Wednesday, April 13, 2016

John Dominic Crossan's 'Blasphemous' Portrait of Jesus and the Power of the Parable

Understanding the underlying design principle is critical to correctly interpreting any built object.  That ancient scripture and the gospels were all heavily influenced by such a design principle still came as a surprise.  That the design principle was driven by the needs of oral presentation is not so surprising.

I have just read John Crossan's book on the Parabolic nature of the scriptures  and have had  a mess of issues nicely wiped away.  Insertions become natural and highly forgivable when you are sustaining an overall parbolic construction.  The prologue is at the end of this item.  This work also makes a proper reading of any parable an oral exercise and that is worth remembering.

The Power of the Parable is a must read for anyone who is interested in literature and criticism generally and of course for those wanting to improve their appreciation of the historical Jesus.  Thank you John Crossan.


John Dominic Crossan's 'blasphemous' portrait of Jesus

By John Blake, CNN

February 27, 2011 1:48 a.m. EST

(CNN) -- One of his first fan letters came from someone who declared:

"If Hell were not already created, it should be invented just for you."

Other critics have called him "demonic," "blasphemous" and a "schmuck."

When John Dominic Crossan was a teenager in Ireland, he dreamed of becoming a missionary priest. But the message he's spreading about Jesus today isn't the kind that would endear him to many church leaders.

Crossan says Jesus was an exploited "peasant with an attitude" who didn't perform many miracles, physically rise from the dead or die as punishment for humanity's sins.

Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not died, says Crossan, one of the world's top scholars on the "historical Jesus," a field in which academics use historical evidence to reconstruct Jesus in his first-century setting.

"I cannot imagine a more miraculous life than nonviolent resistance to violence," Crossan says. "I cannot imagine a bigger miracle than a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square."

In another time, Crossan's views would have been confined to scholarly journals. But he and his best-selling books, including the recent "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography," have changed how biblical scholars operate.

Crossan believes the public should be exposed to even the most divisive debates that scholars have had about Jesus and the Bible. He co-founded the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group of scholars who hold public forums that cast doubt on the authenticity of many sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus.

John Dominic Crossan says even the writers of the Bible disagreed about Jesus' message.

The 77-year-old Crossan has built on the seminar's mission by writing a series of best-selling books on Jesus and the Apostle Paul. With his silver Prince Valiant haircut and his pronounced Irish accent, he's also appeared on documentaries such as PBS's "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians" and A&E's "Mysteries of the Bible."

Crossan's overarching message is that you don't have to accept the Jesus of dogma. There's another Jesus hidden in Scripture and history who has been ignored.

"He's changed the way we look and think about Jesus," says Byron McCane, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Wofford College in South Carolina. "He's important in a way that few scholars are."

A reluctant scholar

Crossan is also reviled in a way that few scholars are.

Some critics say he's trying to debunk Christianity. Some question his personal faith. At a college lecture, Crossan says an audience member stood up and asked him if he had "received the Lord Jesus" as his savior.

Crossan said he had, but refused to repeat his questioner's evangelical language to describe his conversion.

"I wasn't going to give him the language; it's not my language," Crossan says. "I wasn't trying to denigrate him, but don't think you have the monopoly on the language of Christianity."

When asked if he is a Christian, Crossan doesn't hesitate.


Crossan says he never planned to be a Jesus scholar but was drafted to play that role -- by the Roman Catholic Church.

He had other plans. He grew up in a small town in Ireland reading adventure stories like "20,000 Leagues under The Sea" and reciting poetry with his father on long walks.

He wanted adventure and travel. The missionary priests who visited his boyhood school with stories of mission trips to Africa seemed to offer both.

Crossan says his father, a banker, and his mother, a housewife, didn't push religion on him. He was raised in a traditional Irish Catholic church where faith was "undiscussed, uninvestigated and uncriticized."

"I didn't grow up in an atmosphere where the Bible was stuffed down my throat."

Yet Crossan immersed himself in the world of the Bible for the rest of his adult life. When he entered a monastery at 16, church leaders told him they wanted him to be a scholar because he had already taken five years of Latin and Greek.

