The Alleged Subversiveness of Jesus

Over a year ago Robert Myles (NT scholar) descended on Canterbury, taking the city by storm. His “winter” (crazy Antipodeans) break consisted of a nice stay in England. His time kicking around the city allowed for some interesting conversations, a few of which were recorded by moi.

Robert Myles finger

Robert was very excited about drinking some sweet British nectar.

Coinciding with last summer, Robert had an article published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus titled “The Fetish for a Subversive Jesus”, which critically engaged contemporary scholarship and questioned the various flavours of “subversive” Jesuses, figurations beloved by both sides of the ideological spectrum, from Tom Wright to John Crossan.

Thankfully, a wonderful discussion was caught on camera between Pauline scholar/philosopher/all-around-dude Ward Blanton and Robert.

Check it out here!

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British New Testament Society: Some Subjective Thoughts and Highlights

Recently I was able to attend the British New Testament Society’s annual conference for this first time, which took place in Maynooth, Ireland from August 31st through September 2nd. Despite living in the UK and working on my doctorate in, primarily, Pauline scholarship for three years I’ve somehow neglected to attend the BNTS. Perhaps this is to my detriment, as one is expected to network, and attending an annual conference dedicated to my main disciplinary area is, undoubtedly, a great place to meet like-minded people. The prospect of meeting some Pauline scholars I’ve yet to chat with in person, as well as finally having a reason to travel to Ireland, was tempting enough for me to sign-up and come along. Likewise, it is always nice to see friends like James Crossley, Michelle Fletcher, John Lyons; likewise, it is great meeting new people like Paul Middelton, Simon Woodman, and many others. (In hindsight, this looks a little too much like name-dropping; but, really, so few care about NT studies that such a charge should appear foolish!)

maynooth

Maynooth University

I have to note, however, that my research occupies the margins of the discipline. Most of the conferences I have attended since moving to the UK have been variously philosophical, critical theoretical, or theologically focused events. Still, despite my inter-disciplinary interests, I was able to find much going on at the BNTC that caught my eye.

I attended the Pauline section which was, as far as I could tell, occupied by some usual historical-critical scholarship, some presentations dedicated to cataloguing, and overall expected papers (comparing Paul and Phil, for instance…). I, however, broke from attending the Pauline session (though one is encouraged not to skip around) to listen to a tantalising paper delivered by James Crossley. While I was familiar with James’s recent political work, this paper (presented in the Jesus session) reminded me the importance of tracing the use of the Bible in political discourse in various contexts (I’ve done so, recently, with Trump’s electoral campaign). James, for instance, spoke to the various readings of biblical texts by mainstream political figures, namely Thatcher, Benn, and Corbyn. He also answered some questions about the possible ways the Bible’s use could develop in the current and upcoming generations of political activists. After all, one has to wonder about the place of the Bible in political discourse within a nation that is, now, composed of a majority of non-religious subjects.

An added bonus to the conference was finally being able to meet some of scholars I had not been able to connect with personally yet. I’ve long been a fan of David Horrell, AKM Adams, John Barclay and several others. It was a real treat to meet them in person and talk a bit.

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David Horrell

The above, however, is personal and largely inconsequential. Most important, in my mind, was the plenary session Horrell delivered on the evening of the second day of the conference. Merely writing the title is perhaps provocative enough: “Paul, Inclusion, and Whiteness: Particularising Interpretation”. It has to be acknowledged that discussing ‘whiteness’ in connection with methodology in NT studies isn’t usual within the discipline, a discipline after all where there is much gesturing to postcolonial, feminist, or ‘postmodern’ (I hate this moniker, but find it difficult to avoid, unfortunately) interpretation but very little (comparatively) done in these areas, such that they remain on the extreme fringes of the discipline.

In the next few days I will be writing up some more posts that present David Horrell’s plenary session in more detail, while also contextualising it within the discipline.

I want to spend time doing so because not only do I think the presentation was important, but also because I don’t want the emphasis of such a presentation to lose momentum. I fear that, if the momentum is lost that most will simply forget that there is needed serious self-criticism within the discipline, that there is very little done which acknowledges significant ideological issues.

