Monday, January 04, 2010


I begin as usual with my litany: Jesus Sarah Vowell blog Francine Prose Rachel Donadio Laura Miller. I'm sure this makes no sense to anyone, but one day it will. I hope.

So I'm reading this book about American imperialism, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006), by Chalmers Johnson, and I'm again struck by how anything said about imperialism applies so well to what New Testament scholars do in historical Jesus studies. In Chapter 2, Johnson discusses Roman and British imperialism. I offer several quotes below and explain their relevance to what scholars do to Judaism in NT scholarship.

1. Johnson quotes Evelyn Baring (later, Lord Cromer) who was the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907: "We need not always enquire too closely what these people ... think is in their own interests ... [what matters is what] we conscientiously think is best for the subject race" (74).

You will not find NT scholars inquiring too closely what ancient Jews thought their cuture was about. Not even Josephus. Instead, scholars have decided they know best what was the identity of Judaism. They have decided that it was about Temple, rituals, purity, and that it was a system of oppression (à la John Crossan and Marcus Borg) that needed liberation which Jesus, Christianity, and Greek civilization would supply. The benefit of imperialism, Johnson points out, is "pure ideology ... impervious to challenge by empirical data ..." (82).

2. Johnson says, "All empires, it seems, require myths of divine right, racial preeminence, manifest destiny, or a 'civilizing mission' to cover their often barbarous behavior in other people's countries" (76).

Of course, this began with the Christian belief (expressed by almost all the Church Fathers) that Christianity was divinely ordained to replace Judaism as the true Israel (verus Israel) and that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans was a sign of this. Roman imperialism merges into the Christian variety. It continues with all the scholars who describe Judaism as tribal and Christianity as universal. The barbarous behavior here is the way the historical evidence is trashed or rewritten to support this myth — in particular, erasing the universalism in ancient Judaism (e.g., in the way it welcomed pagans/gentiles).

3. Johnson quotes R.B. Cunninghame Graham, a close friend of Joseph Conrad and fellow critic of British imperialism, who wrote in 1897 (two years before Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness): "... God was aiming all the time at something different and better. He let Greeks and Romans appear out of the darkness of barbarity to prepare the way for the race that from the start was chosen to rule over mankind — namely, the British race" (78).

We know who rules now. It is western scholars who feel utterly privileged to reinterpret ancient cultures like Judaism to suit their own view of the world. If there was any truth or goodness in Judaism, it was as if seen through a glass darkly, which is the way René Girard puts it. Scholars do not even like to grant that ancient Jews (not even the Gospel writers) had any sense or knowledge of history. They were mired in myths. Today, as we all know, scholars grasp history and are free of myth-making. Hah!

4. Johnson quotes Tapan Raychaudhari, an Indian and emeritus fellow of St. Anthony's College, Oxford, speaking of British rule in India: "All Indians, whatever their status, shared the experience of being treated as racial inferiors ... The life stories of Indian celebrities are full of episodes of racial insults" (80).

Probably the most famous and well-regarded ancient Jew for Chrsitians is Hillel. Ernest Renan said that if Jesus learned anything from anyone, it would have been Hillel. But Hillel always has to come out looking inferior to Jesus.

Two Christians of deep faith, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, have written well of Judaism in their 2009 book Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. They get so much about Judaism right. But even they cannot help but occasionally disparage ancient rabbis and Hillel. Thus, they describe the rabbis only as close to understanding the meaning of Passover (105) and they offer a series of contrasts between Hillel and Jesus in which Hillel always looks worse (172). They don't even offer any quotations from the two. Instead, they just imagine how Jesus and Hillel would respond in certain modern situations and put Hillel one or more pegs below Jesus. It is quite insulting, but they don't see that.

If you want an example from a more well-known scholar, consider Elaine Pagels in The Origin of Satan. She says Hillel would have regarded Jewish identity as defined by its rituals (85). Nonsense. She mentions how Hillel responded to a student who requested a summary of Torah, for which Hillel offered a version of the golden rule (84), but she does not tell her readers that the student was a gentile (or pagan). Further on, she regards ancient Judaism as ethnic or tribal and the new Jesus movement as universal (86).

I could offer many more quotes from Johnson about imperialism. If there is a strong correlation between being on the receiving end of imperialism and immiseration, as he says (84), there is also a correlation between imperialism and having an impoverished consciousness of "native" cultures. NT scholars have realized that you do not need violence to keep a people down. All you really need is to gain control of their history.

Leon Zitzer

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