Are Historical Jesus Scholars Crypto-theological?: A Reflective Response to Berg and Rollens

Are scholars engaged in the study of early Christianity and the historical Jesus crypto-theological? This question has been asked (1). 

Crypto-theology is a commitment to theology or atheology on the part of the scholar that is concealed, whether intentionally or unconsciously, behind objective historical criteria or the critical-historical method employed in the study of the historical Jesus. Experts in the study of Christian origins and the historical Jesus, such as John Dominic Crossan, appear aware of this. Crossan states that “It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history…” (2). Scholar Robert L. Webb writes that,

“Many historians (note ‘many’, not ‘all’) involved in biblical studies and historical-Jesus research do so because of some personal religious experience or social context. Whether Jewish or Christian, many historians’ interest was spawned by a faith perspective of some form. Some historical-Jesus scholars may have left this faith perspective altogether, whereas others continue in the discipline while maintaining that faith perspective” (3).

Scholars of religion Herbert Berg and Sarah Rollens introduce the term “cryptotheological” as a means of explaining this,

“While many historical Jesus scholars present a depiction of Jesus that their conservative Christian students do not recognize, that depiction is often still cryptotheological. That is to say, it shares the same theological fixation on the uniqueness, importance, and continued relevance of Jesus” (p. 287).

Berg and Rollens engaged in a critical evaluation of both historical Jesus and historical Muhammad scholarship. They outlined the similarities as well as differences between the two disciplines and the scholars active within them. Although Berg and Rollens claim that scholarship on the historical Jesus is currently more sophisticated than scholarship on the historical Muhammad, they do notice a significant difference between the two,

“There is a greater danger associated with historical Jesus scholarship than with historical Muhammad scholarship. Unlike Muslim scholars, Christian scholars permeate the academy, often teaching Christianity instead of Christian origins” (p. 287).

One must, however, be careful of this strong claim that “Christian scholars permeate the academy”. Although an interesting perspective probably with some truth to it (in that many such scholars are Christian), one wonders how this strong claim can be justified. After all, how do we know the demographical and religious breakdown of scholars in historical Jesus studies, Christian origins, and early Christianity? Berg and Rollens do not provide statistical evidence to support this claim.

What we can say with confidence is that not an insignificant number of leading scholars in the field of early Christianity and historical Jesus studies are (or were) not Christian. This would include Robert Funk (d. 2005), Geza Vermes (d. 2013) Maurice Casey (d. 2014), Gerd Lüdemann (d. 2021), Amy Jill Levine, James Crossly, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, and other leading scholars. Although these scholars are not Christian, Berg and Rollens are possibly correct to notice that such scholars still have a connection to the historical Jesus likely not shared by many Western scholars of early Islam when they study the historical Muhammad. But again, we need to take Berg’s and Rollens’ claim lightly because they do not provide any statistical evidence to support it.

But it seems reasonable to believe that many Western scholars of early Islam are not or were never Muslim. Also true is the claim that some (emphasis on “some” as this is a more modest assertion) historical Jesus scholars have a theological background in Christianity. This might include being a conservative, evangelical Christian (Michael Licona, Darrell L. Bock), a liberal or progressive Christian (Marcus Borg, Crossan), or a former Christian (Bart Ehrman). Also possible is that Jewish scholars (Fredriksen, Israel Knohl) have a crypto-theological connection to Jesus in the context of their Jewish faith that might bias their conclusions. The same could be said of atheist scholars like Lüdemann who may well have crypto-atheological commitments to the historical Jesus. Robert M. Price, for example, was once a committed pastor and Christian before rejecting the faith to become an atheist and proponent of the Christ myth theory, which is that Jesus did not exist as a historical figure (4). 

It is also not necessarily the case that Western scholars of Islam do not have some crypto-(a)theological connection to the historical Muhammad that might bias their conclusions. For example, the German Sven Kalisch, a once professor of Islamic Religion and an Islamic theologian, claimed that Muhammad probably did not exist as a historical figure (5). Unsurprising is that he was also a former Muslim who renounced Islam. Some of these radical views may be crypto-atheological conclusions based on reactions to religions and religious peoples towards which negative sentiments are held.

Webb nonetheless argues that a critical engagement with history and the historical Jesus is possible even for scholars who allegedly have crypto-(a)theological agendas (although he never uses the term “crypto-theological”). He recommends a “via media” approach, which rests in the middle of two approaches based on opposite ontological worldviews, namely the critical-theistic approach (which is open to divine causation in history) and an ontological naturalist approach (which rules out the possibility of miracles occurring in history). Webb’s via media approach will be considered and evaluated in detail in a separate entry to follow. 

References

1. Berg, Herbert., and Rollens, Sarah. 2008. “The historical Muhammad and the historical Jesus: A comparison of scholarly reinventions and reinterpretations”. Studies in Religion 37(2):271-292.

2. Crossan, John Dominic. 1991. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. p. xxviii.

3. Webb, Robert L. 2011. “The Rules of the Game: History and Historical Method in the Context of Faith: The Via Media of Methodological Naturalism.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 9:59-84. p. 61.

4. Price, Robert M. 2000. Deconstructing Jesus. New York: Prometheus Books.

5. Harpur, Tom. 2008. Questioning of Prophet’s existence stirs outcry. Available.

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