Review: How Did Christianity Begin?

Finally finished Michael Bird and James Crossley‘s How Did Christianity Begin? A believer and non-believer examine the evidence. Last week I hardly got to the gym at all, which limited my reading time – it was, as I anticipated, a good read.

Mike, who is a lecturer in New Testament at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, but a fellow Aussie, is the believer and an evangelical Christian.  James is lecturer in New Testament at the University of Sheffield (UK) and the non-believer.  After the introduction where Mike provides  “the Christian view on the birth of Christianity” and James provides “the secular view on the birth of Christianity”, the chapters take the same format:  one of them writes the first section, the other then writes the second, in which he both comments on the first and provides his own perspective, then the writer of the first section comments on what the writer of the second has written.  They take turns to be the author of the first section.

Clear as mud?  OK, this is how it works:

  • Chapter 1: The historical Jesus – James, then Mike, then James
  • Chapter 2: The resurrection – Mike, then James, then Mike
  • Chapter 3: The apostle Paul – James, then Mike, then James
  • Chapter 4: The Gospels – Mike, then James, then Mike
  • Chapter 5: Earliest Christianity – James, then Mike, then James.
  • Chapter 6 contains a response to James by Scot McKnight, another believer of evangelical persuasion; and a response to Mike by Maurice Casey, who I assume is another non-believer although I don’t know enough about him to be sure of this.
  • There is a brief section entitled “final reflections” which is written by both.

The first five chapters have suggested further reading at the end.

I bought the book because I have other writing by all four of the contributors and while I rarely agree totally with what they say, I am always impressed by their scholarship and they always give me enough information to enable me to come to my own conclusions. This book is no exception.  I found myself sometimes agreeing with Mike, sometimes with James and sometimes coming to a third conclusion on the issues they discussed.

I found it easy to read.  I liked the fact that while both Mike and James presented their positions strongly, neither of them was attempting to do a “hard sell” attempt at converting me.

As someone who has been a Christian minister for over twenty years, I am obviously inclined to take a faith perspective on the Bible. OTOH, as someone who has spent most of her ministry working in secular institutions, I am also very aware that an awful lot of what Christians believe comes across as seriously weird to the non-believer. However, most of the anti-Christian rhetoric that I meet is very ill-informed.  People typically tell me that they could never be a Christian because Christians believe X and cite one or more of the worst excesses of fundamentalist Christianity which I also find totally untenable. I found reading Crossley and Casey’s well-informed arguments and reasonable alternatives fascinating and enlightening, if ultimately unconvincing. Bird and McKnight’s offerings were also refreshing in that they present evangelical Christianity without the emotive, guilt-inducing overtones against which I react so strongly.

I am not sure how the average “person in the pew” or “person on the street” would cope with the level of technicality of some of the argument, but it’s certainly something I’d recommend to anyone asking thoughtful questions about how to understand the origins of Christianity, and to those Christian professionals to whom they bring their questions.  One very minor quibble – you may have noticed that I put some words from the introduction in quotation marks.  I am not sure that there is anything that can be described as the Christian view or the secular view of the birth of Christianity.  I would have said a Christian or secular view.

Full publication details: Bird, Michael F. and James G. Crossley and Scot McKnight and Maurice Casey, How did Christianity begin? : a believer and non-believer examine the evidence. London; Peabody, Mass.: SPCK ; Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

9 thoughts on “Review: How Did Christianity Begin?

  1. Judy,
    Thanks for mentioning the book, James and I had lots of fun doing it. You’ve captured the tone of the book wonderfully.

  2. This volume sounds like something I should peek at. I am intrigued by the subtitle (believer and non-believer), and I think it may serve to clarify (or least address and inform) some of the questions I carry with me. Getting the perspectives from both ends of the spectrum may be helpful for me, who arguably sits patiently in the middle.

    I’ll try to check it out in my spare time (what’s that?!?!?!).

    BTW, Judy, I really enjoy the blog. I invite you also to check mine out (click my name). I welcome and look forward to your comments, and further engagement.

  3. Thanks, John. I know what you mean about spare time, but it’s certainly worth reading!

    Steph, good to know that my assumption about Maurice Casey is correct.

    Mike, it’s a pleasure.

  4. I, too, greatly enjoyed the Michael Bird and James Crossley book How Did Christianity Begin? A believer and non-believer examine the evidence.

    Their significant differences were well presented, but with apparent respect for each other as scholars and people (Scholars, at least most of them, are people too!)

    I especially enjoyed and laughed at the delightful scholarly “zinger” in the last sentence of their preface –
    “We also would like to express our willingness to sell the movie rights of this book which we think would make a fine sequel to the The Da Vinci Code, particularly given that we actually do know something about early Christian history.”

  5. Edward,

    Yes, I enjoyed this bit, too, although I think the plot is a bit thin to make a Hollywood blockbuster. Mike and James haven’t paid any attention to character development and there is no sex or love interest in their book. Although perhaps they could be played by the two grumpy Muppets who attend the Muppet shows, arguing about how the director of a documentary should have portrayed various scenes. Not that either Mike or James is anywhere near as old as the two Muppets in question. 🙂

  6. I”m now trying to imagine a movie entitled “The Muppets Do Theology”, and aside from the actual theological content, there would have to be a subplot in which Miss Piggy is unable to decide which of the Marys she wants to portray…

  7. LOL. Well, now I think we’ve got it. You and I can approach Mike and James and offer to be their agents (for a hefty fee) to market their book to the Henson people as “The Muppets Do Theology”. Although perhaps not *quite* what they had in mind…

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