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Friday, October 31, 2008

Loren Rosson, a review, and more problems with representation

I know this is going to sound miserable and not in the spirit of things and for that almost apologise. But evidence free opinion and appeal to ‘reasonableness’ just annoys me a bit too much and so I just couldn't resist. So what I’m getting at is that I disagree with Mike Bird that Loren Rosson’s review of our book is even handed and fair, at least in anyway that could be useful. In many ways it was balanced only in saying Crossley was right here, Bird right there. Or better, Crossley agreed with Rosson and his heroes here, Bird agreed with Rosson and his heroes there. It was more a platform for Rosson to stress again which view of this and that he liked. He already knows what he thinks and that's how me and Bird are judged. I hate to say this but Rosson's level of argument was not good and did not support the judgments he made. We were not judged sufficiently on the *details* of the arguments and some counter arguments were just simply ignored (not a great thing to do when reviewing a book).

Rosson goes for me on the issue of law:
‘I should address Crossley's love-affair with a "completely law-abiding Jesus/Markan Jesus". As mentioned above, he bases his view on an overplayed distinction between biblical laws and their interpretation/expansion. When, save in trivial cases, does the former not involve the latter? Whether or not one is violating the First Amendment (freedom of speech), or Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), is no more self-evident to our nation of Americans today than whether or not one was violating the sabbath or the duty to honor one's parents in antiquity. The question is whether or not Jesus was perceived as violating the Torah, which he was...it's always a question of whose Torah we're talking about: the Torah of the prophets? of the priests and scribes? of Galilean peasants? etc...Paul, of course, went beyond Jesus and explicitly dethroned the law (and I think he was largely anti-nomian in his own mind), but the analogy regarding perception still holds. If Crossley wants to insist that Jesus was "completely Torah-observant" from Jesus' own perspective -- in the same way that other Jews who found wiggle room for their questionable interpretations were -- then fine. But many would agree with that anyway.

No, really? I mean, do I not know the different views of the law? Or that there is a link between interpreter and text???? I’ve taught Jewish law, I’ve spent lots of research time on Jewish law and…I somehow didn’t know or factor in that people had different views on the Law?!! When I’ve written (quite a lot!) about people having different views on the Law (including in the book Rosson reviews!!!!) did I…not mean it?? And to turn it onto Rosson, which of the perceptions of the law was Jesus perceived to have broken? Is Rosson implying that Jesus’ interpretations were 'questionable'? Which Jews had ‘questionable’ views on the law? What is a ‘questionable’ view of the law anyway?

Furthermore, my big argument is that Jesus’ views on the Law were all paralleled in early Judaism. Rosson never seriously engages with Jewish evidence on the law. There is loads of material so why not try and read it more? For what it is worth, I think it is complicated and more rewarding than relying on what your favourite scholars think. Anyway the point that there is nothing that would have necessarily led to the Jesus movement having identifying difficulties over against Judaism in the way that Paul begins to because physical circumcision can go. So can food. So can Sabbath. That is something different. That is a big reason why Christianity can develop into a religion in its own right. Jews debating over the specifics of the Law leads to major world religion? Unlikely. As Jesus falls easily into the latter category of legal debater – as can be documented with primary sources – then that is a useful analytical point as can the use of interpretation of the law vs biblical law, a distinction which rabbis knew about, incidentally – that can be read too. Incidentally, just one obvious example: Sabbath. Bible says a few things that constitute work but not much so it has to be interpreted and different people claim different things. That's a potentially useful distinction. Also, the stuff on the amendments isn't a good argument. Despite being a bit too different, is there not a distinction to be made between people discussing how it should be interpreted and even making strong claims about there enemies and people saying that they are no longer required??

Ok, this is getting silly and as much of what Rosson says has nothing relevant to do with my arguments and as I’ve written on the topic there’s no point discussing it further (incidentally, when Rosson cites different scholarly views he doesn’t engage with some of the very detailed and important work specifically on Jewish law). I’m getting tired of a lot of this sort pointless debate (it’s not really engaging with details). Anyway, let’s try and end Rosson’s love affair with his favourite scholars and pre-determined views with, I dunno, some evidence. I’m not going to go into massive detail and if people want to look at a debate between me and Rosson where Rosson gets very confused on issues of law and law breaking and what observance was like see here).

