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Friday, March 27, 2009

Chris Zeichmann on Jesus in an Age of Terror

Chris Zeichmann has given a very detailed summary and review of Jesus in an Age of Terror. I am particularly grateful to Chris, not least because he was very complimentary. He has also engaged in a way that makes this reader, at least, think. He raises very good questions which will hopefully help in the clarification of my position. He also raises an extremely interesting issue that never occurred to me when writing the book and got me thinking even more about some different ideas (we’ll come back to that towards the end). I also think some of my points are more to do with clarification and so we might not be in much disagreement in what he raises…but we might – let’s see what Chris thinks. And good to see a mention of a book that needs further discussion or at least reading by those in the mainstream of historical studies of Christian origins, Shawn Kelley’s Racializing Jesus.

I won't focus on the nice points and instead look at those minor critical points Chris raises and I’ll do my best to answer…

Chris says that ‘Neyrey’s intent could be much more benign: if we cannot understand people in our own time, how can we understand those some 2000 years ago? If this were the intended reading, the use of the “Middle East” is simply a heuristic and convenient analogy’. Yes, I would sort of go along with this and intentions are another question I think (some are certainly honourable and I know some of the people I critique have personal politics which go directly against their stereotyping of ‘the Arab’ and some strong critics of Anglo-American foreign policy who unwittingly buy into some of the arguments they would ordinarily oppose). Part of the book is designed to explain why intellectual movements emerged when they did. I think cultural anthropology in NT studies emerged partly in the context of wide ranging stereotyping of ‘the Arab’, ‘Muslim’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Middle East’ and so on. This doesn’t necessarily mean, I’d add, that all users of cultural anthropology in NT studies make outrageous comments. I don’t really make a judgment on Neyrey on this issue, at least not here, other than to explain that it is part of a trend that depicts the US in distinction from the Middle East etc. It could, theoretically, still be a useful reading, as Chris suggests, as well as being a reading explicable in terms on recent history. Of course, other scholars do come up with some outrageous statements about Arabs but in this case I wouldn’t make much of a moral judgement.

Chris adds that ‘It is unclear to me why Crossley targeted the Context Group in particular, especially given his social-scientific proclivities in Why Christianity Happened.’ There are certainly similarities and there are several CG members with whom I’m in broad agreement and I did target ‘some’ (I made sure I kept using that qualification) CG members. However, to generalise, if I may, my approach in Why Christianity Happened was more concerned with explaining change while the CG approaches I discuss are more descriptive and less concerned with change. I give no value judgment on that now – both have their place etc – but that is one difference I’d suggest. The reason why certain members of CG are targeted is because they are the most obvious fit with the ideological developments I mention and certain figures make the some of the most outrageous comments I’ve read in recent NT scholarship. Moreover, they are very much part of the ‘mainstream’ and influential figures in NT studies. When Meier and Wright reference certain CG work for understanding the social world of Jesus, then we know such work is taken very seriously and is very much a part of mainstream NT studies. That seems worth discussing as a significant movement in the history of scholarship and in some cases much more problematic and important than if it were some crazy right wing fringe movement doing what crazy right wing fringe movements do without much attention from anyone else.

On Orientalism Chris says:
Orientalism (or the type of Orientalism that interests Crossley) is never clearly defined and this presents some of the book’s biggest problems. First, the prescriptive element of how one should describe another culture is never clear. That is, the dual problem of fetishizing the weirdness of the “Other” and reduction of their differences to a bland “sameness” finds no clear resolution herein. Second, casting such a wide net for Orientalism will likely be off-putting to some, resulting in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario on a different level. One can ascribe to the “other” positive valuation on “our” terms, but this remains ethnocentric. Granting them positive values on their own terms, however, assumes a transcendent posturing by the scholar that comes off as rather ridiculous. Again, he does not suggest a middle ground or third way.

