Professor James Crossley on his blog last month justly critiqued various criteria biblical scholars traditionally apply in their efforts to extract some form of historical Jesus from the gospels and finally concluded:
So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation:
- interpretation of the material . . . ,
- guesswork about contexts
- and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight.
But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case.
All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition. (My formatting)
This is not the way one does history. I am even reminded of the popular evangelical line of delivering a message that is hoped to bring audiences to despair, to thinking they have no hope, that they are helpless — all with the aim of motivating them to turn to the messenger for The Answer of hope and salvation. That just comes to mind but I would never suggest Crossley is deploying a similar rhetoric to entice readers to his own view of the way history should be done.
Let’s analyse these words.
“Interpretation of the material”.
That goes without saying no matter what one is studying. Of course historical inquiry is interpretation of the material. One can never avoid interpretation of some kind. Even understanding a claim to be an “uninterpreted plain fact” is an act of interpretation. I would expect most senior high school students of history and beyond to understand that history is about the interpretation of evidence, data, “facts”.
“Guesswork about contexts”.
Really? I can imagine times when there must be a measure of speculation but in those cases one also is obliged to bring to bear some tests to determine the value of what is speculated. Michael Goulder’s lectionary theory of the gospels — arguing that gospels were the products of early Christian worship’s practice of serial readings of scriptures — is speculation. But Goulder applies various tests to help us decide how plausible or likely the idea is. “Guesswork about contexts” is not how historians justify their hypotheses. If guessing is the best we can do then that’s surely a sign to most historians that we don’t have sufficient material to investigate the questions we’d like to ask.
“Combining arguments to make an argument of collective weight”.
This is as vague as “guesswork about contexts”. From Crossley’s own works (where he regularly explains he is presenting an argument of “cumulative weight” because he admits none of the arguments alone bear negligible weight) we learn that this “method” enables one to present an argument that one admits is not persuasive on its own, and then another, and then another — none of them persuasive on their own — and then conclude that by placing them all together one has a “weighty” argument. That’s like saying zero plus zero plus zero equals one. If a series of arguments all have a probability of 50% then by adding three of them together we don’t get 150% certainty. We end up with a combined set of arguments still equaling a grand total of 50% probability.
This is where a bit of methodological discipline helps. We need to explore each one of those fifty percenters against background knowledge and against questions over whether the evidence we have is what we would expect given a certain possibility, etc. Even Bayes’ theorem could help in the same way if one wanted to use that.
Nothing is certain except . . .
“But an argument for what?”
Not for Jesus, Crossley says (and without any tinge of sadness.) Or at least not for what Jesus specifically said or did.
Did you notice it? There in the midst of guessing and combining unknown weights there does indeed stand one certainty after all. Jesus. Jesus is there. Like God. You can’t see him. You can’t define him. You’ll never be able to understand him. You’ll confuse his presence with the feel of the wind or maybe the sound of the leaves. But he really is there! He’s bedrock. The Rock of Ages.
“All we can do”.
All we can do is stop being so vain and naive as to think we can find this “Great Man” of our childhood beliefs and turn instead to the consequences of what was set in train in his name. In his name? Of course that will mean having some idea of that starting point Jesus. And in Crossley’s view, we know from his other writings, one is flirting with anti-semitic notions if one fails to accept that this Jesus always conforms to modern stereotypical views of what conservative or rabbinic-style Jews were like in the early first century.
That this is so is betrayed in Crossley’s following words:
make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition.
That’s a loaded remark understood only by those who know something of Crossley’s works or who read carefully his final sentence in his original post. One must distill the later layers of gospel chaff from what is evidently preserved from “early Palestinian tradition” — for Crossley that means the 20s and 30s when that one figure of certainty walked through Galilee.
The assumption that enables Crossley to assert that this is possible is that the gospels are necessarily writings that to some extent can be found to preserve remnants of historical deeds and words of Jesus himself. Crossley’s own application of what he writes here concludes that the Gospel of Mark was originally written only a very few years (maybe as few as five) after Jesus’ crucifixion; that Jesus was a good observant Jew according to the mainstream of Jewishness by today’s standards (forget Second Temple chaotic diversities); and it was only subsequent Christians, under gentile influence, who introduced all the liberal sayings we find in the gospels.
Assumptions peering through the windows
Crossley, like the overwhelming majority (no doubt) of scholars engaged in the pursuit of Christian origins, assumes that the gospels are windows to be looked through to events behind what they narrate. See Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything. There is no theory underpinning this view of the gospels. It is simply assumed within the guild by probably most practitioners. Jesus, even more than the existence of God, is assumed to be there; the gospels are assumed to be the windows that open in his direction however fogged up they may be.
