Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

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by Neil Godfrey

whychristianityhappenedJames Crossley is to be highly commended for attempting in Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)  to adapt to the study of Christian origins approaches taken directly from history departments. The task of explaining how Christianity began has generally been the preserve of theologians many of whom (according to scholars like Scot McKnight, Beth Sheppard and Crossley himself)have not been familiar with methods used by professional historians outside the field of biblical studies. Crossley testifies from his personal experience that these methods are not always welcome among his colleagues and he prefaces his book with “predictable hostility” that has come his way as a consequence of his work.

Now I like to back the underdog and anyone who attempts to displace a “faith-based discipline” with secularist methods so I was eager to read Crossley’s book. Moreover, Chris Keith, a prominent advocate of a “(social) memory theory” approach to the historical Jesus, has praised Crossley’s work as

some of the most interesting . . . in the field right now, some of which, really, no one else is doing. (James Crossley Joins the Criteria of Authenticity Skeptics)

As I proceeded, though, questions arose and I came to wonder if what Crossley was doing was building a magnificent edifice upon a foundation of sand. So in this post I will address what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of Crossley’s approach as he himself explains it in his Introduction and opening chapter, “Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins: The Use of the Social Sciences in New Testament Scholarship”. (I have addressed other aspects from the main body of Crossley’s work before and I will not revisit those here.)

Before starting: The Question

Crossley provides the contextual framework for his book in his Introduction. His argument is set within the basic framework of the traditional Acts-Eusebian model of Christian origins. As I understand it this model means the following:

  1. Christianity is traced back to a Jewish movement that coalesced around Jesus in Palestine in the early first century CE.
  2. After the execution of Jesus his followers found reason to continue the movement all the more vigorously and increasingly came into contact with interested parties who were not otherwise observant Jews.
  3. The mission to the gentiles was greatly accelerated by Paul.
  4. The mix of Jewish and gentile converts led to tensions over the role of Jewish practices that required resolution or split. The most widely accepted resolution became the foundation of the Christianity we know today.
  5. Thus while Christianity very early flourished as a chaotic array of various sects and factions it originated from a monolithic movement.

This summary is essentially a paraphrase of the narrative we find in Acts and Eusebius, hence the reference to the Acts-Eusebian model. It is the model that has undergirded Christian dogma generally.

Crossley does not challenge this model; he works within it and seeks to add soundly researched explanations to strengthen its plausibility. That is no grounds for criticism. It is what historians should do.

One theme I hope will become clear through these posts: my discussion of Crossley’s application of historical methods to the early Christian material is by implication addressing secular historical methods in the investigation of Christian origins more generally. The methods themselves are fine, but the way some scholars have applied them to the documentary evidence is problematic and leads them down pathways that have missed the bread-and-butter fundamentals of historical research.

I believe this is because such historians have as a rule unconsciously embraced as historical several layers of untested assumptions that are in reality theological or ideological in origin. 

On the other hand, in my assessment the data that we have does beg us to question the historical validity of that model. That model is, I believe, a theological invention that has been misinterpreted as a true historical outline. But I am aware of my own bias to this extent and I do not fault anyone for not thinking the way I do. Different perspectives are very often stimulating and informative. At the same time it is important to understand and draw attention to each others’ assumptions and to ask where the views of others (as well as our own of course) could be legitimately challenged and debated.

So let’s look at Crossley’s introduction to the question he is about to explore. The way questions are framed pre-determines the answers we find, or the kinds of answers we seek determine the questions we ask (Fischer, p. 4).

Crossley begins chronologically with the “historical Jesus” and takes us through his own interpretation of the conventional model of origins outlined above:

In a previous book I provided a chronology of the changes in law observance in earliest “Christianity,” from the historical Jesus through the early Pauline mission and the Jerusalem council to Gospel redaction. There is no evidence that the historical Jesus overrode any commandment and there is no evidence that Jesus was indifferent to any biblical law. Jesus may well have clashed over the interpretation of biblical law . . . within the boundaries of first-century Jewish legal debate.  After Jesus’ death, Christianity remained a largely law-observant movement until the early to mid-40s CE, when more and more Gentiles were becoming associated with the movement . . . .

The implication of this for Crossley is that the earliest gentiles attracted to the movement, including Paul himself, were themselves law-observant (“at least in the presence of Christians”) in the 30s. In the early to mid 40s, however, less legalistic Gentiles were joining. This development “almost certainly provoked the Jerusalem conference of c. 50 CE “to try and find answers”.

One implication of all this is that the reasons Christianity included people who were no longer observing major commandments were largely social — as opposed to an individual genius like Jesus or Paul finding “something wrong” with Jewish law. But these social reasons for the shift from a law-observant movement to one that included people no longer observing the law require a full explanation.

