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!)

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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.

 

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Jesus and Homelessness, with Robert Myles

Recorded earlier this summer, but only recently edited, was a nice discussion on Jesus and homelessness with Matthean scholar, Robert J. Myles (Auckland).

In this video he answers questions and discusses some of the topics related with his ground breaking study on homelessness, Jesus, and the gospel of Matthew using political philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and others.

Robert J. Myles and the Homeless Jesus

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If interested in this book, here is a handy link.

Subversiveness and NT Materials

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

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James G. Crossley

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.

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An Excellent Book.

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.