Tag Archives: Arnal: Symbolic Jesus

Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

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. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post. read more »

Why Today’s Theologians Call Themselves Historians

symbolicjesusIn The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity, William Arnal gives us a reasonable explanation for why Historical Jesus scholars today are characterized by:

  • a general assumption that the gospel narratives reflect at some level genuine historical events;
  • a minimizing of the criterion of dissimilarity;
  • a preference for a criterion of plausibility;
  • an explicit, even strident, emphasis on Jesus’ “Jewishness”;
  • a preference to present themselves as historians more than theologians.

In other words, whatever happened to Rudolf Bultmann and good-old scholarly scepticism?

Arnal’s discussion is a broad one encompassing scholarly, political, religious and cultural identities. This posts focuses on only the scholarly identity. I give some of the background relevant to this new scholarly identity formation since the 1970s and 1980s since it helps us understand more completely what has been going on that has led theologians to stress their apparent credentials as historians.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s New Testament scholarship was dominated by “Bultmannian, post-Bultmannian, or Bultmann-trained scholars”.

The “New Quest” for the Historical Jesus is traditionally said to have begun in 1953 with a publication by Ernst Käsemann arguing that the only way to be assured a saying of Jesus was authentic was that it stood distinct from both Christianity and Judaism. This was called the criterion of double dissimilarity. It did not mean that Jesus said nothing that overlapped with distinctively Jewish or Christian ideas but that the only ones we could be reasonably confident came from Jesus were those that were dissimilar to both.

Ernst Käsemann was a student of Bultmann.

Other scholars prominent in this “New Quest” (that is, the apparent revival of Historical Jesus studies after Albert Schweitzer is said to have closed the curtain on the “First Quest”) have been

  • James M. Robinson — an American, but whose D. Theol was from Basel;
  • Norman Perrin — an American, not a student of Bultmann but a student of Jeremias.

This “New Quest” throughout the 1950s and 1960s, in both Europe and North America, could be most distinctively described as follows:

  • A focus on the sayings of Jesus as the key to understanding Jesus;
  • Emphasis on the criterion of double dissimilarity as the key to identifying authentic sayings of Jesus;
  • A “considerable skepticism about the historicity of any of the gospel material, especially narrative but also sayings materials’ (The Symbolic Jesus, p. 41).

But Arnal points out that all of that changed “with a vengeance” in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The Third Quest”

read more »