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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

More Jim West comments

Jim has continued to review Why Christianity Happened and has summarised it very fairly. Interestingly there is not much conflict, even though some might (I don't know, actually) think we'd be poles apart on his bringing in the role of God. I wouldn't actually make a judgement on the divine when discussing issues like conversion but I bracket the divine out of the equation because it is beyond what I can possibly do given my academic worldview: the divine is beyond proof in such matters. But then, and Jim can correct me if I am wrong, Jim (and his Protestant tradition?) would agree with that in terms of historical enquiry but not in terms of a faith based worldview. I'm thinking out loud (or whatever the blog equivalent is) here but I think the reason why Jim can critically engage with a lot of scholarship that many have a problem with, e.g. Luedemann and the so-called minimalists, is because of his kind of neo-Bultmann-ism, where faith does not really (or cannot? - my theological learning is fading too fast...) rely on history. Am I right?

UPDATE: see Jim's comments on 'Paleo-Zwinglianism'

More SBL/AAR...

Back now and braindead though a combination of travelling miles and miles and not getting very much sleep while at the conference. Most of the carefully chosen papers I went to did not fail to deliver, though when I turned up early, some papers I had to sit through to get to the one I wanted to hear were not always my kind of thing and several were badly timed.

The secular session was interesting and in terms of presentation, irrespective of whether the individual papers were agreeable or not, it could not be faulted for entertainment value. One of my problems was that there was too much agreement, esp. on a topic that we all know there is some extreme disagreement among biblical scholars. One reason for this, I think, was that it was an AAR panel and, with some honourable exceptions, biblical scholars of an opposite persuasion are, obviously, more likely to look at SBL papers than AAR papers. That said there were about 75 people present, a very good size. The debates over all this rumbled on over the meeting as a whole.

Due to a chronic inability to keep looking at the programme, combined with a lack of sleep (I am partly to blame of course but I still don't understand why I wake up so early all the time at these North American conferences) I missed papers I should have gone to. I promised Danny Zacharias that I would go to his paper but I made that promise late just after I beat him at pool (before he moans, he won the first - but it doesn't count as much unless I am stone cold sober). The whole social side - a much underrated part of learning in my experience - certainly had its good moments and some very entertaining and lively debates. The location was not as good as Philadelphia for food and drink (though that will always take some beating for me) but there were some good places a bit out of the way (Salvadorian cafe = good).

It was very good to see some old-ish friends around and sharing the same hates. The Sheffield receptions were, naturally, excellent. I saw countless bloggers walking around. Weirdly there was an unholy social alliance of two secularists and a group of evangelical bloggers. I think we all feel so misunderstood and unloved that together we can cry as one.

And Paul Nikkel comments on the romantically lit room. I should have posted these strange his 'n' hers dressing gowns provided with the room as they really added to the atmosphere.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Washington so far...


Georgetown was a great experience. The Program for Jewish Civilization people were very welcoming and laid on some of the finest hospitality. There was a largely Jewish audience for the paper and the reactions to ideas of social networks was very different from Christian responses. Team teaching with Berlinerblau on the Passion of the Christ was also very good fun and the students were well and truly up for it. Now that would have been worth seeing but there's always Sunday remember...

Unlike last year this hotel is packed full of various academics, including a few from the UK. From the world of blogging, Sean the Baptist and Paul Nikkel have been sighted.

Earliest Christian History is dedication to upholding tradition. So when my photograph boy returns I will post this year's hotel beds. Promise.

Response to Jim West

Jim West has been reviewing Why Christianity Happened (not to mention making wild accusations involving me going to WWE wrestling) and I've caught up with things and can now respond.

Jim mentions Josephus can be a very shaky source and I quite agree. What I would say in response though is that I think he is a useful source in a kind of multiple attestation way. In other words, if the social scientific, gospel traditions and other bits and pieces cohere with Josephus too then we may be on to something. That's how I would use Josephus.

