It was Holy Thursday. It seemed the appropriate question: "Professor Crossan, the Jesus Seminar just announced its conclusions on the resurrection. The seminar, of which you are a member, has concluded that Jesus didn't really rise from the dead. What's up with that?" Or words to that effect. I went to hear John Dominic Crossan, professor at DePaul
University and the author of many books on the historical Jesus, including Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, with all the conservative evangelical skepticism I could muster. To me, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars whose controversial pronouncements on the historical realities of Jesus have angered many, are the pariahs of biblical scholarship.
Crossan smiled. He's a slight man with an Irish lilt to his voice. His manner, like I imagine his oft-cited St. Patrick's, could charm serpents to the sea. "For me, it could go either direction," he said. "Whether he rose physically from the grave is not central. The effect was that people, after the resurrection, were now associating Jesus with their connection to God. He was providing them a way to get in touch with the spiritual. Whether he was in the body or not, the disciples were experiencing Jesus in a radically different way-regardless of distance, time, or physical obstacle. I mean, he was coming through locked doors."
Provocative words. The seminar has sought to dismantle systematically many of the core beliefs of Christianity (see "The Jesus Seminar," below). Yet while affirming his view that the resurrection was not historical fact, Crossan did acknowledge that something historically valid happened after the crucifixion that was real and powerful.
This surprised me. As an evangelical, I challenge any pseudo-gnostic ideas of Jesus. The seminar often appears arrogant in its treatment of the foundations of Christian belief. Yet after an hour of listening to him speak, my opinion of Crossan as a person had gently relaxed. While I don't agree with many of his conclusions, the discussion was refreshing. I too want to make Jesus live again, so he is historically relevant and available to a cynical, overstimulated, 21st-century audience. The discussion rekindles our connection to the early, passionate, all-too-human communities who wrestled with the mystery of a resurrected rabbi.
Is this worth any disagreement that might arise about the carnival climate the seminar generates? Does it excuse any scholarly excesses? Some would say it doesn't.
CROSSAN'S writings have been a media lightening rod in these discussions. His works include The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), a book unfolding the academic foundations of his arguments; Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper SanFrancisco, 1993), a retelling of his conclusions told in a narrative form to allow for popular reading; and The Essential Jesus (Harper SanFrancisco, 1994), a small book containing what Crossan believes to be the original words of Jesus.
This last book provides a good introduction to the entire topic. Crossan's Jesus is radical in his call to social transformation and spiritual renewal. The Jesus Crossan describes declares a "brokerless kingdom"-a place for the powerless and dispossessed, with no institutions, no power structures built in the name of God. The Jesus Crossan illumines would not have prescribed the church of today.
THE CURRENT REVIVAL of interest in the historical Jesus has created a mini-publishing boom. One of the most interesting is John Meier's A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Two volumes of a projected three-volume project are currently available. It is part of the Anchor Bible Reference Series, with the first volume covering the basic arguments and assessments that Meier proposes, then continuing with a discussion of Jesus' early life and roots. The second volume discusses the years of public ministry.
Meier differs from Crossan and the Jesus Seminar in several important areas. First, Meier is much more orthodox in his portrayal of Jesus. For him, the miracles of Jesus were not deceptions or metaphorical explanations of an internal kingdom. Rather, as herald of God's kingdom, Jesus performed miracles to elucidate his message. In addition, it appears that Meier is seeking a consensus opinion regarding Jesus-one that seeks to bring the best modern thinking together. Writing from within the academic heart of American Catholicism, Meier brings enormous scholarship to his work as well as a great passion for the person of Jesus.
Another author with great passion, but a perspective similar to Crossan's, is fellow seminar member Marcus Borg. His latest work, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, is the story of his personal rediscovery of Christ. After moving away from his naive childhood idea of Jesus, as well as the disillusionment he experienced in seminary, Borg tells of his re-encounter with the God of his youth, but this time through the eyes of an adult not easily given to belief.
While including many of the same theological constructs as Crossan, Borg's writing is more intimate. Many will be able to relate to his sense of loss of faith as an adult, and rejoice with him upon its rediscovery.
Orbis Books has published a collection of essays that broaden, dispute, apply, and dissect the theories and work of Crossan and the seminar, titled Jesus and Faith. While taking the seminar's work seriously, the various essayists move at the image of the historical Jesus from different perspectives, including seeking its application for feminist theologians and liberation theology.
But not everybody wants to join this party. When it comes to the seminar's discussion of the historical Jesus, there are some who deeply question its relevance, as well as the quality of its conclusions.