The gospels are assumed (for some this is based on the strength of Richard Burridge’s outlines) to be biographies of some sort.
In fact the gospels bear very little resemblance to ancient historical and biographical works despite some tangential similarities but I have discussed those in depth elsewhere. (See the link in the preceding paragraph.) There are sound methodological reasons for historians to treat a work by Tacitus as a form of ancient historiography and unfortunately those reasons do not apply to the gospels. We know to a significant extent the provenance and sources of those ancient historians that we treat as relatively reliable and we can discern that their approach to the “facts” is quite different from the way the evangelists wrote and there is enough independently verifiable data to alert us to how much confidence we can place in them. There can be little doubt that the gospels are by and large written to instruct readers in faith and the bulk of their narrative is theologically driven and derived from Old Testament anecdotes or anti-types — and we do not even know who wrote them or the context that led to their composition. Now that leaves open a lot of room for guessing IF we insist on treating them in the same way we use genuine historical writings of the ancients.
What we can do
No, the right place to start with the gospels is where we should start with any ancient literature. Study their literary nature (genre, for example) and their literary context in order to systematically tease out what sorts of questions can be asked of them. Treat them for what they are first and foremost: that is, literature.
Only after we come to terms with their nature, their sources, their structures, their relationships with other texts, can we determine what sorts of questions we can ask of them as historians. One does not begin by assuming that they are a window through which we must look to see what we can find behind them. They might be stained-glass windows to be studied for their own beauty and message and artistic intent. The historical data they yield may not be the historical truth behind their narratives but rather the world that produced them. We may find the sources of their narratives much closer at hand to their authors than echoes of partial words that had their origins generations earlier.
The beautiful thing is that by approaching the gospels this way first and foremost we are taking the very first step towards doing real history. We are examining and understanding and working with (not against or in spite of) the sources with respect to what they really are.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Varieties of Atheism #2 - 2023-05-21 02:18:55 GMT+0000
- Varieties of Atheism - 2023-05-20 07:10:56 GMT+0000
- The Troubled “Quiet” before the Jewish Diaspora’s Revolt against Rome: 116-117 C.E. - 2023-05-10 07:58:29 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!
12 thoughts on “Lost and Bereft: The Quest (not) for the historical Jesus — Crossley style”
I agree, the gospel story is literature constructed with a theological purpose and certainly not a straightforward biography.
It seems to have been created to further the Pauline theology and give it a story to fit so people could be bombarded with “the good news” more effectively.
However, within this story there is another type of Jesus, not the Christ figure who went to his slaughter like an innocent lamb, but quite the opposite, a fighting struggling mystic (spiritually realised) guru with occult powers who taught his followers how to struggle for this mystic union and how to teach it to others. This is the mystic guru of Q1, an originally separate and secret gospel or instruction book for the initiated only. This is the spiritual guru who rejects the hypocrisy and stagnancy of dogmatic religion.
If the entire figure of Jesus was made up from scratch (without any anecdotes about the real man), then how did this odd contrast between the fighting Jesus of Q1 and the passive mythical Christ figure of the passion come about?
Of course Jesus may have been “invented” from scratch twice by two entirely different groups. But I doubt that very much since the Jesus of Q1 who is also part of the story in Mark is not a figure of religious theoretical imagination but someone who is perfectly acceptable to yogi’s, tantrics or even buddhists, someone convincing with consistent and universal practical teachings. Nothing like anything that was woven around it in the New Testament.
The weak part of this viewpoint is that the mission who transmitted the teachings of Q1 was obliterated by what followed. How can you explain something so strong disappearing like that and being absorbed or transformed in a very different type of mission?
I don’t actually see where you get any biographical elements for this “Jesus of Q1” that you’re describing. Unless I’m missing something, what you’re suggesting is that by piecing together the “Q sayings” you can construct a Jesus figure who preached a mystical and militant Gospel.
But this can be just as easily explained by the view that the “Q sayings” were already out there and got attached to the Jesus of the Gospels by the Gospel writers who thought they were wise sayings and figured that if the sayings were wise, and Jesus was wise, then they would be things that the Jesus would have said. There never had to be an actual Jesus who said them. Robert Price among others have shown where many of the sayings attributed to the Q document can be traced back to Stoicism, Cynicism and other philosophies that were current in the region at the time the Gospels were written. Not to mention the overlap between the rabbinical tradition of Judaism and the sayings found in “Q”.
