Dr. Robert Myles of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) has reviewed The Bad Jesus in two parts available here and here.
|Dr. Robert Myles|
He is the first biblical scholar to perform such a review of The Bad Jesus on the blogosphere. I was especially interested in his comments because he specializes in New Testament and Christian origins, as well as in Marxism and critical theory.
Myles is also the author of The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), which treats a few of the subjects I do.
That book offers many provocative observations, and I recommend it to anyone interested in issues of poverty and homelessness in the Bible. His book came to my attention too far into the editing process of my book, and I did not include it in my discussions. I did read it by the time I wrote this post.
Although Myles’ review raises some interesting questions, it ultimately does not represent my arguments very accurately or address them very effectively. I will demonstrate that his review actually is, in part, an androcentric defense of the abandonment of families by Jesus’ disciples. I will address the objections he raises against my methodology and my discussion of Jesus’ view of abandoning families, especially in the case of the men he called to be his disciples in Mark 1:16-20 because that is one main example Myles chose from my book.
MYLES AND METHODOLOGY
To understand how Myles misrepresents or misunderstands the purpose and method of my book, it may be useful to begin with the introductory summary of the book that I provided on pages 8-9 of The Bad Jesus:
1. Biblical scholarship is still primarily a religionist apologetic enterprise despite claims to be engaging in historico-critical and descriptive scholarship.
2. A more specific Christian orientation is clearly revealed in the manner in which the ethics of Jesus are predominantly viewed as benign and paradigmatic, even among supposedly secular academic scholars.
3. However, many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
4. Accordingly, such a predominantly benign view of Jesus’ ethics signals a continuing acceptance of Jesus as divine or as morally supra-human, and not as the flawed human being who should be the real subject of historico-critical study.
Myles diverts his attention from my stated purposes to a critique of neoconservative or capitalists ideologies. Such critiques of neoconservatism or modern capitalism may be sound, but they are not the most relevant to my argument about how Jesus is treated in New Testament ethics. According to Myles:
Methodologically, Avalos’ book is weak, which is unfortunate as I think the broader argument has a lot of merit. Avalos self-identifies as a a [sic] New Atheist. This perspective holds that theism is generally destructive and unethical. It is embodied for example in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What Avalos doesn’t explore is how this movement has also tended to form strong associations with a neoconservative political ideology, perhaps expressed most triumphantly by the late Christopher Hitchens. In and of itself this might not appear overly relevant, but its importance will become obvious shortly.
There are two problems with this criticism. First, Myles left out that I identified myself with a “Second Wave” of New Atheism on p. 15 of The Bad Jesus:
So, perhaps, one can view atheist biblical scholars as ‘Second Wave New Atheists’ to contrast with the non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave. Readers should view the present work as the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar.
Indeed, I explicitly named Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris as being part of that First Wave from which I was differentiating myself.
My agreement with the New Atheism was qualified as follows: “Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism” (p. 13). Myles’ review erroneously assumes that I identify with the New Atheism insofar as every other ideological or capitalist feature he identifies.
The First Wave of atheist writers lacked the required expertise about religion or biblical studies to make some of the pronouncements that they make. That has caused some Christian apologists to dismiss some of their statements about the Bible, and often rightly so.
I find Hitchens, in particular, too much of a neoconservative for me. He once proposed the ethnic cleansing of Waziristan when I had dinner with him. I challenged those comments then, and I still would denounce them now.
A dinner conversation with Richard Dawkins confirmed the biblical illiteracy that lay at the background of many of his statements about the Bible.
By not appreciating the evolving diversity within the New Atheism, and not divulging the fact that I grouped myself with a Second Wave, Myles is misrepresenting the more specific subgroup with which I identify. Any ideological critiques he launches against Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens may not apply to the Second Wave, and don’t apply to me.
Moreover, the introductory pages to the chapter on “The Uneconomic Jesus as Enemy of the Poor” do try to discuss the relevant scholarship in the context of postcolonialist, Marxist, and capitalist perspectives.
The second problem is that Myles’ criticism is irrelevant to both the purpose and stated method I deploy in the book.
My method is to compare the teachings and actions of Jesus, as portrayed by New Testament authors, against the standards of modern ethics accepted by New Testament ethicists or the broader modern world. Note again the third element of my book summary:
However, many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
Therefore, the fact that Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris may be neoconservatives does not invalidate my argument that Jesus’ ethics would be “antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.”
I don’t need to explore the ideologies of those New Atheists to prove my claims about Jesus. To prove my point, all I need to do is measure Jesus against the standards that are widely accepted or that are accepted by New Testament ethicists themselves.
