Symposium Introduction

In Jesus and the Chaos of History, James Crossley looks at the way the earliest traditions about Jesus interacted with a context of social upheaval and the ways in which this historical chaos of the early first century led to a range of ideas which were taken up, modified, ignored, and reinterpreted in the movement that followed. Crossley examines how the earliest Palestinian tradition intersected with social upheaval and historical change and how accidental, purposeful, discontinuous, contradictory, and implicit meanings in the developments of ideas appeared in the movement that followed. He considers the ways seemingly egalitarian and countercultural ideas co-exist with ideas of dominance and power and how human reactions to socio-economic inequalities can end up mimicking dominant power. In this case, the book analyzes how a Galilean “protest” movement laid the foundations for its own brand of imperial rule. This evaluation is carried out in detailed studies on the kingdom of God and “Christology,” “sinners” and purity, and gender and revolution.


Helen Bond


Historical Jesus, Epistemic Modesty


JAMES CROSSLEY’S MAIN PROBLEM with traditional historical Jesus research is its tendency to regard its subject as a “heroic genius.” All too often, he observes, the past is seen as little more than a succession of Great Men, and historical change is simply the degree to which these men (and they nearly always are men) have shaped and influenced lesser mortals around them. But this way of thinking is flawed. Rather than focus on the lives of Great Men, we should explain historical change by looking at contemporary socioeconomic factors, asking what part these played in changing opinion, forging alliances, and creating fresh opportunities for change and development. New movements are always a complex mixture of both individual influence and social context. Thus, in Crossley’s view, any attempt to understand the emergence of Christianity needs to redirect its focus away from too myopic a gaze upon Jesus alone and onto a wider set of social, economic and historical factors.

The present short study gives a sense of the possibilities inherent in Crossley’s approach rather than an exhaustive treatment. The first two chapters prepare the ground for his discussion, mapping out the first-century context (chapter 1) and highlighting the limitations of the so-called “criteria of authenticity” (chapter 2). He makes it clear that the available evidence will not allow us to reconstruct the words and deeds of the historical Jesus with any confidence, but we are on firmer ground when we talk about the “earliest Palestinian tradition.” The three subsequent chapters each take a major theme within Jesus scholarship (Kingdom/Christology, purity/sinners, gender), demonstrating what a less Jesus-centred approach might look like. For example, chapter 5 offers a fascinating discussion of crucifixion as a “feminized” death, representing Jesus’ emasculation by Rome. Crossley argues (rightly, in my view) that Jesus and his followers would have tried to make sense of this shameful death as soon as they saw it as a distinct possibility, and that the evangelists continued the trend towards viewing it as a more manly, noble death several decades later. Social upheavals in Galilee, however, generated their own set of localized questions about gender, and the existence of both patriarchal elements (such as several assumptions found in the story of the death of John the Baptist, Mark 6:17–29) along with more egalitarian strands (such as the memory of female patrons), suggest that there existed a range of possible attitudes towards gender within the earliest Palestinian traditions. Some repressed gender roles, others reinscribed them, but all were as much an adaptation to the shifting social structures of a turbulent society as they were memories of the views of Jesus.

This is a challenging, provocative, and often mischievous book. It is full of historical examples and analogies, often drawn from a much wider horizon than the typical canon of biblical scholarship. Crossley is as happy discussing rabbinic literature as he is evaluating the English civil wars, historical theory, or contemporary UK politics. It has to be said, of course, that a critique of the “Great Men” view of history is nothing new, and it has been challenged in other disciplines. Crossley is right, however, to highlight its survival, even vitality, within contemporary Jesus scholarship. Although he doesn’t speculate much on why this might be, two reasons spring immediately to mind. The first is that most historical Jesus critics are not really “historians”; an analysis of the figure of Jesus is often a thinly veiled way to comment on theology, contemporary politics, or both. Second, although Jesus critics nowadays claim to treat Jesus in exactly the same way as figures such as Alexander the Great or Socrates, this is rarely the case. Jesus might have been an “ordinary” first-century Jew, but for many critics he wasn’t that ordinary (to adapt a favourite Crossley formulation). Holding on to a rather outdated way of doing history (whether consciously or not) is a useful sleight of hand for a critic who wants to claim rather more for Jesus and his legacy than strict evidence allows.

A third reason is rather less obvious, but concerns the nature of the gospels themselves. Scholars are generally agreed that the gospels are bioi, or ancient biographies, though the full implications of this are not always appreciated. As soon as Mark decided to cast his traditions in the form of a biography, he ensured that the life and character of Jesus himself would take centre stage. It is in the nature of bioi that everything else (characters, plot, even decisions over what is included) are subordinated to the central person. If all we had from the ancient church were letters (Pauline and otherwise), and perhaps the Acts of the Apostles, we would have to tell the story of Christian origins very differently. The existence of four biographies, however, ensures that the life of Jesus—just as much as his death and resurrection—is at the heart of Christian proclamation. And this biographical way of conceptualising Jesus has dominated scholarly enquiry from the first century all the way to the twenty-first. It is no accident that biographies of “Jesus the Great Man” began to appear in the late Victorian age: not only was the Gospel of Mark rehabilitated as the earliest (and, it was therefore assumed, most historically reliable) account of the life of Jesus, but it was a time when prevailing biographical conventions were relatively similar to those of the ancient world. Victorians, like the ancients, expected the lives of the great and the good to be improving examples, to say little of their private lives, and (pre-Freud) to have little sense of psychological development. Any attempt to shake off the “Great Men of history” paradigm might want to be rather more critical of the gospels themselves than Crossley appears to be. I would want to take his analysis of gospel texts further, not to stop at the level of individual pericopae (as Crossley tends to do) but to extend it to the level of the DNA of the gospels themselves.

Articulating the problem, however, is one thing; finding a solution is something else entirely. In broad terms, Crossley is entirely right that historical development is commonly the result of random, chaotic processes which only with hindsight begin to form a coherent pattern. He is also right to stress the importance of the socioeconomic context for any understanding of earliest Christianity. But this means that we have to know a great deal about that first-century context. Crossley does provide a sketch of what he regards as the chaotic and strife-ridden world of the first followers of Jesus, of the devastating effects of urbanization in Galilee and temple expansion in Judaea. He urges us to take seriously the fact that the country revolted against Rome only a few decades later. Yet given the importance of this particular set of socioeconomic conditions, which for Crossley are basically the early stages of the nation’s descent into catastrophic insurrection, readers may be surprised that conditions are treated so briefly (21–27). The “oppressed nation on the brink of disaster” is of course a familiar portrait of Galilee in the 30s, but it is also a view that has been challenged in much recent literature. How you describe Jesus’ socioeconomic context depends to a great extent on which sources you use. Those who draw on certain passages from Josephus, supplementing his work with sociological models drawn from the social sciences, tend to offer a rather bleak picture (as we see in Crossley’s work). Others, however, particularly archaeologists, commonly portray a relatively tranquil setting, with little evidence for any widespread social upheaval.

Recently, Morten Jensen’s highly detailed book on Antipas (Herod Antipas in Galilee) characterises the tetrarch as a minor ruler with a moderate impact, with no evidence of social crisis, serious unrest or widespread public dissatisfaction throughout his long reign. While noting Jensen’s book, Crossley simply suggests that “perception” might have been worse than reality, without telling us what would lead to such perceptions. Nor does appeal to a revolt which occurred thirty years later really help matters. Recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated that even apparently stable countries can become volatile in a very short amount of time; there is no need to appeal to a gradual disintegration of society (and hindsight here is a dangerous thing). In this analysis, Crossley is too guided by Josephus, who wanted to give his Roman readers the impression that war was inevitable, and that, although everyone other than the Jewish people as a whole were to blame, the writing was on the wall from early on. Yet we need to be more critical of Josephus (despite the fact that he is our only source for most of this period) and at least reckon with the possibility that the Jewish homeland was very different after Agrippa I’s brief reign (41–44 CE) than in the 30s. My point is not to argue that all was rosy in the Galilee of Jesus’ day – on the contrary, localised unrest and resentment must have been common—but simply to challenge the picture of extreme social unrest (even “chaos” and “upheaval”) in which Crossley locates the earliest Palestinian tradition. By the 70s, of course, the nation was in chaos, but by then the message had already spread well beyond the confines of its Palestinian origins. As with so much in historical Jesus studies, we need to recognise what we don’t know. Ironically, it may be that we know more about the figure of Jesus of Nazareth than we know about the Galilean context in which he grew up.

Some readers will complain that Jesus has retreated too much from Crossley’s book, such that it is hardly a “historical Jesus” book at all. This is perhaps inevitable. If the book encourages scholars of the first century to redirect their attentions to understanding the minutiae of life in Antipas’ Galilee, or Judaea under Roman rule, that will be no bad thing. And if Crossley’s work makes scholars reflect more deeply on the many differing contexts within which Jesus traditions were transmitted, shaped and even created, that too will only enhance our appreciation of the complexities of Christian origins.

  • James Crossley

    James Crossley


    Rethinking Upheaval: A Response to Helen Bond

    Chaos and History, Then and Now: An Introduction

    I am, of course, extremely grateful for four intelligent and fair responses to my book Jesus and the Chaos of History by leading experts in the field. One of the things that is interesting from my perspective is what is highlighted (and what is not). In the following responses, each participant raises issues which at least I thought were important for the book’s argument: the socioeconomic context of Galilee and concepts of “upheaval”; notions of imperialism and anti-imperialism; how to engage with received ideas of authority; and issues relating to Law and Gentile inclusion. I will take each response in turn.

    Rethinking Upheaval: A Response to Helen Bond

    There is much I find appealing about Helen Bond’s critique. Her comments on the Great Man in historical Jesus studies complement brief explanations I have given elsewhere. I have not, however, made one connection (though I wish I had) that Bond does, namely that an outmoded way of doing history survives in historical Jesus studies because it allows claims to be made which are not necessarily supported by the evidence. I also think her more subtle explanation, based on the idea that the Gospels themselves are ancient biographies, only adds to the reasons why everything since gets centred on Jesus. I also suspect her suggestion that we need to extend critique “to the level of the DNA of the gospels themselves” will become increasingly important in the next few years as various social memory approaches become more embedded in historical Jesus research and debates about alternative narratives to those presented by the Gospels emerge.

    But in this response I would like to focus on Bond’s main criticism. Bond would prefer it that I spend more than seven pages on the socioeconomic background in Galilee and challenges, to some extent, the connections between what was happening in the ’30s and the full-scale revolt against Rome. The (mere?) seven or so pages can be explained simply: work on socioeconomic situations in Galilee is extensive and I have little to add on what I previous thought and published. It can also be explained (relatively) simply in another way: the building and rebuilding of Tiberias and Sepphoris (and the Jerusalem temple further south) were the key changes for my argument. Whatever we make of the impact of these projects, they must have brought some significant changes in terms of physical displacements (at least in the case of Tiberias), material production and sheer visibility. I think some of the differences between myself and Bond may have more to do with the ways the issues have been framed by the scholarly debates we have inherited. I would, however, like to shift the emphasis.

