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Jesus in an Age of Terror: a Review

Jesus in an Age of Terror by James G. CrossleyJames G. Crossley is Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Sheffield. He has taken on an ambitious endeavor in Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century, addressing sensitive issues related to politics, religion, biblical studies, and ethics. In approximately 250 pages, Crossley seeks to accomplish 2 major goals:

(1) He attempts to explain why shifts in the political realm and world events seem to be reflected in subsequent scholarship (both liberal and conservative), especially scholarship related to New Testament and Christian origins studies. He accomplishes this by asserting that an ideological influence is at work in much of scholarship.

(2) As a result, he attempts to rouse scholars and students alike “…to check ideology with some basic facts” (p197) and to prove assertions with verifiable evidence. In scholarship today, Crossley sees too much credibility given on the basis of shared ideology and/or academic reputation. He desires greater inquisitiveness among students and scholars. At worst, careless scholars “are helping to create a potentially lethal cultural context.”


Crossley carries out this work in three major sections totaling seven chapters:

Part I notes past (ch. 1) and present (ch. 2) examples of how socio-political settings have influenced scholarship, especially in NT and Christian origins studies. Crossley suggests the best model for understanding such influence is the “propaganda model” set forth by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. The model suggests that mass media essentially supports the special interests of the elite (who frame the entire dialogue). Consequently, in any debate, consent is easily manufactured and dissent is easily minimized. Applying the model to a previous century of biblical scholarship, Crossley finds corroborating examples in: (1) confessional scholarship; (2) pre-war German scholarship; and (3) Cold War scholarship.

In chapter two, he seeks a fresh example to which the model might apply. Bibliobloggers! Crossley suggests they are great candidates because (1) they write about biblical studies, (2) they vent their political views quite explicitly, and (3) the media format is not unlike other media formats which might be guilty of manufacturing consent. Rather extreme blog posts (from both sides of the theological spectrum) are given lengthy treatment, with a primary focus on the material by Joseph Cathey, Ken Ristau, James Davila, and Loren Rosson. Other prominent bloggers who are mentioned at some length include Michael Bird, Chris Tilling, and Jim West. Crossley rehashes controversial posts and corresponding comments in an attempt to expose ideological influences and political agendas.

In Part II, Crossley turns his attention to a discussion of changes in Orientalist expression after 1967 as relating to Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East (ch. 3). He notes that media attention turned to the Middle East at this time and began to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of Arabs (with associated language of “clashing civilizations” and “us-versus-them” rhetoric). In the following chapter, He links this socio-political rhetoric with similar rhetoric found in anthropological scholarship related to Christian origins (especially that of the Context Group). He notes that contemporary scholarship emphasized Arabs and the Middle East at the same time political attention was turned there in the 1970s, suggesting popular ideology has an influence on scholarship.

In Part III, Crossley observes the swell of scholarship related to the “Jewishness” of Jesus after 1967. Further, he discusses the contemporaneous swell of pro-Israeli support with the rise of Christian Zionism in some places, as well as Palestinian bias in liberal higher education (ch. 5). In the following chapter, he questions the scholarship related to the “Jewishness” of Jesus. Having already attributed the acceptance of such assertions of “Jewishness” in part to the political acceptance of Israeli support, he notes a sort of double standard: while scholars assert Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, they often present Jesus as remarkably unique (and unlike the Jews around him). Crossley attributes this to the influence of a Western ideology, namely that “we” (the West, Christians, or whoever) are superior to “them” (Middle Easterners, Arabs, Jews, etc.).

In chapter seven, Crossley concludes by reaffirming his thesis: “New Testament and Christian origins scholarship is profoundly influenced by and supportive of contemporary Anglo-American power” (195). Increasing in intensity, he calls scholars to evaluate their own ideologies against basic facts. He also asserts the need for “some serious questioning of scholarly results” (197). He calls students and academics to “immediately question what their lecturers and professors tell them” (198). Perhaps the climactic statement of the book is reached near the end: “…people among the various groups stereotyped by the scholarship critiqued in this book are dying and being tortured as I write and scholarship and intellectuals are helping to create a potentially lethal cultural context” (199).