This book is an attempt to do just that. (p. xiii, my bolding and formatting as in all quotations)

A number of other scholars have also attempted to apply a range of methods from social and economic history to early Christian studies (John Dominic Crossan, Richard HorsleyWayne Meeks, Gerd Theissen . . . ) but Crossley is the first to apply

social-scientific methods . . . to provide a broad-ranging explanation for the change in legal practices among the earliest Christians and ultimately for why a new religion emerged from Judaism. (p. xiv)

Some scholars (e.g. Daniel Boyarin) would question the idea that Christianity did emerge as a “new religion” distinct from Judaism until the fourth century but we can understand (and accept for the sake of argument) where Crossley is coming from. More scholars would question Crossley’s argument that Jesus and/or the earliest Christians were so uniformly observant of Jewish laws — at least for religious reasons. Some might say that Crossley has re-written the myth or the established narrative to suit what his social-scientific model is able to explain. My interest here, however, is focussed on his methods of historical analysis and for this purpose I am quite prepared to accept provisionally Crossley’s prior arguments about the origin, nature and sequence of the earliest social developments behind what became Christianity.

Starting: Explaining oneself

Crossley finds it useful to explain and justify to his readers his use of the social sciences in exploring Christian origins. Many students of history would probably assume it is only right to apply a range of perspectives — social, economic, political, psychological, literary — upon any historical question. But biblical studies are different.

[T]he history of Christian origins is dominated by theological agendas that all-too-often (sic) explain the rise of Christianity in pristine terms of the history of ideas rather than the dirtier world of social history. . . .

It is, I think, clear when one compares NT studies with the academic discipline of history that the study of Christian origins has been impoverished by a lack of non-Christian interest groups  — including those wishing to explain Christian origins in a more secular and nontheological way — and that significant advances have been made by individuals who have not fitted the traditional molds of Christian scholarship. This will set the tone for the social-scientifically informed historical argument of the rest of this book. . . .

Much of [the material taken from the discipline of history] will be unfamiliar to many who study the NT. . . . (pp. 2-3)

Oddly Crossley occasionally drops words that almost look like an apology for what I consider to be the only sensible and truly rational approach to the study of Christianity:

I am not saying that the approaches I advocate are inherently superior discussions of the past in comparison to the supposedly more-slanted Christian approaches of (say) an Anglican bishop. 

The allusion here is to N. T. Wright who is a well-respected “theologian-historian” who seriously argues for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I say “well-respected” but of course I am referring to the guild of theologians. I cannot believe many scholars from history departments would take his work seriously. Old Testament “minimalist” scholar Niels Peter Lemche in another context has expressed misgivings about serious historians even communicating in the same scholarly fora with such apologists:

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be — according to European standards — critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship — irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her. (Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion)

So when Crossley responds in a scholarly journal to N.T. Wright’s arguments for the resurrection one must conclude he disagrees with Lemche’s view and that he does seek dialogue with scholars who do little to hide their faith-based agendas. Perhaps this desire to dialogue with those whose scholarly agenda is secondary tool for their expression of faith explains Crossley’s occasional expressions of apology.

See some other apologetic-sounding reassurances in this opening chapter:

Crossley notes that conservative scholar Stephen Barton fears that social-scientific methods grew out of Enlightenment atheism and that he urges his peers to be on guard against studies that

shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. 

Crossley’s reponses:

Again, this is not to say of course that any of the above views are wrong, but the frequency and force of defense is striking and most obviously accounted for by the need to make sure that Christianity is not explained away purely in human terms. (p. 17)

Yet clearly comments such as Barton’s, which are hardly radical — and again I am not saying they are inherently wrong — are made possible by the Christian dominance of his scholarly audience. (p. 24)

And again:

[The dominance of faith-based perspectives] restricts Christians from properly engaging with those of different persuasions, and it even allows Christian academics to make arguments that (rightly or wrongly) would hardly be permitted in other academic disciplines, not to mention some extremely weak arguments. (p. 26)

I don’t know how anyone could possibly argue “rightly” for the bodily resurrection in an academic journal interested only in promoting rational argument without faith-based assumptions.


The dominance of Christian scholarship really does need to be challenged, but its insights must not be ignored. (p. 33)

Why should arguments for the bodily resurrection not be ignored? Crossley himself states the obvious reason for ignoring such arguments when he writes

But could we assume that those Christians who argue in favor of the historical reality of the bodily resurrection would treat non-Christian religions with the same degree of openness to the evidence? (p. 25)

Of course not. (Athough some theologians do try with much postmodernist philosophical argument to square this circle.) And this point alone demonstrates that rejection of such arguments out of hand is not a matter of unreasonable bias but is an absolutely reasonable position to take. Surely only in cloistered biblical studies can such arguments find air to breathe.

One might ask if Crossley would be better off attempting to challenge the theologically dominated biblical studies from the department of history rather than from within.