Yes, the lack of a sustained alternative is true but also deliberate on my part. I’m increasingly finding it difficult to answer that issue and provide an alternative. But it is also worth recalling that the book really treats NT scholarship as the primary source material rather than the NT itself and a main intention is to explain why certain trends in scholarship emerged when they did. At some points, then, the moral issue is another issue so not all are damned. Chris suggests that ‘it seems appropriate to delimit acceptable and unacceptable forms of ethnocentrism, given its inevitability.’ In one sense I do something like this. I do not criticise everyone for being part of a tradition of using anthropology since the 1970s. Some works I like and some of my earlier work is broadly social scientific and I think I’m right predictably enough but I think all this can be explained (as can my own work, including my work on Jesus and Judaism, I’d add) in terms of the ideological developments. I also talk of some approaches being ‘much more carefully qualified’ (p. 114) and ‘Some of the generalizations are milder and more aware than others in their dealings with Arabs and the Middle East, some are not necessarily inaccurate as generalizations’ (p. 115).

There are some moves where I’m not sure how we judge in moral terms. One of the most significant developments is the way in which ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Mediterranean world’ becomes ‘Arab’ or ‘Arab world’ in several descriptions of ‘the Mediterranean’. By itself it might be a problem for geographical accuracy (!) and it might be explained in terms of obsessions with ‘the Arab world’ and it might even play into the hands of power but the moral issue is more ambiguous.

There are, however, worse sentiments expressed and ones where the issues just discussed can enhance such sentiments. I am very critical of the use of the not-so-tasteful stereotypes which I obviously do not like (claims that contemporary Arabs/Arab mind obsessed with sex, contemporary Arabs/Arab mind not suited to democracy, contemporary Arabs/Arab mind prone to violent political movements, Arab as suicide bomber or kidnapper etc. etc.). I’d stop short in explaining too closely good and bad ethnocentrism because I’m not sure a helpful definition can actually be given, at least not in any strong sense. I do think I can persuade at least some people that Arabs being obsessed sex, being drawn to violent movements, being defined as suicide bombers and so on is not right.

When Chris says ‘One can ascribe to the “other” positive valuation on “our” terms, but this remains ethnocentric’, I can only agree. That’s also partly why I wasn’t interested in reconstructing (I also wanted to treat scholarly sources as primary sources so reconstruction would have been out of place). The only solution I really suggested was to stop or, at the very least, question the very unfortunate stereotyping of the ‘Middle East’ and ‘the Arab’. I prefer the general ‘Orientalism’ because it concerns the Said-critique tied in with politics and covers a lot of key aspects which I think are documented as part of the contemporary concerns with the Middle East and Islam. Furthermore, many details of Said have been analysed and critiqued but I think it is fair to say the general picture suggested by Said is one with which many of us would agree. I also think that such a broad use is important for my purposes because it covers the broad spectrum of views, both in cultural contexts and scholarly contexts.

On the bloggers, yes, this involved dealing with friends and that wasn’t always pleasant. I could have chosen any number of people and blog entries but there has to be limits of course (as it happens even more useful material has come to light since I submitted and NT Wrong’s blog and its reception would have been a very useful blog to analyse – in fact it all is: watch this space for more to come on that topic…). Jim West was particularly useful in one instance because the key modern political factors were raised on a post about ancient issues which brought together a number of other bloggers so it was blogging gold for my analysis! Jim West was also one of the key exceptions on the issue of the discussion of the Iraq war aftermath (though significantly ignored) and I had to include that, I think.

An aside on Nadia Abu el-Haj: happily she did gain tenure. I wonder if the campaign against her (and I’m worried I’m giving out tips to those with whom I profoundly disagree!) focused far too heavily on things she simply did not say and invented things about her. Presumably the committee would easily have seen through the fact she did not argue that Jerusalem was not destroyed by the Romans (in fact she simply stated the standard view that the Romans did) and so on.

I like this:
Finally, it seems that Crossley’s work would have benefited from a discussion of secularization, especially as it relates to Orientalism and as a catalyst for focusing on specifically “religious” aspects of Israel as sites for potential “antisemitism” (e.g., the Temple, kosher lifestyle). The near-equivocation of “Israel” with “Judaism” in the media seems important to this point. Similarly, Richard King has written a very solid book (Orientalism and Religion) that deals with the characterization of “the mystic East” as a response to contemporary anxieties about secularity. The role of the non-rational in Malina’s work seems particularly ripe for analysis in these terms (I think especially of his chapter on envy). But this point might be moot, since Crossley’s work appears to focus more intently on the “what” and “how,” rather than “why,” questions.

