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.