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The Neoliberal Lives of Jesus

By Robert J. Myles
Faculty of Arts
The University of Auckland
May 2016

The division of historical Jesus research into three broad quests (Old Quest, New Quest, Third Quest) has attracted much criticism in recent years. The quest terminology draws from the English translation of Albert Schweitzer’s monumental book The Quest of the Historical Jesus (first appearing in German in 1906 as Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung).[1] Schweitzer’s meta-critical work, in which he reviewed the previous two centuries’ research on the historical Jesus, was regarded as a serious blow to the original quest. Schweitzer’s conclusion was that Jesus research had only yielded negative results. His own historical reconstruction of Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet proved Jesus utterly irrelevant to the modern age. Rudolf Bultmann subsequently declared the entire first quest to be in vain. After a period of relative inactivity, the inauguration of a “New Quest” in the 1950s, however, sought newfound optimism with the introduction of various criteria of authenticity. Then, in 1988, N.T. Wright introduced the label “Third Quest” to refer to Jesus research produced since around the 1970s.[2] This work was concerned not only with what Jesus might have said and done, but moreover, to place him within the broader social landscape of his time. In more recent years, the push towards social memory theory, and the widely rumoured demise of the criteria of authenticity, suggests a new period of Jesus research might be on the immediate horizon.

While the tripartite demarcation of Jesus research has become part of the accepted discourse of New Testament scholarship, it is flawed in a number of ways. One issue is its neglect of the proliferation of scholarship produced in Nazi Germany during the so-called “No Quest” period. Another is the tacit assumption of a progressive, evolutionary dimension to Jesus research that may or may not be warranted. An excellent article by Fernando Bermejo-Rubio appearing in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus in 2009 sought to further dismantle this dubious historiographical paradigm by detecting how it serves the ideological and theological interests of contemporary scholars.[3]

The key to the quest for the historical Jesus, I would argue, is not history or theology—as typically assumed—but, in fact, ideology. With some notable exceptions relegated to the margins of the scholarly canon, historical Jesus research—embroiled in a kind of soft-positivism—has overwhelmingly avoided extensive engagement with its own ideological commitments, assumptions, and discursive contexts. The most common scholarly understanding of ideology, as Terry Eagleton describes it, refers not necessarily to a “false consciousness”, but rather to “the ways in which what we say and believe connects to the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in… [T]hose modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power”.[4] Schweitzer already recognized this dimension to the quest. Jesus is not merely an object of historical interest, but a figure of immense cultural significance and authority today, in that any statement made about him is simultaneously a statement about the contemporary world we inhabit. He famously coined the phrase “The Liberal Lives of Jesus” to refer to the plethora of books written in the nineteenth century that domesticated Jesus to then dominant forms of liberal ideology. In addition to diminishing the eschatological outlook driving Jesus’s prophetic activity, the liberal lives of Jesus heightened his “natural psychology” in ways that anachronistically solidified the modern, bourgeois individual.

The “neoliberal lives of Jesus”, then, is a useful catch-all designation for the varied and extensive work done on the historical Jesus over the past forty years. This “quest” has taken place when neoliberalism has transitioned from an emerging political ideology into a firmly entrenched governing rationality exerting influence over almost every domain of life in every realm from politics and the state to the academy. According to the political theorist Wendy Brown, neoliberalism is best understood “not simply as economic policy, but as a governing rationality that disseminates market values and metrics to every sphere of life… [I]t formulates everything, everywhere, in terms of capital investment and appreciation, including and especially humans themselves.”[5] Under neoliberalism we even conceive of ourselves as subjects to be marketed and self-promoted, whether by social media, blogs, or personal websites. Neoliberalism is intensely focused on the individual, specifying entrepreneurial conduct everywhere, and constraining the subject to act in a capital-enhancing fashion. Neoliberal subjects themselves are interpellated as individual consumers, “intersectionally constructed” by complex categories of identity like gender, sexuality, race, and class. Neoliberal ideology has saturated the conditions under which recent historical Jesus research has been produced, marketed, and consumed.

James D. G. Dunn was, in fact, the first to label the so-called Third quest as the “neo-Liberal quest”.[6] Even so, he shows little awareness of “neoliberalism” as a governing rationality (he actually claims “neo-Liberal” is his own invention/designation).[7] Rather, it was James G. Crossley who offers the first book-length treatment of the ways historical Jesus research is implicated by neoliberal ideology.[8] His analysis should be regarded as the beginning of critical reflection. My own work has sought to explore the influence of neoliberalism on gospel criticism[9] and, more recently, politically-oriented historical Jesus research.[10] Many questions remain, however, on how this broader ideological climate has shaped and continues to shape the contours of academic discourse.

