on June 17, 2006
COMMENTARY: Dominic Crossan is an emeritus professor of biblical studies; in 1985 he helped found the Jesus Seminar group. Born in Ireland, he entered the Servite Order in the Roman Catholic Church in 1950 at the age of 16, then, in 1957, he was ordained a priest, but left the Order and the priesthood in 1969 to marry and to avoid conflicts of interest between institutional loyalties and scholarly honesty. This book was written to present important ideas developed more fully in "Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography", which was itself a briefer version of "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant." Thus, to make a précis of material that has already been condensed and simplified by the author may serve only to whet curiosity, illustrating some of the ideas deserving of further reading. Each chapter begins with selections from letters written to the author by readers with a wide variety of responses to his writings. Also each of the nine chapters is written to answer a key question (given in caps below).
CHAPTER 1: The first chapter addresses 'WHY NOT JUST READ THE GOSPELS?' The assumption inherent in this question (that reading the Gospels is sufficient to understand who Jesus was and what Jesus did) is shown to run into difficulties: first, the four NT Gospels don't agree with one another on many details; second, there were a number of other Gospels written about Jesus that were used as references by the writers of the NT Gospels or appeared independently and circulated in the early churches along with the four. Examples of the former type are: the Q Gospel, a reference text that both Matthew and Luke refer to, and The Gospel of Thomas, a sayings of Jesus collection found in Egypt in 1945. Modern biblical scholars use cultural, historical and textual analyses in attempting to reconstruct a consistent picture of the historical Jesus. The very fact that so many Gospels and versions of Gospels were in circulation in early Christian communities suggests that a given version best met the needs and notions of a particular group; thus implying that each version was produced more to fit the author's purposes than to represent a scientifically factual or exhaustively verified historical record.
CHAPTER 2: Responds to the question: 'SON OF GOD; SON OF THE VIRGIN MARY?' The birth stories are considered to offer little light on the real person, Jesus, who walked the dusty roads of Galilee. Their value is other than literal historical fact (Mark. for instance skips over them and begins his Gospel at the time Jesus meets John the Baptist.) Crossan likens them to overtures to a musical, giving hints of the significance of what is to follow. The birth stories given by Luke and Matthew are radically different but represent each author's similar idea of Jesus' significance. Luke's version links John's birth to that of great heroes of Israel's past, but presents Jesus' birth as the even greater promise for the future. Matthew tells Jesus' birth using echoes of the story of Moses with the tacit message that Jesus was the new and greater Moses. Both use Israel's past to proclaim Jesus as Israel's future. The virgin birth was another way the Gospel writers emphasized the significance of Jesus; it meant that his birth was equal to the birth mode of other popular heroes, including Augustus himself, those born of women impregnated by gods (and in Jesus' case foreshadowed in Isaiah by selective translation of the Hebrew word for young woman). The Gospel writers were making the point that God was to be found in Jesus, the peasant of Galilee rather than in Augustus, the emperor of Rome. To say that Jesus was God or the Son of God is a statement of faith rather than a statement of biology; however, it is a fact that many have been able to find God in Jesus.
CHAPTER 3: WHAT DOES JOHN THE BAPTIST HAVE TO DO WITH JESUS? Crossan finds it reasonable to conclude that Jesus was a follower of John's but later broke away when his own convictions centered on God's present availability rather than his future intervention. From the reference to Joseph as a carpenter and the presumption that Jesus followed his father's occupation, it can be inferred that Jesus would have been associated with the lower classes of society. Crossan elaborates on the social structure of the time and points out that artisans were near the lowest rung on the social ladder, beneath peasant farmers and just above the outcasts (beggars, slaves, outlaws and the unclean).
CHAPTER 4: WHAT DID JESUS TEACH? One of the most common subjects of Jesus' teachings is the Kingdom of God (or Heaven, as Matthew would have it). But these phrases may be misleading; they are often (as with John the Baptist) associated with a future reality and with heaven rather than the earth. John preached the imminent overpowering intervention by God in the affairs of the earth. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he meant what this world (here and now) would be like if God, rather than Caesar, sat on the imperial throne. How does God want the world run? God is waiting for us to bring about a divine social revolution. The word "Kingdom" itself has lost its suggestive utility in a world unfamiliar with the absolute political power that kings possessed in ancient times. Jesus intended the Kingdom of God to be the symbol of a way of life that transcended and called into question all forms of human rule and social custom -- it has overtones of high treason for the existing order. Thus Jesus attacked even such things as family values because in his time the family group was closed and authoritarian (patriarchal) whereas in God's Kingdom a new community of persons who do the will of God is our primary kinship -- a group that is open and accessible to all under God. The poor (destitute) are blessed because they no longer are able to participate in an unjust social system. Crossan points out that the parable of the mustard seed (whose seeds, once sprouted, grow like weeds and attract unwanted birds) can be interpreted as saying that the Kingdom of God is like a vegetative pest to those who own carefully cultivated gardens. In the parable of the reluctant dinner guests the kingdom is pictured as a new all-inclusive meal arrangement and Jesus lived this vision by holding an open table symbolizing oneness, equality and community.
