Crossan 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.
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 into 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”.
Most things we know we know because “everyone knows” them to be true. They are things we are taught at school and that remain unquestioned in our cultural life. Though much of this “social knowledge” will not be seriously questioned by most of us, we have trained specialists or scientists who will question and test some of it. So we have two types of knowledge: social knowledge and scientific knowledge.
Most of us know figures from the past existed as a form of social knowledge. I know evolution is a fact as a form of social knowledge, and with a little effort I have found I can also know it is true as a more secure, evidence-based form of knowledge.
Most of us know Julius Caesar existed because this is a matter of public record and taught in schools. Specializing students of history know he exists because they become familiar with the evidence: coins with his name and image, busts, books written by him, writings among his contemporaries like Cicero speaking of him. His existence (and career) is also a very powerful explanation of the way Rome and its conquered territories came to be ruled by an emperor.
There is a constellation of other persons in Caesar’s life for whom we don’t have the same strength of evidence. But the fact that those others are written about by authors who express intentions to address the facts of his life gives us strong confidence in the probability of their existence, too.
Some historical persons such as Socrates who have become part of the web of our social knowledge are from time to time questioned by specialist students and scholars. But many of these specialists are satisfied Socrates existed on the strength of the independence of the ancient testimonies. Not only is Socrates found among the writings of his reverential devotees like Plato and Xenophon, but he also appears comedy plays by a contemporary playwright as the but of crude mockery.
Zerowing21 has posted on the evidence for Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon compared with the evidence for Jesus. Specifically . . . .
Christian apologist Douglas Geivett’s claim that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection meets “the highest standards of historical inquiry,” and is as certain as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E.
N. T. Wright might agree with that. But read the blog post for an excellent run down of the sorts of evidence historians work with as opposed to theologians who think they are historians.
The blog post begins with a few links to other sites that will interest some who read this:
I know, some will instinctively respond with some quip that Jesus wasn’t a great political figure so we can’t expect the same evidence for him as for the other JC. Exactly, but what some such instinctive respondents want to do is change the rules to allow us to use different material as “evidence” so we can write just as much about Jesus with the same assurance. They want to change the rules, that is. But real historians do not change the rules. What they do is change the scope of their inquiries. That is why you will find most books on ancient history covering broad sweeps of civilization or political and social developments. There are fewer exhaustive biographies than can be, and are, written for persons who dot later historical periods.
One of Jesus’ more impressive tricks was to command a raging storm at sea to be quiet and go away so his disciples could continue their sea crossing without fear. Many readers of this tale are reminded of another about Jonah who, like Jesus, was caught sleeping in the boat while the crew were desperately bailing out water. The captain wakes Jonah up, words are exchanged, and the storm immediately ceases — the moment Jonah was tossed overboard.
But there was another very popular story about Julius Caesar attempting something similar, but not quite succeeding.
It was long the literary fashion for authors to show the superiority of their particular hero to other well-known heroes from older stories. The Roman poet Virgil composed an epic about Aeneas, father of the Roman race, basing many of his adventures on those of the earlier Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. Where Odysseus fell foul of monsters and lost his crew, Aeneas more prudently (or with more favourable divine blessings) avoided such dangers and brought his crew to their destination, thus demonstrating his more masterful leadership qualities to those of the well known Odysseus.
But while the Jesus story of stilling the storm borrows a few details from Jonah’s adventure, it is nonetheless a wild leap from one hero commanding the storm to cease and another begging to be sacrificed.
But then I read Wendy Cotter’s citation (Miracles in the Greco-Roman World) setting the Jesus story alongside another that was evidently very popular throughout the Roman world around the era the Gospels were composed. Julius Caesar was famously reported to have disguised his identity, clambered into a boat and demanded its pilot to take him to the opposite shore. When storm and winds threatened their safety, Caesar declared his real identity and commanded the crew to have no fear, but to know that with Caesar on board the storm could do them no harm and that they would make it safely to their destination. Unfortunately for Caesar’s ego, the storm refused to cooperate and the boat was forced to return to safety. Continue reading “How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar”