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Sunday, November 12, 2006

Jim West on Why Christianity Happened, ch. 1

Jim West has responded to the first major chapter of Why Christianity Happened in a classically unambiguous Jim-title, 'Why James Crossley is Right, and Wrong, So Far'. I think he has done so fairly. Also, Jim is too decent for me to reply polemically but I still had to reply, right?

Jim says,

But now, for the bad news- I think James is wrong when he suggests that New Testament studies can be furthered by non believers. What I mean, quite simply, is that the New Testament is not simply or merely a collection of ancient texts (like Homer or Cicero). It is a collection of texts written by a particular community, for a particular community. It is, for lack of a better term, “insider material”. If one is an outsider to that community, no matter what historical insights one may arrive at and no matter how significant those insights, one will still be incapable of getting to the “heart of the matter”.

The heart of the matter will depend on what is meant by 'matter'. It depends on what you want. For me it was a historically grounded explanation and in that case I don't think any perspective has a monopoly. But I suppose that is not what Jim is getting at. If Jim means a kind of theological truth then that's another question. I don't know if it is possible to answer that well but let's see...

Richard Evans (In Defence of History, pp. 214-15) remarks that French history is too important to be left to the French and German history has affected other histories too greatly for it to be left to the Germans. While respecting the significance of an insider perspective he also adds that too much insider history can lead to a narrowing of perspective and an obscuring of wider issues in the subject. Evans notes the hopelessly narrow and frequently ignorant military histories written by generals that ignore wider social, political and diplomatic aspects. Sometimes distance can help. (Incidentally, look at Chris Brady's comments on Jim's blog on this with reference to a Christian studying early Judaism).

This seems to me to be more or less analogous to the issue of NT and Christian origins. One of the points I try to make is that more perspectives bring new questions and emphasise features and factors that others would not. My major concern is the history of Christian origins, not just the interpretation of the NT (theological or otherwise) and so it would be very difficult to say that there is a monopoly on accuracy (or whatever you want to call it). But even so, I would still defend the importance of non-Christian interpreters in light of what Evans says. Christianity has affected too many lives and too many histories for its sacred text to be ignored or indeed left to Christians.

I also think that if pushed to its extreme, the logic of superior insider knowledge starts to crack. Are Stalinists best equipped to understand Stalinism? Pagans to understand paganism in the ancient world? Or, Inquisition sympathisers to understand the Inquisition? In these cases it would seem best if there were outsiders involved to try and explain. If we were thinking more about specific texts aimed at specific communities, then think of Stalinist documents written for Stalinists, or substitute this for a cult or something people might (rightly or wrongly) think is socially extreme. Undoubtedly getting an insider perspective is of immense help in (say) historical interpretation, but I think these examples should show that someone more distanced will have their own important questions to ask.

Jim adds,

To achieve Crossley’s program what’s needed are source materials outside the theological texts collected in the New Testament. Where those non-theological sources are lacking, we cannot hope to achieve historical certitude. The New Testament itself being wholly theological with scarcely any interest at all in history for history’s sake.

That maybe so but that is not the kind of history I am interested in. I'm interested in more long term historical change and the texts are a part of this historical chage. I do reconstruct earlier situations which I think can be done irrespective of whether the NT writers wanted anyone to do so. But I do not think my book depends too heavily on that. What I think is important are some basic key facts and how we get from A to B. This meant I rely on various generalisations about the society/societies in which Jesus and Christianity emerged. I think Jim might be firing at reconstructing a kind of descriptive history of Jesus and Christian origins (who did what and when along with theologies). That is different to what I'm asking though.

Jim's own position is interesting here and I should remind people that Jim, perhaps more than any believer (and, remember, one profoundly committed to theology), has happily interacted with some of the most notorious non-believers in the discipline of biblical studies (Hebrew Bible and NT). In NT studies, Jim, at least in blog world, was probably the strongest defender of Luedemann last Christmas (I assume - it was the whole virgin birth debate if people remember). Jim, in practice you fit very nicely into my ideal of biblical studies! :-)


Blogger Jim said...