He became a priestly prodigy: ordained by 23; a doctorate at 25. He studied in Rome and Jerusalem, and eventually became a New Testament scholar who became known as an authority on the parables of Jesus. (Crossan saw them as subversive literary gems.)

His days as a priest would end, though, because of the same forces that shaped the rest of his career: the clash between church dogma and scholarly truth.

Crossan says it was "bliss" being a priest and scholar in the mid-1960s because the Roman Catholic Church had instituted a series of modernizing reforms.

But conservative church leaders fought those reforms, and Crossan says they pressured him to steer his research toward conclusions that reinforced church doctrine.

"It's like you're a scientist in research and development, and you say that this drug is lethal, and they say, 'Find something good in it,' '' Crossan says.

He left the priesthood in 1969 after he angered church leaders by publicly questioning the church's ban on birth control. He married, and settled into a career of teaching and writing books that were read primarily by other scholars.

Later, however, Crossan would anger church leaders again.

Crossan takes on a public role

In 1985, Robert Funk, a New Testament scholar, asked Crossan to join him on a risky mission: Expose the public to academic debates about the historical Jesus.

The seminar was Crossan's first wide exposure to the public. The media gravitated to him because he was a scholar who didn't talk like a scholar.

Explaining why America's reliance on military might was similar to Rome's, he told Time magazine:He became known for his sound bites -- inspired, he says, by Jesus' use of parables to distill complex truths in pithy but provocative sayings.

"There's good news and bad news from the historical Jesus. The good news: God says Caesar sucks. The bad news: God says Caesar is us."

Crossan's public profile rose another notch in 1991 when The New York Times ran a front-page story two days before Christmas on his book, "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant."

The book became a bestseller, and Crossan followed up with more. He says people were anxious to embrace a faith with "brains and heart," and learn the history behind the text, not just its wording.

"When we started out, people thought we were out on the left wing," he says. "Now, I'm talking in about 30 churches a year. ... A lot of this is becoming mainstream."

Crossan's revolutionary Jesus

It's still controversial, though.

A casual search of Crossan's name online turns up plenty of insults and warnings not to read his books.

Crossan says, however, that he's "trying to understand the stories of Jesus, not refute them."

Still, his findings often end up challenging some of Christianity's most cherished beliefs.

Consider his understanding of the resurrection. Jesus didn't bodily rise from the dead, he says. The first Christians told Jesus' resurrection story as a parable, not as a fact.

"Crucifixion meant that imperial power had won," Crossan says. "Resurrection meant that divine justice had won. God is on the side of the crucified one. Rome's' values are a dead issue to me."

How about the stories of Jesus' miracles, like raising the dead or stilling the storm?

If you believe in a God that uses violence to "save" humanity, you'll start believing that violence is permissible in certain circumstances, such as suicide bombing or invading other countries to spread democracy, Crossan says.

The human addiction to violence, though, is so ingrained that even the authors of the New Testament had trouble accepting Jesus' nonviolence, Crossan says.

So they did a little editing.

Crossan's proof: Jesus preaches nonviolence at the beginning of the New Testament. By the book of Revelation, he's leading armies through heaven to kill evildoers.

"Christianity both admits and subverts the historical Jesus," Crossan says.

Does Crossan subvert Christianity?

Is Crossan doing the same -- admitting and subverting Jesus, some wonder?

The words "brilliant," "keen mind" and someone who "loves the Bible" are often used by fellow scholars to describe Crossan. They say he is generous with his time, funny and personally warm.

"He has real depth of the soul," says McCane, the biblical scholar and archaeologist. "He's spiritual in the best sense of the word. He sees the world as a place where values matter."

Yet some also wonder if he unwittingly gives people an excuse to diminish Jesus' importance.

Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar who has written several books about the early Christian community, says Crossan's work allows people to sidestep questions like: Did he come to save the world? Is he the son of God?

"It's a user-friendly Jesus that doesn't make demands on someone," he says.

Witherington says Crossan is trying to find a nonsupernatural way to explain Jesus and Scripture, and "the shoe doesn't fit."

