James Crossley's blog Contact: jgcrossley10 - AT - yahoo - DOT - co - DOT - uk

Friday, May 19, 2006

Politics, Secularism, New Testament Studies

There has been a bit of a storm brewing over Michael Turton's review of James Tabor's Jesus Dynasty, with a response from Jim West and a counter from Michael Turton. Not wanting to get involved I, erm, will. Actually I'm not going to get involved in the review of Tabor's book Tabor and Jim West don't need me to argue their cases. Besides I've not read it yet though I intend to soon so I couldn't possibly comment. What I do want to discuss are the issues of politics and secularism because the implication of Michael Turton's critique has implications for my kind of approaches and obviously overlaps thematically with the ideas discussed on this blog.

As most readers will be aware, at present democracy in the US is being slowly ground down by a growing Christian fascist movement. You yourself, Jim, have openly worried about the possibility of a backlash against Christianity because of this movement. Well here it is Jim, and it is only going to get worse. Since Earl Doherty gave new impetus to ahistorical Jesus theories with the publication of the Jesus Puzzle a few years back, there has been an outpouring of new works by alternative scholars on the problem of early Christianity and its origins, and revivals and exploration of older work. Groups have sprung up around the internet to explore these ideas. Knowledge that was once the province of a privileged few is open to anyone. Democracy, hard at work.

Well you won't get any defence of the US administration here that's for sure and Jim and Michael are probably right: a response to Christianity is inevitable. But if this is anything to go by it will get the wrong target. Fire at the Christian right by all means but a knee-jerk reaction against Christians, many of whom are vigorously anti-imperialism (many are also indifferent) is getting at the wrong people and could even bolster the religious right if it is becomes seen as a viable alternative.

I wouldn't get carried away with the idea that 'radical' views of Christian origins are politically liberating. I'm almost tempted to view the supposed freedom of such belief as false consciousness. Power is no longer necessarily dependent on religion. By themselves these 'radical' views do nothing to challenge any genuine power structures, they have nothing to say about issues of socio-economic inequality, and they have nothing to say about problems of Middle East. It is in this respect like some NT scholarship: harmless by itself. But, like other NT scholarship, it could always be employed by the powerful if required, or reflected in the works of the so-called 'radicals'. Reactions on both sides, as Michael rightly points out, are predictable. Everyone knows their place, no threat to power made.

Again,

And each year that the Christian Right digs at the foundations of the United States, the number of ahistoricists will grow, because it is the natural response of people like me who were once willing to live and let live -- you blot out our democracy? Fine! We're going to destroy your Jesus. Doherty himself is an excellent example of how these two ideas cross-fertilize, for not only does he work on ahistorical Jesus theories, he also works with groups that oppose the Christian Right. And as the number of ahistoricists grows, Jim, we're going to get better at it. Why? Because there is no historical Jesus, Jim. He's a legitimating construction of the early proto-orthodox Christian Church in its struggles with competing Christianities, evolving out of many roots. And so any movement in that direction is a movement toward the true state of affairs.

Wouldn't it be better to aim anger at the right people? Let's say, hypothetically, that hard and fast proof emerged for the historical Jesus. Does that mean all is lost? There's an all or nothing feel to the cited argument. Does it mean that anyone MUST be wrong for believing in the historical Jesus? I'm an open secularist, I am openly hostile towards the Christian Right, and openly critical of western aggression. I ultimately care little if this or that passage is historically accurate but I do have a fairly conservative view of the synoptic tradition - at times even more conservative than conservative evangelicals - and I have argued at length for a very early date for Mark. Is that an option that is not just wrong because I've misread the evidence but an option that MUST be wrong before even studying the evidence? What really worries me in terms of academic study is that some of these 'radical' arguments (and I'm not accusing anyone of doing this intentionally) come close to sowing the seeds of intellectual Stalinism, despite all claims of academic openness. One advantage a secular critic actually has (I know this is a generalisation and can be heavily qualified) is that it really doesn't matter how much is accurate or not, whether or not the Bible agrees with what I think in personal and private politics and so on. Any historical conclusion is theoretically possible.

