Jesus and Crossan (Part II)

This is the second part of a two post-series looking at John D. Crossan’s view of the Historical Jesus as outlined in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

jesus_catacombKey for understanding Crossan’s perspective on the historical Jesus is his understanding of Jesus as a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.[13] In Crossan’s view, this understanding points to Jesus as a religious, social, ideological, and borderline political revolutionary who defied social norms and practiced “a shared egalitarianism of spiritual (healing) and material (eating) resources.”[14] Connecting Jesus with John the Baptist, and a form of Jewish eschatological thinking, Crossan suggests that perhaps the best approach to understanding and interpreting the historical Jesus would be through the lens of an Ancient Mediterranean Jewish Cynic.[15] For Crossan, such an understanding would explain textual traditions of both calls to poverty, social radicalism, commensality, freedom, kingdom language, and talk of followers as royalty.[16] Only with such an understanding, Crossan argues, can we really understand the methods and message of the truly historical Jesus.

Crossan next turns to the canonical accounts of the last days of Jesus. The temple cleansing, at least in form, for Crossan constitutes a historical and important event for the historical Jesus, as his symbolic destruction of organized Judaism attempted to demonstrate the worthlessness of that lifestyle system.[17] This action for Crossan becomes the spark that causes the tinderbox of Ancient Judaism at Passover to begin to smoke, and ultimately becomes, along with Jesus’ message, the reason for his arrest and crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.[18] Concerning the crucifixion itself, Crossan argues that “Jesus’ first followers knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial. What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not just history remembered but prophecy historicized.”[19] In this view, Crossan argues that the prophetic passion of Old Testament origins was read back into a basic framework of the historical passion, and that the Gospel writers thus created narrative passion accounts detailing certain events that never took place; further, Jesus was likely never buried, certainly not by a respected member of the Jewish council.[20] Such events were created via prophetic necessity in retrospect. Crossan here offers a great deal to consider, though his construction is not without its concerns. First, one must consider the likelihood of the successful propagation of a message based upon non-historical events. No evidence exists of any early historian or movement that opposed the Jesus group on the basis of inaccurate history. As scholar Michael Licona argues in The Resurrection of Jesus: New Historiographical Approach,[21] the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection spread throughout the Roman Empire so quickly and forcefully that within a few short decades the movement had grown enough to be noticed by general historians. Second, one must consider Crossan’s arguments about the crucifixion accounts in light of what scholars can know about crucifixion. Scholars Martin Hengel, in his book Crucifixion, presents a portrayal of ancient crucifixion that stands at some odds with Crossan’s portrayal. Finally, one must consider Crossan’s understanding of the crucifixion in light of his construction of the resurrection accounts, which we will now turn to.

ResurrectionCrossan writes concerning the resurrection that, “resurrection is but one way, not the only way, of expressing Christian faith…. Apparition… is but one way, but not the only way, of expressing Christian experience…. Christian faith experiences the continuation of divine empowerment through Jesus, but that continuation began only after his death and burial.”[22] Calling into question what can be known by Josephus, Tacitus, and early non-canonical Christian accounts alike, Crossan argues that the earliest message of the Jesus movement was not of resurrection, but of continued egalitarianism and commensality.[23] Post resurrection accounts of Jesus and his interaction with the disciples or other groups of Christians are later retrojections by the gospel writers concerned with conferring authority or teaching upon certain groups, namely the disciples[24] or apostolic communities.[25] Ultimately, Crossan’s construction of the historical Jesus ends with his followers forming an institutional movement in his name, which ultimately reinterprets his message and methodologies to better fit their needs. Such a view, both of an unhistorical resurrection and of the early church remains seriously contended against by a number of scholars. However, Crossan asks his readers to consider hard questions concerning the message of Jesus and his follower’s faithfulness to that message following his departure.

As we have seen here, John Dominic Crossan presents a particular view of the historical Jesus in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. As presented, his view remains fairly coherent given his use of source material and presuppositions, though it is not without question. Crossan raises a number of important questions for personal and academic consideration, making this book worthy of consideration, even for those who do not share Crossan’s presuppositions or agree entirely with his reconstruction. The book presents narrative material in a critical fashion and poses hypotheticals and possibilities in an engaging manner that invites readers to make questions and considerations their own, a very strong feature of the work. Crossan often asserts, rather than arguing, for various points and constructions in Jesus, a factor that may be partially overlooked do to the form of the book, but ultimately remaining enough of a weakness to be an issue of critique. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, while noteworthy for its presentation of Jesus, is too problematic in its approach to be of much value for those interested in understanding the Historical Jesus.


[12] John Dominic Crossan. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, 1994. 88-91. [13] Ibid., 103. [14] Ibid., 107; 102-7. [15] Ibid., 106-122. [16] Ibid., 120-2. [17] Ibid., 123-133. [18] Ibid., 132-140. [19] Ibid., 145. [20] Ibid., 145-158. [21] Michael Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. InterVarsity Press, 2009. [22] Crossan, 160-1. [23] Ibid., 159-181. [24] Which leads one to question when such stories were first spread and how early the gospel accounts were written if that is the only purpose of such stories. [25] Ibid., 181-190.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: