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Biblical scholar James G. Crossley interviewed – fascinating!

Biblical scholar James G. Crossley interviewed – fascinating! February 11, 2013

James G. Crossley is a biblical scholar who has written a good few books. He stands out in the biblical studies community as being secular – a rarity in a field which spends so much time analysing the Bible. Crossley rose to a little more fame than the standard when he debated William Lane Craig. Crossley also has an unusual position of adhering to a particularly early dating for Mark.

Here is his University of Sheffield biography:

Biography

I have been at Sheffield since January 2005 in a department which has historically been the most creative centre of contemporary biblical studies.

I have long been particularly interested in the role of ‘religion’ as a human phenomenon and its relationship to social, economic and ideological contexts, especially, but not exclusively, how all this relates to the critical study of the origins, use and influence of New Testament texts.

Research interests

  • Historical Jesus and the Gospels
  • Constructions of Judaism
  • Early Jewish law
  • Social and economic explanations of Christian origins
  • Social history of contemporary scholarship
  • Reception of the Bible in contemporary politics and popular culture
  • Construction of ‘religion’ and the media

Current research projects / collaborations

I am currently working on two main projects.

  1. a life of Jesus for OUP without the conventional emphasis on Jesus as a ‘great man’ who effectively caused a new movement and with the emphasis on how Jesus, and the movement that followed in his name, were products of a range of social and economic factors and how these led from the Jesus movement to early Christianity. I am particularly keen on how understanding these factors can help explain certain features of ‘religion’ more generally and the relationship of this aspect of ‘religion’ to historical change and social justice and injustice, both ancient and modern.
  2. a collaboration (with Prof. Jackie Harrison, Journalism Studies) on the construction of ‘religion’ in the contemporary British factual media (printed press, television news, blogging etc.) in relation to dominant liberal discourses.

I am also continuing to write articles on Jewish law, reception history and the social history of contemporary scholarship (esp. the emergence of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’).

His selected publications are as follows:

  • Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Scholarship, Intellectuals and Ideology (Equinox: London and Oakville, 2012)
  • ‘Halakah and Mark 7.3: “with the hand in the shape of a fist”’, New Testament Studies (2012)
  • ‘For EveryManc a Religion: Uses of Biblical and Religious Language in the Manchester Music Scene, 1976-1994’, Biblical Interpretation 19 (2011), pp. 151-180
  • ‘Biblioblogging, “Religion”, and the Manufacturing of Catastrophe’, Bulletin for the Study of Religion 39.3 (2010), pp. 21-29
  • Reading the New Testament: Contemporary Approaches (New York and London: Routledge, 2010)
  • The New Testament and Jewish Law: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York and London: Continuum/T&T Clark, 2010)
  • ‘Writing about the Historical Jesus: Historical Explanation and “the Big Why Questions”, or Antiquarian Empiricism and Victorian Tomes?’, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009), pp. 63-90
  • Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2008)

The book that I own of his which was a fascinating read, giving the socio-economic background to the rise of Christianity was Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins 26-50 CE.

He has his own blog here – www.sheffieldbiblicalstudies.wordpress.com.

Is there any conclusion that you have drawn in your earlier work that you have now changed your mind about? If so, what might that have been?

That’s a difficult question to answer because I tend to move onto new topics rather than dwell too long on old ones. One that springs to mind is that I used to use phrases like ‘very Jewish’ (e.g. Mark’s Gospel was ‘very Jewish’) without really properly reflecting on what ‘a little bit Jewish’, ‘not very Jewish’, and so on, as well as ‘very Jewish’ might mean. It was Bill Arnal’s book, Symbolic Jesus, that hit the point home for me. I think it is still analytically useful to think in terms of ethnicity to describe the emergence of Christianity but is needs to be much more nuanced than the casual use of ‘very Jewish’ so prominent in contemporary scholarship.

What proportion of biblical scholars do you estimate are secular? Are there differences between the UK and the US in this?

Again this is a very difficult question to answer, not least because I’m not longer so sure what ‘secular’ might mean and that a broad definition of ‘secular’ might obscure some of the more theological agendas that we often barely realise that are at work in the field. This is why ideological criticism of the more subtle ways theological agendas are at work is important. Similarly, there are scholars who may have church connections but you couldn’t really tell what kind of (say) Christian they were, if Christian at all, from their academic work. So the situation is difficult to assess.