    Bond rightly summarises the scholarly narrative of Galilee in the ’30s as “oppressed nation on the brink of disaster.” But these are not quite my words. I would be reluctant to use “oppressed nation” as a causal explanation in itself (when were the minority not “oppressed”?) and I likewise have problems with some of the ways the old conflict model is constructed. This is why I think perception is important, in addition to perception being an integral (but ignored) assumption in the work of the influential Hobsbawm. And, assuming we can use them for reconstruction, Gospel sources tell us something about perceptions and constructions of the world. Bond contrasts those who use social-scientific approaches and Josephus with archaeological scholarship, which, she probably rightly argues, commonly portrays “a relatively tranquil setting.” However, archaeology can only tell us so much about whether conditions were “tranquil.” Obviously, if there were extensive evidence of material destruction then we could make more precise claims. But there is not and all we are left with is educated guesswork about perceptions (and indeed what “tranquil” might mean). Whatever we make of Josephus (and Bond is no doubt correct to suggest more reading against the grain), I would go one step further and question the (probably unintentional) distinction between Jesus traditions and their context: “Ironically, it may be that we know more about the figure of Jesus of Nazareth than we know about the Galilean context in which he grew up.” Instead, we should claim that these are potentially one and the same thing: if we do know more about Jesus of Nazareth then we thus know more about the Galilean context in which he grew up! The early Jesus traditions are (potentially) as much part of the Galilean context as a palace or a vineyard. More pertinently, we have a dense concentration of material about rich and poor and related traditions in the Synoptics, and this concentration of material must have come from somewhere.

    This is why perception is important. We cannot make strong claims about standard of living, the extent of any agitations, uses of physical violence, or whether the populace was more or less “oppressed,” and so on. But we can say that there were dramatic changes as Jesus was growing up and we do have material that is probably from this context. More broadly, this also means that such traditions are a good witness to developments and perceptions in first- (and second-) century Palestinian history, as much as reactions to the Caligula crisis and the anxieties that followed. We do get two significant revolts against Rome and they did not happen out of nothing. However, the problem I have with the scholarly debates that we have both inherited is that they seems to work with a more vulgar Marxist model (either supporting it or opposing it) in the sense that especially bad stuff happened and there was an organised protest movement led by Jesus in response. Chaos and upheaval do not have to be understood in this clunky way and reactions can take on many different, contradictory forms (and I would add that this is near inevitable).

    To illustrate this point, let us assume for the moment the argument that there is “no evidence of social crisis, serious unrest or widespread public dissatisfaction throughout [Antipas’] long reign.” This does not, of course, challenge the idea that that there were two building projects which would have marked a change in the life of Galilee, even if at the level of ideological construction of the world. Indeed, if we were to pursue a Marxist approach to conflict (I leave to one side whether mine is or is not), then there are more subtle ways of framing it, as two of my key interlocutors—Badiou and Žižek—have done. Indeed, we might note the old argument that even material rises in the standard of living can likewise include antagonisms between classes; the situation of unequal distribution remains and will not satisfy all. Badiou’s view of a politically miraculous Event is that it is something that disrupts mundane existence and demands fidelity in the battle for its ongoing preservation, sometimes to the extent of normalising the Event itself. For Badiou, this is typically things he likes (resurrection and Paul’s universalism, Russian Revolution, 1968, etc.) but we can likewise claim that such thinking works for more unsavoury historical moments, such as Hitler and the rise of fascism, or changes we might be ambivalent or indifferent about.1 What is notable about Badiou’s Event is that it can involve the more obvious “upheaval” of something like 1968 or the seemingly less obvious example of “upheaval” in the case of the resurrection and Paul through to a range of barely perceptible changes, all of which tap into socioeconomic tendencies or changes.2

    This is certainly not to say we should be applying either approach to the study of first-century Palestine but the idea that something unlocks or opens up inherited tensions, differences, or stabilities, and can usher in historical change is important. My point is, then, broader, namely that there are other ways of conceptualising conflict and upheaval than the usual model in historical Jesus studies of “the people were especially oppressed therefore something happened.” How I would conceptualise upheaval (and even discussions of emancipation) would be to think about the notable changes that happened in Palestine as Jesus was growing up (and in the building projects of Tiberias and Sepphoris, and accompanying household relocations and displacements, there were such changes) and the range of reactions to this (conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious). These might have involved millenarianism, contentment, discontentment, indifference, resentment, intolerance, interconnections, dislocations, shifts in family relations, or whatever, but the world had changed and people would react in different ways, the Gospel traditions being one such intersection. If I were to use the language of emancipation then I would prefer to see these sorts of disruptions as examples of ways in which people can conceptualise a different world, irrespective of whether this is realistic or not.

    Indeed, we might think more about the analogy Bond makes when she claims that recent events in the Middle East “have demonstrated that even apparently stable countries can become volatile in a very short amount of time” and that “there is no need to appeal to a gradual disintegration of society (and hindsight here is a dangerous thing).” I think this underestimates the importance of some crucial explanations. To generalise, some of the broader, conventional explanations for what has been happening in the Middle East and North Africa have included, for instance, an unprecedented rise in slums and overpopulation, including significant numbers of the educated but unemployed; the extreme wealth inequality and volatility of oil economies; millions of migrant workers in the Gulf coming into contact with Wahhabism and increasing its networks; Western or postcolonial geopolitical interests and support for dictatorships and intervention in the Middle East (e.g., sanctions on Iraq, the Iraq war); and the decline of secular nationalism and the rise of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS (and reactions to them) as a vehicle for anti-American protest. Obviously these are generalising explanations and there have been all sorts of localised variations. Nevertheless, these explanations cannot be overlooked when trying to understand the destabalising of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring and its aftermath did not come out of nowhere and we can at least partly explain how it came about. We can suggest likewise for the revolts against Rome, or, on a smaller scale, the Jesus movement.

    1. I owe this point to various discussions with Deane Galbraith.

    2. Badiou’s work most familiar to New Testament scholars and which discusses his notion of Event is Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). A convenient introduction to Event is S. Žižek, Event (London: Penguin, 2014).

Brent Driggers


How Chaotic Is the Kingdom Tradition?

IN JESUS AND THE Chaos of History (hereafter JCH) James Crossley wishes to “redirect” the focus of historical Jesus research by exploring how the earliest traditions about Jesus can be “a means of understanding historical change and the ways in which power functions in human society.” Directing this concern for redirection are Crossley’s own interests in Marxist materialism, which frame the book (see chapter 1 and the conclusion) and inform his understanding of historical change. I found the Marxist-materialist framework refreshing vis-a-vis conventional approaches to the historical Jesus, although, as I explain below, I think it also proved limiting in certain areas.

Crossley begins by positing the exploitive urbanization and commercialization of first-century Palestine (namely the massive building projects in Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Jerusalem) as the most appropriate backdrop for assessing the “earliest Palestinian traditions” about Jesus (chapter 1). According to Crossley, these changes created chaotic social upheaval which in turn led to the kind of peasant unrest that fueled millenarian and utopian groups such as the Jesus movement. After critiquing the conventional criteria of authenticity and challenging Richard Bauckham’s arguments for the historicity of the Fourth Gospel (chapter 2), Crossley isolates three major areas of investigation: the nature of “kingdom” expectations (chapter 3), the pattern of repentance and forgiveness in relation to ritual purity (chapter 4), and construals of gender (chapter 5).

While each chapter of JCH yields numerous insights and will, inevitably, spur various kinds of scholarly debate, I have chosen to focus most of my attention on chapter 3, provocatively titled “The Dictatorship of God.” Crossley summarizes the chapter as follows:

The Gospel kingdom tradition has all the key elements: challenging the dominant world power from below while implicitly or explicitly putting in place a system that likewise uses imperial language in its replacement of kingdom with kingdom, or empire with empire. After all, the kingdom of God would, in the long run, become the empire of Rome and, of course, it helped to have imperial teaching which was ultimately compatible with Roman power. The cliché that Constantine was a betrayer of Jesus’ teaching may be true to some extent but it is not the full story. The earliest teaching in Jesus’ name does seem to have envisaged him as having a prime position in the impending kingdom of God, as did the developing Christology in his name.

In fleshing out this argument, Crossly follows the “apocalyptic prophet” school of historical Jesus research whereby Jesus “predicted that something dramatic would happen, and that this should be taken somewhat literally.” This “something” was God’s kingdom. Crossly acknowledges references to a present kingdom in the earliest Palestinian traditions, since the “simultaneous transmission of chaotic or incompatible ideas cannot be ruled out.” Like many, however, he is convinced that there was a gradual movement from imminent expectation (reflected in the Gospels and Paul) to the realization of delay (adjustments for which may be seen in 2 Pet 3:3–10).

When it comes to the anti-imperialist aspects of the earliest Palestinian traditions, Crossley focuses on passages dealing with wealth, especially Mark 10:17–22 and Luke 16:19–31. He contends that the concern for rich and poor was “inherited by the Gospel writers” and was “most likely to have been generated by the perceptions of what was happening as a result of the social upheavals in Galilee.” There was, in other words, “a more ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ attitude toward empire, wealth, and inequality” that became “integral” to the earliest Palestinian traditions. In terms of Jewish background, Crossly maintains that Daniel’s vision of the smashed statue (Dan 2) was particularly influential in shaping expectations of God’s overthrow of hostile empires.

Having acknowledged the revolutionary aspects of the earliest Palestinian traditions, Crossley dedicates the lion’s share of chapter 3 to explaining how those same traditions promote a “theocratic imperialism” that has been “hidden in [the] plain sight” of Jesus historians. He appeals to passages from Jewish literature to show that expectations of God’s coming kingdom “frequently had imperialist implications.” Reading the Gospel evidence through the lens of these pre-Christian expectations, Crossley finds examples of theocratic imperialism in the following places:

  • The promise that the twelve will sit on thrones of judgment (Matt 19:28 / Luke 22:29–30)
  • The Davidic accolades to which Jesus enters Jerusalem (Mark 11:10)
  • The depiction of Jesus’ exorcisms as demonstrations of royal power (Matt 12:28 / Luke 11:20; Mark 3:22–27)
  • The promise of eschatological role reversal (e.g., Luke 16:19–31; Mark 10:23–31)
  • The bestowal of special authority to Peter (Matt 16:19)
  • Parabolic promises of kingdom’s appearance and/or rise to power (Mark 4:26–32; Luke 13:20–21 / Matt 13:33; Matt 13:44; Luke 17:21; Thom. 113; also citing Mark 10:14–15; 12:34)

From this evidence Crossley concludes that “domination, subjugation, imperialism, and theocracy are part of both the Synoptic tradition and the relevant contextualizing sources, and are perhaps the only way people could realistically conceive an alternative to the present world powers.”