Ultimately, will showing Jesus did not exist do anything much?

Another problem I have is one I have more broadly with theology and biblical studies: Jesus (real or not) is one strangely abstracted from the world as are the political problems discussed. Jesus (real or not) is not inherently a supporter of the Christian Right and US Imperialism didn't happen through history of ideas alone. There are real socio-economic issues underlying why Jesus is used in this or that way and why we are witnessing US imperialism right now. Wouldn't attacking the underlying causes be much more dangerous?

(Incidentally, how is the quoted argument an argument against the existence of the historical Jesus?)


...it is an insult to the Gospel writers themselves, particularly the writer of Luke, who had an excellent handle on the fiction techniques of his day, and the writer of Mark, an authentic genius who turned out one of the most influential texts in human history, a text I love very much. To reduce Mark to little more than a transmitted report is to elide all the careful construction and complex structure of that most beautiful and challenging of the gospel texts.

Why should secularists care whether due respect is given to the gospels text in terms of historical reconstruction or indeed any kind of critical study? It almost sounds, well, kind of Christian. Don't even the Christian right believe such things! In fact that kind of thought is in many ways a product of orthodoxy in the discipline. If you wanted to adhere to that view it still remains that there are plenty (of all stripes) who can hold a view of Mark as great author and still use the gospel to reconstruct earlier history. I'm just not sure what is wrong with doing historical reconstruction.


The problem is that at the moment mainstream New Testament scholarship is allied with conservatives, positing a "Big Tent" that includes everyone who thinks there was a historical Jesus. Apparently the "threat" is not religious believers who want to destroy academic debate because it threatens their literalist, harmonizing view of the gospel texts. Instead the "threat" is people who engage in freewheeling academic debate, are creative, imaginative, and insightful, are familiar with the scholarship, love the ancient texts and enjoy studying them, but don't believe Jesus existed as a real human being. They are beyond the Pale.

Don't get me wrong, I think that Michael and his kinds of critics are structurally complelled to remain outsiders in the discipline as it stands, as are many other groups, and not just because they are extremely unconvincing. No problem there. From a different perspective, I know what it can be like as an open secularist, believe me. What worries me more is this: would their agenda really be a desirable alternative? How open is it really? As an aside to this I tried to confirm if the comments Tabor made on Jesus Mysteries were true. But I couldn't as access was restricted to members only (or at least it seemed to be but that could easily be my unfamiliarity with the site). If this is true then the following are genuinely open questions and I offer no answers: is that the way to get arguments put forward and how can statements about others be tested beyond a small group of likeminded people?


If the ascendancy of the Christian Right in the US continues, the day may come when secular mainstream scholars find themselves shut out by their conservative cousins.

Some of us are still trying to get to the stage where there are a significant number of secular scholars in the mainstream in the first place to be shut out by conservatives!


Those of you in Europe who think it can't happen there should also pause and think, as the links are already being forged -- a recent example being the flap over the Muslim Cartoons published in a Danish paper -- by a Danish editor with connections to US neocons, becoming a global blot on Muslims at a time when the US is seeking to build support for a war on Iran. I'm sure it was just a coincidence....Already US Christian Right style politicking is ongoing in the UK. It took about a generation for it to instantiate itself in American politics. Where will you all be in thirty years?

It is time to stop pretending that harmonized, literalist interpretations of the Gospels like Tabor's are anything but wrong in every way. Not only are they bad scholarship, they are politically naive. They help provide legitimacy for a malignant political movement whose ideology is based on harmonized, literalized readings of the New Testament texts.


I know the inroads made in Europe and, worryingly, even in the secularised UK. I also think that the present hosility to Islam is no coincidence. I've no doubt that these worrying trends are reflected in the discipline. But I think that's way out when it comes reading the NT texts in a literal or harmonised way. I don't think the NT or a literalist reading of the NT necessarily supports any political agenda. Texts, not untypically, are read to suit. I seriously doubt whether the parable of Rich Man and Lazarus is read too literally by neocons otherwise they would be damning themselves to hell fire. You could read stuff allegorically or symbolically to support an agenda if you so wished. The Reagan administration, the Christian Right, Hal Lindsay, and the Left Behind-ists read Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel etc. in a whole host of creative and imaginative ways ways. I don't think I'm going too far in suggesting that modern day socio-political realities have led to some of these readings. Not sure how you read Russia into Ezekiel otherwise. Really, it is whatever reading it takes. An allegorical (or whatever) reading of Jesus could just as easily be done to support a political agenda as a literalist one.

