Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World

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by Neil Godfrey

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This post and several ensuing ones will be about what we can learn about historical Jesus scholarship from the book Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by Professor James Crossley.

The second half of this post addresses some background that readers should understand as they read my engagement with Crossley’s book. There I address Crossley’s personal animosity towards me and his conviction that my past treatment of his works has been grotesquely unfair.

Crossley’s main thesis is

to show how Jesus is a cultural icon in the sense that he is reconstructed by historians not simply as a figure for Galilee in the 20s and 30s but also, intentionally or not, as a figure for our ‘postmodern’ times. . . . (p. 8)

The thesis extends to arguing that the same Jesus becomes compatible with neoliberalism’s political agendas and very often subtly perpetuates “anti-Jewishness”.

[T]he emphasis could be placed on the greatest historic critic of our age, an obscure article in an evangelical journal or a rant on a blog: they all provide insight into our cultural contexts, irrespective of how good or bad they are. . . .

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (pp. 8-10)

Obviously any cultural artefact provides insight into its cultural context, but when Crossley limits cultural context in his book to “postmodernism” and “neoliberalism” in their primarily political and racial-cultural manifestations I suspect he is presenting a two-dimensional perspective of scholarship. Quite often it appears his argument is another application of “parallelomania” in the sense that any scholarly interpretation that can be matched to a “neoliberal” or “postmodern” concept becomes the basis of his argument. His thesis would have been more deeply grounded had he been able to demonstrate more consistently, not just sporadically, how certain changes in views and presentations resulted from the direct interaction with political and cultural pressures.

Now I happen to agree with much of Crossley’s own political views. So in one major respect he had me onside from the beginning with Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism, just as he did with his earlier companion book, Jesus in the Age of Terror. I found a number of aspects of his book insightful. I do think that in a number of instances he does make a sound case. Others, as I have indicated above, lacked rigour, were only superficially supported, ill-defined or simplistically conceived; and on occasion it seemed Crossley indulges in soap-box political declamations against his colleagues’ views while almost losing any solid relationship with historical Jesus studies. He appears to have assumed too much on the basis of partial evidence. Overall the book tends to read like an extended editorial opinion piece. So his preface overstates what follows when it says:

It is hoped that this book will establish the general case for the importance of the context of neoliberalism for understanding contemporary scholarship and for others to provide new case studies. This book is merely about certain examples of the impact of neoliberalism in understanding Jesus and contemporary scholarship. (pp. ix-x)

The “case studies” or “certain examples” in the book are of variable authenticity. Several names appear to have been dumped in the neoliberalism matrix with only superficial justifications that overlook evidence for alternative perspectives. Worst of all, one is left wondering if Crossley’s book is a thinly veiled swipe at scholarship that disagrees with his own (and his PhD supervisor Maurice Casey’s) problematic assumptions, methods and (even to some extent) conclusions about the historical Jesus and Christian origins. Unfortunately Crossley appears to have prepared in this book a rationale for dismissing anyone who disagrees with him on these points as “politically incorrect”.

But Crossley would protest:

I do not think that all historical Jesus scholarship is simply ‘reducible’ to an outworking of neoliberalism or simply historically wrong even if it does seem that way. I still have some sympathies with some fairly traditional modes of historical criticism and I am aware that there are strands of Jesus scholarship, and biblical scholarship, which can at least be felt threatening to power.(p. 14)

Examples of the latter are liberation theology in Latin America and works by Keith Whitelam and Nadia Abu El-Haj.

I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

In these posts (I expect they will be strung out over some weeks) I hope to point out where I think Crossley has got things spot on and where he could have got things a bit more spot on. More generally, I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

And I do invite James Crossley to notify me if at any point I misrepresent anything he has written and to explain clearly (civilly would be a bonus) exactly how I have done so.

So here we go.

James Crossley argues that historical Jesus scholarship over the past forty years is best understood within the cultural, social and political contexts of what he sees as two major trends in that period, neoliberalism and postmodernism. Such a context is meant to replace the traditional view of the problematic “Three Quests” for the Historical Jesus:

  • the Old Quest, from Reimarus to Schweitzer
  • the New Quest from Kassemann (1953)
  • the Third Quest from the 1970s . . .

Crossley extends his purview beyond scholars, though. He also addresses the “not-so-scholarly” (p. 5) views concerning Jesus in the same broad cultural-political contexts.

