Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Interview with James G. Crossley (Part Five)

Parts one, two, three, and four are here, here, here, and here.

AL: In your book Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism you argue (among other things) that Jesus scholarship has traditionally constructed an ideologically "credible" centre. We tend to place the Lee Strobel-types on one end of an extreme and the Robert Price-types on the other end, then we situate ourselves next to E.P. Sanders as best we can to make ourselves appear sane. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Isn't the major reason why Sanders appears credible because his arguments make a great deal of sense?

JGC: Yes, certainly. While we should not automatically dismiss radical alternatives, there are historical reasons why a lot of Sanders’ arguments are appealing. But this question of historical right or wrong is not necessarily the way a reading of scholarship (at least as I put forward) functions (though it can). It is again helpful to think of reading scholarship on two levels: 1) reading scholarship as part of cultural history, irrespective of its rights and wrongs in terms of reconstructing ancient history; 2) reading scholarship as part of social history to see where or how errors in historical reconstruction were made. Taking the sense of 1), looking at the “credible” centre, and the how the extremes are constructed, can be a helpful way of analysing “common sense” ideological trends to which people refer. I think the best recent example is how scholars keep referring to how Jewish Jesus was, despite no one denying he was Jewish, and how certain other (“bad”) scholars apparently downplay his “Jewishness”. There’s a lot to work with there. Extremes are also helpful too not only in that they can be used to make the centre look credible but that a certain degree of explicitness can tell us about some of the implicit assumptions of the centre. This sort of analysis works particularly well with some of the more “extreme” racialized discourses on Jewishness (or: Israelite-ness) and Jesus because they shows just how much emphasis on race and ethnicity there is in scholarship and that even the benign emphasis on “Jewishness” is playing a similar game in that it keeps the focus on ethnicity. 
But this can overlap into the second sense of reading scholarship as cultural history: looking for errors in historical reconstruction. Again, the obvious case for us today is Nazi scholarship. But I think looking at the construction of “Jewishness” in scholarship has also meant (for me at least) that there is a problem in the way it is being used in historical reconstruction. This is not to say that we can’t answer the question of Jesus in relation to Jewish groups of his day. However, this is another area where I would like to see different questions being posed other than ones of ethnicity so convenient to modern liberal thinking. And this is why I would like to see more thoroughgoing materialist readings of Jesus in relation to historical change. We are back to where we were: potentially competing visions of history and ideology.
My sixth and final Q&A with James will be posted tomorrow...

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