19 Comments:

Blogger Jim said...

Brilliant

May 19, 2006

 
Blogger steph said...

ditto!

May 19, 2006

 
Blogger Danny Zacharias said...

James,
your ability to bring light to a situation in an even-tempered manner is always much appreciated- especially amongst this discussion amongst two hard-headed bloggers ; )

Where else but in bloggerdom can a liberal baptist pastor fight with a mythicist Jesus scholar, only to be refereed by a cool-handed Agnostic! I love it.

Danny

May 19, 2006

 
Blogger Jim said...

Very good points indeed Danny. But me? Hard headed? Nein!

;-)

May 19, 2006

 
Blogger Bilbo Bloggins said...

Turton is an angry childish idiot aiming temper tantrums at anyone who doesn't think he's brilliant for concluding that narrative criticism shows there was no historical Jesus (ironically *not* the conclusion of any of the scholars he parrots, with the exception of the least impressive of them - the underwhelming Earl Doherty) . But bragging about the culmination of his idiocy (e.g. his Bible Code method of "exegesis" on Mark, and his arguments on Infidels and the Jesus mythers e-list [neither of which have any impact or import]) amidst his crew of similarly unqualified trolls, bears this out even further. "Goddammit, if any of those fascist fundies come on down to our pigpen, me and my fellow porkers will stampede!!" I almost fell out of my chair laughing when I heard him refer to his forthcoming book as "bullet proof". Do people who do serious academic research refer to their own work in such a manner? No, this is the arrogance of the modern-day message board braggart, securely insulated by the praise of fools.



Almost as funny is that he thinks his atheist apologetics are accomplishing something. There's no "movement", Michael. You're not a threat to the conservative Christian caricature that you've created because, for the most part, they don't know you exist. I'm sure its been therapeutic to snort and throw slop at the 10 fundies that have bothered to apply to your password-protected virtual pigpen for Jesus-Mythers. But overall, your fabricated fundy enemy clearly isn't even thoughtful enough to be interested in the middle-earth of pseudo-academic mediocrity where you have appointed yourself ruler. And neither you, nor the 2 or 3 scholars that agree with you, are ever going to make an impact in the academic world, NOT because of any conservative conspiracy, but because you are afraid of real academics. There's a place where real academics debate the historical Jesus on the web, Michael. We all know the name. You're not there. Come on by sometime. I realize that the old familiar mud is much more cool and comfortable, but if you're actually interested in ancient history, and not just entertaining puerile fantasies of destroying Christianity, then I can think of no better forum to help test and refine your research.



Why Loren yearns for Michael Turton's return to Biblioblogdom, I have no idea. The weakness of his "work" truly is a shame though, as his blog is one of the most aesthetically pleasing. I enjoy the layout, color scheme, and photography more than most.



Sincerely,



Bilbo

May 20, 2006

 
Blogger Ken said...

As someone who disagrees with you ideologically on politics, I can nevertheless say you've brought an excellent bit of even-handedness to the issues at play in this particular blog brawl.

May 20, 2006

 
Blogger steph said...

(completely off topic, but....

.."sincerely Bilbo"?

belongs to Bilboblogdom perhaps)

May 21, 2006

 
Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

In a money driven world, sensation = bucks and Jesus sensation = more bucks, making the lure of blockbuster sensation Jesus volumes irresistible for some authors. All that is required is a determination to 'spin' the data in whatever way guarantees maximum sensation. Working as I do in the book trade, the formula has become fairly apparent to me: cull any two of the following words for your title/subtitle/blurb headline: Jesus, scrolls, code, key, mystery, secret etc.. in fact, titles employing these words are sitting there waiting to be used, and the titles themselves are a guarantee of bucks before a word is penned.
James Tabor, as the authors of such blockbusters go, is a bona fide NT scholar. In addition, his topic is a genuinely important and 'live' one. Though I do wish he had not fallen prey to the Eisenman tendency to assume some hidden significance behind the fact that different NT characters have names like Jude, James, Joseph, Simon etc.. Hang it all, there weren't many names to go round in those days.