Thanks for these remarks James. I hope you won't be offended or despair of my ongoing interaction if I say that I won't be able to get back to this until Thursday. I leave early in the morning for a denominational meeting and won't be back till late Wednesday night. In the meanwhile (during the boring sessions and the off hours) I'll be finishing up your book so I'll have better in hand the whole of it.

(Which, by the way, is why I included the "so far" at the end of the posting). Who knows, I might come to agree with you completely! But even if I don't, I do know one thing for certain, and that is that I learn more from you and Philip and Niels Peter and Gerd in one book than I have ever learned in all the books written by Wright or Dever or some fundamentalist.

So, all that to say, I'll be back with you Thursday!

November 12, 2006

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

If pushed to its extreme, the logic of superior insider knowledge starts to crack. Are Stalinists best equipped to understand Stalinism? Pagans to understand paganism in the ancient world? Or, Inquisition sympathisers to understand the Inquisition? In these cases it would seem best if there were outsiders involved to try and explain.

Exactly. The insider perspective can be as much a hindrance as a help to understanding the biblical text. Insiders don't have any inherent advantage simply because they're insiders (anymore than outsiders do). As often as not, the opposite is true.

November 12, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually don't comment, but this is a juicy topic. Crossley wrote:

"Are Stalinists best equipped to understand Stalinism? Pagans to understand paganism in the ancient world? Or, Inquisition sympathisers to understand the Inquisition?"

What I think you miss is that it is exactly the "theological" texts believers adhere to which advocate that "yes" it is the "real" community of believers which best interpret these texts (OT and NT). Also, and I think you might find this funny, and perhaps that is at the heart of the matter, but the Christian community does believe that the Spirit of God is among them in a way that it is not among the rest of the world. This is a belief that will not be rescinded for the sake of the academy. Why should it?

Now, it would be easy enough, and certianly justified to point out how much suffering "Christian" interpretation has caused the world. No one would dispute that I hope, but at the same time, the Christian Scriptures do not advocate those people and their violent and wrongheaded interpretations. It's these very people that 2 Peter states "twist" the Scriptures for their own reasons and to their own destruction.

So, yes, the Christian community is a better interpretor because it has accepted the hermeneutical key--Christ. And this in somewhat the same way that you're a better interpretor of a love letter from your wife. Your commitment and love for one another has given you the needed insight--the hermeneutical key. (If you're not married, pardon me, choose your analogy:)

Is it reasonable to persist in the notion that the Christian scholar should give up their very reason for existing?

I hope this doesn't seem like Christian snobbery. If it does, place this snobbery on account of Jesus, Paul, and the other disciples who have preached this very message.

Great blog--never fail to enjoy your posts.

November 13, 2006

Blogger Jim said...

Yes, I think anonymous is on the same track as myself in at least two respects:
1- the love letter analogy.
2- the concept of theological texts requiring theological interpretation. As Paul has it in 1 Cor 2:14 - ψυχικος δε ανθρωπος ου δεχεται τα του πνευματος του θεου μωρια γαρ αυτω εστιν και ου δυναται γνωναι οτι πνευματικως ανακρινεται.

I know that James isn't doing theological interpretation when he uses NT texts for historical reconstruction. But since the NT IS theological text, it requires theological, and not historical, interpretation. (You see, I am a thoroughgoing Bultmannian / minimalist in this regard).

But, more on this at the end of the week as I must now off and pack.

November 13, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks Loren, Jim and Anonymous. As Anonymous said this is a nice juicy topic!

I see where you both (Jim and Anonymous) are coming from but I think for my purposes the historical question is significant because it is different to what you both see as the heart of the matter. I would re-emphasis, I am reading what the theology of the NT texts reflect, just as you might read Barth in the context of the disasters of the early C20. Theology will inevitably reflect and interact with its cultural context and so a historian or theologian might want to look at the ways in which this works. I think the NT texts do give more historical light that Jim argues but even if he is 100% right, it doesn't mean the theology produced cannot be part of history.

