Tag Archives: Crossley: Why Christianity Happened

Good Bias, Hidden Bias and the Phantom of Jesus in Christian Origin Studies

whychristianityhappenedThis post continues on from The Secular Approach to Christian Origins, #3 (Bias) and addresses the next stage of Professor James Crossley’s discussion on what he believes is necessary to move Christian origins studies out from the domination of religious bias and into the light of secular approaches.

In the previous post we covered Crossley’s dismay that scholarly conferences in this day and age would open with prayer, look for ecumenical harmonizations through all the differences of opinions and tolerate warnings against straying from the basic calling to feed Christ’s flock with spiritual nourishment. Theologians can even seriously publish arguments that would never be found in other fields of history as we see with N.T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity of the bodily resurrection and the widespread acclaim that his scholarship has attracted among his peers.

Crossley argues that the solution to Faith’s domination of Christian origin studies is for more practitioners to take up a solid secular approach. There should be more scholars in Theology or Religion departments doing history the way other historians do. Or more specifically, they should take up social-scientific methods of history.

In fact, however, the social scientific approach to historical inquiry is only one of many types of historical studies open to other historians but Crossley does not address these alternatives in this book. Crossley is concerned with applying only models of economic and social explanations for the rise of Christianity. He wants to avoid the common current approaches that explain Christian origins as the accomplishments of a unique man or the inevitable victory of a superior belief system.

Having addressed the way Christian bias (or more politely, partisanship) has produced “unnatural” historical explanations for Christianity Crossley turns to two examples of how “partisanship” has actually worked to produce positive results and taken historical studies a step closer towards a more “human” or “natural” account.

A Tale of Two Scholars

Two biographies are his primary exhibits.

What I will do here is show how details and biases of a given scholar’s life can affect the discipline — in other words, how partisanship can work in practice. . . . I think the [biographical] details are important because they provide crucial insights into the ways in which the discipline has been shaped and can be shaped. I also feel a bit naked without them. (p. 27)

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Why Christianity Happened: Origins of the Pauline Mission” (reviewing ch. 5 of James Crossley’s book)

Arkansas Mass Baptism 2nd effortEarlier I reviewed chapter 2 of Why Christianity Happened by James Crossley, and here I look at his final chapter (5), “Recruitment, Conversion, and Key Shifts in Law Observance: The Origins of the Pauline Mission“.

I was curious to understand what Crossley had to say in favour of a social history approach to explaining how antinomian Pauline Christianity can be explained if the earliest Christian movement began among circumcising, sabbath-keeping, synagogue-worshiping, food-law observant Jews. Crossley seeks to explain Christianity’s origins through socioeconomic paradigms. Social history, he argues, is where the truly historical explanations lie.

Paul’s views on the law and justification by faith can thus be seen as an intellectual reaction to and justification of a very down-to-earth and messy social problem. (p.172)

I fully agree with attempting to explain Christian origins in secular terms and according to the models of the social sciences and socioeconomic models where possible. Unfortunately, his attempt to explain the origins of the Jesus movement through the Lenski-Kautsky and Hobsbawm observations of how certain social movements arise flounders on the absence of evidence, or misapplication of Gospel evidence, as discussed in my earlier review of chapter 2.

The problems facing Crossley’s explanation in that chapter, and in chapter 5 which I will address here, arise from the default assumption that the narrative outline of the Gospels and Acts is grounded in genuine history. Although he treats these texts as if their narratives contain allusions to the real historical origins of early Christianity, he at no time justifies this assumption. (See “footnote in the box at end of this post for further discussion of this point.)

The trap laid by the assumption of the historicity of Gospels-Acts

When Crossley (or any) historian locks himself into the Gospel-Acts’ narrative paradigm of Christian origins he is stuck with just a single form of Christianity and must find a way of explaining how so many extremely variant forms of Christianity read more »

“Why Christianity Happened”. Reviewing chapter 2 of James Crossley’s book

There’s a lot I like about James Crossley’s publications. I found myself relating in many ways to his views expressed in “Jesus in an Age of Terror”. We have a lot in common politically, and I share some of his views on the peculiar scholarship that Christian dominance of biblical studies has generated. I have  referred to his observation on the relationship between a scholarly emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and broader socio-political changes since World War 2 , alongside April DeConick’s similar views of the evolving treatment of Judas in the same context, and built on both of these to suggest a similar explanation for the post War changes in scholarly views on the evidence of Josephus for Jesus.

