A McKnight in Battered Armour
Jim West has responded to me on the book with Bird on Christian origins and makes some very interesting, helpful and critical comments which I actually enjoyed reading. I’ll respond in due course to Jim (he may be surprised to know that I don’t always disagree with some of his theological ideas but that’ll have to wait…).
Jim West has already pointed out just how seriously problematic McKnight’s apparent response to my side of the Bird book is (plus some bonus criticisms of McKnight’s reconstruction of Christian origins). Despite my better judgment, I’m reluctantly going to add more and I am going to focus on McKnight’s lack of argumentation. McKnight claims to find (though barely argues) about my supposed faulty logic. So in the spirit of things I am going to focus on McKnight’s logic, or rather lack of it.
McKnight opens by saying that he was ‘annoyed’ that I claimed Bird’s evangelism ‘was a bias’ while ‘he [Crossley] simultaneously claimed his view was more objective’. Then comes the killer line,
‘Yes, I know Crossley “states” that his method is no more objective, but I would like to have seen him tip his hat at times to the outworkings of his own biases…Crossley’s method, in other words, suffers from bias too. His attitude suggested to me he didn’t see his bias.’
Isn’t that interesting? Yes, if you want to learn more about McKnight than me and witness an explicit example of self-contradiction. First and foremost, I have never, ever said I was ‘more objective’ than anybody and never, ever said it in the Bird book. McKnight never gave a single quotation from me making such a ‘claim’ and no reference from me making such a ‘claim’ which is no surprise he’d never have found me making such a ‘claim’. To ram to point home: McKnight has simply invented this ‘claim’ in relation to me. His qualification is bizarre because he then seemingly contradicts himself when he acknowledges that I “state” otherwise. What? So do I claim ‘more objective’ in one place then ‘state’ otherwise? I’ll give the basic answer if the point isn’t made hard enough already: no to the first, yes to the second.
And why the scare quotes? Did I not really ‘state’ it? Did I sort of ‘state’ it? Was I meaning something else when I ‘stated’ it? I have no idea what he is getting at here but I think I can assume that there is some doubt being cast on me. Let’s see what I actually said:
‘To anticipate a certain type of reaction, I am not arguing that my secular perspective is “more objective” or somehow inherently superior to an evangelical or indeed any other approach, though, obviously, I do think my explanation is, to the best of my knowledge, a better account of the evidence, just as, presumably, Michael Bird thinks his account is better than mine.’ (p. xvii)
I mean, I did ‘state’ it by any normal sense of the word ‘state’, so why the scare quotes? Was I…lying? I can’t help but think that with McKnight we are dealing more with dirty tactics right now and NOT fair representation. Let’s state it more strongly: McKnight has just invented something about me.
The closest we get to something I said is a reference to ‘attitude’! What has happened is that McKnight has effectively replaced what I said with something as vague, sort of unverifiable, and general as ‘attitude’. He has seriously misread me now because I am very much in favour of a kind of methodological libertarianism or anarchism, if you like, at least in the sense that every perspective can potentially provide insight, including overtly non-believing perspectives such as my own. The more perspectives the better, at least in academia. Moreover, I have made a big and, it would seem pointless, fuss about the importance of partisanship in Why Christianity Happened (ch. 1) and in an article elsewhere on historical practice in the humanities. More on this shortly…but McKnight has actually flatly contradicted what I actually believe in his reference to ‘attitude’.
As for outworking of bias, well that was my contribution to the Bird book!! As I said in the book, and as McKnight must know, I wanted to provide an explanation based in the humanities that does not resort to the supernatural. That’s my main bias. I obviously cannot explain all the complex biases that make me the person I am (I’m no psychologist) but I did provide the kind of explanation I said I would. I might be wrong but I’m perfectly aware and open that my work is the product of my environment and biases.
Of course, perspectives can interfere too much and I think they did with Bird at times and so I argued that his arguments were problematic where it seemed his perspective was dictating things too much. I would not obviously argue such things of myself because I thought I was right (and still do). But it is perfectly plausible that my own perspectives have blinded me to things. Of course, in that book, it would be odd if I performed such an act of self criticism. That’s up to Bird in the book, not me. I may change my mind in the future, who knows? Then I can try and see if my biases were a problem. This is also a basic but crucial point and one worth mentioning to clear up any confusion (like I’ll be that lucky!).
