Note: The following book review is reproduced here with the permisison of the National Catholic Reporter. It appeared in the paper's Fall Books Suppliment, November 6, 1998.

By Charlotte Allen
The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 381 pages, $26

By John Dominic Crossan
HarperCollins, 653 pages, $30


If the forces that drive modern publishing -- untold stories and shocking mysteries offered to public curiosity in exchange for money -- have any place on which to converge, it might as well be on Jesus, the ultimate celebrity. Books about the search for the historical Jesus, the real Jesus, the uncensored, unconventional and unknown Jesus, now inhabit not a shelf but whole sections in most bookstores, with part of every big outlet given over to religion, New Age, the occult and self-help titles flowing seamlessly into each other.

The current boom is a publicist’s dream, but it also reflects and is likely to be driving some serious research and writing as well. Alongside a broad and spasmodic interest in spirituality, a growing audience of perceptive, well-educated readers wants serious and challenging books about religion.

Think of research about the historical Jesus as a large jigsaw puzzle with most of its completed portions spread out in a kind of rough ring around piles of loose pieces still being assembled around an empty center.

The empty center

The empty center of the puzzle is Jesus himself, elusive, inaccessible except through the interpretive filters of the first century Christian church. It was, of course, the suggestion that there could be a gap between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” that was the powerful and unsettling question that first propelled all this research out of Enlightenment England and Europe into the modern and post-modern spotlight.

In 1998, as we slide into what some have called the “ultra-minimalist, post-avant-garde” stages of the quest, we might imagine the same puzzle, only five layers deep, with key pieces missing or in dispute from every layer and the center now a jagged canyon of gaps and assertions, interlocking and competing hypotheses.

Charlotte Allen’s The Human Jesus provides a helpful overview of historical Jesus books before, including and since Albert Schweitzer’s classic 1906 survey of over 200 German academics who had weighed in, often ponderously, on the subject, beginning with Herman Samuel Reimarus’ daring Fragments, published between 1774 and 1778. Allen’s attempt at grouping the research by country -- England, France, Germany and so on -- by ideological movement -- Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, Modern, Post-Modern and so on -- or by scholar -- Kantian, Hegelian, Bultmannian and so on -- reveals the density and complexity of the whole enterprise. A pullout color-coded chronology showing who was writing when, influencing whom, would have helped this reader.

Some general observations are in order. Allen’s survey shows that Jesus was by no means just a theological subject. Defining just who Jesus was, and is, was the red thread running through mainstream philosophical, scientific and literary thought for centuries, engaging every major thinker from Sir Isaac Newton to Friedrich Hegel. Allen also tracks Jesus research along some important trajectories, showing how it blooms into the popular biblical fiction genre through authors like David Friedrich Strauss, Ernest Renan, Gustave Flaubert and Oscar Wilde, whose sensational, eroticized Bible stories were the shallow but immensely popular forerunners of the Hollywood epic.

Allen’s book is almost too entertaining in places, and we sense the intrusion of the publicist in a survey that might have been clearer and shorter without the gossip. It is important to know that Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, translated Strauss’ book into English but distracting to learn that she probably had an affair with eugenics-obsessed economist Herbert Spencer, who might have married her had she been better looking.

An important lesson from Allen’s labor is just how much power the cataloger has in determining who is mainstream and who is marginal. In covering current research, Allen sides with more traditional Catholic writers and with those who are recovering Jesus’ Jewishness as effecting a key “return” after much misdirection. She gives short shrift, in particular, to Jesus Seminar scholars, one of whom the rest of this review will be about.

A weighty but worthwhile work for serious readers is John Dominic Crossan’s latest title, The Birth of Christianity. The book continues (and defends) some controversial propositions begun in Crossan’s earlier studies of Jesus, history’s most famous Palestinian peasant. Crossan, a retired DePaul University professor best known as part of the deconstructionist wrecking crew called the “Jesus Seminar,” needs no publicist. He has caught both criticism and public attention for some sensational speculations distilled, often by his critics, from hundreds of pages of carefully nuanced evidence, that, for example, the canonical gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and burial were composed more out of prophecy fulfillment imagery than from any eye-witness accounts, that there may have been no burial at all (crucified corpses were dragged from their crosses by wild dogs or tossed into anonymous lime pits), and that the “bodily resurrection” of Jesus was originally and is now most meaningfully understood as part of the eschatological communal death and vindication of the just rather than a visible and witnessed miracle elevating Jesus individually and uniquely as savior.

