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Treating The Dead Sea Scrolls “Scientifically” Betrays The Imperial Impulse In Secularism

I recently attended a preview discussion for a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which opens March 6, 2018 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  I was among about one hundred people who were invited because they might have a particular interest in bringing groups to the exhibit.  Because I teach a course called Introduction to Textual Studies at Metropolitan State University Denver, I was eager to see what the exhibit might offer students for understanding texts.

What I witnessed, however, was something explicitly political theological in nature.

As an academic who traffics in religious studies and theology, my most frequent discussions are with other academics and students.  But as one can well imagine, that is not the main audience or interest group for a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit.

While I was charmed by what appeared to be genuine interest in the scrolls by members of the public asking questions about how they are dated and who wrote them, I was also appalled and even embarrassed by the ways Christian rhetoric, as it often does, bulldozed Jewish perspectives in a public setting.

Two specific examples may distinguish my point. The museum organizers let the audience know that their frame was historical, not religious, and that while groups were welcome, private group access to the exhibit will be unavailable due to the restricted light exposure necessary for the scrolls.  They did offer one spot (for a hefty donation) to faith-based groups interested in a private event, encouraging groups to reach out to one another and team up.

As they did, one staff member of a local Christian university proudly announced how eager 1700 Christian students were at his university to see this exhibit so central to their faith.  Perhaps more egregiously, a leader from the Church of Latter Day Saints directly “othered” a woman from a Jewish group, addressing her awkwardly as “You…of the Abrahamic persuasion.”

When a member of the public asked the curators asked it the Essenes wrote the scrolls, they stared like deer in headlights.  They framed themselves as scientists presenting a historical exhibit which is of high interest to religious people but not religious itself.  When they offered the microphone to the audience for an answer, I offered (without claiming expertise but because I had taken a course with the well-known Dead Sea Scrolls, scholar, Allison Schofield) that many scholars do think that, but that like most things with the scrolls, there was some amount of disagreement.

I did not, as I would with my students, go on to ask in a teacherly voice who this person thought the Essenes were, and the inevitable questions that follow about Christ’s relationship to the group; or perhaps more compelling from a scholarly perspective, John the Baptist’s relationship to the group. And what evidence do we have that the Essenes were occupying Qumran? If they were, were they the only ones?  And what do our narratives around these issues tell us about us?

Answering one woman’s question about whether the exhibit will deal with contemporary issues around Israel and Jerusalem, the curators reminded folks that no “politically divisive” groups would be tolerated, and that people who bring groups to the museum must be willing to accept that other members of the public will be able to join their group, interrupt them, and even ask them challenging questions. Their IMAX will, however, simultaneously run a film about Jerusalem as told from the perspectives of three women of three respective faiths: Jewish, Christian, and Islam.

It is the hubris of liberal secularism, which is itself derivative of Enlightenment-era Christianity, that political-theologically underwrites so much of how the exhibit is framed and how varying audiences are expected to behave.  But it also underwrites how acceptable it continues to be for people in the U.S. to be publicly ignorant about Judaism.

Rhetorical violence, as we often read with respect to current politics, has real-world effects. In his very good book, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, Daniel Boyarin argues that what comes to be known as Christianity, a couple of centuries after Christ, is indeed birthed through the rhetorical violence of heresiology. I’ll cite a few passages.

Boyarin argues: “at least a significant amount of heresiology, if not its proximate cause, was to define Christian identity – not only to produce the Christian as neither Jew nor Greek but also to construct the whatness of what Christianity would be, not finally a third race or genos but something entirely new, a religion” (4).

He goes on: “While Christianity finally configures Judaism as a different religion, Judaism itself, I suggest, at the end of the day refuses that call, so that seen from that perspective the difference between Christianity and Judaism is not so much a difference between two religions as a difference between a religion and an entity that refuses to be one” (7-8).

Boyarin’s points are congruent with Leora Batnitsky’s argument in How Judaism Became a Religion that, before modernity’s taxonomical necessity to categorize religions by their rank on a scale of rational development, being Jewish was simply a way of life from which the idea of a ‘religion’ as such could not be extracted.  Boyarin claims:

In the end, it is not the case that Christianity and Judaism are two separate or different religions, but that they are two different kinds of things altogether.  From the point of view of the Church’s category foundation, Judaism and Christianity (and Hinduism later on) are examples of the categories of religions, one a bad example and the other a very good one, indeed the only prototype.  But from the point of view of the Rabbis’ categorization, Christianity is a religion and Judaism is not. (13)

Taking a different tack, Jeremy Schott, in Christianity, Empire, and the Making of Religion in Late Antiquity argues “for a consideration of pagan polemics and Christian apologetics not simply as sites of “religious conflict” or the production of “self-definition” but also as both constituted by and constitutive of Roman imperialism” (166).  According to Schott, “early Christian apologetic discourses represented a mode of comparative practice analogous to, and in some ways a basis for, certain early modern and modern discourses of “comparative religion” and the “history of religion(s).”