For example, if Scholar X says “Jesus taught Ethical Principle Y,” then it is irrelevant that Hitchens is a neoconservative. If I argue that Jesus did not teach Y, as Scholar X supposes, then it is also irrelevant if Dawkins is a white male capitalist. Otherwise, Myles' argument is akin to this line of reasoning:
A. Myles identifies himself as a Marxist;
B. Myles does not explore the strong associations Marxism has had with repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union and China;
C. Therefore, his criticisms of my book are methodologically weak.
Yet, such flawed logic stands behind Myles’ next objection, which centers of this statement of mine:
When I claim that many of Jesus’ ethical principles and practices described in the New Testament would be antithetical to those encoded in the sets of ethics that are widely accepted today, I am speaking primarily of those enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has an arguable position as the consensus of most nations today (The Bad Jesus, p. 9).
Myles’ objection is as follows:
Indeed, in addition to relying on the fallacious reasoning that because something is popular it must also be true, Avalos neglects to adequately historicize and contextualize this particular ethical tradition, a tradition largely entangled with the development and implementation of capitalist economics. This is not to say that the ethical ideals enshrined in the UDHR are by definition wrong. Nothing of the sort. It is rather to point out that in addition to advocating certain liberties and rights to individual human beings, it simultaneously authorizes and obfuscates dominant configurations of class and global geopolitics.
Myles clearly misrepresents my argument because he confuses an empirical statement I made with a value judgment I need not make to prove my point about Jesus. Furthermore, nowhere did I argue “that because something is popular it must also be true.”
What I affirmed is that if NT ethicists or modern Christians accept these modern standards, then Jesus’ teachings and actions are not always compatible with those standards, regardless of whether those standards are right or wrong.
On page 10, I provided specific evidence that some modern religious leaders and scholars of religion do accept these standards:
As Francis Adeney notes, there is also the Declaration of Human Rights by the World’s Religions (1998), which is based on the UDHR.
Again, I made the empirical claim about “the sets of ethics that are widely accepted today.” Myles’ complaint is that these codes are part of a tradition “largely entangled with the development and implementation of capitalist economics.” That may be so, but it does not invalidate my argument that:
A. These standards are accepted by many modern scholars, and
B. Many of Jesus’ actions and teachings would be incompatible with them.
In addition, I do not accept some of the interpretations that Myles imposes on the UDHR. For example, Article 4 states:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
That sounds like a good ethical standard to me, and to many modern New Testament ethicists.
But, according to Myles: “Wage-slavery functions as an ideological excess to Article 4; an ethical form of exploitation implicitly authorized by the text, even if it formally claims to prohibit slavery in all its forms.”
I don’t see where wage slavery is implicitly authorized “by the text” if the text says that “slavery...shall be prohibited in all their forms.” The UDHR as a whole may indeed assume wage slavery is acceptable, but that would not change the fact that a scholar accepts that standard or that Jesus might also endorse wage slavery.
I have also discussed elsewhere (Slavery, Abolitionism, and The Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, pp. 149-152) that Jesus’ view of wages in the Parable of the Vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16) would probably not be seen as ethical today, perhaps even by Myles himself.
The parable seems to accept that “wage slavery” is proper, and that a master can dole out the wages as he wishes (v. 15) regardless of how unjustly some workers perceive that to be.
Overall, the Jesus of the Gospels works under the assumption that slavery is acceptable, and he certainly never commanded his followers not to own slaves. In fact, he is often commanding his disciples to OBEY HIM as though he were their master (cf. Luke 6.46: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and not do what I tell you?’)
Accordingly, I cannot accept Myles’ claim that, “within a Marxist framework, then, the Bad Jesus who is antithetical to modern capitalist sensibilities might actually, in some twisted sense, function as a good Jesus after all!”
Myles seems to be following an old Christian tradition of making Jesus conform to the ideology he favors (in his case, Marxism), even though one can find texts where Jesus either supports exploitation of laborers or exploits others himself by extracting their labor in return for unverifiable rewards.
Having worked for Amnesty International, I know that the UDHR was used by many individuals to secure their release from forced servitude. Compared to Jesus’ silence on abolition, the UDHR is a great leap forward.
Myles ignores the fact that even codes formulated by capitalist societies may sometimes be used against those societies. The US Constitution is now interpreted to prohibit slavery, even though it was originally written by many slave owners.
HEROIC DISCIPLES OR DEADBEAT DADS?
To understand how Myles does not really address my arguments about Jesus’ views on family abandonment, I have provided the entire relevant section, titled “Heroic Disciples or Deadbeat Dads?”, of The Bad Jesus (minus footnotes and with some other minor formatting adaptations) in the Appendix.
That section’s basic argument is that many New Testament ethicists who praise the followers of Jesus as “heroic disciples” never provide any moral reflection on how the abandonment of their families would impoverish those families.
Basically, fathers or male adults abandoning families/households in ancient Galilee would probably impoverish their families or households, especially if they are already living at a subsistence or near subsistence level.
Accordingly, one cannot call Jesus a friend of the poor (as many NT ethicists so characterize him) if he is actually encouraging acts that impoverish families. My argument in this section can be analyzed structurally as follows (See Appendix):
I. Introduction of the relevant texts about abandoning families (Mark 1:16-20, and Matthew 8:18-22).
II. A paragraph inviting readers to morally reflect on questions they might raise if they witnessed a similar abandonment today (e.g., How are these families supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only breadwinners?).