For Crossan, the greatest challenge of the gospel lies not in the subsequent theologies of universal salvation layered onto the “brute fact” of his execution, but in Jesus’ disappearance into solidarity with the destitute victims of his own age and of our own. It is the way Jesus lived and his solidarity with the poor that God universalizes and glorifies in Jesus.

Highlighting such salient items for this review risks distorting Crossan and, of course, turning away readers who simply don’t want to read polemics or even scholarly works that seem to derail orthodox Christianity. Crossan, an avowed Roman Catholic with solid academic credentials who combines a transparent and self-critical research with equally clear writing, is not easily categorized or dismissed as only bent on deconstructing or demythologizing without constructive purpose. That his books contain often startling and disturbing statements is clear. Some vintage Crossan:

The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew Scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal, and finally they recognized when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits. The symbolism is obvious, as is the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon. Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens (The Historical Jesus, 1991).

In The Birth of Christianity, Crossan pries open some familiar assumptions that help us avoid the ongoing surprise of the gospel and the radical claims it makes on us. In discussing Jesus’ death and resurrection, it may shock us but also opens us to new thinking to consider that the birth of our faith was more than a bad day on Friday followed by a quick fix on Sunday but that it probably entailed a much longer process of grief, loss and renewal by the first circle of believers whose eyes were “opened” only gradually as they broke open the scriptures and shared a communal meal in memory of Jesus.

What is surrendered in such an eye-opening scenario is dramatic proof that reassures but also distances us from that special favored time of miracles and visions for those lucky believers back then. What is gained is the possibility that the same faith the first generation had to struggle to find is as accessible to us now through the same grief, loss and renewal of trust in God’s vindication of the just.

In search of truth

The goal of scholarship, even about the Bible, is to advance through the evidence as rigorously and as creatively as possible in search of truth. For Crossan, who regards himself as primarily a historian, has added his share of both light and salt to an often stolid field only specialists can access.

To be sure, Crossan has also been a lightning rod among other respected scholars like the late Fr. Raymond Brown, who criticized Crossan and the Jesus Seminar for suggesting that Jesus and the gospel can be read shorn of supernatural intent and doctrinal insight. For Brown, faith and an openness to orthodoxy was essential to a proper handling of the evidence. Scholarship that starts outside of the parameters of “faith seeking understanding” is likely to also end outside of faith, and to what end or value?

Brown, of course, knew firsthand the risks of nuancing scripture to distinguish its complex types and purpose from modern expectations of literal history. Brown’s exegesis of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke in The Birth of the Messiah disturbed many traditional Catholics even as it liberated them to a more adult faith. Will Crossan’s claims about the death of Jesus also become as mainstream some day?

Crossan’s labor in The Birth of Christianity seems not so much about working outside of faith as suggesting precisely that we seek out Jesus before later theologies capture him. We know what Paul thought in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the first century. We have the gospels, composed in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and most scholars now share a working consensus on the probable dependence of the gospels on each other and on earlier written documents, either extant or embedded in the materials we do have. But what do we know about the ‘30s and the ‘40s, the “lost years” after Jesus’ execution but before oral and pre-canonical written traditions broke the surface in the known gospels and in Paul’s letters?

Crossan’s method, which often supports mainstream conclusions, is to lay out his presuppositions about source origin and ordering. He stakes his analysis and conclusions about early Christianity on the supposition that the non-canonical “Gospel of Thomas” or its earliest substance, consisting of wisdom sayings from Jesus, predates, like the accepted Q source, the earliest canonical gospels and, along with an early core of the Didache, provides a window into the rural communities of resistance left behind in lower Galilee after Jesus’ death.

Resistance to what? Here is where we see the larger context so necessary for understanding the events that take place in a small corner of the first century ancient world. Crossan posits, through a broad and rich interdisciplinary approach built up here and in his earlier books, that Jewish resistance to both Greek cultural domination and Roman commercial exploitation is the necessary backdrop that explains Jesus’ way of life in lower Galilee and ultimately his death in Jerusalem. Jesus’ solidarity is with his fellow peasants, who are being pushed into destitution by the extractive economic pyramid being forcibly extended over the empire. Jesus’ way of life demonstrates both communal resistance and community survival through a shared meal, where healing and hope occur as Jesus proclaims that God -- the Jewish God of justice and righteousness -- is revealing his presence with the destitute.

Radical resistance

God’s kingdom is here, among the poor, as radical resistance to the injustice and violence of Roman commercialism. Greek culture, built on a cosmic dualism between spirit and matter, is the poisonous justification for separating people’s spiritual welfare from their physical fate. An unjust world can starve the poor, keep slaves, accept inequality, by compensating victims with religion now, heaven later. Communities that resist such exploitation and reject such dualism, not with force but through their refusal to participate in it at all, threaten the system far more than open rebellion, as Gandhi would later demonstrate in India.

