Tag Archives: Intellectuals

What is a scholar to do when there is no agreement on the basics?

“[342] By “fictive,” I mean that the narratives, even quite likely derived from historical events, are now cast in terms which render it impossible to create any more than the vaguest semblance of modern history from the ancient New Testament texts. By “fictional,” I mean that the narratives have their origin entirely within human and community imagination and have no historical origin.”

Over time, as my own studies in Luke-Acts matured, I came to see that most of the New Testament narratives were — by modern standards — at least fictive, if not entirely fictional.[342]  Although my convictions about the fictive nature of most New Testament narratives have often rendered me a bewildered spectator to scholarly debates about the “history” of early Christianity, my skepticism about the wisdom of deriving modern historical claims from the New Testament narratives seldom impacted my own scholarly work. Even while chairing the section on Acts at the Society of Biblical Literature, I silently excused myself from discussions which presumed the historicity of Acts, and I confined my own work to other areas of inquiry.

Phillips, Thomas E. 2016. “‘When Did Paul Become a Christian?’” In Christian Origins and the New Testament in the Greco-Roman Context: Essays in Honor of Dennis R. MacDonald, edited by Margaret Froelich, Michael Kochenash, Thomas E. Phillips, and Ilseo Park, 163–82. Claremont, Calif: Claremont School of Theology Press.

I have to ask. Is this experience unique to the study of Christian origins? Surely not. I would appreciate being informed of comparable examples in other historical fields.



The Corporate Crushing of the Intellectual Life

Universities have changed, and not for the better. Once a liberal arts or humanities education was prized as the gateway to learning how to think, how to live, to understanding how the world works. It was once impossible to enter a humanities field without undertaking at least a year’s course in a foreign language. Literature, history, sociology classes abounded. Political debates were everywhere one looked across campuses. Engineering students had a reputation for being politically conservative and looking down on the humanities students because the latter were seen as trouble-makers. But they, too, could be caught up in the debates. And the questioning and learning that took place both inside and outside the classrooms spilled over into the wider communities with demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The Beatles’ song Revolution played across the main grounds where tents were set up and students and staff engaged in calls for restrictions to be removed from free speech and for greater participation of students in administration. Civil rights, feminism, racism and participatory democracy were hot topics of talk and action. Corporate power and its hold over conservative governments in the pockets of mining interests were openly challenged.

Then the corporations and their political proxies fought back.

“In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.”

(That’s from a 2012 article by Debra Leigh Scott — see below — that was recently recycled on Alternet and reminded me of this major challenge we face today.)

That was in the United States. It appears similar action has been underway in other Western countries.

Today, a university is lucky if it has any history courses at all. Literature? What good is that for a job? French, German, Russian? If you want to study a foreign language then choose one that is going to help your business career: Japanese or Mandarin.

And for god’s sake make the universities profitable. Why should the public purse fund them? Make the students pay. That’ll make sure they keep their heads down doing a practical course that will enable them to get a good job as soon as possible so they can pay off their debt. There’ll be no time or interest in discussing wider social issues if they are all studying a business or engineering courses.

Let the universities attract money from corporations by promising them some material return on their investments.

In the Soviet Union dissident professors would be sent to labour camps for re-education. Western corporations have removed the threat of the intellectuals by other means of “manufacturing consent” for the status quo.

Mass public education began in Germany and Britain as a means of preparing a labour force for the factories and soldiers for the armies in a new world requiring literacy along with social compliance. The pressure has always been on schools to train children in useful, practical subjects so they can fill the job requirements of business. Now the universities have been very largely tamed, too.

For five blows that have been inflicted by the corporate world on at least the United States universities, see

How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps

(Reposted here)



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

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.

read more »