III. An empirical observation that similar questions are not asked by most NT ethicists in the case of Jesus’ disciples.
IV. Explanation that NT ethicists don’t do so because they see Jesus as offering something better, despite the questionable nature of that offer.
V. Brief discussion of the economics of ancient Galilee to support the contention that the disciples were important contributors to the family, and so their abandonment of a family would or could result in a poorer family.
Myles then takes Element II in this section as though it was the main data base for my conclusions, and complains that I did not study the economics of Galilee at the time of Jesus. I will demonstrate that complaint to be untrue further below, especially because it is part of Element V.
The most puzzling item of Myles’ review is that he never directly addresses the question of whether Jesus’ requested abandonment of families or households by their adult males would impoverish the women and children in that family (more on that below)
Myles claims that the ethicists I challenged on the issue of abandonment were chosen haphazardly even as he seemingly admits that they demonstrate the apathy towards the disciples’ families that I claim. As Myles phrases it:
Unfortunately, Avalos’ argument rests on the omissions of the handful of scholars he haphazardly cites, which is tantamount to an argument from silence.
But how is the silence about the adverse economic impact of abandonment not evidence that these ethicists are silent about that question? After all, my argument is precisely that many ethicists are silent about the impoverishment of the disciples’ families.
Moreover, these scholars were not chosen haphazardly at all. In that section, I selected the following examples of how abandoning the family by the disciples receives no moral reflection from NT ethicists, but rather is praised as something good.
A. Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch (eds.), Families in the New Testament World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997);
B. David L. Balch and Carolyn Osiek (eds.), Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
C. Hoppe, Leslie J., There Shall be No Poor among you: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004).
D. Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).
E. Frank Matera, New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996).
F. Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
Books A + B were chosen because they are major treatments on the family and my section is about how abandoned families could become impoverished.
The entire theme of C, Hoppe’s book, is poverty. Therefore, why would it be haphazard to choose a book on poverty if the subject under discussion is poverty?
The books by Burridge and Matera were not chosen at random. I stated in my introduction that those scholars would be highlighted throughout, or as warranted, because they wrote major works on the ethics of the New Testament. On p. 16, I stated:
By ‘New Testament ethicists’, I refer primarily to those who have written general surveys of the New Testament ethics (e.g., Richard Burridge, Joel B. Green, Richard Hays, Frank Matera, Russell Pregeant, Wolfgang Schrage, Allen Verhey), and especially those that include the word ‘ethics’ or ‘moral(ity)’ in the titles of their works.
The book by Verhey was specifically chosen because my section title (“Heroic Disciples or Deadbeat Dads?”) was juxtaposed to a section he wrote and titled ‘Mark: Heroic Discipleship in the Counter-Empire” in Remembering Jesus.
Myles then claims that I should have included other works that “engage in such questions”:
However, Avalos does not mention prominent works in the field that do, in fact, engage such questions. Most crucially, Stephen Barton’s Discipleship and Family Ties in Mark and Matthew (1995), the work of Halvor Moxnes (1997, 2001), and also to a lesser extent K.C. Hanson’s important article on The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition (1997).
This complaint is incomprehensible, given that I have read those works and found nothing approximating what I was requesting that New Testament ethicists discuss (e.g., the adverse economic effects of abandonment on the families of the disciples).
In case I may have missed these discussions, I asked Myles, via private message, if he had any specific page numbers where these scholars discuss the negative economic impact that abandonment had on the disciples’ families. He did not provide any.
He was gracious enough to admit: “I have wrongly cited Moxnes. I meant his book “Putting Jesus in His Place,” which was published in 2004” (via private Facebook message, July 15, 2015).
Again, none of the books suggested by Myles have the discussion lacking in books A-F that I cited. Since I indicated in my Introduction (p. 27) that I was not citing every book ever published in New Testament ethics, I chose enough books to make my point.
The ones suggested by Myles add nothing to the discussion, and only confirm my point that most NT ethicists either see the call to abandon families by Jesus as a positive action or do not engage in any of the moral reflection I required or suggested in my questions (e.g., “How are these families supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only breadwinners?”).
In fact, the sources suggested by Myles reflect a continuation of the effort to whitewash Jesus’ requests by trying to make it into something positive. For example, Stephen Barton says:
My own view is that the ‘anti-family’ material in the Gospels is primarily a rhetorically powerful metaphorical way of calling for the displacement of every obstacle to true discipleship of Jesus in the light of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God (in Halvor Moxnes, ed., Constructing Early Christian Families : Family As Social Reality and Metaphor [London, GBR: Routledge, 1997], p. 81).
So, where is the moral reflection on any anxiety caused to the family because of the abandonment? Why would it be a real problem to abandon a family if it is just metaphorical?
