James Crossley (1/07)

Blogger of the Month for January 2007

Jim West Interviews James Crossley

Editorial Note: James Crossley authors Earliest Christian History athttp://www.earliestchristianhistory.blogspot.com/.

JW: Thank you, James, for agreeing to suffer interviewing. My first question is – what is your background? Where are you from and what is it about early Christian History that drew you to enter into academic study of the subject?

JC: Well, that’s a tale… I left school at 16 to work as an electrician in the shipyard for three years where I learnt nothing. It was unbelievably boring. It is very difficult to describe just how difficult it was to see beyond that life and I just couldn’t think how I could get out. A couple of freak instances made me see the possibility of sixth-form college where I decided to do English, history and then one other subject. I happened to meet someone at a party who said they’d just done religious studies, I wanted to do something relating to ancient history and so I thought religious studies would be the best solution for the other topic. I immediately loved it (the origins of Mark’s gospel was the first topic) and for one reason or another I had to start a few weeks late so my early reading was done hidden away in wherever I could hide in the depths of the boring shipyard, including the toilets. Sixth form college was one the best experience of my life, an experience no doubt aided by what came before. Then I went to the University of Nottingham, eventually decided to do something relating to the historical Jesus thanks to Maurice Casey’s perspective on things (which surprised me as his was very close to mine), and from then on wanted to find out the details of Jesus and early Judaism and consequently why Christianity emerged.

JW: As a historian, how is it that you determine the historical actuality of New Testament events?

JC: Combining as many of the usual methods in historical Jesus studies is what I suppose I’d go for, though dissimilarity from Judaism seems utterly useless to me, and I wish more people would pay attention to the details of the cultural context rather than lip-service and those not-always-helpful phrases like ‘the Jewish view was…’ One advantage in Jesus studies (say in contrast to Hebrew Bible/OT) is that we know something new emerged rapidly after his death that was starting to shift away from Judaism and so this can help in assessing evidence for the historical Jesus. I have some time for the stuff done on memory and how this or that passage could plausibly refer to some event or teaching or whatever, though I’d still be cautious as it can get over-done, sneaking ‘it-all-really-happened-without-saying-it-all-really-happened’ attitudes through the back door. Ultimately, in historical Jesus studies a lot of conclusions need to be generalised because there is not enough evidence to confirm clear historical reconstruction of specifics, at least to the degree of (say) much of modern political history. Yet I am optimistic: it is possible to get an overview of Jesus’ life and teaching even if we get many details wrong.

But to be honest I think scholarship, including my own, has over-emphasised the importance of minute factual detail. I think we have some major issues about which most would agree. E.g. Jesus emerged in Galilee, Paul had to justify people not observing the law, Jesus was at some point made God etc. I’d like to see more people spend time joining those dots with great social historical explanations rather than relentlessly finding out more and more facts for us all to disagree about.

JW: How do you see you blog functioning – as an extension of your academic work, an outlet, or a combination of both?

JC: I think it is pretty clear to anyone who might read the blog that I am reluctant to put anything particularly new on the blog unless it is published or being published. I didn’t consciously make this decision but I just can’t bring myself to put too many pre-publication ideas.

Yet testing my work was never the reason for starting the blog. One key reason was political, and in different senses of the phrase. It now seems naïve to me at least, but I once thought there were more politically radical people in scholarship, though I don’t think that anymore. This disappointed me when it hit home and it disappointed me in terms of blogging because there, I thought, more than anywhere in biblical scholarship, would such views be found. The situation is quite the opposite, I think. Another reason was the whole secular thing: I just thought the blog would be an outlet for such voices. Whether it does any good, I doubt it, though I was pleasantly surprised that, after initial heated debates, there has been more understanding that some secular perspectives are not there to advocate the end of religion, show how silly religion supposedly is or anything like that. It was a real surprise to me that some (but not all) of the more positive reactions came from evangelicals. I think there must be a mutual want-to-be-loved thing going on or something.