You may be saying something completely different and if so I apologize, but AFAICT there isn’t anything linking the sayings in Q to an actual Jesus figure other than the Gospel authors’ say so. Paul certainly never quotes Jesus in a way that would lead one to believe that he was a mystical fighting guru of some kind.
Yes, the tantric-mystic (not cynic) Jesus of Q1 may have been taken from an entirely other source than from the mouth of a historical Jesus.
But how would you then explain that they chose this type of teachings?
The teachings of Q1 clearly don’t fit smoothly with the Pauline or Jewish-christian theologies.
It would be more logical to think that the Q1 teachings were already there early on and the that people who inherited them tried to “neutralise” them by editing them and adding the Q2 sayings and later on by incorporating them and further editing them in the christian gospels.
Or the sayings of Q1 (see the bold text in the PDF at http://www.tonyburke.ca/wp-content/uploads/Burton-Macks-Q-Text.pdf are common place Cynic aphorisms that have their counterparts in a number of Greek/Latin and Jewish texts and the reason “nothing ever like that was woven around it in the NT” and that it was all “obliterated by what followed” is that no such figure ever existed. The evidence is most simply explained (no need to construct a Rock of Ages or Guru figure, wrap him up in invisible clothing, and declare he is the source of it all) by this figure being created midrashically out of OT characters.
This is one reason why people get so irritated by you Neil and are highly reluctant to engage with you–you distort heavily at best, make things up at worst. I’m actually arguing the opposite of what you attribute to me. I’m claiming that we cannot really get back to this figure ‘Jesus’ and all we can talk about are themes that might have been early and who knows who was responsible for that? All we can do, I think, is make arguments of collective weight for generally dating early themes. We can can make educated guesses about context (e.g. purity debates in Palestine, political changes in Galilee etc, and how earliest themes/traditions (not some individual Jesus – earliest themes/traditions) interacted with them. These are of a very general nature and the example you use is irrelevant for my purposes. Honestly Neil, I’ve lost count of the times people have asked you to stop misrepresenting them. I suspect you don’t do this deliberately (though I can see why people think this) but I have to say that I almost never recognise my arguments whenever you present them. I know it is fruitless trying to get you to change but I’m ever the optimist…
Welcome, Professor Crossley. Twice I have been shown to have misunderstood and misrepresented someone on this blog and both times I posted an apology and correction — once to Mark Goodacre and once to R. Joseph Hoffmann. I will do the same for you most willingly if you show me where, exactly I have done so.
But your comment confuses me. You say you argue the opposite of what I have written but then explain that what you write is that you are “claiming that we cannot really get back to this figure ‘Jesus” — which is exactly what I do acknowledge IS your argument. So can you explain in what way I misrepresent your words? Did you read my post carefully or just skim viscerally (as you appeared to have done last time you came here to swear at me over a review I wrote of one of your books)?
Just telling me I do without pointing out exactly what I have said that is a misrepresentation is not helping.
You’ve lost count of the times “people” have asked me to stop misrepresenting them? I presume you are referring to Stephanie Fisher and yourself as these “people”. I have actually had more scholars expressing respect at my ability to review their words without distortion or imposing my own views in a way that hides theirs.
All you do here is repeat some of the assertions that I find problematic. My post explains why I find them problematic. So just repeating them here is not a very productive response.
If I have really misunderstood and misrepresented you then you are quite welcome to engage like a professional.
What seems to me to be the issue you have with what I write is that I am viewing your words from outside the guild and am bringing a perspective that you find alien and incomprehensible. This seems to be the root of what in fact are your own (no doubt unconscious) “misrepresentations” of my words.
Sigh. I’ll try one more time…
“Not for Jesus, Crossley says (and without any tinge of sadness.) Or at least not for what Jesus specifically said or did. Did you notice it? There in the midst of guessing and combining unknown weights there does indeed stand one certainty after all. Jesus. Jesus is there. Like God. You can’t see him. You can’t define him. You’ll never be able to understand him. You’ll confuse his presence with the feel of the wind or maybe the sound of the leaves. But he really is there! He’s bedrock. The Rock of Ages.”
I don’t argue that. I simply argue that we can get to early tradition. That’s it. Note how I finished the blog post: ‘We might then be able to make some general cases for the ways in which people (not just this elusive and supposedly overwhelmingly influential Great Man) engaged with the social changes in 20s and 30s Palestine.’ People. Plural. I;m interested in how human beings (through tradition/texts/ideas) engaged with their environment. People. There is no claim that this goes back to the one person Jesus or that he even lies behind the tradition.