Myles himself acknowledges that in much of modern scholarship “Jesus’ homelessness is regarded as a positive trait” and romanticized, even if he has a different explanation for why that is so (The Homeless Jesus , p. 1). Myles also seems to reject efforts to “metaphorize homelessness” (The Homeless Jesus, p. 124).
Stephen C. Barton actually claims that “there is no indication that the leaving is to be a permanent state of affairs” (Discipleship and Family Ties in Mark and Matthew [Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press, 1994], p. 66).
For his evidence, Barton claims that “Simon and Andrew still have a house (1.29)” (Discipleship and Family Ties, p. 67). The fact is that the visiting of their house mentioned in Mark 1:29 is not incompatible with having abandoned their families because we see them traveling mostly with Jesus in the rest of Mark.
Barton briefly does come close to what I requested when he said that the “disciples did not destroy their means of livelihood (as Elisha had done) nor, do they leave their families bereft: Zebedee still has a boat and hired servants...([Mark] 1.20)...” (Discipleship and Family Ties, p. 66-67).
True enough, Mark 1:16-20 mentions that Zebedee had a boat at the time that his sons were called by Jesus, but there is never any indication that Zebedee himself was a disciple.
And the fact that Zebedee keeps a boat does not mean that the contributions that he lost from his sons did not have any adverse effects on his family or household. Furthermore, note what Peter and Jesus state concerning discipleship in Mark 10:28-30:
 Peter began to say to him, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you."
 Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,
 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
Is Peter really just speaking metaphorically? Is it really just temporary? Is there no adverse economic effect on the brothers, sisters, or father, that Jesus mentions?
A similar observation may be directed at the work of Halvor Moxnes. Yes, he speaks about the cost of discipleship, but mainly the cost to the disciples, and not to any families left behind. For Barton and Moxnes, any abandonment (and recall that Barton thinks it was not permanent) is a good thing, and not a bad thing.
The sources suggested by Myles, therefore, do not differ from Burridge, Hoppe, Verhey, Osiek, Balch and others who either do not see the adverse economic effects of abandonment as significant enough to discuss from a moral standpoint or who don’t view abandonment as negative at all.
And this despite the fact that the same scholars admit that the types of families that Jesus encouraged disciples to abandon were not always wealthy families, and needed the contributions of all key members.
If Myles has specific discussions on specific pages in those books that I missed, I will be glad to address them.
MALES AS BREADWINNERS
Instead of addressing directly the question of whether Jesus’ demands would have impoverished families, Myles faults the use of the term or concept of “breadwinners”. As he phrase it:
It is intriguing that Avalos invokes a fairly antiquated gender stereotype regarding men as ‘breadwinners’ (#EverydaySexism) given his invitation to imagine this as a ‘modern scenario’ (and also ironic given his chapter on the ‘Misogynistic Jesus’ elsewhere!).
This is to miss the forest for a tree, and it is wrong to imply that males cannot be seen as breadwinners, whose abandonment of a family can have dire economic consequences whether it be in modern countries or in ancient Galilee.
Having been raised by a single mother and a single grandmother in both Mexico and in the United States, I personally know that women can be breadwinners. But I also see how much one income, instead of the income of two or more adults, greatly affected our family.
Indeed, Myles does not give much consideration to the financial disadvantages that single or abandoned mothers experience in the modern world. And I don’t just need to rely on my personal experience because there are plenty of actual economic data.
For example, a Pew Research Center Study of single mothers from 1960-2011 states that the status of single mothers is still not that great in modern societies, despite the increase in “breadwinner” moms. Note this statement:
Even though single mothers as a whole have the lowest income among all families with children, never married single mothers are particularly disadvantaged economically. In 2011, the median family income for never married mothers was $17,400, only slightly over the poverty threshold of $15,504 for families with one adult and one child, but below $18,123, the threshold for families with one adult and two children.
Myles focuses on the rise of female breadwinners in our culture, but he fails to see that there is still a great inequity in the pay that males receive compared to females.
Despite more female breadwinners in modern times, single mothers are still quite disadvantaged, even in New Zealand, where Myles resides. Note this government study of New Zealand families:
Although women have made great advances in the labour market, on average they continue to earn considerably less than men. Thus, the parent most likely to retain custody of children in the case of divorce faces a labour market that is still largely structured according to the male breadwinner/female homemaker model ...
Abandoned families in ancient Galilee would probably be at even greater risk for impoverishment because they lived at a subsistence level or near subsistence level, and health care and other benefits were not what they are today.
WHY CALL THEM DEADBEATS?
The main presupposition in my discussion of abandoned families is that they have biological needs that transcend culture and historical time. In that regard, my presupposition is not that different from the one expressed by Myles: “Food, drink, and clothing, are, as with the provision of shelter, basic necessities of human existence” (The Homeless Jesus, p. 115).
The fact that I am trying to address real biological needs that every human must have in order to survive (e.g., food) is entirely missed by the following objection from Myles:
He then proceeds to label Jesus’ demands as ‘unethical’ because they potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of the existing social order – men will abandon their families and become ‘deadbeat dads’.