Jim makes some criticisms on the issue of the sinners:

"That said, I still have to wonder if his definition of “sinners” is on target. To be sure, sinners were prone to mislead and they certainly did live outside the covenant. But, I admit, the range of ideas crouching behind the concept of “sin” and “sinners” is much broader than those two definitions would lead us to imagine. Indeed, one of the primary ideas underlying the OT concept of sin is “conciousness of guilt” or “condition of guilt”. חטּא carries the notion of “fault”. A fault or a shortcoming or a failing in need of correction is something different than a simple or mere “misleading” or “living beyond the covenant”. In other words, I think James focuses on the external manifestation of “sin” rather than on the internal reality of sin and its effects in the persons afflicted of it. The outer working of “sin” as the propensity to mislead folk or to live outside the boundaries of the covenant is indeed one aspect of the reality of sin. But similarly the inner reality of sin’s corrupting power which leads to those outer manifestations also needs empasis."

While there are overlaps, I think Jim is raising another issue. I wanted to focus on the definition of the term 'the sinners' in early Judaism and the gospels. It has to be that narrow because that is how they are simply described in the gospels. I don't think going along Jim's lines would have added anything to the broad explanation. What I really wanted to know was who were these people and why were they called 'the sinners'. The idea of beyond the covenant is important but I would add that there is a key socio-economic side to all this, which was perhaps the major part of all the word searching, and I wanted to stress to because I think this helps link the economic reasons fro the rise of the Jesus movement in Galilee with subsequent Christianity. And so the the answer to Jim's next point is actually 'yes'.

I’m not yet sure if James’ focus on sin as external act will have any bearing on the chapters which follow. I suspect that it won’t. But if part of his argument hinges on the mere or simple external manifestation of sin without taking into account its internal reality and motivating power, then his point may be weakened a bit.

A bit more in the next few days on the next chapter. Number 4. If I’ve counted correctly.

On a final note I laid the smackdown on the person I know leaked the story that me and another member of Sheffield Biblical Studies were at a wrestling event.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

SBL/AAR

Well I'm off. Should be able to blog from SBL but for now don't forget the AAR session on Secular Approaches to Scripture (Sunday evening I think). You couldn't miss that chance to show people how wrong they are, could you?

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! :-)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Georgetown paper

If anyone is in Washington early for SBL, I'll be giving a paper to the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. It is open to the public so there's no excuse. The title of the paper is 'How to, and How Not to, Convert to Judaism in Antiquity'

Further details see here and note this:

Thursday, November 16, 2006 from 12:00pm to 1:30pm, McShain Lounge Large

Incidentally, big bad Jacques Berlinerblau is Program Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization. So they'll be the chance to show the truth to two secular types for the price of one!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Reception of the Berlineblau article: what should not be overlooked

Well the world of blogging has enjoyed this one and as the topic of secularism is one close to my heart, it is that issue that I would just want to emphasise because it is arguably the most important if biblical studies wants to function as an academic discipline.

People may say that the Bible is the book of believers and that is where its heart is. Well whatever, but why was I like, many undergraduates across the UK at least, taught Islam and the Quran by a non-Muslim and no one thought this unusual for one minute whereas an openly non-believing scholar of biblical studies tends to stick out? I'm now guessing, but I wonder if it would be fairly normal for an academic study of (say) Islam or any other non-Christian religion to to have so many confessional academics? But more to the point, to what extent should we care if the Bible is at the heart of Christian communities in academic biblical studies? Should we take on more anthropological or sociological models when discussing the Bible, or better treat it like other non-theological disciplines in the humanities treat their primary source material? That's my personal model (though getting involved with the issue of the resurrection shows that I do not or cannot in this context put this fully into practice).

My real problem is that biblical studies, or at least the historical study of Christian origins, will bypass tricky issues if it stays largely in the hands of the faithful and not be able to function fully as a serious academic subject. There are many examples of this and I have mentioned a few on this blog. Again, Marxism (and note this is not to say we should become Marxists) and the interdisciplinary history of the Annalists. In the mid-C20 when there were plenty of Marxist historians providing grand explanations of this, that or the other (think of Hill, Hobsbawm, Hilton, Thompson et al). Annales produced Braudel. Nothing like this was going on in the heavily studied area of Christian origins and it is not going too far to suggest that confessional dominance was the reason. Plenty of NT scholars want to do history but how far are they really prepared to go in historical explanation?

