Tag Archives: John Dominic Crossan

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus, part 4 of 4 (John Dominic Crossan)

powerparableLet’s conclude this series on John Dominic Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable. Last time we looked at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; this time Luke-Acts and John.

Crossan argues that the Gospels are not histories or biographies of Jesus but are fictional parables and Jesus is their central character. Now Crossan does not doubt that there was a real, historical Jesus. But you won’t find him in the Gospels, he says, at least not on a face-value reading of them. To see Crossan’s arguments that Jesus was indeed historical (even though the most important evidence about him is fictional) see the first post in this series: Crossan’s Proofs That Jesus Did Exist. (Did you “find it persuasive”? Nor did I.)

(For the uninitiated, “Find it persuasive” is a stock phrase used by biblical scholars to apply in the positive or negative to arguments they do or do not like. It replaces the tedious need to find an evidence-based and logically valid argument to address a view that supports or contradicts one’s personal beliefs and tastes.)


If the authors of the Gospels wrote fiction about Jesus, is it necessary to postulate an historical Jesus to explain the Gospels?

Now this question is more than just a “mythicist” question. Of course it has implications for the question of whether or not there ever was an historical Jesus. But can’t we ask that same question without any of the mythicist-historicist invective we have come to expect of it? Forget the mythical-historical Jesus debate. Let’s address the evidence, the Gospels, without fear or favour. First things first.

So let’s start with Crossan’s discussion of Luke-Acts.

In what sense is Luke-Acts a parable about Jesus and not a biography or history of Jesus? read more »

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus: Crossan, part 3 of 4

powerparableThis post was to conclude my series on Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable, but since it is taking longer to complete than I anticipated I’ll post here only on Crossan’s treatment of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Luke-Acts and John can wait.

The Parable Gospel According to Mark

According to Crossan the author of this Gospel was not writing a history or biography of Jesus but a parable about church leadership and the meaning of true Christianity.

The author, says, was probably writing in Caesarea Philippi to refugees from the recent war against Rome. These people, Crossan says, “had lost everything — their lands and possessions, their homes and their loves, their hope and maybe even their faith.” (p. 173) (I shake my head a little every time I hear a theologian or any believer write about loss of faith as if it were something worse than losing loved ones and homes.)

So what was Mark’s parabolic message to these people?

In his gospel, Mark claims that false prophecy led Jerusalem’s Christian Jews astray by promising them that the (second) coming of the Messiah would save them from . . . Roman destruction. And, says Mark — with parabolic hindsight and fictional creativity — Jesus had warned against that very delusion . . . .

Furthermore, Mark lays full responsibility for that mistaken conflation of the coming of Christ with the coming of Rome on the shoulders of the Twelve, that is, on their misunderstanding of Jesus . . . . (p. 171)

Mark is writing a story to castigate the Twelve for getting Jesus wrong in every way.

He criticizes the Twelve

  • for failing to follow the mode and style of (servant) leadership of Jesus;
  • for failing to lead a united Jewish and Gentile Christian community instead of an exclusively Jewish one from Jerusalem;
  • for failing to understand that performed miracles for both the Jews on the western side of the lake and the gentiles on the eastern side.

Mark is taking what he sees as the sins of the Twelve throughout the forty years after Jesus (from the late 30s to the early 70s) and re-writing them so they appear in a story setting of their time with Jesus.

But there’s a problem. Crossan also knows that almost all of those Twelve were dead by the time Mark was writing. He intimates that Mark is writing a parable about problems in his own day and that have relevance for all Christians since. read more »

The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3)

powerparableCrossan would never say the gospels are “only” parables about Jesus. He would say something like: “The gospels are parables about Jesus and that’s what makes them so shockingly subversive and provocatively challenging for us today. They humble our prejudicial absolutes. They remind us that Jesus can never be fully trapped by our human imagination. Parables about Jesus delicately provoke us into a stunning paradigm-shift by means of a participatory pedagogy and a collaborative eschaton.” (I have mixed and matched phrases from Crossan here to produce this hypothetical “quotation”.)

