A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology

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by Neil Godfrey


This post concludes my series on Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE).

The previous post is here.  All posts on this book, both the recent ones from 2014 and those from 2010-11, are archived here.


Misguided equivalence

How is one meant to respond to the words of a secular historian who says it would be “foolish and arrogant” to claim that his approach is “inherently superior” to one used by a Christian apologist? How is it possible for a secular rationalist to engage with a faith-grounded apologist as if both perspectives should be evaluated on an equal footing? Does the virtue of “mutual tolerance” require persons with opposing intellectual agendas to somehow find a way to exchange views constructively and productively? Does the pointlessness of “preaching to the converted” mean one’s efforts to exchange ideas among others with a similar philosophical outlook is also pointless?

Imagine the impact if more and more nonreligious, secular-minded historians were to become NT scholars. But if such a hypothetical collection of scholars were to make its impact felt, there must be mutual tolerance and the avoidance of . . . preaching to the converted. It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones. . . . (p. 32)

How can a nonreligious, secular-minded historian possibly not claim his or her approach is inherently superior to an opposing one that “proves” the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

How can a leopard change its spots? How can the Christian apologists ever agree that their methods and faith-assumptions are not superior to those of the secular-minded nonreligious rationalist? What would be the point of being a secular-rationalist if one did not believe that such an outlook was indeed superior to the methods that are justified by faith?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 11.13.56 pmCrossley confuses particular historical methods and approaches with the philosophical underpinnings most of them have in common: a belief that testable knowledge is more reliably accumulated through secular-rational methods rather than through enquiry guided by and seeking to serve the agenda of religious faith:

Richard Evans has pointed out that the history of history is littered with examples of different hegemonic claims by a given historical theory or practice wanting to dominate the world of historical study but usually ending up as legitimate subspecialities. 

Richard Evans was not addressing faith-histories versus secular histories. He was referring to the various approaches within secular history: postmodernists, psychohistorians, Marxists, feminists, social historians. Crossley has badly misunderstood and misapplied Evans’ point. (See Kindle version of Evans’ In Defence of History, locations 2744 and 3688)

It is not a question of one new method claiming hegemony only to be sidelined to a subspeciality. The real issue is well expressed by Niels Peter Lemche:

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. . . . (See The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship)

* Dennis Nineham made it clear in Use and Abuse of the Bible forty years ago that presumptions about the historical nature of the Bible’s narratives originated as theological convictions. Not that Nineham himself questions those historical origins of the gospel narratives.

We saw how Professor James Crossley lauded the works of Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders for the way they “can be seen as standing outside the conventional Christian circles of NT scholarship” and have, in his view, researched Christian origins as genuine historians “with theology on the back burner”. Crossley has failed to recognize that even Vermes and Sanders have begun with the theological assumption * that the Gospel narratives are derived from oral traditions relaying accounts of historical events.

Targeting Burton Mack and the Jesus Seminar

Crossley’s misguided moralism (there must be mutual tolerance . . . It would be foolish and arrogant to claim that one approach is inherently superior to opposing ones) turns to censure one of the more prominent scholars of the Jesus Seminar, Burton Mack, for his “lack of tolerance”. 

Burton Mack

This at first seems surprising since Burton Mack is above all interested in what Crossley has termed a “social scientific” approach to historical enquiry into Christian origins. Mack makes his historical approach clear in The Christian Myth:

Early Christians were not interested in the historical Jesus. They were interested in something else. So the question is whether that something else can be identified. (From the chapter “The Historical Jesus Hoopla”, p. 40)

To redescribe Christian origins as a history of human inventiveness would make of it a much more interesting story than any scenario painted by the gospels and Christian theologians. (From the chapter “On Redescribing Christian Origins”, p. 80)

A social theory of religion can explain Christian origins, including the mythmaking activities and ritual practices that emerged . . . (From the chapter, “Explaining Religion: A Theory of Social Interests”, p. 83)

One would expect from the above remarks that Mack and Crossley would be close intellectual companions. The following quotation could even be mistaken for Crossley’s own words. Mack is speaking of making

a significant contribution both to early Christian studies and to studies in the theory of myth and social formation. [To do so would be] remarkable when one considers the fact that the guild of New Testament studies has never made room for theoretical discussions of religion and society. (p. 215)

This echoes Crossley’s opening chapter theme of moving the study of Christian origins towards a secular approach that we have been discussing.

So why does Crossley not praise Mack as he did Vermes and Sanders?

