its slaves and associates. (p. 144)

This reminds me of suggestions I have made when discussing early Christian “philosophers” like Justin Martyr. Such teachers generally had retainers, clients, hangers-on. Even more so did other wealthier people. One can imagine such dependent associates embracing at least the form of the religion of their patrons.

Moonies, Satanists, Mormons, Hare Krishna and the rest

Crossley surveys studies of various cults such as the Moonies, a satanic cult breakaway from Scientology, Mormons, the Japanese Buddhist movement known as the Nichiren Soshu Buddhist movement, and the Hare Krishnas to demonstrate the validity of the social network model to explain religious conversions.

In all cases people joined the cults as a result of developing close social or kinship ties with cult members. Door-to-door ministries of the Mormons are not nearly as successful for conversions as social events that invite non-members.

The spread of Islam through sub-Saharan Africa is also found to be through the patronage system. Father-son relationships are developed with the guest missionary, and a like religious affiliation follows.

In Southeast Asia studies of political party affiliations have found the same social dynamic at work. Villages and families follow the sympathies of their leaders or patrons.

Shifting levels of observance and commitment

Crossley next addresses the two types of conversion in the Lofland-Stark model: verbal converts and total converts. Many converts say they could not agree intellectually with the religion they were joining, but nonetheless felt it had a bigger truth to it. Some of these would go on in time to become total converts — fully committed to believing it intellectually too.

Crossley applies this to the conversions that were happening in earliest Christianity.

If such conversions were going on in earliest Christianity . . . . But we have to engage in historical speculation for the situation a few years earlier than Paul’s letters. (p.151)

This speculation leads Crossley to suggest that some Christian converts “may have been puzzled over the relevance of certain commandments” — such as the food laws and the Sabbath laws.

Gentile Christians, suggests Crossley, may have felt torn between pressures to conform to the laws of their new religion and other social pressures to eat pork and do normal things on the sabbath.

So converts may take some time to fully accept or internalize the practices of their new religion. Some may join with only a limited knowledge of what is required of them.

Crossley says that earliest Christianity began with law-observant Jews, but that these Jews had a “notable interaction with interested Gentiles” (p.153). Hence the friends of friends of friends social network kicks in. Eventually some of these interested Gentiles join the Christians but are not themselves “particularly bothered about keeping the commandments.”

Crossley then proceeds to discuss research on missionaries in Africa, technical labels for different degrees or steps towards conversion (tolerance, translation, assimilation, Christianization, acculturation, and incorporation) and other missionary studies in India and Nigeria. Missionaries find themselves compromising on local customs and allowing some of these to continue within a new “Christian” context.

One important feature of broader social-network analysis is the observation that people’s behavior in a network will differ according to different social contexts. . . . There is always the major possibility that people’s behavior would differ according to different social contexts in a given social network . . . . (p.155-6)

This, Crossley notes, explains Paul’s need to warn his letter-readers to keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, etc.

Crossley then discusses Thiessen’s different levels of charismatic followers of Jesus. He is able to posit a model whereby Jerusalem is a centre of activity and authority and “zones of intensity” spread out from there.

But none of the social pressures to abandon Jewish laws would have been there at the start, since Christianity is believed to have been a purely Jewish revival movement. So how did the pressure to deviate begin? Crossley spends a good deal of time discussing the evidence for Gentiles being attracted to Judaism.

Gentiles attracted to Judaism

I recommend these four pages for anyone who is looking for evidence that ancient Gentiles were sometimes attracted to Judaism and became converts. It may even offer evidence that Gentile converts could be affiliated with synagogue worship. So we see here social networks on a broader front.

Conversion of households

The nine pages in this section of the chapter discuss the importance of the household in ancient communities. Much discussion is about the accounts in Josephus about ruling families facing problems of state over the issue of one of their members converting to Judaism. Crossley is aware that the pressures of the court are not necessarily the same for the average person in the street, but he finds the tales instructive nonetheless.

The point is that sometimes family members could put a lot of pressure on one of their members not to convert to Judaism, or at least not to practice all of their customs. What would the subjects think if they ever noticed that their prince was circumcised!