Finally, the blog has sometimes descended into self-publicity. I can’t promise anything will change on that front but at the same time I don’t think it is entirely bad. Well, not for me anyway. I’ve made some interesting friends because of the blog and the advertising of my work. I’ve got a bit of hate mail too and I think that can only be because of the blog but I don’t see that as a necessarily bad thing either. On the other hand, some people think I’m a right ******** after reading the blog and/or for doing a blog. They may even be right.

JW: How did you happen to arrive at Sheffield?

JC: I initially got a temporary position at Sheffield a couple of years ago. It was then one of the few places I wanted to go and there were people I was keen to meet. After so long, I got a permanent full-time position at Sheffield and I can honestly say that I can’t think of anywhere better to be doing biblical studies, and not only because the department is solely dedicated to biblical studies. At Sheffield you are surrounded by some seriously sharp and critically minded people all working in biblical studies; I have felt far less restrictions on the kind of things I say or might want to say; and Sheffield is closest to the secular model I like (a genuine mix of perspectives, not just a token non-believer or token believer). I’m not sure there is anywhere else quite like that.

JW: Who are your academic mentors?

JC: Maurice Casey, my PhD supervisor and teacher prior to that. He has what I would call a ‘pure’ view of scholarship. By this phrase (don’t take it too seriously) I simply mean that the prejudices (class, gender, ethnicity, religion etc.) which run deep in biblical studies, and probably academia as a whole, do not impact his views of students and is only interested in whether they have something to say. That helped me a great deal and is easier to see at a distance. The more entertaining side to that is that if prejudices are deemed to interfere too much he is more than happy to say so.

There are other ‘mentors’ but as they might read this, I won’t mention them. Generally, and I hope don’t sound too hypocritical here, I don’t like the over-respect given to scholars as if they are gods or international celebrities. I’m a big fan of healthy disrespect. Not necessarily in writing or personal attacks, just general distain (in the nicest possible sense). I find it a bit painful when some young (and some not-so-young) scholars get all weak at the knees whenever they see some big name or other striding down the aisle at conferences.

JW: Your recent book on Christian Origins is quite fascinating. If you were writing it today, would you change any of your major arguments? Or, in other words, have you changed your mind about any of it?

JC: No, I’ve not changed my mind about anything yet (it was completed 18 months or so ago). I’d write things differently now but I always think that about everything I write and if I let things like that get to me too much I’d never publish anything. My mood changes almost daily, but I sometimes wonder if I was too polemical in the chapter on secular approaches to Christian origins, then another day I feel I wasn’t polemical enough. I also wonder if I gave too much detail on this or that approach, but then there are people of a more empirical mindset who wanted that detail and I also wanted to show these sorts that various approaches are useful. Maybe I should have gone for an even broader ranging and less text-based approach to history as I mentioned in the conclusion of the book. Ultimately though, I sleep peacefully at night.

JW: Your older book on the composition of Mark’s Gospel was warmly received by many in the conservative camp. Do you think they would be surprised to discover that you are not quite so conservative? Or, have I misread you and you are indeed quite conservative?

JC: I think many already knew that I was not conservative and were relieved to have someone from a distinctly non-conservative Christian perspective coming to some conclusions that might be deemed conservative. Some who didn’t know me managed to work out from the book alone that I may not be conservative. But remember, The Date of Mark’s Gospel also argues that nothing can really be known about authorship, Mark 13 is almost entirely secondary, early does not necessarily mean historically accurate, there is haggadic material, and – perhaps the most problematic idea to Christians of all stripes – that the second gospel is nowhere near as Christianised as most like to think.

As to whether I am conservative as a historian, well I don’t know. I have a very open attitude to the historicity of many Markan passages and a great deal of the synoptic tradition but not all. As for John’s gospel, I could easily be classed as an extreme minimalist. I suppose my latest book would also make me the exact opposite of a conservative in many instances.

JW: Who do you think today, working in Christian Origins, (aside from yourself of course), has contributed the most to the furtherance of our knowledge?

