Craig Martin: If I might press you on a point I found interesting and provocative, but about which I’m not sure you persuaded me: you suggest—citing Badiou—that one reason behind the proliferation of Jesuses (and mutual toleration among scholars with competing views) is that, in Badiou’s words, there is “inexhaustible potential for mercantile investments.” This got me thinking about how the American Academy of Religion utilizes a “big tent” approach, where everyone is welcome. But I’m not sure it’s motivated by potential for mercantile investments. That might be a nice side benefit, but it seems to me to be more directly motivated by liberal sentiments. How might you respond?
James G. Crossely: You’re obviously right about liberalism but I wouldn’t separate it in such a way. Liberal trends have, obviously, been taken up vigorously in neoliberalism and neoliberalism has provided a cultural context in which liberalism can continue to thrive. I’m not sure your point has to be in conflict with mine here. Perhaps the complementary nature of the two arguments would be clearer if we dropped or limited the term ‘motivated’ and that we think beyond what is intended by agents. A liberal motivation may well underpin how our conferences are thought about but the mercantile element is an ever present at SBL/AAR which in recent decades cannot be removed or simply deemed a side benefit (just think of the shopping mall of booksellers or the sponsorship of sessions). And is not this mix of liberalism and mercantile investment not epitomized by liberal scholar-entrepreneur, Robert Funk, a significant influence on the structure of the field in America?
To be more provocative: why has there been such an issue about the seeming increasing role of our more colorful comrades who enjoy, for instance, praying, singing hymns, arguing for creationism and the historicity of miracles, and whooping when a very conservative point is made? Rightly or wrongly, plenty of people complain about this situation but change has not been fast. Why? Liberal tolerance? There’s presumably some element of that. Money? Not that it is likely to be admitted, there are quite a lot of such folk and they bring a fair bit of money with them …
And if all this were translated in to historical Jesus scholarship, then we could identify the following bestselling authors and leading historical scholars who reflect or represent both a field tolerant of different ideological positions and significant markets for ideological positions: Borg, Crossan, Wright, Ehrman …
JGC: Jesus in an Age of Terror was explicitly concerned with various Orientialist tendencies in contemporary New Testament scholarship (e.g. ‘Jewishness’, ‘the Arab world’, constructions of the Middle East, Islam, etc.) and obviously played on the language of the ‘war on terror.’ There were aspects I wanted to develop there but I wasn’t sure were quite thematically related. It was also clear that the geo-political issues underpinning the ‘war on terror’ are intimately connected with the more economic issues we more readily associate with neoliberalism. I also was particularly keen to do more on the rhetoric of inclusiveness and tolerance. The seemingly paradoxical violent aspects of such liberal discourse were, and are, being played out in devastating fashion in the ‘war on terror.’ But I became increasingly interested in the ways in which this discourse played out in times when all was presented as calm and friendly. And, of course, the shift from the ‘war on terror’ to the economic crisis was happening all the while.
PT: This book does a lot of contextualizing NT scholarship within modern contexts, identifying those social dynamics that drive scholarship (with scholars recognizing or not that influence). Given what you write, can scholars still do historical-critical work? Can we, while recognizing the validity of your critique, still produce viable historical reconstructions or are all historical reconstructions doomed from the outset because of our own social locality? After all, many NT scholars are not interested (or trained) in studying neoliberalism in the 20th/21st century but rather are wanting to know something about the first and second century C.E.
JGC: I do still think historical critical work is indeed possible. For a start, the framing of the historical narrative does not make the historical reconstruction necessarily ‘wrong’, even if it does tell us much about the present. And I would still say that what I do with neoliberalism is part of a historical critical enterprise, if in a different way to how historical criticism is conventionally understood in biblical studies. It wouldn’t take a genius to make some accurate guesses about my social locality and yet I still think I’m right. I also think that the approach I use could be used as a challenge to the dominant ways of framing ‘Christian origins’ or ‘New Testament studies’ and greater awareness of understanding historical change and development will tell us so much more about humanity and how we got to where we are than relentless focus on individuals and exegesis alone. Christianity didn’t come about simply because of the Great Men Jesus and Paul any more than the Iraq war happened as it did because Saddam was a bad man and George Bush and Tony Blair came together as a modern day Churchill.
CM: Phil and I would like to thank James for his time and for so provocatively answering our many questions. Thanks James!