Crossan’s proofs that Jesus did exist

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by Neil Godfrey

I am splitting a single review I have written of John Dominic Crossan’s new book into two posts. This is the first.

His book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, reminds me of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes . . .. Both explain why their respective authors think pretty much everything you read in the Gospels is fiction, but both conclude with assurances that you should still believe in Jesus anyway. For Spong, following Michael Goulder, everything in the gospels is a form of narrative midrash. For Crossan, it is all parable. (Not that Crossan disputes the place of midrash in the gospel (p. 178).)

Before I address his argument that the Gospels are parables about Jesus let’s look at how he “saves” Jesus from the fiction of the gospels.

Crossan’s argument for an historical Jesus

[D]id Jesus ever exist as a historical figure in time and place? Is he like Julius Caesar — a factual figure, but enveloped in clouds of parable? Or is he like the Good Samaritan — an entirely fictional character of Christianity’s parabolic imagination? My answer is that Jesus did exist as a historical figure. That conclusion derives from two historical considerations — two types of proof, one external, the other internal. It does not arise from any dogmatic presuppositions. (p. 247)

The external proof

Two historians, the Jewish Josephus and the Roman Tacitus, around the end of the first century and early second century, both writing at Rome, “indicated what at least some educated elites knew about “Christians” as followers of a “Christ” — like Platonists followed Plato or Aristotelians followed Aristotle. Who, then, was this “Christ”?” (pp. 248)

Crossan then explains the evidence in Josephus. He is aware of the controversy that has historically surrounded the authenticity of the passage in Book 18 of Jewish Antiquities so cuts through all that with the reason we should accept the body of this passage as solid evidence for Jesus today:

There is a general scholarly consensus that the explanation about Jesus in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities was “improved” by later Christian editors . . . (p. 248)

If Crossan had been writing this before the Second World War he could not have written that. See What They Used To Say About Josephus As Evidence For Jesus. Let’s see if Richard Carrier’s recent article on Josephus in the Journal of Early Christian Studies re-opens the question. Scholarly consensus is not always the most enduring point of reference in debates.

Here is how Crossan presents the evidence in Josephus.

It is a deliberately neutral report from Rome in the 90s with these four main points.

This is the standard claim, but surely it is a game of “let’s all kid ourselves”. Firstly, is Josephus ever “deliberately neutral” about anyone who makes a mark for or against righteousness? Secondly, just look at the opening three sentences and see how often the word-choice is decidedly positive. The phrases with strikethroughs are the (only) words Crossan concedes are later Christian embellishment.

Movement: About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ.

Execution: When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified,

Continuation: those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.

Expansion: And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (18.63-64)

The most obvious candidate for Christian interpolation, “He was the Christ”, should be replaced with something like, “He was called the Christ”, according to Crossan. This is to allow the last line to remain in the original passage since it needs a mention of Christ somewhere to explain the origin of the term “Christians”. I wonder what other cases there are where a clearly inauthentic passage is replaced by another of the scholar’s imagination in order to save another controversial line.

Twenty years later Tacitus wrote his history of imperial Rome and in that work (Annals) we read (again with Crossan’s formatting):

Movement: Christus, the founder of the name,

Execution: had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus,

Continuation: and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more,

Expansion: not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (15.44)

Crossan takes these passages as “external proof of the factuality of Jesus”.

The internal proof

For Crossan it is the following “internal proof” that he believes is “even more decisive”. I find that an odd turn of phrase in this context. Is he letting slip an admission that the “external proof” is not really or completely decisive after all?

If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite? (p. 251)

Crossan is saying that the authors of the New Testament writings could not live with the “real Jesus” whom Matthew delineated in the Sermon on the Mount (love your enemies, don’t hate anyone or even call them bad names) so they portrayed Jesus as attacking the Pharisees with accusations of “Hypocrites!” and eventually as coming to slaughter all the ungodly.

Crossan’s argument assumes that Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount testifies to Jesus as originally conceived by Christians and that the same Christian community found that Sermon too uncomfortable and so re-wrote Jesus as pouring scorn and insult upon the Pharisees (Matthew who “recorded” the Sermon on the Mount” made this change within a few chapters) until finally John wrote of Jesus waging bloody warfare on a white battle charger in the Book of Revelation. Crossan appears to be assuming that violent Jesus was conceived after, and in response to, the writing of Jesus’ highest ethical commands. He appears to be overlooking that Paul himself spoke of a day of heavenly vengeance in 1 Thessalonians. Was Paul also writing that because he could not handle a Jesus who taught love?

