Even scholars who are attempting to find an “independent” and “socio-economic” explanation for Christian origins (such as James Crossley) are, like virtually all scholars involved in this quest, “driven by the Christian imagination” itself. Burton L. Mack explains the nature of this bias in his introduction to A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.
The reader who dares to enter this discourse [of Christian origins] from the humanities or from the social sciences, cannot avoid coming to a certain conclusion. The events that center the massive amounts of scholarly learning are exactly those that haunt the average Christian imagination as well. They are exactly those suggested by the Christian gospel, the gospel that sets them forth as inaugural and foundational for Christian history and faith. (p. 8)
Christians well know that the claims in the Gospel that offer them personal conversion or a new life in Christ are very same ones that also explain the origin of the Church. These are:
- his teachings
- his activities
- the supper
- the cross
- the resurrection
And it is these that are the focus of scholarly studies of Christian origins. Mack continues:
These, it should then be emphasized, are just those moments thought by scholars to be candidates for the point of Christian origins. They are taken from the gospel, actually, the gospel that Mark wrote, others enlarge, and the church eventually claimed for its charter. So the suspicion cannot be avoided that the scholarly quest for the origins of Christianity has, in effect, been driven by the Christian imagination.
Published in 1988, Mack notes the scholarly language used as sophisticated euphemisms when seeking the inaugural Christian moment via a study of these confessional moments:
- For those who emphasize the teachings of Jesus use the language of “presence, immediacy, ‘nakedness,’ and even silence in order to name the critical moment of transformation.”
- For those who seek the inaugural moment in the life of the historical Jesus stress the importance of the miracle stories — and tend to speak of his “charismatic power“.
- Scholars who seek Christian origins in the death of Christ and how this affected his followers have tended use the term “Christ event“.
- The importance of the resurrection is common to all scholars. The coded expressions for this include “Easter, appearance, and spirit.“
The casual reader may not notice how often recourse is made to these terms in the language of New Testament scholarship, thinking perhaps that their occurrence is to be attributed to the idiosyncrasy of an occasional confessional writer. After reading seriously into the field and at length, however, the repetition of these terms creates a crescendo that becomes quite shrill. These coded signs, usually capitalized, do not enlighten because they mark the point beyond which the scholar chooses not to proceed with investigation, indeed, the point beyond which reasoned argument must cease. They serve as ciphers to hold the space for the unimaginable miracle that must have happened prior to any and all interpretation. They have become an all too convenient rhetorical device for evoking the myth of Christian origins without having to explain it. (p. 7)
Both confessional and secular scholars follow this same bias in their scholarly explorations of Christian origins. The assumption is that of a dramatically new event entered history and “interrupted the normal course of human social activity and created a new kind of time and society.”
I mentioned even an “independent” scholar like James Crossley at the beginning. Crossley’s attempt to find a socio-economic explanation for Christian origins is really an attempt to find a socio-economic explanation for “Jesus”, for “his teachings, for “his activities”, and for the popular appeal of these. So even Crossley is under the spell of the explaining Christian origins within the framework of the Confession and Faith of The Church.
Christian origin studies are still at the same stage as were Old Testament studies under Albright’s shadow. They are still trapped within the circular logic of arguing that the narrative of the gospels is itself the historical reality from which the gospels were born.
The way out is to study the documentary evidence for early Christianity within the framework of reliable external controls. By that I mean to use external confirmations as the starting point for the placement of the Gospels and Acts, and to study their narratives against the narratives and issues of contemporary politics and available literature; and to study other Christian writings such as the epistles in their own right, and again within the framework of contacts with similar thoughts and images contemporary and external to them, and not under the tyranny of Gospel presuppositions.
In other words, to pull the studies of Christian origins out of schools of religion and biblical studies and seminaries, and relocate them squarely within the academic departments of classical studies and secular history.
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