The British New Testament Conference: A Review (Part 1)

The British New Testament Conference brings together experts in New Testament studies from across the UK, and gives them an opportunity to talk about, and critique each other on, their current research. It's an incredibly stimulating place to be, if you're into that sort of thing, comprising people you've heard of (Tom Wright, Tony Thiselton) and people you haven't, people from Oxbridge and people from Spurgeon's or LST, leading New Testament professors (John Barclay, Larry Hurtado) and lowly PhD students like me. Dinner time discussions - over pan-fried duck, no less - might centre around something as intangible as the relationship between eschatology and the body, as exegetically fiddly as the identity of the "I" in Romans 7, or as practical as whether denominations should ever split over theological disputes. So, in the knowledge that these posts will probably have the fewest hits of any I've done, I thought I would summarise the sessions for those who are interested. Both of you.

James Crossley, the mischievously iconoclastic professor at the University of Sheffield, opened the conference with a critique of the way Jesus’ Judaism is used as a rhetorical tool in New Testament scholarship. With the title, “A Fundamentally Unreliable Adoration?”, Crossley argued that the Jewishness of Jesus, as presented in the works of numerous scholars, has become something of a rhetorical device to marginalise the conclusions of other scholars, rather than a necessary corrective to contemporary distortions. Nobody denies Jesus was Jewish these days, after all. So why are scholars insisting on the Jewishness of Jesus so loudly? The antisemitism of previous generations, Crossley argued, has been replaced by a very self-conscious philosemitism, leading to a flurry of works pressing the point that Jesus was a Jew - which is fine - but then using this as a stick with which to beat other interpretations of Jesus which are deemed insufficiently Jewish. In places this is almost comic, as when James Charlesworth says that “Jesus ... is perhaps the most Jewish Jew of the first century” (to which Crossley impishly asked: who is the sixth most Jewish Jew?), but in places it has serious consequences, as when the Jesus Seminar are accused of constructing a non-Jewish Jesus, and sometimes even linked with Nazism for doing so (Crossley cites Birger Pearson, Tom Wright, Mike Bird and Richard Rohrbaugh in this regard). But of course the Jesus Seminar are not Nazis, and they do not (in Crossley’s view) deJudaise Jesus at all, as the work of Dominic Crossan and others should make abundantly clear.
For Crossley, in fact, despite the repetition of the “Jesus was Jewish” mantra, what emerges in the work of many Christian scholars is more a Jesus who is “Jewish, but not that Jewish”. So Jesus is “opposed to some high-profile features of first century Judaism” (Wright), and “a marginal Jew” (Meier), who according to Christian scholars is robustly anti-Sabbath, pro-gender equality, anti-temple, and so on. Crossley cites Slavoj Zizek to the effect that this tactic is a commonplace of engaging with otherness: you have to include the other, but exclude the problematic bits of otherness. So, in Crossley’s critique, “Jesus the Jew had to be domesticated in our terms: Jesus the decaffeinated other. Jesus the fully other never had a chance. Jesus the Jewish-but-not-that-Jewish does.” The criterion of dissimilarity, which he believes is very overrated, has made scholars much more open than they should have been to stories in the Jesus tradition that are unlike first century Judaism. Perhaps, if the rhetoric surrounding the Jewishness of Jesus was taken down a notch or two, we might find a Jesus (like that of Vermes) who was much more like his Jewish contemporaries than Christian scholarship has been claiming.
The reaction to Crossley’s paper - a paper which, it is fair to say, contained a good number of disparaging and mocking comments about other scholars, including one or two in the room - was intriguing. When he had finished and asked for questions, none came for a substantial period of time, and the more senior luminaries in the room sat there in what felt like a rather awkward silence. The discussion I listened to over lunch the next day included words like “disrespectful”, “inappropriate”, “disappointing”, and even “John Barclay was very angry”, and the general impression was that the enfant terrible had rather got up people’s noses (which, I suspect, was part of the point). Some felt he had misrepresented the “Jesus the Jew” approach, which is frequently an appeal to locate Jesus credibly within second temple Judaism and therefore not to marginalise apocalyptic as an important part of that context, and others regarded him as engaging in gratuitous nose-tweaking without any serious biblical engagement (he only discussed one brief text in his lecture). James Crossley is clearly something of a character; my two previous experiences of him involved him debating (and, by his own admission, losing to) William Lane Craig on the resurrection, and calling Tom Wright and Mike Bird homophobic. The reaction to his main session, at least amongst the people I spoke to, indicated that his views were not necessarily representative of the group as a whole. To put it mildly.
