Marketplace of, and for, Jesus Scholars

…and specific manifestations of capitalist individualism and neoliberal influences are not difficult to find…

The marketable images of Jesus are tied in with the imaging of scholars with whom they are associated, each perhaps an unintentional witness to the hunger of a free-market system yearning for more and more markets. Here is a recognisable summary of Jesus scholars by Mark Allen Powell which could also function as a summary of some of the main players in the scholarly marketplace:

John Meier wins the prize for length… Quantitatively, at least, he has exceeded all other Jesus scholars, ancient and modern… A Catholic priest educated and ordained in Rome, Meier is now professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame… When U.S. News and World Report sought a catchy caption to distinguish Meier from other Jesus scholars they settled on the phrase ‘dogged digger’…

Marcus Borg prefers not to talk about ‘the historical Jesus’ as a figure of the past who can be studied apart from religious or spiritual concerns… A prominent member of the Jesus Seminar… Although a confessing Christian, he admits that his own faith has been enhanced by studying Buddhism, the writings of Carlos Castenada, and the latter’s Indian seer, Don Juan…he had a number of mystical and ecstatic experiences that fundamentally changed his understanding of God, Jesus religion, and Christianity…

It [a degree of celebrity] agrees with him [Crossan]. As comfortable chatting on Larry King Live as he is engaging in academic debates at meetings of the Society for [sic] Biblical Literature… Unlike many scholars, he doesn’t mind ‘being a personality’…he eschews objectivity as unobtainable and spurious, and offers in its place a more realistic credential for scholarship: honesty.

Even those who have never read any of Wright’s volumes may know him as the scholar who spells god with a lowercase g…

And what better manifestation of image and an American form of the acceptable, or idealized face of (neo-) liberalism, than the North American Jesus Seminar? In its heyday, the Jesus Seminar was certainly media savvy, famous for voting, and its entrepreneurial side was illuminated by Robert Funk. Funk is notably remembered in what effectively amounts to a myth of the anti-bureaucratic, entrepreneurial, all-American, individual success story for a neoliberal age (see e.g. the obituary by Lane McGaughy).

Beyond the Jesus Seminar, Jesus books continue to sell (most notably Crossan’s massive and technical book, The Historical Jesus) and a number of Jesus books by major scholars have come from mainstream publishers whilst SPCK could probably stop publishing all books except those by Wright and still make a profit. The most widely famous Jesus scholar today is Bart Ehrman who is, of course, something of a media star and a New York Times bestselling author.

Such traits have been reflected in what became the geographical heart of the discipline since around 1970: America. Today, the major biblical studies conference, at least in terms of size, is, by a wide margin, the annual SBL meeting held in various locations in North America (though typically the USA) and drawing in scholars from across the planet on a scale seen nowhere else in contemporary biblical studies. And since the 1970s, as Hector Avalos has documented, there has been a significant growth in publisher interest. An aside: anyone who has seen the bookstalls at SBL might note that there is a some resemblance to a supermarket.

And one way for contemporary marketplaces to succeed is getting the image right…

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6 responses to “Marketplace of, and for, Jesus Scholars

  1. There are some very distinguished “conservative” scholars, such as Richard Bauckham (Cambridge) whose “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” is actually a seminal work in defending the authenticity and authority of the Gospels.

  2. Pingback: What percentage ‘Jewishness’ did Jesus possess and was it like the alcoholic content of wine? | Sheffield Biblical Studies

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