One e.g.: I keep running into trouble with believers for using conventional (in the humanities) approaches to conversion to explain recruitment to earliest Christianity and why it shifted toward a gentile religion. I don't get critiqued because of the pros and cons of the approach but because I don't discuss faith. But try using faith to explain historical change and you won't get far at all.

Such problems are embedded in the discipline and is difficult to avoid. The UK NT scene is packed full of these issues. Prayers have opened conferences, theological colleges have a significant say in the running of various affairs (could you imagine places reserved for secular types or non-believers?). Whatever the virtues or vices of such things, it only re-inforces what the discipline is about and what it is not about.

To the article:

First, the SBL desperately needs to know more about the identity of its own practitioners, and it needs to share that information with its members. I would like to see a census, if you will, of the rank and file. The questions of interest to me: What percentage of members practice in theological institutions? What percentage work in a university not affiliated with any denomination? Of the latter, how many did their graduate work in seminaries? What is the denominational breakdown of the society? Is the persistent rumor that the SBL is dominated — if not overrun — by conservative Christians true?

That is an interesting idea. This could extend to SNTS, BNTC etc. etc. I think it is pretty clear that most scholars are Christians (esp. in NT and Christian origins) but it really would be useful analysis of the discipline. It would sharpen the focus on how interest groups have shaped questions (and answers).

As a conversation starter, I would suggest that the SBL adopt the goal of creating 100 new positions in biblical scholarship in the next decade in secular universities. (Seminarians, naturally, are encouraged to apply, but universities should be mindful of the importance of having secular scholars on staff.) This would mean making the case to academe (and the public at large) about the Bible's central and enduring place in humanistic inquiry. I might also recommend that the society get a little nasty. It should aggressively caution secular universities against excessively outsourcing biblical instruction to either theological institutions or part-time clergymen. This is no slight on theology — it is simply a question of creating more job opportunities for beleaguered graduate students.

Now we are at the heart of what should be a very uncomfortable issue: what do we do with confessional imbalance? I pretty sure there are plenty of secular types who are potential for recruitment to biblical studies, if only they knew it so to speak. But how do we go about it? Positive discrimination? I really don't know the answer, and whatever it is it might not be fair, but something needs to be done. A Christian dominated discipline, for all the disinterested work of individuals, will bring a range of Christian results as the history of the historical study of Christian origins at least shows. I keep saying all this and it is a basic and obvious point. It is a convenient issue to ignore but there is plenty of rhetoric about acting like historians in my own field by good Christians who then invoke the supernatural in history, something most mainstream historians would not even come close to doing. This is a serious challenege for the credibility of an academic discipline.

Now, I'm all for the range of positions, no problem. But here I come up against an inevitable tension: if there are so many theological colleges, seminaries, confessional departments and so on simply as part of the structure of the discipline am I going to be a convenient secularist to wheel out because I'm not hostile to religion or belief? Again I emphasise, what can be done? And for believers, are your results (let's say in the history of Christian origins) ever going to be tested to the full if only intra-Christian dispute is going on? I don't think so but I'm starting to repeat.

The idea of the unpapal conclave sometimes gets mentioned in these debates and is a great idea in the abstract but simply cannot be put into practice as things stand and we should not pretend otherwise.

Anyway, don't you forget to see more of this fun at the secular session at AAR/SBL (I'll mention it again, don't worry) where I (James not John Crossley) will be on the panel with Berlinerblau.

Not wanting to get all partisan but in the UK there is of course one Biblical Studies department in a secular university...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Berlinerblau on the SBL and Secularism

As has been noted in blog world, Jacques Berlinerblau has published on the SBL/AAR with reference to the whole secular debate. Here is the link to the Chronicle of Higher Education piece.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why Christianity Happened - Networks, Recruitment and Conversion: social reasons for the emergence of Pauline views on justification and law

This final major section takes a step back from the Christian textual action and provides an explanation for the crucial shift from a law observant movement to the origins of non-observance which was eventually to become a distinctive feature of Christianity in relation to Judaism.