His focus is on the Jesus conceptualized in the Anglo-American world because in his view

the non-American Jesuses are invariably drawn to a centre of world power that is America and may even influence American Jesuses, particularly those from the British sidekick. (p. 6)

Crossley’s primary thesis is that Historical Jesus studies are intertwined with and reflect, sometimes despite the personal views of the exegetes, the values of contemporary neoliberalism and postmodernism. This should be an unsurprising find: surely the less “mathematically objective” studies found in the humanities have always been known to reflect the cultural and political currents of their times. Crossley probably rightly points out, though, that too many New Testament scholars do not seem to truly grasp where they or their predecessors have stood in this context.

Central to Crossley’s perspective is the Herman and Chomsky Propaganda Model. Essentially the model posits that institutions of education and media filter out or marginalize political views that do not conform to those of dominant political and economic elites. Only those who conform to views within certain conventional parameters (e.g. Democrat and Republican) will rise to the most influential positions in public media. The best mavericks can hope for is that their views will “get through” only in a marginalized forum.

Herman and Chomsky’s research demonstrated this filtering process in relation to the political views that dominate the media. In fact, however, the general idea of such ideological filtering processes has long been understood to operate in educational institutions, especially in the humanities, beyond the political sphere, and Crossley’s apparent failure to fully recognize this means political perspectives dominate his analysis.

The irony of this limitation is brought out in the final section of his Introduction where he writes

[I]t is possible to enter academia and be radical as long as the questions asked remain at least relatively incomprehensible or the dangerous questions of contemporary politics are not systematically addressed head-on and clearly. (p. 15)

I believe a case can be made that Crossley himself finds certain radically critical views “incomprehensible” and that this, along with his failure to grasp the broader application of the filtering process in educational institutions, accounts for the difficulty he clearly has with views of methodology in Christian origins studies expressed on this blog and in hypotheses expressed here and elsewhere in literature ridiculed and loathed by the mainstream. (The radical views expressed here are the much the same as those that were once deplored when introduced to “Old Testament” studies but that are finally widely accepted there.)


Before further posts addressing the main chapters in Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism I should in fairness explain something about Crossley and me.

Some background.

I have discussed very many scholarly books on this blog and I am encouraged whenever an author responds either privately by email or publicly in blog comments to express thanks for my accuracy and fairness of presentation. Happily this has happened quite frequently. Even current outspokenly hostile “enemies” of me personally and/or “mythicism” generally, James McGrath and R. Joseph Hoffmann (even N.T. Wrong), used to make positive remarks about Vridar posts and the accuracy and fairness of my presentations and comments once upon a time. Vridar used to rank among the “Top 10 Biblioblogs” but was removed from eligibility for that status as a consequence of its openness to “mythicism”. Only twice in over seven years of blogging, as far as I recall, have authors pointed out to me where I have misunderstood or misrepresented them in some way and each time in good faith I have apologized and made the corrections: Mark Goodacre and R. Joseph Hoffmann. (I’m not suggesting that others have always agreed with my criticisms; obviously some have disagreed strongly. My point is that misrepresentation has rarely been a complaint. Misrepresentation has really only surfaced with a coterie of three other authors as explained in the next paragraph.)

There have been only three names who have accused me of flagrantly perverse misrepresentations far as I recall. And they are all closely connected professionally and have done so with bitter personal vitriol. While none of these persons ever attempted to engage in dialogue two of them did make a point of leaving expletives on this blog and the third chose to publish some pretty wild misrepresentations of his own about a good number of persons with whom he has crossed academic swords in the past, as well as against me personally and my posts. One of these critics I assumed at the time was a bigoted apologist troll but I have since been shocked to learn he is a “respected scholar”, Deane Galbraith; another was also a UK scholar, Professor James Crossley; and the third was Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey. All three, I understand, were alerted to my blog by a mutual friend, Stephanie Fisher. (Fisher routinely accused any and everyone of “misrepresenting” Casey and Crossley and herself whenever they raised some critical question or view of anything they had written and I did at one time remove her from here as a troll.) All three are noted for proposing or backing arguments and methods that have found negligible support among their peers, thus raising the old question of whether it is insecurity that lies behind hypersensitivity and abusive responses to certain types of criticisms.

James Crossley (like Deane Galbraith) berated me for supposedly grossly misrepresenting him. I certainly wrote my reviews from a perspective that he (and some other New Testament scholars) do find foreign and I do zero in on taken-for-granted assumptions in works on Christian origins. I believe such a left-field perspective outraged him and given his own claims that I myself had written things that I simply did not write at all I am sure in the heat of the moment he simply misread significant parts of my posts. His last words here were:

These reviews of yours are so bloody weird!

