Baker Academic

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Interview with James G. Crossley - Part Three

I continue my interview with Crossley below. Parts one and two are here and here.

AL: I feel like I hear a version of this formula often: our discipline is in disarray because we've failed to produce a consensus portrait of Jesus. So first, is this what you're saying? Second, what is the virtue of a consensus portrait of Jesus? Why not keep experimenting? And third, are there really that many different portraits? It seems to me that there is a great deal of overlap among historians (really only three or four competing portraits) and that we make a living quibbling over nuances. Am I missing something here?

JGC: Yes, that formula is thrown around a lot and I was really just being flippant (I’ll come to that). On the first sub-question, I don’t think the discipline is in disarray because of a failure to present a consensus. The discipline-in-disarray may have been what the sarcastic version of what I was saying implied but not the serious version. To answer your final sub-question, I think the implied answer to your question is right: there are only a few competing portraits and that there is a lot of general agreement. I think this in terms of the portraits presented but it is also the case because of the standard questions repeatedly asked e.g. was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet…or not? It is no surprise that the answers to that are variants on a theme, or quibbling over nuances as you put it. The problems I have with the field are really more to do with the questions asked and the ideological positions they represent. 
On the second sub-question, I don’t know if there is virtue in a consensus portrait of Jesus, though I’d always be inclined to challenge a consensus. There are certainly ideas that remain in place through the generations but there are a number of ideas which just fall by the wayside or are even seen to be highly problematic. On the latter, just think of the different understandings of “the Jewish background” pre-and post- 1977. Both represent a consensus and the pre-1977 view (I would add post-1977 – see below) should at least make us a little sceptical when scholars resort to consensus views on anything. 
All this (and more!) is why I would strongly agree with the implication of the third sub-question: we do need to keep experimenting. Indeed even if consensus views got things historically right, experimenting would also open up new ways of looking at the historical Jesus. What the flippancy of my response was really supposed to imply (though it was far too cryptic) is that we should indeed be thinking of alternative ways of framing the questions about the historical Jesus and doing something a little differently.
...more to follow later in the next few days...


  1. Anthony, dude, "no future" - the Sex Pistols. C'mon. You took that far too seriously. Or, as they say in serious NT studies - here an ironic meaning derives from the transumptive resonance created by Crossley's intertextual echo.

    This is precisely why the Queen can say that she identifies with the poor in her Christmas Day speech and nobody blinks an eye.

  2. Speaking of ideology, though in possibly in a different way than what you may ultimately have in mind; it does seem to me that the ballad of the "Wholly Jewish Jesus," has any number of ideological motivations. From its inception, to this very day.

    To claim that Jesus is wholly Jewish, fits the ideological intention of the NT: to claim total compatibility with the OT God; thus insuring that Christianity, in spite of its resolutely "new" figurehead, Jesus, appears utterly consistent with the OT and Judaism.

    Repeatedly, obsessively tying NT ideas to the OT, seems like a strategy to deliberately obscure the NT's (specially Paul's) own Hellenistic/Platonising innovations. The whole program was trying to avoid the accusation of syncretism, or "changing" "God." Or in traditional language: bringing in foreign gods to Judaism; adding in Greco-Roman Platonism.

    It seems clear to me that the NT is essentially a product of the then-ascendant Hellenizing ideology of Roman-occupied Jerusalem; trying to disguise its innovations however, by (at times strained) point-by-point links to OT texts.

    And? The "Wholly Jewish Jesus" mantra of our own time (pre- and even post-77?), essentially continued this program: avoiding charges of syncretism and apostasy from the OT. While, within this Trojan Horse, bringing in lots and lots of Greeks and Romans, into the Temple itself.

    So the first ideological program I see is in the original NT itself: the Greco-Roman agenda; the surreptitious Hellenization/Romanization of Jerusalem and Judaism. Though perhaps this was a "good" ideology: following the Philonic program of try to merge, join, reconcile, two great Mediterranean cultures (Jusaism, and Greco-Romanism).