Rosson quotes Bird positively:
"Whose standard of law-observance is [Crossley] talking about? Does he mean the sectarians from Qumran? Does he mean the Pharisees (if so, which school of the Pharisees: Gamiliel or Shammai)? Does he mean the radical allegorical interpreters that Philo refers to in Alexandria? While there was diversity of Law-observance and legal interpretation within Judaism, that does not mean that each group thought that each other's interpretation was legitimate and fitted comfortably within the boundaries of a common Judaism. The polemics that Jewish groups vented against each other would suggest otherwise... Thus it is one thing to say that the Gospels make sense as part of intra-Jewish debates about the Torah, but it is quite another thing to suggest that the view of the Torah espoused within the Church during the earliest decades of its existence were regarded by others (outsiders or insiders) as exclusively Law-observant. Did the Pharisees who debated with Jesus about hand-washing and purity laws think he was Law-observant?... Paul's belief that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised has parallels in certain pockets of the Jewish Diaspora. Did that stop others from accusing him of being anti-nomian? Of course not! If early Christianity was so Law-observant in the 'Jewish' sense that Crossley argues for, then why was James the Just put to death on the charge of being a Law-breaker?" (p 133)

Rosson completely ignores my response to this (as he does elsewhere). Here is part of my response which pretty much applies to Rosson too I suppose (this is from a draft version so there could be a few typos and changes made – nothing dramatic though):
A ‘problem’ Bird has is ‘that Crossley never explains why Paul persecuted the church.’ Against Bird, however, I did speak of evidence ‘that favours an internal Jewish dispute over the correct interpretation of the Law’. But then Bird seems to recognise this and argues that ‘Crossley might say that he was persecuting them for failing to obey the Pharisaic halakhah or legal teachings. But would the Sadducean priestly class sanction a Pharisee to do that and, what is more, why would Paul restrict his persecution to Christians? Why not persecute Philo of Alexandria, the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran, persons like Banus the Ascetic that Josephus mentions, or Jewish peasants who were generally lax in their adherence to the law?’
These are problems of Bird’s own making. Why on earth would the ‘pre-Christian Paul’ persecute Philo of Alexandria? Bird does not let us know. On the issue of the law, the ‘pre-Christian Paul’ and Philo may have in fact agreed. For instance, Philo talks about not picking fruit on the Sabbath (Philo, Mos. 2:22), a view that is echoed in Jesus’ Pharisaic opponents in the gospels (Mk 2.23-28) and in rabbinic tradition (e.g. m. Pesah. 4:8). Besides, what chances would Paul really have had of persecuting such an elite figure like Philo anyway, assuming for the moment that they would have disagreed on law observance? Bird’s questioning can be taken to strange logical conclusions. We know that the Qumran group (with whom the Teacher of Righteousness was associated) were attacked by opponents (e.g. 4Q171 4), so by Bird’s logic (namely, that Paul would have criticized others if the conflicts were internal Jewish disputes) it would have to be extremely puzzling as to why are these opponents not mentioned persecuting others! Josephus speaks of Pharisees and Sadducees having serious differences with Pharisees (Josephus, Ant. 13:297-98), so by Bird’s logic Josephus would have to mention other groups and individuals in order to be deemed plausible! On the general level, groups fall out with one another and do not necessarily attack everyone else who might be in disagreement. On the more empirical level, Jesus seriously fell out with Pharisees over legal issues (Mk 2.28-3.6) so much so that the gospels say the Pharisees wanted him dead (Mk 3.6). If this is in anyway accurate (as I suspect a good evangelical like Bird would believe it is) I fail to see why Bird sees it implausible for those acting in Jesus’ name immediately after Jesus’ death to be engaged in similar disputes.

Why ignore all that? It is fairly clear in the text and substantial. I dunno…

More law fun on ‘Saul’s persecutions’:
Crossley suggests it was only an "interpretation" of the law calling forth such zeal, to which Bird counters on p 93). Saul's zeal must have been aimed against those who were visibly threatening the integrity of Judaism with outrageous behavior -- not just professing abstract belief in wacky ideas or splitting legal hairs

So aggressive disputes over legal disputes in early Judaism…what? Didn’t exist? Well, yes they obviously did (and the term 'splitting hairs' is a subjective judgment that is not helpful). Are the primary sources not worth considering? It would seem that the narrative Rosson likes is just barging its way through with no concern for evidence. I mean, we have such eivdence and Rosson acts as if it simply doesn't exist. there is much more detail I could add. I worked on the chronologies concerning law observance and the lack of evidence for why the earliest Xns were persecuted and so on in some detail and I simply cannot be bothered to repeat (Date of Mark ch 5, WCH ch 5). I’ll just add, for someone who criticised me on terms of the Law and interpretation, hasn’t Rosson assumed something very close to biblical (circumcision) versus interpretation (‘splitting legal hairs’) as a means of analysis?

