The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias)

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by Neil Godfrey

Quite possibly a scene from a modern New Testament academic conference

The previous two posts in this series:

  1. Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins
  2. Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

The Necessity and Problem of Bias in Christian Origins Studies

James Crossley (Why Christianity Happened: A Sociological Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE)) examines the role of bias in historical studies, in particular in the studies of Christian origins. He uses the less pejorative term “partisanship”. This discussion appears necessary given what Crossley himself observes of the dominance of religious bias among New Testament historians and their traditional suspicion of the secular “social-scientific” approach he himself applies to Christian origins.

The general points are made: what is important is to recognize one’s own perspective and to be able to appreciate, understand and write objectively about the perspectives of others as well as one’s own. Acknowledging the impossibility of a purely unbiased God-perspective does not mean there can be no objective facts and explanations. (Crossley uses the term “hyperrelativism”.) He quotes a portion of following by the historian Richard Evans in In Defence of History:

While historians are certainly swayed, consciously or unconsciously, by present moral or political purposes in carrying out their work, it is not the validity or desirability of these, but the extent to which their historical arguments conform to the rules of evidence and the facts on which they rest, by which they must stand or fall in the end. In other words, they have to be objective . . . (Kindle loc. 3981-3984)

I sometimes devour books discussing history like this so I immediately purchased the Kindle version and pretty much read most of it on the spot. Richard Evans most happily gives readers one of the best discussions I have ever read of the history of historical writing and especially of Leopold von Ranke’s ongoing influence on the way history is done. So many times one reads (yes, sadly, among biblical scholars mostly) how limited or outdated von Ranke’s ideas are without any apparent awareness of the foundations he laid for the modern practice of historical research and writing. And it’s in the faulty approach to the foundations that I have in the past found most to criticize in works exploring Christian origins. I’m tempted to do some posts highlighting significant remarks by Evans in this book about the nature of real history. Ironically Evans even has a few words to say about the limitations and drawbacks of Crossley’s own “social-scientific” method but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Crossley calls for a vastly wider array of perspectives to be brought in to the field of the study of Christian origins. To date the study has been approached too narrowly, “being dominated by Christians” (p. 22):

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

I don’t recall the Jesus Seminar being seen in terms of a “smaller subgroup” when it was attracting very widespread attention among scholars and the wider media in its hey-day. But Crossley follows Casey as well as the current conservative trend to relegate the Jesus Seminar to a feeble spark of long-term insignificance. We will return to more of Crossley’s response to the Jesus Seminar up ahead.

Crossley quotes similar views from Maurice Casey:

But when 90 percent of the applicants [to New Testament studies] are Protestant Christians, a vast majority of Christian academics is a natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central performance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles of sufficient technical proficiency to be taken seriously. The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one. (Crossley quoting Casey, p. 23, my bolding)

I could not resist quoting that. (Note that it’s not me saying it. It’s Crossley quoting Casey.) Whenever I have tried to say the same thing to biblical scholars and their supporters they routinely deny it or deny that the Christian faith of most practitioners makes any difference to the credibility of their work on Christian origins. Casey and Crossley add their voices to those of Hector Avalos, Michael Goulder, Thomas Brodie whom I have also quoted stating the obvious.

Only in the world of NT scholarship”

Crossley’s portrait of the opening of a New Testament conference in September 2000 is classic:

In September 2000 the annual British New Testament Conference, held in Roehampton, opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer, the perfect symbols of middle-class Christianity, some might say. The glass of wine I can accept, but should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening, particularly when some of the participants are certainly nonreligious and some possibly from non-Christian faiths? Leaving aside the moral issue, the fact that there is an overwhelming Christian presence in British NT scholarship is surely the reason that this could happen. Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things? (p. 23)

Commenting on another conference that involved a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”, the Context Group and their critics, Crossley observes how they concluded:

All the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith . . .

quoting Luke’s lesson of the Emmaus Road and enlightenment emerging from darkness. It was here where Stephen Barton made the comments we quoted earlier, warning against

unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to 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. 

But here is the point:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made . . . in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth.

“Seem to be historically unlikely” indeed!

It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. (p. 24, my bolding in all quotations)

Gerd Ludemann and Michael Goulder are considered “mavericks” in their field, Crossley informs us, because they do not accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Crossley says they are “often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as mavericks”. Rightly or wrongly? I do not understand Crossley’s desire to try to reassure scholars who obviously consider the tenets of their faith more important than rationality and normal scholarly scepticism. Surely the two positions are incompatible as we saw with Niels Peter Lemche’s words in the first post.

It should be clear that Christian stories can be treated differently because of Christian dominance, which allows the more literalistic advocates to make such claims. . . . 

Would another discipline in the humanities seriously consider as historically reliable something as spectacular as someone literally rising from the dead but also argue that it provided a catalyst for the rise of a major new movement? (p. 25)

“Allowing arguments that would not be permitted in other academic disciplines”

resurrection_son_of_god_nt_wrightEven in the midst of writing such truisms as these Crossley is able to say “the recent arguments of Wright on the resurrection require much more careful consideration than can be given here” and “irrespective of whether he is right or wrong”. One can’t help but sense Crossley is trying to achieve the logically impossible and bring about a serious engagement between incompatible and irreconcilable positions.