Is this really a valid reason to believe that Jesus was historical? It assumes not only that Jesus was historical but that he was the very opposite sort of Jesus from the one Hoffmann proposes. Hoffmann insists that Jesus never taught a message of love because, like Hoffmann himself, Jesus loved to get into controversial scraps and insult those he despised. So Hoffmann would certainly not accept Crossan’s “even more decisive” proof of the historicity of Jesus. What good is a “decisive proof” if it is debatable among scholars and seen as “proof” by only some? “Proofs” are meant to be objective, not subjective, judgements if they are to be real.

Children’s fairy tales are regularly re-written to conform to the values of new generations. The woodcutter in Google’s Red Riding Hood does not kill the wolf in the end and we know that’s because values change and we are more conscious of violence in children’s stories. That some of us don’t like to live with the gruesome ending of the original Red Riding Hood does not make that ending historical. Early portrayals of Robin Hood were often romantically idealistic. That the modern entertainment industry often tends to dismiss that romanticism to some extent does give us any reason to think of Robin Hood as historical.

There are many reasons characters are portrayed differently for different contexts and audiences. Crossan’s logic here escapes me.

It is very difficult, indeed, to accept that this “internal proof” of Crossan’s really is free from “dogmatic presuppositions”.

One instance

There is one instance in the book where Crossan does pronounce on the historicity of an event in Jesus’ life: John the Baptist’s baptizing of Jesus.

We can be sure about John’s baptism of Jesus, because of the gathering embarrassment about it as the tradition developed: Mark accepted it (1:9); Matthew protested it (3:13-15), Luke hurried it (3:21a), and John omitted it entirely (1:29-34). Furthermore, the Spirit’s descent on Jesus and God’s address to Jesus render somewhat irrelevant anything that happened between John and Jesus — as all four evangelists attest . . . (pp. 123-24)

Looks like all the arguments exposing the fallacy of the criterion of embarrassment have completely passed Crossan by. Besides, what evidently embarrasses Matthew, Luke and John is Mark’s failure to show any embarrassment over the scene. Theology had moved on since Mark. And that last point about the voice of God overshadowing a presumed historical event is just plain old question-begging.

In the next post I’ll discuss the way Crossan argues that the Gospels are parables about Jesus. We will see that the Jesus Crossan argues is historical is nothing like Hoffmann’s. Crossan’s Jesus is literally a paragon of all the highest virtues a modern western theologian can imagine. He teaches love and never wavers from a life perfectly exemplifying everything we read about in the Sermon on the Mount.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Crossan’s proofs that Jesus did exist”

  1. Crossan’s internal proof:

    If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite? (p. 251)

    But Crossan speaks as if the “you(s)” responsible for the inventing would have had to have been part of one harmonious community together with the “you(s)” who could not live with that invention. As if the inventor “you” (presumably the author of gMark) and the “you(s)” who could not live with his invention (the authors of gMatthew, gLuke and gJohn) were contemporaries who often attended the same agapes. And so, if Jesus had been invented in their community, these four authors would surely have reached some kind of consensus and produced a single Jesus acceptable to all of them. And in such a scenario, yes, I guess the argument would make sense: “If you, Mark, are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one that your buddies Matthew, Luke, and John cannot live with…”

    Unfortunately, as Crossan knows, the provenance of the four canonical gospels is unknown. And even if we go with the times, places, and circumstances usually assigned to them by mainsteam scholars, Crossan’s argument falls apart.

  2. “..Crossan then explains the evidence in Josephus. He is aware of the controversy that has historically surrounded the authenticity of the passage in Book 18 of Jewish Antiquities so cuts through all that with the reason we should accept the body of this passage as solid evidence for Jesus today:

    There is a general scholarly consensus that the explanation about Jesus in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities was “improved” by later Christian editors . . . (p. 248)..”


