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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