Anti-intellectualism(?) in Jesus studies

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by Neil Godfrey

My last post looked at Bultmann’s insights into the synoptic portrayal of the baptism of Jesus. This post looks at some disturbing and depressing reasons why at least two modern scholars appear to have rejected Bultmann’s findings. Disturbing and depressing because their reasons have nothing to do with the detail of Bultmann’s arguments. Bultmann is rejected because he came to the “wrong conclusion” and so ideological or sociological reasons are brought in to explain his “wrong conclusion”. Bultmann’s “wrong conclusion” was that too much of the Gospel narrative about Jesus was explained as Hellenistic (Greek) in origin and failed to make Jesus “Jewish enough”; in fact he concluded the Gospels did not allow us to learn much about the “real Jesus” at all.

I don’t know the field well enough to generalize but two scholars (among several) do stand out from my readings for having made particularly — I don’t know if the word “anti-intellectual” is too strong — anti-intellectual(?) rejections of Bultmann’s arguments. I can understand various objections to form criticism myself, but these scholars appear to have dumped the whole bath into the mud-pit.

James Crossley of the University of Sheffield faults Bultmann for failing to open up the application of social sciences to biblical studies and thereby explore the social setting of Christian origins — specifically a Jewish social setting for Jesus.

Bultmann emphasized an existential hermeneutic with theological truth supposedly found in the seemingly transcendent Gospel of John. (p. 4 of Why Christianity Happened)

I address a possible sinister significance of that use of “existential” later.

Crossley avoids blaming Bultmann’s for any personal anti-semitism but he that does not stop him from associating his studies with anti-semitism:

Of course, Rudolf Bultmann . . . and many other German Christians were opposed to Nazism but, as is now widely recognized, especially due to E. P. Sanders’s devastating critique, there is a profoundly anti-Jewish tone in much of Butlmann-influenced pre- and postwar scholarship. This should not be so surprising given the general sociopolitical context from which early form criticism emerged. (p. 4)

To leverage his association of Bultmann’s methods with anti-semitism Crossley blames the anti-semitism of German scholars generally, whether pro- or anti-Nazi.

In this general context we can now see why form criticism failed miserably in providing a genuine setting in life [of Jesus]. If German form criticism had done otherwise, it would have to locate a great deal of Gospel traditions firmly within the everyday social setting of Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism, and this would hardly have been to the liking of the dominant German Protestant NT scholarship, whether Nazis or their opponents. (p. 5)

Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey similarly decides not to address the intellectual methodology and arguments of Bultmann but rather to

home in on the social function of the work of Bultmann and others.

It is the uses to which certain arguments were put by others that is the reason Casey faults the arguments themselves. His words are carefully crafted. Casey will never accuse Bultmann of personal anti-semitism but he will find a way to encase Bultmann’s work within an off-limits anti-semitic container nonetheless.

The effect of their radical criticism was to ensure that out from under the synoptic Gospels there could never crawl a Jewish man. . . .

This is a quite colourful and sinister image. It also has nothing whatever to do with the intellectual merits of Bultmann’s arguments. It has a lot to do with muddying the water.

This is supposed to be for critical reasons. In fact, however, it is the effect of a cultural circle in which Bultmann removed an indelibly Jewish aspect of Jesus, an effect of working in a German environment in which Jewishness was unwelcome. This was moreover done by means of a process of detailed exegesis, in which Bultmann engaged existentially with the biblical texts throughout his life. (p. 11)

Once again, like Crossley in the first quotation here, the fault is with the apparent existentialist rationale of Bultmann’s methodology. Existentialism reminds readers of the “philosophical roots” of Nazism. It is not unlike blaming the Enlightenment for Hitler.

For Casey, Bultmann’s arguments were inevitably wrong because they were arrived at in a society that was anti-semitic. This is enough. It absolves one from any need to engage with the arguments themselves or need to dissect their intellectual invalidity or errors.