Sadly [Mack’s] approach is not good enough. Many of Mack’s arguments, such as the case for the Cynic Jesus, are incredibly implausible. N. T. Wright carefully demolished Mack’s arguments in a prominent 1996 book that could hardly be ignored, yet Mack makes no attempt to respond. . . .

This must surely be done, as the Cynic Jesus gains virtually no support outside the small influence of the American Jesus Seminar.

It is no coincidence that Mack’s work does not take into account masses of detailed work, including the Semitic background to the Gospel traditions and European Q scholarship, and he does not engage with conservative scholarship such as Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) or prominent Jewish scholarship on the historical Jesus, such as Geza Vermes’s seminal Jesus the Jew trilogy.

By not interacting properly beyond his friends, Mack loses out . . . . [T]he academic engagement must be mutual. If it is not, it may be suggested that such an approach will have minimal influence beyond its small North American base. . . .

An openly secular approach to Christian origins thoroughly based in the humanities is an honorable dream, but it must take critical Gospel scholarship (conservative, liberal, or whatever) seriously. . . . The dominance of Christian scholarship really does need to be challenged, but its insights must not be ignored. (p. 33, my formatting and bolding)

* Crossley and Casey have often expressed some contempt for the “American” Jesus Seminar, sometimes reminding readers that there was also a (largely forgotten) British Jesus Seminar (or British New Testament Conference) 1985-1992.

The real influence of the (American) Jesus Seminar is well known despite many attempts in conservative publications to dismiss it. Mark Allan Powell in Jesus As a Figure in History : How Modern Historians View the Man From Galilee on p. 66 writes:

“The most noteworthy and controversial research on Jesus in recent years has been conducted by a group of scholars who call themselves “the Jesus Seminar.” . . . no student of Jesus as a figure in history can afford to ignore the Jesus Seminar.

“This group of scholars has also succeeded in capturing the attention of popular culture. Publications by and about the Jesus Seminar may be found in bookstores across America. Members have appeared on televised talk shows, and such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report have devoted cover stories to their work. Hollywood producer Paul Verhoeven . . .  is a member of the Seminar and is making a movie about Jesus based on the group’s work.”

N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 35 also acknowledged the undeniable influence of two of the Seminar’s leading lights:

Mack and Crossan have been, within the last decade, two of the most influential writers on Jesus and the gospels in North America.

That’s about as damning as one can get, at least until one actually turns to read Wright’s “careful demolition” of Mack’s arguments and makes a list of the “masses of detailed work” Mack supposedly ignores. (One also cannot help but detect a little twinge of envy with Crossley’s far from isolated back-handed swipe at the “insignificance” of the “American” Jesus Seminar.*)

Why the Labeling

Before I comment on Crossley’s evidently total satisfaction with Wright’s “careful demolition” of Mack’s argument here’s another observation by Niels Peter Lemche from the same article as the earlier quotation:

Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship. Part of being mainstream has to do with being reconciliatory – maybe with a touch of condescendence – asking people in the frontline to behave . . . . claiming the highest level of scholarship even though other interests may be at hand at the same side. . . .

The agenda behind labeling Mack as one who is “lacking in tolerance”, as one who “does not take into account masses of detailed work” and who “does not interact properly beyond his friends” is all about

. . . creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way . . . it can be sharpened . . . or it can be rude . . . The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you. . . . One simply and calmly states the evidence from outside the Bible that shows how unnecessary and how completely wrong the entire series of critical questionings has been. . .  Indeed, it is a necessity of the conservative argument . . .  that it makes at least a pretence of impartiality. . . . 

There is also the inevitable raising of the spectre of anti-semitism. Finally,

He is aiming at destroying the [radical critics] without ever engaging in a serious debate with them.

This tactic of avoiding serious debate is the way the early German and Dutch led Higher Criticism scholarship and even the early “Christ Myth” arguments were bypassed and it is what seems to have been happening to the Jesus Seminar.

Answering Crossley and Wright

Compare James Crossley’s treatment of Burton Mack:

  • Declare Mack’s arguments, especially for the Cynic Jesus, to be “incredibly implausible”, and that Wright has “completely demolished” them.
  • Facts: If one reads Wright’s “demolition” of the case for the Cynic Jesus in Jesus and the Victory of God one will see that
    • Wright actually addresses the Cynic Jesus argument (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 66-74) as presented by F. Gerald Downing and not Mack at all;
    • Wright acknowledges the plausibility of the thesis insofar as several prominent scholars had advanced the idea and also by acknowledging over several pages the evidence in its favour;
    • Wright faults the thesis primarily on two grounds:
      • the Cynic Jesus cannot explain why he was crucified or how he came to start Christianity
      • the Cynic Jesus is non-eschatological and therefore “not recognizably Jewish”.