“In his name? Of course that will mean having some idea of that starting point Jesus.”
No, I only said ‘in his name’. These traditions are largely in his name. Part of the point of the blog post was that I am making no argument this originating with a figure like Jesus, or indeed anything about the historicity of Jesus.
“One must distill the later layers of gospel chaff from what is evidently preserved from “early Palestinian tradition” — for Crossley that means the 20s and 30s when that one figure of certainty walked through Galilee.”
That is not what I am arguing. I’m arguing we, or I, effectively abandon that quest.
“And in Crossley’s view, we know from his other writings, one is flirting with anti-semitic notions if one fails to accept that this Jesus always conforms to modern stereotypical views of what conservative or rabbinic-style Jews were like in the early first century.”
I don’t know where you get this idea from. I have never argued such a thing. For a start I defend Mack and Crossan against allegations of anti-Judiasm and similarities with Nazi scholarship which were (wrongly) alleged to be part of his advocating a Cynic-like Jesus. I did this because people who identified as Jews behaved in all sorts of different ways, whether like a conservative rabbi or a lover of bathing, theatres and Greek philosophy or some wide-ranging combinations. The argument goes like this: I argue that HJ scholarship has typically constructed a ‘Judaism’ and presented Jesus as in someway transcending it. This pattern, I argue, replicates contemporary discourses relating to Judaism, Israel, and multiculturalism. The point is that scholarship creates this fixed Judaism and it then functions as a tool to establish Jesus’ superiority in someway. This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether ‘one’ should accept ‘Jesus always conforms to modern stereotypical views of what conservative or rabbinic-style Jews were like in the early first century’ (?!??) In this work, I am not interested in the rights and wrongs of the historical reconstruction of the ancient world but they ways in which scholarship plays out contemporary debates. Certainly much of scholarship buys into a myth of superiority but the only scholars labelled anti-Semitic are Nazi scholars and that’s hardly an earth-shattering claim.
My very first sentence that you quote says exactly what you accuse me of not saying. “NOT for Jesus, Crossley says”!
My post’s title also says “(NOT) for the historical Jesus”. I stressed that this Jesus in your scenario remains “unknown”, “undefined”, etc. What is distinctively Christian by our modern lights could very well have begun within the church post-Jesus and as a consequence of contingencies subsequent to Jesus. I understand that is your position.
At the same time your model does focus on the time (20s and 30s) and place (Palestine/Galilee) of the Jesus narrative and you do explain in your books your argument for how Jewish this Jesus must have been and how “Christianity” developed subsequently as much or more despite him as because of him. Jesus is there — in the time and place — undefined. And he must be Jewish and by that you mean a certain type of Jewishness. You argue that the later development of Christianity must be explained in terms that stand apart from him as a person and that are the forces that influence us all — social, economic, political. I understand that. But I was not addressing your argument for the later development of Christianity (or for the social etc influences that attracted a following around Jesus); I was addressing something I find in the bulk of studies on Christian origins: a model that assumes an HJ.
Perhaps you are misreading my post on the assumption I do not know or understand what you have written in your books. I am critiquing your view (as I do the works of a number of others) from a perspective that you don’t encounter in formal publications within the academy.
I am not misrepresenting what you said. I am in dialogue with what you write and pointing out what I see as the inevitable implication. You can disagree with my interpretation but you cannot say I am misrepresenting you. My expression makes it very clear that I am expressing my own interpretation of your words. There is no misrepresentation.
I know you do not argue in your blog post what you do argue in your books. So I made it clear that I was referring to what views lie behind the blog post. If you are in the process of changing your mind about what you have written in your books then that’s a different story and I would be most interested to learn more.
(Sad aside: I am always in the “sigh” mode when I learn that a particularly prickly scholar interprets disagreement as misrepresentation or failure to understand. You are not alone, sigh.)
Anyone who read the title of my post and the words surrounding the ones you single out for quotation can see that I am NOT arguing that you are seeking to continue with any quest for the historical Jesus. Quite the contrary.
I am assessing your words in the light of what you have written in your books. You do seek to explain how such a religion that we identify as Christianity somehow found a way to break from what appear to have been the teachings or “program” of Jesus and his immediate followers. That is your starting point: what forces a figure like Jesus was able to tap in to and how those people or their followers morphed into Christianity. But that is all based on the bed-rock assumption of the historicity of some form of Jesus narrative: a movement that coalesces in the time of the Jesus of the gospels.
