Tag Archives: End of Biblical Studies

Biblioblogging, Politics & the Core Function of Biblical Studies

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Crossley as Che Guevara Jesus. See image at end of post

This is part 3 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.)

In the previous post we saw how James Crossley uses chapter 2 to convey a general idea of the concepts scholars of “postmodernism” associate with postmodernity, postmodernism and related political and economic developments. This is essentially to set the “broad contextual basis”, Crossley explains, “for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades.”

Crossley’s own political polemic dominates his discussion. His concluding paragraph begins:

Many people now look back in disbelief over the past decade, and the roles of Bush and Blair in particular. But now we have Obama, the great liberal figure of our time. . . .

And continues . . .

Yet, beneath the high rhetoric, Obama rarely deviated from standard American positions on the Middle East in recent years and provided minimum detail. And, in the heart of an anti-democratic police state with an unfortunate human rights record . . .

And concludes . . .

as he stood shoulder to shoulder with Mubarak, an issue which is apparently best forgotten now that the Western media could no longer avoid showing Mubarak for what he is.

No reference to biblical scholarship. As I pointed out previously, in major respects I sympathize with Crossley’s political views but I was led to read a book expecting an explanation of how political and related trends influenced Jesus scholarship; rather, one senses that Crossley is hoping to politically (re)educate his scholarly peers.

The Wrong, the Defeated and the Exception

So we come to chapter 3 which is about Biblioblogging.

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Hypocritical Christ-mythers: Cameron’s response to Neil Godfrey at Vridar — & my response back

Русский: Григорий Распутин . English: Grigorij...

Theologian

4 evolutionists (1873)

Evolutionists

Herodotus and Thucydides

Historians

Cameron, a critic of Dave Fitzgerald’s Nailed, has responded to my remarks (Are Mythicist Sceptics Hypocritical for Attacking Creationists) about his accusation that those who reject the historicity of Jesus are hypocritical if they also criticize Creationists for rejecting an academic consensus. As seems to be par for the course with these sorts of attacks, derisive labels and character attacks are deployed against anyone who argues that Jesus was not a historical figure. Hence the generic title of his response: Hypocritical Christ-mythers.

Cameron begins his response thus:

In my review of David Fitzgerald’s book Nailed, I criticized Christ-mythers for ignoring the consensus of biblical scholars on the historical Jesus, while simultaneously attacking creationists for rejecting the consensus of scientists on evolution. Fitzgerald didn’t like the comparison, and neither did Neil Godfrey over at Vridar. But he’s wrong for the same reasons Fitzgerald is. His comments are in quotes, followed by my responses.

“Of course there is one professor who asserts that to the extent that biblical studies does have a degree of certainty (even though only a fraction of anything in the sciences), to that extent mythicists should respectfully submit to this consensus just as creationists should be rational and accept the authority of scientists. That one discipline is the foundation of all our modern progress and the other is a Mickey Mouse course doesn’t matter. What matters is that the most honourable professors in each have certainties. One just happens to have greater certainties than the other, that’s all.”

Of course there’s a degree of uncertainty involved when investigating historical figures, but to call biblical history a “Mickey Mouse course” is to reach a new level of special pleading. People like Godfrey make the entire field sound like a collection crazy, right-wing evangelicals bent on defending their worldview. The truth is that these scholars, whatever their ideological commitments may be, are interested in the truth. That most of them (even those skeptical of Christianity) have rejected the Christ-myth speaks volumes about its lack of validity. Furthermore, if mythicists are aware of the limitations of history, though they exaggerate them, don’t you think historians areas well? Yeah…they are. But somehow the experts rarely throw up their hands and exclaim, “well we weren’t there; Jesus probably wasn’t real!”

Whatever their ideological commitments?

Cameron portrays theologians who study “the historical Jesus” as reasonable enough to set aside their ideological commitments in order to objectively seek out only “the truth” of the matter. This is a naive Pollyannish portrayal of a scholarly field dominated by faith-committed theologians. Let’s break down Cameron’s comment and examine each piece.

Biblical studies is probably the most ideologically oriented of all academic disciplines. Hector Avalos has shown that clearly enough in The End of Biblical Studies. R. Joseph Hoffmann remarked on this blog that the reason the Christ myth theory is not given more attention among scholars has more to do with conditions of academic appointments than common sense. Stevan Davies recently pointed out that a list of the Westar Institute Fellows shows nearly all are or have been affiliated with seminaries and theological institutions. Most of the scholarly books one picks up on the historical Jesus contain prefaces or concluding chapters in which one reads reflections that sound more like homilies or spiritual confessions. James Crossley has publicly denounced the way biblical scholars so regularly open their academic get-togethers (seminars, workshops) with prayers. Blogs of theologian scholars are dominated by spiritual reflections and sayings. Atheists and atheism are generally derided. Ideology is important. The Christian faith dominates the entire field of biblical studies. To suggest that these scholars are all committed to setting aside their personal faith and seeking truth regardless of where it may lead sounds about as plausible as expecting Nazi era scientists to set aside their political ideology in order to study the biological grounds for racial differences.