Ok, a bit more:
‘Christianity was likely admitting uncircumcised Gentiles (few as they were) right from the get-go’

No evidence is given by Rosson, no useful supporting evidence is actually known, and Acts and Paul are silent on the issue (the latter should be serious problem for Rosson). Why should anyone take Rosson’s statement seriously if it is just a statement? It *needs* a serious argument. None is given. I also wrote a book on the origins of this issue and the significance of social networks and shifting observance levels. I mention such things in the book with Bird too. This gets ignored and Rosson just repeats a view he's liked for however long. Really, what is the point of making arguments??? It seems pretty clear that making arguments that don't cohere with Rosson's views and Rosson's favourite scholars are pointless, not least because he'll simply ignore them or just say that so-and-so argued this a few years back and it's right so, erm, that's it. Don't waste time critiquing, right?

On issues relating to the deification of Jesus, Rosson pretty much resorts to scholarly views he likes and doesn’t engage with the known Jewish parallels. He doesn’t engage with the argument that conflict over such issues is absent from Paul but not John. He states:
The "Big Bang" theory of early high Christology (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Philip Esler) is to be preferred over the gradual evolution theory (e.g. James Dunn, Maurice Casey, and Marinus De Jong). While I agree with Crossley that we don't get an explicit equation between Jesus and God until John's gospel, it's implied nonetheless in Paul's letters and to a lesser degree the synoptics.

Well, for argument’s sake, I’m going to say I think the other view is to be preferred! Where does that leave us? It’s not helpful. ‘Implied’ and ‘lesser degree’ are too vague and I don’t know how I’m meant to a) be persuaded by that and b) be persuaded my arguments were wrong. Incidentally, who said that Casey, at least, didn’t think there was an early high Christology? A ‘big bang’ label works for a highly elevated figure too, right? I happen to think things like the early visions of the resurrected Jesus prompted an early high Christology that got the ball rolling. Maybe not the full deification in the strongest sense etc but certainly the possibility of taking on divine attributes in the ways other elevated figures did and so on. But that’s another story…

There’s other stuff e.g. the Antioch incident (where my arguments on context of the dispute in Galatians and response to Bird get ignored – again; see pp. 99-100) but I’m not going to respond because I’ve written on the topic elsewhere and others have too and there have been plenty of critiques of the views that Rosson holds dear (Rosson simply ignores mine). What Rosson does is to criticise a view by saying what another scholar said even if that view has been critiqued. When I criticised views he holds dear would it not be more fruitful to say why my objections are wrong instead of simply repeating the views I criticised? Presumably, then, if his heroes don't say it then it's, er, wrong. In other words, whoever is closest to his scholarly heroes has the most chance of being right in Rosson's eyes. There is simply no room for alternative views. This is a rotten model of scholarship.

More generally, I’ve made other arguments that are pretty much ignored by Rosson. And again Rosson doesn’t engage with crucial primary sources (scholarly heroes come first). Again, there is a lot of reliance on views that I’ve actually critiqued and too much reliance on big names by Rosson. I have little time for approaches to to scholarship such as those of Rosson because I find them intellectually stifling. I won’t waste much more of my time on this because I've given it far too much attention though I do think that point about non-argument is worth re-emphasising.

Again, I hate to be so critical but I really don't like this sort of approach so...sorry...but...


Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this - I would have ignored it otherwise. Now it has a star - Law is too interesting a topic to ignore.

October 31, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

Why apologise? A reviewer who criticises without evidence, doesn't demonstrate any knowledge of the primary sources or even properly read the text criticised, and appeals to scholars with whom they are in love because they reflect their own preferences as if they constitute evidence ... and misrepresents scholarship such as that of Maurice Casey ... deserves this response.

The Law is so fundamentally important to Christian origins yet so misuderstood because so many scholars (and others) don't study the primary sources (and then criticise those who do).

October 31, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

James you wrote:

"Furthermore, my big argument is that Jesus’ views on the Law were all paralleled in early Judaism."