JC: Maurice Casey, naturally, though I do not think his questions have been properly addressed and the reasons are largely to do with his overtly irreligious attitude and some deeply challenging conclusions, combined with no popularisation. Traditionally, those kinds of views really do not compute in NT studies. For me it is Casey’s views on ‘the Jews’ in John’s gospel which have been most conspicuously ignored. I think the reason is that his reading would make John’s gospel strongly anti-Jewish and, as he might put it, unfit for contemporary worship. That is a real problem for most Christian readings which tend to try and rescue John and make John more palatable, making the polemic against ‘the Jews’ mean something very different. I think his Aramaic stuff has had greater impact but even here I sometimes get taken aback. In a blog debate on Q a month or two ago I was a bit surprised when an old view of a chaotic Q which he advocates was not thought to be a proper view of Q, though the reasons for this I think had more to do with contemporary synoptic battle-lines than religious reasons.

So I’m biased: what are you going to do about that, eh?

I’d obviously have to mention E. P. Sanders. It is clear more than anyone in the past 40 years he has influenced scholarship on Christian origins. Though trained in sociology, Rodney Stark’s work is very important. He may have made mistakes with the ancient evidence and I think he gives too much credit to Christian belief, but his work has had a profound influence on many in the discipline (including me) with his brilliantly simple work on networks and conversion. Stark is a great example of how outsiders with their different questions can have an impact on scholarship.

Someone (Dale Allison, I think) said that, with increasing participation, there are no big names like Bultmann or Sanders influencing the discipline these days. Whoever said that, it seems right to me. I think there are more and more influential groups e.g. those working on social sciences (their work has the potential to be exploited for all sorts of big approaches to Christian origins). In the UK at least it seems that research grants are going more group-based. There is a potential negative side to this: it could prove to be a problem for individuals who are not part of any such groups or fashions but who have clever things to say. There is also a part of me which thinks that numbers and embedded beliefs are more important in winning arguments than the arguments themselves, and, needless to say, that is not always a good thing.

JW: Do you think Christians can contribute constructively to a reconstruction of early Christian history?

JC: Yes, and clearly they have. Most scholarship — conservative and radical — has been by Christians so that’s almost inevitable. The sheer numbers and interest inevitably means the masses of detailed work and reconstruction done by Christian scholars is there for people like me to come along and exploit. Christians have plenty of questions I would never bother asking so it forces me to deal with them. There has been far too much of this sort of stuff in my opinion but that hardly makes all Christians wrong of course.

JW: Is faith, in your estimation, a hindrance to historical work? Does it rob researchers of their ability to be objective?

JC: In certain cases, faith can be a problem, as can different types of faith. The issue of the miraculous is, unfortunately, still a problem. I may be wrong but I can’t help but think it is an advantage to be able to have no problem denying the historicity of dead saints rising or Jesus walking on water rather than coming up with torturous arguments in favour of potential historical accuracy.

On the issue of ‘Jesus the Jew’ – a view made prominent in scholarship for a number of reasons but that’s another question — there has been a lot of rhetoric and this is a faith related issue. Wright, for instance, keeps telling us how Jewish his Jesus is but he still gets rid of food laws, Sabbath, etc. etc. and does things virtually unparalleled and is effectively Christianised, despite evidence clean to the contrary. I don’t see how this is too different from Käsemann et al apart from calling it ‘Jewish’ all the time. I suspect one of the more dangerous ideas in NT studies (cf. the debate on Loren Rosson’s blog) is Jesus as a law observant charismatic or something like that who had nothing to do with the Christ of faith. The avoidance of this figure is not just by Wright but a part of the discipline as a whole. I mean, what if Jesus was just a fairly standard figure of his time, with everything he said and did more or less paralleled in early Judaism… I suspect more than a few Christians believe this actually but I suspect that the faith based structure of the discipline as a whole will make sure this view is kept in check.

In terms of specific theological colleges, Bible colleges, or seminaries, faith is also a problem if the Christian academic has to sign up to statements of belief. The simple reason for my concern is that certain answers are simply ruled out, otherwise… Well, we probably all know of people in these contexts who have lost jobs or disappeared because they’ve come to the wrong conclusions. But more moderately, scholars in certain institutions are not allowed come to the wrong conclusion. This it hardly the best model for critical scholarship. It is also more an institutionalised problem rather than that of the individual scholar. Many have little choice but to work in places where they know they cannot come to conclusions they may well believe.