We even get the annoying descent into aloofness:
There was a day when Geza Vermes could pretend to sit down with Gospels, open them up, and claim he could write a sketch of Jesus ‘with a mind empty of prejudice’ and study the Gospels ‘as though for the first time’. Those days are gone. Not only did Bultmann warn us all of Vorverständnis (‘pre-understanding’), which should have been warning enough, but sitting within the walls of Nottingham University, the home of Crossley’s doctoral work, is the world’s expert on hermeneutics, Tony Thiselton, and his voluminous writings should forever prevent the idea that we do not each bring our own agendas and ‘bias’ to the text. Crossley’s method, in other words, suffers from bias too. His attitude suggested to me he didn’t see his bias.’
For what it is worth, I was brought through the academic system with issues of presuppositions discussed left, right and centre. Naturally enough, when doing a theology degree, we covered Bultmann. *If* McKnight was aiming his Interpretation 101 at me as well as Vermes, it has no argumentative value against me whatsoever. *If* he was aiming Interpretation 101 at me, the reference to Thiselton would be a pompous, pointless (well, intellectually pointless), and silly argument for several reasons. Thiselton actually taught me at Nottingham when I was an undergraduate. As a postgraduate, we were both present at the postgraduate seminars. Both of us presented papers at the postgraduate seminar. I did some proof-reading for him. We even co-ran a module on Paul together. Thiselton even wrote references for me (for which I am eternally grateful). *If* McKnight is implicating me as one of those who act as if there were no Bultmann or Thiselton (though he does not mention the pioneering work on this was done outside theology!!) he could then have asked me about this instead of going down what could then be labelled an intellectually useless route of pompous academic condescension. His opinion on this matter would, if aimed at me, be all rhetoric and little, if any, argument. But perhaps he wasn’t implicating me with Vermes (or rather, a caricatured Vermes) so the reading public can thank him for a very basic point already raised in the book (we all have biases!) and *hopefully* see that I’m not to be included in those who pretend we don’t (when reading it, I still think I’m implicated but, hey, I may have given him a way out).
And just in case I was implicated, let’s add a few more points. In other work, I used work by Haskell, Hobsbawm and others on how biases and presuppositions have made contributions to the humanities and sciences. I made a lengthy point that it was in fact the biases and presuppositions of people like Vermes and Sanders which helped them make major contributions to the field. I had sections such as ‘The Importance of Partisanship’. In a co-edited volume on Writing History, Constructing Religion I made more general points on the issue of objectivity and neutrality. *If* aimed at me, McKnight’s comments on Bultmann and Thiselton would be, as I said, intellectually useless and could further have been avoided by simply checking the basic evidence. Instead, *if* aimed at me, we would be getting the pompous condescension which would then say more, I suspect, about McKnight’s presuppositions than it would about mine. But, again, *if*…
McKnight thinks it ‘singularly odd’ that I make two contradictory claims: 1) my claim that my work is more sociological etc. instead of theologically driven; 2) I give theologically shaped and lack a thorough socially shaped method. McKnight could have been saved the surprise given what I wrote:
‘This will involve looking at broader social and economic trends, combined with individual decisions, that led to the emergence of Christianity as a distinctive religion…But…I too have a heritage that I cannot (and will not) totally shake off, namely, the various approaches advanced in biblical studies and even – heaven forbid – theological approaches. Indeed the very thematic structure of this book is one of classical studies of Christian origins grounded in theological approaches to the ancient texts. This is hardly a surprise, as theology is deeply embedded in its historical context, and theology too, as we will see, plays a part in the emergence of Christianity, even if it has been massively overstated.’ (p. xviii)
As for his comments on socially shaped method, he is wrong again. I based the arguments in this book on issues such as the urbanisation projects in Galilee as Jesus was growing up and how such projects can lead to social unrest etc. I tied this in with the rise of the Jesus movement. I also discussed broader trends in monotheism and the macro-sociological argument that ties such monotheistic developments in human history with developing agrarian societies and the rise of major empires. This was tied in with issues of how social disputes led to a distinctive Christian identity constructed over against Judaism and ‘the world’, grounded in broader discussions of the construction of identity. I also discussed the importance of social networks in conversion and how this contributed to shifts in observance levels. This is what could reasonably be called a social historical method underlying what I wrote. I didn’t give masses of social scientific data and secondary literature because this is an intro/pop book. I did, however, make reference to other work where I have given such material and I did make reference to social historians who have collected and analysed such material. I was quite clear about this and I summarised such arguments. In an intro/pop book I think that is a reasonable decision to make. We should add that there is plenty of work done by social historians that does not have an explicit theory or method at the fore but is obviously a work social history and is regarded by people as social history (E. P. Thompson immediately comes to mind). Again, McKnight is replacing things I have actually said and done and does not seem to understand basic issues of social history.
