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Crossley’s Curious/Amusing Misfire

July 13, 2017

James Crossley’s 2008 book, Jesus in an Age of Terror, was a broadscale critique of NT scholars (and it was directed against individuals) for their alleged biases.  One of those he attacked was me.  I drafted a response a couple of years ago, but then for various reasons decided not to post it.  I’ve complained about his discussion of me and my work before, e.g., as referred to here.  On a personal level, I like James.  But in the interests of setting the record straight on my views, here’s that response.

The discussion of my views by James Crossley in his book, Jesus in an Age of Terror (2008), struck me, by turns, as amusing, puzzling and sad.  Crossley (for some reason unknown to me) felt it necessary to include me in his critical discussion of various “historical Jesus” scholars (even though I’ve not written anything substantial on the subject), mainly, it appears with the intent of portraying me as another example of what he calls the tendency to make Jesus (and Christian Origins) “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish” (see pp. 186-89).  But he then proceeds to attempt a critique of my proposal that an early “Jesus-devotion” was a central factor in tensions between Jewish Jesus-followers and other Jews, and particularly a factor in what Paul called his “persecution” of “the church of God” (i.e., Jewish believers in Jesus).

But, first, an amusing bit.  Crossley declares my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, the target, and begins by referring to the “extremely confessional sounding title” (p. 186).  That’s both puzzling and really funny!  The book, after all, is about how devotion to Jesus as a divine/exalted figure who received cultic reverence arose and developed.  Also, as should be obvious, the main title is simply taken from Philippians 2:9-11, conveying the acclamation there:  “Kyrios Iesous Christos,” and the sub-title indicates the historical orientation of the work.  Moreover, the main title is also an allusion to the great agenda-setting book by Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos (1913).  Is that also an “extremely confessional sounding title”?  If not, why not?

In any case, I can’t think of anything in my book that demands, presupposes or even reflects any “confessional” response.  It’s simply an attempt to probe the historical questions and the evidence available about early Jesus-devotion.  What you make of that early Jesus-devotion personally (historical curiosity, example of religious nonsense, divine revelation, whatever) is your business.  The book doesn’t address that, so I can’t figure why Crossley thinks the book “confessional.”  I do admit to the charge of being a Christian.  So, does Crossley presuppose that anything written by someone who admits to that must be tagged “confessional”?  If so, it’s a sad prejudice.  As a corrective, I note that scholars such as Bousset and, most recently, Bart Ehrman (neither of whom can be characterized as apologists for “orthodox” Christian claims) reached a similar conclusion:  That devotion to Jesus as in some real sense divine and worthy of cultic reverence along with God erupted within the very earliest years of the young Jesus-movement.  (The key difference with Bousset was that he posited the eruption as happening initially in diaspora settings such as Antioch or Damascus, whereas I’ve argued that it likely commenced among Judean Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement.)

Crossley admits that I emphasize the very Jewish matrix in which earliest Jesus-devotion arose, but he then attributes to me the aim of making sure that early Jesus-devotion is distinctive in its Jewish context.  But I have no such aim.  I don’t work to make things point that way.  I simply note that the sort of Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters (to cite our earliest evidence) is distinctive in comparison with all other evidence of other Jewish circles with regard to any other agents of divine purposes (angels, messiahs, whatever).  I established that as far back as my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, pointing there and subsequently to specific phenomena of devotional practice (which Crossley strangely never engages).  So, maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong; but it’s a cheap shot simply to ignore the data I point to and make accusations.

Moreover, to ascribe a distinctiveness to earliest Jesus-devotion doesn’t make it any less Jewish.  Crossley seems to think so, but that’s facile thinking.  Roman-era Jewish tradition was not monolithic but pluriform, with various groups, each with its own distinguishing features, the early Jesus-movement a particularly noteworthy instance.  What above all that seems to have distinguished early Jesus-groups was the central place of Jesus in their beliefs and religious practices.  Is the early “high” view of Jesus as, for example, the “Mar/Kyrios” (“Lord”) worthy of cultic reverence a Jewish development?  Obviously, for it erupted first among Jews!  How is that “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish”?  Crossley imputes such a view to me, and I reject it as unjustified by anything I’ve written.

The issue to which Crossley devotes the most space (pp. 187-89), however, actually seems to be the argument that I deployed most fully in an essay originally published in 1999 (in Journal of Theological Studies 50:  35-58):  “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion,” republished in my book, How on earth Did Jesus Become a God? (pp. 152-78).  In another puzzling move, Crossley accuses me of using “theological categories . . . the myth of ‘Jewish . . . but not that Jewish,” “dictating the argument even when (especially when?) no serious evidence exists to support his case” (187).  Whew!  Using a “myth” to “dictate” conclusions, making claims “especially” when I have no evidence!  Those are pretty strong words.  Again, it’s very sad, for a fellow scholar to make such charges, especially when my essay in question carefully goes over the textual evidence.  And that evidence seems to me to require us to judge that (1) there was opposition against Jewish Jesus-followers from the earliest years, and (2) that central in generating this opposition was the place of Jesus in their claims and practices.  Now, you can try to read the evidence some other way, but it’s just not on to claim that there is none.

