John Dominic Crossan the Theologian Explaining the Historicity of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time,...
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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.

Why would the idea of a mythical Jesus appeal to atheists any more than to anyone else who is not a Christian? Why would it necessarily appeal to atheists at all? I am an atheist and if we found tomorrow near the Mount of Olives an ossuary engraved with “Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and step-son of Joseph, crucified as ‘King of the Jews’ by Pilate at the behest of the high priest and unruly Jewish mob, bones missing since the third day of his burial, ossuary placed here pending their return” I would think how interesting this was, and how I needed to revise my views on Christian origins. But it would not faze me as far as my atheism goes one bit. Many atheists quite happily believe that Jesus lived, was a good, even great, man, was crucified, and was believed for whatever reason to have been literally and physically resurrected.

But Crossan’s response was sadly thoroughly theological and bereft of any historical sense. Since it was Tom Harpur who was raised as the example of the Christ myth idea, Crossan’s response was simply to say that Egyptologists would laugh at him if he tried to persuade them that Jesus was constructed around ideas borrowed from Egyptian mythology.

He then pointed out that Josephus and Tacitus are secular source evidence that Jesus really was crucified by Pilate. (Josephus’s mention of Jesus  was, before the Second World War, generally disregarded as worthless evidence for Jesus since it was so obviously tainted with forgery; no new evidence has surfaced since then, but political correctness has encouraged a greater acceptance of Jewish testimony since then. Tacitus did not write till the second century, and his passage on Jesus was strangely never alluded to for some centuries later; besides, his passage says nothing more than what he could have learned about Christian belief itself in the second century.)

And finally, the “main reason” he believes Jesus was not a myth — so it appears he is rightfully acknowledging that neither of the above is any secure evidence at all — is that “if anyone made up Jesus as a myth they would have got it right the first time.” He went on to explain that what we see in the New Testament is a real struggle, a discomfort, with Jesus. This was new to me, so I delayed getting out of my car for a moment and continued to listen a little more.

Crossan explained that Jesus was tolerant and nonviolent etc, but that when we place the gospels in the chronological order in which they were written, we can see that each of them displays an increasing anti-semitic tone and a mounting violence of attitude towards anyone-who-doesn’t-agree. Mark’s Gospel, Crossan says, shows Jesus is pretty laid back about many things, but Matthew, which he believes was written later, is damning people to hell.

So the decisive proof for the historicity of Jesus hangs entirely on the priority of Mark??? What would happen if Catholic scholars ever win the day and Mark is found to be the last gospel after all (again)?

It is this sort of vacuity that pours from historical Jesus scholars that leaves me wondering why I ever bother to continually question and test my own understanding of reasons for believing that Jesus was an entirely literary or theological construct from the very start. There is simply no serious argument advanced for his historicity in the first place.

One final thing I heard from Crossan that I would love to copy out and quote in the future is his observation that from the 1950s no-one dared ignore the Jewishness of Jesus. This was, of course, a reaction against the anti-semitism that culminated in the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.

Crossan himself included in his title his own book on the historical Jesus the words “Mediterranean”, “Jewish” and “peasant”. The “Mediterranean” word, he pointed out, indicated “Rome” since Rome ruled the Mediterranean. So Crossan was studying Jesus not only as a peasant and Jew, but as these within the realities of the rule of Rome. All of these needed to come together — like a “matrix” — to understand Jesus. (By contrast, Maurice Casey dwells almost entirely on what he sees as Jesus’s Jewishness. He also faults Crossan for spending all his time studying the texts as they now exist in Greek, instead of attempting to discover their supposed Aramaic roots.)

The transcript for Rachael Kohn’s interview will be out in a few days, but in the meantime (at least for a short while) one can still hear the interview or even download it for later — from the program site.

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Neil Godfrey

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28 thoughts on “John Dominic Crossan the Theologian Explaining the Historicity of Jesus”

  1. Why would the idea of a mythical Jesus appeal to atheists any more than to anyone else who is not a Christian?

    To me, the question seems to be a matter of getting to the truth of the situation. Not being aware of evidence that Jesus was a real person, I tend to believe he was not. If anything, it seems to me that in his book The Jesus Puzzle Earl Doherty presents evidence for Jesus having been conceived as a sky guy about which the myth of a corresponding earthly being subsequently evolved. In any case, the hypothesis seems like a quite reasonable one to me.