But my labeling of the disciples as “deadbeat dads” is not "because they potentially disrupt the smooth functioning of the existing social order."
I argue that one could label the disciples as deadbeat dads because their abandonment adversely affects the welfare of a family that depends upon their contribution to obtain real bodily and biological needs that all human beings have REGARDLESS OF THE EXISTING SOCIAL ORDER.
Implicit in Myles’ criticism, and also in his The Homeless Jesus, is that “disrupting” a social order is somehow praiseworthy in the case of the disciples.Note his comments:
The attentive reader, however, should carefully consider the following question: if the socioeconomic cost is properly considered, is Jesus’ call to discipleship in Mk 1.16 and Mt. 8.18- actually unethical? One’s answer will largely depend upon one’s political orientation. Indeed, ethical judgments about economic matters are necessarily perspectival and, in this case, are explicitly tied to class interests. Put very crudely, for those on the political Right, for whom stability of existing social and economic structures is desirable, the answer is probably ‘yes’, the call is unethical. For those on the political Left, i.e. those who seek to radically alter and/or disrupt the existing social or economic system, the answer is probably ‘no’.
Here, Myles uses labels (e.g., Left/Right) that are irrelevant to the question:
Might the wives and children of the disciples’ families have less food to eat, or means to buy food, because of that abandonment?
Will the answer to that question really vary because a scholar is on the Left or the Right? I don’t think so because we are speaking about objective entities such as food, which can be quantified by the calories needed to sustain a human body.
If that abandonment results in less food and less means to obtain food for those women and children, then I call it unethical for the men to abandon their wives and children.
To say otherwise is to place a greater value on “disrupting” a social order (which presumably and ironically might be to alleviate poverty) than on "disrupting" the actual biological needs of women and children who are adversely affected by that abandonment.
Moreover, Myles is again deviating from my stated metrics, which measure Jesus against whatever standards NT ethicists use, regardless of whether those are from the Left or Right, whatever that means.
If NT ethicists think that Jesus is alleviating poverty, then not giving any thought to how his demands impoverish families reflects a biased view of whose poverty deserves moral consideration.
If NT ethicists believe it is ethical to alleviate poverty, but Jesus is actually creating poverty, then that is all I need to prove my point that Jesus is not a friend of the poor.
MALE BREADWINNERS AND WIDOWS
The fact that males were seen as breadwinners by Jesus is clear from the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9, 11: Our Father who art in heaven...Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus clearly saw a male figure, the heavenly father, as a bread giver. It is not just a modern stereotype.
That abandoned women were particularly vulnerable is evidenced by the discussions of widows in the NT. Contrary to what may appear to be the case, the Greek word (chvra) for widow is not restricted to a woman whose husband has died.
As noted by The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (9.440): “Hence, chvra, can mean not only a ‘widow’ but also a ‘woman living without a husband.’” This usage for a husband-less woman, even if the husband is alive, is suggested in the Septuagint as well (cf. 2 Samuel 20:3: “living as in widowhood”)
Such a term, then, could encompass any wives abandoned by the disciples. In biblical texts, widows are almost universally described as living in an economically disadvantaged and perilous situation (see Exodus 22:21-24, Deuteronomy 12:18, Mark 12:41-44, 1 Timothy 5:3-16).
Acts 6:1 indicates that widows were not normally seen as “breadwinners” but as economically dependent: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.”
Jesus’ description of a widow’s legal peril is included in a diatribe against the scribes “who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40).
Therefore, the abandoned wives of subsistence farmers or fishermen are probably not looked upon as thriving “breadwinners,” but as women who depend on assistance from the community or the wider kinship system.
In fact, Myles’ own book The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014) says that “[r]ecent social-scientific scholarship has also seriously challenged the belief that fishermen were financially secure” (p. 105).
If that is the case, then what is wrong with my conclusion that abandoning the families of a financially insecure fishermen would economically harm the women and children of those fishermen?
In his blog post, Myles says:
For the peasant class in an ancient agrarian economy, familial welfare was localized at the level of the household (a social structure in some ways similar but in no way identical to the modern concept of family).
If so, then what is wrong with my conclusion that losing a major contributor to a household would not be good for “familial welfare” of the women and children of that household?
How would the economic disadvantage of abandonment be lessened if we called that unit a “household” or a “family”? As long as the economic inputs depended on a person in that unit, then the loss of that person could negatively affect the unit.
A NEGLECT OF GALILEAN ECONOMICS?
According to Myles, my critique of modern New Testament ethics is flawed because I have neglected to embed Jesus within the Galilean socioeconomic context. As he phrases it:
Because, as I mentioned above, a moral assessment in respect of economics is necessarily perspectival (i.e. being ‘uneconomic’ depends on one’s failure to fulfill a designated subject role in a particular economic system), for Avalos’ moral critique to work he has to embed Jesus within a particular socioeconomic context, whether explicitly or implicitly. For instance, is Jesus a bad peasant within the class system of an ancient agrarian economy?
