Explaining a faith

29 November 2007

John Court is sceptical about an account of Christianity’s causes

Why Christianity Happened: A sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)
James G. Crossley

Westminster John Knox £13.99 (978-0-664-23094-4)
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

MANY READERS of the Church Times would probably answer the question why Christianity happened with two names, Jesus and/or Paul. This author’s answer is different. The subtitle provides a clue: “I have downplayed the role of individual genius in favour of broader social, economic, and historical factors to explain the spread of earliest Christianity.”

Crossley blames Christians, and especially New Testament scholars, for impeding advances in the historical study of Christian origins, and being preoccupied with the history of ideas. His “secular” approach is supposedly more “down-to-earth”.

Socioeconomic conditions and urbanisation in Galilee in the 20s account for the emergence of the Jesus movement, the interpretation of the Law with a bias to the poor, and an aggressive attitude towards the rich. The sinners are not the poor, but rather the lawless rich. This category includes the Gentile oppressors, and so a significant association with Gentiles emerges after Jesus’s death.

When social conditions in agrarian societies favoured a rise in monotheistic beliefs, there was a spread of monotheism among Gentiles, especially in the east of the Roman Empire. (The New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl referred in the 1960s to the attraction for Gentiles of quaint food laws.)

In his fifth and final chapter, Crossley has to explain “how we get from a law-observant movement to a nonobservant movement”. The two methods he uses are the analysis of conversion within households, where observance of the law could be modified when Gentile “friends of friends of friends” join the chain, and comparative studies of the spread of new religious movements which produce adaptations in new social settings.

This is a skilful and lucid presentation, which sometimes drops into slang, and can occasionally be hostile and somewhat abusive. Although I can claim to have studied the New Testament, with social-science methodologies firmly in view, for more than 40 years, I have to admit that I do not find these links in the chain of causal explanation particularly convincing. Indeed, there are powerful counter-examples in social studies for both the phenomena that are crucial to the fifth chapter.

It is a pity that the book was completed before the appearance of Timothy J. Ling’s excellent study of The Judaean Poor and the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, 2006). And readers of Church Times may not find congenial Crossley’s advocacy of a shift from exegesis to macrosociology in the historical approach to Christian origins.

Dr Court is Hon. Senior Research Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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