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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why Christianity Happened: Social History and Secular Approaches

The first major chapter is, for reasons that should become obvious, the most polemical chapter in the entire book. Perhaps with the exception of the evangelical reaction to my use of social networks, I have had a bit of stick from the odd individual (not many it has to be said and some of the conservative bloggers have not had a problem - a nice surprise!) for parts of this chapter.

The idea of explaining an aspect of change in Christian origins more through social scientific and secular approaches should be an obvious thing to do. However, the history of the discipline of Christian origins has shown that theology, description and even the supernatural have absolutely dominated, despite the constant rhetoric of ‘doing good history’. I make no claims of neutrality here, merely more perspectives.

The history of social scientific and social historical perspectives (for convenience I label both approaches social scientific from now on) in NT studies has had a patchy history. One of the great puzzles of social scientific criticism is its virtual absence between the 1920s/1930s and the 1970s. Up to 1930s there were various attempts by Deissmann, Troeltsch and Harnack, along with the ‘Chicago School’. There were Marxist contributions from Karl Kautsky and Friedrich Engels. But after this period there were only isolated examples such as E. Judge before the thoroughgoing approaches starting again in the late 1960s and early1970s.

One standard explanation for this seemingly strange fact is the influence of Barth and dialectical theology in contrast to the social gospel of liberal Christianity. The gospel, from this perspective, was radically other. At this time form criticism was also developing. Form criticism promised much with its emphasis on setting in life but realistically it was largely setting in faith.

I see nothing wrong with these two explanations but they need heavy qualification. Form criticism also emerged at the time of German fascism and many well known German scholars and contributors to the early editions of TDNT were committed Nazis. The natural consequence of this is a reluctance to analyse the social (and therefore frequently Jewish) context of the Christian traditions. Even after WWII plenty of NT scholars who were opponents of the Nazis were anti-Jewish in their theology, as Sanders devastatingly showed.The social context of Christian origins would not flourish in this context.

To understand just how odd this omission was, it is worth looking at the discipline of history in the mid-C20. The French Annalists (e.g. Febvre, Bloch, Braudel) were providing some of the most creative interdisciplinary approaches to history. Marxist historians were also providing all sorts of new readings in history and themselves were producing major figures in historical writing (e.g. Hobsbawm, Hill, Thompson, Hilton, etc.). At this time the study of Christian origins produced nothing of the sort. Why?

Well, one key reason was that much of the social sciences were associated with Marxism and, not least in the context of the Cold War, this also meant atheism. I give a range of NT scholars (from the Evangelisch-sozialer Kongress right up to the present) and prominent Christians expressing a hostility to Marxism and its atheistic connotations. My favourite example remains Bornkamm’s attack on the Bolsheviks in the middle of his book on the historical Jesus (not to mention most space given to attacking such figures in his review of Sermon on the Mount). The threat of the Cold War included other issues e.g. a threat to liberty and free thinking, something many NT scholars had fought long and hard for. The Communist Party Historians’ Group (which included figures like Hobsbawm and Hill) did have intellectual constraints imposed on them, even though they disapproved. Anti-Stalinist EP Thompson even found Stalinist elements in the first edition of his work on William Morris and he was more than happy to tell himself off about this! There were also the problems with Communism in light of the events of 1956-57, not to mention the earlier questioning of Soviet morality by Orwell. All of this would only add to the suspicion for NT scholars.

Another problem of the association of Marxism with social sciences (and the Annalists) was that there was always the tendency to downplay the role of the individual in favour of broader socio-economic trends, something Christian scholars were never going to like, what with Jesus and Paul! And let’s not forget that the charismatic leader became one of the most significant models in subsequent social scientific criticism, not to mention the constant re-emphasising that social scientific methods do not explain away Christian origins. This was a big loss for Christian origins as plenty of non-Marxists (e.g. Braudel) were not over-keen on the role of the individual.

The social upheavals of the 1960s were to change things, as reflected in the recollections of the early pioneers of social scientific criticism (e.g. J. H. Elliott). Moreover, at this time non-Marxist social history with its increasing use of anthropology, was developing (e.g. K. Thomas). Weber was also being translated in to English and started turning up left, right and centre in NT studies.