Most entertainingly he makes the link with Marxism and this may, perhaps, explain why he misunderstood certain things about me:
‘he connects his views to a Marxian historiography…Crossley begins on what I thought would be a social reconstruction of the Jesus movement that would explain things in a Marxist vein, but instead those insights fell through his hands and he began instead to deconstruct theology…’
I’d have to know what McKnight means by my deconstructing theology before I could answer but the Marxist/Marxian claim is, to steal a McKnightism, singularly odd. All I did in the book was say this:
‘This will involve looking at broader social and economic trends, combined with individual decisions, that led to the emergence of Christianity as a distinctive religion. In this respect, the famous pre-inclusive language statement of Karl Marx is worth recalling:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” [Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte] (p. xvii)
This is a common quotation from Marx, reflecting a very basic point, and a very basic point widely agreed upon in the humanities over the years, irrespective of Marxist or other persuasions. Historians use it often enough and so it is no surprise to find it used in introductions to history such as Richard Evans’ In Defence of History. In fact wouldn’t most of us agree that individuals can make their own history but under circumstances not of their choosing and that the past dictates present circumstances etc? I mean, that is a very obvious point, right? Quite why this would tie me in with a Marxist or Marxian approach, I do not know, other than the mention of the name Marx which is not good enough. Just for the record, and this is a special treat for readers of this blog, I find bits and pieces of Marxist approaches useful and bits of Marx useful. I do not self-identify as a Marxist and I do not have a self-consciously Marxist methodology, even if I draw on some work I suspect has Marxist roots. I’ve also used evangelical stuff and that does not, believe it or not, make me an evangelical. I’ve used countless other approaches and borrowed from countless other perspectives. Frankly, I’m happy to steal anything that I think might work.
I do like the next bit:
‘Crossley’s claims to be a “historian” lack an articulation of historiographical method. Perhaps he has fully laid out his mind on this issue in another context, but it is more than a little presumptuous for him to make the routine claim to know how historians operate, that Bird evidently does not, and not provide for us at least a fair-minded and comprehensive sketch of what his historiography looks like.’
Hmmm, where do we begin? Firstly, notice the lack of quotation from anything I said. I’ll find one and I think it is fair to say that I said something pretty tame:
‘I will provide some fairly conventional approaches developed by historians outside theology and biblical studies and sometimes fruitfully applied to the historical study of Christian origins. This will involve looking at broader social and economic trends, combined with individual decisions, that led to the emergence of Christianity as a distinctive religion…What I do want to do is provide an explanation for the emergence of Christianity that is not heavily grounded in theology, the supernatural… (p. xvii-xviii)
(Notice, GROUNDED). I think that is pretty tame and somehow not quite as arrogant as McKnight represents. With fear of sounding too arrogant now, I do think it is fair to say that, as a solid generalisation, historians don’t really rely on the supernatural and do explain things with reference to social, economic, etc trends. If you don’t believe me, try any primer on history. Try looking for the use of supernatural too: Carr discussed it in the 1960s but dismissed it as a waste of time for the historian. And he had to give his examples from theological contexts! Others don’t even bother with issues of the supernatural. This may all be wrong but I think it is a pretty accurate representation of the discipline of history. I really hammered this point home in relation to the issue of proving the historicity of the resurrection:
‘If people want to come to this as historians, there is no serious evidence in favour of the bodily resurrection really happening. If there were a similar story in the ancient world and if we were applying the conventional standards of historical research to this story, no one would take it seriously as a historical account of what actually happened…What a debate over the historical accuracy of the resurrection often boils down to is two different approaches to history that are close to being irreconcilable. To give this a contemporary slant, do we want to find whatever naturalistic causes are possible in historical explanation, leaving questions of the divine completely to one side, or do we want to take the pseudo-scientific route of Intelligent Design or Creationism and say the supernatural can be shown to be directly intervening in historical change in the study of history?’ (p. 63)
McKnight doesn’t mention that I emphasise this issue in the context of the resurrection in his criticisms of me apparently knowing how historians work. It is a crucial point. Historians RIGHTLY OR WRONGLY do not really tend to use explanations such as the miraculous or supernatural to explain historical change. Sad but true.
