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

(This is the third and final part of a three part interview with James G. Crossley. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here.)

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 …

Philip Tite: This book builds on your previous scholarship, in particular your book Jesus in an Age of Terror. Can you comment on how this book differs from and/or extends what you’ve written before?

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!

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

  1. Ed Jones says:

    Our most certain sufficient historical evidence for knowledge of Jesus, who he was and what he said, rests “solely on the basis of the original and originating faith and witness of the apostles”. (Schubert M. Ogden). Over against this basic fact of the history of religions, one must take account of The FATEFUL HISTORICAL MISTAKE which took place in the earliest apostolic period 30 CE-65 CE at the very beginning of post-Easter Jesus traditions (taking account of the fact that this was before Christianity, before the word Christian was coined in Antioch in the 70’s) , to create the “Jesus Puzzle”. During this period there were two distinctly different movements standing in deepest adversarial relationship. The first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement, which began (within the first weeks of post-Easter) with the key disciples returning to Jerusalem purposing to again take up the teachings of Jesus. It was from the Jesus Movement with its collections of sayings that we have our primary NT source containing this apostolic witness. This was soon followed by a Hellenists Christ myth movement interpreting the Jesus event in sense perceived terms of notions of messiah and salvific effects of Jesus’ death. Paul, first as persecutor, then converting to this group, adopted its notions, which became the source of his Christ of faith myth (the arch enemy of the Jesus movement). In taking his kerygma to the Gentile world, meeting with ready success, it became Gentile Christianity in Antioch in 70 CE, as known above all from the writings of the NT, the scriptural source for orthodox Christianity. Under these Gentile conditions some 40 years later, the writings of the NT took place, MISTAKENLY to be named the official canon, the apostolic witness to Jesus. Only since the 80’s have certain of our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge come to a full objective historical understanding of this mistake, not only to say none of the writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus, but to understand the how and the why of this fateful mistake. This is a human mistake, one of those ultimate mistakes related to humanities pervasive difficulty in coming to terms with Ultimate Reality, the issue of God-man relationship, which bears testimony to unknowing mankind’s pervasive fallible mistake prone history – mankind’s fateful propensity to develop “eyes that cannot see”, forming “tinted glasses” which limit “vision” to sense perceived reality, A brief history of this fateful mistake: In this apostolic period, 30 CE – 65 CE, there were two movements each with its own interpretation of the significance of the Jesus event, marking them as standing in the strongest adversarial relationship. Chronologically the first, the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began with the key disciples, having fled to their native Galilee, overcome with grief and utter disillusionment, emboldened by Peter’s and others vision (some form of extrasensory cognition), at high risk, returning to Jerusalem, purposing to again take up the teaching of their revered Master. This was soon followed by a group of Hellenist Jews hearing talk of Jesus rising from the dead (as the visions began to be so interpreted), with their traditions of dying and rising gods, together with Jewish animal sacrificial rites, taking up the sense perceived (not revelation) notion that the significance of Jesus was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection which abrogated the Torah. This was in effect treason for temple authorities. The Acts story (reading from a historical perspective over against authorial intent) of the stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group, seems to reference a put-down by temple authorities of some kind of anti-Torah demonstration. Just here Paul is introduced, named as a participant holding the garments of those casting the stones. Next we have Paul telling of his “vision” on the road to Damascus, to where this Hellenist group fled, as persecutor, then converting to this group with their Christ myth beliefs. It was from this group that Paul received his Christ kerygma, to become Gentile Christianity as known above all from the writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament, to finally become the source for orthodox Christianity. In taking his Christ kerygma to the Gentile world meeting with ready success, becoming the winners in the struggle for dominance, Paul’s followers could declare the Jerusalem Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. Only because Matthew included the Q material, which contained the Sermon on the Mount derived from the Jesus Movement, do we have an alternative source which contains our sole original and originating faith and witness of the apostles, our most certain source of knowledge of the real Jesus. (See “Essays on the Sermon on the Mount” by Hans Dieter Betz).

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