    As for more modern ideological programs and agendas? The ancient agenda of the (allegedly) Wholly Jewish Jesus, was continued in modern scholarship, as part of the Religious Right program of keeping Religion separated from secular culture. As a privileged sanctum or redoubt; a last enclave, immune from all modern innovation and discovery and progress.

    Maybe we might look at the decision of various parties in our own time; to honor or bend traditional rites, rituals of "purity," exclusion, sociological boundary-maintenance?

  3. Dr. Garcia, let’s be very, very cautious in discussing the motivations of the NT authors. If we struggle to understand the historical Jesus, then it’s even more difficult for us to know what motivated those who wrote the historical accounts.

    Getting into specifics ... you argue that part of what motivated the NT authors was a desire to “obscure” the authors’ “Hellenistic/Platonising” innovations behind a claimed compatibility between NT and OT ideas. There are objections to be raised here:

    1. For the earliest Christians, there was no NT, only the OT, which these early Christians regarded as scripture. Unless the NT authors were to adopt something like Marcionism, NT-OT continuity was unavoidable.

    2. I understand the rhetorical technique of hiding an innovative argument in a conservative guise. Perhaps this is what the NT authors were up to, but this would not preclude the OT from ALSO contributing to the ideological argument of the NT authors. Indeed, I cannot imagine how the NT's ideological argument could have been made independently of the OT -- unless, of course, the intent was to express a gospel like Marcion's.

    3. I don’t think a sharp distinction can be drawn between Judaism and Hellenism/Platonism. Each influenced the other, and ideas often associated with the one can be found in the other.

    4. You talk about the NT bringing Greeks and Romans into the Temple by means of an OT “Trojan Horse”. But I’m in the camp that believes that Greek and Roman “God fearers” were already in the Temple (or more accurately, at the synagogue) before the NT was written. These God fearers were attracted to Judaism BY the OT. No question but that the doctrines of the early Church were influenced by the encounter between early Christian apostles and gentile would-be believers, but I think that this encounter had the OT built in on both sides.

    One final point. I don't know much about the Religious Right, since I'm not a member of the Religious Right, but a "Wholly Jewish Jesus" serves MY particular program. Just saying.

  4. Bretton, I don't mean to be too abrupt, but the ideas you're forwarding died a needed death at least fifty years ago in New Testament scholarship. The charge that the idea of a wholly Jewish Jesus fits the "ideological intention" of the NT is a red herring. More importantly, it fits the historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth was, unquestionably, wholly Jewish. That the NT authors should appeal to the OT is not surprising either, since the earliest Christians, too, were wholly Jewish. And it was not the so-called Religious Right who first started reminding scholars of the needed emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness. It was people like Geza Vermes and EP Sanders, inter alia.

    1. There was much liberal support for Wholly Jewish Jesus at first; in part because 1) it helped get Christian apologists out of their normal too-comfortable assumptions, of a smooth line of "progress" and theological "replacement" of Judaism, by Christianity. And because 2) it seemed historically plausible, even likely: by all accounts, Christianity claimed to come from Jewish roots, and the OT. So? A generation of scholars decided to take that seriously.

      While then too? 3) The decline of Classics departments worldwide, all but eliminated the Hellenistic perspective.

      4) Though this began with Liberalism, by the 1970s this whole program however, began to play into the hands of the religious right. The abandonment of the multi-cultural (Hellenising) perspective, left religious studies in a very very tight, narrow enclave; totally circumscribed by the Bible; OT Judaism and NT Chrisitanity. One quite compatible with Fundamentalist churches that resisted the notion of any "external," "Other"-cultural influences on Christianity.

      Thus liberalism supported and perhaps originated WJJ, for some time. However? In the end the whole paradigm fell into the hands of a New Fundamentalism, a New Evangelization. That was all too eager to carefully exclude any external cultures, from its carefully-protected enclave. It was to be sure, now somewhat more inclusive of Jewish culture; but far more exclusive of all "Other"s.