In explaining the development of early Christology, Crossley circles back to the political chaos of first-century Galilee. The exalted status of Jesus in the earliest Palestinian traditions (Messiah, king, judge) reflects the historical reality that “movements and leaders in times of social upheaval can . . . have agendas of power.” Without identifying Jesus as an outright revolutionary bandit, Crossley notes that the earliest memories of Jesus are not unlike the earliest memories of bandits: “As bandits could be remembered as a product of social upheaval . . . attacking power, wealth, and Rome . . . and mimicking the world of kings and kingship . . . so can Jesus in the earliest Palestinian tradition, where he seems to have a prime role in the kingdom—might we even say, perhaps, leading the vanguard of the dictatorship of God?” This is not to deny other contributing factors in the generation of early Christological speculation, such as the visions that Jesus’ followers had of him shortly after his death. Prior to these experiences, however, the earliest sources were already generating a high Christological trajectory—which seems for Crossley tantamount to imperialist ideology. For Crossley the orthodox deification of Jesus continues this trajectory, but not without centuries of debate reflective of the tensions and contradictions contained in the New Testament writings.

I found the governing argument of this chapter, at least in its basic outline, compelling. Our earliest Jesus traditions both challenge empire and—at least potentially—reinscribe imperial values. I admit that my openness to this argument is largely due to the fact that postcolonial interpreters have been identifying and critiquing the imperialist dimensions of the Bible, including the Gospels, for a while now (as Crossley acknowledges). Still, when it comes to bona fide historical Jesus research, the reconstructions often do not reflect the ideological paradox that Crossley attributes to the earliest Palestinian traditions. It is in pointing to this discrepancy that he makes his real contribution to the conversation.

To place my appreciation in context: I teach in a mainstream Protestant seminary in the United States. Like other seminary professors (I assume all others), I am responsible for correcting the presuppositions and oversimplifications of first-year students. Relatively few of them matriculate already having begun to think through the ramifications of the ancient imperialization of Christianity. Even fewer have begun to consider how the potential for Christianity’s imperialization might be embedded in its own scriptures, even in teachings attributed to Jesus himself. Of course the challenge of compressing numerous learning objectives into a relatively short period of time means that I occasionally oversimplify issues; and while I consistently point to tensions and even contradictions within the New Testament, I admit to having done little justice to the kinds of tensions described in the third chapter of JCH. So, as a teacher, I am thankful to Dr. Crossley for raising these issues for me. Also, as a researcher with interests in how historical Jesus research might intersect with Christian theology, I appreciate the discrepancy he highlights between mainstream portraits of the first-century figure and the more paradoxical nature of the earliest Palestinian traditions as he describes them.

But why the discrepancy? Crossley surmises that “scholars have implicitly bought into the rhetoric of Jesus too much and have not been suspicious enough of the violence involved in such theocratic thinking.” This results in a sugarcoated Jesus. For example, at one point Crossley briefly singles out John Dominic Crossan, whose Jesus espoused a “brokerless,” anti-imperial kingdom devoid of hierarchy. The contrast to Crossley’s depiction of the earliest Palestinian traditions is enlightening. However, Crossan would no doubt reply that he has employed a rigorous methodology that pushes us beyond the “earliest Palestinian traditions” to the actual message of the historical Jesus. And, to be sure, Crossan grounds his arguments (or attempts to do so, depending on one’s view) in a rigorous methodology. So, whatever one makes of Crossan’s historical conclusions, we are really looking at two different questions, with Crossley assessing the ideologies of the earliest Palestinian traditions and Crossan reconstructing the mission and teachings of the historical Jesus. In order for the discrepancy between their conclusions to resonate as a real critique of Crossan, Crossley would need to engage Crossan more directly and extensively, demonstrating deficiencies in Crossan’s methodology (beyond the brief discussion of criteria in chapter 2) and/or Crossan’s arguments for the authenticity and inauthenticity of particular traditions. Otherwise we are comparing apples to oranges. As JCH contains a number of similarly fleeting critiques of Jesus historians (e.g., Borg, Wright, Sanders), I would argue that this applies to most of those instances as well.

It also seems that JCH overstates the extent to which the Synoptic sources present an imperialist ideology. For instance, while he is aware of the argument that Jesus (and/or the earliest Christians) co-opted imperialist language—that is, misread it—for anti-imperialist purposes, in practice Crossley disallows this possibility in the analysis of particular passages, leaving readers with one-sided arguments. Take, for example, Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:28: “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Taken on its own, this statement does not spell out the nature of the authority to be exercised by the twelve apostles. If our only possible frame of reference consists of the most militaristic kingdom passages from the Jewish literature, then Matthew 19:28 will appear to condone a kind of imperialistic subjugation. But what if our frame of reference consisted of Jesus’ other instructions to the disciples? For instance, just a few verses earlier he tells them that the kingdom of God belongs to children (Matt 19:14); and in the previous chapter he tells Peter that he is responsible for forgiving repentant sinners without limit (Matt 18:22). Going back even further, those instructions to Peter are introduced by yet another analogy to children: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). My point is that if the exercising of apostolic authority looks like the actual teachings of the Matthean Jesus, then Matthew 19:28 does not reflect imperialist ideology but is actually culturally subversive. This is not to insist on a narrative-critical methodology for answering historical-critical questions. Rather I want to raise the question: How do we decide upon our interpretive frames of reference?

Related to the above critique, in reading this chapter I found myself asking: By what criteria do we define “empire” or “potentially imperial”? For instance, in JCH there is repeated reference to “hierarchy” as something that lends itself to imperialism, subjugation, and violence. I admit to scholarly deficiencies in the philosophy or sociology of hierarchy (assuming such disciplines exist), but it seems to me that “hierarchy” per se is an ideologically neutral term, at least when it comes to adjudicating whether a particular social structure is imperialist or anti-imperialist. I am also inclined to say that some degree of hierarchy is an inevitable sociological phenomenon no matter how anti-hierarchical a particular community’s rhetoric might be. If that is the case, the question is not “hierarchy or not?” but rather “hierarchy to what end?” The same goes for manifestations of “power,” as in the case of Jesus’ mighty exorcisms. Crossley discusses exorcisms briefly in terms of the reinscribing of imperialistic values, moving directly into the analogy of bandits carrying “agendas of power,” with no consideration of how exorcisms function for the healing of the sick and marginalized. Perhaps it is to be assumed that they function this way, in which case Crossley simply wants to emphasize the potentially imperialist connotation. Again, he repeatedly acknowledges, in general terms, that the imperialistic adoption of these traditions betrayed the intentions of Jesus (and Paul). Yet he seems unwilling to concede that this betrayal came by way of the actual misreading of particular verses and passages. That is what confuses me.

Furthermore, just as JCH overstates the extent to which the Synoptic sources present an imperialist ideology, it also understates the extent to which it forwards anti-imperialist themes. This is one area where I think the Marxist-materialist framework, for all its real benefits, may have proven problematically limiting. In particular, I do not think passages dealing with wealth and poverty exhaust the culturally revolutionary perspective of much of the Synoptic tradition. What about the host of teachings on compassion, forgiveness, and service? What about the host of recorded deeds—e.g., healings and debates about the interpretation of Torah—by which Jesus is said to embody those teachings? And is it a coincidence that the depiction of Jesus giving himself up to death—even given the complexity of socio-political factors contributing to that death—is remarkably consistent with those teachings and deeds? To be clear, I am not precluding the presence of genuinely imperialistic themes in the Synoptic sources [see below]. Nor am I suggesting that Jesus and/or earliest Christianity held a monopoly on compassion, forgiveness, and service. My point is simply that, when all the evidence is taken into consideration, I am not convinced that the earliest Palestinian traditions are defined by the ideological paradox that Crossley describes. Instead, what I see is a dominant pattern of peace (or, better, shalom) predicated on compassion, forgiveness, and service rather than violence and subjugation. There are good reasons, in other words, why scholarly reconstructions of the historical Jesus typically do not resemble Crossley’s description of the earliest Palestinian traditions. I realize that these arguments require monograph-length substantiation, so I forward them here as conversation starters.

When it comes to the more imperialistic tendencies in the Synoptic tradition, I think the best arguments are to be made in the areas of eschatology and gender. Crossley points to promises of eschatological role reversal such as Luke 16:19–31 and Mark 10:23–31, in which the rich receive eternal punishment or exclusion. Yet we can move beyond this materialist scope to find numerous other promises of the same basic kind, several of which fall under the category of the allegedly early Q. These passages may not reflect imperialist values in socioeconomic terms, but, like Rome, they depict violence and revenge as the chief instruments of peace. As a Christian, I admit to finding these passages theologically problematic. When interpreted literally, I cannot reconcile them with the dominant pattern of compassion, forgiveness, and service. The eschatological punishment or exclusion of God’s enemies does not fit with the command to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). Furthermore, I found Crossley’s arguments in chapter 5 about the “stabilizing of gender” in the early Palestinian traditions more convincing than the arguments in chapter 3 about the reinscribing of imperialist ideology in explicitly “kingdom” traditions. Alongside traditions that “shake up traditional gender roles” there exist traditions “reinscribing assumptions of gender and controlling gender through promoting stereotypical gender roles.” This, I think, is a genuine ideological paradox embedded in the Synoptic sources. Moreover, this paradox is hardly unrelated to how we assess the Synoptic presentation of the kingdom. Here too, as a Christian, I am challenged by the social and theological implications. I would prefer utterly subversive Jesus traditions entirely removed from the patriarchal matrix of human history.

To summarize, I think that JCH overstates the tension between revolution and empire as it relates to the Synoptic presentation of the kingdom of God. Thus I take exception to Crossley’s concluding observation that “imperialism, theocracy, and empire were as integral to the earliest tradition as were promises to the poor and overthrowing the rich and Rome.” To be sure, there are passages easily appropriated into an imperialist agenda, even passages that openly describe the kingdom’s consummation by means of violence. The reinforcing of gender stereotypes problematizes things further. These tensions and contradictions are of considerable political and theological consequence, and I do not want to ignore them, either for my own convenience or for that of my students. Still, I do not think a fair assessment of the entire body of Synoptic evidence points to anything like a sustained paradox of competing ideologies on relatively even footing, and that is why scholarly reconstructions of the historical Jesus typically do not resemble Crossley’s description of the earliest Palestinian traditions. However, due to Crossley’s thought-provoking work, Jesus historians will need to be more attentive to the imperialist dimensions of the sources they investigate, both for the sake of academic transparency and as a way to avoid the continued absorption of imperialist values. Of course, why one would even want to avoid that absorption—helping the poor instead of subjugating them, loving enemies instead of conquering them—is a question that, in my view, requires a kind of philosophical and even theological nuance that a purely materialist framework, by definition, cannot provide. That might be an interesting conversation as well.