Note that the outline presented above may suggest a rather neat arrangement and progression of topics in the book. Conversely, Crossley often introduces later discussions in earlier contexts and repeats earlier ideas later in the book. Because of this, I think his argument becomes stronger as evidence “accumulates.” This may be a weakness, however, on two counts: (1) skeptics (presumably most of the academics to whom he writes) may write him off prematurely, not finding the first pieces of the argument tenable; (2) thorough argumentation will increase the likelihood of reception by those being criticized.

Bottom Line

I think Crossley’s basic premise is right on target, but his own generalizations and unnecessary remarks may serve to polarize him. I often felt like certain cases were overstated, and there are plenty of unnecessary political statements made (such as a strange reference to an article based largely on R. H. Tawney’s 20th century work to suggest that there was religious capitalism in the Reagan and Bush Jr administrations rooted in 17th century Puritanism, p108). Right or wrong, it is unnecessary, especially when other minor details regarding subjects Crossley is less likely to agree with are not treated so thoroughly (such as dispensationalism prior to 1967 or WWII).

Other Distractions

Crossley’s most basic assertion that ideology influences scholarship is easily defended by his argument. He effectively shows examples of this in contemporary scholarship. However, I think he detracts from easily defensible assertions into controversial issues unnecessarily. For example, the lengthy rehashing of blog posts by Cathey and Ristau were unnecessary to support the basic thesis. If less extreme examples are available, why not use them? One is left wondering, Are these two of the best examples to demonstrate the thesis? Granted, other examples are given, but the most radical bloggers receive the most attention. Further, as far as I can tell, Ristau was still working on an MA as he was arguing in the blogosphere with Crossley about various political issues. I again wonder, Are Ristau’s old posts the best examples for proving how ideology influences scholarship? After discussing Cathey once again, Crossley even admits: “We could waste a lot more energy on Cathey but, in terms of the propaganda model, it is probably more fruitful to look at the more reserved and thoughtful Michael Bird” (38). So has the reader wasted energy, too?

I also think loaded language and sarcasm may wind up serving as unnecessary distractions for skeptics (who I think Crossley truly desires to reach!). The subtitle is clever, but polarizing. Quotations within the body of the text are too often interrupted with Crossley’s own sarcastic commentary. Now this may seem pedantic, but I think the greatest proof for a thesis like this is a pure presentation of empirical evidence. (After all, Crossley seems to think that most academics won’t accept his challenges, p199). Interestingly, as an introduction to his chapter analyzing bibliobloggers, Crossley says, “In this context an empirical study of the bibilioblogging [sic] world should be able to reveal any underlying political agendas” (23). Unfortunately, there were no charts, lists, or other statistical presentations suggesting the percentage of bibliobloggers who make political comment, examples of rhetoric influenced by mass media in the blogosphere, etc. I only wish to suggest that the argument could stand tweaking to strengthen it.

The Propoganda Model

Obviously the work of Chomsky and Herman are applied to New Testament and Christian origins scholarship to take the reader toward Crossley’s conclusion. Since the propaganda model is placed as foundational to the argument, a deeper discussion and defense of the model would be helpful. After all, the cry of the book (which I support) is that scholarship needs to be rooted in evidence, not ideology. In any case, I do not think this model is vital in supporting the general contention that ideology influences scholarship. On the contrary, most of this book represents a collection of evidence, most of which stands to be interpreted, but not by the Chomsky model necessarily.


I think the most important contribution of the book is the call for academics to base their scholarship in real, substantial evidence. Scholarship across the left-to-right spectrum would do well to heed the call. However, I think what counts as ‘substantial evidence’ will be a point of contention. I wonder how suspicious Crossley is about committed Christians handling ‘evidence’ for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For example, in a recent debate regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ with William Lane Craig, Crossley and Craig debated whether or not occurrences of later Rabbinic fictional story-telling actually lend to the authenticity or inauthenticity of the resurrection account in the Gospel of Mark. But Perhaps I’m far too presumptuous: at least both Crossley and Craig were dealing with the evidence.

6 Responses to Jesus in an Age of Terror: a Review

  1. Thanks for engaing with the book, Josh (and in a way I doubt I’ll be seeing very much – poor me but I’ll live!). I’m way to busy these days to write anything useful online but I’ll try to make a coherent response…

    Interestingly, I’ve never thought about the cross referencing of my arguments because I’ve always assumed this is what a lot of people do (well, more than assume, I copied the style). If people will dismiss the argument (not you, obviously) then I’m inclined not to take such criticisms seriously because the reference is made to arguments elsewhere.

