27 February 2011

Crossan and his "Blasphemous" Portrait of Jesus

An article was released today on about John Dominic Crossan and discusses his life, his scholarship and the different reactions it has received over the years. My friend and fellow MA candidate, Amy Laurent sent me the link this morning via Facebook and wanted to know my thoughts about it. Interestingly enough, I had just popped online after reading the Appendix in Raymond E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament containing an overview of the history of Historical Jesus research. The confluence of this mornings reading and the CNN article is too good to be ignored.

In 1985 he joined biblical scholar Robert Funk to launch the controversial Westar Institute (more commonly known by the name, The Jesus Seminar). While the idea is noble – to expose the public to the academic issues and debates surrounding the Christian Bible and the Historical Jesus – it has become, in my opinion, more of representative of a particular approach the the NT and the Historical Jesus. For instance, it is generally concluded (emphasis on generally) that Q (a source for the sayings – some 200 or so verses – that are shared only by Matt and Luke) existed (I do not think it did), and that other “apocryphal” sources, such as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the passion narrative of the Gospel of Peter, pre-date our four canonical gospels (again, I disagree; I think both are drawing upon the canonical gospels and are second c. documents).

Crossan is a quintessential media don, in the similar sense that Dr Bart Ehrman of UNC-CH is. He has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, his books are always well-stocked in your local Barnes and Noble and you cannot watch a TV documentary on the NT or Jesus without Crossan making an appearance. One thing you cannot fault Crossan on is his ability to get out there and engage in dialogue with the wider public – something that many academics could learn from. However, there are some downsides to this. Oftentimes the media will run something that is controversial and sensationalistic, and religion is one of the things that get sucked into this black hole. For example, the fact that Crossan’s magnum opus, “ “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times a couple of days prior to Christmas. This, of course, probably led to some of the greatest exposure for the book, however, I’m sure that it also won him a few enemies interpreting it as participating in the “annual war on Christmas”.

Of course there has been opposition. Many find that his conclusions challenge traditional dogma and faith. Indeed they do. But it is not an intention to destroy the faith of Christians that Crossan is seeking, but rather the fostering of critical reflection, a faith with “brains and heart” as he is quoted. However, there is an interesting piece to the opposition that is repeatedly forgotten in the dialogue, which Brown in his Introduction is keen to point out: other critical scholars of the NT. While I have alluded to some of the disagreements above, one important one I have saved for this point is the role of eschatology in Jesus’ mission. Scholars such as Crossan and Marcus Borg argue for a Jesus that was a non-violent, social revolutionary or was an itinerant Cynic teacher. These are by far, from what I understand, to be seen as minority views on the Historical Jesus. For me, their re-construction of the Jesus of history lacks much in the department of eschatology and apocalypticism. Ben Witherington III, who is mentioned briefly in the article, thinks that Crossan’s Jesus “allows people to sidestep questions like: Did he come to save the world? Is he the son of God?” But to Witherington’s critique I must make an objection: There is a difference between studying Religion and Theology. Witherington seems to be blurring the line here, at least from what I can tell. Such questions are not appropriate in the realm of historical-critical study. Instead, more apt would be questions such as: Did Jesus think he came to save the world? Did Jesus believe he was the son of God? Crossan does not write books on theology, but rather attempts to present a historical approach to Jesus (no matter what one makes of his methods or conclusions).

In the end, I owe much to Crossan and his efforts to get his message out to the general public. My first taste of Jesus Scholarship came through his books and others who found his ideals both appealing and palatable. I have had the pleasure to meet Crossan on a number of occasions, as he occasionally gives public lectures at the University of Central Florida where I took my undergraduate degrees. Needless to say, I was immediately struck by the Jesus that he painted, as it radically upset my more conservative and naïve conceptions of God, Jesus and the Bible. In the end, I found myself thirsting for more. And while I no longer find myself in agreement with him on a number of important issues, he is one of those who led me to continue my pursuit of history and the study of religion, and for that I am grateful. Thank you, Dr Crossan.

And thank you, Amy, for bringing this article to my attention.

p.s. – I cannot conceal my envy of Crossan's five years of Latin and Greek by age 16. If only I were so lucky.


  1. The fact that that article resulted in over eleven thousand comments in a single day is pretty amazing. Imagine how many comments something like The Doherty theory would result in.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Rich. Indeed. However, I think the fact that Crossan represents a "reconstruction" and a challenge to traditional ideas about Jesus (especially from the faith-perspective) might perhaps leave believers feeling a bit threatened. While Doherty's ideas also threaten traditional claims about Jesus, they present a different dichotomy -- Jesus didn't exist v. Jesus did exis -- whereas those like Crossan offer an alternative view/understanding of Jesus by focusing on the "religion of Jesus" as opposed to the "religion about Jesus."