The argument is there in the essay (and the book) to read, and it is neither appropriate nor necessary to repeat it in full here.  I’ll simply highlight basic points, focusing on Paul’s initial opposition to what he came to call “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13-15):

  • Paul says his aim was to “destroy” the Jewish ekklesia (Gal. 1:13), a word (portheo) that typically was used to describe the ravaging of a place or people by an invading army or other pretty serious, even violent actions. The same term is repeated in Gal. 1:23, where Paul is said to have sought to “destroy the faith” of Jewish believers.  So, something was sufficiently alarming to him, as a devout Pharisee, to justify this kind of severe action.  Consorting with gentiles, not keeping Pharisaic food rules, even speaking against the Temple, wouldn’t likely have generated or justified it.  (By the way, Paul doesn’t use portheo to describe the opposition that he suffered from fellow Jews, e.g., in 2 Cor. 11:24.  So, I don’t think that the latter necessarily corresponds to his own early opposition or the reasons for it.)
  • Paul says his strong actions against the ekklesia sprang from his being a superlative “zealot” (Gal. 1:14). In ancient Jewish tradition, the term “zeal” was often associated with the biblical character, Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-13), famous for his rather ruthless action against a fellow Israelite engaging in idolatrous behaviour, and who is lionized in a number of texts as exemplar for similar drastic actions (e.g., Sirach 45:23-25; Josephus 4.145-58; Philo, Spec.Leg. 1.54-57, and other references in the essay).  The offences listed by Philo as justifying Phinehas-type action were idolatry, apostasy, seduction by false prophets, and perjury.  This further suggests that what irked Paul the Pharisee was something serious that endangered the religious integrity of his people.  So, take your pick.  I’d say that what he judged inordinate Jesus-devotion could well have seemed an infringement upon the unique place of God in the eyes of a particularly vigilant Pharisee such as Paul.  There may have been additional factors, but it seems fully cogent that Jesus-devotion was involved.
  • Paul describes his own change-experience that moved him from opponent to adherent of the young Jesus-movement as a “revelation of [God’s] Son” (Gal. 1:16). That is, the cognitive import and content was christological, a “revelation” of the significance of Jesus.  He doesn’t say anywhere that the experience involved a shift of view about a supposed Temple-criticism or Torah-laxity by Jewish Jesus-followers.  The most reasonable inference, therefore, is that what he came to accept and affirm robustly in all his letters (Jesus’ high significance) was likely central in/among what he had previously opposed and found offensive.  Contra Crossley’s silly claim, that’s not using some “myth” or “theological categories”; that’s just making an intelligent inference from the data.  In the essay I cite additional Pauline textual data as well that point in the same direction.  There may be other interpretive options, but accusing me of “dictating” conclusions based on some supposed “mythic” framework is ad hominem and a dodge.
  • To cite another piece of evidence, in 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:6, Paul describes fellow Jews who reject the Jesus-movement as having veiled and hardened minds that prevent them from seeing (what he sees now) “the glory of the Lord” (3:18), who is Jesus (4:5), “who is the image of God” (4:4). Nothing there about Torah-laxity, or Temple, or anything other than the christological issue:  Paul and fellow believers perceive Jesus’ high significance, whereas others (including particularly fellow Jews) don’t.  That sounds like “Jesus-devotion” is the issue.
  • Against all this, what does Crossley offer? He alleges (making the same methodological error as Dunn and McGrath) an absence of evidence in Paul’s letters that Jesus-devotion was a matter of controversy, this supposedly comprising proof that it wasn’t controversial (and so can’t have been very innovative) in the eyes of Jews outside the Jesus-movement.  Instead, he continues, what we find in Paul’s letters are controversies over the place of Torah and the terms on which Gentiles can be granted status as co-religionists by Jewish believers.  Well, of course!  Paul’s letters were written to (largely) gentile churches about issues internal to them.  And, so far as we can tell, Jesus-devotion wasn’t a matter of controversy within these circles of fellow Jesus-followers.  Moreover, the controversies over Torah-observance and Gentile-inclusion that do appear in Paul’s letters were between Paul and other Jewish believers, not with the larger Jewish community.  So, that there is scarcely any controversy over Jesus-devotion in Paul’s letters to his churches tells us nothing about what may have been controversial with people outside these circles.  Arguments from silence can be valid, when something should be expected and it isn’t there.  But there’s no reason to expect what Crossley finds absent in Paul’s letters, so the argument is fallacious.  From texts that I’ve mentioned (and others in the essay), however, it’s clear that Jesus-devotion was in fact central for Paul in characterizing and distinguishing the Jesus-movement, and, in particular, was a key factor distinguishing his stance from that of fellow Jews whom he regarded as “hardened” and “veiled” in their understanding.