What distinctive “ideological” features might we then observe about the neoliberal lives of Jesus? I detect at least five areas of immediate interest:

  1. As scholars started to exhibit newfound concern for Jesus’s socioeconomic and religio-cultural world, he was frequently elevated above it. Jesus is, on the one hand, firmly rooted within Palestinian society, and yet, on the other hand, seems equally entrepreneurial, possessing an ability to transcend it. Social and economic forces normally affecting peasant artisans don’t seem to affect Jesus in quite the same way: he voluntarily “chooses” to become itinerant, jobless, marginal, and so on. A neoliberal emphasis on “personal responsibility” reverberates through scholarly depictions of Jesus’s experience of poverty and marginality as a counter-cultural “lifestyle”.
  2. A gestural form of “subversion” has also become fashionable. Jesus has been championed as a subversive figure to mirror the mainstreaming of subversion within postmodern culture. Now, it would seem, pretty much everything Jesus does is subversive! The anti-empire trope, in which Jesus supposedly resists empire by adopting imperial language and categories himself, fits perfectly against this mould. The fetishization of subversion is the subject of a forthcoming article I recently authored for the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.
  3. A surge of interest in Jesus’s “Jewishness” is related only in part to the post-Holocaust and post-Six Day War “discovery” that Jesus was, in fact, a first-century Jew. The neoliberal lives of Jesus exert not only on a strong emphasis on this aspect of his identity (and his peculiar ability to “subvert” and/or “transcend” it) but also are more concerned with the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and colonialism. These developments emerged precisely at a time in Anglo-American history when “identity politics” became a dominant form of political theorization and expression.
  4. The insatiable free-market demand for Jesus research in particular has led to a dramatic rise in populist works of scholarship. From the Jesus Seminar, to N.T. Wright, or Bart Ehrman to Reza Aslan, books on Jesus really do sell and individual scholars have managed to tap into this demand by writing for particular niche markets: whether Evangelical Christians, Liberal or Progressive Christians, New Atheists, or Agnostics, capitalists, Marxists, and every other possible audience in-between.
  5. As a result, some of the more “extreme” perspectives have also made a comeback. From the influx of “mythicists” who deny Jesus’s very existence on the one hand, to the piles of über-conservative books on sale at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meetings “proving” supernatural miracles, and so on, on the other. Market demand propels scholarship in novel and creative directions. It should come as little surprise the most popular works on Jesus are precisely those that manage to retain the semblance of scholarly rigour whilst capturing the zeitgeist of an age.

In sum, the category of ideology—and in particular a critical awareness of the governing rationality of neoliberalism—presents exciting opportunities for the mapping of historical Jesus research. In many respects, this is precisely what is needed in order to analyse the avalanche of historical Jesus scholarship and to assess its major motivating factors. And, if nothing else, it prompts us to reorient ourselves for the next stages of the quest.


[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. William Montgomery (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910).

[2] The term “Third Quest” first appeared in print in Stephen Neill and N.T. Wright, The Interpretations of the New Testament 1861-1986, 2nd ed. (Oxford: OUP, 1988), 363, 79.

[3] Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009): 211–53.

[4] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), 13.

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 176.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 58–65, 85 n.100.

[7] Ibid., 58 n.157.

[8] James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (Durham: Acumen Publishing2014, Cambridge, 2014); see also: James G. Crossley, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Quest for the Historical Jesus (Oxford: OUP, 2015).

[9] Robert J. Myles, The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Social World of Biblical Antiquity 2/10 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2014).

[10] Robert J. Myles, “The Fetish for a Subversive Jesus,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (forthcoming). See prepublication version here:

Comments (2)

Great thoughts, Robert. As always. But they do raise a question- how is your understanding of Jesus research any different than the Schweitzerian 'gazing into the well and seeing your own reflection' that bedevils the field?
#1 - Jim - 05/26/2016 - 00:31

I have some trouble connecting the definition - 'formulates everything in terms of capital appreciation' - and the features supposed to represent it. If Jesus was a member of Palestinian society but able to transcend it that might mean both that he was, in terms of that society, an original
thinker who attracted admiration, eventually much outstripping critique, and that he was able to take advantage of international interest in Palestinian ideas. I can see that this would imply, if you consider the economics, that Investors in Jesus (founder directors Mrs. Joanna Chuza and Ms. M. Magdalene) would eventually have obtained a decent return. But it seem quite odd to say that only if one were interpreting events from this economic point of view would one hit on these two points about Jesus' success. Both are very likely to be valid if Jesus did indeed manage to 'exist'. And to be valid mutatis mutandis in respect of the Christian movement even if he didn't.
You can get capital appreciation out of being subversive, as anyone in the art scene could tell us. But likewise out of being reassuring or otherworldly or interested in individual rather than political life. I bdon't see why interpreters of Jesus who are looking for a story of capital appreciation should particularly insist in the subversive side. Left-wing interpreters, looking for a story in which the good guys oppose capitalism, might so insist. Likewise, enhanced interest in colonialism, gender etc. is much less an expression of neoliberalism than of opposition to it.
Finally, if the desire to interpret everything in terms of capital appreciation would surely, if very dominant, tend to narrow rather than widen the range of interpretations offered. The claims that in our society neoliberal interpretations are dominant is different from the claim that a neoliberal society will give a hearing to all sorts of ideas - that point, if true, would imply that anti-neoliberal ideas will also get a hearing. I would think that a commendable feature of neoliberalism and one likely to lead to convergence on truth.
#2 - Martin Hughes - 05/27/2016 - 17:45

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