Luke Timothy Johnson is the Woodruff Professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. In his new book, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Gospel Traditions, Johnson argues that the historical or pre-resurrection Jesus was never intended to be the basis of our faith. Rather, it is the resurrected Christ that calls to us, and that has been most important to the development of the Christian community. Disputing the fundamental ideas that "earlier is better" and "development is decline" when it comes to scholarship and criticism, Johnson insists that the relationship between history and meaning must be examined closely, with no presupposition taken for granted.
Johnson seeks to remind us that narrative is the context in which we have been given the history of Jesus, and that narrative cannot be divorced from our interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' life. Critical scholarship and historical scholarship cannot be set at odds with one another; neither can they be mixed unintelligibly.
For example, who is the historical Churchill? the real JFK? Churchill made enormous strategic mistakes while prime minister, but who dares deny the effect his courage had to hold England together during the blitz? Kennedy was deeply flawed, but how many people were genuinely inspired during his presidency-an inspiration that continues to shape our nation? Will dealing only with their factual realities diminish the truth of their messages and achievements?
History always has a bias. To believe otherwise, in Johnson's thinking, is at best overly romantic and at worst deceitful.
WHILE JOHNSON speaks, like Meier, from within the Catholic tradition, there are other groups that weigh in on this question. This brings the examination full circle for me. Evangelical Christians have not generally been comfortable with the redactionistic criticism that has circulated in academic circles this century. Yet the quality of evangelical scholarship is being stretched and matured as the century comes to a close. As symbolized in his excellent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll is challenging evangelicals to reignite the intellectual life of their beliefs.
In this vein of renewed scholarship, Zondervan, a well-known evangelical publishing house, has recently published Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus , edited by Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland. While expecting the evangelical perspective on the study of the historical Jesus to be one-sided, I found the discussions by the contributors here to be thoughtful and credible. The editors have tried to build a substantially thought through argument to counter the Jesus Seminar specifically.
They claim that the seminar does not represent a consensus of scholars, and that the methodology used by the seminar is flawed. The book goes on to address each salient point the seminar puts forward. They argue that putting revelation over reason is not intellectual suicide. Rather, we are a people who believe in the presence of an ineffable Other-one who does break into human events in radical ways.
The last two books combined make for an excellent rebuttal to Crossan and the Jesus Seminar. The issue of the nature of Jesus summons both personal and academic responses from players on all sides of the question.
So what shall we say? The academics debate each other. The argument is on the cover of Time and Newsweek-played out in the popular culture. Yet the cry issues from our hearts, Who is Jesus? Why is he important? How can I know? The psalmist said that while the nations rage, the rulers of the world take their stand against God and God's anointed. The Jesus Seminar reminds us that it is our nature to want to throw off any chains that hinder our sense of personal choice and freedom. For Americans, this is especially true.
Yet through time, the response remains the same. In the light of all our discussion, our posturing, our doubt, the one enthroned in heaven laughs, and says, "I have enthroned my holy one on Zion." If the quest for the historical Jesus leads us to discover this anointed one in new depth and life, then it is a blessing. If not, it will be one more attempt to make the scandal of the cross comfortable for our time, and to remake God, once more, in our image. n
In the Beginning
If you want to catch up with the previous century's debate on the historic Jesus, a wonderful place to begin is the great Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus (A. & C. Black, 1911). John Dominic Crossan says, "In the past, most of the work on the historical Jesus was an attack on dogma. Schweitzer already said that. Some of the best works, best lives of Jesus, were written out of hatred-hatred of dogma, not hatred of Jesus."
Schweitzer brings these arguments to a conclusion, disputes them, and then turns and sets the stage for the current discussion. He concludes his work with these famous words:
Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but His spirit, which lies hidden is his words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct. Every saying contains in its own way the whole Jesus. The very strangeness and unconditionedness in which he stands before us makes it easier for individuals to find their own personal standpoint in regard to him.
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.
This is the work of a great soul examining The Great Soul.
The Jesus Seminar
Founded by Robert Funk, the Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars, some well-known academics as well as cultural figures, dedicated to uncovering the "actual" words and deeds of Jesus against that which they term interpretive or mythological.
A highly controversial group, the seminar has attracted a great deal of media attention around their "pronouncements." They use a highly ritualized procedure in order to achieve consensus concerning subjects such as the resurrection, as well as ascribing the words of Jesus. Members vote using a range of colored marbles: red if the scholar believes something really happened; pink if it might have happened; grey if they're doubtful; black if the scholar is certain that it's fabricated.
Last Easter, for example, the seminar voted about whether Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection was black-balled.