In response to Bultmann’s arguments that Matthew’s Jesus “opposes the view that the fulfilment of the law is the fulfilling of the will of God” Casey writes:

That conclusion is clean contrary to the teaching of Jesus. It was however just what German Christians needed from the Christ of their faith, for it bluntly contradicts the centre of Judaism. It was moreover produced by means of detailed exegesis of selected texts. It also illustrates the centrality of anti-Judaism in the work of a distinguished member of the Confessing Church. . . . Bultmann’s general cultural environment led him to write Judaism out of the teaching of Jesus, using spurious intellectual arguments which wrote most of Jesus of Nazareth out of history altogether. (p. 12)

Anti-semitism is now extended to anti-Judaism! Bultmann’s fault — the reason to reject Bultmann it seems — is that his conclusions from the sorts of arguments that one finds in my previous post do not lead to a Jewish Jesus in a Jewish environment. This implies (I seem to recall he says as much directly somewhere) that Bultmann’s conclusions are stripping Jesus of his Jewishness. But that is not so. Bultmann was arguing that Jesus could not be found in the Gospels because the Gospels were constructed from Hellenistic and other theological beliefs, practices, traditions or settings.

The tragedy is completed when one sees the ways Crossley and Casey replace Bultmann’s arguments. Crossley simply refers to the “common themes” found across the Gospels and uses them as his starting point for the Jesus from whom the Christian religion originated. So much for all those studies scholars have undertaken to attempt to find the core or original teachings of Jesus, all those criteria etc to help them on their way. For Crossley it is enough to fall back on the popular image of Jesus from what are “probably” themes of Jesus’ teaching:

Major issues that come out of Mark 10:17-31 are the virtual equation of wealth/landowner with economic oppression, the reversal of rich and poor in the life to come, . . . and the interpretation of the Torah from the perspective of the economically poor. These are key aspects of the teachings of the historical Jesus as attested across the Synoptic tradition, so even if there are secondary elements in and different sources behind Mark 10:17-31, we are probably dealing with a theme close to the historical Jesus’ heart (e.g. Matt. 6:24 par. Luke 16:13; Luke 14:16-24 par. Matt. 22:1-14; Luke 12:13-21; Luke 16:19-31). (pp. 63-4, my font bolding)

Casey has nothing better to put in Bultmann’s place, either.

Bultmann argued that [the story of the disciples going through the fields plucking grain on the sabbath] was entirely the product of the early church, and gives no information about the historical Jesus. Bultmann’s first point is that Jesus is questioned about his disciples’ behaviour rather than his own. Bultmann does not however discuss why the disciples might be going through fields plucking grain, so no reason for the difference between the behaviour of Jesus and that of his disciples could possibly emerge. (p. 10 of Jesus of Nazareth).

So how does Casey overturn Bultmann’s argument based on the Pharisees targeting the disciples and not Jesus himself for their practices? He simply steps outside the Gospel passage entirely and looks into his own imagination as he reconstructs Jesus from what he “knows” he would have done “given” his Jewish setting. Since a passage in Leviticus allowed the poor to eat the grain from the edges of someone else’s field when hungry, a custom known as peah, everything falls into place for Casey:

It follows also that the disciples were poor and consequently hungry. Jesus, however, did not take Peah because he was a craftsman who was not that poor. (p. 322)

Some readers may find Casey’s imagination and creativity more entertaining than Bultmann’s, but may find Bultmann’s approach and conclusions more stimulating.

I would like to hope that the above two scholars are exceptions, but at least one of them does point to other studies by major scholars to support these sorts of arguments, so I sometimes wonder.

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8 thoughts on “Anti-intellectualism(?) in Jesus studies”

  1. Bultmann’s “wrong conclusion” was that too much of the Gospel narrative about Jesus was explained as Hellenistic (Greek) in origin and failed to make Jesus “Jewish enough”; in fact he concluded the Gospels did not allow us to learn much about the “real Jesus” at all.

    I think this could be a valid critique. It all depends on what sort of context we assume. Jewish or Greek? Or both? Whichever way one goes, that assumption should be supported in some way. Did Bultmann assume a Greek context without warrant? Did Casey, et al. assume a Jewish context without warrant? Superficially, we might assume a Jewish context because – duh – Mark and the other gospel authors quote from Jewish scripture. Then again, superficially, we might assume a Hellenistic context because – duh – the entire narrative is written in Greek, and to learn to write in Greek you have to be immersed in Greek culture.

    Of course, as you point out, disagreeing with an assumption because it doesn’t give you the conclusion that you want is an invalid critique. I’m not sure that this counts as anti-intellectualism though. It’s just sets a bad precedent for unbiased scholarship.

