Seven Myths of the Crusades, and Parallel Myths in Biblical Studies

2745As I was reading the new book about crusade myths, I was thinking of “parallel” myths in biblical studies. Since the ’80s, Jonathan Riley-Smith has been the E.P. Sanders of crusades scholarship, doing for the crusaders what Sanders did for the Pharisees and rabbis. If there is a single “grand myth” of New Testament studies, it is that Pharisaic Judaism was a religion of perfectionist and hypocritical legalism, which Jesus and Paul opposed in the name of a higher “religion from the heart”, and of course no reputable scholar today believes this. Here is the grand myth of the medieval period: that the crusades were a a barbaric and unprovoked assault on a sophisticated and relatively tolerant Islamic world.

No crusades scholar takes that myth seriously anymore than biblical experts think ancient Judaism was legalistically decrepit, but in each case, the myth persists in the mainstream. In The Seven Myths of the Crusades, the authors attempt to communicate current crusade scholarship to a general reading public, to make the scholarship accessible and engaging in a way that many academic books are not. They do a good job of this. They address myths that are regularly repeated — whether in films and novels, political speeches and commentary, or even in the halls of undergraduates — and most of these seven are sub-myths of the grand myth I just stated. I thought it would be a fun exercise to come up with a list of parallel biblical-studies myths and run them alongside. Biblical experts can use my parallels to get a clearer sense of crusades scholarship, and vice-versa.

Myth (1): The crusades were an unprovoked military offense.

Fact: Offensive elements in crusading were subordinate to its defensive purpose. The First Crusade emerged as a response to the Islamic jihad, a hijacking of pacifist Christianity tailored for medieval knights whose profession didn’t allow for peace, and who could now channel their sinful aggression, as they had been taught, into a defensive cause. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced the concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels, and their wide appeal allowed the pope to wrest control from the Holy Roman Emperor and his anti-pope. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (1): Judaism was a religion of merit-amassing observances which earned God’s favor.

Fact: Merit was subordinate to grace in the Jewish covenant. Reward was temporal and salvation eternal. Ideas of merit and justice are the appropriate ingredients of a conditional arrangement, which the Jewish covenant was. But salvation itself wasn’t earned. The covenant was given unconditionally in terms of election. That it had to be fulfilled by the law and atonement, and would likewise be evaluated at the judgment, doesn’t nullify the promise that a faithful Israelite could rely on in the end.

Myth (2): Crusaders were mad fanatics.

Fact: Religious zeal isn’t necessarily a sign of madness. While there were in the course of the crusades examples of religious mania, fanatical frenzy, and horrible behavior, there is no evidence that the vast majority of crusaders were mad or deluded. Rational people are capable of believing things which secular liberal thinkers consider crazy — beliefs about the afterlife and sacred violence.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (2): Pharisees were cold legalists.

Fact: Law-based religion isn’t necessarily a sign of legalism, which is usually associated with perfectionism and hypocrisy. While in any religion there will always be morally superior hard-asses, on the one hand, and/or hypocrites on the other, there is no evidence that most Pharisees (or later Rabbis) were legalists in this sense. They taught what the law required, and they reinforced the Jewish people’s election as a given.

Myth (3): The crusades were anti-Jewish.

Fact: The church never proclaimed a crusade against the Jews, and when some crusaders attacked Jews on their way to battle Muslims in Palestine, they were roundly condemned by the pope and many church authorities. The anti-Jewish pogroms of the First and Second Crusades were not a product of crusade preaching, but of a society that had for centuries co-existed with Jews while preserving resentment for their (supposed) role in Christ’s crucifixion. During crusade marches, some warriors suddenly found it difficult to distinguish between Muslims and Jews: if they were being called upon to avenge the injury of Christ’s honor in the loss of his land to the Muslims, why should they not also avenge the injury to his person in the crucifixion? This anti-Semitism was seen as a perversion of the crusading movement.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (3): Pharisaic Judaism was anti-Gentile.

Fact: That ancient Judaism was ethnically supremacist doesn’t mean it was Gentile-hating. It’s true that Abraham’s inheritance was understood to have passed to one son and one grandson (Isaac and Jacob) and not the others. He was the ancestor of this line by blood, the Jewish forefather by natural descent, and the Jewish people were his seed. The only way Gentiles could become part of this seed — and be saved on an equal basis — is to take on the Torah and become Jews. But if they chose not to, they could still be saved as sons of Noah; just not with the same privilege as the sons of Abraham. By ancient standards, this hierarchy of salvation wasn’t racist. Some Jews would have been hard-core racists (there are always such in any society), but this was neither the norm nor the usual teaching of Pharisaic Judaism.

