He told them: "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Gospel of Luke 24: 46-48)

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Review and Critic of John Dominic Crossan's book: ‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’


John Dominic Crossan’s book ‘The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’ had at one point a great impact within the third Quest of the Historical Jesus. Crossan presented a new strand within the Quest adopted by a range of modern scholars, such as Marcus Borg, Gerald F. Downing and Burton Mack in which Jesus being born a Jew of the first century, leans slightly towards a Hellenistic mindset, namely in this particular case the Cynics. This approach has resulted in two strains of reactions in modern scholarship; those who strongly favour innovative ideas and approaches, and those who consider Crossan to be highly speculative, to the point of even loosing his academic integrity.

The Situation

In his book Crossan’s historical methodology includes a triadic process, the anthropological, historical and literary approach to history, in which he carefully analyzes the economic, cultural and social-political environment of the Mediterranean world. He proposes the idea that the Historical Jesus can only be discovered by considering not merely the specific era and location of Jesus in Palestine, but the entire environment of the Mediterranean world and situation alike.

Crossan’s assessment depicts the Mediterraean society as notoriously corrupt, unjust and suppressive; mainly controlled by the minority rulers, landowners and corrupt organised religion. He describes vividly the devastating situation of women, children, slaves and particularly the suppressed peasant society; these being deprived of their human rights and drained by imposed taxes.

Desperation caused various rival groups to emerge, such as revolutionists, the bandits, and the thaumaturgical response of prophets and magicians; their aim was to challenge the societal structure.

Jesus according to Crossan

According to Crossan, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, in Crossan’s view a highly Greco-Roman influenced environment due to its proximity to Sepphoris, a Gentile city and regional centre.

Jesus however begins his spiritual journey as a follower of John the Baptist, a prophet promoting an apocalyptic message. Crossan envisages a sudden turning point in which Jesus changes his mind about John and his message. Jesus embarks in a new direction excluding all elements of apocalypticism and the supernatural; which indicates that Jesus turned perhaps to the philosophy he had been exposed to in Sepphoris prior to his association with John, that of Cynicism.

Crossan’s main evidence is Sepphoris’ proximity to Nazareth combined with certain aspects of Jesus’ teaching and his wandering lifestyle. Being a Cynic, Crossan describes Jesus as repulsed with the evils of society, he becomes an introvert who escapes the typical life and structure of society. Yet unlike a Greek Cynic, Crossan’s Jesus is a Jewish Cynic, his mind is set on reformation, to create a new egalitarian society.

His mission begins with a band of disciples, to whom he offers a social program; they challenge the authorities, and seeks to deliver the less fortunate from societal and religious suppression.

To challenge the suppressive societal system and delivering its victims, Jesus and his followers devised two perfect means of resistance, what Crossan entitles ‘magic and meal.’

Magic to Crossan, in this case Jesus’ miracles, is unofficial religion, basically a rival reaction to official religion. Yet to Crossan healing-miracles were not supernatural they were merely declarations.

According to Crossan, the problem was rooted in the priestly system, that had succeeded in applying the idea of sickness as divine reaction to individual sin. This concept had led to mental degradation and suppression, in which the necessity of temple rituals and the cost of ritual participation were the only means of salvation. Others such as lepers were merely ostrized and excluded from society. By declaring the sick pure the priestly system lost its power and those caught in its grip were reintegrated back into society.

Jesus’ focus on exorcism suggests a similar motive, while Crossan in his book excludes any notion of personal demons he describes exorcism as deliverance and recovery from traumatic and mental disorder; particularly of individuals who had been victimised by the unjust structure of society or colonial powers.

The second mean of reform included a meal of commensality. Crossan effectively describes the vitality of sharing a meal, as it symbolised social status and identity. By eating with the poor and the sinful outcasts, Jesus broke the barrier of the class system and the religious exclusion; indeed therefore, to Crossan Christianity is the religion of the poor, the excluded and outcasts, the humble and the victims.

The Jesus of Crossan is also purely sapiental, whereas divine, prophetic and messianic descriptions are considered later myths; Jesus performed no miracles, and his resurrection is considered to be a later invention.

Jesus opposition to the priests and the temple culminated in his death. Initially he was arrested, crucified under Pilate, died, and his body was thrown in a ditch and eaten by the dogs.