I recall reading a back-and-forth in the blogosphere by Larry Hurtado (a senior scholar) and Robert Myles (an early career scholar). It became apparent to me in reading the exchange that while senior scholars will readily acknowledge their situatedness, that they occupy a perspective, that they are ideologically motivated subjects, not often is this taken as seriously as it should. With Horrell’s plenary session, we can see an acknowledgement of not simply the ‘checklist’ of subjective realities a scholar occupies and must note before doing some good ol’ objective historical work, but the problematics of the discipline as a whole. It is because of the seriousness of the critique, and the venue that it occurred in, that I find it important to ruminate further.

 

Dale Martin on Ancient, Biblical, and Modern Families

Dale Martin is fairly well-known in New Testament studies. He is, perhaps, best known for his work on social history and it’s impact on understanding the NT (See, for instance, his highly influential book The Corinthian Body), as well as important scholarship on sexuality and the ancient world.

dalemartin

Dale B. Martin

Earlier this year he stopped by the University of Kent and presented a lecture (Ancient, Biblical, and Modern Families) open to the public, introduced by UKC’s own Ward Blanton (whose doctoral project was supervised by Dale). The link below leads to a video of Dale’s lecture, so feel free to take a gander.

Please forgive the video’s non-HD quality.

Ancient, Biblical and Modern Families lecture

 

The Masquerade

I’ve been increasingly annoyed with theological readings masquerading as objective, non-ideological products of biblical studies.

This is most evident in work on the Historical Jesus or St. Paul. Because a scholar has already committed to a very specific representation of Jesus or Paul, they cannot even fathom the possibility that there can be counter-evidence or different approaches to a specific text. Contrary to what many believe, reading Jesus as an agent of resistance is not as absurd as thinking Jesus was merely a figment of Roman Imperial propaganda. But, attempts to think of Jesus as modeling a specific ethic of political apathy, for instance, is always bound up within a fundamentalist reading of history, one that cannot be qualified, and if qualified the additions or excisions are always already agreeable to one’s own theological agenda.

Sad Jesus

Sad Jesus is Sad.

It’s just a rather usual example of confirmation bias. Qualifying data is thrown out if it at all threatens what the scholars believes. So, in the instance mentioned above, any scholarship that could fall within Empire Studies (as well as any postcolonial readings) would be regarded as, in some way, illegitimate, or simply ignored. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated it may be, it has already been determined to be illegitimate in the eyes of the creator of theologised readings of Jesus or Paul.

What I found most liberating early in my work was recognising my own bias, my tendency to fall into the Great Man myth with Jesus and Paul, to theologise their persons such that I wasn’t able to approach the text except through my very specific lens, one that molded Paul into a sort of figuration that followed my own political/ethical/theological proclivities. It wasn’t that I was naive to the problem, but I did my best to fight against counter-evidence by staking my claim instead on evidence that supported the Paul that mirrored my own reflection.

This isn’t to say that I think aren’t bound to ideology, that I think we can somehow loosen the shackles and escape into a purely objective reading of the text. In fact, it is often those who think so, or who edge toward thinking so, that, blind to ideological sway, theologise when they say they are merely doing ‘biblical studies.’

Instead, what I suggest is that we all are, already, stuck in this mode, and that it is only through acknowledging it that we can even begin to stop producing naive stories.

Expertise and Denial: Philosophical Edition

Soon after I wrote my last post (too long ago, unfortunately) I attended a wonderful workshop on political theology. The University of Kent’s School of Law, in conjunction with Birkbeck and some other university’s, started a wider project focused on juridification and political theology.

Gil Anidjar

Gil Anidjar

The workshop was wonderful, and including participation from many researchers from Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, Birkbeck, and other places. Political philosophers, critical legal theorists, theologians, and biblical scholars met and dialogued over fascinating papers. I remember clearly, still, Gil Anidjar walking us through Hobbes, images of war, and the fascinating frontispiece found on early versions of Leviathan.