But better still concerns me not laying out my method. Firstly, in an intro/pop book is it really fair to include loads of methodological questions of historiography? Well, maybe. Is it fair to do so when designated chapters are on ‘the historical Jesus’, ‘the resurrection’, ‘the apostle Paul, ‘the Gospels’, and ‘earliest Christianity’? I really don’t think so.
But then, this issue: perhaps I laid out methodological stuff elsewhere (McKnight proceeds to give Historical Method 101)… I wrote a book, Why Christianity Happened, which includes a lengthy comparison of the disciplines of history and NT studies (chapter 1). In one sense, the book itself is an exercise in historical method. I have also co-edited, with the sociologist Christian Karner, a book on history, theory and religion called Writing History, Constructing Religion with scholars from a variety of disciplines in the humanities. In this book I wrote an article on…historical method and the ways in which history is practised etc., from narrative history to ideology, from theory to social history. I’ve written bits and pieces elsewhere but for now to answer McKnight, yes, I have laid this sort of stuff out elsewhere, and in some detail.
Interestingly, McKnight says in a footnote,
‘I am aware of Crossley’s book [WCH], but haven’t been asked to assess that book; instead, I have been asked to assess the sketches in this book.’Does ‘aware’ imply that he hasn’t read it? Well, my educated guess is that he hasn’t read the first chapter at least, which is all on…history and the discipline of history! He probably hasn’t read ch. 3 either: see below.
Before I get into some more of McKnight’s faulty logic, we should just pause to reveal McKnight’s ultimate counter-argument to my portrayal (compare with Casey’s detailed rebuttal of Bird’s points):
‘Crossley’s sketches above, in my judgment, fail to offer a compelling string because, and now I drop my sword, they ignore too much of the data and facts.’
Not the most devastating sword, I must say.
Anyway, I’d prefer to respond to actual points made against me. I also particularly enjoyed this one:
‘Crossley’s obsessions are obvious: dating Mark’s Gospel in 40 CE, besides being methodologically impossible to verify at anything more than a speculative level…’
Well, obviously dating such material is inevitably speculative but I’ll leave that to one side. I’m curious that this is one of my ‘obsessions’. If McKnight is referring to the present book (he also mentioned monotheism and the law in the same footnote and they were my main points in the book as a whole and he does make an issue of only commenting on what I wrote in the Bird book so I suspect it is aimed at this book) then we can do some fun things. As far as I can remember this is about as much as I said on the date of Mark in the entire book:
‘There are some of us who would not date Mark so late but let us assume the late date is true for the sake of argument.’ (p. 55)
If I said anymore, then it is negligible. Given that I wrote, say, 40% of the book, this is hardly the ranting of an obsessive by any reasonable standard. But if it is to be deemed obsessive this means that Bird, who wrote more than me on the subject (in this book), including what I previously said on the subject in my doctoral thesis, and McKnight, who *may* have written a touch more than me on the subject in this book are more obsessive than me! And if I’m obsessive what does that make them???