Gentleman and scholar Deane Galbraith’s last words were — before I redirected him to the spam filter — much cruder and less appropriate to repeat in polite company. (Galbraith subsequently refused to allow me to post my own corrections to some pretty wild comments he made about me on his blog.)

Further, in this book I am discussing, Crossley gives cameo appearances both to me personally and to this blog itself. His depictions I would call “Casey-esque” and I believe Crossley would take that as a compliment. He expresses gratitude for what he flatteringly describes as Casey’s “research” into the lives of those he calls “mythicists”. I have since corresponded with Crossley to attempt to alert him to some factual errors in what he wrote but his response made it clear he has bitterly entrenched personal issues with me and has no intention of engaging me in any sort of dialogue.

I believe these reactions testify to one of my constant themes here: that mainstream New Testament scholars are so conditioned to thinking along certain “correct paradigms” that they cannot comprehend anything else. Of course there are all sorts of competing ideas among scholars, but they are always within certain parameters. There are limits.

The irony here is that James Crossley refers a lot to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model that makes exactly this point with respect to mainstream political views among public intellectuals. This model is in fact an extension of a model of how socialization works generally and with which I suspect sociologists and educators are all familiar. The same processes of weeding out (or at least marginalizing) the “wrong” thinkers probably applies to most institutions. Herman and Chomsky’s model is noteworthy for more narrowly focusing this fundamental and universal process to political views of academics. Crossley appears not to understand the broader process from which the Propaganda Model is derived and accordingly appears to remain impervious to self-criticism in his work in which he criticizes his peers. His own political views and the methodological approaches and assumptions he brings to his own work on Christian origins are not only immune from criticism but are upheld as the standard by which he judges his peers.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World”

  1. Neil,

    Thanks for this. As you proceed further in your discussion, could you please explain what Crossley means by neoliberalism and postmodernism?

    To me, neoliberalism is a complete ideological system that stands wholly apart from Christianity and competes with it. In fact, I would argue that neoliberalism, like classical liberalism before it, is just a secular version of the Abrahamic religions where the Market is God (all-knowing and all-seeing) who determines who will be saved (rich) and who will be condemned (poor). In neoliberalism, poverty is excommunication.

    I view postmodernism as something completely different. Postmodernism is not an ideological system at all. Rather, it is a set of analytical techniques and methods that can be brought to bear in a number of different contexts within the social sciences, including the social science of history.

    If Crossley is parroting William Dever and dismissing as “postmodern” the minimalists’ insistence on applying the concept of falsifiability to biblical history, I think he is just as mistaken as Dever and just as poor a “scholar.” The minimalists are quite sincere in their attempt to offer a competing grand narrative that does not require the theologically inspired circular reasoning and leaps of logic (faith, really) that Dever et al. display. The minimalists’ demand that any theory of history must be based, in the first instance, on actual evidence and not assumptions, is the essence of modernism and the antithesis of postmodernism.


    1. Yes. Crossley supplies a definition and a description in his second chapter that I will address in the next post. I think you are expecting too much, though, if you are looking for anything as substantial as a direct grappling with historical Jesus methodologies and assumptions (as we find in Dever’s assaults on ‘minimalists’) in Crossley. That’s the sort of depth I would have expected but that is entirely missing in Crossley’s book. From past exchanges with Crossley I don’t think he has yet managed to comprehend that New Testament studies could possibly be as vulnerable to the same sorts of methodological criticisms as OT studies have been. The Gospels (at least GMark) are just assumed to be near-contemporaneous derivatives from reports of real Jesus events. Crossley, like Stephanie Fisher and Maurice Casey (and apparently Deane Galbraith) — those who label themselves “independent scholars” — seem incapable of comprehending any critique of their arguments that have appeared here. McGrath and others stridently disagree with the arguments but at least they more or less sort of understand them.

    2. I am half way through another work Crossley addresses in his book, William Arnal’s “The Symbolic Jesus”. I am a little dismayed, actually, to see that Crossley wrote as he did despite having read Arnal’s book. Crossley’s apparent dismissal of Arnal’s arguments, or at least Crossley’s ability to argue as he did in the face of Arnal’s points that in my view undermine everything Crossley says in relation to scholarship supposedly diminishing the place of “Jewishness”, shows Crossley is really straining at the very edges of valid argument. I can see by comparing Arnal’s work with Crossley’s that it’s not just this blog that Crossley cannot understand or is at a loss to argue against. I’ll finish Arnal’s book before continuing.

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