NB: on conversion in general I just repeat (i.e. cut and paste) my earlier general discussion of conversion from Sept.). It might be worth skipping a few paragraphs if familiar...

The most significant work done on conversion and Christian origins in terms of socio-historical is that of Rodney Stark who, building on his own work as a sociologist of modern religious movements, showed how Christianity spread rapidly, not unlike modern day Mormonism. This work has been developed by several NT scholars. It is crucial to note just how important this approach has been in the sociology of religion. The classic approach to conversion developed by Stark and Lofland in the 1960s has been vigorously critiqued but the one aspect that has only been enhanced right up to the present day has been conversion through pre-existing social networks and affective ties (friendship, work place etc.). Statistically, results of conversion are consistently over (frequently well over) 50% for conversion through a pre-existing social tie. Consequently, it is actually very, very difficult to convert people through conventional proselytising (even though the ‘missionary’ may express themselves in such a way) as people tend to be immersed in their social settings (family, friends, political groups and so on). Proselytising is hard, hard work and members require much encouragement. Anyhow, here’s a nice quotation from Lewis Rambo:

Kinship and friendship networks are fundamental to most conversions, just as they are influential in resistance and rejection…I would argue that relationships are important to most but not all conversions…Virtually every social scientific study of conversion stresses the importance of relationships

A famous example is Mormonism. Conversion to Mormonism was not successful when knocking on doors where pre-existing social ties were lacking. If I remember correctly the success rate of conversion was 1 convert for 1000 doors knocked. Yet when a Mormon friend or relative provided a home for contact the success rate was about 50%. Moreover, Mormon missionary literature knows exactly how to convert and it involves careful establishment of friendships. Another famous example is that of the study of the Buddhist movement Nichiren Shoshu by David Snow and Cynthia Phillips where this pattern was also clear. 82% of their sample was recruited though a pre-existing social tie. Even among the remaining 18% conversions required the development on social ties with a member or members. They even argue that conversion is unlikely without an affective bond.

These are well known examples often repeated in secondary literature but there are countless studies done supporting such claims (and not based just on religious groups), with conversion through social networks even going as high as 100% in some cases. Incidentally, some people have said to me that the results are always from the US and Europe. This is not true. There have various other studies done e.g. the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, political systems in agrarian contexts of SE Asia, and so on. These results are all echoed in social network theory which is also a useful approach for Christian origins and has been used (e.g. Duling).

Most significantly for the purposes of Christian origins, there are various examples from the ancient world, including Christianity and Judaism. Wayne Meeks famously highlighted the various social networks underlying the Pauline mission (families, household, work place etc.) and showed how contacts could easily be made in an urban centre (cf. Acts 16.13; 18.2-3). Philip Harland has also provided numerous examples of ancient social networks among households, workplaces, marketplaces, neighbourhoods and so on and how networks overlapped and how people could (and did) belong to different networks. Importantly for Christian origins there were gentiles attracted to Judaism in varying degrees (cf. Shaye Cohen) and I am not convinced Acts made up the idea of gentiles attracted to synagogues, irrespective of the historicity of the individual passages. There are also stories of conversion in early Jewish literature (e.g. Josephus) where there are pre-existing social networks paving the way for the conversion to Judaism.

End of cut and paste...

That is all well known enough. What I do is play around with this model and look at reasons for non-observance and differing levels of commitment. Sociologists can talk in language of verbal converts – i.e. those who have some degree of attachment but are not (yet) fully convinced – and total converts, i.e. those who are spiritually and intellectually convinced. Some of the reports of converts are very interesting in this respect, e.g. major figures in new religious movements recalling how once they were at one spiritually but found some of the intellectual dimensions hard to swallow. It is worth speculating for the moment that those interested in earliest Christianity when it was law observant would have found distinctive practices like avoidance of pork a bit odd, not to mention circumcision of males. Gentiles puzzled at such issues are documented. And let’s not forget that things like Sabbath observance are not normative in certain Christian contexts by the 50s (cf. Rom. 14.1-6).