    After having read Doherty’s book, I read Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I sent Dr. Ehrman an email asking how it would be possible to misquote Jesus if he had never existed. He seemed to regard the question as a rather preposterous one and said that he would be working on a book that would show that there had been a historical Jesus. I can only wonder what the book will use to prove this point, but I will be happy to read it if and when it becomes available.

    This seems to raise the question that is the opposite of yours: Why would a biblical scholar who claims to be agnostic on the question of God and who believes that Jesus was not the son of God care whether Jesus was a historical figure rather than merely a myth? Could it be a matter of not wanting to feel like one has devoted his life to analyzing biblical texts that amount to nothing more than folk tales?

    1. Bob, I’ve often thought about your last point that HJ scholars don’t want their life’s work seem to be for absolutely nothing. Imagine someone like Crossan, a man without any overt religious agenda (in comparison to a lot of other scholars), who has poured his formidable skills and knowledge into finding out who Jesus was, and along comes someone like Doherty, who says (basically)that your entire work is based on a faulty premise. It’s perhaps not surprising HJ scholars can get a bit snippy. They’ve worked really hard!

      1. To discover your whole life’s direction has been built on a deception can be traumatic. It reminds me of the sickening feeling that sank into me as I began to realize I had been so wrong for so many years over a religion I had given up everything for, despite having been so sure I had “proved” it all.

        1. I know the feeling, Neil. It happened to me when I was a teenager. Past a certain point in life, it may not be possible psychologically to make such a huge change in one’s outlook, especially if personal relationships and one’s entire understanding of the universe is tied up in a belief system.

          On the other hand, I really wouldn’t expect the faithful to be shaken by a handful of university professors admitting that we don’t have any good evidence for the existence of Jesus. I mean, wouldn’t you say that a majority of today’s scholars now think that there was no historical Moses? And that fact hasn’t rocked the fundamentalists’ world. If anything, the few who do know about the growing minimalist wave probably welcome the opportunity to rail against the “godless liberal professors in their ivory towers.”

          If I recall correctly from my reading, biologists who believed in Lamarckism didn’t change their minds; they just faded away. I think several of the big names who championed the Steady State theory continued to make fun of the Big Bang until the day they died. Maybe that’s what NT scholars are worried about — a whole new crop of students who haven’t been properly conditioned to laugh derisively at mythicism, belittle its proponents, and squelch all opposition.

      2. Imagine someone like Crossan, a man without any overt religious agenda…

        I do not recall having encountered discussions of Crossan previously, so I had no idea of the man’s views on religion or anything else, so I just watched this little You Tube video titled Does God Exist? Dr. Borg & Dr. Crossan Respond. Therein Crossan describes God as the driving force of evolution and made a claim to the effect that atheists don’t have a positive view of anything, don’t see wonder in anything. Why would I want to read what this foolish old man might have to say about the historicity of Jesus?

        1. Dom and Marcus have never talked to many atheists about evolution, have they. They come across as two old men sitting there on their couch dreaming up fabrications about what they imagine atheists must be like, and then pronouncing their fantasies to believers who want to be reassured with this make-believe and ignorance.

          Crossan’s critique of atheists is utter nonsense. And he was introduced as a very intelligent scholar, too! Or maybe he was just woken up for this interview and was still heavy with sleep. He says atheists are “trapped in theism” because the word atheism contains “theism” in it. Er, right. Well I do recall Dawkins (was it Dawkins?) suggesting that atheists should embrace an alternative term, Brights, and reject the conventional accident of our language, Atheist. Dom should have said that atheists are trapped in being “Bright” and that it is the rest of the English speaking world who is fixated on their rejection of “theism”.

          But I did like his remark about Christmas and Santa Claus. I think he realized he was getting lost by the time he finished his remark:

          Christmas is still here even if Santa doesn’t exist.

          Judaism is still here even if many Jews no longer believe in a literal historical Abraham any more. Christmas can survive without Santa. So why not Christianity without a historical Jesus? Schweitzer thought it could, and even that it was necessary for Christianity’s survival to remove itself from historicism.

          1. Borg: “God is not a being who may or may not exist, but rather God is a non-material reality that is also present in everything that is material.”

            Crossan: [Looks like he wants to nod in agreement, but can’t for the life of him figure out what Borg just said.]

            So they’ve retreated to a position in which God is neither supernatural nor natural, but still non-material and invisible. I have no idea what they’re talking about, that’s OK; neither do they.

            1. They are perfect caricatures of …. themselves as theologians?

              Borg says that he “thinks the word god refers to ‘what is’, to ‘isness’, to ‘what reality is like at its ultimate level'” . . . .