Back to my own point. It is perhaps the very fact that Crossley is seeking so hard to establish a dialogue with scholars of clear faith interests that leads him to embrace some of their unexamined assumptions about the evidence he is to work with. We will see evidence for this as we proceed.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins”

  1. Let’s talk about putting the puzzle-pieces of the alternative, critical view together.

    Something like this?…

    Pre-30 – various Jewish strains of Messiah-belief are apparent in Daniel, Zechariah, Philo, and later sources concerning a heavenly Son of God, Logos, End-Times figure, with the name Jesus attached to some versions.

    Circa 30(?) – one version of this Jesus coalesces around the Pillars Peter, James and John, when they think to decrypt OT prophecies so as to find messages from heaven concerning his descent, crucifixion and resurrection in the heavenly realm. Their creed might be the one written up in the Vision of Isaiah. Their essential faith is that Jesus died a sacrificial death as propitiation of the justice of God, substituting his ultimate sacrifice for the Jews’ feeble efforts to satisfy God through the Temple cult.

    Circa 45-50(?) – Simon Magus announces a new understanding of Jesus belief, whereby the old dispensation of the Torah is not divine, but is instead the oppressive creation of intermediary ruling demons who created the Earth and trapped our spirits in material bodies. His essential faith is that through baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, thereby freeing us from death and thus from the power of the legislating demon powers who rule the Earth. His creed too is based on the Vision of Isaiah, but his movement also produces the original of GMark as an allegorical expression of their belief and an attack on the Petrine Jewish Christian movement. Simon writes the originals of the Pauline epistles, including Galatians which cautions his flock against listening to the Jewish Christians who want to impose Jewish cultic requirements on them.

    Circa 60-70 – Simon Magus’ writings are edited and interpolated by a Proto-Orthodox writer who names him Paul so as to critique Simon and make him appear to promote orthodox belief in the divinity of the Torah. This Proto-Orthodoxy is a new development, combining the belief of the Jewish Christians in the divinity of the Law with the belief of the Simonians in Christians’ freedom from the Law.

    Circa 80-120 – somehow, whether due to the loss of traditions in post-70 Judea, or to its efficiency as a meme, or to its utility to the Proto-Orthodox in establishing their apostolic bona fides, the surface allegory of GMark is spread as if it were a historical report: the belief arises and proliferates that Jesus of Nazareth was the crucified and resurrected Messiah. Orthodoxy now comprises a combination of beliefs in a Historical Jesus and in the divinity of the prior Torah dispensation. There is a great loss of documents from the first-century Church, so that, despite its claims to apostolicity and historical priority, when Eusebius much later comes to write the history of the early Church he is virtually unable to find any documentary records. During this period, Matthew is written as a Jewish-Christian revision of GMark. The original of GLuke is also written (for what purpose?) Also during this period, Marcion emerges as a critic of Proto-Orthodoxy, claiming that Paul’s epistles have been systematically Judaised by the followers of the Petrine group of apostles who failed to understand Jesus’ radical anti-Law message. Marcion is not able however to get his hands on copies of the Pauline originals; he uses a version of GLuke different from ours.

    Circa 120-140 – in the face of the rise of Marcion’s Church, a Proto-Orthodox writer or writers (Polycarp?) interpolates GLuke with anti-Marcionite passages, and composes Acts to turn Marcion’s anti-Petrine Paul into Peter’s faithful orthodox colleague. The NT is published, containing Gospels, Acts, the interpolated and forged Paulines, and some new, orthodox Pastoral epistles, along with Revelation. The Proto-Orthodox also claim the writings of the Apellean (a branch of Marcionism) celebrity Peregrinus as those of one of their own, Ignatius of Antioch.

    Post-140 – Proto-Orthodoxy largely prevails in the struggle with Marcionism, and with the conversion of Constantine is able to bring coercive force to bear on its rivals, now labelled by the Church’s heresiologists as heretics who have distorted the original, apostolic doctrine delivered by Jesus to the Twelve Disciples of the Gospels and the Paul of Acts.

      1. Interesting. Do you have a basis for your dating of the interpolations? If one is willing to accept that Eusebius manufactured a history of the Church, could he (and his colleagues) not have manufactured/doctored what became the canonical texts while they assembled them into the canon? Why could not all of the interpolations have occurred in the 4th century CE?

        I don’t know the answers, but I do have a lot of questions, especially about the dating of texts. Robert Wilken’s John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century made me question the populist roots of Christianity because of its description of the amounts of money thrown at Church. In the fourth century CE, the Church was to society’s best and brightest what Wall Street is today. For example, a bishop was paid at least as much as the governor. Whether or not it can legitimately claim a lineage that dates back to the first century CE, the Church was a massive social engineering project in the fourth century CE, just as neoliberalism was in the 20th century.


    1. I will post a comment on your blog. (I don’t want to sidetrack this post which is about James Crossley’s book. The 4th rule of commenting is: “Your comment must be relevant to the current post.”)

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