Baker Academic

Friday, September 12, 2014

Robert Myles’s Homeless Jesus

I (Chris) recently invited Robert Myles to do a guest post on his new study, The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, which continues in a line of scholarship that emphasizes ideological and socio-economic factors in NT scholarship.  Robert is also blogging over at The Bible & Class Struggle.  I thank Robert for contributing the following.  Please leave any questions in the comments section, as I'm sure Robert will be willing to respond.

The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew - Robert Myles

First of all I want to thank Chris and Anthony for inviting me to write this guest post on the topic of my new book on Jesus and homelessness. The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (2014), published by Sheffield Phoenix Press, is an exercise in the burgeoning field of Marxist exegesis of the New Testament. For readers unfamiliar with Marxist approaches to biblical criticism, 'Marxist exegesis' focuses on the critique of ideology in biblical interpretation and also how issues like class conflict are essential to explaining cultural and historical change. 

My book examines the juncture between Jesus and homelessness by emphasizing how Jesus' experience of homelessness fits into his wider social, political, and economic context of the first century. The gap it identifies is basically that Jesus' homelessness or itinerancy has never been adequately integrated into its wider social, political, and economic context, despite this being a major area of concern for New Testament scholars. Jesus' homelessness is rather presented as an arbitrary choice, or consequence of his God-ordained mission, which Jesus seems able to freely enact at will. The book re-reads a number of pivotal texts from the Gospel of Matthew to expose how Jesus' homelessness is more likely produced as a consequence of these wider hostile forces.

Given that the book is also a work of ideological critique, my other overarching concern is the contemporary context of neoliberal capitalism and how this context has shaped scholar's presuppositions over the past forty or so years. James Crossley has recently drawn attention to some of these issues in his book Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism (2012). Neoliberalism is typically associated with the policies of the Reagan and Thatcher governments, particularly their ideas about personal responsibility, undermining of social welfare, deregulation of markets, and so on. It now blindly operates as a kind of hegemonic mode of discourse or theory of everything, and is tacitly accepted as a default ideology by most people in contemporary Western societies, including mainstream biblical scholars. 

In my book I demonstrate how neoliberalism has operated at the level of the ideological unconscious to heighten Jesus' agency, individualism, and ability to 'choose' homelessness, while simultaneously downplaying some quite obvious connections between Jesus and his economic context. This means that Jesus' experience of homelessness often gets 'romanticized' in contemporary interpretations, even when this seems to go against the grain of the text. A good example of this is the Flight to Egypt in Matt. 2.13-23. Recent scholarly attention has focused almost exclusively on how this story reconfigures texts from the Hebrew Bible, for instance, by echoing the figure of Moses. While these aspects are certainly interesting, the lack of attention to how this text functions as a narrative of forced displacement is a curious oversight. Right from his infancy Jesus is depicted not only as the Jewish Messiah, but also as a marginal, persecuted, and displaced refugee.

Towards the end of the book I put forward the case that Jesus' homelessness is, in part, a reason for his eventual execution by the ruling elite. This is because what emerges through the gospel is Jesus the expendable, the refuse of first-century Palestinian society. As a deviant outsider and perceived criminal threat, he is targeted for extermination. To envisage Jesus as an excess to dominant arrangements of power works to both undermine and challenge some of the more idealized readings of Jesus and his homelessness that have materialized in the past few decades.

If you’d like to read more about the kind of things I argue in the book, you can check out a couple of posts on my blog about Jesus and work and Jesus and class.

1 comment:

  1. 1) Forced displacement would be one consideration; 2) living as a seeker or hermit in the wilderness would be another. More interesting to me though: the perhaps 3) widespread practice of living as a religious mendicant or beggar, would be another.

    Or even more interesting to me: 4) the destruction of the Jewish theocratic state c. 64 BC, dramatized by the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, meant the separation of Jewish religion, from the practical useful services of the central theocratic state. The loss of civil government function, meant consequent loss of institutional/material base and support.

    A state has many material functions: proving an army, granaries, medical care, schools. But when religion was no longer part of an actual material state, religion became homeless, and "spiritual." It also lost realistic ties to the material function of the kingdom, the theocratic state however.