But let’s take it as bluntly as ‘non-confessional scholars’. From my experience in the UK I would think that the majority of New Testament scholars have church connections in some way and at some stage were motivated to do New Testament studies for confessional reasons. This lingering confessional background (even if lapsed) means it is quite easy for overtly confessional issues to be brought to the fore at, for instances, academic conferences and in conclusions to academic books (and even throughout academic books) without such issues being deemed too unusual, though critical opposition does seem to be growing in recent years. It is also clear that open non-confessional types stand out and I know people who have long given up the faith but think it would be damaging career-wise if they came clean. I don’t know if it would be necessarily damaging but there is certainly the perception and I know what it can feel like, even if the intentions of scholars are honourable. It is significant (obviously so perhaps) that these sorts of issues are not really present in any other areas of the humanities and they are looked on as being very weird indeed (at least this is a common perception whenever I talk to colleagues in other fields and disciplines).

There are certainly differences between North America and the UK, at least in terms of perception. I know a number of religious studies and biblical studies scholars in America who are far more nervous about the situation than those in the UK. One obvious reason is that the ‘culture wars’ over religion and Christianity are much more high profile in America. But what makes things more complex is that a number of high profile UK biblical scholars are the confessional heroes in the US (we might compare the popularity/notoriety of Dawkins or Hitchens in the US). My impression is that the situation is only different in terms of how open and/or polemical the debates are in the US but that the issues surrounding confessional approaches are actually more-or-less the same as issues of dominant theological agendas, evangelicals, miracles, funding, who-gets-what-job, and so on always come up on both sides of the Atlantic.

What are the best arguments for an early dating of Mark, which is something for which you are famous for advocating?

I think the best arguments are the cultural assumptions made by Mark that could not be assumed by Luke and Matthew. In particular, I think Mark can assume a time of general law observance before there was widespread challenges (40s onwards) and can present Jesus as obviously Law observant whereas Matthew and Luke, who also believed Jesus was Law observant, had to make it clear to the audience. I would say examples of this would be Mark’s handling of purity and food, Sabbath and divorce, which can then be compared with the ways Matthew and Luke handled the Markan material.

I wish Mark 13 (typically THE passage for dating Mark) could be more helpful but on the basis of Mark 13 *alone*, strong cases could be made for contexts anytime between 40-75CE.

What are the best books you have read in the last 2 years?

Another difficult question! I don’t really know the answer because there are several but I can give you an impression. No matter how obvious, I always like reading David Harvey, Žižek and Chomsky. But two books that come to mind immediately are Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2008 – I read it later than I should’ve done) and Austin Fisher’s Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema (2011).  Capitalist Realism for many reasons but not least because it includes a very helpful analysis of educational problems and the (related) absurdities of bureaucracy. Radical Frontiers was not only fascinating in terms of content and analysis but I read it when I took my annual leave from work. I read it in a tour of cafes and pubs, and sometimes at home. The sun was shining and I’ve long loved the films it covered. In their own curious way, both books are among the best I’ve read for related reasons…

Who do you rate as your most influential biblical scholar?

Again, this is quite difficult. In addition to my PhD supervisor, there are a number of people who have been very influential. I’d rather not name names (partly because I might forget someone, partly because the named might read this) but there are a number of brilliant people who work in historical criticism and political/ideological criticism who have had a significant influence on the way I think. If you know me, or even read anything I’ve written closely, it might just be possible to work out some of these…

Many people will know you for your debate with William Lane Craig some years back. What are you most proud of in that debate and what would you change?

I’m not someone who gets particularly proud of things for reasons I know not. I was glad some fairly standard historical arguments were put to the fore and that the ‘women-at-the-tomb’ argument got challenged publicly and is now looking as weak as it ever was.

While I ordinarily think debates should be serious, detailed etc, these were more about rhetoric and William Lane Craig is very good at that. In a hypothetical next time, I think I’d treat it more as entertainment and *really* enjoy myself and take the piss far more. I had to face an overwhelmingly evangelical audience – which was actually a fun experience – so why not play around more?

There was something striking about that debate, though. I’ve done debates on this topic in academic contexts and I’ve found that a certain famous scholar in particular relies almost entirely on rhetoric and just won’t engage with the details of the arguments against the empty tomb, against supernatural explanations and so on. Craig, who has made a name for himself as a rhetorician, seemed to be genuinely interested in disproving every detail of my argument which I actually admired even if I think he is wrong on so many issues.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently finishing off a book on the historical Jesus which downplays the influence of the individual figure and has little focus on reconstructing Jesus. Rather the book looks at the ways in which social upheaval (in this instance in Galilee) can lead to redirection, development, ignoring, misinterpretation of ideas (in this instance those traditions attributed to Jesus and most likely to be the earliest Palestinian tradition) and ultimately leads to historical change.