Schott’s point is worth noting in relation to discussions by scholars of modernity such as Tomoko Masuzawa, Brent Nongbri, and David Chidester who place the invention of religion within the imperial impulses of Euro-Christian colonization. Schott notes that, for writers like Lactantius, “religio marks sets of theological propositions and is theoretically identifiable transhistorically among all peoples,” leading to the claim that “we should locate the ethnological and historical rhetorics of Christian apologetics in the political context of (Roman) imperialism” (167).

This is not so much a debate between whether or not the ancients or moderns invented religion as it is a historical point that often the ways we define religion itself and frame its discussions comes from Christianity of the Roman Empire.  In a broad sense, Schott is in agreement with Willie James Jennings about Christian imperialism forming modern conceptions of race that are inherently political-theological:

The identification of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as ‘new gentiles’ authorized the militant, often violent, extirpation, of traditional religions as ‘idolatry.’  Certain colonialists, such as Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda went so far as to deny that natives possessed the capacity for natural religion at all; as such, they were subhuman and could be exploited as slaves.  At the same time, however, others located the native cultures along a spectrum of ‘civilization.’” (Schott 171)

Ivan Strenski’s Thinking About Religion notes that the modern invention of so-called “natural religion” comes from European discovery of the “new world” and the Protestant Reformation’s contribution to religion “as such,” noting that “the entire rational quest was itself motivated by religious zeal” (17). Modern comparative religion, beginning with Jean Bodin and Hugo Grotius, was largely an attempt to find common religion beneath Protestantism and Catholicism (20), from which emerged the “faculty’”reason as God-given in thinkers like David Hume.

The doubling Christian rhetoric of “othering,” by which Jews are both figured into stock presentations as antitypes (and later stereotypes) in order to delimit Christian identity and ultimately erase and actual, living Jewishness, is palpable in discussions of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Even when we define texts found near Qumran as “Biblical,” we are likely superimposing notions of “Scripture” and “Bible” taxonomies onto communities with no such notions.

The exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Denver, and the awkward conversations that come with it, portray Christian religiosity in all its aspirations to Empire still informing both “religious” and “secular” life in the U.S. Its undefined and privileged frame masks its own “naturalness.” And yes, it has everything to do with racialized identities used to advance Christendom. So, the woman who asked if the exhibition would speak to contemporary issues, and the museum staff’s reluctance to engage them reveal a deeper political-theological unconscious.

Theodore Vial writes in Modern Religion, Modern Race, “our concept of race relies on a theological or philosophical anthropology first worked out by expressivists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (158). Vial’s point is that even when this anthropology is employed to call out Eurocentrism, it still contains within it the teleology of modernity, affecting notions of both race & place (179).  Vial importantly alerts us to the fact that there are limits to our own conceptual structures (227).

Neoliberalism, of which Carl Raschke has been probing in various recent articles in Political Theology Today, I would argue, is a conceptual structure that presents itself as limitlessly capacious and infinitely manifest.  In other words, neoliberal minimizing and dehistoricizing – what Olivier Roy calls Holy Ignorance­ ­– is an attempt to leave nothing, unconscious; indeed, an ultimate attempt to deny the unconscious.

The consciously attempted secular framing of the Dead Sea Scrolls tests neoliberal attempts to minimize and mask its own underwriting in the rationalized version of Christianity, attempting to neutralize all territories and boundaries within its universalizing hegemony, whether we call it, religion, politics, or science.  Museum curators’ ability to disavow the religiosity in their exhibits by appealing to “science” is especially weak here.

What curators and more informed Christians could do is use the exhibit as a space not so much to understand their “origins” (or ongoing will-to-power) but as a way to deconstruct their historical identity and their savior as something different than ancient Jewish life, including the theological-political struggles that produced what Deleuzean “line of flight,” a line of flight I would add, to Qumran.  Identity ‘as such’ is itself the trappings of Christian inventions of religion.  When we fight over identity, we are merely reproducing that framing.

I do not presume to tell non-Christians how to behave. The embarrassment I felt at the talk surely speaks to a way I affectively, if not “by faith,” am enculturated and socialized as a Euro-Christian.  In the same way, I am concerned by the ways U.S. politics and religiosity promotes its alliances with the state of Israel through the same doubling mechanisms that define in order to advance an agenda of erasure (or for some, Parousia).  My privileged citizenship produces shame in me, shame, which Emmauel Levinas called “intention in reverse.”

To conclude, Guy Stroumsa’s The End of Sacrifice argues that Christianity “enlarges the limits of the self, rather than narrowing them.  The Christian self does not disappear into the community; it becomes, on the contrary, emblematic” (25).  People have been misled by “the ambiguous status of reflexivity developed by Christian thinkers” and “the disappearance of sungenia [kinship] between the human and the divine world,” a world in which the separation of humans “prevents a narcissism of the self” and invites the moral reform of the self.

This moral reform was, he says, heightened in the non-elite who were not philosophers who “naturally” possessed the insightful sungenia with the divine. If the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit could promote such insight in the non-elite, I would consider it a success.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

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