Tim Murray writes: One of the pleasures of the last few weeks was the chance to review the collection of essays edited by Robert Myles, recently published under the title Class Struggle in the New Testament (Lexington/Fortress, 2019). In a publishing culture that increasingly values quantity of output over any discernible value or purpose, it refreshing to find the editor explicitly clear on the intentions of the volume: to “reinvigorate an exploration of class and class struggle within the study of the New Testament and its world,” arguing for the use of class, as a “significant analytical category in biblical studies” (page 2). The contributors attempt this from a broadly Marxian framework. Indeed, Myles strongly emphasises “class struggle” to signify the conflict inherent in economic and social reality, rather than allowing class to designate some kind of individual identity. Again, it is good to find him explicit about the real target of his monograph: neoliberalism and “capitalist realism in which liberal-democracy and capitalism are regarded as the only feasible political and economic systems” (8). He is also at pains to argue that such ideology is deeply embedded in biblical studies, both “constrained by it” and “generative of it” (9).
Such clarity is not as common as it should be and I’m grateful to Myles for putting his cards on the table from the opening paragraphs onward, especially as I too find myself disaffected by the neoliberal ideology he describes and feel deeply frustrated with ‘capitalist realism’. I resonate with his desire to ‘struggle’ against a system that perpetuates enormous injustice whilst insisting that there is no alternative.
But political and ideological sympathies are not enough – as Myles says, the aim is to demonstrate that class should serve as a significant analytical category in Biblical Studies and in my view, unfortunately, the overall contents of the volume fail to convince me. But before the critique, let me offer a bit more description to those less familiar with the field.
The essays vary in focus, although almost all of them spend more time on class analysis than exegesis of the New Testament. Chapters by Cadwallader, Zeichmann and Rollens focus primarily of thickening and nuancing our understanding of (various classes) in the world of the New Testament, focussing on peasants, soldiers and the ‘retainer class’ respectively. Those by Elliot, Myles, Worthington and Weaver are centred on New Testament texts or authors (the cleansing of the temple, the call of the fishermen-disciples, Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s language of gift). Other contributions by Walsh, Boer/Petterson and Galbraith pick up wider issues (understanding the literature of the gospels, slavery in early Christianity and the development of Archangels in second-temple Judaism). James Crossley offers a concluding chapter which serves as an epilogue, to which I will return. Despite such diversity, the whole volume shows the influence of three scholars in particular whose works are referenced again and again: the Marxist classicist G.E.M. de Ste Croix, Richard Horsely and James Crossley.
First, positively, in several of the chapters there is much to learn; I particularly valued the contribution of Zeichmann, whose discussion points out that it is erroneous to conceive of ‘Roman’ soldiers as actually Roman, that is, Latin speaking foreigners. The evidence Zeichmann produces demonstrates that this is not an accurate reconstruction, but the ‘Roman army’ was composed for the most part of men that were “not necessarily foreigners, let alone identifiably Roman” (56). He goes on to show how soldiers were primarily recruited from, and remained within, those in a marginal economic position. The chapter by Rollens was also a helpful corrective, reminding us that those of the ‘retainer class’, whilst usually seen as functioning the assert the dominance of the elite, could occupy a much more ambiguous role mediating power relations. Myles’ own chapter too shrewdly observes a number of unwarranted assumptions scholars have made that have controlled their reconstruction of the social location of Jesus’ fishermen-disciples.
The second positive is that this volume does serve to capture the state of class analysis in New Testament studies. Crossley notes in his concluding chapter, “the reception of this book should provide a good indication as to where the field is and the extent of what it is prepared to entertain in relation to class politics” (245).
Crossley might be right, but my suspicion is that any ‘indication’ of whether New Testament scholars are willing to entertain class analysis is likely to be hard to distinguish from their reception of the volume as a whole, because it is not simply class analysis that is present, but also exegesis, with its methodological and historical components. Unfortunately for the editor, it is here that the volume is at its weakest. At the risk of picking on one or two individual contributors, offering some examples seems necessary:
Neil Elliot’s chapter ‘Jesus, the Temple, and the Crowd’, examines the link between Jesus and ‘the crowd’ in the final week of his life, with particular attention to the temple incident. Elliot wants to argue that Jesus did not act alone in the temple, but the overturning of the tables was “the act of a crowd, as an act of riot” (39). A longer quotation captures his thrust:
Pilate did not crucify a politically innocuous Jesus in order to forestall the possibility that the crowds might, inaccurately and artificially, attach their nationalistic fervour to this figure. Rather, Pilate crucified Jesus because he was a leader among the troublesome crowds and an instigator of a significant public disturbance (38).
In order to argue his case Elliot recognises that he has to reject the narrative of the gospels, suggesting that “the way they diverge from this account is exactly what we should expect from apologetically motivated narratives.” Thus, Elliot claims that the gospel writers have systematically removed “any implication that Jesus and the crowds were of one mind” (38).