              All they are doing is saying, Well, if you don’t believe in Zeus, try Jehovah; if you don’t believe in Jehovah, then try Isness.

              Time to call in that cartoon we were alerted to earlier —

              History of Theology

          2. “Judaism is still here even if many Jews no longer believe in a literal historical Abraham any more. Christmas can survive without Santa. So why not Christianity without a historical Jesus? Schweitzer thought it could, and even that it was necessary for Christianity’s survival to remove itself from historicism.”

            I don’t think it’s that simple for Christianity.
            The fundamental issue for Christianity is not a question re the historicity of the gospel Jesus figure – it is the question of theism. A theistic god is not only the creator but also a personal god; a personal god who interacts with his creation; a personal god who acts in history. Judaism can get by because it’s theistic god has no cut off event, a once for all time event in history re connecting with his chosen people. Christianity has the sacrifice to end all sacrifices on the cross of Calvary.

            (25. nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own.
            26. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Rom.ch.9).

            So, in one sense Christianity has checkmated the Jewish theistic god – the theistic god and his personal interaction with his creation is confined to the Jesus of the NT. Since the god concept has never been static – Christianity moved along with it’s new triune god concept – a mystery god concept. The Jewish theistic god is viewed as operating in history – thus the NT need for the sacrifice to end all sacrifices in order to put the theistic god out to pasture….The new triune god being more involved with the mystery of spiritual concerns….

            “It is often said that theism is common to Jew, Christian and Muslim. Yet the Christian God and Allah are very different. Jews and Muslims may well be theists, but Christians abandoned pure theism in the early centuries. If the classical Christian teaching in the creeds is said to be theism then it is theism in a radically modified form. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not theism.” Lloyd Geering: Christianity minus theism. http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/misc/geering3.htm

            For the early Jewish Christians to be able to accomplish this agenda ie to move beyond the theistic god, they would have had to be able to point to some ‘defining moment’, some historical circumstance, in which their perceptions about god were challenged or developed. Of course this does not mean that there was a historical gospel Jesus – it simply means that some historical event was deemed to be, interpreted to be, relevant to their theistic notions of god manifesting himself within the history of his chosen Jewish people.

            Christianity is dualistic; it has a theistic god that intervenes in history and a triune mystery god. The theistic god is reflected in the gospel Jesus story and it’s pseudo-history. The triune mystery god is reflected in the dying and rising god of Christian theology. To deny a historical gospel Jesus is one thing – to deny that the Jewish theistic god was deemed to have been involved in Jewish history would be something different all together – and it is that theistic perception, I would suggest, that is behind a lot of the scholarly rejection of mythicism. For all that Marcion tried to do with his non Jewish Jesus, Christianity was not prepared to give up on its Jewish, its theistic roots. Jewish theistic roots that required some ‘evidence’, some interpretation of historical circumstances. The gospel Jesus storyline required that Christianity keep it’s heritage of a theistic god – but its primarily focus became it’s triune mystery god. The unknown god of Paul, in Acts; the dying and rising mystery god became Christianity’s very own calling card.

            Sure, Christianity can get along without a historical gospel Jesus – what it cannot do is get along without a historical core. To do that it would have to give up it’s theistic god…

            1. I do agree. I know I was oversimplifying the issue. Scholars like Crossan and McGrath show all of us how they are all on the same meaningless level when theology is the issue. I keep referring back to Schweitzer for this reason. He did acknowledge the vulnerability of Christianity if it relied on historical events. But it appears very few Christians indeed have taken his warnings seriously.

          3. Well I do recall Dawkins (was it Dawkins?) suggesting that atheists should embrace an alternative term, Brights…

            It was Dennett. I guess Crossan’s vacuous concept might be called evodeism, and I wondered if anyone had already used that term. Well, I found evo-Deism being used by a Rev. Shaun Hunter, in a rambling post titled “A New Word for a First Faith.” But I never would have guessed, there is an evodeist.com, perhaps a bot site of some sort with a main page saying “Service is overloaded. Please try again.” and an aboutus.org tab that leads nowhere. 🙂

            1. Yes, that was the other Ignorance 101 that was spouted out by Crossan — that evolution was being guided to take us somewhere. Any process that is guided or that is destined to take us towards a particular goal is NOT evolution! If there were such a guiding hand or preconceived goal it would not be evolution — it would be another variety of Intelligent Design or Creationism. (But don’t tell McGrath that.)