I have also appreciated his calls for far more involvement of traditionally nonbiblical methodologies to be applied to biblical studies. However, here I only go along with half his proposal. Crossley expects nonbiblical scholars to engage seriously with the insights of Christian scholarship (p. 33 of Why Christianity Happened). There are many insights worth serious attention.

What Crossley is calling for is an application of secular models and explanations for the origins of Christianity. A history of ideas and theology needs to take second place to hard economic and social realities as dynamics that explain Christianity. Fair enough, but I see a bigger problem with Jesus studies that Crossley overlooks.

What needs addressing are flawed methodologies and assumptions that would never be tolerated in historical studies of other academic disciplines, and that even Crossley appears to accept without question.

I get these out of the way first before going on to discuss the specifics of his socioeconomic explanation for the rise of Christianity.

The fallacy underlying nearly all historical Jesus studies

Hobsbawm on method

Crossley draws in part on insights of the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm’s studies of bandits and bandit culture in South America. But Hobsbawm’s statements about methods for evaluating sources and determining whether or not a narrative (whether oral, written or even an eye-witness report) has any historical basis to it, ought to embarrass any and all biblical historians who study the Gospel narratives with the assumption they must contain some historical core.

In no case can we infer the reality of any specific ’social bandit’ merely from the ‘myth’ that has grown up around him. In all cases we need independent evidence of his actions. (p.142)

From p.24 of A Contra Corriente: a Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America (2004)

Schweitzer on method

This echoes a remark by Albert Schweitzer about the presumption of historicity that cannot be brought to the Gospel narratives about Jesus simply because they lack “independent evidence” or external controls:

Moreover, in the case of Jesus,. . .  there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty [of there being a historical basis to the narratives] cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.

This basic principle is really simple logic and normal “street smarts” and should not even be controversial. But when it comes to the studies of Jesus, my experience tells me it is very controversial, so controversial that it is silenced and excluded from the discussion, or scorned and ridiculed if it intrudes.

Davies on method

It was controversial when applied to “Old Testament” studies by Philip R. Davies in 1992. Back then he argued in a ground-breaking monograph, In Search of Ancient Israel, that we need to confirm the events of the Bible independently of the Bible itself. This means comparing the Bible record with other historical records. It is naïve to take any book, the Bible included, at face value. We need supporting evidence to know when it was written and if its stories have any truth behind them. (See my outline of notes from Davies’ book on my vridar.info website.)

Schwartz on method

And I never tire of reminding anyone willing to listen that this basic method of determining historicity of a narrative was warned about way back in 1904:

only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

The exceptionalism of biblical/Jesus studies

So why do nearly all historical Jesus or Christian origin studies begin with the assumption that the Gospel narrative, without any independent evidence or external control, contains evidence of real history?

How is it that scholars of biblical studies can get away with declaring a particular action or saying as “historical” ultimately on the basis that they can’t think of a reason why anyone would just make it up, or that it is so embarrassing (to somebody, usually the author, although we don’t know who the author was) it must be true?

How is it that in the case of the Gospels, scholars can determine what is “historical” solely on the basis of analyzing the narrative details themselves and comparing these details with what we know from independent sources of the geographic or other background setting of the narrative?

Can anyone imagine Eric Hobsbawm declaring a particular bandit to have been genuinely historical on the basis of this sort of analysis of a written narrative? Goodness, he had a reputation to maintain!

The need for independent attestation of the Gospel narrative does not exist with this area of biblical studies.

Why does it appear that biblical studies, in particular any studies relating to the Gospel narrative, are exempt from the norms that require independent witness to verify their historical status?

But this is just the beginnings of what I find lacking in Crossley’s attempt to find a socioeconomic cause for the birth of Christianity.

Peasant Unrest and the Emergence of Jesus’ Specific View of the Law

This is the title of Crossley’s second chapter, and where I begin with this post. This title indicates that there is something unique or special about Jesus’ particular view of the Law that can be directly explained as a response to the socioeconomic conditions of Galilee. However, in his explanation, he grants that the same “specific view of the Law” is one found “deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition”. So I am forced to wonder what was so “specific” about Jesus’ view that requires a particular socioeconomic situation to explain.