That most of such scholars have rejected a model that undermines the entire ideological and faith foundations of this scholarly field tells us absolutely nothing about its lack of validity. read more »

What King Arthur might teach us about Jesus and Christian Origins

King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detai...

Image via Wikipedia

There is nothing unfeasible about the idea of a rich body of literature that reads as if it were real history, filled with details of names and places, yet being entirely fictitious, appearing suddenly and “out of whole cloth” from the mind of a single author. This is how the Arthurian literature was created in the twelfth century. It was very likely created for the purpose of establishing a national identity and assisting the Norman conquerors of England establishing a continuity with their subjects.

The Primary History of Israel contains a detailed history of Kings David and Solomon that archaeology has demonstrated is entirely fanciful. This contains many names and places and administrative lists (though not so rich as those found in the Arthurian literature) that give the story verisimilitude. This story, too, was quite arguably created for the purpose of establishing a new “national” identity and sense of continuity for newly arrived inhabitants in the land of Canaan at the behest of yet another Persian imperial mass deportation. (It was the dismal custom of Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians to repopulate imperial lands via mass deportations for a variety of reasons — economic, strategic, punitive — while promising “liberty” and “restoration” to those they were relocating. Part of the package could include happy servitude to the “original gods of the land”.)

I sometimes wonder if the meagre evidence we have for the emergence of the Gospels is best explained by a similar process, maybe late first century but quite likely early to mid second century. Not that they are the products of a new nation or occupation, of course. But thousands of Jews were displaced, and a central focus of religious and cultural identity was shattered — twice, 70 and 135 ce. It might be interesting to explore the relationships between such presumably traumatic events and their cultural and ideological impacts. Such a possibility is suggested by the several metaphors in the Gospel narratives of a destroyed temple (e.g. the rock-carved tomb of Jesus deriving from Isaiah 22:16’s depiction of an earlier destroyed Temple being a rock-carved tomb) and a “new Israel” (e.g. the twelve disciples echoing the twelve tribes of Israel). They are documents that do potentially offer a new identity for a displaced people. They reassure those who leave their families and homes — even their former racial and cultural group still adhering to a revised Mosaic set of regulations — that they have a new place in the successor of Moses and Elijah. Their story of Jesus as the cast-out, the rejected, the persecuted, yet the one who would in the end conquer; their image of an alternative “new Israel” with which to identify; these surely would answer the needs of such peoples.

But could such gospel narratives arise seemingly from nowhere?

They certainly could. Compare the literature of King Arthur. (The following notes are for most part from a discussion by Hector Avalos in his The End of Biblical Studies.) read more »

Chomsky, Crossley and the betrayal of an independent approach to historical Jesus studies

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Noam Chomsky

It is easy for theologians and biblical scholars to wear prophet mantles and appear to be courageously attacking the sins of the established powers. There can be an easy smugness in identifying one’s position with “the conscience” of the guild, the church, the public or nation. “Speaking Truth to Power” loses some of its awe when one finds the Power in turn rewarding its “gainsayers” with various honours and security of status. The game was played out without embarrassment from either side in Australia when one of its most socially and environmentally regressive Prime Ministers, John Howard, recommended a prominent social justice advocate cleric, Peter Hollingworth, to the Governor-Generalship, and awarded a leading environmentalist, Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year.

So it was with a little hope, but not too much, that I approached biblical scholar James Crossley’s book, Jesus in an Age of Terror, that opens with the following quotation from Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals:

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

Unfortunately, Crossley himself falls into the trap of joining other religion scholars who boast of critiquing imperialist, racial and class-warfare themes while in reality missing the heart and soul of Chomsky’s message. As a consequence Crossley becomes yet another brick in the wall of the establishment power he critiques only superficially.

Here is Crossley’s ironically correct explanation of the Chomsky model of how mainstream media works:

The propaganda model shows that the press is not really an important tool of democracy and it is not really disagreeable, argumentative or subversive of political power, at least not in any significant sense. The function of the mass media is to provide support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity. This is reflected in their choices, emphases, and omissions. It is the powerful who fix the assumptions of media discourse and decide what is allowed to be seen and heard, often with the support of academics. Disagreements reflect disagreements among the elites. Although individuals may hold very different views from the agenda of mass media, these views will not be seriously reflected in the overall agenda or agendas. (pp.3-4, Jesus in an Age of Terror)

Yet this is exactly the place where Crossley’s own supposedly “independent” studies of Christian origins find themselves. He shares with his more religiously interested colleagues the logically flawed historiographical and epistemological assumptions that sustain that guild’s reason for existence.

Everyone knows — it is a simple truism — that one needs independent verification of any narrative before making assumptions about whether it is factual or not. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the [many a biblical scholar], it is not at all obvious.

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