Science did not advance in our culture by negotiating with religion. It advanced by leaving religion locked outside. Theology departments in universities are surely a legacy from the Middle Ages and sustained by cultural pressure. This is not to deny that there is some remarkable informative and valuable work coming from some of these scholars but this work does not include the arguments of N.T. Wright for the historicity of the bodily resurrection. The fact that this book “could gain praise from some of the most famous scholars in the field” and none of its major reviews found room to criticize its arguments for the bodily resurrection underscores what a misfit studies of Christian origins in the hands of NT scholars really is.

Crossley keeps trying to defy the movement of the tide:

While Christian perspectives no doubt contribute to knowledge of Christian origins, it is unhealthy for an academic discipline to be so dominated by one group. (p. 26)

So often those defensive of the academy try to assure me that theologians really do communicate and share ideas with people in other departments such as history. At the same time those telling me this make it very clear how little the two really do share at any deeply significant level:

[Dominance by one group] restricts Christian from properly engaging with those of different persuasions, and it even allows Christians academics to make arguments that (rightly or wrongly) [sic!] would hardly be permitted in other academic disciplines, not to mention some extremely weak arguments. . . . 

So often I have seen the token atheist or agnostic defensively trotted out but most of those are securely ensconced in the paradigms of their Christian colleagues upon whose approval they rely for academic recognition.

The lack of a significant number of non-Christians or even scholars deliberately attempting to see beyond their Christian background has prevented serious secular alternatives to Christian origins being properly discussed. (p. 26)

Any room for these two names?

Crossley sees beyond the need to include non-Christians, however:

Who knows what the study of Christian origins has missed out on by the lack of significant participation of people from, say, the lower and working classes and through the relative ignoring of non-Western exegetes? (p. 26)

Let’s see — Richard Carrier is from a working class background; Reza Aslan is from a Muslim background. Sure critics have found errors in Aslan’s work but I would be interested in doing a comparison with popular scholarly works even by Ehrman for the numbers of mistakes one could spot; I see reviews of books by mainstream NT scholars that sometimes point to pages of errors but that doesn’t stop the book from being taken seriously by like-minded colleagues. It seems a profitable engagement with Aslan’s work would be to confront its central argument head on without resort to “we don’t think like that any more”. Who knows what enhanced dialogue between scholars of unlike faiths might have resulted? As for engaging with Richard Carrier . . . .

Damn. This post has progressed far more slowly than I planned. Next I’ll look at the way Crossley reviews some scholars he likes much more and what this will suggest for his own application of “social-scientific” history.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias)”

  1. I agree…the general POV does seem to be overwhelmingly “Western” Christian (Protestant/Catholic). The term “Christian Origins” seems to be concerned mainly with the origins of how (present day) “Western” Christianity developed and what its origins may have been. While this concern is admirable, perhaps it may also be interesting to explore the origins of Christianities…..?…….

    Just because Aslan has a Muslim background does not mean his POV is Muslim-influenced. However, it may be interesting to open up “Christian Origins” to non-Christians–including Muslims…..

    1. I strongly agree that Aslan’s work does not have to be Muslim influenced. I’ve been thinking more about this as I prepare for the post that is to follow on from this. Crossley regularly equates some facet of a person’s background with their published opinions. So a Jew writing about Jesus is presenting a “Jewish view”, etc. This is surely simplistic and shallow. It reminds me of finding some detail in a star-sign chart that matches one’s birthday and saying, Hey, you’re a Leo, that’s why you react like that!

      Naturally our backgrounds influence us, but to take that further and talk about a Jewish view of Jesus simply on the basis that one is a Jew (and similar comparisons) is silly and surely without any research support. Not that Crossley is alone in this. Ecumenism probably has a bit to do with it.

      1. I believe Aslan converted to (evangelical?) Christianity in his teens when he moved with his family to the US. I read something attributed to him to the effect that he has moved from believing in the Jesus of faith to the Jesus of history, and now wants to spread the tremendous story of Jesus of Nazareth.

        The fact that he was nominally a Muslim in his pre-teens is unlikely to be the defining characteristic in the set of biases he brings to the table.

        1. Yes, he’s been both an evangelical Christian and a Muslim — returned to the Muslim faith after a few years of the evangelical stint. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan

          From http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2014/s4010319.htm:

          REZA ASLAN: What happened for me is that when I went to university and decided to study the New Testament for a living, what I discovered very quickly was there was this enormous gap between the Jesus of history as I was studying him at school and the Christ of faith as I understood him from my teachings at my church. And I suppose the easiest way to put it is that I just became more interested in the Jesus of history, this man who lived 2,000 years ago, this poor, illiterate, marginal Jewish peasant from the backwoods of Galilee became more real to me, more accessible, more appealing. I wanted to know more about him. And so, yes, you’re right: I did eventually move away from Christianity as a religion, but I became even more fascinated by Jesus the man.

          Also Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus reveals a rebel without a divine spark

  2. Imagine an astronomer who insisted that the moon was made of green cheese. He would be an unemployed laughingstock. However, a historian who claims that the resurrection can be established probabilistically is considered a leading authority in his field. Of course when I suggest that confessional bias might make the consensus of NT scholars somewhat less impressive, it just goes to show my anti-Christian prejudice.

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