Crossley also tries to deny the evidence in Mark that the figure of Jesus is presented by the author as bearing transcendent significance.  To claim that Mark reflects a rather exalted view of Jesus is by no means an eccentric move, and in the essay I’ve cited a number of other Markan scholars who’ve reached a similar conclusion to mine.  I won’t take the time here to rehearse the matter.  But it’s completely misleading to characterize me as aberrant on the matter or winging off without basis.

To return to another amusing note as a final comment, Crossley’s attempt to posit my stance as making Paul and Christian Origins “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish” takes the cake.  I’m on the record in numerous publications (from my 1988 book onward) insisting that the eruption of a “high” Jesus-devotion was a development internal to second-temple Jewish tradition (e.g., How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, p. 32:  “earliest devotion to Jesus as divine is best understood as a remarkable innovation within, and as a novel expression of, the monotheistic piety characteristic of Second-Temple Jewish tradition.”).  I simply can’t figure out how Crossley came to see my stance otherwise.  Unless . . . unless, he is working with a simplistic and monolithic notion of what “Jewish” had to be, against which the striking and unprecedented pattern of Jesus-devotion would be taken as some sort of departure or breach of things “Jewish”.  (So, to keep earliest Jesus-circles within such a monolithic notion of what “Jewish” is, Crossley has to work hard to keep earliest Jesus-devotion from being very remarkable or distinctive, and so, for him, a problem.)

But, if you work with the pluriform model of ancient Jewish tradition that I affirm, then there’s nothing un-Jewish or “not that Jewish” about earliest Jesus-devotion.  It was controversial to be sure, from the outset I contend, but that doesn’t make it any less Jewish.  To judge (as I do) that it was distinctive (apparently from its earliest expressions) is simply an attempt to characterize the data.

I will leave others to ponder why Crossley chose to engage in caricature, distortion and selective engagement with the data in discussing my work.  But, whatever the motives, these tactics hardly advance our understanding of the fascinating historical developments in question.  I’d prefer that we focus on that.

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    Thanks for sharing your informative and fascinating take on the “son of man”, or “this man issue” in Second Temple Judaisms and in the Gospel of Mark Larry. I recently had a chance to ask John Kloppenborg why he rarely addresses the issue in his books and essays, and his take summed up the problem of ambiguity, both seriously and humorously.

    Kloppenborg replied to me:

    “John, I’ve tried for most of my career to stay away from the son of man black hole. There was a point where I read all of the monographs, but quickly came to the conclusion that there are too many uncertainties and conflicting possibilities to repay my efforts. I’m essentially a social historian now, so I don’t think about the issue very much. I leave it to others like you.”

    LOL. Anyway, I just thought you might get a giggle or two out of Kloppenborg’s take. His work on Q theories is so extensive and informative. I often wonder about Q’s son compared to Mark’s son: emphasis on apocalyptic vs emphasis on suffering, etc. Does Q Postdate Mark? Predate Mark? Or maybe a bit of both, since we do not know what Q is comprised of, or if Luke knows Matthew. or they both know an have altered a Proto-Q.? Sorry for getting off track. Just wanted to share Kloppenborg’s take for your interest.

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    Larry please correct me if you think I am free-wheeling again, but I also believe there is no reason not to think that both Peter and Paul were murdered in Rome at about the same time. And that Mark was present and knew both men. And that Peter had a very artistic, capable and critical young secretary named Mark, who wrote the first unknown draft of the gospel that now bears his name. This is probably the same Mark referred to in 1 Peter:

    “She who is at Babylon (Rome), who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13).

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    Larry I agree with you strongly that Mark does present us with a Jesus figure “bearing transcendent significance “, I’m just not sure of your speculation as to why Mark does this. My own guess is that Mark is linking the figure of Jesus to “this man” spoken of in the Parables of Enoch. Mark wants to tell us that Jesus’s preferred term for Messiah was self-referentially, “the Son of Man”. It is not surprising to me that Mark also situates the confession seen and the passion/resurrection prediction in the foothill villages of Mt. Hermon, for this is probably where the Parables of Enoch was also written a few years earlier. “This man” figure in the Parables of Enoch also bears a very similar transcendent significance. It is too much coincidence for me not to believe this was Mark’s intention. The $64,000.00 question for me is: was this also, perhaps, Jesus’s intention, and so Mark gets the story right historically?