Criticism and Evaluation

Generally Crossan’s appraoch has been strongly criticised. His focus on the Gospel strata, his preference to non-canonical Gospels, including the construction of his own, the so called ‘Cross Gospel’ and his criterion of multiple attestation has been deemed highly speculative.

Furthermore, his methods fiercely oppose the rules of archaeology, by basing his assessment from the earliest strata toward the later, while archaeology can only work the other way round.

Also his use of multiple attestation is questionable! Crossan appears highly inconsistent in utilizing this criteria and frequently refrains from this criteria when the information does not suit his own theory and conclusion, such as Jesus’ prediction of his apocalyptic return (Allan, 106).

A third matter relates to the Mediterranean environment, how relevant was it for Galilee and Judea of Jesus time.

The whole Cynic idea has also been criticised; Witherington points out that there is little resemblance in neither message, lifestyle and practice; these two are clearly distinguishable. In fact his focus on the commensality meal might even contradict the Cynic view, as Cynics considered begging to be an honour (Witherington, p.72). Witherington also points out that the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth plays little role, as enmity would separate the locations. Furthermore, no evidence remains that cynic influence flourished in Sepphoris.

Speculative interpretations also mark Crossan’s picture; Jesus change of view relating John the Baptist needs explicit evidence, and his reference to miracles and exorcism as a means of social deliverance is not explicitly evident from the context.

Crossan’s approach to sources is also questionable; he values his interpretations as sufficient if they can be based upon any piece of preceded writings; in fact, in his book, Crossan uses this approach continually; but on what basis is such a conclusion evident, especially, when previous texts and immediate events are strictly exclusive of each other?

Positives about Crossan’s Book

Neverthless Crossan also points out issues of remarkable significance

His book challenges an often typical tendency of Christians to spiritualise even the matters which to Jesus were urgent and practical. While the tendency is to gaze forward and hope for an apocalyptic order and reform only, Crossan describes an immediate social reform against poverty and injustice in which the followers engage and get practical.

Similarly the commensality of shared meals, Crossan gets the point across effectively; while these may not have been the ultimate devise of changing society, Crossan is correct in its outstanding application; Jesus was publically breaking down the barriers of suppression.

Similarly with the healing factor, while the exclusive view of Crossan that healings were a mere announcement of acceptance; the healings certainly triggered such an effect.

Crossan’s view certainly encourages a modern Christian to seek the true values of life, to resist the temptation of pursuing wealth while others lack the basics, to get practical, to speak out where injustice occurs, to liberate the poor and the victims and to seek and fight for what may benefit a suffering majority rather than a benefitted minority.

1 comment:

  1. I found it difficult to get into The Historical Jesus but had accidentally also order his Jesus, A Revolutionary, which is his popularized, shorter version of the first book. I found it profound in opening up what was going on in Jesus life and what he was about. As a Quaker, I resonated with what Jesus was intentionally doing with his life and teachings, creating an actual experience of "being in the midst" of the God's reign, a new way of being that challenges our existing social order and is definitely a nonviolent approach which literally turns one's life upside down and inside out. A place where all tears are wiped from our eyes and we affirm, this IS good news! I have trouble with the phrase "kingdom of God", for it is male oriented and not inclusive, but definitely, what Crossan opens in this book, at least for me, was and is an experience of being in this kingdom, here and now, where that which is now central is the inbreaking of the Spirit.

    The transcendent is not experienced as obvious but as sensed. The playing field we call life is levelled and all are valued and precious and welcome and accepted. Yet many who prefer to cling to what they have do not see it or sense it or allow themselves to be open to it. That does not mean they are outside of God's reign, it means they are blind and deaf to what is real and alive and here right now.

    Crossan never leaves our humanness, let alone Jesus' humanness. Yet, right in the midst our and his human experiences God is sensed, the Spirit is felt, and lives are changed forever.

    What Crossan introduces us to is Jesus stripped of all the layers of interpretation the church has put on him from the beginning. The church has continued to take Jesus further and further out of life and his humanness and steadily elevated his stature into the Godhead. Which to me, is the reverse of the Gospel of John's opening hymn of praise, of the Word coming into life and taking on flesh, being experienced in bodily form, or what all the gospels come to refer to as the in breaking of "the kingdom of God", where Jesus the man is acknowledged as the bringer of this experience, the bearer of this good news and our mentor as we begin to experience this new life opening up within our present life.