Myth (4): The crusaders were greedy colonizers.

Fact: Most crusaders expected to return home, and indeed most who survived did. Many of them already enjoyed wealthy lordships in Europe, which they jeopardized by going on crusade. The cost of embarking on a crusade was lethally expensive: knights had to shell out anywhere between 2-5 times their annual income to afford equipment, supplies, horses, and servants. (Buying a horse back then was as fiscally intimidating as buying a house is for us today.) Simply put: those who were looking to improve their lot in life did not go on crusade. That the goal of the crusade was “materialistic” by definition — repossession of land — doesn’t mean that crusaders were driven by colonial or economic motives; they were not. The primary sources are clear in depicting warriors making harsh sacrifices, driven by sincere piety, a reverence for relics and holy places, and, above all, an insecurity about their moral standing.

A modern analogy that hits close to home: Muslim jihadists wage war for the religious and spiritual reasons they say they do. It is hard for us (secular liberals especially) to accept that religious zealots can be motivated by beliefs simply on the strength of those beliefs; that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding. Jihadists are not necessarily maladjusted, poor, or politically angry. Many of them — we see example after example — come from well-integrated families and are as normal as we consider normal to be. This was true of the crusaders in the medieval period. Crusaders were not disenfranchised second-sons looking to carve out territory they couldn’t get at home (again, many crusaders were wealthy first-born), nor were they greedy colonizers in general.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (4): Pharisees were cold legalists.

Fact: See Parallel Myth (2), above. (Crusaders as mad fanatical greedy colonizers are often subsumed under a single sub-myth.)

Myth (5): The Children’s Crusade.

Fact: According to legend, two boys (one in France, the other in Germany) had independent visions of leading “armies” of pacifist children to Palestine, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. It supposedly took place in 1212, and after the dismal outcomes of recent crusades, this march of peace was to succeed where warfare had failed. It ended in tragedy, with the children either being captured en route to Palestine and sold into slavery, or simply returning home. Whether these kids were peasants seeking adventure, naive protestors, lower-class pacifist revolutionaries, hapless victims of churchmen, rootless shepherds, or if they existed at all, is hard to say.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (5): ?

[I can’t think of an analogous Biblical-Studies myth for this one. It’s not as if texts like The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for example, are widely assumed to have serious historical value.]

Myth (6): The Knights Templar were precursors to the Freemasons.

Fact: The Templar knights were never a secret society, nor guardians of esoteric knowledge. There is not a shred of evidence that Templars in the 14th-century fled to Ireland and then Scotland to reorganize and evolve into the later modern Freemasons. It’s a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (6): The historical Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and their sacred bloodline survived in the French monarchy.

Fact: Another crackpot theory popularized in The DaVinci Code. It’s silly, but many people still believe it.

Myth (7): Today’s western warfare in the Islamic world replays the medieval crusader conflict.

Fact: The Islamic world is still waging jihad, but western military responses are not analogous to the medieval crusades. Crusades were penitential wars of sacred violence authorized by the church alone. That George W. Bush called his military response to 9/11 a new crusade does not make it so. Today, a Muslim doesn’t have to be a jihadist, or even a jihadist sympathizer, to hold to the fantasy that the west is still engaging in crusades. They parrot this myth as much as westerns do, especially those on the extreme left. It’s a myth that remains as a reaction to modern imperialism, and helps people place “exploitation” (whether real or imagined) in a historical context and satisfy feelings of either Islamic superiority or western guilt.

Parallel Biblical-Studies Myth (7): The 16th-century Protestant-Catholic debate replays the first-century clash of faith and works.

Fact: The conflicts aren’t analogous. Martin Luther objected to the law because of human inadequacy. Paul objected to the law so that Gentiles could be saved without having to become Jews in the process. Luther objected to individual boasting. Paul objected to ethnic boasting. Luther came to grace through despair. Paul fulfilled the law fine as a Pharisee, and concluded that humanity was wretched and despairing only as a Christian, from the starting point of grace.

Further reading:

From Soldiers of Hell to Soldiers of Christ
From Just War to Holy War
The Use of Scripture During the Crusades

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