James G. CROSSLEY, Why Christianity Happened. A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. pp. 253. $30.00 hc. ISBN 978-0-300-14989-0.
Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI, Tennessee State University, TN 37209

Professor Crossley is Lecturer in New Testament Studies, University of Sheffield. As is evident from this volume, he is well versed in the social sciences that he employs in the study of early Christianity—something that cannot be said of many works of the genre. He also appears to have a thorough background in New Testament studies; the book is worth reading for the review of the literature carried out in the end notes. One may not agree with every decision he makes in those notes as to the validity of different arguments by others in the field, but his approach is always taken in light of the available evidence and is always well argued.

The question addressed in the book is, How did a non-observance of Torah come to characterize the early Christian movement, and thereby establish it as a religion separate from Judaism? The analysis begins with the general approach of Gerhard Lenski and John Kautsky to stratification in agrarian societies, societies where parasitic urban/town elites dominate and exploit a rural peasantry. Following Hobsbaum, Crossley notes that peasant revolts tend to be localized and to spring up in the face of emergent commercialization. First century sources on Palestine, principally Josephus, describe precisely such a setting. While Jesus was neither a peasant nor a revolutionary, he could be regarded as sympathetic to the former and a fellow-traveler with the latter.

With very convincing textual analyses of passages from the Hebrew Bible (see especially Psalm 72) and other materials, Crossley demonstrates that Torah and its observance legitimated opposition to wealthy oppressors, the latter often conflated with Gentiles. Then he shows that early Christian texts (the Gospel of Mark and the “Q” material—the latter a source used independently by the authors of Matthew and Luke) depict Jesus as associating with wealthy oppressors in an attempt to induce them to repent and turn away from heartlessness and greed. The stratagem of Jesus was controversial, drawing criticism from those who would simply separate from such “sinners.” Unfortunately, Crossley’s presentation does not follow the rather logical order just described; Chapter 2 presents the account of Jesus according to Mark and Q, and Chapter 3 analyzes the depiction of greedy and Gentile oppressors in traditional Hebrew sources. Thus the assertion in Chapter 2 that respect for the Law (though not for common interpretations and extensions of it) by Jesus was part of a critique of greed and oppression by Jesus is less persuasive than it should be. An editor should have persuaded Crossley to change the order of the two chapters.

If the Jesus Movement in Galilee and Judea observed Torah, why didn’t early Christianity do so? One could point to the writings of Paul of Tarsus, but why did a sufficient number of early Christians agree with those writings to set later Christianity onto a non-observant trajectory (except, of course, for moral issues)? Crossley turns to the sociology of conversion to controversial religions for an answer. Conversion is more likely if contrasts between the wider culture and the doctrines of the new religion lessen, and Hellenistic/Roman culture was trending toward monotheism in the first century. Conversions occur because of social interaction in family, business, and friendship networks first and because of doctrine only secondarily; the commercial activity of the first century Roman world was creating such networks. Moreover, Christian texts describe such networks. Such network-based converts in good numbers occasion a syncretism wherein the new religion accommodates the converts, and in that process the distinctively Jewish Torah observances were dropped. Especially in the conversion of whole households with that of the household head, the requirement of circumcision for adult males was particularly objectionable and came to be dropped.

I have one methodological reservation about the volume: I am not persuaded that we can say much about details of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus Movement. First, as best as I can determine, the Gospel of Mark and the form of the Q tradition used for Matthew and Luke post-date the authentic writings of Paul of Tarsus. I place the former in the 60s and the latter in the 50s. Crossley takes both to come from the 50s. Second, I think ancient documents can tell us inadvertently much about the immediate time and setting of their writing, not the time to which any narrative they contain may refer. Ancient writings were not printed, not duplicated in identical form in the manner of modern books. They were tailored anew at each copying session for the intended recipient of that copy—a fact that made them quite fluid until such time occurred that they were accepted as canon. Such considerations, however, do not make Crossley’s book any less a valuable read.

Finally, the reader should be forewarned that nasty academic wars accompanied Crossley’s study. He refers to “…attempts by a certain NT scholar to get me to remove the key parts of chapter 1….” And, “…I was informed that NT scholars probably won’t care less about the discipline of history, so I should not bother discussing it!” Not surprisingly, the tone of the discourse is quite strident here and there. I can sympathize; I was never so vilified in my life as when I dared teach a New Testament course in a state university from a non-fundamentalist perspective.


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