JW: Would you agree with the sentiment cheekily expressed which suggests that “Evangelicals are Fundamentalists with a PhD”?

JC: Oh, I couldn’t possibly comment…

Could I?


I’d change the language I think (not so keen on the term ‘fundamentalist’ for analytical purposes though I love it as a term of abuse) but let that pass for now. A lot depends on what such people do. There are plenty of evangelicals doing excellent stuff and in certain cases you’d never guess they were evangelicals. Then some do the kind of history that can only be described as the equivalent of Intelligent Design. God directly intervened in history, made Christianity happen, bodily raised Jesus from the dead etc. etc. These are the kinds of explanations professional historians wouldn’t touch, just as professional scientists, at least so it seems to me, wouldn’t touch Intelligent Design.

Relating this to your question (sort of), there is something problematic going on when certain scholars can talk of doing good history, accuse opponents of doing bad history, and then tell us that someone’s mother was a virgin, people really did bodily rise from the dead, and that God’s hand is working in history. If you believe those latter points and want to argue for them, fine. But it isn’t what historians would call good history so perhaps it is time, at the very least, to acknowledge that the rhetoric is inconsistent. I can’t imagine too many professionals working in history departments coming up with arguments in favour of the miraculous or the divine hand in history.

But maybe I’m being unfair. My guess is that the smarter evangelicals are staying clear of such issues and just concentrating on things like Paul’s theology, Jesus’ actions, NT letters and so on.

Who said “Evangelicals are Fundamentalists with a PhD”, by the way? Sounds very familiar.

[Editor’s Note- the quote about “Evangelicals” is anonymous and is taken from Dale Moody’s book. The Word of Truth, where Moody cites it disapprovingly].

JW: What are your future plans concerning publications? Are you presently working on another book?

JC: I’m working on a few things. Some more gospel, historical Jesus, and Christian origins stuff. A popular book on Christian origins in the first century is maybe on the cards. More detailed stuff on the origins of monotheism and broad monotheistic influences on Christian monotheism. It looks as if I’ll be co-editing a volume on that. And then there is the book where me and Mike Bird go head-to-head. The Wright-Borg thing was an internal Christian dialogue whereas ours, perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of the times, is secular versus evangelical. I think that will be fun as Mike Bird is hardly the quiet type.

The next big book is shaping up to be a social and political history of post-war Anglo-American scholarship and, unsurprisingly enough, how major social and political issues have shaped the big questions (and answers) in NT scholarship.

JW: (If so) When do you expect it to be published and by whom.

JC: Articles etc. will be ongoing. The book-with-Bird is 2008 (I think) and it’s with SPCK. Other stuff, within the next 5 years or so. The politics and scholarship one, I’m hoping within the next 3 or so years. I’ve already done a fair bit on that and I’ll be giving a couple of papers relating to this book-to-be in 2007.

JW: To change gears a bit, what are your interests and hobbies outside of historical studies?

JC: Sport, esp. football/soccer. In addition to supporting Man United, I’ve always played football, although more intensely in some periods than others. Right now I’m enjoying playing as much as I have since I was a teenager. There have been times in my life when I’ve regretted not pushing myself further at football but, as I can’t stand 99% of football lads, it was never going to work. I also play tennis and again I’m enjoying that. In the cases of both tennis and football I’ve found myself in the strange position of liking all the teams I’m involved with.

I reckon I’m probably one of the leading experts on James Bond films. Between us, me and my brother know just about everything there needs to be known. I’m pretty good on the Spaghetti Westerns too.

I like politics a lot. That’s going to come through more and more in the work I do.

JW: You are famed, in certain circles, for being something of a fan of “Professional Wrestling”. If you were a professional wrestler, what do you think your “stage” name would be?

JC: Oh, that’s easy: Kid Whitelam

[Editor’s note: this response made me laugh so much I accidentally spit out my diet Pepsi].

JW: If you had to admit it, what would one thing be about yourself that most people would find surprising?

JC: Hmmm can’t think of anything at all.

JW: Thank you again, sir, for your kind participation. Your blog is excellent and always informative and we thank you for it, your publications, and your good humor.


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