Jesus’ view of the law reflected a key aspect of his general teaching: the immense problems that come with socioeconomic inequality. The relationship between socioeconomic reality and the Torah is quite explicit in such texts as Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 16:19-31. These related concerns are not difficult to find in Jewish law: they are deeply embedded in the Pentateuch, biblical tradition, and post biblical tradition. But why do such concerns run consistently and densely throughout Jesus’ teaching? Why specifically did Jesus’ concerns emerge when and where they did? These questions are crucial because Jesus emerged at a time and in a place of socioeconomic upheaval that eventually resulted in full-scale revolts against Rome. (p. 35)

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“Partisanship” in New Testament Scholarship

Utrecht 11 Feb 09 (25)
Image by jimforest via Flickr

In 2006 James Crossley‘s Why Christianity Happened was published. (James G. Crossley belongs to the University of Sheffield, the same whose Biblical Studies program was the subject of international controversy late last year, and with which a recent commenter on this blog was heatedly involved.) As “a sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)” (the book’s subtitle) I found it left much unanswered, but I did find some of his remarks in his introductory chapter on the history of New Testament historiography and its application of social sciences of interest. Here are a few excerpts:

Will always get largely Christian results

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)

A dubious academic field

Crossley cites Maurice Casey as noting that, although major British universities do indeed genuinely hire on merit, “when some 90 percent or more of the applicants are Protestant Christians, a vase majority of Christian academics is the natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles . . .  The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one.

Crossley remarks with regret that the September 2000 annual British New Testament Conference “opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer. . .”

should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening . . . ? . . . 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?

Turning back the Enlightenment

Crossley points to “a particularly significant example”, a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”. Such groups “often require defenses against accusations of reductionism and secularism.” (p. 23)  He remarks on Philip Esler addressing fellow delegates at a 1994 conference with:

Then we too may reach Emmaus, having had the experience described in the words from the Scots version of Luke’s Gospel as read at the liturgy . . . . (p.24)

Despite the diverse views of the delegates at this St Andrews Conference on New Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences,

crucially, all the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith.

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard 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. (p. 16)

I had thought the Enlightenment was a good thing, and secularism in academia the way forward to further enlightenment. Even as a staunch Christian I used to thank both God and the Devil for allowing secularism to bring tolerance for all and the possibility of unfettered enquiry. (Well, maybe I am now thinking I wished I had thanked the Devil too.)

Resurrection and Virgin Birth

Crossley continues:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made and most frequently in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. 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. In this context, major proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the bodily resurrection not happening are often regarded (rightly or wrongly (sic)) as mavericks.

We recently saw this illustrated almost verbatim by Associate Professor of Butler University James McGrath. (In my Did Jesus Exist on Youtube post I discuss how James made that statement — that “a historian” cannot study the resurrection so he must study “the crucifixion” and explain Christianity with reference to that.)

Historically naïve (twice over)

Crossley comments on a work titled An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus. The “interdisciplinary” should not be confused with contributors coming from fields as diverse as ancient history, history, sociology or anthropology. No, the term covers, rather, the comparatively inbred fields of Christian theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

Crossley remarks on the historical naivety of one of the contributors of this volume (Gerald O’Collins) when he asks:

What are we to make of the moral probity of Mark in creating such a fictional narrative (and one that touches on an utterly central theme in the original Christian proclamation) and of the gullibility of the early Christians (including Matthew and Luke) in believing and repeating his fiction as if it were basically factual narrative?

Crossley comments on O’Collins’ question:

This is far too rooted in modern concepts of truth and ignores the well-known fact that people in the ancient world created fictional stories of past events, including ones that are utterly central for their beliefs: for example, Joseph and Aseneth on table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles or b. B. Mesi’a 59b on rejecting the legal authority of the wonder-working and divine-voice-supported R.  Eliezar. These are serious issues for the Jews involved, but no historian thinks the stories really happened, no historian should criticize ancient authors of immorality simply on the general point of inventing historical scenarios. (p.25)

So near and yet so far. James Crossley himself fails to see how cocooned his own thinking is in the assumed historical grounding of the Gospel narratives. Gerald O’Collins is addressing a point that needs honest examination at far more than the ethical issue of supposed “ancient concepts of honesty”. But that’s for another post another time.

The N.T. Wright phenomenon

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