Thus, Mark’s claim in 15.7 that there had been an insurrection, along with Pilate’s custom of releasing a prisoner is probably “invented… out of thin air”; the change in the crowds view of Jesus, who acclaim him as messiah on his arrival into the city, yet call for Pilate to kill him only days later is, according to Elliot, “scarcely credible as history” (31). Matthew is particularly to blame for “inventing this fickle crowd” (29).
The problem is that as one reads the chapter it becomes clear that Elliot is arbitrarily selective of what parts of the gospels he wants to accept and which to be suspicious of. For example, he seems to want to take all the gospel references to ‘the crowds’ in the passion week as referring to the same group of people (so that he can claim their changeability is incredible), but is this really plausible, or might ‘the crowd’ have varied in how it was constituted? Similarly, Marks’ insurrection is invented for theological/apologetical reasons, but the title above Jesus head, King of the Jews, is a “solid historical datum” (39).
The fundamental problem is this: Elliot wants to argue that Jesus was the leader of violent mob action in a political (class) rebellion. However, none of our only sources of this event support his reading. The grid he uses to choose which gospel traditions to accept as authentic are, therefore, those that can be made to correlate with his thesis, whereas those which speak against it are dismissed as ‘apologetic’.
Other essays in the volume also dispense with the interpretation provided by the evangelists, from time to time, when they want to assert a reading which lacks evidence in the text. Myles addresses Peter’s claim that the disciples have “left everything” to follow Jesus (Mark 10.28). He reads Jesus’s response (which mentions persecutions) together with Mark 1.16 to say that the disciples did not ‘leave everything’ as a voluntary decision to follow Jesus “as an internal and individual decision of the heart” (131), but rather that they were “driven from their fields and households”; they have “’given up’ what little they do have as an alternative to the grim prospect of staying bridled within an equitable and exploitative political-economic system” (131).
As is probably becoming clear, many of the essays in this volume accept and rely on Richard Horsley’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus and take that as their starting point. Frustratingly, there is almost no engagement with the scholarship that critiques Horsley or raises serious critical questions: if Jesus was a peasant leader in a class struggle, why are the majority of his dealings in the gospels clearly not with the poor? Why are the issues that he teaches on so rarely focussed on the material needs of the poor? If this was his agenda, how does one explain why it is so little featured in all our early Christian literature? If the editor wants to convince me of this reconstruction of Jesus these are the meta-questions that must be answered, or at least acknowledged.
The lack of engagement with those who disagree is a repeated feature in the book. Moving on from the gospels, Taylor Weaver wants to read Paul as “disturbing social harmony by withdrawing or augmenting benefactive/gifting practices” (200). One example he gives is 1 Thessalonians 4.9-12, where Paul apparently is appealing to the church to withdraw from public affairs to undermine the patronage system that embeds class division. But Weaver cites only one scholar, whose study is 40 years old, showing no awareness of the vast scholarship on this text in the last couple of decades, most of which argues decisively against such a reading. Again, one is unlikely to be convinced when the main alternative interpretative options are not even mentioned.
All this leaves me somewhat frustrated. I am sympathetic to the political angle of the volume; I share many of the concerns of the editor; I am interested in Marxist analysis; I am open to being shown the value of class analysis in New Testament studies… but if I may be allowed to overstate the case a little, it seems (on the terms of this volume) that in order to do so I also have to accept one angle on the historical Jesus (one which I find unconvincing), I have to accept an arbitrarily suspicious historical-critical approach to the gospel texts and I have to take little interest in the scholarship that disagrees with the above two points (with some exceptions). Is it any surprise, then, that the accusation of ‘ideological bias’ made against the academy by Myles strikes one as pointing out the speck in a brother’s eye?
I imagine that the reception of this review, as with Myles’s collection of essays, will be largely controlled by these larger issues: how do we approach the New Testament texts? What is our reconstruction of Christian origins? What methodology is most appropriate both to history and to the New Testament? Is Richard Horsley right!? It does not seem to me that class analysishasto locate itself in only one quite restricted set of answers to these questions; unfortunately, that is the impression given by this volume.
As a postscript one may also reflect on an even more provocative issue this book raises. Myles and his fellow contributors clearly think that the New Testament has something to offer us as we address our own political and economic context—but what? Is it merely an ancient record capturing possible indicators of a temporally and geographically distant class struggle? Try as I might, I continue to struggle to see why we should care about class struggle (or much else) in the New Testament, if it does not have some kind of claim on us. If it is just a matter of historical interest, fine, but I think one could draw on better resources to address the problems raised by neoliberal capitalism. If, however, the New Testament is read as scripture, with some kind of authority invested in it, with some kind of claim to be meaningful for us today, then that is a different matter. To accept either of these presuppositions will lead to a different approach to the text and that is the final conundrum for this review: in this volume, Myles and his colleagues want us to consider that ‘class struggle in the NT’ has some meaning for us today—but they approach the texts with secular historical-critical presuppositions. Is this combination ever going to invigorate anyone into anything, for it begs the question of why we should care? To be fair to Myles, that issue is writ large over a huge among of New Testament scholarship and it is perhaps unfair to pick on this book. The issue, though, is surely unavoidable for the reader.
Dr Tim Murray completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Nottingham supervised by Professor Roland Deines. He is now a staff elder at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.
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