Prompted by the excellent work of James Crossley, Robert Myles, and Ward Blanton, I have been challenged to think recently about the themes of subversiveness, neoliberalism, and the bourgeois subject in connection with (primarily) the figures of Paul and Jesus.
James G. Crossley (the scholar, not the body builder, though James does have a
rather impressive jawline) has written numerous works that look at biblical studies from a cultural lens, noting the importance of paying attention to trends and critical theoretical frameworks so as to elucidate some of the ways in which scholarship is produced along ideological lines. So, one of his most recent books, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, takes an in depth look at the nuances of neoliberalism and how certain aspects of its cultural power have pervaded and influenced Jesus scholarship.
Robert Myles has focused on numerous aspects of Jesus scholarship, often noting the importance of attending to a Marxist reading of texts, but most recently publishing an article on the “Fetish for a Subversive Jesus” (Journal for the Study of Historical Jesus 14, no. 1), wherein he notes the varied constructions of ‘subversive’ Jesuses. Both Wright and Crossan provide these ‘subversive‘ Jesuses, despite their obvious differences within the range of NT scholarship. Subversiveness becomes a trope that allows for diametrically opposed readings of Jesus’ actions, and likewise allows for theological constructs that point to both conservative and liberal worldviews (the hippie Jesus of Crossan vs. the ‘doubly subversive’ Wrightian Jesus that follows conservative dogma). Jesus either authorises radical toleration, or provides the conservative with the authority to create boundaries which appear “counter-cultural” in a society which, for instance, allows for sexual expressions that fall from the (old) norms (note, here, how Wright approaches issues of sexuality in his various writings, and specifically of how his NT translation deals with thorny translation issues…).
This isn’t any different if applied to Paul who, like Jesus, often becomes a sort of prototype of the Great Man in history (the capitalist conception of history which often ignores social conditions which cause change), or becomes a thoroughly theologised and idealised figure of perfection, or possibly both.
Paul, then, embodies the “subversive” trope that allows for either liberatory or conservative action, deliberation, and thought. Neither, as well, does there appear to be room for maturation or error in the varied, and dynamic, moments that lay behind Paul’s epistles and projects.
These are errors of thought that I do notice in myself. My Pauline figuration skirts the theologization and idealism, though I do believe I have avoided turning him into a ‘Great Man’ of history; discussing my own faults, however, may be for another day.
It is, however, through paying attention to bordered work in NT that I have come to notice these issues. This is, perhaps, one of the major problems with the attempt of “purity” within biblical studies. Blanton, Yvonne Sherwood, Crossley, and Myles are pushing the boundaries, many of which are ideological constructions of a relatively conservative academic discipline, and this is necessary for the discipline to be, going beyond its usual parameters, both interesting and dynamic.
Pay attention to the buzzwords, the fetishes, the blind spots. We need to move past them.