    • John: First, get your data straight on 1 Enoch. We don’t know for sure whether the Parables were written as early as GMark. It is now increasingly popular for scholars, esp. scholars with a stake in 1 Enoch, to assert this, and it *might* be so. But, as of now, it’s not a fact on which we can build structures with any confidence.
      Second, the figure of the Parables of Enoch is certainly of transcendent significance. But it’s not the case that he bears a title “the Son of Man.” There are several Ethiopic expressions used, not a standardized form. And it’s a safer bet that this was true of the Greek or Aramaic from which the Parables were translated.
      So, the expression in the Gospels “the son of man” (Greek restrictive attributive construction) is without true precedent or analogy. It doesn’t appropriate some previous title. It appears to be a linguistic innovation. I’ve reviewed all this in my concluding chapter to the excellent collection of studies: Who is This Son of Man?, ed. Paul Owen and Larry Hurtado.

  4. GPG permalink

    If there is any degree of difference or distinctiveness whatsoever between early Christianity and Judaism, it is interesting and important to discover the exact nature, degree, and especially probable source of that difference.

    Here many might suggest that any difference might be attributed to normal individual deviations within one standard culture. However? The apparently early conflicts between Jesus/Christianity and Pharisees, Judaism,.suggest a slightly more intense deviation. And in that case, we need to look for say, a larger,.perhaps broader, cultural contest or conflict.

    Possibly the attributed later Pauline, Jewish vs. Greco Roman conflict, was appearing in Palestinesn culture earlier than thought.

    Here I’m not sure whether Crossley is opting for seeing no early cross cultural influence or conflict, or is offended by possible modern ideologies interfering with many of different positions taken by various schools today on this issue of influence.

    • I’ll only say that any modern scholar who accuses other modern scholars of having “ideologies” that “interfere” with their work should examine his/her own ideology as well.

  5. Robert G permalink

    Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that so many of us, scholars included, come to this question with preconceived, anachronistic, partial, and essentialist views of second temple Judaism. If I remember correctly, Crossley accused you and other NT scholars of an ‘essentialist’ view of Judaism, whereas this may be also true of his own views. One of the things that has impressed me most about not merely first-century Judaisms, but also throughout history, is an incredible degree of diversity and accommodation of contrary argument and opposing viewpoints. I wish more of this dialogical spirit had survived in Christian communities to counter what I see as a simplistic obsession with supposed orthodoxy.

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    When I first saw the book “Lord Jesus Christ” my initial reaction was “that sounds like a pretty evangelical book! ” When I read the book I realised the reasons behind the title, as explained here, and it didn’t seem so evangelical any more. The publisher (Eerdmans) also supported the initial impression. Also the decision not to include sources in their original languages.

    I really enjoy James Crossley’s books. He seems to have a rare ability to do detailed primary historical work and also reflect on the broad outline and trends in scholarship generally. His more recent book “Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism”, with the Che Jesus cover, is excellent too. Crossley has given some hints now and again that he doesn’t view mythicism as a completely crazy idea. But maybe his mentor, Maurice Casey, kept him in check. It’s not impossible that Casey influenced Crossley’s reading of your work too Professor Hurtado.

    • Uh, Donald, I don’t know what you mean in the remark that I chose “not to include sources in their original languages.” I rather clearly cite my sources, and indicate any key constructions in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. I don’t do block quotes of original-language texts as that’s typically tedious and unnecessary for anyone with access to the texts.
      Casey may well have shaped Crossley’s views, as Casey was his PhD supervisor. But I never found Casey to produce the sort of caricature of my views that I complained about in my posting.

  7. Robert permalink

    Wow Larry! There can’t be many NT scholars left in the field who havn’t misrepresented you by now?

    • Wow, Robert! You need to work harder on your sarcasm. Misfired on that one, babe. But, actually, I can count on one hand the NT scholars who’ve caricatured and misrepresented me so badly.

      • This is great, Larry. I’d love to see a bit more engagement with these few other scholars that have misrepresented you. It sounds like they may need a good critique of their own!

        Maybe you should do a book on this? I know you’re retired now (from what I gather from this site) so maybe a good volume is in order!



      • Well, I prefer to work on issues, questions and data, which may require critique of the views of others. But a book of critique? That’s the sort of thing that I’ll leave to others.

  8. All your comments are fair, I fully agree. Maybe I’m wrong, but I noticed a certain radical fundamentalism in those modern/recent authors who put forth the “Jesus the Jew” historical figure. Sometimes they don’t even disdain a sort of anachronistic socio-political bias in their judgments (and that’s very true for Crossley). For them Jesus is not allowed to take any new stance/novelty on “Judaism” (whatever 2-nd Temple Judaism could be), and that could still be fine, but they don’t even allow Paul or first post-easter jewish-christians communities .. Any “parting the ways” seems to be just a late betray of “Judaism” due to gentile influence.

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