John Dominic Crossan’s Strange Jesus
By Rev. Robert Barron
I confess that I was a little surprised when I visited the CNN website and found a feature on John Dominic Crossan, the controversial scholar of the historical Jesus. I was surprised, not so much that Crossan was being profiled, but that the article was not appearing at Christmas or Easter or on the occasion of a papal visit. Dr. Crossan, you see, is a favorite of the mainstream media, who never seem to miss an opportunity to try to debunk classical Christianity, especially on major Christian holidays.
Crossan was a Catholic priest who left the priesthood in the late 1960’s, finding that he was unable to hold to orthodox Christian beliefs concerning the divinity of Jesus. He gave himself to the study of first century Jewish culture and to the discovery of who Jesus “really” was, once the veneer of traditional dogma had been scraped away. Throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties of the last century, Crossan published a whole series of books and articles laying out his vision of Jesus as a “Mediterranean peasant” who had the temerity to challenge the Roman power structure, to advocate the concerns of the poor, and to show the power of the path of non-violence. Now Crossan is a graceful writer and a careful scholar, and I’ll acknowledge gratefully that I’ve learned a great deal from him. His emphasis on Jesus’ “open table fellowship” and his readings of Jesus’ parables as subversive stories are both, I think, right on target. The problem is that he so consistently reads Jesus through a conventional political lens that the effectively reduces him to the level of social reformer. How does Crossan explain the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? They are, he says, essentially “parables,” figurative representations of the disciples’ conviction that Jesus’ way was more powerful than the Roman way. They were never meant to be taken literally but rather as poetic inspirations for the succeeding generations of Jesus’ followers. How does he explain the church’s dogma of Jesus’ divinity? It is, essentially, a misleading overlay that effectively obscures the dangerous truth of who Jesus really was: a threat to the cultural, religious, and political status quo.
Skilled at translating academic debates into relatively accessible language and blessed with a charming Irish brogue, Crossan became a favorite of television producers and documentarians. On numerous programs and specials, Crossan has popularized his reductionistic vision of Jesus and has succeeded in convincing many that orthodox Christology is appealing only to those who haven’t taken the time to think through the historical evidence clearly. Time and again, he has argued that his version of Christianity is for those who haven’t “left their brains at the door.”
The little problem, of course, is that Crossan is compelled to ignore huge swaths of the New Testament in order to maintain his interpretation. All of the evangelists indeed present Jesus as a dangerous, even subversive, figure, a threat to the conventional Jewish and Roman ways of organizing things, but they are much more interested in the utterly revolutionary fact that Jesus is the Son of God. They assert that he is Lord of the Sabbath and that he is greater than the Temple; they show him as claiming authority over the Torah itself; they relate stories of his blithely forgiving sins; they report his breathtaking words, “unless you love me more than your mother or father…more than your very life, you are not worthy of me;” they consistently show him as the master of the forces of nature. The only one who could legitimately say or effectively do any of these would be the one who is himself divine. St. John gives explicit and philosophically precise expression to this conviction when he says, in regard to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” To maintain that all of this is a distorting overlay is simply absurd and requires that one blind oneself to the deepest intention of the evangelists themselves.
And the theory that the resurrection is an imaginative construct gives every indication of having been formulated in a faculty lounge and, in fact, does violence to the spirit of the early Christianity. What one senses on practically every page of the New Testament is an excitement generated by something utterly new, strange, unprecedented. When the first Christians proclaimed the Gospel, they didn’t say a word about Jesus’ preaching; what they talked about was his resurrection from the dead. Look through all of Paul’s letters, and you’ll find a few words about Jesus’ “philosophy,” but you’ll find, constantly, almost obsessively, reiterated the claim that God raised Jesus from death. The great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, moreover, that the very emergence of Christianity as a messianic movement is practically unintelligible, on historical grounds, apart from the reality of the resurrection. This is the case because one of the chief expectations of the Messiah was that he would conquer the enemies of Israel. Someone’s death at the hands of the Romans, therefore, would be the surest sign imaginable that that person was not the Messiah. Yet the first believers announced, over and again, that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel: Jesus Christ simply means “Jesus the Messiah.” How could they possibly say this unless they were convinced that in some very real way Jesus had indeed proven more powerful than his Roman executioners? This is where we see how untenable Crossan’s reading is. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then his disciples had no business saying that he had conquered Rome or that his way was more powerful than the Roman way. In fact, one would be justified in maintaining just the opposite.
My hope is that careful students of the New Testament and of early Christianity will see that John Dominic Crossan’s painfully reductive reading is a distortion of who Jesus was and that classical orthodox Christianity tells the deepest truth about the one called “the Christ.”