There is also the important sociological issue of countervailing influences. E.g. married couples: when one of them goes and starts joining a new religious movement but the other is not so up for it. Some examples involve both partners attending with one looking very embarrassed to be there, sometimes leading to a decision either way. The competing influences of marriage and religion were certainly there in earliest Christianity: see 1 Cor. 7:12-16. And there are a whole host of other countervailing influences mentioned in sociological literature: culture, friends, competing ideologies, etc. etc.

As an important aside, it should be noted that sometimes the new religious movement actually strengthens some friendship bonds, and can lead to conversion of friends and family if you’re very lucky.

Now you might object that this material is not so relevant because new religious movements are getting converts to change from their old ways to new ones which would be the exact opposite of earliest Christianity as I see it (i.e. it changes into something very different from a law observant movement). But cultural influences are not one way, including the case of conversion. What I argue is that increasing gentiles and friends of friends of friends becoming attached to the Christian movement leads to the historically particular situation of a significant enough number of interested gentiles not so bothered about keeping all the commandments. And someone had to make a decision one way or another…

As it turns out discussions of cultural mixing, as it were, are common enough in the sociological and religious studies literature. There are numerous examples of missionaries taking on local practices to various degrees, whether it is accommodating inappropriate dancing or allowing ‘foreign practices’ like flying the flag or statues of the Virgin Mary (JT Sanders has a good discussion of this) or localised converts to Islam continuing to be active in local cults while simply proclaiming that there is one God and Mohammad is God’s prophet on another day. There are relevant examples of this from studies of politics in peasant societies, e.g. in certain radical political movements: not only is voting via what the local leaders says but policies start looking not-very-revolutionary the further away from the centre. The Communist Party of Indonesia looked very different in rural Indonesia than it did among the Indonesian intelligentsia.

These general kinds of issues were certainly present at the time of Christian origins. Paul has to deal with the issue of food sacrificed to idols and in different contexts gentile converts to Christianity had to be warned about the dangers of idolatry. I argue that there are problems with levels of observance the further away from the centre and the more gentiles are becoming involved.

A bulk of this section is dedicated to applying all this background material to conversion to networks in the ancient world in general and conversion to early Judaism and earliest Christianity in particular, including the important observation by Philip Harland of dual or multiple affiliations and all the countervailing influences they bring. There is a load of evidence for differing levels of commitment or countervailing among converts, whether they are slaves who are forced to convert to Christianity or Judaism or political rulers feeling massive pressure not to circumcise if interested in marrying a Jewish woman (or just adopt Jewish practices if already from a culture where circumcision is the norm). I also go through some familiar passages and apply this stuff, e.g. conversion of Izates, forced conversion of the Idumeans and the aftermath, and the general suspicions that gentiles aren’t always the best at keeping the commandments in the long run.

To cut a long story short, the implications of all this are that gentile friends of friends of friends who did not feel obliged to observe the food laws, Sabbath, or whatever and those men who were not prepared to be circumcised played a historically significant role in the emergence of Christianity. We also have potential situations where gentiles attracted to Christianity when it was law observant in its earliest years may have behaved perfectly law observant in one context but very differently in another (one of the reasons I avoid the term proselyte). When the number of non-observers of the law increased then this becomes a problem: what to do with this load of people…and it isn’t easy to dismiss them. The Jerusalem conference is one attempt to deal with the issue. In this context Paul’s theology becomes significant, at least in the long term. Paul’s view on justification by faith without works of the law are best seen, I would argue, as an intellectual reaction to/justification of a messy social problem. It was not an idea that came as a bolt from the intellectual or supernatural blue.

It should be clear that I doubt whether history of ideas can have this kind of explanatory force or causal strength to explain why the Jesus movement shifted from a law observant movement to non-observant Christianity within a period of c. 20-25 years. I am not discounting the significance of ideas – they are part of the socio-economic world and provide the options for historical actors. But explaining historical change or the rise of a new religious movement (or most things) with reference to ideas divorced from socio-economic context is a very difficult thing to do in terms of an explantory approach.