    On the issue of religion and capitalism was relevant to the argument because in context it was designed to give a counter example to the idea that Christianity in contrast to Islam is tolerant and modern whereas I wanted to show that the issue was more complicated than this. In one sense I wasn’t having a dig at Reagan and Bush, more that they are representatives of modern capitalism, conservative Christianity, but a Christinity which is not always tolerant and how it is a form of capitalism that is not modern liberalism. I was challenging the constructed difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to show how it can break down in practice.

    On pre-1967/WWII dispensationalism, I’m not sure why I would cover this – the post-1967 stuff was included to show how it was part of a broader cultural shift and when it really came to cultural prominence. Before that, when it wasn’t so prominent, wasn’t really my concern. The book firmly concerns the past 40 years.

    On the loaded language and sarcasm, yes, I won’t deny that! But in many cases when academics are talking about Arabs not suited to democracy or ‘rights’ obsessed with sex and Mediterraneans abusing their own for their own good and other related statements, I can’t say I’d ever be inclined to treat such statements kindly. Now you say that this will polarise people and I think you are probably right but, as you imply, I don’t think a lot of the people I attack will be convinced or ‘converted’ so to speak, at least not explicitly. But, as I emphasise at the end, I would like people to cut out this language and that might happen in the future even if my criticisms are not explicitly taken on.

    On the more politically extreme bloggers and wasting of energy, I see where you are coming from but the idea was to show that the problem is not restricted to the extreme but to what we might call the ‘mainstream’ (which was my real interest) and that there are some fundamental agreements between the extreme and mainstream (though to be honest, as I said, I thought Ristau was by far the most politically intelligent even if I thought he was almost always wrong). I’ve argued elsewhere that the extreme can be just as illuminating as the centre and that unbderlies my argument here. In terms of empirical evidence and charts etc, I toyed with the idea but concluded it would be impossible (I wouldn’t know how to categorise them) and ultimately was irrelevant because I could only find very rare exceptions to the propaganda model, not to mention that it was in the writing and discussion where the politicisation really came in.

    As fopr the propaganda model, I think it is more helpful than you think because I assume the results there and without those results I would have had to do I don’t know how much extra work on the media and higher education to show cultural trends. What the propaganda model shows, crucially, are broader trends in elite culture which I can then work with. I don’t think much more needed to be said because it is a simplistic (and I mean that in a very positive sense) model which I simply took in a different direction and gave further supportive evidence.

    As for my suspicions of ‘committed Christians handling ‘evidence’ for the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ I’m not sure I have an answer. Obviously some will want to find the evidence at all costs but I see no difference in agendas dictating results in committed Christians than I do in anyone else. Maybe you are right on the role of evidence in the debate I did with Craig. I’d add that he may have an agenda but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a conservative Christian so dedicated to discussing every scrap of evidence and detail that might be available.

    Yes, I agree with the conclusion on grounding arguments in evidence but I would stress that one of my main aims was more precise: to stop or at least back up some of the bizarre generalisations about Arabs and Jews (among other things). You are right to worry about ‘substantive evidence’ and I would use the phrase in a double edged manner: if someone feels to need to back up, say, loaded generalisations then why feel the need? Also it was a suggestion to certain scholars to look more carefully at just what they are arguing with next to no evidence in support.

    And a nicely spotted typo, particularly with all those ‘i’s!

    I hope that was sort of coherent.

    Thanks again,


    • Thanks for a timely response! I think perhaps my concern about ‘substantive evidence’ comes through in your response: You mentioned that Craig may have an agenda. I understand why conservative Christians will never escape the suspicion, but I worry that conservative scholars will be unfairly criticized for agenda-driven scholarship without regard for their argumentation and handling of evidence (not that you’ve criticized him here).

  2. this is a great review. i also lean towards working with realia, i.e. tangible evidence, in biblical scholarship. at brite i often feel like i’m drowning in ideological lenses. truth be told, however, the desire to only weigh tangible evidence in scholarship while dismissing ideologies & theory is itself an ideological hermeneutic & an agenda-laden, positivistic, “modern,” even theoretical approach. still, it’s the one i try to practice, though i still recognize that it’s my “ideology.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Mike. I do agree that presuppositions are part and parcel of scholarship. And I think we would agree: To whatever extent we might be swimming in ideology, I don’t think our heads are under the water.

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