    The ‘Testimomium Flavianum’, to which alludes Crossan, it is how much most dreary and insipid exists between the infinite Christian interpolations of ancient historical texts. However, from here to affirm, for that, that figure of Jesus is absent from an historical perspective, it is how much most disconcerting you can imagine …

    The ‘negationist’ erudites of the historicity of Jesus, do have ever wondered why the few quotes of Jesus in the texts of the Roman historians as Tacitus and Suetonius speak of Christos or Chrestos but NEVER of Jesus? ..These same scholars do have ever wondered what need had the founders of Catholic Christianity to invent the existence of more than 70 Gnostic sects? … And why the predecessors of the present Mandaeans, who lived outside the borders of the Roman Empire, have felt the need to quote the figure of Jesus in their sacred texts, if he had never existed? …

    Littlejohn S

  3. It would be great if a new text emerged from the sands of Egypt that definitively proved Jesus was a fabricated myth. Then atheists, Jews, former believers and others could hold hands, sing songs and dance around the Maypole.

    Unfortunately, there is a mass of consensus that Jesus existed, urinated and had bowel movements and whose sandal-clad feet had gnarly toenails.

    The stridency of evangelicals, traditionalists, fundamentalists and the Christian right wing are troubling so I myself understand completely the pseudo-scholarship making itself known these days.

    1. It’s a funny game all right. Scholars who stress how uncertain our knowledge is, who emphasize that we can only deal with less than certain probabilities, suddenly turn very dogmatic and even hostile if you dare suggest that Jesus himself is uncertain, only a 70 or 80 percent probability, say.

      1. Unfortunately there is a massive scholarly consensus as well as a majority of historians and academics who see Jesus as a man.
        The future discovery of a new text can throw these views all into question and we would have to start over, wouldn’t we?

        I am not arrogant enough to claim I know what is right or even that I can prove it. After all, we’re talking about ancient history. Jesus was a peasant nobody in a backwater region of Galilee. It does not surprise me that the evidence is paltry. It does surprise me we have other independent sources beside the gospels at all.

        “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
        –L.P. Hartley

        1. Appreciate your response. If I may respond . . . .

          Yes and no. The majority of historians and academics have never looked into the question of the existence of Jesus. Jesus is for most of us simply taken as a cultural icon, an assumption embedded in our cultural and educational heritage. If you glance at my Who’s Who page of Mythicists or Mythicist sympathizers you will see some surprising names who are quite open to doubting the existence of Jesus. The only ones who are most dogmatic about his existence are (1) biblical scholars who declare or suggest that only they have the “expertise” to be able to decide if he was historical or not (that’s nonsense — historical figures don’t need special expertise to ascertain their existence or otherwise); (2) some atheists who side, with hostility, with the same apologist/fundamentalist arguments for some reason. The hostility is worth noting.

          My own take is that there are many figures in the ancient records whose existence we cannot know for certain, but it makes no difference to our view of history. What is a more useful question for the historian is to ask, “How do we explain the evidence we have for the emergence of Christianity?” If that leads to the inevitable conclusion that there must have been a historical Jesus at the start, then so be it. If it can be explained more simply in other ways, then fine. That latter conclusion would simply mean the question remains an unknown.

          You mention that Jesus was a peasant nobody from a backwater Galilee. But this assumption presumes we know who and what Jesus was before we start with any evidence. If we simply take the evidence of the gospels then he was by no means a “nobody” but very well-known. If we take the evidence of Paul then he was a nobody but we have no grounds for thinking he had anything to do with Galilee. If we deny this aspect of the earliest evidence then we run into other problems and find ourselves arguing in a circle about his existence and the evidence for his existence.

          As for having other independent sources besides the gospels, the fact is we don’t. All other evidence derives from the gospels ultimately, or from Paul. Josephus’ testimony comes directly from what was known in the gospels (his sources clearly knew the gospels); Ditto with Tacitus; and as for Pliny’s letter, there is not a word about “Jesus” as such.

          Meanwhile, we do have clear and irrefutable evidence for many “nobodies” in ancient times (e.g. Cicero’s slave; a stammering philosopher hated by Seneca….) — and lots for the comparable figure of Socrates.

  4. Unless you too can prove you are being objective I would read with more focus and attention. It’s natural for us to assume our own evidence is true and that evidence from the “other” is false.

    This, in my view, is not too far off from the fact that WE believe in our myths but yet dismiss others’ religious myths are

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