Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: An Interview with James G. Crossley (Part 1 of 3)

I recently interviewed James G. Crossley—with a little help from Philip Tite—about James’ recent book, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (Equinox, 2012). According to the book’s description, it “analyses the ideology underpinning scholarly and popular quests for the historical Jesus in a neoliberal age, [… focusing on] cultural and political concerns, notably postmodernism, multiculturalism and liberal masking of power.” I greatly enjoy James’ critical bite, and his willingness to “historicize with a hammer” (to twist Nietzsche’s phrase).

Craig Martin: I can tell you’re someone who writes out of frustration (and I mean that in a good way—I do the same!). Which of your frustrations motivated this book the most?

James G. Crossley: Yes, while I don’t think I’m as bad/good as I used to be in letting frustrations dictate writing (I am even curious about some things), I still find much of the self-congratulatory tone among too much New Testament scholarship irritating. For instance, despite all the work done in the past ten years or so showing how problematic the discussions of ‘Jewishness’ are, mainstream historical Jesus (and New Testament scholars) continue to profess, without awareness of such critique, their love for a Judaism they construct … before making Jesus better, of course. I’ve also long been frustrated at the dominant scholarly idea of a historical Jesus as an autonomous figure who changed everything without any scholarly awareness of just how ideologically convenient this is.

What else? I was also frustrated by the idea that when a dominant ideological or cultural trend is evident in scholarship people think that it can’t possibly be present in their work if they personally really, really don’t believe in a given ideological position (‘My work can’t be anti- or pro-whatever because I’m personally a nice guy’). It should be obvious that human beings replicate and transmit all sorts of ideological and political ideas whether they know it or not, or like it or not. But unfortunately it isn’t. It is significant that historical Jesus scholars always talk about seeing the face at the bottom of the well rather than the background scenery. And if I read the tokenistic phrase ‘we all have presuppositions’ one more time …

I was frustrated by the influence of British-based theologians-cum-part-time-Jesus-scholars (e.g. John Milbank) and the whole Red Tory movement that are behind the scenes of the present government here in the UK. For a group of people who have claimed—and still claim—to be anti-liberal, anti-neoliberal, anti-neoconservative to be supporting (or, more laughably, ‘influencing’) the very system  they claim to be challenging just shows how easily bullshit and ideology can mix.

I could go on …

CM: What part of the book do you like most? What are you most proud of? Are there any parts, in hindsight, you wished you had written differently?

JGC: I don’t know if I’m ever proud of anything as such. Overall, I hope this book can be part of the bigger effort to put social history of biblical scholarship more firmly on the mainstream agenda. Maybe I’m happiest with the chapter/section on intentions. The overall point is obvious but I think the extreme example of a scholar who is anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian and has an unconventional interest in Nazi Germany, ends up contributing significantly to a dominant scholarly trend that is anti-Palestinian and Zionist will hopefully make the point clear (I’m simplifying the positions but you get the idea).

I enjoyed (or whatever the right word is) writing the chapter on blogging because it highlights explicitly some of the deadly ramifications of neoliberalism (the Haiti disaster) and the absurdities of remarkable technological developments which have allowed us to see the top ten list of favourite scholar-pinups and how many scholars don’t like fisting or being called ‘very conservative.’ No matter how many times I read NT Wrong (the blogger responsible for illuminating such absurdities), I still think the character is the funniest and best thing to happen in biblical studies for years.

I always feel I could do things differently with a bit of distance but that’ll always be the case whatever I write. Who doesn’t, I suppose. More specifically, I wondered if it would have been worth including more exegetical work in order to show how neoliberal and related trends work themselves out in the precise detail biblical scholars are rightly famed for. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure I got the bigger picture rather than the point getting lost in exegetical detail. I still don’t know what the right thing to do would’ve been but, as I’ve probably mentioned before, it isn’t the sort of thing I lose too much sleep over. Besides, I know people who are working on more detailed aspects of the outworking of neoliberalism (or the like) in exegesis (e.g. Robert Myles and Michael Sandford) and the arguments will be much stronger thanks to such people who are dedicating their time to this.

CM: What parts of the book do you expect will be received well? Which parts will be most controversial?

JGC: It is always difficult to predict what will be received well or otherwise. A lot depends on whether it has an impact on mainstream historical critical scholarship or not and if recent history is anything to go by then this sort of work may well be ignored in such circles. I wouldn’t be surprised if chapters which we might summarize as ‘we all have presuppositions’ will continue to open historical critical books … before continuing as usual. However, I think things are changing and ideological readings of scholarship are now making their way into mainstream journals (even JBL) and at conferences. That said if there is greater discussion in historical critical circles then I can’t imagine such scholars being overly happy at their work being read in such a way.

I think the aforementioned chapter on Zionism, anti-Zionism and Holocaust deniers might not go down too well and might be controversial among the people analysed but it has been well-received when I’ve delivered it as a paper so who knows?

Arguments about the patronizing construct of ‘Jewishness’ in the hands of New Testament scholarship should have been controversial well before now. Maybe the message might finally hit home. Maybe …

CM: You suggest in the book—citing Noam Chomsky—that radical scholars can, in a sense, “neutralize” themselves by finding comfortable places in academia, places from which they will not be a threat to anyone. I imagine both you and I think of our scholarship as radical, but what are the chances that your critique could be turned back on us? Are we a danger to anyone, really, other than our students? Another way to put this might be to ask: is academia structured in such a way as to make all radical scholarship toothless?