But he does say that they are parables about Jesus nonetheless.

This post is part two of a series on Crossan’s 2012 book, The Power of Parable. Part one is here; part three to come.)

The Gospels as Parables

Crossan writes for believers who love to listen to well-educated and sophisticated theologians preach sermons that are introduced with rambling stories and then turn to paradoxical and punning turns of phrase (“It is never just about food. It is always about just food.” Even if ironic, [parables] are always irenic.”) that are served as spiritual wisdom. He uses imperatives to draw readers in to following his line of thought: “Watch now as I turn to . . .” “Think about this . . .” “Look at those words. . . ” “Hear that story against. . .” “Wonder for a moment why . . .”. He strains on every page to make the Bible relevant to the modern Western reader, even if that means leading readers to think of the words and deeds of Jesus through modern ideals and concepts of educational philosophy. Crossan’s Jesus remains the unblemished paragon who lived out his (Crossan’s) highest ideals at all times — “Think, therefore, about this: Does Jesus change his mind or does Matthew change his Jesus? (p. 187). Jesus’ God is always Crossan’s nonviolent God who seeks collaborative working relationships with humanity at all times.

For Crossan, the gospels are a particular type of parable. They are “Challenge” parables. He means they challenge their hearers to think and act differently. That sounds to me like a preacher injecting modern meaning and relevance into texts for the benefit of his parishioners who are looking for a reason to keep valuing the Bible. So, even though this “Challenge” theme predominates Crossan’s discussion, I will not make it the heart of my summary and will try to focus on his argument that the Gospels are themselves parables — although part of the reason Crossan sees them as parables is bound up in his interest in the theme of “challenge”.

Book-length parables read more »

John’s Wedding at Cana — Chronicle or Parable?

The Wedding at Cana (1820)

The Wedding at Cana (1820) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Gospel without Parables?

We all know the standard line: the synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus’ ministry heavily relied on parables, while the Fourth Gospel contains none. It’s a striking conundrum. However, for a long time now I’ve been considering the possibility that John is itself entirely a parable gospel.

That is to say, each pericope may stand primarily as an allegorical story, regardless of whether it is based on historical events. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine, for example, seems to contain so many obvious references — narrative points and objects that have direct theological allusions — that resemble the parables in the other gospels.

Rudolf Bultmann in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971, pp. 114-121) counsels us not to overstate the significance of the water as referring to baptism, blood, or the new covenant. On the other hand, F.F. Bruce writes:

Jesus’ action was, in C. S. Lewis’s terminology, a ‘miracle of the old creation’: the Creator who, year by year, turns water into wine, so to speak, by a natural process, on this occasion speeds up the process and attains the same end. But if it is a miracle of the old creation, it is a parable of the new creation. (p. 45, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, emphasis mine)

John as “Megaparable”

If Bultmann gave us a red light, Bruce at least changed that light to amber. Earlier this year in The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan changed it to full-on green. He subtitles chapter 10: “The Parable Gospel according to John,” writing:

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7-15 and physical eating in 4:31-38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine? (Kindle location 3748, bolding mine)

read more »

Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels

Walk on the water

Image via Wikipedia

Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.

Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.

(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)

Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:

Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p.  57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary) read more »

What do biblical scholars make of the resurrection?

Jesus Appearing to the Magdalene by Fra Angeli...

Image via Wikipedia

Or more specifically, what was the state of play around five years ago when Research Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, Gary R. Habermas, had a chapter published in The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue? Habermas outlines four broad positions found among contemporary scholars and identifies a trend in which a strong majority of scholars do favour the idea that Jesus really was raised from the dead “in some sense”. I find his findings noteworthy for another reason that I will save for the end of this post. The link above is to the Wikipedia article on Habermas where he is described as an evangelical Christian apologist. Still, I was interested enough to know what the general state of biblical scholarship appears to be on the question, so I included his chapter in my reading.

“One of the indisputable facts of history”

Habermas writes (my emphasis throughout):

As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus’ death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord. Further, this conviction was the chief motivation behind the early proclamation of the Christian gospel.

