Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. By John Dominic Crossan. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. 209 pp. Paper, $12.00.
John Dominic Crossan is one of the more influential members of the “Jesus Seminar” (a group of 74 scholars who have recently voted that Jesus spoke only 18% of what is attributed to Him in the NT). Crossan has written extensively on what we can know about the life of Jesus. This book is well written, and very readable condensed version of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
Members and followers of the Jesus Seminar believe that Jesus Christ was a Jewish Cynic Philosopher. Cynics in those times lived contrary to society in general and did many socially unacceptable things to protest the social structure which they saw as confining. This becomes the context in which the life of Jesus is understood.
According to the author, the kingdom of God for Jesus was not a future event but rather a mode of life in the immediate present. Jesus did not actually heal people’s diseases. Crossan makes a distinction between healing an illness (accepting those who were social outcasts as a symbol for Jesus’ vision of an egalitarian society), and curing a disease (when someone is actually healed). Jesus also invited people from unacceptable social backgrounds (e.g., tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners) to eat with Him. Crossan calls this combination “magic and meal.” Jesus’ acceptance of all people, no matter how poor or sinful, was radically egalitarian and negated the ancient Mediterranean pivotal values of honor and shame, patronage and clientele, and the culture’s and civilization’s hierarchies, discriminations, and exclusions. This is considered to be the heart of Jesus’ message.
Crossan’s unique argument against the resurrection denies that Jesus was ever buried. If Jesus was buried, it was only in a shallow grave where He was later torn to pieces by wild dogs. He believes that the first Christians did not see any special significance in His untimely death or have a concept of the resurrection. Instead these followers tried to live out the radical egalitarian vision of their founder and continued to center themselves around open meals and symbolic healings as a means of demonstrating their egalitarianism.
Crossan focuses on materials that he dates between A.D. 30 and 60. He feels that the greater the number of independent attestations for a given saying, the greater the chance that it stems from Jesus Himself. Any saying that occurs once is eliminated even if it occurs in the first stratum. According to Crossan, Q (material common to Matthew and Luke) and the Gospel of Thomas (114 sayings of Jesus), represent the earliest records of these communities. The Gospels, Acts, and Pauline epistles represent later Christian “Mythmaking” about Jesus. They do not represent either the historical Jesus or His earliest communities. The narratives on the resurrection of Christ as well as His nature miracles are stories that were written to give the disciples power and position in the community.
Crossan has a number of presuppositions that allow him to reconstruct Jesus in the way that he does. (1) The presupposition of anti-supernaturalism has dramatically effected Crossan’s thinking. He never demonstrates that God cannot do miracles, he only assumes it. (2) He has a preference for extra or non-canonical sources. He places significant portions of the Gospel of Thomas and Q in the first layer of tradition, whereas the canonical Gospels are excluded from this first layer. (3) He also enlists very questionable dating procedures, giving the Gospel of Thomas a very early date. The vast majority of scholars date the Gospel of Thomas no earlier than 140 A.D. The Gospel of Thomas also exhibits clear evidence of being influenced by second century Gnostic thought. Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans are dated in the 50’s by most scholars, yet they are considered irrelevant by Crossan. He also never interacts with the evidence for the early dating and authorship of the Gospels.
There are a number of problems with specific arguments used in this book. First, Crossan argues from the general to the specific. Pointing out that most people who were crucified were not buried, he concludes that therefore Jesus was not buried. The burial of Christ is mentioned in every Gospel and in 1 Cor 15:3-4. These are at least two independent traditions. Paul also uses the words “delivered” and “received,” referring to oral tradition. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in A.D. 55, and most likely received this tradition from Peter and James while he was in Jerusalem, three years after the death of Christ (Gal 1:18-19). This places the tradition back to the event itself as it took time to formulate it. A general statement cannot outweigh specific eyewitness testimony, especially when it only says thatmost were not buried as opposed to all.
Second, Crossan ignores the fact that a number of Jesus’ teachings were inconsistent with Cynicism. Jesus forbade His followers to carry a knapsack and staff, whereas these items were trademarks of the Cynics.
Third, he fails to demonstrate why his Jesus, who supposedly never spoke of Himself as having a decisive role in God’s final plans and who showed acceptance of other people by eating with them and symbolically healing them, could ever get Himself crucified. Such a Jesus would never have been a threat to the Roman empire. The author also never comes to grip with the martyrdom of the disciples and Paul, who died saying that Jesus was Lord and that He appeared to them after His death in bodily form.
Fourth, although Crossan shows that Jesus had different ideas than society in general about the treatment of others, he never demonstrates that Jesus sought to reform a peasant society by advocating a radical egalitarianism. There is no evidence that Jesus confronted village officials, patrons, landlords, or owners of tenant farms or argued for a new vision of society. Jesus’ confrontations were with religious authorities. Crossan also never establishes that the meals Jesus shared with others and the symbolic healings reflected a new egalitarian agenda.
Finally, he disregards Jesus’ message. The miracles He performed, although secondary to His message, were done to authenticate that message. Crossan strips Jesus of His message and then tries to reconstruct a new one on the basis of actions.
Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography is must reading for anyone who wants to understand how the scholars of the Jesus Seminar committee arrived at their reconstruction of our Lord Jesus Christ.
R. Michael Duffy