This criticism is flawed for two reasons:
A. I did embed Jesus in a socio-economic context. If you look at the last two paragraphs of the extract in the Appendix, one will see my attempt to do so. In fact, my assessment that fishermen and peasants were living in a disadvantaged situation does not really differ from Myles’ assessment. I have plenty of discussion elsewhere on what we can or cannot say about Galilean economics.
B. Myles shifts my focus on the negative economic RESULTS of abandonment by the disciples to the REASONS why the disciples may have abandoned their families. The reasons for why the disciples have abandoned the families, however, will not invalidate my conclusions that such abandonment would have negative results. So his criticism still does not address that issue.
He says I should have consulted K. C. Hanson on the economics of Galilean fishing, but that is not a very effective criticism because I did consult another source (Victor Matthews) whose views really did not differ from those of Hanson on the precarious nature of fishing and peasant farming. Consider these statements:
A. As Victor Matthews observes “The forming of fishing cooperatives allowed families to work together and share the risks and burdens of the sea” (The Bad Jesus, p. 203).
B. Hanson: “Suffice it to say, the largest part of the population was composed of peasant farmers, and the family functioned as both a producing and consuming unit. This means that relatives normally worked together, and that kinship ties were fundamental for "guild" or trade relations. (K. C. Hanson, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition” Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 [1997 99-111.
C. Myles: "For the peasant class in an ancient agrarian economy, familial welfare was localized at the level of the household (a social structure in some ways similar but in no way identical to the modern concept of family)."
I am not sure how using Hanson would have changed my conclusions based on Matthews, or how my assessment of the predicament of peasants and fishermen differ from those of Myles.
To make his critique more effective, Myles would have to show that Hanson provided something Matthews lacked in the effort to answer the question of whether abandonment would have impoverished families of peasant farmers and/or fishermen.
THE ANDROCENTRIC BIAS OF MYLES’ VIEWS
In reading both his review of The Bad Jesus, and his The Homeless Jesus, one feature is quite salient to me.
Myles’ entire view of the disciples is based on a male viewpoint, and there is hardly any consideration for any women (or children) left behind. Although I can elaborate further if necessary, here are the main elements of my counterargument:
A. Nowhere does Myles address directly the question of what happens to any children, sisters, or mothers left behind by the disciples. This despite the fact, that Jesus himself says: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel” (Mark 10:29).
B. Myles’ attention is focused almost solely on the MEN who left their families. It is about the poverty of and anxiety suffered by the MALES, including Jesus. Here is one typical example:
A further noteworthy point is that by leaving their households and following Jesus, the disciples (whether fishermen or other characters move further into the margins of first-century Palestinian society. Given the context of an honour-and-shame-saturated culture, the male disciples’ displacement from the household means that their identities as householders and/or sons of the household are strained. For Jesus and the disciples to be without a house, in no-place, was therefore to be deprived of a role either as a householder, which given his age would have been his normal position, as a son in a household. Accordingly, their already precarious standing within the wider socio-symbolic order is threatened (The Homeless Jesus, p. 107; my underlined emphasis)
Nowhere is there any reflection, moral, economic, or otherwise, on what anxieties or economic hardships the women and children of the abandoned families suffered.
Myles assumes that “disrupting” some social order is enough to justify what the disciples did without any thought about how such a “disruption” affected real women and children.
Although I will not elaborate here, Myles also seems to resists the notion that these disciples left voluntarily or for any other reason than that they were “forced” by the economic system to seek an alternative life. He sometimes offers no evidence from the texts themselves, and that is certainly not something one finds in Mark 1:16-20.
And why can’t it be the case that there were some men in ancient Galilee, just as there are now, who don’t want familial responsibilities, and blame “the system” for not helping to support their wives and children?
It seems both possibilities should be explored. Therefore, Myles’ whole approach can also reflect an upper privileged male view of family abandonment, where it is assumed that “the system” will take care of families that men abandoned.
WHO IS THE CAPITALIST?
According to Myles' view of the disciples in the Gospels:
The text constructs Jesus and the disciples as radicals who do not live according to societal expectations. Similarly, ‘breadwinners’ who abandon exploitative social structures are disruptive to the smooth functioning of capitalist society.
Myles again seems to believe that disrupting the “smooth functioning” of a capitalist system excuses family abandonment. It does not always excuse it because biological needs remain for the families abandoned. He focuses on disrupting “the system” but not on disrupting the lives of women and children. He calls them "radicals," and so follows in the Christian apologetic tradition of seeing the disciples as heroes.
In the case of ancient Galilee, the needs of abandoned wives and children might not be met as easily as in a modern nation where there are more social welfare options, even if they are not always adequate.
Given that Jesus is promising future rewards for real labor given to him (as part of his mission of bringing about the Kingdom of God) by the disciples, then how is Jesus not more akin to a capitalist than some egalitarian or agrarian revolutionary?