What this shows, I think, are the problems of one social group (Christians) dominating the discipline. They had very good reasons to be wary (to put it mildly) of Soviet Communism but, unlike historians, the Christian perspective could not welcome social scientific or Marxian insights and this was a great loss.

I then move on to the importance of partisanship using historians and philosophers of history in order to stress the importance of secular perspectives and illustrate the Christian dominance of the field. The major societies are overwhelming Christian, Christians for obvious reasons already have a structural advantage with seminaries and theological colleges (and this can’t be helped of course). Moreover, would, for example, another discipline hold a prayer before a conference as the BNTC (with no official party line as far as I know) did in 2000, not to mention similar practices at other conferences? This, I think, is not good academic practice and allows (rightly or wrongly) some historically bizarre views to get a good airing (e.g. the resurrection really happened and can be proved!) NT Wright’s work along with other approaches to the resurrection gets reviewed in this context. Overall, of course, no matter how honest and rigorous individual scholars are, this means that the ways in which the questions are framed will be Christianized.

I then move on to those with ‘different’ perspectives, e.g. Vermes and his Judaism, Sanders and his concern to act as a conventional ancient historian, an increasing number of women in the discipline, to show how they all bring new and important questions and how this can be an inspiration for future perspectives (working class, non-Western, and secular). I also critique those secular views that ignore or reject Christian perspectives in the historical study of Christian origins. My main point here is to make the historical and academic study of Christian origins much more open to all perspectives while not ignoring the insights of Christian scholars (no matter how weird I may think some Christian perspectives!). But still, I do think that there needs to be some change in the ideological make up of the discipline, otherwise it will largely remain the justifications of various Christians, continuing intra-Christian disputes often in secular universities. The rest of the book is designed to provide a secular perspective on historical change i.e. one not grounded in the supernatural or the great individuals and one, building on the work of social scientific approaches to Christian origins, grounded in socio-economic reasons as various historians in history departments have been doing for decades.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Ulrich Schmid said...

James Crossley:
"[1] Form criticism also emerged at the time of German fascism and [2] many well known German scholars and contributors to the early editions of TDNT were committed Nazis. [3] The natural consequence of this is a reluctance to analyse the social (and therefore frequently Jewish) context of the Christian traditions."

Although I won't dispute [1] and [2] for obvious reasons (because considered factually true), I wonder whether [3] really is a "natural consequence" thereoff, let alone a factually observable consequence. The TDNT, esp. the first two vols. lay heavy emphasis on the OT/Jewish (social) "background" of NT vocabulary, not the least due to the contributions of K.H. Rengstorf (e.g. his famous article on apostolos). Even G. Kittel the ill-famed editor of TDNT is considered to have been an authority on Judaism of (Late) Antiquity in his days.

Please note, I do not comment on the scholarly merits of their contributions to the analysis of "the social (and therefore frequently Jewish) context of the Christian traditions", much of which must be considered outdated, to put it mildly. I simply don't buy your syllogism. It certainly needs heavy qualification.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Of course, I am only summarising what I wrote. If I understand you correctly, one of the problems I am dealing with is the role of form critic in New Testament studies and therefore different to the study of Judaism itself which of course happened, not to mention it influencing understanding of Judaism.

What I was trying to explain is why form criticism for all its emphasis on setting in life did not include manage to include any stress on social context. Remember there was a consistent emphasis in historical Jesus studies (and Paul) to make them very different from their cultural context and the same kind of thing happens with form criticism I think. All this is different from the idea of Judaism being studied.

Have I answered the question fairly?

October 20, 2006

 
Anonymous Ulrich Schmid said...

I completely agree that the form critical concept of "Sitz im Leben" only rather anecdotally/romantically/antithetically touched on social context. Besides, "Sitz im Leben" for a range of
Gospel texts has been lumped under headings like "urchristlicher Gottesdienst/Paränese/Kate-
chese", which do not seem to be particularly apt categories for studying the cultural context of
earliest Christianity.

My previous comment, however, was directed againt your point that German fascism/nazism and
the political inclinations of German NT scholars in these times somehow naturally led to neglec-
ting "the social (and therefore frequently Jewish) context of the Christian traditions". At least,
that's what I gathered from your passage I quoted.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

I suspect that is more do to with the generalising nature of my comments. I would distance myself from the idea that anything is 'natural' in history. I suspect my generalising comments were also influenced by hindsight where I think it is possible to argue that political context of form criticism, led to the strange omission of social context, strange because there were historians in history departments doing the exact opposite. Of course different things happen at the individual level but as a generalisation I think the political context helps (but only partly helps) explain the omission of social context.