May 22, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Well there's some nice commments!! I'll enjoy them while I can ;)

I think things have got weirder when there are the kinds of agreements among some very different types on this comment section!

As I said I haven't read Tabor's book so I can;t comment on his arguments regarding names but in terms of previous scholarship I have yet to be convinced that very much can be read into names as symbolic for this or that Christianity. At least not in Mark's gospel. It is a historically plausible practice of course but I just can't see how things can be so easily reconstructed in terms of Mark.

May 22, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bilbo, you are brilliant, you hit the nail on the head, because they hate our culture and politics, the atheists go after Jesus, in an oblique way of trying to rub our noses in it......their fanaticism leads them into that circular atheist abyss and further from the academic mainstream.

May 28, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atheists...rebels without a CAUSE!What a bunch of garbage....have you ever seen a group with more hatred, vile and contempt for everything about traditional American values? No wonder atheists score lower than communists on the latest poll. And moreover they have no solutions...they revel in tearing doen manger scenes at Christmas! disgusting...(hint: get a life!)

May 29, 2006

 
Anonymous Aleks said...

^^^^
The irony is strong with this one.

May 31, 2006

 
Blogger James Crossley said...

Yes! I wonder who it is aimed at though?

June 01, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of us who don't know, what IS this place everyone knows of to discuss Historical Jesus?

Cause I'm feeling mighty out of it at the moment.

June 01, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am involved.

June 02, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See
http://www.angelfire.com/empire/intensity/turtondefense.pdf

Jacob Aliet

June 02, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Recent events in the world of bloggers and internet discussion groups marked a climax of the growing tension between conservative scholars who have wrapped themselves tightly around the mantle of New Testament Scholarship on the one hand, and the ever-improving, pervasive group of amateurs who progressively engage the works published by the mainstream scholars. It was a clash of two worlds, and the heat that the impact generated boiled off the boundary between these worlds and forced a confrontation that unmasked the conservative scholars. Observers were able to get a glimpse of the terrified and insecure intellectual weakling that lurks behind the scholastic mien that conservatives adorn.

In May 2006, through a review, a well-instructed amateur ruthlessly debunked a freshly-published book by a respected scholar in the field and left it to waste even before impressionable crowds of lay Christian readers could eagerly line up to purchase the book. This review predictably embarrassed the scholar and his privileged friends in the academia. In the past, amateur reviews of "magisterial" works by scholars were met with smug indifference. But the review in question, which we discuss below, instantly shattered the mask of smug indifference and elicited intellectually hollow denunciations, instead of a crushing blow-by-blow logical refutation from them.

Read the rest in the article linked below:
http://www.angelfire.com/empire/intensity/turtondefense.pdf

June 02, 2006

 
Blogger steph said...

Don't beat a dead horse Jacob. The reviewer withdrew his review and apologised. It is disrespectful to the reviewer to suggest that his reasons were other than those he has stated. His original review did him no favours and he soon realised that. He had made erroneous claims (regarding for example, manuscript variants) and written the review in a state of anger. He had followed this review with two letters which made false accusations regarding censorship. He withdrew these also after reflection and due to pressure from none other than himself.

You do him no favours by dragging this through the mud.

June 03, 2006

 
Blogger steph said...

BTW Jacob: you had better tell your friend "Ted Hoffmann" on Infidels that the 'evidence of Mark 14:62 variants' is an erroneous argument. There are no variants here and that is one of the mistakes the reviewer being "defended" has conceded. The continuation of that false argument is amusing at most. Once again, it reflects unfavourably on the reviewer.

June 03, 2006

 

Post a Comment

<< Home