The seminars at the BNTC are divided into different streams, and because of my research focus I was part of the track on Paul. On the first morning, I heard Andrew Boayke from Manchester give a paper on “the law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2, and argue that it referred to the Torah as summarised in the command to love God and love neighbour; Matthew Novenson from Edinburgh provocatively asked whether Paul believed in Judaism, and concluded that he didn’t, since the one place where he talked about Ioudaismos (Gal 1:13-14) he was referring to the defence of Jewish customs by Jewish people rather than the practice of what we call “Judaism”; and Rafael Rodriguez from Tennessee contended that Paul’s interlocutor in Romans 2:17-29 is not a Jew, as usually assumed, but a Gentile proselyte to Judaism who “calls himself a Jew”. Boayke’s paper, which was the least ambitious of the three, survived largely intact in the Q&A, but Novenson’s was challenged on the grounds that Galatians 1:13-14 sounds like it is talking about a school of Judaism, and Rodriguez’s paper failed to convince on the basis of Romans 2:23-24 in particular (a text which leaves his theory “scuppered below the waterline”, as Wright put it). As you would expect, the more creative or daring the proposal, the harder it is to get it through a room of experts unscathed.
The second plenary session was a treat: Tony Thiselton, at the grand old age of 75, speaking with the title, “Must we rest content with binitarianism in New Testament studies?” His question, obviously, concerned whether the Holy Spirit is spoken of as divine within the pages of the New Testament, and he answered with a fairly unequivocal “yes”. Admittedly, the Spirit is not worshipped as God in the New Testament, and it takes a while for the threefold gloria to emerge. But this, Thiselton argued, is due to what Barrett called “the self-effacing reticence of the Holy Spirit”, in that the Spirit always seeks to exalt Christ. The key reasons to speak of the Spirit as divine include (1) the fact that he is clearly uncreated, a powerful argument for his divinity that I can’t believe I had never noticed, (2) the use of the word “holy” as part of his name, a word which is regularly applied to God in the Old Testament, (3) the very trinitarian narratives, like the baptism and resurrection stories, (4) the use of “Holy Spirit” as a periphrasis for God in the old Testament, and (5) the evocation of theophany in the language of Pentecost. For Thiselton, the first is the crucial one: as Athanasius put it, the Spirit must either be created or uncreated, and if he is uncreated, then worshipping him cannot be idolatrous, since he is not a creature. So yes, the New Testament moves beyond binitarianism in various ways.
But the joys of the talk, from my perspective, were the random rants that punctuated it, frequently issued at a far higher volume than you would expect from a sedentary septuagenarian. “Why on EARTH does half the church call the Holy Spirit an ‘it’? Is he created? Unbelievable!” Or, halfway through a question about calling the Holy Spirit “she” because ruach is feminine, “I get really annoyed when I hear that, because ekeinos is masculine! I hear people say “she”, and suddenly the political correctness is making me think about gender when I should be thinking about God.” (That went down like a lead balloon in certain quarters, obviously.) Or: “Some people talk about the Spirit as if he is somehow the same as power. People use industrial metaphors for him, like electricity, or steam. But if that’s the case, then what on EARTH does Zechariah 4:6 mean? ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit.’ Yet there’s still all this talk about him as a power. Power evangelism. Power healing. It’s all about control, actually.” Crumbs! At one point, he even borrowed a rant from Gregory of Nyssa: “How can God be a quantity? What are we using numbers for? Oneness refers to the fact that what the Father does is also done by the Son, and what the Son does is also done by the Spirit. How can you count God, as if it was counting gold coins?” A brilliant old man with a passion is a wonderful thing to behold.
That’s a summary - lengthy for a blog post, but brief for a review of many hours of taught content! - of the main sessions, and a handful of the seminars. I’ll talk some more about the more explosive and insightful of the seminars (now there’s a teaser for you) next week.

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