Book Review: 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Pate)

40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Pate)Whatever you may think about him or his followers, Jesus of Nazareth continues to capture the attention of billions across the planet. From church-going Christians and New Atheists to the media and academics, Jesus remains a pretty popular guy, at least in terms of the time spent discussing this first century Palestinian Jew and his various views on contemporary issues. Amidst these ongoing conversations about what Jesus would think or say about the latest news cycle there are those who have proposed a quest (or, more accurately, quests) for the real Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of history who stands behind the Jesus of Christian faith. These voices—which are by no means new—have long influenced the popular understanding of the Nazarene and continue to shape how many people interpret the message of Jesus. However, many practicing Christians remain generally unaware of the divergent claims regarding the “Jesus of Faith” and the “Jesus of History” and are (understandably) concerned when they first encounter such statements. Continue reading

The Evolution of God

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Conceptions of the Ultimate, the manner in which world religions understand the divine. Today’s article reflects on a portion of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, raising several questions concerning the viability of his presentation of Christianity.

The Evolution of God (Wright)In the third part of The Evolution of God, Wright traces the development of early Christianity and its contribution to growing love and toleration within the Abrahamic traditions, arguing that the Apostle Paul, and not Jesus of Nazareth, produced the thinking and methods of inclusive incorporation into Christian communities that laid the foundations for the tradition’s latter success. However, in order for Wright’s summary of Christianity to fit into his overarching thesis concerning the evolution of God, he makes several claims concerning the historical Jesus, claims that I wish to briefly problematize in this reflection. Each of these considerations touches on an important question regarding Wright’s presentation, namely, does his view adequately address the criterion of historical dissimilarity regarding Jesus? Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.

jesus_catacombFor John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was an immensely important figure, though not in the typical Christian categories. Crossan uses the context of cultural anthropology, coordinating historical accounts of period scholars, and a historical-critical approach to gospels material to provide the basis for his historical Jesus reconstructions. Using this source material, Crossan’s reconstruction places little historical importance on the canonical birth narratives of Jesus, argues that Jesus practiced teaching and healing in a social sense without ever performing the literally miraculous, and that Jesus of Nazareth was ultimately crucified by the Romans as a result of his causing civil unrest in Jerusalem during the Passover period and for his radically anti-establishment teachings and parables. Concerning the resurrection narratives, Crossan argues that there was no historical bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and that the canonical accounts of post-resurrection activity are theological constructions. Finally, Crossan writes that Christian faith must return to its historically verifiable roots, with faith consisting of belief in the historical Jesus as a manifestation of God whose open commensality and radical egalitarian form the basis for a world-changing social program. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Resurrection

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.

ResurrectionWhile thus far in this series Crossan and Wright have differed on their reconstructions of the Historical Jesus, it is the resurrection that truly demonstrates the divergent perspectives of these two scholars.[1] Crossan writes concerning historicity of the canonical resurrection appearance accounts that, “Jesus’ burial by his friends was totally fiction and unhistorical. He was buried, if buried at all, by his enemies, and the necessarily shallow grave would have been easy prey for scavenging animals… Resurrection is but one way, not the only way, of expressing Christian faith…. Apparition… Is one way, 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.”[2] Crossan understands the Pauline message of the importance of the typological resurrection of Christ[3] as one way that the message of Christianity could be interpreted and preached in the early first century Greco-Roman context, and that such an understanding should not be taken as normative for the entirety of the early Jesus movement.[4] Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Crucifixion

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
The Crucifixion, by Cano Alonso

The Crucifixion, by Cano Alonso

This post considers Crossan and Wright’s perspectives on the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Crossan understands the reason for the crucifixion of the historical Jesus to rest with his preaching of radical egalitarianism, open commensality, and rhetoric against established Judaism. As a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, Jesus defied the acceptable social standards of behavior and resisted the established Jewish religious understanding of social practices.[1] Arguing for an understanding of the historical Jesus as what amounts to a first century Jewish cynic, Crossan believes that Jesus’ form of social resistance toed the line between the covert and overt rejection of authority; ultimately, such a position made Jesus and his movement a highly volatile mixture in the wake of the apocalypticism of John the Baptist.[2] Jesus’ position with the Jewish authorities did not fare well with his symbolic destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem the week before Passover, the most politically and religiously charged freedom festival that the Jewish people celebrated.[3] Crossan further argues that the canonical accounts of the crucifixion cannot be accurate history, but are instead prophecy historicized that plays into the later understanding of the Christian church.[4] Thus, Crossan concludes that the historical Jesus was crucified as a result of his causing civil unrest in Jerusalem during the Passover period and his radically anti-establishment teachings and parables. Continue reading

Book Review: Evolution of the Word (Borg)