These basics are rarely questioned, even by more radical scholars. They are among the most widely established details from the entire New Testament. (p. 79) read more »

How many stories in the gospels are “purely metaphorical”?

Resurrection: Son of God Jesus triumphs over d...

Image via Wikipedia

Dale Allison concludes his book Constructing Jesus with a discussion of the intent of the gospel authors. Did the gospel authors themselves think that they were writing real history or did they think they were writing metaphorical narratives, parables or allegories?

Allison refers to Marcus Borg and others (e.g. Robert Gundry, John Dominic Crossan, Robert J. Miller, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, John Shelby Spong, Roger David Aus) who have gone beyond their scholarly predecessors for whom the question was, “They thought they wrote history but can we believe them?”, to “Did they think they were writing something other than history and have we misunderstood them?”

They are not claiming that we must, because of modern knowledge, reinterpret the old texts in new ways, against their authors’ original intentions. They are instead contending that the texts were not intended to be understood literally in the first place. (p. 438)

I would love to read the books Allison cites but till then will have to rely here on his brief remarks.

Of O’Connor, Allison informs readers that he reasons that Luke’s two accounts of the ascension of Jesus are different because Luke did not think he was writing history (The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (4th ed., 1998)). read more »

Theologians who mistakenly think they are historians

Morton Smith
Image via Wikipedia

Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding) read more »

Crossan’s absolute certainty in the historicity of Christ Crucified

Christ crucified from the "Pigliata"...
Image via Wikipedia

I take it absolutely for granted Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Security about the fact of the crucifixion derives not only from the unlikelihood that Christians would have invented it but also from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it, a Jewish one from 93-94 C.E. and a Roman one from the 110s or 120s C.E. (p. 372 of The Historical Jesus)

That last “but also” part of Crossan’s sentence addresses the only way we can have any certainty about the past: independent evidence, external controls.

Here Crossan goes beyond the usual subjective assertion that Christians would not have made up the story. Here he acknowledges the primary importance of independent corroboration.

This is good. It is exactly what nonbiblical historians do. They work with verifiable facts. Their task is to interpret verifiable facts and explain the known “facts” of history. (Historical Jesus scholars usually busy themselves trying to find what some facts are. Was Jesus a revolutionary or a rabbi? Did he or did he not “cleanse” the Temple? If there are no verifiable facts then they don’t do the history.)

Everything we need to know we learned as children

I have discussed this in some depth in my Historical Facts and Contrasting Methods posts. It’s a simple truism that most of us learned from our parents, read in the Bible, and that carries right through to normative history and modern day journalism — Don’t believe every word you are told. Check the facts. Test what you hear. read more »

John Dominic Crossan the Theologian Explaining the Historicity of Jesus

Foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time,...

Image via Wikipedia

Australia’s Radio National program, The Spirit of Things, aired an interview today with John Dominic Crossan.

If there can be any doubt whether Crossan is a historian AND/OR a theologian it must surely be settled with his comments in this interview.

Well into the interview the presenter, Rachael Kohn, dropped in the question about people who think Jesus was a mythical creation and not historical at all. Did I sense a whiff of giggling ‘how silly’ with this question? Curiosly Kohn said that the idea must tickle the fancy of “atheists”. I had to wonder why. read more »

Maurice Casey’s Historical Methods for Historical Jesus Studies

Maurice Casey (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Nottingham, UK) in his 2010 book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching devotes his third chapter to a discussion of his historical method, and becomes the latest New Testament scholar to demonstrate (once more) how studies of the “historical Jesus” follow their own idiosyncratic rules and are unlike any other studies of ancient historical figures.

Unfortunately, Casey also demonstrates in this chapter the all too familiar tendency of biblical scholars to carelessly misrepresent arguments and authors they do not like. In this case, Casey’s representation of Crossan’s methodology and arguments is, at best, a little unfair, as I will demonstrate by setting Casey’s and Crossan’s words side by side.

read more »

How Crossan redefines history and sets up more false analogies

The purpose of this post is to add an illustrative footnote to my earlier post on the nature of history and historical facts by showing how a prominent historical Jesus scholar redefines the nature of history and historical facts to mean something quite different from anything understood by other historians of ancient, medieval or modern history. Many biblical historians do not practice history as it is known and understood by nonbiblical historians, but myth-making, as I explain below.