My main project now, which is underway, is a book on the Bible in English popular culture since 1968 (particularly non-confessional ‘secular’ culture) and the kinds of dominant modern (and anachronistic) ideological assumptions about what the Bible is.

What is the worst tactic you have seen employed by reputable biblical scholars?

I’m trying to decide between: 1) ignoring arguments entirely and thinking rhetoric counts; 2) trying to prevent publications for explicit ideological reasons; and 3) labelling contemporary scholars ‘antisemitic’ not because they actually are but because they disagree with theological reconstructions of, for instance, the Gospels. I would say 3) but I think this is typically done without thinking whereas in the cases of 1) and 2) they know exactly what they are doing, though whether they are reputable I’m not so sure.

In your book “Why Christianity Happened” you drew parallels with many cults throughout the century in their proselytising techniques. What do you think were the biggest influences for the (rapid) spread of Christianity? Could a “modern cult” ever reach such levels given the embedded nature of the existing monotheistic faiths?

It isn’t easy to isolate the biggest influences. I think the world was heading in a monotheistic direction and Christianity (probably unintentionally) was in the right place at the right time (so to speak) with everything coming together. I don’t think there was anything morally ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ about Christianity (which is the implicit narrative of a number of explanations for Christian origins) but a ‘monotheistic’ movement with extensive pre-existing monotheistic connections and with ‘proselytising’ tendencies (among many, many other things) tapped into a number of longer term developments in the ancient world. Obviously, there’s much more to it than that!

I wouldn’t be able to predict if a modern movement could achieve such levels. I prefer to stick to historical hindsight. But it is obviously a possibility. Could Protestantism have been predicted? Perhaps Mormonism might be a modern analogy…?

You take great interest in Jesus in his social and economic context. What good evidence to suggest he was a radical socialist is there (to the embarrassment of the right wing US fundamentalist economy)?

‘Radical socialist’ wouldn’t be the right term, not least because socialism is a much more modern phenomenon and that Jesus appears to have predicted a new theocratic and hierarchical empire (though here we might make comparisons with certain socialist traditions). But there are aspects of the Jesus tradition which do suggest that harsh socio-economic circumstances are hardly accepted uncritically and such traditions may well have been generated by harsh socio-economic (think Rich Man and Lazarus and the like). Clearly, the idea of rich burning for being rich, or rich not entering the kingdom of God because they are rich is a serious challenge to a right wing agenda. But also to the agenda of liberal power: who, in such contexts, really gives up their wealth…?

With your interest in Jewish law, have you taken an interest in their burial laws and what can you impart on the historical reliability of the claims surrounding the resurrection?

I have more interest in issues surrounding corpse impurity and I don’t think burial customs make much difference to the arguments about the historicity of the empty tomb. If Mark (or Matthew, Luke or John) got the cultural details correct, this would only tell us that they knew about burial customs. If they got them wrong, it could simply be a historical mistake which (theoretically) could have an underlying historical core. The issues about historicity still focus on things like women at the tomb, for instance, though I don’t think that issue (or many others) tell us anything very much about historicity at all. My own view is that it is important that Mark 16.1-8 is the first account of the empty tomb and the women tell no one and that’s that. So, as far as we know, no one knows where the empty tomb is and a good case can be made that Mark is trying to explain this problematic detail because no one really did know where the so-called empty tomb was, probably because there never was one. And let’s not get started on the lack of resurrection appearances in Mark…

Why should a secular undergrad choose to read a degree in Biblical Studies?

The Bible is everywhere in contemporary culture, particularly where there is or has been a historic Christian or Jewish presence. It has been present throughout western history, has been embedded in the history of ideas, and has been used in some of the most high profile periods of historical change. It is found in politics, art, literature, cinema, media, music and whatever you can think of, whether confessional or ‘secular’. If you want to understand and explain why this is and why it continues to survive (and here’s my pitch), a highly interdisciplinary degree (or at least it should be) explaining the origins, development, use and influence of the Bible will tell you about all this, and about human history culture at least as much as any other degree.

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