You say this Jesus is quite lost from the historical record and we can only speculate as to what he did so it is best to focus on the movement. But clearly you have begun that movement from the base of that unknown figure of Jesus.
That is your assumption and that is what I am addressing.
Again, let’s be able to disagree and dialogue without imputing to one who sees things from another perspective some sort of “misrepresentation”.
You certainly do attribute Bultmann’s views to anti-semitic influence. Again, don’t overstate what you think I am saying. I do try to be more careful with my words and I did not suggest you are accusing certain scholars of anti-semitism. I know you are explicitly insist that you don’t. But at the same time, this is from your recent blog post (I respond to this post again here):
That assertion needs justification or we may suspect you have fallen into the fundamental error of confusing correlation with causation.
Further, you do stress in your books a wider anti-Judaism influencing scholars when it comes to many of their portrayal of Jesus. “Jewish, but not that Jewish” is what you repeatedly say is the Jesus preference of many scholars.
Now I have serious reservations with several of those claims. That does not mean I am misrepresenting you. (I should also add that I do not deny there have been scholars who have obviously been anti-semitic in their portrayals of Jesus but you do go well beyond that.)
You can disagree with me but cannot accuse me of misrepresentation.
Just in case it is still not clear: My critique is that there is a general assumption that Christian origins belong to some historicized version of the gospel narrative. Claude Levi-Strauss might say that all such reconstructions — including yours — are really variants of the original gospel myth.
Historians need first of all to test the source material — in this case the gospels — for the kind of documents they are and for what sorts of questions they can answer. That sort of analysis is only applied to historical methods in a very superficial manner in most biblical studies books that I have read.
We cannot validly begin by assuming that the gospel narrative was written to preserve (or pervert, as most would say) historical tradition. Literary analysis, I believe, screams at us that the gospels are not that sort of literature at all. Yet scholars of Christian origins, for most part, begin with the assumption that the gospel narrative points however indirectly at Christian origins. Your model is no exception. The “people” you study are taken from the gospel and Acts narratives: Galilee, 20s and 30s, Jewish, gentile neighbours, historical development of a movement on this stage.
What really points to Christian origins, I believe, is the character of the gospels themselves (and its their Jesus) — and what that reveals about authorship and readership — and the epistles.
If you are not assuming Jesus, why did you answer a comment on your post with this:
“This may be a semantic issue but I think I would say that we can make some educated guesses about general themes associated with Jesus e.g. eschatology. And that it may well be that we do have a lot of sayings and deeds that go back to Jesus but in most cases (perhaps all) I don’t know how we can ultimately prove it. Maybe ‘very difficult’ would be a better phrase but I’m content with knowing that we can work with early material (which may or may not have come from Jesus) to make arguments because I am not confident of sifting the material at this pre-Gospel stage.”
James Crossley has a difficult time understanding my posts in the same way his friend Stephanie always seemed to, and both always screamed “misrepresentation” at the slightest hint of criticism or radical alternative viewpoint. No-one misunderstands or makes a mistake or has an honest alternative response: they so regularly “misrepresent”. Crossley even rejects a raft of criticisms of his thesis on pages 3-4 of The Date of Mark’s Gospel as “unfair” and “misrepresentations”. Some scholars publish views against which any disagreement or other view will always be “unfair” or a “misrepresentation”. A number of academics are like that, unfortunately.
And his replies are not always unambivalent. I expect he will acknowledge the way he has “overstated” his point when I remind him of what he has said about Jesus being the starting point of the Christian movement in Why Christianity Happened” — and not only does he assume Jesus is the necessary starting point, but he also argues that this Jesus had to be a specific type of Jesus, i.e. a strict law-abiding Jew (and Crossley has a emphatic and narrowly dogmatic view or what that meant in the Second Temple period):
And from The Date of Mark’s Gospel:
So of course Crossley assumes a Jesus, and a particular type of Jesus, as his starting point for the Christian movement. It is disingenuous of him to suggest otherwise and “mischievous” of him to accuse me of misrepresentation when I draw attention to this assumption of his.
Interesting, sadly, that the three people who have grossly misrepresented my own words — Stephanie Fisher, Maurice Casey and now even James Crossley in Jesus and an Age of Neoliberalism — have been a close-knit trio who have falsely accused others of “misrepresentation”.
For the sake of the record I have emailed Professor Crossley twice asking him to respond to the rejoinders here demonstrating that his interpretations of both my words and even his own writings (not to mention his accusations) are false but he has not responded.