CHAPTER 5: DID JESUS PERFORM MIRACLES? Crossan distinguishes between nature miracles, which were done for disciples or relatives, and healing miracles, which were mostly done for outsiders. The miracles that Jesus performed for his followers (stilling the waters, changing water to wine, etc.) were included to establish his authority; they attest to Jesus' special place irrespective of whether they are meant to be taken literally. The healing miracles, on the other hand, underscore the truth of "faith heals" by processes we do not fully understand. The stories may also have been chosen for the sufferer to symbolize the state of Jewish society -- in healing a "leper" of his illness, Jesus touched him, welcomed the excluded untouchable back into the community of God's people. Jesus was also reported to have exorcised demons (as any healer of his day would have been expected to do), but again, the legion of demons harbored in pigs and driven into the sea could quite likely have been an allegory for the end of occupation by the Roman legions. Crossan leaves open what God could do but feels we shouldn't discern the holy only in the unnatural. He makes the point that it is not the ancient people telling literal stories and we moderns being smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they were told symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally.
CHAPTER 6: DID JESUS INTEND TO START A NEW RELIGION? No! -- but Jesus did have a program; namely, to live a life under a God of radical justice in a kingdom of utter equality. His free healing and open eating were rebellions against the Jewish and Roman social orders; his life was lived on the borderline of covert and overt peasant resistance to the established order. Jesus empowered those around him to become involved in living a new life. In discussing the sending out of disciples on mission, Crossan comments that sending them two by two probably meant sending male/female pairs, evidence of the gender equality in Jesus' new approach. The admonitions not to carry purse, bag or sandals emphasized that they were to be dependent on the community of believers rather than proudly self-sufficient as the Cynic itinerant teachers. Itinerants and householder peasants were at the bottom of Roman and Jewish societies. The program Jesus promoted was designed to overcome the envy of the dispossessed and the fear that the peasants had for the homeless through the healing interaction that shared food and lodging brought about.
CHAPTER 7: WHO EXECUTED JESUS AND WHY? The Romans used crucifixion as a deterrent to rebellion. It was a painful and humiliating death that often (like death by burning or being eaten by wild animals) was not followed by burial since the victims dead on a cross were routinely left for carrion eaters. Thus, it meant personal annihilation. Crossan believes that the crowd that gathered to welcome Jesus as he entered Jerusalem and his action in starting a near riot in the temple courtyard marked him by the Romans as enough of a dangerous rebel to justify arresting him and crucifying him as an example to other potential troublemakers. Everything else known about Pilate makes it unlikely that he would behave as the Gospels describe -- letting the Jewish authorities have any say in the treatment of Roman prisoners. The passion narratives were written a half century after the events and thus include stories and justifications circulated over fifty years and reflect the situation of the early church in its conflict with the "bad" Jews who didn't follow Jesus like they, the "good" Jews did. Similarly, although meaningful for the early Jewish converts, the language of blood sacrifice which came from the ancient temple worship created an atonement theology that is alien to our world and implies an obscene caricature of the God that Jesus preached.
CHAPTER 8: WHAT HAPPENED ON EASTER SUNDAY? The real Easter story is not about the events of a single day; these stories, like others, were prompted by leadership struggles in the early church. Resurrection is only one of the metaphors used to express the sense of Jesus' continuing presence. For example, Paul never mentions an empty tomb. It is likely that the other apostles (e.g., Peter, John, etc.) may, like Paul, have had a vision or inner experience of Jesus continuing to be with them to empower them for the work of the Kingdom and the gospel writer's closest analogy employed a resurrection metaphor.
CHAPTER 9: HOW DO YOU GET FROM JESUS TO CHRIST? Jesus planted the vision of God's rule into the soil of his society. After his death, his power continued in his disciples and the evolving explanation of his influence brought in the expectations and experiences of believers tinged with wonder and divine interpretation. However, a consistent believer's faith that Jesus was the Christ must be true to the good news proclaimed by the historical Jesus and, thus, not be used to justify social or moral segregation of those who call themselves Christians; it must lead to integration of faith and action, not to divisive exclusions.