  2. Bultmann was a product of his time, but this had nothing to do with anti-Semitism; in fact I’m pretty sure Bultmann was actually opposed to the Nazis and their ideology. He wrote in an era when Hellenism was the new black and gJohn was believed to be the most Hellenic of the gospels, whereas we now know it is the most Jewish (thanks largely to the translation of the DSS, which had limited circulation in Bultmann’s day). So it is perfectly reasonable to say he came to the wrong conclusion; just not for the bizarre and painfully contrived reasons given by Casey & Crossley. Of course Bultmann’s conclusions were often subjective (he approaches the NT with the intention of finding Hellenism, and unsurprisingly finds it) but I personally believe he was a great champion of Christianity and did a great deal to advance it.

  3. on page 14 of Jesus of Nazareth, Maurice Casey chides Geza Vermes for not understanding the fundamental nature of Jewish opposition to Jesus, and its importance as a cause of the crucifixion.

    And Casey goes on to explain that Vermes has distorted the life of Jesus, and this distortion can be traced to Vermes ‘membership of the Jewish community’.

    Casey has explained that the Jews opposition to Jesus led to the killing of Jesus, and people ‘in the Jewish community’ don’t really understand this as well as Casey does.,

    I can’t see a single trace of any anti-Semitism there, can you?

  4. Off topic, possibly, but there is an interesting review and online CH 1 of a book by Roger Bagnall on early christian papyri in Egypt that has some pretty strong things to say about purported christian scholarship re paleaography.

    Including this:

    “The narrowness of much of it has permitted its practitioners to reach conclusions that I believe are profoundly at odds with fundamental social realities of the ancient world and with basic probability; and the lack of a self-critical posture has been particularly damaging in that it has tended to allow problematic assumptions, interests, agendas, and desires to escape being made explicit.”

    He also has a few words about P52 [the g’John’ scrap] and supports a later dating than that of the orthodoxy. Seems to support Nongbri’s dating of about a century or so later than the orthodox claim.

    There is a thread on this at FRDB and here is a link to Chapter 1.

    Pussy cat among pigeons?

    1. Thanks for this — not “off topic” from my original intention at all. I had been toying with the idea of writing a post on what I see as anti-intellectualism throughout so many areas of Jesus/Christian origin studies but gave up when I realized what I had in mind would simply take more time to put together than I could spare.

      Jesus/Christian origin studies reminds me of ideoligically dominated science and research in some now defunct twentieth century societies. The main difference is that the ideology is cemented at the grass roots level of culture instead of being dictated by the state.

      And yes, that infamous P52 serves as a classic case study — as much if not more than the intrusion of political correctness re so-called anti-semiitism and ecumenical moves to find “unity” with Judaism (I could also have referred to post world war 2 directions of studies on Josephus and Judas, as I have done in other posts before now.)

      Of course every scholar is inevitably a product of his and her age. The problem is when scholars write as if they are oblivious to this.

  5. The New York Review of Books’ October 27 issue includes a review of a new biography of Isaac Casaubon, a prominent Biblical scholar (1559-1614) during the Renaissance. The review’s first part is at

    The reviewer, Ingrid Rowland, points out that the Renaissance experience of studying the Greek classics made scholars more critical, because they could be more objective about ancient writings about Greece and the Rome Empire than they could be about ancient writings about Israel and Judah. So, it was not so much that classics-based scholars were negative about Jews and Christians, but rather that such scholars were more objective and also genuinely inquisitive about them.

    Here is how Rowland made that point:


    Why, indeed, did Casaubon study the classics at all? In significant measure, the Reformation reflects what happened when fifteenth- and sixteenth-century scholars transferred their careful, critical reading of ancient Greek and Latin texts to their reading of the Bible: Why, the Reformers demanded, did the institutional Church declare that there were seven sacraments when the Gospels only describe two, baptism and communion? How could Rome defend practices and institutions, including the papacy, that had no warrant in the Bible?

    …. Casaubon’s aggressive efforts to clarify classical texts, to free them from errors accumulated in centuries of transcriptions, are intimately connected with the practice of his Protestant faith. His laborious efforts to correct the grammar and spelling of ancient manuscripts, his reams of explanatory comments, are … a spiritual exercise. They are also, of course, an effort to communicate as sincerely as possible with people divided from him by time, culture, language and morality, from the ancients of the Mediterranean to the Jews he met in his own life.


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