Those two grounds for faulting the thesis are easily answered:

  • Mack argues that the Cynic Jesus did not start Christianity and that his disciples attributed no special significance to his death. Mack follows the trail blazed by Bultmann when he argues that Paul was responsible for the “Christ cult” and that it was the author of the Gospel of Mark who was the one responsible for merging the Cynic teacher with the Christ figure of Paul.
  • Wright’s view is that Second Temple Jews all held at least some “latent” expectation that a messiah would come to bring about an “end to history”. (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 308. He does not explain how generations can have a “latent” expectation, not widely or commonly expressed at all, that will somehow suddenly bloom out into the open given the right circumstances.)

What of Crossley’s last point?

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

Must not be ignored? We saw in the previous post the insights of Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders and the way they are nested entirely within the theological and cultural assumptions of historical roots to the Gospel narratives. And these are scholars whose methods are said to stand apart from those of the rest of “Christian scholarship”! What insights built upon a questionable assumption of the very nature of the gospel evidence itself should “not be ignored”? Should a secular scholar really “not ignore” Wright’s arguments for the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

(For the purposes of this post it is irrelevant whether one agrees with the Cynic Jesus hypothesis or not, or even if Jesus Seminar fellows still hold to it. The point is that it was a conclusion that was soundly argued through well set-out and justifiable methodology. Dismissing an argument by merely saying it “does not convince” or “is not persuasive” is a standard NT scholar’s manner of ignoring a point one does not like.)

Wright expressed ways in which his viewpoint and approach to questions differs from Mack’s (Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 35-44) and points to scholarship that disagrees with Mack’s views, especially in relation to Q, but does not address Mack’s actual arguments (“without ever engaging in a serious debate”).

Indeed, Wright makes much of an ad hominem argument. He finds Mack guilty of using his construction of a Cynic Jesus to disassociate “the real Jesus” from the apocalyptic American Republican Jesus of President Reagan’s days. The implication is that Mack’s research into Jesus is politically motivated.

If I were Mack I would be quite content to let my arguments stand on their own merits against the claims of Wright who scarcely engaged with them despite his ability to write at length explaining why they were wrong. Besides, Wright has an apologetic interest to prove the basic tenets of conservative Christianity, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus. What concourse hath light with Belial?

It does appear that Crossley is doing the work of conservative Christian scholars in sidelining potential allies in his desire for a social-scientific approach to Christian origins.

Targeting John Dominic Crossan

Foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time,...
Foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time, John Dominic Crossan @ Bellarmine University lecture. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Very early in the next chapter Crossley dismisses that other leading light of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, in the same way he dismissed Mack.

In case anyone cares (and why should they?), I do not agree with most of John Dominic Crossan’s portrait of Jesus and the earliest Christians. I do not agree with his use of primary sources. I do not find the associated Cynic thesis even remotely convincing. (p. 36)

One cannot send a clearer signal that one has no intention of engaging in serious debate with the actual arguments and methods of a peer.

But the appearance of impartiality is necessarily sustained:

But I do think that Crossan has developed a potentially powerful model for locating the origins of the Jesus movement in a precise social context . . . Primarily I am thinking of his use of the work of Gerhad E. Lenski and John H. Kautsky to develop a model of peasant unrest in agrarian societies, which I will supplement with the work of Eric Hobsbawm on peasants and politics.

And so we come full circle and meet up with a post I wrote in early 2010, “Why Christianity Happened”. Reviewing chapter 2 of James Crossley’s book.

Replacing methodical argument with an impressionistic reading

Having rejected the careful methodology of the Jesus Seminar that produced the “wrong Jesus”, a Cynic-like preacher instead of one like Geza Vermes’s “very Jewish” Hanina ben Dosa or Honi the Circle Drawer, Crossley must find a new Jesus as the starting point for what became Christianity.

