Times are settling down at Sheffield now that the Biblical Studies department has had their victory. As such, it is great to host an interview with their department head and professor, James Crossley.
He is a co-editor of the Bible World series (Equinox) and Social World of Biblical Antiquity series (Sheffield), member of the editorial board for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, member of Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS), and co-chair of the Jesus seminar for the British New Testament Conference.
Some of his published works include Jesus in an Age of Terror, Why Christianity Happened, How Did Christianity Begin? (with Michael Bird), and The Date of Mark’s Gospel. So, without further ado, I give you my interview with James Crossley.
First, tell us a little about yourself.
I work in the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield (UK). My undergraduate and (post)graduate work was all completed at the University of Nottingham. Likes: football (soccer), some sports (playing and watching), and food. The more sentimental ones, I won’t say. Dislikes: too many to mention. Despite a long list of dislikes, I’m generally a content person.
What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?
I was initially motivated by a desire to study ancient history but throughout my life I have constantly been concerned with issues of ideology and politics. I think it is these latter issues which really keep me motivated, not least because there is still much to say. Political analyses in the sense of precise historical contextualization, as well as the more abstract ideological analyses, are developing more and more in scholarship and so the next decade has the potential to be quite exciting. Well, for someone like me, anyway.
What issues have you had to overcome along the way?
I never liked the snobbery often found in higher education but whether I actually ‘overcame’ it, I don’t know. I still hate it and probably always will. Coming back into full time work after a break of over ten years was certainly a shock to the system but you get used to it as the system drags you in.
To be honest, I never felt as if I’ve actually had to overcome anything too dramatic, though that’s because I’ve been quite lucky. Much of my time in NT studies has involved reading books and, while reading some may feel like torture, it’s no serious hardship. Admin isn’t fun but everyone moans about that.
What is your favorite passage of scripture?
Mark 7.1-23. I have a soft spot for purity laws. Why, I do not know.
Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are working?
Yes. I’m doing bits and pieces on the Bible/NT in popular culture and party politics which will come out in article form for now but one day I hope to bring together as a book on the Bible in English popular culture since the 1960s (but don’t hold your breath). In the next couple of years I have a few introductory things coming out on Jewish law, historical Jesus scholarship as part of contemporary culture, and a general intro to the NT, which combines the usual stuff with reception history, politics, and some of the recent work done on Paul by various continental philosophers (Badiou etc.). My main research project is on NT scholars, intellectuals and power. That will be a book one day but not sure when. A few related articles are in press.
If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?
I’m not a fan of singling people out because I have a strong dislike of hero worship in academia but I will give an exception. I think it is alarming that too many NT scholars act as if Edward Said’s extremely famous (in the academic world) book, Orientalism, was never written. If people were to have read that book, or at least know its general arguments, we might have been spared some of the dubious stereotyping found too often in NT studies.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing New Testament scholarship today?
I think a lot of NT scholarship is sectarian. I don’t necessarily mean this in religious terms but rather there are too many distinctive groups which tend to listen to themselves alone. I also think a lot of mainstream NT studies (e.g. quest for historical Jesus, New Perspective etc on Paul) is ignoring a lot of critique directly relevant for its methodology, though maybe only I think that’s a problem.
I also think there is a serious long term problem at universities, at least in Europe, and maybe N. America too. Historical critical and theological approaches still attract research students while at the same time there is a perception outside biblical/NT studies that the subject is irrelevant. There is a strong case to be made in favour of the Bible/NT being extremely relevant (see US party politics) but to shift the focus to something like reception history would be a big risk for biblical studies in a religious studies of theology department (depts of biblical studies like Sheffield can get away with both because of the specialized focus so we should probably bracket them off).
What areas do you think New Testament scholars will have to focus on in the next ten years?
There are plenty of things I would like NT scholars to focus on but whether they will, and whether they have to, are further questions. Two areas I would keep an eye on are:
1. The cultural and political locations of contemporary scholarship needs more work. Let’s say, from the Cold War onward. It is now becoming very clear that Nazi scholarship had a serious influence and a lot of important work on the cultural and political locations of 19th century scholarship is being done. But now we need more and more on our contemporary settings.
2. Reception history looks set to take off and it will be interesting to see if it can keep its momentum. There seems to be a lot of support at SBL for approaches we might broadly label ‘reception history’ so there is a strong foundation. The role of the Bible in contemporary politics is sufficiently widespread for it to merit a more sustained analysis. The role of the Bible in European and N. American culture is so deeply embedded and so likewise.
Where do you believe are the best places for a student to study the New Testament either as an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student?
Sheffield, obviously. I know I’d say that but I don’t care. It is still the best place to get diverse approaches to the NT/Bible, from traditional historical critical approaches through to the more ‘cutting edge’ approaches, no doubt partly because the departmental focus is on the Bible alone. The next few years should see some further interesting new approaches developed as different scholars come through and Sheffield develops its next generation of scholarship. Sheffield is also the one place in my experience where people from a range of perspectives can get on with their work without fear of some implicit party line (I have felt this at other places I studied). The best example of this was the recent student defence of the undergraduate programme where believers and non-believers alike vigorously promoted the study of the Bible with a passion which I think surprised people from other disciplines. It also says something of the place that it got massive international support and I’m not sure that would happen with most other places.
Ok, I’m starting to sound like an advert for my home dept so I should be generous and mention others. My experience is largely British so I’ll stick with what I know. I think any of the major British universities with theology/RS depts (e.g. Manchester, Exeter, Bristol, Oxbridge etc) are very good places to study the NT with plenty of learned people. I would perhaps single out Glasgow (in many ways a soul mate of Sheffield) because they have become distinctive in the Scottish system with a strong emphasis (in NT as well as Hebrew Bible/OT) on critical theory and genuinely interdisciplinary approaches.
Lastly, if there is one piece of advice you could give to someone entering New Testament scholarship, what would it be?
Don’t think that the safe, traditional, consensus approach is necessarily the best, as if it is somehow risk-free. NT scholarship isn’t really much of a threat in itself these days so the seemingly risky might be worthwhile. University jobs are not easy to come by at the moment so would not a little creativity and distinctiveness be an asset? Put it this way, some recent jobs have gone to people not so conventional so…
That said, being able to teach ‘Intro to the NT’ types of courses (and with all the historical critical skills) remains a massive asset, as are the ancient languages. Being able to teach a wide range of subjects within NT studies is no bad thing and depts like nothing more than a good bit of slave labour.
In the UK, at least for the major universities, research is vital. The pressure to publish is like never before. I don’t think this hoop jumping is necessarily a good thing but if people want jobs in the UK that’s sadly the way it goes at the moment.
Thank you, Dr. Crossley for taking the time to participate in this interview. I am in your debt. My favorite quote:
Being able to teach a wide range of subjects within NT studies is no bad thing and depts like nothing more than a good bit of slave labour.
I hope that one day I can be some department’s “slave.” Anyway, to my readers, what did you agree with? Disagree with? Enjoy? Not enjoy? Which scholars would you like to see featured here in the future?