Crossan's Historical Jesus

Of all the works I have read that seek to discover the historical Jesus, Dominic Crossan's portrayal rings most true to me...

There are almost as many versions of the historical Jesus as there are seekers of the historical Jesus; a fact Crossan himself is acutely aware of. Crossan's Jesus has been criticised as just another reflection of a liberal theologian's face in the bottom of a deep well, but I contend that in the case of Crossan's historical Jesus, this is an unjust criticism.

Crossan builds his historical Jesus from texts selected on the basis of multiple attestation and stratification. The theory being that texts which are independently used by more than one source, and/or belong to the earliest strata of Christian writings are more likely to bear true witness to the authentic Jesus of history than texts that have been added later for the political or theological purposes of their authors. Crossan uses a triangular focus of historical, literary and social methods applied to both canonical and non-biblical texts to deconstruct the traditional Christ reconstruct a very plausible Jesus of history. The Jesus that Crossan eventually portrays is a Mediteranean peasant Jewish cynic who is seen in the context of the Roman empire rather than simply in the context of early Judaism. He emerges not from the early Christianity of the canon, but from the contemporary society in which he lived.

Jesus' practices, according to Crossan, bear similarities to those of the Greek Cynics. Cynicism was a Greco-Roman form of eschatology that manifested as a practice more than a theory; it was a total lifestyle that dictated the ways of dressing, eating, living and relating to others. GrecoRoman cynicism was centred in the towns, in particular the market places where the cynics would address the crowds. Greek cynics were known to carry with them a knapsack or wallet, symbolising their self -dependent lifestyle, in addition to their cloak and staff.

Jesus, however was not a Greek cynic. It is not even clear whether he knew of Greek cynicism, but he appears to have practised a 'home-grown' Jewish version cynicism. This Jewish cynicism was practised in the villages and rural districts and Jesus specifically instructed his followers not to carry a knapsack or money, thus symbolising their dependency on the commensality of community. Jesus' mission included free healing and common eating. Through it he promoted a religious and economic egalitarianism that subverted the hierarchical and patronal structures of Roman power and Jewish religion.

Crossan shows Jesus' concerns to be those of the underclass of society. In Roman society, sin, sickness and taxation were inextricably linked; excessive taxation left the poor hungy and desperate, but the power structures blamed sinfulness for the people’s plight. It was a vicious circle, because forgiveness for sins was a monopoly of the temple, and temple services meant further taxes. Breaking this monopoly through the forgiveness of sins freely given, Jesus was undermining the religious and political structures of society. Jesus' miracles set his power and authority on a par with, if not superior to, the temple. Like that of the magicians, his personal, individual power was seen as standing against the communal, ritual power of priests and rabbis, and, as such, it challenged the legitimacy of centering spiritual power in the temple. Similarly subversive was Jesus' portrayal of a 'brokerless' kingdom. The Roman empire operated through a brokerage system, whereby society was structured in terms of patrons and clients. Jesus' egalitarian community, with its practice of commensality, makes no allowance for brokerage; patrons and clients are valued equally, again subverting the religious, social and political structures of the time. By never settling, always remaining transient, Jesus avoided being interpreted as yet another broker for God. His teaching was that there should be no mediator between humanity and the divine, nor between humans. Through parables, miracles, healing and eating, individuals were drawn into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and with each other.

For Jesus and his followers the kingdom, or better, the reign of God, had indeed arrived when those around him sat at an open table and joined in the subversion of all hierarchies: political, social, religious and even cultural. This Jesus gave little reflection on the important questions as seen by religious authorities. He had scant regard for advancing or safeguarding tradition; instead he transgressed the boundaries and radicalised the teachings, forcing new questions to be asked and new perspectives to be taken.

Was Crossan's Jesus of history divine? Crossan would answer 'Yes' providing divinity is understood as relational and interactive, not as objective and essential. Jesus is divine in that, through him, many caught sight of the transcendent.

Crossan's Jesus is a compelling figure that cannot be lightly dismissed. But like the canonical Jesus who comes to divide (Matthew 10:34ff), Crossan's Jesus, if heard, is set to divide the Christian community. For what does a hierarchical, patriarchal church do when its Head is shown to denounce hierarchies of all kinds? How can a church respond when the One it deems the divine mediator, is seen to reject the need for mediation? How does a church that prides itself on tradition and spends much of its energy and resources advancing that tradition and patrolling the boundaries less heretics transgress them, follow a Mediterranean peasant Jewish Cynic?

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