Most historians acknowledge that there are very real facts of the past for which we have tangible evidence, and there is no dispute about these facts. Different interpretations or views of these facts does not change the reality of the facts themselves:

No matter how many observers may concern themselves with such questions as the day on which Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, who the eldest surviving child of Henry VIII was, or where Napoleon confronted the allied armies on a given day in 1813, they will all come up with the same answer. There is, in short, a very large body of agreed historical knowledge on which no dispute is possible . . . . (Elton, The Practice of History, p. 54)

We may not know precisely why William the Conqueror decided to invade England; we do know that he did invade and had a reason for doing so. We may argue over his invasion and its motive; we cannot argue them away. Nine hundred years ago they had existence . . . . Thus while history will rarely be able to say: this is the truth and no other answer is possible; it will always be able to say: this once existed or took place, and there is therefore a truth to be discovered if only we can find it. (p.49)

So in history there are many hidden facts we do not know (e.g. why a particular war started) about the public and undebatable facts for which we do have primary and corroborated secondary evidence (e.g. the fact that there was a war or invasion). But there are publicly known facts for which we have primary evidence and corroborated secondary evidence.

Note that the very foundation of historical enquiry is a set of questions about the public, undebatable facts and events known (from primary and/or tested and corroborated evidence) and about which there can be no doubt or revision. Those facts — the fact of a war, of the settlement of a new country, a person for whom we have clear evidence of real existence (e.g. letters, diaries, contemporary reports) — are the starting point of the historian’s questions. The historian begins investigations — and the uncovering of new evidence, generally more debatable — with questions about such facts.

But see how John Dominic Crossan puts a subtle twist on the above truisms about history: read more »

Another instance of dishonest handling of evidence in Historical Jesus studies?

The Annunciation by El Greco

Image via Wikipedia

It is commonly said that the miraculous events in the Gospels concerning Jesus do not diminish the historicity of Jesus or his story because ancient historians and biographers also regularly narrated tales of the miraculous in connection with famous people we know for a fact to have been historical.

This is a misleading claim. The way in which the miraculous tales were told of people we know to have been real is generally very different from the way similar myths are narrated in the Gospels. I give one example here.

One of the first books I read when beginning my quest to understand Christian origins was The Birth of Christianity by John Dominic Crossan. In that book Crossan compares pagan biographies of emperors (Augustus, Tiberius) with the Gospels as sources of historical information. The assumption is that the Gospels themselves are entitled to be read in a way comparable to how nonbiblical historians read ancient documentary evidence of other famous persons.

Crossan compares the miraculous birth of Augustus “recorded” by an ancient historian to that of Jesus in the Gospels. The point is to demonstrate that such a clearly mythical tale told about the origins of an emperor is something we can expect in ancient biographies of real people.

Suppressing the facts to make a false comparison

But in order to present this comparison Crossan has to suppress information from the consciousness of the reader. If a less educated reader who has not read the works of this ancient historian (and Crossan has many lay readers who fall into this category and is clearly conscious of them when he writes) that reader would be left with the false impression that the ancient historical biography is indeed comparable to the Gospels when they tell of Jesus’ birth.

Here is how Crossan identifies a miraculous tale in the Gospel of Luke with with a similar miracle found in an ancient historical writing of a known historical figure (my emphasis): read more »

Even an atheist finds an historical Jesus in his own image

The shallow and contradictory foundations for “scholarly” assumptions and beliefs in “the historical Jesus”, by both Christian and atheist scholars, are brought out in this recent remark forwarded to me by someone who found it on Exploring Our Matrix:

I think this is my #1 reason for not being a mythicist. I consider it appropriate to create and/or adopt a theory that fits the evidence, rather than vice versa, whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory, when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

The first sentence is a truism. It is a motherhood statement that any and everyone will claim they believe and follow. So we can move on to the next point:

This is also, I suspect, the #1 reason that I’ve compared mythicism and creationism. It is not that history and the natural sciences function in precisely the same way or offer comparable levels of certainty. They don’t. But in the case of both mythicism and creationism (both of which have many permutations and varieties) . . . .

