Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Peril of Modernizing Jesus 3: The California Jesus strikes back!

One should note the recent books by William Arnal, The Symbolic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity (London: Equinox, 2005); and John Kloppenborg and John Marshall, eds., Apocalypticism, Anti-Semitism, and the Historical Jesus: Subtexts in Criticism (JSNTSup 275; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004) that attempt to exonerate proponents of the Jesus Seminar/Q-Thomas/Cynic-Jesus mould from claims that their studies are liberal agenda driven and anti-Jewish.

To give their due: I think these books demonstrate two things.

First, Crossan, Funk, Mack et. al. are not anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. For instance in the case of Crossan his book Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1996) is very much post-Holocaust sensitive. Furthermore, his collaborative project with Jonathan Reed (Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001]) pays far more attention to Jesus’ Jewish environment.

Second, they teach us: ‘Let he who is without theological agenda write the first book review’. We should all be very careful before speculating as to the motives and agendas of other authors, lest our own motives be interrogated!

However, despite these impassioned apologies for the Jesus Seminer/Q-Thomas/Cynic-Jesus guild, I think two criticism stick:

(1) These authors do consciously de-Judaize Jesus. By ‘de-Judaizing’ I do not mean ‘anti-Jewish’ or completely ‘un-Jewish’. De-alcoholized wine still retains a small measure of alcohol, but not enough to impact the drinker. Thus by ‘de-Judaizing’ I mean the act of moving Jesus’ Jewishness to the periphery or else negating its effect by blanketing it with a Hellenistic overlay.

Consider this quote: Mack (Myth of Innocence, 73) writes: ‘The Cynic analogy repositions the historical Jesus away from a specifically Jewish sectarian milieu and toward the Hellenistic ethos known to have prevailed in Galilee.’ It doesn’t get much plainer than that!

Also, (2) the non-eschatological Jesus is a strangely convenient icon for the liberal-left in the US. Alas, nothing is new, let us heed the words of Henry Cadbury (The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, 26): ‘Thus the apocalyptic element in the gospels has been frequently laid almost exclusively to the account of the evangelists, not because there is any real evidence that Jesus also did not share it, but mainly because it is uncongenial to the present day critic.’

In Apocalypticism the essays by Kloppenborg and Arnal endeavor to show that the shoe is on the other foot and that theological agendas are discernible amongst those who advocate an eschatological and Jewish approach to Jesus. Kloppenborg states that apocalypticism is invoked to provide the ‘conceptual work’ for constructions of the historical Jesus grounded on ‘finality, ultimacy, uniqueness and Christology’ (pp. 20-21). Arnal posits a correspondence between the Jewish Jesus and a subtextual defense of traditional Christianity (pp. 46-47). But that door swings both ways since it may be distaste for the uniqueness or finality of Jesus that leads to a rejection of eschatology and a dislike for traditional Christianity that requires a rejection of Judaism as a framework for Jesus studies. Additionally, there is a wide cross-section of scholars who locate Jesus in a Jewish and eschatological matrix including Jewish scholars (Vermes, Fredriksen), liberal protestants (Sanders), evangelicals (Wright, Evans, McKnight, Twelftree) and Germans (Hengel, Holmén). Yet the Jesus Seminar/Q-Thomas/Cynic-Jesus guild appears to radiate (as far as I can see) from a certain strand of North American liberal scholarship. Until a broader constituency of adherents to the Jesus Seminar/Q-Thomas/Cynic-Jesus view is found, such scholars shall have to suffer the perceived suspicion that their approach is a Trojan horse carrying liberal social, political and cultural agendas. They have made their exegetical bed and now they shall have to sleep in it!


J. B. Hood said...

"You shall know them by their fruit..."

When American secular Christianity (I use this in place of 'liberal,' to draw attention to the lack of the miraculous and to avoid too much political confusion) in the academies and the churches finds their Jesus so appealing that they accept him with no strings attached, it's hard to reach conclusions other than those you've reached here...

J. B. Hood said...


I'd like to throw a blog suggestion out--how 'bout a series on "The Promise of Modernizing Jesus"? Insights, Imperatives, and the like?

Michael F. Bird said...


I'm working on an article called: "The Peril of Modernizing Jesus and the Crisis of not Contemporizing the Christ".

J. B. Hood said...



phillipa said...

I'm working on an article called: "The Peril of Modernizing Jesus and the Crisis of not Contemporizing the Christ".
California Dui