      Therefore? It is a time to revise but revive, a few neglected classics from the past. Even in the interest of, multi-culturism.

    2. Dr. Garcia, sorry, I don’t get it. To belabor the obvious, there’s nothing recent about the Christian embrace of the OT. And if you see the Wholly Jewish Jesus being enthusiastically and universally embraced by evangelical Christian churches … I don’t get that, either. At the pulpit and in the pews, there continues to be wide support for the “Technically Jewish Jesus” and the “Defining Christianity in Contrast to Some Imagined Pelagian Judaism” Jesus. At least, that’s what I’m seeing. If what you’re thinking about is conservative Christian scholarship, then there’s N.T. Wright, but there’s also D.A. Carson.

      I’m not sure what else I can say that would be constructive. You want to make a point about some slice of present-day Christianity, but your use of terms like the “religious right”, “fundamentalist” and “new evangelical” are so imprecise that I don’t know who you are talking about. Ditto for your use of the term “OT Judaism” – I can guess what you might mean by this term, but I might guess wrong.

      Perhaps the real problem is with the idea of the “Wholly Jewish Jesus”. Even if we understand WJJ to be wholly Jewish within a solely first century context, that still leaves us with a wild variety of ways to be wholly Jewish, including ways that incorporate elements of Greco-Roman culture. The question is not whether Jesus was “wholly Jewish” – who would deny this? – but what we think it meant to be Jewish in Jesus’ day, and how it was that Jesus was wholly Jewish. Back then, there was Jewish like Hillel and Jewish like Shammai, Jewish like the priests and Jewish like the Essenes, Jewish like Philo and Jewish like Josephus. Just as today. I am wholly Jewish, as is Woody Allen and the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

  5. Problems with referring to Jesus, and/or Christianity, as simply "Jewish."

    We need a multiculturalism in religious study, that can more explicitly and frequently talk about the influence of MANY cultures; like "Greco-Roman" by name. No doubt, there were some Greco-Roman influences in Judaism, even before the Septuagint; and certainly therein. Yet I would say that such influence would likely have increased exponentially, especially from the time that Rome took over Jerusalem in 64 BC. And when Jerusalem was run by a Roman collaborator, Herod, and a Roman governor, Pilate.

    So we might reasonably expect MORE Greco-Roman influence at this time. And in fact? To me the distinct difference between the OT and the New, is a very high degree of Platonism; a Greco-Roman idea. To fail to see this or acknowledge Greek influence by name - by insisting that Jesus is strictly Jewish - seems to be to a bit ethnocentric.

    We might say that "the Jews of course, were quite multicultural and therefore already Hellenized." But to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, neglects and nearly denies the great resistance of at least, a conservative core of Judaism in the Old Testament, to "other gods," other nations. The label "Jewish," and not say "Hellenized Jewish", is misleading. THere is a significant difference that is obscured by not making this distinction. And I submit that "Hellenized Jew" is better applied to even Jesus himself.

    The "Wholly Jewish" gives the implication of a purely Jewish - and not multicultural; not Hellenized - identity.

    If you say there were many kinds of Jews, and some were hellenized, still, the term "Jewish" to describe them, and what I see in Jesus, would be misleading. and in any case would not to acknowledge Greeks, say, by name. Especially when I stipulate often, that by "The Jews" I mostly mean ... as defined by the Old Testament. Failing to see the significant differences between OT Judaism, and Jesus.

    In fact, I AM suggesting the unthinkable: that Jesus was NOT "wholly Jewish," in the OT sense for example. Jesus confliced with all levels of Jewish culture, from the priests of the temple, to many of the common jews, to the scribes, the Pharisees, the Saducees, the leader Herod, and so forth.

    Of course there is nothing recent about the Christian embrace of the OT (excepting Gnosticism, etc.). But in scholarship, the insistence that ONLY or OVERWHELMINGLY the OT is relevant to the study of Christianity - and not Greco-Roman ideas, ANE culture - in fact explicitly turns its back on a 100 years of scholarship, and a thousand scholarly articles tracing Greco-Roman influence there.