JGC: Yes, it would be very easy to turn the criticism back and not without reason. Worse still, we know what happens to certain scholars when they touch a nerve (I’m thinking of, for instance, Nadia Abu el-Haj and Keith Whitelam, among others) and it isn’t pleasant. Who would really want that? However, there are things we can do and discussing some of these issues in the classroom is still possible. Providing an education that resists a model that it must somehow have economic value is still possible (and this stretches well beyond our kind of scholarship). We can also try to have greater influence beyond universities and colleges—it is clear various activist groups are reading radical scholarship.

I’m not sure if academia is precisely structured to render radical scholarship toothless but university and college connections with state, private and even church power will inevitably mean that there are implicit restrictions. Some of the restrictions require buy-in from academics—how many stories do we hear about academics who won’t write on certain topics or openly support certain ideas because of fear that they won’t get promotion/tenure or be liked by the good and the great? Academics will often do their best to kiss arse but they have more control over the educational modes of production than they realize and there are radical scholars with jobs, who get promoted and so on if that’s your thing. There are, therefore, some things we (and I include students in the ‘we’—universities typically fear them more than the staff) can do and every now and then small victories are gained, which is better than nothing. This is all limited, certainly, and victories can be absorbed by power structures easily enough, but it’s not without potential. But I am also very wary. I’ve seen enough people in university management with a deeply cynical attitude towards neoliberal ‘reforms’ of the universities who will say how we still have our educational ideals yet go ahead and implement these ‘reforms’ nonetheless.

(Look for the second part of this interview tomorrow.)

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4 Responses to Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: An Interview with James G. Crossley (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Michael Helfield says:

    So, what would Prof. Crossley have scholars discuss in the introductions to their books? Do we stop doing history with the historical-critical method? I understand his point, but I am just eager to get to what his solution would be, or if there is one, for scholars wanting to be not only methodologically sound, but also self-reflective on their own work.

    • James says:

      There are different ways of looking at this. One, which I do here, is to view scholarship as part of contemporary history of ideas and analyse them as such, using historical critical methods but for a different period, if you will.

      Another, which I think is, to some extent, a different issue, would be to look at potential failings of scholarship, including certain uses of the historical critical method, and looks at different ways of understanding history which do not relentlessly focus on identity politics but which looks at the other ways human beings react to material developments etc. That might be in a later part of thy interview, I think.

  2. Ed Jones says:

    Crucial new understandings of the “Jesus Puzzle” made possible by present historical and scientific methods and knowledge.
    Schubert Ogden: “We now not only know that none of the writings of the OT is prophetic witness to Christ, we also know that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus.” This is a judgment based on historical evidence determined by an insider of the Guild of NT Studies. Eric Zuesse : “The religion of the NT actually has nothing to do with the person of the historical Jesus.” This is a scientific judgment based on scientific evidence determined by an outsider. Hence we now have convincing evidence, both from the methodologies of history and science, that the writings of the NT, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. Our most certain historical evidence can only come from within the Guild of NT Studies, even as our best scientific evidence would reasonably come from outside. No evidence, historical or scientific, is presented to question the basic tenet of the Guild that we have NT sources containing apostolic witness to Jesus. Only from within the Guild of NT Studies might a scholar have acquired sufficient competence in the Guild’s areas of special knowledge, which necessarily applies, if one is to become enabled to fully access the historical evidence necessary to identify this NT source of apostolic witness to Jesus. As Eric Zuesse’s probe demonstrates, full historical details of origins of Jesus traditions during the years 30-65, can only be accessed by historical scholars from within the Guild. E.g., Eric’s probe fails to recognize that there were two distinctly different movements (denominations) during this earliest period of Jesus traditions, each with its own understanding of the significance of Jesus, marked by “an extraordinarily intimate, more precisely adversarial, relationship” (H. D. Betz). Both were pre Christian, pre Gospel, partly pre Pauline. The first movement was the Jerusalem Jesus Movement (falsely and anachronistic named Jewish Christianity) which began with the key disciples returning to Jerusalem, having fled to their native Galilee, purposing to again take up the teachings of Jesus. It was from this Jesus movement, later led by James Jesus’ brother, that we have our sole source of apostolic witness to Jesus, identified by Betz to be the Sermon on the Mount. Paul was never a member of the Jesus movement actually he was their arch enemy as propagator of the second movement.
    The second movement soon followed the Jesus movement, a pre Pauline Hellenist movement which introduced the notion that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah whose significance was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection, which abrogated the Torah. This in effect was treason for Temple authorities. Paul is introduced as a participant in an apparent put down by Temple authorities of some kind of anti Torah demonstration, holding the garment of those casting the stones in the Acts story of the stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group. Next we find Paul as persecutor of this group, having his “vision” on the road to Damascus to where the Hellenist group fled. This resulted in Paul’s conversion to this group, from which he received his Christ myth gospel. In taking his gospel to the Gentile world, first to Antioch meeting with ready success, this had the effect of severing knowledge of Jesus from his teaching and his Jewish roots. As winners in the struggle for dominance, becoming Gentile Christianity, they soon could label the Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. The Gospels were written by followers of Paul’s Christ Myth gospel, not followers of the Jesus Movement. All of these developments are sufficiently documented in the NT.

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