At the recent God, Religion and Politics: Election 2015 seminar, there was a non-polemical discussion between Michael Sandford and Justin Meggitt about Jesus and the Cynics after Meggitt’s paper, ‘Jesus, Insurrection and the Politics of Prefiguration’. One striking thing about this was that a discussion about Jesus and the Cynics could actually be non-polemical as this topic must have been one of the most polemical in recent historical Jesus scholarship. In fact, I recall Sandford giving a paper a few years back on how the Jesus movement along with various other groups interacted with socio-economic issues. These different perspectives included Essenes and/or DSS, prophets, bandits etc. and…Cynics. Sandford never made any strict connections (as far as I remember) but rather showed the sorts of ideological engagements that were taking place, as well as placing an emphasis on eschatological traditions which were sometimes seen as inherently antithetical on both sides of the debate. Nevertheless, there was a heated reaction from the some members of the audience about the use of Cynics in Jesus studies (bandits also provoked a reaction, but that’s for another time).
Why was the Cynic debate so heated, especially as adherents of the Cynic thesis would qualify this Jesus as ‘Cynic-like’? I’m not entirely sure myself (or indeed why I might have once felt the need to point out that I wasn’t an adherent of such a thesis, being caught up in my own particularly academic contexts as I was/am) but it was certainly tied in with the rhetoric of Jesus the Jew. Put crudely, the logic would sometimes go like this: Jesus was Jewish and therefore could not have been a Cynic; if you call Jesus a Cynic you are implying that he was not Jewish but Hellenistic or the like, possibly in a similar way to Nazi Jesuses (this link was indeed implied by opponents of the Cynic-like thesis). Now, there are debates to be had on the extent of Cynic presence (or otherwise) in first-century Palestine but the idea that a Jew simply couldn’t be a Cynic and a Cynic means you’re not Jewish (and I don’t think I’m overly caricaturing here) works with some problematic and essentialist assumptions of identity.
|Also from Wiki|
There has been a lot of discussion about constructions of a fixed Jewish identity in scholarship as a backdrop to make Jesus ‘transcend’ this fixed identity (in ways simultaneously using the rhetoric of ‘very Jewish’). But why did the Cynic (-like) thesis cause so much outrage? One reason sometimes given is that it is theologically useless for the implicitly Christian discipline of NT studies and there is no doubt something in this (just read some of the most prominent reactions against a Cynic Jesus…). But even this needs to be qualified. The criticism that the Cynic (-like) thesis played into a particular North American liberal discourse is not without merit either and it is not exactly theologically useless from another perspective: is not difficult to see how this Jesus has its liberal theological uses (just read some of the prominent proponents of a Cynic-like Jesus). Perhaps it might be better to locate some of this debate in the ‘culture wars’ rhetoric, including such debates between churches.
None of this means that discussion of Cynicism is invalid for (ancient) historical reconstruction. I think Sandford was along the right lines in showing how presentations from the Jesus traditions through bandits to Cynics engaged with shifting socio-economic circumstances. Instead of asking whether Jesus was or was not a Cynic, it might be more helpful to think about how traditions negotiated the world around them and not be surprised if there are overlaps and similarities and so on. A study of Cynicism can shed light on the Gospel tradition in this respect, and vice versa. Scholarship has been interested in Jesus as ‘counter cultural’ for some time now; is not Cynicism at least analytically useful as a comparative phenomenon in this respect? Why be scared of that...?