But, as great as this event was, I recall most vividly a rather concentrated dialogue that many in the room engaged in. What concerned me about this intense discussion was it was filled with misconceptions about, foremost, St. Paul! And, the misconceptions were stated in a confidently intransigent manner.

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Thomas Hobbes’s masterpiece Leviathan’s frontispiece.

In a room full of theologians, philosophers, legal theorists, and biblical scholars no one engaged the simplification, which dealt with Paul’s attitude to the law, explicitly. And, this is a big problem.

The philosophical reception of Paul has been encouraging for me, as a New Testament scholar. There have been challenges and an increasing number of figurations that take into account the wisdom found in diverse disciplines because of this movement of the academic wind. But, likewise, it has allowed for some rather naive views to flourish, often unchecked.

My mild reaction, here, against the obvious lack of expertise found in this discussion, also, isn’t merely about being dead-set against creative philosophical Pauline figurations. What I found dangerous was the intransigent, simplistic view of Paul being antinomian (with no qualification) that a researcher excitedly claimed. There was no interest in how a nuanced view of law may change Paul’s significance to discussions on juridification or political theology.

Here’s to hoping, as well, that I’m a bit more bold about speaking out.

It’s a bit difficult, after all, to summon the courage to do so in a room full of well-known scholars.

Expertise and Denial: NT Studies Edition

In the late 2000s-early 2010s it was particularly in vogue to respond to the work of various philosophers who had expressed interest in St. Paul, perhaps the most monstrous figure Christianity had on offer.

Paul and the Philosophers

While Jesus is often above significant reproach (note Nietzsche’s divergent feelings toward these figures…), Paul is often a figure of backwardness, misogyny, a sort of lawful lawlessness, a static-rule filled Christianity that just can’t get in line with the radical Jesus who fulfills the dreams of both conservative and liberal readers.

This interest helped to bring back shades to Paul that were often missing outside of the discipline. But, the figurations of Paul created have often be loathed by NT scholars. Why?

Well, a rather obvious answer is that the plaything of the discipline was being shared outward with disciplines that seem to lack the critical tools to deal with the apostle. There is a shared difficulty here: while the charge could be true, the ability for many biblical scholars to understand the nuances of what is actually going on in these figurations of Paul is stunted.

I don’t recall many Pauline scholars orienting themselves around the works of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Taubes in order to better understand how Agamben is utilising Paul, and whether it coincides with what could be said about Paul from popular disciplinary readings.

But, what I find more annoying is the half-baked reading of theory that often happens in the discipline. I recently noted this happening in regard to the concept of ‘gift’ and the fixation on Derrida. Which, really, is fine to do. Derrida is, after all, well-known for his work on the gift. But, every time I have found Derrida in contemporary NT studies, he is butchered and lays on the page as a sort of scapegoat, sacrificed for just not getting what the gift really is (he should have just paid more attention to Mauss, obviously…).

Except, every time he comes up in this regard, he is understood in a facile manner. And, while it may not ruin the argument being made by the writer, it is certainly egregious because Derrida is asking questions that pierce to the heart of the issue!

It was while ranting about this on social media that Jonathan Bernier noted the importance of treating scholarship like a dialogue with not just a thinker, but the community of scholars who are working on that thinker and within a separate discipline. This is surely something we need to keep in mind, especially when attempting to use work that is outside of our usual disciplinary marker.

Let us read more, listen more, and respond with caution.

Teresa Morgan’s Roman Faith and Christian Faith

If you are interested in the diverse ways pistes and fides are used in early Roman and Christian sources, particularly, then take a look at my most recent book review which has been published through the journal Religion.

Image result for teresa morgan roman faith and christian faith

It’s a great resource, if a bit pricey.

Also, I had a bit of hell trying to get this thing written. Last December I took a trip back home to the US and had this book packed away in my check-in luggage. The bag was immediately lost and I was in a bit of a panic for the 5 weeks I was away. Especially because I did not want to shell out 150 bucks for a new copy. Thankfully, Heathrow airport was able to find it after I got back in. The tag had fallen off almost immediately, and so it was sitting around, safe and sound.

Book review.