        2. I seem to remember Hector Avalos in “The End of Biblical Studies” saying that when biblical studies isn’t overtly apologetical or theological, then it is often exists under the simple rubric of nostalgia. Perhaps in some cases, like Crossan, this is what we’re seeing. Then again, perhaps I’m just disappointed in Crossan sinking to the level of theistic evolution. If God has “guided” evolution over the last 4.6 billion years, then he’s a bigger psychopath than anything imagined in the Old Testament. Really thought Crossan was a better thinker than that.

          1. Biblical scholars will insist they keep their scholarly and personal faith lives separate, but when they speak to their lay audiences they do give even their scholarly game away. Crossan is only one of many. They are theologians doing scholarship, and for most of them their scholarly pursuits do nothing more than lead them to refine their faith. This is surely what lies at the heart of their refusal to seriously engage with mythicist arguments.

            Others who do not have faith commitments nonetheless have their professional reputations bound up with the majority who do have an interest in perpetuating the faith agenda.

  2. Neil: “Curiously Kohn said that the idea must tickle the fancy of ‘atheists’. I had to wonder why.”

    But we do know why, don’t we? The gentle old scholar is implying that anyone who thinks there probably was no historical Jesus must have nefarious motives. Naturally, anyone who hangs on to the historical Jesus — to the point of calling a sentence or two in Tacitus “proof” — has nothing but the purest of intentions.

    I’ve been toying with a neologism to describe my current thoughts on most of the characters in the NT. We have anonymous sources and pseudonymous sources. We need a term that describes people that may have existed, but are known to us only as names. I humbly submit the term nonymous. As humans we think we know something important about somebody if we can hang a name on him or her. Most of the disciples fall into this category. They might be legendary. They might have existed (probably not). But the best we can say is, we think we knew their names. They’re nonymous. But we know absolutely nothing about them other than that.

    In the end, I’m not even sure if we can say that about Jesus. There is so much legendary debris stacked on top of this character, the best we might be able to say is we know his name. But even then there’s the nagging suspicion that both “Savior” and “Anointed” were titles.

    Speaking as an atheist and armchair historian, not only do I not care whether Jesus is historical, but I almost would prefer that we found proof of his existence. It’s terribly frustrating looking back through the muddy lens, wondering what the hell exactly happened in Palestine between 4 BCE and 130 CE.

    1. This is why I keep coming back to the reason I have said I am not interested in “Jesus mythicism” or am not a “mythicist”. The real historical question is how Christianity originated and grew. Doherty’s and Price’s approaches are far more historical in relation to the evidence than those who begin with the assumption that the narrative content of the gospels is the starting point. They are examining the nature of the evidence through chronological and other contextual cues that are logically and methodologically justifiable. The HJ approach has been circular from the beginning.

  3. These days, if anyone has heard of anyone pushing for a Christ Myth theory, it has probably been though the agency of the new atheist movements and there Internet champions. They simply have a louder voice than the few scholars working the issue. I think that is the reason Casey is reading your blog. If it were not for people like you, he would really have no reason to write the book!

    One may wonder if it is odd for so many motivated atheist to pick up on Jesus myth rather than just stick to such safe areas as ” people don’t rise from the dead, there is no evidence that the person Jesus is at the right hand of any god, Jesus’ philosophies are not especially wise, etc.” but I suspect a lot of the driving force of atheism today is beyond being to enlightened for yesterdays theology, but a real anger at the effects of religion in the world. The Christ Myth is appealing in that regard because it hopes to pull the rug out from under Christianity in a very tangible way, and a way that is more seemingly demonstrable than simply saying Jesus was an evil huckster (since getting evidence of any deeds of Jesus beyond what the Gospels relate is quite difficult). On another level, I think it is satisfying that if God can be reduced to a myth, then wouldn’t it be great if Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad could as well! With of course particular attention to Jesus since most atheist simply haven’t had enough encounters with the other two to really get the same emotional response (your self excluded Neil!). In general most people believe things not because of the extensive scholarly research, but because of some attendant factor that seems true to them; that news reporters don’t lie, their belief in Jesus assure their salvation, or religious people like silly myths.

    In regards to scholars being snippy about it, and they do seem to be, I would chalk it up to the those motivated atheist boosters rather than the few scholars of the Christ myth. No one gets that worked up about people who support Matthew’s priority (there are still a couple) probably because there aren’t gobs of message boards filled with undereducated commenters proclaiming that only a fool would believe that Mark was first. It’s an interesting idea to consider, but obviously I’ve found the evidence far less convincing than most visitors and contributers here. Defiantly far less to justify speculation on what sort of pressures are keeping scholars from accepting a Christ myth as true.