  • James Crossley

    James Crossley


    The Dictatorship of God Is among You? A Response to Ira Brent Driggers

    Ira Brent Driggers looks at one of the core themes of Jesus and the Chaos of History (the nature of power, hierarchy and empire) and raises sharp and difficult questions not only for me but, admirably, for him. However, Driggers also tackles some of the more “mundane” historical Jesus questions. One of Driggers’s standard historical critical questions concerns a contrast between myself and Crossan. For Driggers we are effectively doing two different things (where Crossan is more reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I am more the earliest traditions). Here I would partly disagree with Driggers. On one level, this is obviously a fair assessment. Yet, on another, I do not think it is really that easy to do the kind of precise historical reconstruction of the figure of Jesus because we can only go back to the earliest perceptions. Thus, I would say that all we can realistically do is a reconstruction of the ideas present in the earliest tradition (with the qualification that such perceptions could, theoretically, have been present during the life of Jesus). Against Driggers, I do not think there would have been much to have been gained by more sustained critique of Crossan’s take on the criterion of multiple attestation, or indeed any other takes on the criteria. This was done extensively in the volume edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne,1 not to mention other publications, and I added my own tweaks and qualifications. All the criticisms levelled against multiple attestation apply to Crossan’s work, even if we follow his unconventional addition of different sources, and the most telling is this: multiple attestation (of sources and/or forms) only takes us back, at best, to pre-Gospel ideas, themes and traditions. Nothing more on Crossan’s methodology, rigorous though it may have been, can do any more than this. Indeed, Wright and (the more cautious) Sanders likewise could be (and have been) discussed in more detail but it remains there is nothing in their approaches which can do more than take us back to the earliest tradition. The age of the criteria, at least as understood as precise tools to get us directly back to Jesus, is over.

    Less mundanely, Driggers suggests that I overstated the extent of imperialist ideology. I do not think I would go as far as claiming the earliest traditions “misread” imperialist language for anti-imperialist purposes, as Driggers claims, but that particular point might be academic. A passage such as Matthew 19:28 and the promise of twelve tribes judging on twelve thrones may not spell out the nature of the authority but it remains imperialist imagery, and Driggers alludes to militaristic sources as frame of reference perhaps dictating the more imperialistic reading (which I would again foreground, as I did in the book). Driggers wonders what would happen if we changed the frame of reference to other instructions to the disciples, including ideas about the kingdom of God belonging to children (Matt 19:14), Peter’s mandate to forgive repentant sinners (Matt 18:22), and being humble like a child (Matt 18:4). This alternative reading, he suggests, would make Matthew 19:28 “culturally subversive” rather than imperialistic. Driggers is careful to note that he is not saying that this necessarily the better reading in terms of reading earlier tradition, but, rather, how do we choose which is the better frame of reference?

    The question is an important one. Ultimately, it is not easy to choose and, theoretically, both readings could have been early, possibly existing simultaneously for all we know. However, I would be a little more suspicious than Driggers. I see no reason why claims about being like a child have to be read as cultural subversion in its purest form. A child could, after all, be constructed as being submissive, particularly in the face of a kingdom run by a heavenly father. Certainly, sinners may be forgiven, but what happens to those who do not repent? And someone has authority to forgive something defined as sinful. None of this contradicts the idea that twelve tribes judging on twelve thrones is a position of eschatological domination (presumably one of reversal) and one which assumes a degree of ethnocentrism. If the twelve were judging unpleasant people in power and making sure that there was egalitarianism, equality, freedom, and food for all with no strings attached then I might be more open to the idea that we are dealing with something where power and hierarchy (in ways conventionally understood) were not foregrounded. Given the constraints of history, is such a reading even possible in historical-critical terms? Moreover, let us not forget that Matthew also has plenty of eschatological warnings and does not avoid the threating violence.

    Driggers goes one step further and asks (to my mind to least) some interesting questions of categorisation: how do we define terms like “empire” and “potentially imperial,” and why should “hierarchy” lend itself to imperialism, subjugation, and violence? He even suggests that “hierarchy” per se “is an ideologically neutral term, at least when it comes to adjudicating whether a particular social structure is imperialist or anti-imperialist.” I would not want to give precise definitions but in the context of Christian origins I would suggest again that we are dealing with ways understood in the first century which would have concerned things like the Roman Empire, the biblical kingdoms, and assumptions about divine hierarchy (loosely modelled, of course, on earthly kingdoms). The kingdom of God would have been assumed to be something like these kingdoms, with the king/emperor/god in charge and a hierarchical order below. I am generally less inclined to think of hierarchy as a neutral concept but in ancient terms I think it for a movement to be as “global” as Christianity, with a message about the kingdom of God so prominent, meant that it was almost inevitable that it would mimic the known and dominant power structures of the time.

    Driggers shifts the question to “hierarchy to what end?” and suggests that my discussion of manifestations of power in the case of Jesus’ exorcisms as reinscribing imperialistic values has “no consideration of how exorcisms function for the healing of the sick and marginalized.” I would respond by suggesting that integral to my approach (as Driggers pointed out) is the tension between liberation and domination. I would suggest that it is a common enough phenomenon for hierarchical movements to appeal to the “sick and marginalized” and we should not assume that historical actors ancient and modern see this as a necessary contradiction. In this context, Driggers is confused about why I keep emphasising “potentially” imperial. The answer is simple: it all depends on how the texts were taken up. They could have been ignored entirely or used for a myriad of reasons but I think it is a reasonable interpretation that an “imperialist” reading of such texts was present early on, perhaps the dominant understanding. But readers are not always predictable. I would, again, stress that I do not think “the imperialistic adoption of these traditions betrayed the intentions of Jesus (and Paul).” I am not sure what Jesus’ intentions were but I do think that there is clear evidence in the early traditions of a hope for a kingdom and that this kingdom would have been broadly perceived in imperial terms. Imperial adaptation was not exactly a “betrayal” and I am reluctant to push the “misreading” line too hard.

    Driggers also suggests that I underestimate the anti-imperial themes, and adds that “the Marxist-materialist framework” may play a role in this. I am not sure that everything he lists can be reasonably classified as “anti-imperial” but I should stress that I would agree that such ideas were clearly present. The only reason for their relative downplaying in the book is that they have been discussed a great deal and, for that reason, I did not think they were worth repeating at any length. I would also add that Marxist and Marxist-influenced approaches in biblical studies (and I did not quite identify with Marxist approaches—indeed, the book functions as a critique of Marxism) have typically emphasized the “culturally revolutionary” aspects of the Gospel tradition (think, for instance, of Crossan, Herzog, Moxnes, or Horsley). Where I would more strongly disagree with Driggers is his characterization of the earliest Palestinian tradition being dominated by peace/shalom, compassion, forgiveness, and service. These themes are undoubtedly present (though not as straightforwardly innocent as Driggers suggests) but so too are punishment, kingdom, rule, and defining what forgiveness is. It is striking that Driggers accepts (with a commendable degree of honesty) that the more imperialistic tendencies are eschatology and gender to which I would respond: how can we separate them from the message of shalom?

    1. Keith and A. Le Donne (eds.), Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T. & T. Clark, 2012). Multiple attestation is tackled in most detail in the essay by Mark Goodacre, “Criticizing the Criterion of Multiple Attestation: The Historical Jesus and the Question of Sources,” 152–69.

    • Brent Driggers

      Brent Driggers


      Clarifications and Further Questions

      I appreciate Crossley’s reiteration of his arguments against the conventional criteria of authenticity. What I probably could have stated more clearly is that I too believe the age of the criteria is over, at least as a means of (allegedly) demonstrating the authenticity or inauthenticity of discrete traditions (what Dale Allison calls the level of the specific, as opposed to the level of recurring patterns). My point in invoking Crossan (perhaps, in retrospect, not the best example) was not to defend his method but to point out that he is asking a different question, a question about the historical Jesus rather than the earliest Palestinian traditions. It makes sense to me that Crossley’s second chapter would stand in for a critique of Crossan, although, given that the demise of the criteria hardly means the demise of historical Jesus research (e.g., some kind of criteria go into determining that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet), I would be interested to see how Crossley gauges the results of less criteria-dependent approaches. Admittedly, though, that is not the purpose of JCH.

      Crossley poses an excellent question at the conclusion of his response: how can we separate the imperialistic tendencies related to eschatology and gender (which I acknowledge) from the theme of shalom (to which I want to give greater emphasis). I suppose it depends on how we define “imperialism.” If the term refers to any and every form of oppression and coercion, then we are certainly looking at a common thread across the synoptic evidence. However, at least with respect to eschatology, I continue to have some reservations about the overall force of Crossley’s argument for “chaos.” When I consider Jesus’ own behavior alongside his teaching about discipleship (the behavior of his followers)—positing (naively?) a correlation between the two—I am struck by how dissimilar this vision is from the violent, anti-Roman movements that dotted the landscape of first-century Palestine. I was reading the third chapter of JCH as an assessment of “kingdom” traditions in that more specific militaristic sense. To be clear, I am not claiming that the historical Jesus or the gospel writers carried a deliberately “anti-zealot” agenda. But I do think there is a contrast to be made.

      I understand that the “apocalyptic prophet” model does not allow one to hold eschatological traditions at bay. The whole point of that model is to emphasize the futurity of the kingdom, and that, I think, is where the pattern of shalom becomes most problematized—when the rich and uncompassionate are promised a fate of eternal, fiery punishment. For years now I have been unable to locate myself comfortably on either side of the apocalyptic/non-apocalyptic debate about the historical Jesus, and that continued uncertainty is not due to a lack of intense historical investigation and questioning. What I most appreciate about Crossley’s book—to repeat a previous compliment—is that it brings to my attention the possibility that, even within my historical questioning, I may be inadvertently clinging to the mythical “Great Man” who can validate my faith. At any rate, while I don’t exactly know what to do with it as a historian, I will again posit a distinction between a dominant pattern of shalom/service exhibited in the actions and discipleship teachings of Jesus, on the one hand, and a number of eschatological traditions that subvert that pattern on the other hand. The former represents more of a contrast to imperialistic and conventional revolutionary definitions of “kingdom” vis-à-vis Jesus’ cultural context. The latter is much more amenable to those definitions. I do not think that the term “chaos” aptly describes this tension, but I do acknowledge the tension.

      Given what I have claimed for Jesus’ own “behavior,” I am obviously still struggling with the categories of “power,” “authority” and “hierarchy” in Crossley’s rhetoric. At this year’s meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature there was more than one session dealing with historiography and the specific role of metanarrative in organizing our accounts of the past. It brought to my mind the possibility that I may be bumping up against Crossley’s over-arching metanarrative when it comes to his use of these terms. A metanarrative of revolution supplanting empire partly or largely by means of imperialistic ideology (stated clearly from the outset of JCH, to Crossley’s credit) may incline one to see Jesus’ exorcisms, or his forgiveness of sinners, in imperialistic/oppressive terms. Obviously, there has and always will be the potential to appropriate such stories in this way. But Crossley tends to use these terms in arguments, not about the potential meaning of traditions, but rather to assert their actual imperialistic/oppressive import. That Jesus occupies a “prime position” (64) in something called a “kingdom” (72) serves as a “changing of the guard” from Rome (75). The allegedly oppressive hierarchy begins there. In other words, it is precisely because “power,” “authority,” and “hierarchy” mean “violence” and “domination” that Crossley can flesh out certain traditions to achieve a more impressive chaos. Generally speaking, the evidence from human history favors Crossley’s definition of these terms (I acknowledge the logic of the metanarrative). But I am not yet convinced of Crossley’s interpretation of a number of the actual gospel traditions that are integral to his achieving his chaos. Perhaps if the gospel traditions demonstrated a more direct engagement with Roman imperial propaganda and/or conventional revolutionary alternatives (beyond the veiled apocalyptic allusions of Mark 13, for instance) then matters might be clearer.