He needs a Jesus who is going to conform to the “social-scientific” models of Lenski-Kautsky and Hobsbawm relating to discontent among the poor. So he casts his eye across the gospels and finds many sayings that relate to the poor and rich. Never mind that these same sorts of sayings can be found throughout the wisdom literature of the Middle East’s civilizations dating back millennia. For details see one of my posts on Thompson’s Messiah MythJesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon. (Crossley’s thesis supervisor, Maurice Casey, found his mind “boggled” when he read this book.) Many of the gospel sayings are also well known commonplaces in more contemporary philosophical maxims.

It therefore comes across as very naive to assume one can simply run one’s eyes over the gospels and conclude that references to the poor and rich are pointers to a particular political and socio-economic moment and place in Galilee.

What went wrong?

Once again we see the lesson of E. P. Sanders has not been taken far enough. Yes, a historian of Christian origins needs to know much more than the Biblical literature. But one ought not to stop short with later rabbinic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls either. The literary world that produced the gospels needs to be studied as deeply as any other evidence. The fundamentals of assessing what sorts of questions can be asked of any documents by means of ascertaining their provenance, independent verification and function cannot be ignored.

James Crossley certainly has the right idea with his desire to see more contributions to Christian origins studies from the secular approach. Unfortunately he has misguidedly thought that this can be done by somehow claiming his methods are not inherently superior to those of his opponents and embracing their fundamental (and actually theological) assumptions.


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16 thoughts on “A Secular Approach to Christian Origins Compromised by Faith and Theology”

  1. “James Crossley certainly has the right idea with his desire to see more contributions to Christian origins studies from the secular approach. Unfortunately he has misguidedly thought that this can be done by somehow claiming his methods are not inherently superior to those of his opponents and embracing their fundamental (and actually theological) assumptions.”

    I would argue that the problem is even worse than that – he completely undermines the value of a secular approach. If his suggested approach offers no greater utility than the dominant paradigm, why does “the dominance of Christian scholarship… need to be challenged”? Why opt for methodological change if it isn’t at issue?

  2. In my imaginary history, some fateful day in 1985 Maurice Casey walks out to his post box and finds a letter. It reads:

    Thank you for your interest in the Jesus Seminar. However, upon reviewing your credentials, the Westar Institute finds . . .

    Maurice pauses, sighs, and stares into the distance. The silence is broken only by the chirping of distant, solitary wren. He turns slowly and trudges back to the house.

    And so begins a lifelong hatred of the “American” Jesus Seminar, which he has passed on to his illustrious students. How differently things could have turned out if only . . .

  3. It seems to me that Crossley wants to use more reputable social-scientific methods and yet is compelled to use them in such a manner that the conclusions drawn therefrom stay within the limits of the biblical scholarship guild’s sense of political correctness: i.e., Christianity developed along the Acts-Eusebian model from an historical Jesus who is defined as an apocalyptic prophet who was crucified and “appeared” to his followers a bit later on the left, and as much the same but also a teacher, healer, the one who bodily rose from the dead and showed up to his disciples on the third day, and of course God in the Flesh on the right.

    Did I leave anything out?

    1. Crossley’s account starts with Jesus but he is not interested in elaborating on what that Jesus is like beyond anything that characterizes him as a Jew who well blended in with other Jews. His interest is in a model in which Christianity is not superior in any way to Judaism. He uses his models to explain how Christianity emerged from a condition commonly experienced by many Jews in the Galilee area (and near Sepphoris) and eventually became the gentile and antinomian religion we think of today.

      1. I should clarify: the “social-scientific” methods of Crossley are not applied to discovering the historical Jesus. The HJ is the chronological starting point from which he begins his inquiry. But it is necessary for him to have a Jesus so “Jewish” as to be indistinguishable, in essence, from other Jews (i.e. whatever is deemed “typically Jewish” must be Jesus!)

        Though we have seen how Crossley reacts with such sensitivity to any suggestion he is accusing scholars today of anti-semitism, there is no doubt that he rarely loses opportunities to express some moral disapproval of any model of Jesus that does not conform to “typical Jewishness”. Such models are generally compared with those from eras where at least the influence of anti-semitism was, in his word, “undeniable”.

        Of course this model of Jesus (which assumes a uniform rabbinic-like characterization of Jewishness in the Second Temple era) is necessary for his and Casey’s argument that the Gospel of Mark was written originally within 5 to 10 years of Jesus’ death. Such a Jesus allows Crossley to argue that Mark could assume so much about Jesus’ “Jewishness” that he did not need to even spell it out (hence modern interpreters generally think Mark’s Jesus was opposed to some Jewish law observances), and this argues for a very early dating of the gospel.

