The National Catholic Review

Books on Jesus continue to sell. In particuclar, books on Jesus as a historical person have attracted a wide readership. Much of the credit for this goes to the New Testament scholar Robert Funk, who convened the Jesus Seminar as part of his admirable effort to make religion the fourth Ra matter of general knowledge and informed public discourse. Books and workshops on the historical Jesus by seminar members, most notably Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, quickly created large, appreciative audiences among lay readers. Only as the popular press started reporting the seminar’s polling results (e.g., few of Jesus’ sayings are authentic) did other New Testament scholars begin raising serious questions about the seminar’s intent, scholarly methods and the narrow band of biblical experts it represented. But no one to date has leveled a more penetrating critique of this mostly male-generated research than the Catholic feminist and Harvard New Testament theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation.

This is not another book on the historical Jesus. Instead it turns the mirror on historical-Jesus research itself. In five arresting chapters the author challenges all those who propose reconstructions of the historical Jesus to reflect on how they arrive at their knowledge, what they bring to the text by way of preconceptions and assumptions and who ultimately benefits from their particular image of the historical Jesus. Claiming that Jesus is currently suffering from overexposure to elite scholarly imagination, the author suggests that the real identity crisis relates less to Jesus than to the scientific self-understanding of Historical-Jesus scholarship and its reception in theology and in the media.

In particular, Schüssler Fiorenza attacks the notion that scholars can arrive at a truly scientific account of Jesus as he really’ is. The problem, she argues, is epistemologicalhow scholars make meaning out of data and then authorize their reconstructions as scientific and objectivewithout fully probing or problematizing the conceptual frameworks operative within both malestream biblical and feminist academic historical-Jesus discourses. Because current historical-Jesus studies evidence a crucial lack of critical understanding of how gender, race, class and imperialism work within discourses, they end up re-inscribing the cultural patterns of domination of the past.

A prime example of such failure to problematize one’s assumptions, according to Schüssler Fiorenza, is the acceptance of the 19th-century liberal imaging of Jesus as the exceptional individual, charismatic genius, and great hero. One consequence is an overemphasis on Jesus as male (rather than as human), which in turn supports the status quo of male dominance as simply common sense. Another is how easily this liberal image from the first quest for the historical Jesus fit the ideologies supporting colonial domination of the two-thirds world by the West. Even employing modern disciplines like the social sciences requires close scrutiny, she argues, since they were developed and continue to be used today to justify and maintain Western hegemony in the world.

Similarly anti-Judaism, because of its deep roots within both the New Testament and Christian theology, continues to plague modern biblical scholarship, including even feminist studies, so virulent are its many strains. Here at last one might think that historical-Jesus scholarship offers a promising antidote since it insists on the Jewishness of Jesus. But this benefit is soon offset by viewing Jesus as either outside his culture (a marginal Jew) or completely in tune with it (a devout Jewish man who accepted patriarchy). Schüssler Fiorenza’s own approach envisions Jesus within a Jewish social movement advocating change, as described in her classic study, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1984; 1994). This different imaging of Jesus, not as a lone figure but as part of a socioreligious Jewish movement, came easily to her, she confides, because I was fortunate to belong to a social movement for change today.

This means that readers enamored with the new images of Jesus as a historical person are not being challenged nearly enough to rethink their own prejudices and preconceptions. Historical-Jesus research, because it fails to engage feminist and other critiques, offers basically an updated version of the old science-versus-religion debate. Images of Jesus born of religious and theological imagination are presented as less trustworthy than reconstructions of Jesus by historical imagination, because the latter are based on unbiased and scientific historical data. But, as Schüssler Fiorenza warns, this is a false choice. Both familiar religious-theological images of Jesus and recent historical-Jesus reconstructions harbor some dangerous prejudices and misconceptions that require intervention. The question biblical interpreters constantly need to pose is: Who benefits from this particular image of Jesus? Jesus scholars are not exempt from dealing with the politics of interpretation.

While books on Jesus continue to proliferate, women biblical scholars remain in short supply. Although excellent biblical studies by women scholarslike this bookare available, men dominate the field as teachers and authors. Books on the historical Jesus are no exception. Nearly all the conversation has been generated and sustained by male scholars. For that reason alone, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s response in Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation should be welcome. The conversation needs to grow in depth and complexity. Much more needs to be said. Other voices need to be heard. For my part, I hope this is the book that stirs the pot.

Karen A. Barta is a professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Seattle University, where she teaches in the School of Theology and Ministry and in the department of theology and religious studies.

Comments

anonymous | 4/28/2009 - 3:42pm
excellent review of ESF's book, and easy to access hence it will make reading ESF's book on Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation worthwhile and easy to access.