      I am trying to resist sliding into an argument about the historical Jesus since that is not the ultimate purpose of JCH, but it has proven difficult since my own scholarly habits lean in that direction and since JCH comes to us with arguments about the historical Jesus already embedded within it. The best way of capturing my concern may be to ask: if the “primacy” or “authority” of Jesus necessarily denotes domination, in opposition to liberation, then doesn’t imperialism/coercion go all the way down? After all, if there is one idea that permeates the virtual entirety of the synoptic evidence, is it not Jesus’ primacy/authority? Do not the traditions about love and service equally presume this? If so, what is the hermeneutical point of reference from which to distinguish the liberating traditions from the dominating ones? On this point Helen Bond, in her review of JCH, helpfully attributes the Jesus-centrism of the gospels to their biographical genre. I follow that logic, although I’m less clear as to what it would look like, per her suggestion, to extend Crossley’s critique “to the level of the DNA of the gospels themselves.” Does that mean simply drawing greater attention to the way in which the genre has imposed order upon chaos? Or are we talking about something more deconstructive, something that could possibly leave us with liberating traditions sufficiently severed from manifestations of power, authority, and hierarchy, and therefore with chaos on Crossley’s own terms? Either way, it is one of the most intriguing comments in this entire correspondence.

      It bears repeating that I found JCH a refreshing and powerfully argued book. It levels serious challenges against the dominant “Great Man” approach to Jesus research and, in so doing, forces us to consider the ways in which we have problematically distilled a pure Jesus from the messier realities of history. I offer these questions out of an appreciation for Crossley’s work and in a spirit of collegial dialogue.

    • James Crossley

      James Crossley


      Imperialism or Liberation?

      There are, once again, many helpful and insightful things raised by Driggers and let me see if I can address at least some of them.

      Driggers suggests that his comparison with Crossan was that we ask different questions: one about the historical Jesus (Crossan) and one about early Palestinian tradition (me). I think I would counter Driggers here by suggesting that I am asking the same questions as Crossan but that I don’t think that the data and methods give the same answer. In fact, I would probably go further still and suggest that unless new, significant data comes forward or a new method is devised, the quest for the answers we might look for in the quest for the historical Jesus will have to be necessarily vague and that earliest Palestinian tradition is about the best we can do, at least in terms of enough quantity to write a book.

      On Driggers’ further probings about violence and imperialism, I think I’d be inclined to agree that what we see in the Gospel tradition looks different to ‘the violent, anti-Roman movements that dotted the landscape of first-century Palestine’. I am a little cautious because we do not have enough material from such groups (and I don’t think it is historically inconceivable for openly violent groups to proclaim loving neighbours either). But, yes, there certainly does seem to be a difference. Moreover, I find some of the arguments (e.g. by Justin Meggitt) for Jesus in a general anarchist tradition challenging and potentially persuasive. I still, however, think that there is a delayed militarism and hierarchy in the Gospel tradition and, if comparisons with other groups are to be made, we could suggest that both are engaging with related circumstances in their own particular way. This may have differed sharply from other groups and perhaps I am espousing broadly similar position to that of Driggers here.

      I think I would nuance what I mean by “chaos”. I found Driggers’ description of the tension between issues of the future kingdom and issues of shalom roughly equivalent to what I think. I’m less inclined to use the term “chaos” to describe this tension as such people did not necessarily see these things as, for instance, contradictory or chaotic. I would prefer to use “chaos” in terms of what was happening in Galilee in the early first century, how people engaged with such changes, and how ideas were then taken up in a whole range of (even unexpected) ways.


      Driggers raises (for me) interesting questions about the metanarrative of the historian and my interests in revolution supplanting empire. And he is right that it inclines me to look at material in a certain way. Others will ask different questions and will get different answers, perhaps complementary or at least not mutually exclusive. I have no problem with this. I have my own set of questions and interests and I want answers as best I can find them. As for looking for the Gospel material engaging with clear Roman propaganda as Driggers suggests, this might not be an easy task. Certain we may find some and maybe certain audiences did pick up on such issues (just as some might not). That would be interesting in its own right but my interests were more to look for the recurring (and often implicit) ideological tendencies in trying to understand why such a movement would develop hierarchical thinking.

      Driggers raises his concern as follows: “if the ‘primacy’ or ‘authority’ of Jesus necessarily denotes domination, in opposition to liberation, then doesn’t imperialism/coercion go all the way down?” I wouldn’t put domination and liberation in opposition (nor would, for good or ill, plenty of revolutionary ideas from various times and places). How might we distinguish? In historical terms, I am not entirely sure this is possible. What might be done in terms of a hermeneutic that prefers the peaceful and liberation traditions? That is perhaps a little away from my ancient interests but it seems to me that plenty of interpreters have done this, most recently in movements like Occupy and with the surprising emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK (or, perhaps better, England) and his ongoing use of the Good Samaritan (in contrast to his high profile peers) to oppose bombing Syria and to support welfare provision for those who need it most. Corbyn stands in a long tradition where Jesus in particular is singled out for anti-imperialism and, interestingly, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian thinking. Are these figures reading the Bible ‘properly’? That is where my interests as a historian become more contemporary and, conveniently enough, allow me the freedom to bypass such judgments (though I do not think they are wholly wrong, for what it is worth). Nevertheless, I often find myself in ideological agreement with such people and that, and the language in which it is expressed, is fine by me!

Rafael Rodriguez


A Man in His Time

Jesus and Historical Change

FOR TEN YEARS JAMES Crossley has been engaged in historical study of Jesus and earliest Christianity.1 He has also drawn attention to the contemporary social, ideological, and political contexts of Jesus scholarship.2 In both areas, Crossley aims to locate significant individuals (whether Jesus, on one hand, or historians of Jesus, on the other) within broader historical trends, with special emphasis on material causes. Jesus and the Chaos of History critiques historical Jesus studies as “biographies of a Great Man,”3 shrines to “the cult of the individual” that highlight Jesus in stunning contrast to his dimmer, inferior cultural background. Crossley resists merely describing the historical Jesus and sets out, instead, to incorporate “the earliest Palestinian tradition” into a broader portrayal of social and economic trends in first-century Galilee and Judea. In other words, Crossley wants to emphasize “materialistic questions relating to why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why it led to a new movement.”4 The bottom line: Crossley refuses both to elevate the historical Jesus as the explanatory cause of the rise of the Jesus movement, on one hand, as well as to dismiss him as irrelevant for the actual causes of the birth of Christianity on the other. Instead, he probes the historical Jesus’ connections with or disjunctions from the Jesus tradition and earliest Christianity in search for “the socio-economic upheaval, structures, trends, and long-term developments which fed into the rise of Christianity.”5

Crossley cautiously participates in two recent and related trends in historical Jesus scholarship: the turn to memory studies and the sharpened skepticism toward traditional criteria of authenticity. Both trends work well within Crossley’s programmatic concern to broaden the discussion from Jesus-as-individual to the “early Palestinian tradition” more generally. The precision and objectivity the criteria were supposed to offer historical Jesus research become unnecessary for Crossley because, whether a passage (e.g., Mark 2:23–28, the dispute about plucking grain on the Sabbath)6 yields “useful information about the earliest Palestinian tradition or Jesus,” that passage sheds light at least on larger issues of social conflict and material concerns of Jesus and/or his most immediate followers. Similarly, recent turns to memory work well with Crossley’s argument that “we should be content with generalizations about the early tradition”7 and the possibility, therefore, that we might “build up a general picture of Jesus according to the earliest tradition.” He objects, however, to a third trend: the use of the Fourth Gospel for historical Jesus research: “The traditional position viewing John’s Gospel as of minimal use in reconstructing the life of Jesus must remain in place.”8 The Gospel of John is “far more reflective of later Christian theology” and, significantly for Crossley, “lack[s] useful connections in earliest tradition.”9 Jesus in John’s Gospel reveals much more about the later “Christianized” contexts of the late first century ce than about either Jesus or the earliest Palestinian (Jewish) tradition. With this general framework in place, Crossley offers three chapters discussing the kingdom of God, “sinners” and purity, and gender.10

Blurring Jesus in His Time

Crossley’s emphasis on the “early Palestinian tradition” blurs the historical Jesus into the tumultuous upheaval of first-century Galilee and Judea. As I read Jesus and the Chaos of History, I was never sure if I was looking at the one Galilean, Jesus, engaging the kinds of debates Jews engaged in the early years of the Roman era, or if I was seeing mid-first-century Jews engaging those debates in Jesus’ name. Presumably, for Crossley, the difference doesn’t much matter. Both negotiated similar unknowns (imperial and counterimperial claims, purity, issues of gender and family structures) in something like the same socio-cultural and political environment. Not until “Christianity” spread out into the diaspora, began incorporating increasing numbers of gentiles, and had to address new concerns raised by the “mission to the gentiles” did the tradition begin to morph into something that would have been less recognizable to the Jesus of history (and so something that makes the Jesus of history less recognizable).

But if Crossley blurs the historical Jesus, making it harder to see him in distinction from those around him, he simultaneously helps us see more clearly what James Dunn calls Jesus’ “impact” on his followers.11 “One of the advantages of working with the general ‘earliest Palestinian tradition,’ rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change.”12 Though Crossley doesn’t acknowledge the point explicitly, his book implicitly foregrounds the fact that Jesus’ followers, even in those places where we may see their creativity and innovation most clearly, expressed their creative and innovative impulses with reference to the Jesus of history.13 To take one recurrent example, Crossley takes as axiomatic that Jesus, unlike his later followers, did not engage with or call for outreach to gentiles.14 If we grant Crossley’s assumption—I do not, but we can for the sake of the present discussion—the Jesus tradition nevertheless consistently demonstrates that his followers felt compelled, when faced with the question whether to extend the preaching of the gospel not only among but also to the gentiles, to attribute this innovation to Jesus. In other words, even if Jesus never laid upon the disciples the obligation to preach the gospel to all the nations (see Mark 13:10), Jesus’ followers nevertheless came to feel the weight of that obligation pressed upon them, and they thought (or at least claimed to think) that Jesus was its source.

Crossley might say this only tells us about Jesus’ followers. Perhaps. But those followers, apparently, identified themselves with and defined themselves with reference to Jesus. Something about the Jesus of history led, even if only indirectly, to the outreach to gentiles.15 Jesus and the Chaos of History begins to describe that “something” in terms of Jesus’ call for “sinners” to return to Torah-observance, which led (perhaps directly) to the inclusion of gentiles, since sinners could refer to—and even likened—unobservant Jews and gentiles. Crossley opens possibilities for us to explore Jesus’ broader influence upon processes of historical change without becoming mired in ultimately unanswerable questions of authenticity.

