Tag Archives: Origins of Christianity

Why Christianity Happened – The Secular Approach, 2

Continuing from Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

James Crossley seeks to explain what he calls the “puzzle” of the nearly complete failure of biblical scholars to apply “social-scientifically informed approaches” (p. 3) to the study of Christian origins between the 1920s and 1970s. Crossley is actually addressing two types of historical explanation: those that cover the social context of emerging Christianity and those that apply what would more correctly be called “social-scientific” — the application of “social-scientific methods, models and theories”.

Behind the several reasons he offers for the failure of biblical scholars to take up either of these historical inquiries stands one constant:

the need to make sure that Christianity is not explained away purely in human terms. (p. 17)

Karl Kautsky
Karl Kautsky

One of the two exceptional authors whom Crossley singles out as being responsible for a theoretically based social-economic explanation for the rise and spread of Christianity was Karl Kautsky. Crossley doesn’t quote Kautsky on this point but his words are worth noting in order to demonstrate that the ideological interest of theologians has been recognized from the beginning of ‘scientific’ historiography as the reason for their resistance to it:

It is no wonder then that secular historiography feels no great need for investigating the origins of Christianity if it starts from the view that Christianity was the creation of a single person. If this view were correct, we could give up studying the rise of Christianity and leave its description to our poetic theologians.

But it is a different matter as soon as we think of a world-wide religion not as the product of a single superman but as a product of society. Social conditions at the time of the rise of Christianity are very well known. And the social character of early Christianity can be studied with some degree of accuracy from its literature. (Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, 1908, 1923, translated by Henry F. Mins, 1953, my bolding in all quotations)

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Why Christianity Happened — Toward a Secular Approach to Christian Origins

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: read more »

How the Jewish leaders could have wiped out Christianity the day it started

There is one explanation for the crucifixion of Jesus that seems to be almost taken for granted in much of the literature I read on the origins of Christianity, and that is that Pilate had Jesus crucified as a political rebel. The gospel accounts deny this, of course, but that is explained by their authors wanting to present their crucified leader in the best possible light. So they depict Pilate as pressured against his own better judgement to allow the crucifixion of an innocent man. Since the gospels were written long after the events they narrate, let’s leave them aside for a moment and ask again how the Christian movement could ever have started if Jesus really had been crucified as a suspicious crowd attractor who was seen by some as a potential King.

Firstly, here are some of the more obvious reasons for the argument that Jesus was executed by Rome for a political crime.

  1. The crime was written above the cross, except that in the Gospel’s case what was written was not, “He claimed to be King of the Jews”, but that he was the King of the Jews.
  2. Pilate asked Jesus at his trial if he were the King of the Jews, and not, oddly, whether he claimed to be their king. Furthermore, the rest of the hearing before Pilate simply ignores this charge and goes on to dramatize Pilate becoming mesmerized by Jesus over his silence in the face of a host of other charges, the nature of which we are left ignorant.
  3. Jesus is said in the gospels to have attracted crowds of thousands and spoken about a kingdom of God, and in one gospel it is even said that the crowds hoped to make him their king on the spot. But Jesus fled.
  4. Josephus informs us of a few other messianic type leaders who attracted large followings, and how the Romans came in and liquidated them without bothering with questions or formal proceedings of any kind.

Scholarly reconstructions generally paint the following steps as taking place to get Christianity up and running

  1. Close followers of Jesus had been so deeply impressed by him that after his shocking death many came to still sense that Jesus was still a present force with them.
  2. They came to think of him as still alive — within them.
  3. They could not help but continue to preach about Jesus and to convert others over time to their faith.
  4. A few fundamentalist tract authors who are accepted as part of the scholarly guild even insist their hundreds of pages of publications prove Jesus really did miraculously rise from the dead and appear to his disciples, as per a mix of the gospel accounts.

One feature in common with all scenarios presented is that the Jewish politico-religious establishment wanted Jesus dead, or at least out of the way. It is generally accepted that they knew they were bringing a false accusation against Jesus when they accused him before Pilate of political treason. This was the one charge they calculated would stick and trouble the Roman governor.

So now we come to where this all leaves us concerning the question of how Christianity ever got off the ground.

When those disciples started preaching to others about Jesus, and explaining how they believed he was still alive, and how they were continuing to dedicate their lives to him and his work, then what was to stop the Jewish leaders from sending a quick missive off to Pilate or the new Roman governor charging his followers with attempting to stir up a renewed following of one crucified as an enemy of Caesar?

Or when/if they had their own Temple police arrest the disciples, as we are told they did in Acts, then why not simply march them off to the Roman judge and ask him to finish off phase 2 of the job? He’d crucified the head, now it was necessary to crucify the limbs. No problems.

And when Paul faced Jewish persecutors at every turn, why did not a single one of those persecutors seem to think to bring the one charge that could have put a very abrupt end to Paul’s influence: Paul was attempting to build up a following for an enemy of Caesar!

We know why that never enters the New Testament narrative, of course. The authors were writing a certain plot and were controlling the actions and dialogues of the characters they were bringing to life through pen and ink.

The author of Acts ensured that the disciples themselves maintained the initiative in all the debates with the Jewish authorities. The latter were so overwhelmed by the power of these renewed lives and all the miracles from God that attended them, that they were, let’s see, simply too dumbstruck to think of the more logical and practical responses that would normally have happened in any historical real-life circumstance. — that is, repeat the charges that had led to their first victory, and the second time around maybe have them all crucified upside down for good measure for daring to have such stubbornness.

I seem to recall I read Paula Fredriksen’s book about the crucifixion of Jesus — and addressing the question of why the disciples were ignored — some years back, and recall pencilling in remarks on nearly every page since I found the book as shoddy a piece of scholarship as some of the worst of Bauckham and N.T. Wright’s. I hope to get access to that book again in a month or two and will have to see if she adds anything that I should recall in the above argument.

Till then, the scholarly view that Jesus was crucified as a political rebel only serves to explain how Christianity could never possibly have got a leg up in the first place.

But I suppose that’s why miracles and divine intervention are such handy narrative tools.

So we are left with options. Either take the NT as it is, more or less; accept an historical analysis that raises more questions than it answers; . . . . or or or . . . .


My Zemanta [now defunct] tried to find me a picture of twelve crucifixions and this was the closest it could retrieve. A 12 (string) Passion — quite clever for a machine, I thought 🙂