Note again Jesus’s promised gains, which are not different from the gains any modern capitalist might promise “investors” or those contributing labor to his enterprise:
 Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,
 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
In the case of Jesus and in the case of modern investing, there is an exchange. In both cases, the exchange involves promised rewards (e.g., houses, lands) in return for the expenditure of actual labor and or loss of material resources.
Indeed, “eternal life” can be viewed as a commodity or profit that Jesus promises. He promises gains of “a hundredfold.” According to Jesus, disrupting any system is worthwhile because the disciples will receive MORE than they expended.
Jesus promises a profit that disciples may never see or can never verify to exist in return for real labor they are expending. Meanwhile real mouths to feed are being neglected, and real sufferings are being experienced by their abandoned families.
Talk about wage slavery! You get nothing for working for Jesus, and for abandoning real families for Jesus.
Here is where Myles neglects another comparison I made with Harold Camping (1921-2013), who also believed future rewards were coming for those who followed his predictions of the end of the world on May 21, 2011. People lost loved ones, and some families became destitute (The Bad Jesus, p. 224). Indeed, the value of any disruption for Camping’s followers was only worth it if those future rewards came to pass.
But I don’t hear Myles or most New Testament ethicists praising Camping and his followers for “disrupting” capitalist economics. He fails to see that religious systems are in themselves also economic systems that operate by extracting labor and financial expenditures and promising profits or commodities (e.g., eternal life) in return.
But those willing to give up their current lives presumably really DID BELIEVE that the world was ending, and so it is THE BELIEF that may force their actions more than “the system.”
Moreover, no biblical scholars I know in an American or New Zealand university can escape the charge of being heavily invested in a capitalist, neoliberal and colonialist system of which they often function as agents. Such universities are, to use Myles’ own words, part of “a tradition largely entangled with the development and implementation of capitalist economics.”
|Maori of New Zealand|
A university in New Zealand or in the United States is located on indigenous lands from which we, as professors, are deriving income and a livelihood at the expense of the displaced peoples. As agents of universities, we help perpetuate class distinctions by dividing people into “university educated” and those who are not.
Both Myles and I participate in a profession in which our books are often priced at levels that the poor cannot afford. We sell them to other privileged professors or college educated consumers to advance our careers, which commodify writing. Universities create hierarchies, and facilitate the channeling of human labor to multinational corporations.
To say that Dawkins and Hitchens represent some neoconservative, neoliberal, or capitalist ideology, and then forget that most universities function to reproduce the dominant socio-economic system, is to deflect attention from our own complicity in that system.
Myles and I are part of the colonizing empires, and we are agents of that empire as long as we derive our income from it. In my case, I at least have indigenous roots in the Americas, but most professors of European heritage in the United States or New Zealand do not. So most of these professors are still agents of the colonizer’s institutions, and not inhabitants of some Marxist utopia.
Instead of exploring whether New Atheists are part of some neoliberal or capitalist ideology, Myles (and all scholars) should explore the question of whether one can be Marxist and a privileged university professor.
And most professors are privileged compared to the dispossessed indigenous people on whose lands most universities still sit in the Americas or in New Zealand.
Other objections used by Myles depend on truisms that are not useful for answering the question at hand: Is it reasonable to conclude that abandonment would impoverish the families of the disciples? Let’s take a look at one of these truisms:
Labels that affix negative stereotypes to social and economic outcasts–such as ‘deadbeat dads’–operate as situated discourses of class warfare that re-inscribe the assumptions of bourgeois culture.
Perhaps so, but why would that not also apply to any negative labels he uses? For example, we can also say:
Labels that affix negative stereotypes to social and economic outcasts –such as “New Atheists”–operate as situated discourses of class warfare that re-inscribe the assumptions of bourgeois culture.
OR we could say:
Speaking of the "assumptions of bourgeois culture" is also part of a situated discourse that labels groups and re-inscribes the assumptions of another ideological perspective.
More importantly, such truisms have no value for answering the question of whether families abandoned by a main source of income were impoverished.
Whether one calls certain social units families or households, they have a real existence in ancient Palestine insofar as they include people who have biological needs for food and sustenance. Their members contribute to those units, and the loss of members can have deleterious consequences for the acquisition of food. Caloric necessities will not change because of where my discourse is situated.
Myles fits very well into an apologetic tradition that wishes to portray the disciples as heroes or victims of "the system" without any serious exploration of whether they can be considered as unethical deadbeat dads, sons, etc.
For Myles, their heroism consists of “disrupting” the smooth functioning of an economic system, as though that in itself is a virtue.
Along with Burridge, Verhey, and others I mentioned specifically, Myles also does not give any attention to impoverishment of abandoned women, which are explicitly mentioned as abandoned in Mark 10:28-30, and elsewhere. In that sense, his selection of who deserves moral considerability is very androcentric.
Myles' whole methodological objection to The Bad Jesus is invalid because he does not address the method I actually use. My main method is to compare Jesus’ teachings and practices against the ethical standards that NT ethicists accept.