As far as Crossley has gone, however, we can go further. Daniel Boyarin has argued, in an essay with close affinities to Crossley’s book, that “Christ existed before Jesus. . . . Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is the precise fulfillment, I suggest, of well known and ancient pre-Jesus ideas about the Messiah as a divine human (which is not to deny a Markan contribution to the development of such ideas).”16 In other words—and here Boyarin parts company with Crossley—the superlative adjective in “earliest Palestinian tradition” makes the same mistake Crossley critiques in rejecting histories of Jesus as biographies of a Great Man: it assumes Jesus is the beginning-point against which the tradition can be marked early, earlier, earliest. By following Boyarin, we can begin to recognize not just how Jesus was taken up by his followers as a resource for navigating the uncertainties of first-century Galilean social and political vicissitudes, but also how Jesus himself took up (and was taken up by) broader social, cultural, and political ideas and patterns of behavior. Jesus was not just a producer of social or historical change but also a product of it.17

Bringing Jesus into Our Time

But Crossley does more than blur the historical Jesus and shed light upon the earliest Palestinian tradition. Jesus and the Chaos of History explicitly advocates for an approach to historical Jesus scholarship that is aware of and takes seriously its “interconnect[ions] with major geopolitical trends” and that bears some “significant oppositional political impact” in the present.18 In this vein we might take note of the first chapter’s title, “Does Jesus Plus Paul Equal Marx Plus Lenin? Redirecting the Historical Jesus,” a tip of the hat to the influence of continental philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, with whom Crossley opens the book.19 He exploits the “tension between revolution and authoritarianism” common to the universalizing tendencies of both the earliest Palestinian tradition and Marxism in order to open up a space for the historical analysis of Jesus and earliest Christianity to critique and transform contemporary discursive and power structures, especially the commodification of education.20

I want to shift our focus to a more mundane question, one that more directly addresses the kinds of concerns my students would bring to a book like this if I used in it class. What use, theologically speaking, is the earliest Palestinian tradition to readers who, unlike Crossley, turn to the Gospels seeking an encounter with Jesus, the Great Man par excellence? The historic Christian faith has affirmed precisely the thing Crossley wants to deny: that Jesus was the “prime historical mover,” “the original figure” who heralded the kingdom of God and inaugurated the church.21 For the reader willing to look past the surface, however, Jesus and the Chaos of History opens up at least two avenues of potential for theological advance. Because of space limitations, we can only briefly sketch these avenues, which hopefully can be explored more fully in other arenas.

Re-forming Christian Theology for New Crises

The Reformed theological tradition (of which I am not a part; my apologies if my comments are imprecise or misleading) offers the motto, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est: “the Church reformed is always reforming.” Set against the backdrop of the various European Reformations of the Renaissance, this motto provokes the image of the need for Martin Luthers in every generation to identify and challenge those places where the church increasingly diverges from its scriptural charter. Another sense of semper reformanda, however, arises from my reading of this book. Crossley invites us to embrace the call for semper reformanda not in terms of the church’s deviation from but of its response to. The church-as-institution is not called merely to remain faithful to the conditions of its founding; it is also thrust into the world’s challenges and needs as these change through time and circumstance. Crossley recognizes the danger that historical Jesus scholarship might focus on crises of the past and, having spent its energies in the first century, become complicit in the exercise of power in the twenty-first century.22 The church’s semper reformanda, however, continually reevaluates the world and responds to the crises of each new generation. The reformation of the church, in this sense, refers not to restoration of the past but to reconfiguration to address the challenges of the ever-shifting present.

Jesus and the Chaos of History focuses this latter sense of semper reformanda through material lenses, especially “how people in and around the Jesus movement interacted with the social upheavals of Galilee and Judea, as well as the Roman empire more broadly.”23 Here Crossley arrives at some standard conclusions (“The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society . . .”). Unlike some recent historians of Jesus, however, Crossley resists romanticizing Jesus as an egalitarian who abolishes hierarchical power structures. Instead, he rightly recognizes that the earliest tradition “simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism.” Crossley’s conclusions about gender and the earliest Palestinian tradition are similar: Jesus and his followers highlighted “problems for some traditional conceptions of masculinity”; however, he also finds “more ‘reactionary’ models of gender already being utilized” in the same tradition.24 This tension between conservative and countercultural tendencies lies at the heart of Crossley’s analysis. “In many ways,” he says, “the in-breaking of a more ‘revolutionary’ moment as seen in the earliest Palestinian tradition was always constrained by broader imperial and phallocentric structures.”25 This, I think, offers a more responsible approach to the historical Jesus than those “neoliberal Jesuses” who stand over their social, cultural, and political contemporaries as the Great Man embodying twenty-first-century values of liberty and equality.

Modeling the Church’s Reformanda

Crossley, however, does not accept the inevitability that this tension must reinscribe hierarchical structures; he holds out the possibility that, in our own time, we might resist “complying with, and imposing a narrative of, domination and power.”26 Here I think Crossley’s political reading becomes naïve; whereas he rightly recognizes the problematic inscription and exercise of power in Communist states (he explicitly mentions the Soviet Union, but the Communist regimes of southeast Asia and Latin America would come in for similar critiques), he nevertheless endorses a Chomskian approach to “challeg[ing] authority and authoritarianism and thinking about how to build a fairer society.”27 I do not see that such an approach has actually resulted in broader or longer lasting diffusions of authority and power than have classical expressions of liberal democratic impulses (for all their many problems). The church’s semper reformanda, I think, will and can only mirror the early Palestinian tradition: challenging the oppressive expression of power, proposing new power structures to enfranchise the marginal, and challenging these new power structures when they, too, marginalize and oppress. Thus, semper reformanda.

For those of us who, like Jesus’ earliest followers, turn to traditions of Jesus’ life and teaching to orient our lives, the Gospels provide more than the ethical what that Christians should observe, they illustrate also the how by which we may address new challenges. Again, Jesus’ embrace of “sinners” provides an instructive example. As Crossley reconstructs the earliest Palestinian tradition, Jesus himself encountered Jews who “were perceived to be acting as if they were outside the covenant and were thus seen as law-breakers.”28 His “ministry” (if we may use that very Christian term) consisted of calling these unobservant Jews back into Torah’s moral, ethical, and ritual systems. Jesus’ followers inherited this tradition of calling “sinners” to repentance, which tradition located them within the social world of first-century Galilee while simultaneously demarcating them from other Jews in that same social world. If Jesus’ earliest followers had interpreted Jesus’ teaching strictly literally, Christianity as we know it would never have resulted. However, they applied the structure of Jesus’ teaching rather than its superficial form to new challenges. When they encountered the gentile problem, they turned to Jesus’ attitude toward unobservant Jews (“sinners”) to provide orientation for their attitude to gentiles (“sinners”). The contemporary church, likewise, sees in the earliest Palestinian tradition not just what to think and do but also how to think and do.

* * *

Describing this how remains the perennial theological challenge. Historians and theologians have failed at describing the structure of Jesus’ teaching apart from its form, its particular embodiment in concrete times and places. This structure—akin to “religion,” which does not exist separate from other ideological and material discursive networks29—is visible in and never apart from concrete negotiations of power. If Jesus’ and his followers’ responses to the chaos of history are to have any significant theological utility, they will have to be brought to bear, mutatis mutandis, upon the chaos of the present.


  1. See James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity, JSNTSup 266 (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004); idem, Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

  2. See James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (London: Routledge, 2014); idem, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (London: Routledge, 2014).

  3. See James G. Crossley, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 13–19.

  4. Crossley, Chaos of History, 14; italics in the original.

  5. Ibid., 33–34.

  6. Ibid., 41–43.

  7. Ibid., 47; my emphases. Later on the same page Crossley describes his approach as “less about finding the ‘real man’ finally behind the tradition and more about how historical chaos generates ideas and historical change.”

  8. Ibid., 48–63 (62).

  9. Ibid., 60.

  10. See ibid., 64–95 (“The Dictatorship of God? Kingdom and Christology”); 96–133 (“‘Sinners,’ Law, and Purity”); and 134–62 (“Camping with Jesus? Gender, Revolution, and Early Palestinian Tradition”).

  11. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

  12. Crossley, Chaos of History, 163.

  13. Crossley’s general approach has clear and significant similarities to Dale Allison’s principle of “recurrent attestation”; see Dale C. Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010); idem, “How to Marginalize the Traditional Criteria of Authenticity,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, 4 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 1:3–30; Rafael Rodríguez, “Jesus as His Friends Remembered Him: A Review of Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus,” JSHJ 12 (2014) 224–44.

  14. For example, “Taking the Gospel to the nations (Mark 13.10) is likely to be a development after the historical Jesus and the very earliest Palestinian tradition. Elsewhere, meetings with Gentiles are exceptional (Mark 7.24–30) and Matthew has Jesus claim that the twelve should go to the lost sheep of Israel and avoid Gentiles and Samaritans (Matt. 10.5–6; cf. Mark 2.15–17; 7.27; Matt. 6.7, 32; 10.23; 18.17; Luke 15). As such sentiments appear unlike concerns with a Gentile mission (cf. Gal. 1.16; Acts 8.26–40; 9.15) and avoiding Gentiles is not entirely supportive of Matthew’s theology (cf. Matt. 2.1; 4.15–16; 5.14; 8.5–13; 10.17–18; 12.18–21; 21.33–41; 24.14; 28.19), Mark 13.10 is more likely to reflect later concerns” (Crossley, Chaos of History, 79).

  15. Crossley, Chaos of History, ch. 4.

  16. Daniel Boyarin, “The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2,” in The Interface of Orality and Writing, ed. Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, WUNT 260 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 353–62 (354).

  17. Crossley makes a similar point on different bases; see Chaos of History, 11.

  18. Ibid., 5, 8.

  19. See ibid., 3–11.

  20. See ibid., 30–32, 165–69.

  21. Ibid., 13.

  22. Ibid., 11–13.

  23. Ibid., 163.

  24. Ibid., 164.

  25. Ibid., 165.

  26. Ibid., 167.

  27. Ibid., 166–67 (166).

  28. Ibid., 98.

  29. Crossley, Chaos of History, 11–13.

  • James Crossley

    James Crossley


    Jesus and the Permanent Revolution? A Response to Rafael Rodriguez

    Rafael Rodriguez provides a typically insightful and largely accurate summary of my argument, pointing out the intersection of both structure and individual agency, and showing, I think, similarities in the ways both of us might look towards the structures of the Gospel traditions. One point of clarification is worth making, however. Rodriguez claims that the phrase “earliest Palestinian tradition” falls into the same trap as those criticized (by me) for portraying Jesus as the Great Man and the starting point for everything that followed. It “assumes” Rodriguez claims, that “Jesus is the beginning-point against which the tradition can be marked early, earlier, earliest.” This may have been my own fault for the way in which I worded the issue but this is not quite what was meant. For what it is worth (and I am not sure it is worth very much), I felt I was more working back from the Gospels as the “point” of reference. That said, by “earliest” I was also thinking about earliest date I felt I could reasonably place the material in relation to the object of Jesus the traditions construct rather (not that this is necessarily what Rodriguez meant) that Jesus remains the implied beginning-point. Rather, this is a contextualisation of a chronological period in a genealogy of ideas which stretch (chaotically) back before “the time of Jesus.” By way of contrast, the Great Man approach puts too much stress on the individual Jesus as the hard originator of the influential distinctive ideas, even if some weight is typically given to the Hebrew Bible and the “Jewish context.” Moreover, my approach (it should be added for fear of misunderstanding) does not mean that the “earliest tradition” is a starting point or that a given idea of passage derived from this point. All this was meant as a more cautious and chronological location of when ideas were present and that this is necessary because I do not think it is possible to say whether or not a given idea or passage “goes back” to the historical Jesus. It might, it might not, but it is not possible to show. More specifically, where I would be more confident is suggesting that such ideas or material could have been present and used in (say) ’20s or ’30s Galilee or Judea. In this respect, Rodriguez’s comment that he was not sure if he was reading about the figure of Jesus or Jews engaged in the early years of the Roman era, and that the difference probably does not matter for me, is effectively correct. In an ideal world we might more easily be able to get a more rounded picture of the individual Jesus. But it is not an ideal world and as far as I can see we have to make do with generalities about early or earliest recoverable tradition.