  4. Not that I disagree with the overall thrust of the presentation here, but I wonder if there was in Crossley’s text a better counterpoint to hold up as good scholarship than the Jesus Seminar, a group that did many of the things that you (rightly) find problematic in historical Jesus studies:
    — Use of the “Jesus criteria”. They used them. A lot.
    — Methods not used by secular historians. Secular historians don’t go through a text voting sayings or stories in or out with colored marbles.
    — Questionable presuppositions. They loved their Gospel of Thomas. They loved their Q document, too. At least that one had the consensus of the time behind it, although I think the idea of breaking it up into layers as they did (hypothetical layers of a hypothetical document) was silly even then and just looks bad now as belief in Q crumbles.
    — Creating a Jesus that was just what the researcher/author wanted Jesus to be. Many people pointed out that the Cynic Jesus just happened to be a great fit for secular liberal professor-types, who dominated the Seminar.

  5. I actually think the Jesus Seminar has been unfairly treated by many of its opponents. The voting system was not the way they analysed the texts but simply the procedure they used for surveying the conclusions of the Fellows. I see nothing wrong with that. Scholars are always pointing out the extent to which peers embrace a certain view of things. It’s not as if they counted up what scholars irrationally felt or dreamed they’d like to be true.

    The use of the Gospel of Thomas was not a presupposition but based on a coherently argued case. Dittof for Q. They weren’t assumptions. They were conclusions based on a detailed analysis of the data. The layers in Q likewise were more than merely “hypothetical”. Their hypothesis was tested. It was a very thorough and detailed analysis and sifting of the texts. It was discussed and debated by many heads, not just one. Mack was quite right when he later wrote that many who object to Q do so without really having studied the arguments for themselves. That is even more true, I think, of those who laugh at the proposal that Q had layers of redaction.

    As for the end-result Jesus, I think the Cynic-liberal professor comparison is cheap and inaccurate. Borg’s Jesus in his book was a spiritual mystic, not a worldly Cynic philosopher. That spiritual-mystic Jesus is the one that matches Borg’s personal spirituality, if anything does. Crossan’s Jesus is seen to be the Irish rebel, and that has been compared with Crossan. But the Cynic side is something that is tagged on to that “Mediterranean peasant” image. Had the evidence gone any other way, say towards apocalypticism, then that could have been tagged on, too.

    I don’t see anything “secular” about most of the Jesus Seminar Fellows. They were for most part believing Christians who would write confessional notes in their works about Jesus.

    I would love to have seen Crossley seriously tackle anything produced by the Jesus Seminar. At the same time I cannot imagine him ever attempting it. (If he did I would not expect anything more “sophisticated” that Maurice Casey’s “reviews”.) Indeed, after reading Crossley and then turning again by way of reminder into the books of Mack and Crossan is, frankly, embarrassing. It leaves one embarrassed that a professor today could so blithely dismiss the works of scholars whose works immediately hit one as so very much more coherent, sophisticated, knowledgeable, skilled and intelligent. Crossley looks like an amateur feather-weight scoffing from across the ocean at the world heavy-weight champions.

    1. Fair enough reply. I agree at least that there were plenty of cheap shots taken against the Seminar and that the fact that they didn’t come up with an apocalyptic Jesus (or perhaps a bit less “Jewish” Jesus than is currently fashionable) ought not to have been quite the problem that they were for a lot of people.

    2. I notice the following in Funk’s and the Seminar’s The Gospel Jesus on the often much ridiculed voting question:

      Voting is a traditional method among biblical scholars to determine whether or not there is a consensus and if so, what its magnitude may be. (p. 108)

  6. Neil: this could be your greatest post ever.

    And by the way? Looks like we should all mention Burton Mack first of all, whenever anyone claims there are no professional religious scholars who are Mythicists.

    1. It’s a pity James Crossley won’t read this or engage with it — unless it is to respond with another patronizing remark and one that interprets me to be saying the exact opposite of what I do in fact write. There was once a time I actually looked forward to the possibility of discussing these things with Crossley, but that was before I got to learn a little about the types of people his friends (Maurice Casey, Stephanie Fisher, Tom Verenna) and he himself were.

  7. Msurice Casey completely misrepresented Roger Parvus’ take on what Jerome had to say about Paul’s celebrated words being found in the Ascension of Isaiah. What you’d expect from the son of a clergyman
    Unforgivable. Crossan is still gathering pottery shards trying to prove Jesus had a Franciscan social conscience and was at least part Irish.

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