Implications and Conclusions

The view of conversion to earliest Christianity through social networks . . . . [can] provide a powerful explanation of the shift from a law-observant movement to a movement that included increasing numbers of friends of friends of friends who did not feel obliged to observe major commandments, such as food laws and the Sabbath, or to be circumcised. . . . . Of course the lack of hard evidence from the 30s and early 40s requires the use of historical imagination . . . . (p.171)

Paul’s views on the law and justification by faith can thus be seen as an intellectual reaction to and justification of a very down-to-earth and messy social problem. (p.172)

Reading through Crossley’s chapter here I am reminded of Andreski’s The Social Sciences as Sorcery. All the references to all the social science studies in this particular instance sound so erudite, but for Crossley’s purpose, they add nothing but smoke and mirrors. The point is very simple: in any group some members will be less committed than others, and they will always feel pressure to compromise their practices. There. That is all the chapter was saying and it really does not need detailed studies by social scientists to say it any differently in this particular case.

Is this really all that Crossley is arguing and that deserves an entire chapter in a book to make its “impact”?

Indeed, I kept waiting for Crossley to come to the punch line and explain exactly how the early Christian movement itself made the huge change in its doctrine. But Crossley suddenly reverts to the Acts narrative here — the council of Jerusalem did it all! So it seems Acts is fine if it is not talking about a miracle, but to be treated with caution if it does describe a miracle. The Iliad is not studied that way, however.

But the problem with Crossley’s explanation is that he nowhere explains how any of his models actually lead to a whole church or movement changing its doctrines. All his models and case-studies demonstrate is that individual converts either shape up or ship out. There may be compromises in some cases, but we are not talking about compromise but a different religion emerging that came to stand in opposition to its parent of Judaism.

Crossley’s explanation is not an explanation. It appeals to a vague idea of a gradual development without explaining how it took that direction — and without offering any models or studies that illustrate a similar development anywhere else in history.

Crossley’s explanation for the rise of Christianity founders on the rock of exceptionalism. He follows the general paradigm of early Christianity historians that seeks to explain something “unique” in history. A much more satisfying understanding can be found by a fresh look at the evidence, studying its context through external testimonies, and attempting to explain that literature by reference to similar tropes and ideas in the wider literary, philosophical and religious environment that the external testimonies point to.

Trying to explain a tall tale without its miracles within the constraints of sociological studies just doesn’t work. After reading the chapter one feels a sense of frustration — the explanation that was promised never comes.

Footnote in a box:

In fact, the Gospels and Acts are only a very small subset of the texts we have pertaining to early Christianity, and it is not until the late second century that we find they gain widespread acceptance. Our canonical Acts, in particular, has many indications of being second-century anti-Marcionite propaganda. (See the Tyson archive.) Other early Christian texts evidence scant awareness of any of the sort of history we take for granted from the Gospels-Acts. The twenty or so letters of attributed to Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude in the New Testament would never on their own allow us to see the Jesus we know from the Gospels or the experiences of his early followers.

It has been demonstrated that the canonical gospel narrative of the life of Jesus was very largely drawn from “midrashic” reinterpretations of Old Testament stories such as those of Elijah and Elisha. The sayings of Jesus are nearly all reiterations of sayings well known from Second Temple Jewish literature and from common philosophical saws of the day. They had been proverbial throughout the Middle East for centuries. (I will be illustrating this in a future post.) The Passion Narrative is very largely a pastiche of texts from Daniel and Isaiah. All of this would not normally mean very much as far as historicity is concerned, but it means a lot when, after the OT allusions are stripped away, there is nothing left of events, original sayings or characters.

But even if one disagrees with the above assessment of the limitations of the Gospels and Acts as sources, there is the more fundamental question of method on which Crossley appears oblivious. I have addressed it often enough over the last couple of months so will refer only to my previous post for citations from well-known historians on the critical importance of the need for independent external verification of narratives before one can presume they contain any real history.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Why Christianity Happened: Origins of the Pauline Mission” (reviewing ch. 5 of James Crossley’s book)”

  1. Paul And The Stoics, by Troese Engberg was interesting. However Paul certainly somewhat a Hellenized Jew, was always more the Pharisee.. thus the Law of God. Stoicism was not St. Paul’s centre, (see Acts 17, note verse 18.)

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