"The stories are inherently theological," he says. "They all suggest that God intervenes in history. If you have a problem with the supernatural, you have a problem with the Bible. It's on every page."
Onet persistent criticisms of Crossan's work is that he's turned Jesus into a peasant insurrectionist because his Irish ancestors battled the British Empire.

Crossan says growing up Irish "makes you skeptical about empire." But he says he came of age in the first generation after Irish independence when hatred of the British was not pervasive.

Crossan once wrote in his memoir that he learned two things from Irish history: "One, the British did terrible things to the Irish. Two, the Irish, had they the power, would have done equally terrible things to the British (they did it to one another with the British gone)."

Supporters of Crossan's work say he's encouraged ordinary Bible readers to ask tough questions.

"He opened up space in popular culture for people to think about the history behind the biblical texts," says Timothy Beal, author of "The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book."

"He invited people back into the texts to question those authoritative sources that have been telling them, 'This is what the Bible says, and you don't need to read it to yourself,' " Beal says.

Crossan's life today

His Irish accent remains, but Crossan is now an American citizen. He lives near Orlando, Florida, and spends much of his time traveling to lectures and appearing in religious documentaries.

After spending much of his life in the Roman Catholic Church, Crossan is now an outsider.

He hasn't joined a church because he says a priest might deny him the sacraments because of his run-ins with church leaders.

"If I attend a local Roman Catholic Church, I would get sucked back into all the debates," he says. "I don't want to spend my life fighting Roman Catholicism."

Crossan has also broken with church tradition by marrying. He married Margaret Dagenais, a university art professor, soon after leaving the priesthood in 1969. She died of a heart attack in 1983.

Today, his current wife, Sarah, is a yoga teacher and photographer. She's also his partner in travel. Crossan wanted to see the world as a boy. Now he sees it as a man. The two often travel to holy sites, where she takes photos that Crossan later uses in church presentations.

Crossan's reputation among traditional Christians was so touchy that it initially affected his relationship with her parents, Sarah said.

"We didn't talk about his work with them," she says. "They couldn't handle it. They thought he was so wrong. They loved him as a person, but not his work."

Crossan is not worried that his work will shatter people's faith in Jesus. The closer one gets to the historical Jesus, Crossan says, the more extraordinary Jesus becomes.

"A lot of people in the first century thought Jesus was saying something so important that they were willing to die for it. If people finish with my books and now see why Pilate executed him and why people died for him, then I've done my job."


In the summer of 1960 I was a monk and a priest in the Servite monastery high on the Janiculum hill in Rome and half-way through two years of post-doctoral research at the downtown Pontifical Biblical Institute. Rome was preparing for the Olympic Games in late August and so, apart from its standard heat, the city promised too much construction and too many people. (Even the Pope abandons the Vatican in August for cool Castel Gandolfo among the Castelli Romani in the nearby Alban Hills—a sure if minor proof of his infallibility.)
That August I was grateful to receive an “obedience”—the monastic equivalent of a soldier’s ”orders”—to leave Rome for Lisbon, meet an American group there, and chaplain them around the major Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in western Europe. These included Fatima and Lourdes for the Virgin Mary, Lisieux for Saint Thérèse, Monaco for Grace Kelly, and Castel Gandolfo for John XXIII. And then it happened.
As our group travelled by bus from Rome to Paris for its homeward flight, we stopped at Oberammergau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps to attend its Passion Play, a five-to-six-hour dramatization of Jesus’ final week on earth. It is performed by the villagers every decade on the decade in gratitude for deliverance from bubonic plague in 1634. There was none, of course, in 1940 but it returned in 1950 with both Chancellor Adenauer and General Eisenhower in attendance. 