    What was surprising to me was that Rodriguez took the discussion of the book in a theological direction. This was surprising because I am used to Rodriguez-the-thoroughgoing-historical-critic with a penchant for memory studies and because he was open to developing ideas in a book that might be perceived by others (rightly or wrongly) as indifferent towards core Christian claims about Jesus the Great Man. Indeed, this may be the first time I have had to directly engage with the famous phrase “the Church reformed is always reforming.” Given my loose analogy between the development of Christianity and the development of Marxism, this could work in surprising ways (compare Permanent Revolution in certain strands of Marxism). For what my opinion might be worth in this debate, I think his example of engagements with “sinner” potentially reapplied to “Gentile” shows that such thinking is plausible. Indeed, the book does, in a more “secularized” way, look at how reactions to social and historical changes can be harnessed today, even when we might find these reaction strange, different, alien, and Other.

    Rodriguez does take issue with my reading of conservative and countercultural tendencies. While he does recognize the ways in which authority got/gets reinscribed in Communist states, he suggests that the approaches I raised and associated with Chomsky are naïve. He further suggests that, while acknowledging their problems, “broader or longer lasting diffusions of authority and power” have actually come through in “classical expressions of liberal democratic impulses.” In response to Rodriquez, it would depend on what is meant by “classical expressions of liberal democratic impulses.” Chomsky, for instance, sees himself precisely in certain traditions of classic, Enlightenment liberal democracy which, he would argue, is not the same as the liberal democracy of contemporary nation states. We might add that issues of the equality of gender, race, sexuality, and especially class, have more typically been associated with politically radical traditions (which we might identify with classical liberal democratic impulses) before, after plenty of struggles with given authorities, they have (if not necessarily in practice) become part of mainstream political discourse in contemporary liberal democracies. We might also think about how, for instance, the Jewish anarchists of the East End of London, the Spanish anarchists in Civil War Spain, or the contemporary radicalism of in the Andalusian town of Marinaleda (where the mayor, incidentally, cited Jesus as one of his inspirations)1 created some serious, organized challenges to inequalities and economic with various degrees of longevity. In a less dramatic way, we might even think (as Paul Mason recently did)2 about the freer dissemination of knowledge emerging through the internet and social media, including the more radical ends of open-access publishing. Post-2008 it is these sorts of democratic traditions that are providing the serious thinking to challenge the intensified versions of neoliberalism and austerity and have even been able to counter (with varying degrees of success) the reemergence of far-right politics. It is the thought of someone like Chomksy, who has relentlessly challenged American and European support for various dictatorships, which I find more appealing than those leaders who have supported authoritarian figures like Mubarak or Karimov, or invaded countries under the guise of “freedom.”

    1. Dan Hancox, “Spain’s Communist Model Village,” Observer, October 20, 2013, http:/C:/dev/home/

    2. Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Penguin, 2015).

Paula Fredriksen


Sin, the Law, and Purity

HISTORY MAY BE CHAOTIC, but historians introduce order—the idea of “causes”—by reading randomly preserved data through the lens of theory. Theory constructs causes; the data become evidence; and the historian can venture explanations for why something happened where it did and when.

A post-Marxian appeal to “significant [socio-] economic change . . . and the dislocation of peasant land” provides James Crossley with his causal nexus, through which he looks at an astonishingly rich variety of late Second Temple Jewish texts to discern “the accidental, purposeful, discontinuous, and implicit meanings in the developments of ideas as they appear across times and places, often justifying things that seem contradictory” (1). In five chapters, he investigates the liberal Jesus of much current scholarship (“Does Jesus Plus Paul Equal Marx Plus Lenin?”); ways for taking stock of what we have in the gospel materials (“Criteria, Historicity, and the Earliest Palestinian Tradition”); the reactionary, authoritarian, and imperial aspects of the Jesus movement (“The Dictatorship of God,” a particularly sharp essay, accomplished with a nice evocation of Bakunin); and finally, the intersections of social and religious dynamics around class and ethnicity (“‘Sinners,’ Law and Purity”), and around gender (“Camping with Jesus?”).

Crossley particularly analyzes early Palestinian tradition. My current academic ambit is the Greek-speaking Diaspora. I would like to focus, then, on Crossley’s discussion in “‘Sinners,’ Law and Purity,” because, as his chapter contends, these considerations ultimately bridged homeland and diaspora, bridging thereby and as well Jewish Jesus-followers and Gentile ones. By considering these three issues, we find a pathway from the earliest Jesus traditions to what will become Christianity.

The chapter begins with an important question: who are the gospels’ “sinners,” and what does Jesus have to do with them? To get to grips with the issue, we have to place Jesus within his historical Jewish context. It’s harder to do than it looks. Very often, the “Jewish-but-not-too-Jewish” Jesus of much current NT scholarship is fit into his Jewish context by way of contrast, with his Jewish contemporaries serving as the moral inverse of Jesus himself. The poor, the ill, the sinful, the impure, and women are usually pulled into these constructions. Jesus embraced them and included them; his contemporaries (who often morph into his enemies, the Pharisees) repudiated, rejected, or avoided them. In short: Jesus was nice to these “outcasts,” his opponents were not. Jesus’ inclusive table practices are thought especially to showcase his radical social outreach. And in fact, one NT scholar, recently expostulating on “standard Jewish separatism,” has lauded Jesus’ “countercultural association with the outcast in the intimacy of his table fellowship” (quoted 96–97; “outcasts and sinners” are frequently paired).

Through the simple expedient of looking at (masses of) other Jewish texts, Crossley utterly demolishes this moralizing reconstruction. These other Jewish texts, whenever they mention the socioeconomic status of the sinner, name said person as wealthy, not as “poor” (much less as “outcast”!). Such people were characterized as “sinful” because they act as if there were no God, or as if they were outside the covenant: powerful, oppressive, and unjustly materially successful, they abuse the poor (98–106). Jesus may be no less nice for eating with these people; but his regularly sitting down and sharing a meal with the wealthy scarcely obliges the “countercultural” construct. (Indeed, as Crossley points out, “Associating with ‘sinners,’ who were regularly regarded as oppressive, unjust, violent, and rich, could easily have been seen as siding with the very people representative of the economic injustices in (say) Galilee”; and an actual failure to get these wealthy oppressors to repent would only compound the problem of associating with them to begin with (110).

What is meant, though, by “repentance”? As Crossley shows, “to repent” in a Jewish context is to return to the Law; and nothing in the gospel materials implies that Jesus’ hearers—or John the Baptist’s, for that matter—should bypass the temple system as a medium to effect atonement (111). This issue of return to the Law in turn entails controversies around purity (a very fine-grained and necessarily detailed examination, 112–27).1 What emerges from Crossley’s investigation is an appreciation of how very technically informed some of the gospels’ controversy stories are: this material has a very good claim to an early Palestinian provenance. (See esp. 112–21, organized around Mark 7.) Their very imbeddedness in this context of intra-Jewish controversy then raises the question of why the later gospels would have preserved these stories, and in such detail, given that Jewish purity laws were irrelevant to Gentiles. “Clearly . . . the purity disputes and discussions found in Mark 7.1–23, Matt. 23.25–6//Luke 11.39–41, and Luke 10.29–37 are most obviously at home in Palestinian Judaism and less obviously at home in earliest Christianity, which was more concerned about whether the law should be observed at all” (124).

I need to go through Crossley’s remark step by step, in order to articulate the issues that concern me with his discussion here. First of all, what does he mean by “earliest Christianity”? In a long parenthesis of various NT sources, Crossley lumps together Pauline materials, Revelations and 1 Peter as “early Christian texts” (129): what he seems to imply by this is that what distinguishes the early Jesus movement from “earliest Christianity” is geography and, perhaps, the ethnicity of the audience: the Jesus movement was directed primarily to Jews (Judea and Galilee); “earliest Christianity” to Gentiles (Diaspora).

If this is indeed what Crossley means, then I think that there are several problems. First of all, the term “Christian” does not appear until the early second century, in Acts and in the letters of Ignatius. Paul did not know he was “Christian,” and neither did anyone else, Jew or Gentile, in the first generation of the movement—which conceived of itself as the only generation of the movement (an important point to which I will shortly return). Using the term “Christian” of this first generation, as both John Marshall and Anders Runesson have compellingly argued, unobtrusively wreathes any discussion in anachronism.2 There was no such thing as “Christianity” in Paul’s day. (And Revelation itself seems an entirely Jewish text, thus an odd man out in Crossley’s list.)3

Second, both Paul’s letters and, arguably, even the later gospels are all (and first of all) Hellenistic Jewish texts. They may each presuppose that some or most of their hearers would be ta ethnē (see Crossley’s nice survey and analysis of Markan passages on this point, 129f.), but they deal with Jewish issues using Jewish scriptures to promote a Jewish message: worship only the Jewish god, assisted in so doing by his son, the messiah son of David. (And for all we know—ecclesiastical traditions from later centuries notwithstanding—all of their authors were Jews.) The survival of the intra-Jewish purity controversies in these gospel stories, then, may be less remarkable.

Third: the question of the Law and its relation to first-generation Gentiles-in-Christ is confounding and complicated. Contra Crossley, I would say that the question “whether to observe the Law at all” was never raised, because as a condition both of getting in and of staying in, Gentiles joined these new communities precisely by committing to (idealized) Jewish behaviors. No other gods; no idols: the first two commandments of the Law’s first table. And Paul actually lists the second table of the Law (that is, of the Ten Commandments) in Romans 13:8–10. (His evocation of Leviticus in fact codes for the Ten Commandments.)4 “Whether to observe the Law at all” was never at issue: the only question was how much of the Law, and which parts?

