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?
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.
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! :-)