Instead, Myles diverted attention to whether the New Atheists were capitalists or whether the UDHR implicitly accepts wage slavery. All these may be true, but they are irrelevant to the question of whether Jesus complied with the standards accepted by those scholars.
Myles should have judged The Bad Jesus by evaluating whether Jesus did or did not comply with the standards declared or presupposed by the ethicists I identify.
QUESTIONS FOR DR. MYLES
I hope these questions help to focus the discussion on the issues that I raised, and advance dialogue on how biblical scholars approach poverty in biblical texts.
1. Is it reasonable to conclude that adult males abandoning their households or families would have an adverse economic effect on the wives and children of those households or families in ancient Galilee?
2. If abandonment does have an adverse effect, then why would it be wrong to call that abandonment unethical?
3. If NT ethicists believe it is ethical to alleviate poverty, but Jesus is actually asking the disciples to do something that would impoverish their families, then why is it unreasonable to conclude that Jesus is asking something unethical of the disciples?
4. Do you hold that disrupting an economic system is sufficient to render the abandonment of wives and children as ethical?
5. Where exactly did Barton or Moxnes engage in moral reflection about the fate of the families abandoned by the disciples or in any of the questions I posed (e.g., How are these families supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only breadwinners? Is it morally right for someone to abandon a family in the first place?).
6. Why did you not engage in such moral reflection in The Homeless Jesus?
NOTE: Unless noted otherwise, all biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
The Bad Jesus, pp. 201-203
Heroic Disciples or Deadbeat Dads?
The call of the twelve disciples is nearly universally praised as a story of
faith displayed by men who were willing to follow Jesus. One version of
this call is found in Mark:
And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little
farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him (Mk 1.16-20).
In another instance, Jesus seems to make an equally outrageous demand:
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go’. And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father’. But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Mt. 8.18-22).
Imagine if a group of twelve men today left their families to follow a man
they just met or barely knew. What sorts of questions would arise? For starters,
one might ask what happened to their families? How are these families
supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only
breadwinners? Who will assume the burden of the burial that the scribe
abandoned? Is it morally right for someone to abandon a family in the first
However, these are hardly the sorts of questions asked by New Testament
ethicists. For example, two major treatments of the family in early
Christianity by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch show no interest in these
questions.20 Leslie J. Hoppe, who wrote an entire book on poverty in the
Bible, also has no serious discussion of how Jesus’ demands on his disciples
probably impoverished their families. As far as Hoppe is concerned, the disciples already ‘shared the lot of the poor’. Burridge simply notes that following Jesus ‘involves leaving everything at Jesus’ command, as Peter later reminds him’ (cf. Mk 10.28//Mt. 19.27). Burridge offers no further moral reflection on how the disciples ‘leaving everything’ might have affected their families.
The main reason is that Christian ethicists assume that Jesus’ call is
praiseworthy, and his rewards are real and better than what the followers
could have gained by feeding their families. So the disciples are viewed as
heroic. Verhey cites Mk 1.16-20 in a section titled ‘Mark: Heroic Discipleship
in the Counter-Empire’. Alan [sic] Matera tells readers that ‘[e]mbracing
the Kingdom of God entails a new way of thinking that often contradicts
the values and standards of this age’. Of course, Matera assumes that contradicting those values is a good thing on the part of Jesus and the disciples.
Hoppe tells readers that ‘the tradition is unanimous in asserting that material,
economic poverty is an outrage’. Yet, Hoppe also says that ‘Jesus was
able to disassociate himself from possessions because they accounted for
nothing in terms of the reign of God that he was called to announce’. What
is so outrageous about poverty if possessions account for nothing in terms
of the reign of God?
Once one begins to think more seriously about what Jesus wanted the
disciples to do, it becomes very clear to anyone who studies basic economics
that abandonment would impoverish the corresponding families
almost immediately. If that family has infants, then those infants may be
left without much food. Any wives are now left more vulnerable. Any hired
servants may go unpaid. There was seemingly no notice given to every
affected family by these disciples, but the anxiety of such an abandonment
is hardly ever the subject of any compassion or sympathy by New Testament
scholarship. These disciples are never labeled as deadbeat dads, cruel
The Gospels provide some economic data, even if some of it is embellished
for literary and theological effect. The situations described must have
had some verisimilitude for the stories to work. In the story of the miraculous
draught of fish in John 21, the narrator tells us that some of the disciples
‘went out and got into the boat; but that night they caught nothing’ (Jn
That means that some fishermen might have returned empty handed
to their families. John 21.11 reports that Peter’s catch totaled 153 fish,
and that was considered a miracle. The story tells us that some of the catch
was eaten for breakfast by the fishermen, who worked all night (Jn 21.10-
11), and so one has to subtract that from what the rest of the family would
eat from that catch. The Lukan variant of that story tells readers that one
of the boats belonged to Simon, and that he had partners to help him (Lk.
5.3-7). As Victor Matthews observes ‘The forming of fishing cooperatives
allowed families to work together and share the risks and burdens of the
sea.’ Those risks would be magnified if these fishermen left their families.