“It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography.”– Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p xxviii
John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University, has in several books recently defended his version of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, he stressed methodology in academic scholarship on the historical Jesus, formulating and defending his own methodology using cross-cultural anthropology to examine the environment which produced Jesus and in which his life and message made such an impact. Crossan’s scholarship is in many ways a radical contribution to the literature that attempts to break from a tradition of doing ‘history’ based on theology, and as he puts it ‘apologetics instead of scholarship’. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan condenses his 500+ pages into about 200, and offers a challenging and brilliant portrait of Jesus (as he sees him). Both books present Jesus not as a theological figure (Crossan and many collegues think the “Jesus of faith” a later development) but as a radical social prophet/healer and preacher of subversive wisdom who, during his life and after his death at the hands of the Roman empire, inspired and established radical egalitarian communities based on the notion of the ‘kingdom of God’ he spoke about in parables and sayings. Many scholars and experts take issue with Crossan’s portrait and those of his collegues of the controversial Jesus Seminar, claiming a flawed and overly-restrictive methodology that rejects much of the gospels as later developments not tracable to the historical Jesus himself. Crossan’s latest book, The Essential Jesus, is the third in his trilogy on the historical Jesus, and is not narrative or analysis but a book of poetic and revolutionary flavor. Here Crossan offers new translations of what he and his collegues regard as the most authentic ‘sayings’ of the historical Jesus, artfully displayed one to a page along with pre-Constantinian Christian art.
What is especially great about this book, controversies over Crossan and Jesus Seminar aside, is the artistry and originality of the translations, which not only provoke the reader to see Jesus and his message in a new way, but also reveal what a delicate art both translation and the interpretation of wisdom sayings and parables can be. A few of my favorite examples are the following:
The Kingdom of God comes not at some future time/You cannot point out the sign of its coming/The Kingdom of God comes not at some special site/You cannot point out the place of its coming/The Kingdom of God is already here, among you, now (p.39)
Only those who have no bread have no fault (p.63)
Every fox has a den/Every bird has a nest/Only humans are homeless (p.94)
Do not give your money to one that repays with interest/Give your money to one who won’t repay at all (p.97)
Crossan has presented us with a Jesus who is at once separated from us by history, language, and economic standing and speaking directly to our own situation today. This is a Jesus of radical love, compassion, socio-political insight, wisdom, and ambiguity. An unspeakably radical figure…compassionate but dangerous, because his words and even his very life are upsetting to the ideals of the society in which he lived (in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan notes that on his reading one can see exactly why Jesus was executed). But in challenging his own society, this figure of Jesus, who so many in America take as justification for convention ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ politics, more radically challenges our own. One can only wonder what the Jewish peasant who spoke of the poor and destitute as ‘blessed’ along with the ‘peacemakers’ and ‘those that hunger and thirst after justice’, and said that it is nearly impossible for wealth and the ‘kingdom of God’ to coexist, would think of our unimaginably wealthy country where the gap between rich and poor has reached heights unimaginable in his time; where a war that has cost the lives of an estimated 655,000 Iraqis continues to be waged by our most openly Christian president yet, where justice is talked about and even seen within, while outside of the country the wealthiest institutions in human history (multinational corporations) exploit poor workers on the brink of starvation, pollute the air and oceans of Creation, and profit from international conflicts they help lobby for and support.
I thought after reading this book that despite the unparalled popularity of Christianity in America, much of the ‘essential Jesus’ is either forgotten or ignored. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of nations, and if we believe what Jesus said about the ‘kingdom of God’ being almost impossible for the rich, and his profound statements on hypocrisy and self-deception, we might want to take a closer look at ourselves and our role in the world.