  4. Neil, your post reminded me of when Richard Carrier was blogging about The Jesus Project a couple years ago and had these words to say about John Dominic Crossan:

    The opening day (Friday, December 5th) we were shown a video from a previous conference by CSER in which John Dominic Crossan received an award and gave an acceptance speech in which he asked that a future conference be organized to answer the question of how you would prove any person in history actually existed. And he connected this specifically to Jesus studies, asking us to establish what method would determine a historical person really existed, like Jesus. The skepticism inherent in his remarks, and his attention to the need of actually answering this question in a formal and resolute way, came as a surprise to me (and I think to many others present). Though he didn’t attend, this conference was a preliminary attempt to answer Crosson’s request.

  5. Neil, I think the problem is that the industry is more interested in supporting traditional dogma, and has created an industry where everything moves towards that. The pubic wants to read about Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels. But, understanding Christian history requires one to understand the battles of Irenaeus time. With the battles both inside and outside the Christian community. The beginning of Irenaeus group to attempt to stamp out all Christian thought they disagreed with. The story of the text battles, and the move to begin destroying texts that did not promote their particular view of Christianity. Since the public will not read these types of book, the industry starts stick with the bread and butter Jesus, Paual, and the Gospels.

    Since all the texts we have of any of these come from AFTER the time of Irenaeus, and not single text we have exists from before this time. And we know that all the texts that we are talking about were of concern to him, and known to him, and he was interested in controlling texts, and stamping out other thought, ALL of our knowledge of what we currently can know about Christianity BEFORE Irenaeus comes through the filter of Irenaeus and his groups work. So to speak about early Christianity without concentrating on Irenaeus and that period is not only foolish, but is attempting to mislead anyone interested in the study of Christianity.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  6. If you read about why scholars believe Jesus was a historical person, you’ll likely find their arguments reasonable and convincing. A radio program only can give rudiments of the arguments. I’ve heard the Jesus-myth theory was last considered reasonable by scholars in the 19th century.
    It’s popular on the internet because it pleases people.

  7. Please be honest about labeling Josephus’ writings as a “forgery.” He is the author of at least two books that have been profoundly valuable for a look at the history of Judaism in the years of the first century. His short remarks on Jesus have been shown to have been changed somewhat by a later Christian interpolater, which is nothing unusual since the Romans and the Jews (Josephus was Jewish and his patron was Rome) did not accept Jesus as a divine figure.

    1. I have written many posts about the Josephan forgery and/or interpolations/redactions. For the sake of argument, however, I am sometimes prepared to roll with the viewpoint of another.

  8. Jesus was a man: that is a statement of FACT.
    Jesus is God, Son of God, Messiah, etc.: these are statements of FAITH.

    Christianity is about seeing in the man Jesus the definitive revelation of God.

    I fully realize many traditional Christians, evangelicals and fundamentalists are uncomfortable confronting the historical realities of the first century in the Middle East.
    But those medieval pillars of ancient theological formulations attributed to Jesus of Nazareth have already collapsed. Because we tend to see reality in 24 frames a second, we are ignorant (not stupid) of the changes in today’s global culture.

    Whether we like it or not, Christianity is a faith built on actual historical events. And history DOES inform faith, whether we like it or not.

    1. On the contrary, it is the foundation of the Christian faith that Jesus entered history as the son of God and saviour of mankind. The historical event is actually the faith. The evangelists did not seek to prove the historical truth of what they were writing by assuring readers of their sources, their identities, etc. They wrote the life of Jesus as scripture, a bald declaration of their faith and commanded readers to likewise believe.

      It is by faith that Christians believe that Jesus was historical (that God acted in history).

      It is by mere cultural heritage that “we” “know” about this Jesus as the founder of Christianity.

    2. The main fact is there is a long tradition of Jesus being said to be a man.

      And being said to be a manifestation of God: in the image of God who ironically seems to be in the image of man.

      There is a history of the Christian faith, but the history of the formation of Christianity may not be what we have been led to believe. It certainly seems to have arisen in response to events in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century, but what really happened may be different to what we have been led to believe.

    3. ‘Jesus is God, Son of God, Messiah, etc.: these are statements of FAITH.’

      According to Bart Ehrman, Christians didn’t invent the concept of Jesus being a crucified Messiah.

      So it must be a fact that Jesus was a crucified Messiah, not a statement of faith.

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