Fourth: Why push an idealized standard of Law-observant behavior on Gentiles-in-Christ that even diaspora Jews (as Paul, a Jew of the Diaspora, must have known) neither attempted nor attained to? I speak here of Hellenistic Jews’ evidently wide comfort zone when dealing with their pagan neighbors both human and divine within the context of the Graeco-Roman city, which was itself a pagan religious institution. An abundance of evidence, both literary and epigraphical, attests to diaspora Jews’ relationship(s) with the gods of the majority, showing them respect (if not full cult), and participating in the civic activities—theatre, musical competitions, athletic contests—that honored them. Jewish town councilors, ephebes, actors, athletes, soldiers: all these people had to have a good working relationship with civic and imperial deities.5

This raises the question: If native Jews acknowledged and interacted to some degree with these gods, what was expected of what we call a “convert”? How absolute and stringent need an ex-pagan’s separation from his former gods be, if Jews were themselves in some degree involved? We cannot know, of course. But what we can and do know is that Paul (as other apostles to Gentiles in the first generation of the movement) demanded and expected an absolute break. Why? As Crossley notes, it had something to do with traditions of “Gentile inclusion in Jewish eschatological thought”—which, as he also rightly notes, do not in themselves explain the phenomenon (23). But what does?

The conviction of the first generation of the movement that it was history’s last generation—the apostles’ apocalyptic convictions that they stood at the edge of the end of time—surely affected the mobilization and urgent interpretations of these prior eschatological tropes. And it is this conviction that spanned the cultural—and social, and economic—gaps between the Galilean apostles and the one from Damascus. Here is where a primary allegiance to political and economic explanations of the evolving Jesus traditions begins to break down for me. Alienation of peasant land had nothing to do with the appeal of the gospel message to Jews (and, ultimately, to pagans) in the cities of the Western diaspora; nor did the economic and social upheavals of first-century Galilee. Put differently: for all the ways that theories of economic deprivation “explain” millenarian movements (and Crossley duly notes on this point our debt to greats like Thompson and Hobsbawm), they cannot account for the rapid jump of the Jesus movement from Galilee via Judea out into the Greek-speaking diaspora. The social matrix presupposed just does not stretch that far. (Here we’d need to conjure theories of “relative deprivation.”) What we do see across the homeland/diaspora divide is a continuation of “temperament” or of “conviction” or of urgency that the kingdom was at hand. To me, social-economic millenarianism seems not to catch the force of this psychological factor, nor does it explain its vigor in such varied contexts. (Nor do I know what does!)

Crossley ends with a good-natured “Irrelevant Conclusion” (163–69). In saluting his sentiment, I repeat his closing exhortation: “The lesson is clear, even for the humble historical Jesus scholar. Be idealistic! Demand the possible! Embrace irrelevancy!” To which I would only add, no less irrelevantly: reread The Making of the English Working Class. Its methods and arguments continue to shed light and to stimulate historical thought across many different periods, as Crossley’s engaging essay so well demonstrates.

  1. See also the excellent discussion, p. 133, where Crossley essays an explanation for the relevance of moral (as opposed to ritual) purity for Gentiles—though this distinction is itself native to Greek purity laws as well: see A. Chaniotis, “Greek Ritual Purity: From Automatisms to Moral Distinctions,” in How Purity Is Made, ed. Petra Rösch and Udo Simon (Weisbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012), 123–39.

  2. On the problems with using the word “Christian” of the first generation of what would only eventually become Christianity, see especially J. Marshall, “Misunderstanding the New Paul: Marcion’s Transformation of the Sonderzeit Paul,” JECS 20 (2012) 1–29; and A. Runersson, “Inventing Christian Identity: Paul, Ignatius, and Theodosius I,” Exploring Early Christian Identity, ed. B. Holmberg (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 59–92.

  3. John Marshall, “John’s Jewish (Christian?) Apocalypse,” Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 233–56.

  4. Paula Fredriksen, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the Ten Commandments, and Pagan ‘Justification by Faith,’” JBL 133.4 (2014) 801–8.

  5. See especially E. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

  • James Crossley

    James Crossley


    Living Legally in End Times: A Response to Paula Fredriksen

    Living Legally in End Times: A Response to Paula Fredriksen

    Damaging for her reputation it may well be but Paula Fredriksen’s influence on my own approaches to Christian origins should be clear enough. Indeed, I think this will come through further in my response to her response which adds various helpful details and qualifications. Moreover, her concluding call for people to reread The Making of the English Working Class can only be cheered enthusiastically. The bulk of her critique, however, centered on the issues of sinners, Law and purity. Some of the these points may provoke disagreements in due course but in terms of a response I think they more involve clarification because I do not find myself in any significant disagreement with the core points raised.

    On the term “earliest Christianity” and “early Christian texts,” Fredriksen notes that I lump together a number Pauline texts, Revelation, and 1 Peter with such language. She suggests that I imply that what distinguishes the “early Jesus movement” from “earliest Christianity” is geography and perhaps the ethnicity of the audience. She then adds that if this is what I mean, it raises problems for the first use of the term “Christian” which is comparatively late while texts like Revelation seem “entirely Jewish.” In response to Fredriksen, it is indeed clear that the term “Christian” is comparatively late but I am using it loosely to describe the movement in Jesus’ name after his death and without any judgment made on ethnicity or geography. I appreciate that the language is anachronistic—and I should probably have explained this in the book—but it is merely meant as a catch-all term for which “X” or “Y” would be equally suitable, if somewhat jarring though perhaps even appealing for a field that has kept the term “Q.” If certain texts, individuals, and/or groups within this movement I call “early Christianity” identified, or were identified, as “Jewish,” I see no contradiction and this label, as Fredriksen rightly notes, could apply to any number of texts, including Revelation.

    Fredriksen also rightly notes that “the question of the Law and its relation to first-generation Gentiles-in-Christ is confounding and complicated.” She adds that the question of “whether to observe the Law at all” was never raised because Gentiles were brought in on condition of “committing to (idealized) Jewish behaviors,” i.e., some parts of the Law (e.g., no idolatry, some commandments). On one level, this is, of course, accurate. Worship of other gods was clearly an issue that would have been too much for even the most lenient. Where I would restress my own point, though, is to contrast such understandings of the Law with what was happening (as far as we know) in the earliest tradition where the questions, or rather assumptions, were about how to observe all (ideally) the Law in its different parts. Put crudely, it is one thing to say that plucking grain is a legitimate ways to interpret Sabbath law but it is something else to say there is no compulsion to observe the Sabbath at all.

    There are, however, some further complicating factors about issues of salvation in Paul which we may want to discuss further (e.g., Is it Law as Law that does or does not provide salvation? Faith in Christ? Or some mix of both?). And what if we imagine sociological factors involved in “conversion”? What happens when a Gentile interested in “earliest Christianity” (as loosely defined above) behaves as they should (e.g., keeps commandments, does not disrupt Sabbath, does not openly eat pork, in front of new colleagues) but then finds themselves in a different setting, perhaps with a nonbelieving partner (cf. 1 Cor 7) or an association with no interest in things Jewish or Christian? Networks and friends of friends of friends are typically significant in getting people to change affiliations and, in the case of the early “Christian” movement we may well have been dealing with a whole range of affiliations and different behaviours depending on social setting. It is not too difficult to imagine such complex social dynamics as an important factor in trying to justify non-Jews in the movement and, to bring it back to the main point, some may have taken their time to come around to avoiding other gods in a way deemed satisfactory. To quote Paul out of context, “Wife, for all you know, you might save your [unbelieving] husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your [unbelieving] wife” (1 Cor 7:16). But this may be digressing too far. I would agree that, however it may have been intellectually justified, bits of the Law were to remain while restressing that this would also have included people who were not observing everything which stands in contrast to what we know about the earliest Palestinian tradition.

    As this may already imply, I would agree with Fredriksen’s fourth point (“Why push an idealized standard of Law-observant behavior on Gentiles-in-Christ that even diaspora Jews . . . neither attempted nor attained to?”), and that Jews would have had a range of way of engaging with their neighbours (both human and divine) in the Greco-Roman city. This sort of thinking can still help us in terms of the earliest Palestinian tradition or, if we should, the historical Jesus. If there were such concern with an idealized standard of Law observance in the Gospel tradition and in relation to Judea and Galilee, then might this not be some indication of early tradition? I would not want to push this too hard (e.g., as a “criterion”) but it is not too difficult to envisage this sort of thinking as potentially useful for historical Jesus studies.

    Where I would challenge Fredriksen is the distinction between the socioeconomic contexts of Galilee and Judea and the use of “apocalyptic” traditions concerning end times. This is an important issue for clarification (and future research) and so I quote Fredriksen more fully:

    And it is this [eschatological] conviction that spanned the cultural—and social, and economic—gaps between the Galilean apostles and the one from Damascus. Here is where a primary allegiance to political and economic explanations of the evolving Jesus traditions begins to break down for me. Alienation of peasant land had nothing to do with the appeal of the gospel message to Jews (and, ultimately, to pagans) in the cities of the Western diaspora; nor did the economic and social upheavals of first-century Galilee. Put differently: for all the ways that theories of economic deprivation “explain” millenarian movements (and Crossley duly notes on this point our debt to greats like Thompson and Hobsbawm), they cannot account for the rapid jump of the Jesus movement from Galilee via Judea out into the Greek-speaking diaspora. The social matrix presupposed just does not stretch that far. (Here we’d need to conjure theories of “relative deprivation.”) What we do see across the homeland/diaspora divide is a continuation of “temperament” or of “conviction” or of urgency that the Kingdom was at hand. To me, social-economic millenarianism seems not to catch the force of this psychological factor, nor does it explain its vigor in such varied contexts.

    I would put my own argument in a different way that may not be so different from Fredriksen’s after all. It was the socioeconomic changes in Galilee and Judea (and I would refer back to the qualifications that I gave in previous responses) that help us account for the particular flavor of the millenarianism of the earliest traditions. What this sort of approach does not do (and I would not claim otherwise) is account for its ongoing popularity or the psychological issues involved in its perpetuation. The approach I suggested can tell us about what was happening in Palestine and how millenarian traditions emerged from, and intersected with, such changes. Indeed, as I have stressed throughout the responses, it does not necessarily matter to my interests whether historical actors were consciously attracted to millenarian movements through their personal socioeconomic reflections but rather that socioeconomic changes can give rise to intensified millenarian ideas. But to explain what happened next, and why, would require an extensive interdisciplinary investigation, as well as broad and localized historical issues in the Eastern Mediterranean. It certainly needs doing but of equal certainty is that it will not be done by me!

    Concluding Remarks

    Like the book, the responses moved between ancient and modern contexts, touching on historical reconstruction and ideological trends at play. I hope that I have managed to give some idea about the ways in which people engage with the social structures and historical changes of their times and how ancient and modern will inevitably be in dialogue in historical research. All four responses have clearly helped my understand my own arguments better and I think that the clarifications were especially helpful in helping me see how arguments can be received and, in giving me the space to respond in detail, giving me an something that not everybody who writes books and articles gets: the chance to clarify and develop arguments for posterity.