Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review of How Did Christianity Begin?

How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence. By Michael F. Bird, James G. Crossley, Scot McKnight, and Maurice Casey. London: SPCK; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008, xviii, 206 pp., $19.95, paper.

Michael F. Bird, lecturer in Theology and Bible at Crossway College, in Queensland, Australia, Scotland and James G. Crossley, lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Sheffield in England; set out to write a description of the emergence of Christianity as a separate religious movement from the perspective of a believer (i.e. Bird) and a non-believer (i.e. Crossley). What results is an engaging study into some of the most contentious issues in New Testament studies including: the historical Jesus, the resurrection, the apostle Paul, the Gospels, and earliest Christianity. The book is structured as an ongoing dialogue in which one author presents his argument and the other author provides a counter-argument designed to show the weaknesses in the previous author’s argument. Each chapter then concludes with a brief response from the author who began the chapter. Additionally, each chapter ends with an informative bibliography designed for further reading. This is an important part of the book because often Bird and Crossley are only addressing or responding to aspects of arguments that have been developed more fully in the writings of other scholars. After the above mentioned five areas are discussed, the next chapter provides a critique of Crossley’s overall argument by Scot McKnight and likewise an assessment of Bird’s approach by Maurice Casey. McKnight and Casey, as senior scholars in the field, provide a broader context for the arguments that Bird and Crossley offer and also make comments as to the way they would approach these issues. The book ends with a short reflection on the nature of scholarly discourse and then includes an index of biblical and ancient authors as well as modern authors.

The introduction orients the reader to Bird’s evangelical approach and Crossley’s secular approach. Chapter one begins with Crossley arguing “that Jesus and Christianity were the product of broader social, economic and historical trends” (1). He concludes that most everything that is recorded concerning Jesus is also found in the various expressions of Judaism during the Second Temple Period. Bird, on the other hand, argues that what is recorded about the historical Jesus is accurate and quite exceptional. Moreover, Crossley’s “materialist” framework, misuse of sociological methods, and “cross-cultural” analyses which rely heavily on parallels result in findings that are not convincing (32). Crossley rightly notes that his cross-cultural comparisons are contextually sensitive and that Bird is too strong on this critique (33).

Bird begins chapter two with a defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and concludes that the resurrection accounts for the emergence of the earliest Christ-movement. Crossley contends “that in terms of conventional historical reconstruction the bodily resurrection should be dismissed as a historical event” (51). Here it is clear that even scholarly dialogue has its limits and that these competing positions are mutually exclusive though Bird does suggest that possibly he and Crossley can agree that a least they can acknowledge that the early Christ-followers “believed that Jesus rose from the dead” (65).

Chapter three discusses the apostle Paul and Crossley argues that Paul’s preoccupation was with issues related to the correct interpretation of the Law within Judaism and not with high Christological formulations. Thus, it would be too bold to argue that Paul equated Jesus with God in a manner similar to that of the Gospel of John (84). Bird relies on Philippians 2:5-11 to support his contention that language which had been limited to the God of Israel was now being applied to Jesus (96). Furthermore, Bird’s approach to Paul’s understanding of the Law is that the Law was fulfilled in Christ. Bird and Crossley, however, agree that Paul’s major concern was with “those who wanted to impose Law-observance on Gentiles” (94).

Bird begins chapter four, which discusses the Gospels, by arguing that the Synoptic Gospels and John evidence more continuity than is often concluded by scholars. Bird makes it clear that he follows the consensus dating for the Gospels. This is important because much of Crossley’s argument relies on a dating of Mark in the early 40s (106, 173 n.4). Bird also offers a sustained argument for the historicity of the Fourth Gospel, a viewpoint that is critiqued later in the book by Casey (184). Crossley understands Mark to be promoting continued observance of the Law and that the community to whom he writes was still within Judaism. Crossley provides a rather extensive discussion of Mark 7:19, one in which he concludes that the issue in this verse was hand-washing and not a declaration by Jesus that all foods are clean. Bird concludes by noting Crossley has failed to grasp the differentiated manner in which Law-observance would have been expressed within the Christ-movement and that a “high Christology…belongs to the earliest decades of the early Church” (136).

Chapter five begins with a discussion of the development of earliest Christianity. Crossley connects the concepts of pagan monotheism with empire as key ordering principles in earliest Christianity. Also, he argues that existing social networks were used by leaders of the Christ-movement in order to foster growth and expansion. Bird relies on an understanding of the gentile mission that was implicit in the ministry of Jesus as a key ordering principle for the emergence and continuation of earliest Christianity. Bird offers nine reasons for the ‘parting of the ways’ that seek to combine the political as well as the religious reasons for the separation of Christianity and Judaism (154-59).

Chapter six begins with a critique of Crossley by Scot McKnight who suggests that Crossley downplays the impact of his own presuppositions while elevating Bird’s evangelical bias. Furthermore, McKnight notes that Crossley’s methodological approach is not consistent and thus his conclusions are far from compelling. McKnight offers a brief outline of his preferred approach to early Christian origins, which is highlighted by his focus on “Anawim theology (i.e. the lost and forgotten ones)” and a key recognition that Christianity consisted of “linguistic[ally]-shaped communities” (173, 181). Maurice Casey’s critique of Bird focuses on Bird’s evangelical bias, his commitment to the historicity of the Fourth Gospel, his definition of the miraculous, his commitment to the Christ of faith rather than the Jesus of history, and his anachronistic readings of the Gospel witness. Finally, chapter seven briefly summarizes areas with Bird and Crossley agree and disagree while calling for future historical research to be “anchored in evidence” and practiced “in a spirit of learning” (196).

The structure of the book, with its reliance on a brief presentation and rebuttal may lack the rigor necessary to address in a substantial manner issues as complex as early Christian origins. The book lacks sustained exegetical argumentation and scholarly support is kept to a minimum. This gives the impression that a line of argumentation has been answered by means of a brief rebuttal that may overlook further implications and possibilities with regard to the critiqued position. Moreover, with a topic as broad as early Christian origins, it is unlikely that the chosen format can do little more than orient or introduce the reader to a few scholarly debates. The impact of the Roman Empire, though discussed in chapter five is not given its full consideration as a over-arching factor in the development of the earliest Christ-movement and the findings of Christian identity scholars are overlooked. None of these weaknesses should dissuade one from reading this book. It is a helpful introduction to many of the current issues in the study of early Christian origins and provides a useful starting place for students and newcomers to the issues it explores.

A slightly different version of this review appeared as:
Review of Michael F. Bird, James G. Crossley, Scot McKnight, and Maurice Casey. How Did Christianity Begin?: A Believer and Non-Believer Examine the Evidence. (London: SPCK, 2008). Criswell Theological Review, N.S. volume 7, no. 1 (Fall 2009): 106-08.

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