One question here is how early is the 'early Judaism' that you have as parallel to the time of the prophet? If the 'early Judaism' had not been recorded at the time of the prophet, as many think, how can you be sure what it was? How do you know, for example, that Pharisees and Sadducees in the NT are not retrospective interpolations reflecting post 70 situations.

Secondly, how do you know that the prophet's views on the Law were not added retrospectively to the text?

Thirdly, what evidence is there that the prophet ever offerred sacrifices? Or, do you simply assume that he did? This would seem to be one critical priestly requirement that the prophet did not obviously conform to. In fact there are good arguments for saying he rejected animal sacrifices.

October 31, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

And I asked Dr Bird what he thought was the one thing the rich man lacked? He had kept the law from his youth, yet the prophet told him he lacked one thing and to go and sell everything he had and follow him, in the extant text that is. Neither of these two actions involved making up the one thing the man lacked. Obviously keeping the law fully was NOT to the prophet's satisfaction. In effect, the prophet told the man that keeping the law was not sufficient to be right before God. Thus more than likely he was told to give up his reliance on the law and receive the cleansing Spirit of God - the one thing he lacked. But the editor turned the original issue about giving up the law completely and receiving the Spirit into one about giving up riches and following Jesus. instead of giving up the law and receiving the Spirit

October 31, 2008

Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

That response got Loren a really hard nut to chew on. And me. I repent! On the matter of Jesus and the law I think I stand closer to James than to Rosson.
And isn´t it wonderful to see that otherwise pretty cool englishman getting real agitated :)

October 31, 2008

Blogger Leon said...


I think your response to Rosson is very good. I hate to put this in an I-told-you-so mode, but now you know how I feel, and how frustrating it is, to deal with scholars who banish the evidence and substitute their own preconceived ideas or theology. I keep insisting that it does not matter whether you are discussing Jesus' Jewishness, his relationship to Torah, or the same for Paul, or Judas, or Jesus' relationship to his own Jewish leaders — whatever it is, the evidence comes first. And there is a whole wide range of scholars in this field who are never going to pay attention to the evidence if it contradicts their beliefs. I get rebuffed all the time just for insisting the evidence matters and tells us things we've been ignoring. It is worse than silly to have to deal with this over and over.

I would make one suggestion on the topic here. A major problem is the continued use of the word "Law". I never use it in my own work. It is a mistranslation of Torah. I see no reason other than adherence to old theology to continue using it. It fosters the false idea that the Torah was a collection of laws, which it certainly was not, not for the Pharisees and rabbis. One choice is to just use Torah, but that won't help if scholars continue to apply wrong ideas to Torah. (Witherington is one who uses "Torah" a lot, but still misunderstands it as a collection of laws.) I find it more helpful to explain what Torah really was in Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism. I often use Constitution because that is what the Torah was for them and for Jesus too of course — a collection of constitutional principles. That works a lot better in explaining the actual evidence, and as you know, James, evidence is the key thing.

Leon Zitzer

November 01, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

Leon, Throughout James' work he uses 'Law' when talking about Jewish Law and 'Torah' when talking about Torah. If he is talking about law in Leviticus for example why write 'Torah'?

November 01, 2008

Blogger Leon said...


I should not have to point out that Leviticus is a part of Torah, and Torah is the appropriate word for all of it. Torah, in one sense, simply means all of God's revelation, which is why the same word, Torah, is used for both the written and oral expressions of it.

I am also saying that James is right that the evidence is everything or the most important thing. Using the word "Law" does not explain the evidence very well and fosters the incorrect idea that the Pharisees and rabbis were legalists, excessively concerned with minute details of law without regard for the larger spirit of Torah. "Law" helps to create false ideas about ancient Jewish culture and a very false contrast between Jesus and his fellow Pharisees and rabbis. It does not have to do this. I know of one Catholic writer who writes beautifully and accurately about Torah even though he constantly uses the word "Law".

The ultimate point is what will help us understand what Pharisaic/rabbinic culture was really like and what will give us the most accurate understanding of Jesus' place in this culture. In my work, I have found that using Constitution helps to explain all this evidence a lot better. It helps us to see — and that is the goal of all good scholarship and science.

Also, there is this: Good scholarship is also about pursuing alternative hypotheses, if they help to clarify things. A good, alternative approach should not be ruled out, especially by people like Rosson and Witherington. I think James has done a good job answering Rosson. My remarks are meant to point out that there is a way to further buttress James' points.

Leon Zitzer

November 04, 2008


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