And this would apply to the love letter too I think. Yes, the lovers would have deep profound meaning but an outider could bring all kinds of new questions e.g. the genre of love letters over the years, handwriting style, psychological issues etc. etc. These may be cold, distanced perspectives but they can shed further light. Maybe this is what I see as a secular perspective. So you see what I mean when I say I see where you are coming from in your understandings (which I don't deny for one moment -and for what it is worth I don't think the believer should throw away the spirit, so to speak, or confesional approaches) but, as Arthur Daley once said, there is more than one way to peel an avacado!

I should just qualify that when I said Christianity has been too important to ignore, I meant it in a value neutral sense. This could mean suffering or it could mean good. I just wanted to state that it has clearly had a massive historical impact and cannot be ignored by historians.

November 13, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its pretty obvious that both insiders and outsiders have unique and valuable perspectives. Now, is the outsider at a significant disadvantage in some areas? Absolutely - but the problem (which I'm surprised no one has mentioned) is that, to the extent that this is true, in the most significant areas, Jim and other modern Christians *are* the outsiders. They come at the text as outsiders socially, economically, politically, geographically, chronologically, linguistically, phenomenologically, and even and (perhaps most of all) theologically. On the latter, which is where it seems like Jim wants to argue for a unique continuity or overlap on the part of the Christian scholar - in theory, a theological and experiential outlook radically different from the early Christians can be as much of a hindrance to interpretation of early Christianity as a lack of theological understanding or interest. So a general claim like this, which aims for *superiority* of perspective rather than just uniqueness, can't stand on its own without investigating to what significant extent Jim or any modern Christian's theology looks like the theology of Jesus, Paul, or any of the early Christians.


November 13, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

James and Alex,
Most who practice theological interpretation of the bible today are going to highlight the position that there are no value neutral places to stand in order to "do" history.

THe question now becomes, Will the "historian" choose to disclose her presuppositions or not?

Also, you mustn't forget that the texts of the Bible are inspired. Therefore, any other text or speculation based on another text, or research (data) is subservient. The theological exegete stands "under" the text in order to "understand."

I think the secular field should grant the theologian "inspiration." Inspiration is a doctrine that will be around as long as there's Christian's reading Bibles.

Alex, I think you've spread the insider/outsider dichotomy too broad. According to your assessment, we're all outsiders, but the issue at hand is whether one is a believer and confessor of the Son of God. Again, the hermenuetical key for reading not only the Bible aright, but history itself aright is Christ.

What is more, whether it's agreeable or not, the church has always, rightly I judge, assumed a "unique continuity"--the Spirit of God.

You may not agree to that, and I suspect you do not, but at least now, our aims and biases are becoming clear.

Also, you, Alex, have assumed that the church is looking to replicate Paul or Jesus. That's not so much the case as it is that the Church follows after. The question isn't What would Jesus do, but What should his followers do based on who he is and what he did. The Christian does have to reference the 1st century from time to time in order to understand our Scriptures better, but that doesn't mean that the Spirit of God has ceased to guide.

James, yes there is more than one way to peel an avocado, but if you use jackhammer as opposed to a knife, you might end up mutilating the avocado.

If you were reading what the NT reflected, would you not end up aligning yourself with Christ? At some point, I think you have to say that your reading diverges from the NT in presupposition and results. Which is OK with me.

By the way, how are you so sure that say, the Gospel of Mark wants to reflect history at all? If the purpose is theological . . .?

November 13, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous. What a coincidence: I have the same name as you. Fascinating stuff. How can you be sure though, even if Mark's purpose is to convey pure theology or whatever, that he doesn't betray a little history - perhaps a little historical Jesus and a little of the historical context in which he wrote?

November 13, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't deny that, given the truth of Christianity, Christian theological readings of scripture are superior. So I don't have a problem with you, as a Christian, holding the particular view you do on the Spirit as element of continuity or Christ as Hermeneutical Key. But, when one is in conversation with a secular scholar, to just assert that Christian interpreters are superior without stating the hidden assumption (Christianity is true) or wording it as a conditional, really just looks like you're begging the question.


November 13, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...


You may already know, but I just noticed that your book is featured in this week's religion section of Publisher's Weekly (watch the line break): www.publishersweekly.com/

All best wishes,
Bob B.

November 15, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks for that reference Bob!

November 16, 2006


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