October 20, 2006

 
Anonymous Ulrich Schmid said...

James Crossley:
"I suspect my generalising comments were also influenced by hindsight where I think it is possible to argue that political context of form criticism, led to the strange omission of social context, strange because there were historians in history departments doing the exact opposite."

What theology departments are you comparing to what history departments and from what times?

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Theology depts in general (esp. UK and Germany) and history depts in general (esp. Europe), in the early-mid C20.

One of the more notable differences (in terms ofthe historical study of Christian origins) is the significant interest in social history among historians such as Annalists and Marxists. Of course, there were plenty of what we might now call old fashioned historians around in Germany and the UK with major emphasis on the great figures of history and high politics. In fact it might be fair to say this remined the dominant form of history in the West. But there were plenty of important alternatives.

The interesting thing for me is that the option for a more social historical approach to form criticism was present from an early date. In 1925 Cullmann had suggested that FC should become more sociological, at least in terms of the transmission of traditions. Yet, for various reasons I mentioned, this was not taken up. This is why I think it is valuable to compare what was happening elsewhere in history departments and the discipline of history.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

In your earlier post you wrote: "For all the excellent work done in social scientific criticism of the NT, the stress is rarely (with honourable excpetions) on explaining why we get from A to B (to put it crudely) but rather on description, e.g. what this text would be like in its ancient context, how it illuminates theology etc."

I think this is sharp. I do understand why many go descriptive (which is hypothetical enough), as far too many A->B theories die on the altar of alternatives--i.e., death by nuance/qualification, inability to rise above the fray by smashing all other alternatives (this is proving to be a challeng in my thesis...if only because of word count I'm alloted!), etc.

From your British perspective, what do you make of the feasibility of including the sort of ideological history/analysis as backdrop to a question in one's dissertation? Does this go beyond method, or can it prove useful in articulating why a certain track is taken methodologically or in the data one chooses to study? (I believe Nathan MacDonald did something like this in his OT dissertation, on the intellectual history of the concept of monotheism and the way in which it was imported into OT studies and the study of Deuteronomy in particular.)

What's your take on the Jewish/(predominantly)non-Jewish view of the two feedings (former Jewish/latter largely Gentile/Gk)? Where do you go with the Syrophonecian woman (particularly if you take the above-mentioned track)?

BTW, just got Fortress's material in the mail, and this book is not only on for half off; one can order it at that price any time from now to the end of the year. Excellent.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

er, make that WJK, not Fortress...yikes.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger Jim said...

Ulrich makes some excellent points. Perhaps you should request him to be a guest blogger and then you two could have a genuinely fascinating debate. I for one would love to see that.

And now, I am looking forward even more to your book's appearance.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Oh, the WJK people will be after you now Jason!

Now let's see if I understand you correctly. The A-B appraoches can always be qualified (one of the ways Marxist analysis was able to ake it into the mainstream of historical studies) but that doesn't render such approaches problematic for me and they are not necessarily contradictory. The more insight the merrier!

On the use in dissertation, that isn't so easy to work out. Any creative approaches ought to be rewarded so long as they are don properly etc. and it will have to be tied in with the question. But if you are working on a historical issue I see no reason why this could not be done (though word limit is always an issue) and why you shouldn't get serious credit for a creative approach.

As for the feeding miracles: you'll have to wait! I'll be blogging on that in the upcoming days.

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Jim, I was also glad to see comments like those of Ulrich because that makes a lot of this worthwhile for me.

And Ulrich would of course be absolutely welcome to do a guest post on something like the history of NT scholarship!

October 20, 2006

 
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

Thanks JC. Certainly A->B is well worth the effort...I just understand why most don't try to do it, at least not often.

Do you dare to predict tomorrow's score, and can you predict A->B cause effect (ManU's lack of summer spending power, or the value of sticking with potent veterans and sparkling youngsters)? Or are there too many variables?

October 21, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Oh that's easy. Taking in to account the various factors, e.g. Scholes' 500th game, time for Rio to score, and the uselessness of Kuyt. So after taking these things into consideration, how does 2-0 sound?

October 22, 2006

 

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