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.
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.