karl and mandy brown's Reviews > Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

Jesus by John Dominic Crossan
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's review
Apr 23, 2010

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bookshelves: karl
Read from April 23 to May 13, 2010

Onions are to cooks what history is to authors. Onions, like history, have many layers. Cooks fry onions in a buttery batter to add texture and flavor. Likewise, authors will paint pictures of historical events to improve the audience's reading experience. But, while the overall presentation may be improved, the original crispiness of the onion may be lost. I think this is the case with Jesus A Revolutionary Biography: the subject matter was very provocative and well presented, but it seemed like the author John Dominic Crossan added too many assertions - too many unsubstantiated claims - for me to conclude that this presentation is a truly historical account of Jesus's life. It just felt, at times, he was being too intentionally provocative with some of his claims. The areas I think Crossan did well were his accounts of Jesus's birth stories; John the Baptist; and the greater, social context in which Jesus lived. The parts that were lacking for me were his accounts of the Passion, his ambivalence regarding the Eleven or Twelve apostles, the time immediately following the crucifixion, and his humanist perspective.

Prior to reading Jesus A Revolutionary Biography I had not been able to see mythology in the Gospel accounts. I had heard people talk about it, but it has been too well-ingrained in my brain that they were true, historical accounts of Jesus's life. In response to someone claiming the Gospel of John was a spiritual romance, [Author: C.S. Lewis] wrote in "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" (in Christian Reflections), "I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this." But now, I can see where parts of the Gospels can be interpreted as mythical creations. Crossan referenced other stories that were circulating in Jesus's culture about Caesar's birth account or about the bad ruler who whimsically executed his prisoners. Of course, I can't know for sure what the first century Christians were thinking, but knowing that these other stories existed, I can see how they would want to leverage off of them to give themselves a sense of credibility or validity that their leader - that their story - can fit in the larger (i.e. Mediterranean) picture of world history. Jesus had in their experience the same amount of grandeur Caesar had for the Romans' experience. What better way is there to convey that grandeur than by recreating that story within their own tradition?

I had previously thought of the Jordan River as simply the location where John baptized. But reading about the accounts of other Jewish rebels from the same time period (approx. 100 BC to 100 AD), it seems that the Jordan was more than just a place on a map. The Jordan is where Moses and Joshua crossed into the Promised Land. Crossan presented well how Jewish peasants, under Roman occupation, would want to recreate their scenarios of old to gain freedom. It wasn't that John baptized in the Jordan, it's that John baptized in the Jordan.

The other kudos I want to give to Crossan before my criticism begins are his references to other period literature. I appreciated his references to Josephus and Philo and to other Roman authors. I appreciated how he put them in context, too. For example, while Josephus was Jewish, he was also hired by the Romans (or indentured to? an elite slave?). One can see how that would skew his accounts of historical events.

Crossan's interpretation of the Passion was lacking primarily in presentation. It is a significant claim, I would say, to say that all four accounts (M, M, L, & J) are prophecy historicized rather than history remembered. He attempted to make his point by bringing in the Essenes and their biblical scholarship, but it was difficult for me to connect all his dots. I think it would have helped if he had shown more examples of Old Testament literature the first century Christians would have used and elaborated on the Epistle of Barnabas more. Somewhat related, I wish he had explained in more detail why he thought the prophecy about the virgin birth from Isaiah 7 was taken out of context.

Crossan's accounts of the Eleven or Twelve left me a little confused. On page 108, he makes the claim that the Twelve was created after Jesus's death as a means for demonstrating a new Israel, or a new order (there were 12 tribes, now there are 12 disciples/apostles). Jesus didn't actually have 12 guys following around with him as he toured through Israel, he claimed. But later, when Crossan was talking about the time surrounding Jesus's death and appearances, he makes effort to show how Paul didn't think of himself as one of the Twelve, how Luke didn't see Paul as a candidate to replace Judas (pgs 166-9), or how there were political struggles for who was first among the apostles. While Crossan made an interesting assertion there about the fictional nature of the Twelve, I think this area needs a little more follow-through.

Crossan's last chapter felt too out of context - too much of a departure from the theme of the book. It was not about the historical Jesus, and Crossan didn't really go into the impact of the historical Jesus. I guess maybe he did, but the last chapter was more about the political struggles after Jesus's death than his impact... unless the impact of his death was a void that needed to be filled.

Throughout the book, Crossan gives very little credit to the supernatural. He side-steps Jesus's healing miracles by claiming not that the diseases were cured but that people's perceptions of the diseases had changed. If this were the case, why do the Gospels read so clearly that an individual changed after healing and not the community? Also, Jesus was not resurrected, but people imagined that he appeared after his death. True, God of the Gaps is not a good explanation for all cases, but to completely ignore God's presence, I think, is equally inadequate.

Overall, Jesus A Revolutionary Biography was worth the read. It challenged my perceptions; and it presented new, relevant information that I would not have considered otherwise. I appreciated how he supported his claims about the Gospels' relationship to mythology by citing other literature from the time period (whereas C.S. Lewis's argument is based solely on his authority). My palate is wetted to looking more into period literature (esp The Didache, The Gospel of Thomas, The Epistle of Barnabas, the works of Josephus, and the historical Constantine). So how shall I compare this work? It was like a lettuce wrap from PF Chang's: light at crispy with some substance, but it wasn't quite the main course. 3 stars!
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Reading Progress

04/23/2010 page 29
13.88% "ka-pow! crossan starts with a bang claiming the narratives of jesus's early life in matthew and luke are myths. what would cs lewis say?"
04/28/2010 page 54
25.84% "john the baptist in context: john didn't /baptize/ in the jordan, john baptized in /the jordan/; and early christians didn't like herod"
04/29/2010 page 75
35.89% "what if we opened our homes to dinner with beggars? what if the US chose its political leaders by lottery? this would be the kingdom of god."
05/04/2010 page 102
48.8% "chapter 4: miracles are more symbolic than historical events; jesus wanted to break free of the patron/client social moral" 1 comment
05/05/2010 page 123
58.85% "jesus had apostles (itinerants, not 12) go out out and practice open commensality & dependence (community) subversively, like the cynics."
05/09/2010 page 159
76.08% "long and complicated chapter, but basically Crossan claims the passion accounts are more prophecy historicized rather than history memorized"
05/12/2010 page 181
86.6% "not entirely related to this chapter, but i think the phrase 'open commensality' will be permanently ingrained in my brain from now on."
05/13/2010 page 193
92.34% "last chapter seemed too tangential, focused more on group politics than jesus biography; ambivalent re: the Eleven or Twelve"
05/13/2010 page 209
100.0% "i liked the epilogue, good summary of his impression of jesus; but is he suggesting constantine needs to be examined in more detail next?"

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