In other words, what we saw in 1960 was the unchanged play that Hitler saw before his election in 1930 and again after it in 1934, for its special 300 th anniversary. But that early September day in 1960 I had not yet read Hitler’s enthusiastic comment that,
It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.
That obscene review came in July 1942, about the time the German armies were beginning their fateful push towards Stalingrad. But, if I did not know Hitler’s commentary, I certainly knew the sequence of what happened in Christianity’s “Holy Week” from both monastic liturgy and biblical study.
What I did not expect was that a story I knew so well as written text was so profoundly unconvincing as enacted drama. The play started early in the morning with Palm Sunday and the huge stage was filled with a crowd shouting approval and acclamation for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. But by late afternoon the play had progressed to Good Friday and that same huge crowd was now shouting condemnation and demanding crucifixion. But nothing in the play explained how the crowd had changed its mind so completely.
I wondered, was that infamous scene with the crowd claiming its responsibility for Jesus’ death by shouting, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”- fact or fiction? It did not seem convincing as history. What was the reason for the crowd’s change of attitude from acceptance to rejection? Could this story function more as parable than history?
This insight led to others. If it were parable, that is, a fictional story invented for moral or theological purposes, then there were not only parables by Jesus—like that of the Good Samaritan—but parables about Jesus—like that of the Lethal Crowd in this Passion Play. And, further, there were not only parables of light but parables of darkness. The factual history of Jesus’ crucifixion had become parable—parabolic history or historical parable, if you wish, which I’ll return to in more detail later—and from it, in the terror of time, theological anti-Judaism would spawn racial anti-Semitism.
In June 1967, I returned from a two-year sabbatical at the French School of Archaeology just north of the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem. I left—the technical term is “fled”—just before Old Jerusalem passed from Jordan to Israel in the Six Day War. In the next two years, before I left monastery and priesthood for DePaul University in 1969, I was teaching at two seminaries in the Chicago area. One of my courses was on the parables by Jesus and the other was on the resurrection stories about Jesus.
With these courses I was back to exploring—as at Oberammergau--the interface of parable and history. I had observed that the parabolic stories by Jesus seemed remarkably similar to the resurrection stories about Jesus. Were the latter intended as parables just as much as the former? Had we been reading parable, presuming history, and misunderstand­ing both at least since literalism deformed both pro-Christian and anti-Christian imagination in response to the Enlightenment? Think, for example, of the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road with its Good Samaritan and the Jerusalem-to-Emmaus road with its Incognito Jesus after the resurrection. Most everyone accepts the former one in Luke 10:30-35 as a fictional story with a theological message but what about the latter one in Luke 24:13-33? Is the latter story fact or fiction, history or parable? Many would say this latter story actually happened, but why when just a few chapters earlier a similar story is considered pure fiction, completely parable? Let’s look at it a little closer.
A first clue that Luke 24:13-33 was meant as a parable and not history is that when Jesus joins the couple on the road, they do not recognize him. He is, as it were, traveling incognito. A second one is that even when he explains in detail how the biblical scriptures pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, they still do not recognize him. But the third and definitive clue to the story’s purpose is in the climax and it demands full quotation:
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (24:28-32)
That is parable, not history. The Christian liturgy involves Scripture and Eucharist—but they are not equal. The Scripture—even interpreted by Jesus himself—will do no more than create “burning hearts,” that is, hearts ready but to do what? The Eucharist invites the stranger in to share one’s meal and find that the stranger is Jesus. You will notice that the key verbs, “took, blessed, broke, gave,” in the Emmaus story’s climax were also used in the Last Supper’s Passover meal before Jesus’ execution (Mark 14:22)
That story is a parable about loving, that is, feeding, the stranger as yourself and finding Jesus still—or only?—fully present in that encounter. That was very clear to me decades ago and I summed up the ancient Christian intention and modern Christian meaning of that parable by saying that “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” That is, by the way, an introductory definition of a parable: a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.
All of that preceding section introduces the basic questions of this book. If there was at least one dark parable in the crucifixion details and one bright parable in the resurrection accounts, how many other parables were there as well? Is some, much, or most of that entire last week of Jesus—the Christian Holy Week—parable rather than history, or again, parabolic history or historical parable? You can see already that, while parables by Jesus invented both characters and stories about them—for example, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward—parables about Jesus presumed historical characters—for example, John and Jesus, Annas and Caiaphas, Antipas and Pilate—but invented stories about what they said and did.
Where does factual history end and fictional parable begin? Does that interaction of fact interpreted by fiction, of history interpreted by parable, of human event interpreted by divine vision, extend to the full content of a gospel? Could that be why we have only One Gospel given in multiple versions, in four “according-to”s as they are properly and correctly entitled: The Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John? Those are the generative questions that inspire the sequence of this book.

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