Perhaps McKnight may be talking about my career in general. I certainly did write a PhD on this issue (though the majority was on Law to be fair). That may make me obsessed if we all agreed that anyone doing a PhD is obsessed. A fair point perhaps, but then it is a point that is too banal to be of any use other than a cheap shot because pretty much all academics would be obsessed. Bird must be obsessed with Jesus and gentiles and McKnight with whatever he did his PhD on. As it happens, after my PhD, I left the topic and only mentioned it here and there, but then so do many people with ideas from their PhD. At this stage of my career I have moved on to different things. After my PhD and publishing the stuff on Mark, I wrote a book on Jesus, Christian origins, historiography and shifts in Law observance. I have a book coming out in November (Jesus in an Age of Terror – more on that in the weeks to come) on the political location of contemporary scholarship (including bloggers!) and how dominant themes in Anglo-American foreign policy have influenced NT scholarship since the 1960s. This also includes lengthy chapters on contemporary politics and political rhetoric. Needless to say, I do not discuss the date of Mark. More recently, I have worked on the Bible in popular culture and on reception history, including a very enjoyable (for me) paper on the Manchester music scene between the 1970s and 1990s. There is more of that to come but I am not planning on including the date of Mark in that piece of research.
As far as academics go, I think I have a pretty diverse range of interests and to say that I am obsessed with the date of Mark is weird and an invention of McKnight unless he means the utterly banal point that anyone who does a PhD is obsessed with their PhD topic. Here I drop my sword: McKnight has ignored too much of the data and facts, virtually all readily available to him.
Remember McKnight saying he was ‘aware’ of Why Christianity Happened? Well, it seems he hasn’t read chapter 3 either. McKnight says,
‘Crossley’s contention that “sinners” refers to economic oppressors (see page 5) deserves consideration, but I remain convinced that J. D. G. Dunn’s study is more compelling…’Now this is interesting. I did indeed mention in passing the economic aspect of the phrase on page 5 (and 4). I didn’t mention there that I also AGREE with Dunn’s portrayal and I have given more examples to back him up too! But I did this in WHC ch. 3 in a very detailed chapter which looked at the different words for sinners in Jewish literature in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, from the Hebrew Bible/LXX to sometime in the rabbinic period, before an analysis of the gospel texts. Whenever social status/class is mentioned, they are oppressive rich. They are, at the same time, regarded as behaving beyond the law or in a way perceived to be beyond the law. I suggested that we cannot see the sinners of the gospel tradition as ‘common folk’ (and recall their association with tax collectors – notorious for being oppressive rich) and that they should be seen (or better they were seen) as wealthy and oppressive if we want to look at them in terms of class/social status. At the same time, they would probably have been perceived as law breakers of some kind too. The gospel tradition is probably identical to masses of Jewish evidence in holding the two together, otherwise it is unique. Given that it is assumed that we should all know who the sinners were in the gospel tradition and that Jesus and his opponents were talking about such people without much in the way of explanation then it is pretty obvious that the gospel tradition too stands in this massive tradition.
How is Dunn’s thesis more persuasive then? Only on the basis of some passing comments in a intro/pop book but those comments were only there to make one economic point and it is very unfair to set up passing comments on one angle of the problem against a detailed research piece by Dunn. If McKnight had read WCH ch. 3 he would see that I am not in disagreement with Dunn at all. McKnight’s point is very unfortunate because he has again unfairly represented me. It makes be very suspicious of his use of ‘aware’ too.
I have little more to say on this. Like McKnight, I am very annoyed (well, relatively speaking). I am NOT annoyed at polemic (if I were I’d never have published my next book). Polemic is fine as far as I’m concerned, but I’m much less forgiving if it is just hot air (or whatever the literary equivalent is) with unsubstantiated opinion flying. Yet I am not just annoyed at being personally misrepresented. I am also annoyed because I didn’t want this book to descend into cheap, unsubstantiated, misleading, pompous digs that characterises much of the debates between non-believers and evangelicals (or whatever) and I’m afraid that is how I read McKnight’s response in light of my above criticisms.
It is also worrying that Mike Bird says, ‘Let me say that Scot McKnight's rejoinder to Crossley is worth the price of the book alone!’ Well it depends what you want. If you want cheap jibes then yes; if you want an intellectual counter-argument then it isn’t. Quite why Mike gets so giddy, I don’t quite know, but I really hope he isn’t seeing this in terms of some bitching contest than intellectual engagement!