To understand Jesus’ death, Crossan again stakes his analysis on the importance of an early hypothetical core tradition he calls the Cross gospel, contained in the second century extra-canonical Gospel of Peter, and the claim that this core predates and influences the editing of the synoptic accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This Death Tradition, if it in fact reflects the earliest attempts to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death, is the basis for Crossan’s contention that the resurrection must first be seen within the Jewish belief in God’s promise of communal vindication after persecution, resurrection after execution rather than a unique miracle about Jesus only.

Prophecy historicized

Jesus’ death, a swift and predictable response to a Temple incident -- the symbolic cleansing of Roman-Jewish complicity over power and money, occurring at Passover -- seals both his obedience to God and his solidarity with all other displaced and disposable victims of injustice. This earliest tradition also provides the basis for later exegesis. But understood in this order, the canonical passion narratives, Crossan says, are not history remembered but prophecy historicized.

The bringing together of the earliest Life Tradition from Galilee and the Death Tradition from Jerusalem provides the basis for the gospels we know. How this happens has influenced the succession of autobiographical images of Jesus reflecting the needs and ideals of not just later authors and their communities, but the churches down through the generations.

What does all this mean? For Crossan, to whom this reviewer apologizes for risking the above condensation, the Jesus who emerges from a rigorous examination of the record is, along with whatever else we believe about him, a figure inseparable from God’s insistence on justice in the world.

Crossan, with a teacher’s skill for framing the facts, brackets his detailed research between two essays as prologue and epilogue. It is helpful to read these together before and after reading the rest of the book. The prologue, “The Content of Your Vision” is about the Gnostic tendency that infects Western culture and Christianity. Separating flesh from spirit, a dualism not present in the Judaism that resisted Hellenization, is the root problem in every other kind of separation of the world into physical and spiritual realms. Such dualism opens up the possibility of rejecting the flesh or making it inferior to spirit, a profound assault on human dignity that further opens up ideological distinctions and hierarchies among people and about their intrinsic value and worthiness. Resisting this, if we are all bodies (enfleshed spirit) together here and now in this world, then justice is about basic equality, fundamental rights to share the world’s resources, to eat, be healthy, receive and contribute within community through celebration and meaningful work. Justice is always about here and now bodies.

Crossan charges Paul with fudging on this dualism when appealing to the Greco-Roman world he sought to convert. God proclaims a new equality between “Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free in Christ” (Galatians 3). Greeks and Romans now share in the life once offered only to Jews. But then Paul stops short of applying the same de facto equality for gender and class that he declared for ethnicity. Race is cancelled, but patriarchy and servitude are not. Equality of gender and class, the revolutionary scandal and heart of resistance in the gospel is spiritual only. For Crossan, the radical gospel was postponed, evaded, the first of many accommodations and compromises based on Platonic dualism.

This is why it is essential for Crossan, despite charges to the contrary, to insist on a bodily resurrection for Jesus: “Bodily resurrection means that the embodied life and death of the historical Jesus continues to be experienced, by believers, as powerfully efficacious and salvifically present in the world. That life continued, as it always had, to form communities of like lives.”

The epilogue: “The Character of Your God,” restates the Jewish practice of regularly leveling the economic playing field with debt cancellation every seven years, Jubilees every 50 years, and even with the Sabbath, which imposed an equality of rest on everyone. The practice was based on the belief that God demands such equality among us, that in the total community of gift and need, all, despite physical or social advantage, have the same right to share the bounty of the earth, and no individual or group is to accrue wealth at the expense of others. Such an ethic, backed by the God of justice and righteousness, lay at the faultline between Jewish faith, Greek culture and Roman commercialism. Resistance was necessary, inevitable.

Crossan the scholar exegete is restrained in drawing out the hermeneutic, but it is not hard to see again the radical claim such a belief makes on the Christian world today. The parable of the rich man living sumptuously while Lazarus dies destitute within sight of his table is a kind of prophetic epitaph on the current global economy, with the radical gospel as resistance to the false gospel of extractive capitalism generating wealth for the few, destitution and death for the many.

Our repentance and conversion is an urgent matter of avoiding this pervasive indictment. If churches can be seen as true communities of resistance to what is wrong in the dominant culture, if our Eucharist can be the communal meal that commits us to justice for all, we may escape judgment and find life. The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith need no more scholarship to confront us more clearly.

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s sister publication.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998

Return to DiaLogos, Issue #6 Comments & Responses

File:Ncrrev.htm 1/18/2000