    Of course there are many variations within Judaism; I dated four or five of them. Still? There is an identifiable core ... that particularly in ancient times, was reasonably distinct from other cultures around it; especially the Roman enemy, say. In that sense Judaism and Greco-Romaism were QUITE distinct, often. And any significant or obvious Platonism in such an environment, is a very major difference.

    1. Dr. Garcia, a “wholly Jewish” historical Jesus naturally includes a Greco-Roman influence, both because 1st century Judaism had been influenced by Hellenism, and also because first century Jews lived in a Hellenized world. Also, we need to be careful not to think of Hellenism as a single cultural phenomenon. A better view is that Hellenism developed in different ways in different places – that what we think of as Hellenism in any given place was a mix of Greco-Roman culture and the local culture of that place.

      This goes to an essential element of Judaism in any era: there’s always a give-and-take with the then-dominant culture.

      Naturally, we’re always going to try to parse out the essentially Jewish part of Jewish life from those parts that seem to be borrowed from the dominant culture. But we need to be careful here, as cross-cultural influences make it difficult to isolate what is essentially Jewish. For example, you write that Platonism is a Greco-Roman idea. Even if Plato was not influenced by Judaism (and pardon me my ethnocentrism, but I suspect at least a mild Jewish influence), the neoplatonists WERE influenced by Judaism (so states the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

      Ditto for your idea that Judaism’s resistance to “other gods” means that Jesus must have been more “Hellenized Jewish” than “Wholly Jewish”. No question that monotheism is central to Judaism – even the ancient critics of Judaism so stated. But as Larry Hurtado and others have argued persuasively, first century Jewish monotheism featured a divine cast of supernatural characters, including some figures (like the Spirit of God, Wisdom and the Son of Man) that can appear very much like second Gods. (I intentionally put off to the side the question of whether HJ thought himself the second person of a triune God.)

      If what we’re talking about are relative degrees of Hellenism and Jewishness, then the evidence is that Jesus was relatively more Jewish and less Hellenist. I say this because Palestinian Hellenism tended to be located in Jerusalem and in the upper class, and Jesus was located elsewhere.

      Sorry, but Jews fight with other Jews. That is what we do. This affirms our wholly Jewish nature, as does wrestling with what it means to be Jewish. Jews who do not fight with other Jews are probably Hellenized. You’ve probably read the Dead Sea Scrolls, where Jews said things to other Jews that even Jesus would have found harsh.

      There’s more to say, but I thought I end by giving you a pat on the back, as it sounds like you had better luck with Jewish girls than I did!


  6. Around 1950 or so, it became common to associate Classicism in Christian studies, with Nazi/German racism. However, by now it is time to begin to see Greek influence directly. Paul of course talked constantly about "Greeks"; and allowed that he owed much to them. And oddly enough, we see Jesus in rather easy interactions with Romans too; not in strictly interpolated scenes, either. Especially, I seek a Philonic, Platonic metaphoricalization of the Old Testament promises of material things, material rewards, even in Q material.

    No Woody Allen influence; though I wish.

    So can we acknowledge Greeks and Romans, per se and as such, and by name? Or must we exlude them? Must we always say that Jesus was wholly, purely Jewish; and not say, a "Hellenized," even "Romanized," Jew?

    The (partial) reconciliation of Christian studies and Judaic to be sure, was a great moment of liberalism. And is still thought of as "liberal" today. However, my contention here is that the same reconciliation, eventually began to be taken over by those who would not allow multiculturalism to extend to the point of seeing Christianity as being not just "Jewish," but also Greco-Roman. Those who wanted to insulate Judeo-Christianity from all other foreign gods.
    A basically conservative tendency.

    1. You say that Paul "allowed that he owed much to" the Greeks... you also say: "we see Jesus in rather easy interactions with Romans too"



  7. Bretton, you're running a clinic on unsubstantiated claims and gross overgeneralizations.