That’s a very interesting suggestion. In this book I partly wanted to avoid issues of ‘secular’ as something distinct from ‘religious’ because I think the problems are similar among those claiming to be ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ alike (hence I gave examples from a range of perspectives). But I think Chris has raised a very significant issue and the potential for a different but related kind of research. I wonder, for example, if something like the championing of Bailey’s work on Jesus and the Middle East would fit into ‘the characterization of “the mystic East” as a response to contemporary anxieties about secularity’? I stress issues of right and wrong could be put to one side (or not, depending on taste) but it would certainly be an interesting point for someone to pursue and I can think of several examples which might back up such an argument. Yes, I like that idea.

Chris calls his points ‘minor quibbles’ and I’d respond that my answers are meant in good spirit and are really only points of clarification. His review was detailed, very positive and fair and that’s a good thing from my point of view. I’m also pretty certain there will be some extremely hostile responses in the future (I’ve braced myself for some time now) so it is particularly gratifying to read Chris’ positive response, particularly as he knows more than a thing or two about this area.


Blogger Colin Toffelmire said...


I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but I am looking forward to it. Maybe when the semester's over and I'm free to read what I like I'll get a chance at it. Even without reading it, however, I want to commend you for your willingness to respond (in a considered and considerate way no less) in such a public forum as a blog.

Chris' comment and your response regarding constructive ways forward in the "Orient" discussion did ring a bell for me. I've been exploring various kinds of post-colonial reading strategies for awhile now and I find this to be the sticking point (for me at least). In your response you throw out this phrase:

"At some points, then, the moral issue is another issue so not all are damned."

I'm not entirely sure what you mean here, particularly by "moral issue." Any chance of a clarification?

March 27, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks Colin.

I thought someone would pick up on that! What I mean is that the arguments function on two levels. One level I try to explain why scholarly trends happen when they did. So, it might be argued (say) that social scientific criticism re-emerged in NT studies at the end of the 1960s due to issues relating to socil upheavals, end of colonial rule or whatever and that the cultural anthropological aspect emerged when there was a serious obsession with 'the Arab' and increased US interest in the Middle East from the 70s onward. In that sense we could agree and say fine these explain (or do not) why these scholarly trends emerged without saying if the scholarship is right of wrong.

However, cultural context can be a problem. It can influence scholarship in ways that we might agree are profoundly immoral. The most obvious would be Nazi NT scholarship and how it had an impact of issues to do with Jesus' ethnicity. People tend to provide moral judgments on the faults of scholarship in this period and rightly so we might add.

In terms of the past 40 years there have been some very dubious stereotypes and it is difficult (for me) not to make a moral judgment, not least because they -intentionally or not - support the broad cultural trends which enhance destructive views of the Middle East. I'd also add that I am very critical of scholars as experts in legitimation but that is another story.

However, there is a lot of scholarly material that is fairly bland, that may well be explained as part of a broader trend but doesn't say anything particularly offensive. I just think I'd stop at daming that kind of material in the same way I would (say) anti-Jewish scholarship or anti-Arab scholarship. Some of it may well provide a supportive function for the more extreme statements and there may be a case for trying to bring it down but I find it hard to say some of the social sciences used in NT studies are in the same category as those which made alarming judgments on contemporary and ancient Arabs and Jews.

Does that make sense?

March 27, 2009

Blogger Chris Zeichmann said...

Thanks for the engaging response, as Jim West has already noted. I'll try to post a brief note this weekend in response.

March 27, 2009

Blogger Joachim Martillo said...

In re: Nadia Abu el Haj.

Nadia's opponents may see some success in showing their ability to mobilize and in casting doubt on her scholarship.

Tenure committees will take note.

I mention my very early experience with the mobilization against Nadia in More Jewish Bigotries at Interfaith Dialogue.

March 27, 2009

Blogger Colin Toffelmire said...


Thanks for the excellent response, that's very helpful. That relationship between social movement and personal morality is difficult isn't it? I think it's good that you seem willing to read other scholars with some generosity. Certainly thought provoking stuff, I'm going to have to read the book and spend some time thinking about this.

March 27, 2009


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