I demonstrated (Creationist slurs) how Associate Professor of Religion, James McGrath, posits his own idiosyncratic self-serving definitions of “creationism”. His new point of comparison is that mythicism is like creationism because both have “many permutations and varieties”. I am not sure if he is serious or joking or having a late night.

One can count as many as 4 mythical Jesus varieties to 20 historical Jesus permutations on this eight year old page alone: Historical Jesus Theories.

Accusing the majority of historians of being the minority

It is also interesting that in the same passage James takes the chance to include his own area of biblical studies under the general class of “history” — as if the historical tools and methodologies of Jesus scholars are in any way comparable to the tools and methodologies found among what is usually thought of as History in academia. When I have pointed out to him that “minimalists” who have finally had some measure of success in bringing the study of the biblical kingdom of Israel up to the same standard of normal historical analysis and enquiry found in historical studies generally, his reply has been to suggest that it is their methodology as the minority one!!!! (See here where James writes: “I’m willing to listen if you want to explain why the minimalist historians working on ancient Israel should be the standard for the entire discipline of history.” In fact the so-called “minimalists” are actually arguing that secondary evidence should be interpreted through the lens of primary evidence and avoid all pre-suppositions about the historicity or otherwise of the secondary evidence.)

Finding the “Historical Jesus” who fits our own image

I see a deliberate attempt to reinterpret evidence to fit an already-adopted theory . . . .

This is another somewhat unscholarly claim. James knows Albert Schweitzer’s famous remark that each historical Jesus scholar has tended to find in the evidence a Jesus who turns out to be the very image of the scholar! And it has been no different since then.

  • The Irish Catholic John Dominic Crossan found a Jesus who was an anti-imperialist revolutionary.
  • Rabbi Hyam Maccoby finds a Jesus who was a rabbi.
  • There is even the “mystical” John Shelby Spong’s Jesus who is not to be found in flesh, but who is yet historical but can only be found in some mystical experience.
  • And more recently existentialist philosopher John Carroll’s existentialist Jesus.

And a recent commenter on this page in Exploring Our Matrix was popular atheist and Christian debunker, ex-evangelical preacher John W. Loftus himself, coming out and arguing for his own historical Jesus. He has argued the same again here.

Guess what John’s historical Jesus looks like . . . .

  • It’s a cultic charismatic Jesus who was a failed apocalyptic preacher.

John Loftus has also argued elsewhere (on FRDB) that his particular historical Jesus is the one that attracts his audiences and that his motive is to change “the religious landscape”. So we can be have some justification for thinking that John’s particular type of historical Jesus is no accident or disinterested outcome of objective research.

So from Christian Schweitzer to Christian debunking atheist Loftus, one can see the evidence for the “deliberate reinterpretation of the evidence to fit already adopted historical Jesus theories”.

Blinded by our cultural icons

. . . . when that evidence can be explained in a straightforward and persuasive matter by another theory.

Our deep seated cultural heritage makes it impossible for some of us to see just how nonstraightforward and unpersuasive the gospel narratives are as attempts to write real history. The fact is (as I have been discussing recently) that leading historical Jesus scholars such as E. P. Sanders assume from start to finish the historicity of Jesus, and never go further than discussing plot details to decide which bits are more plausible than others (e.g. Jesus going to a synagogue is more plausible than him walking on water) and work with nothing more than the self-serving and contradictory “tools” of “criteria of authenticity”. (See my comment and reply by Steven Carr here on the contradictory and self-serving nature of these tools.)

I wonder if the tendency to see the historical Jesus who supports our own place and identity within our wider culture should be seen as instructive about the real significance of the the hostility of many biblical scholars against “Jesus mythicism”.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]