Evolution of the Word, BorgIn Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written (HarperOne, New York, 2012), scholar Marcus J. Borg presents the books of the New Testament in chronological order. In an attempt to demonstrate the development of the early Christian concept of Word, both the Word of God (Jesus Christ) and the Words of God (the writings of the New Testament), Borg re-orders the writings of the New Testament into the order he believes they were originally written. Beginning with thirty pages of introductory material on the chronology of the New Testament, the context of the early followers of Jesus, and the historical and literary context of Paul, Borg sets the stage for the writings of the New Testament.  The New Testament then follows in this order: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Mark, James, Colossians, Matthew, Hebrews, John, Ephesians, Revelation, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Luke, Acts, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Peter, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Peter. The text of each book is that of the New Revised Standard Version (1989), with standard chapters, versification, section headings, and NRSV textual notes. Preceding each book are some brief remarks by Borg, including some explanation for his dating of each respective work. In this way, The Evolution of the Word looks somewhat like a NRSV New Testament, simply re-arranged according to Borg’s chronology. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Miracles

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac

Image of Jesus Healing the Gerasene Demoniac

Given Crossan’s general view of the world and the relationship between the natural and supernatural,[1] it is not entirely surprising that he grants little historical value to accounts of the miracles of the historical Jesus. Crossan argues that Jesus’ program of ministry focused more on the principles of open social commensality and radical egalitarianism.[2] Based on the prevalence of stories concerned with healing and demonic exorcism, Crossan concludes that Jesus was likely some form of peasant healer, though not in the typical western understanding of the term ‘healer.’[3] Focusing on the social implications of disease within first century Judaism, Crossan argues for a distinction between ‘illness’ and ‘disease.’ Whereas a disease consists of a medical condition, for example HIV/AIDS, an illness refers to the social ills of that disease, namely community ostracization and ridicule.[4] Crossan writes, “I presume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease [in his example ‘leprosy’] or any other one, healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper within it as well.”[5] Concerning demonic possession, Crossan argues that such claims likely reflect the impact of Roman Imperial colonialism and that Jesus may have healed from an entranced state.[6] Ultimately, Crossan’s presuppositions necessarily diminish the historical veracity of any and all miraculous events that have traditionally been ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. To explain Jesus’ reputation as healer and miracle worker, Crossan argues that process was reinterpreted as event and that Jesus practiced healing in a social sense without ever performing the literally miraculous. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Birth Narratives

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.

Birth of JesusCrossan understands the canonical birth narratives to be theological fictions, as Mark, Q, and the Gospel of Thomas, which he views as the earliest historical sources, do not contain any form of birth narrative. Drawing Jesus into parallel with Caesar Augustus, Crossan writes concerning the miraculous birth narratives that, “greatness later on, when everybody was paying attention, is retrojected onto earlier origins, when nobody was interested. A marvelous life and death demands and gets, in retrospect, a marvelous conception and birth.”[1] Crossan understands the birth narrative of the Lucan account as comparing the birth of Jesus to that of John, who Crossan argues to be more historically prominent.[2] Similarly, the Matthean birth and flight narrative seeks to portray Jesus in light of the life and exodus of Moses, reflecting a theological rather than historical origin.[3] Crossan argues that certain canonical gospel narratives, including the birth narrative, are not historically accurate but rather are theological narrative based upon a reading of Old Testament prophecies and events into the life and times of Jesus. Accounts of the virgin birth, the Davidic line, the magi, shepherds, angels, role of King Herod, and flight to Egypt are all derived not from historical events, but instead a specific reading of Old Testament texts[4] and general chronological data about the life of Jesus that would have been known by his earliest disciples.[5] Thus, Crossan places little historical importance on the birth narratives of Jesus, arguing that in all likelihood he was born and raised like every other Galilean Jewish peasant in the first century. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Sources

This is part of our ongoing series comparing the perspectives of J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright on the Historical Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan

Of great importance for all historical study are the sources used in forming narrative perspectives. Some historians are relatively inclusive in their acceptance of source material, drawing from a wide variety of disciplines and quality of material. Others are more selective in the criterion employed to discern source materials for their historical reconstructions. Crossan falls into the later camp, as he employs relatively few sources in his construction of the historical Jesus. Crossan believes that the fourfold narrative of the canonical gospels presents a problem for modern Christianity, and that the historical truth behind the canonical Jesus must be discovered using only the earliest materials.[1] For his construction, Crossan employs three forms of material. First, he engages in use of cross-cultural anthropology to provide a general understanding of the first century Jewish-Mediterranean context.[2] Second, he considers the accounts of the Greco-Roman and Jewish historians of the age, chiefly Tacitus and Josephus.[3] These accounts Crossan treats with a certain level of scrutiny on most points, [4] though some have argued that his critique on non-Christian historical sources only seems to appear in Crossan’s work when his construction cannot make sense of the status quo within the traditional historical record. Continue reading

Comparing the Historical Jesus: Introduction

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to [fulfill] for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His  fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”[1]

Jesus IconThus ended Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus and thus began the modern quest to discover the historical figure of Jesus. This search for the historical truth behind the New Testament’s portrayal of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth continues to impact scholarship, theology, and popular culture nearly 2,000 years after this man’s death.[2] Continuing to follow Schweitzer’s example, numerous prominent scholars have offered their perspective upon the Historical Jesus in recent decades. While it remains difficult to “rank” Biblical and historical scholars, few have been as outspoken and influential as John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright. Over the next two weeks Pursuing Veritas will examine aspects of how these two scholars reconstruct the birth, work, death, and resurrection of the Historical Jesus. Continue reading