John Dominic Crossan: “Who Killed Jesus?”

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the book Who Killed Jesus?, by prominent NT scholar JD Crossan. Professor Crossan (emeritus) is an eminent figure in biblical scholarship, with a number of highly-regarded books to his credit. I’ve read a couple of others by him, but exactly which ones I no longer recall. Since the book currently under discussion deals with the subject of, and comes at exactly the point in the narrative where we are–the Passion Narrative–I’ve held off forging ahead with my translation and comment while I read the book, the idea being to see if there were interesting and useful points that could inform and enlighten my understanding  and the discussion of the topic. But first, this is not a review of the book in any standard sense, for several reasons. First, the book is twenty years old, so a review is rather beside the point at this time. Second, the purpose of reading the book was to see if the scholarly argument provided further insight into the topic, not whether the book is worth reading. Finally, part–a large part–of the purpose of the book is  set out in the subtitle: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of The Death Of Jesus.  This is a worthy and necessary goal, but not one that is fundamental to our purposes here. This topic does overlap with our research, since it helps to provide possible motivation for why the authors of the gospels wrote what they did and in the way they did.

Having glanced at the Amazon review section for the work, it seems that “John D. Crossan is generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world”. That is  a very weighty designation. Given this title, one should approach a confrontation with Crossan as one would approach the possibility of fisticuffs with the UFC champion of the world: she is the best; who the heck are you? Would you challenge LeBron James to a game of one-on-one? Personally, I would not challenge Rhonda Rousey, even though she’s no longer the champion, nor would I be so rash as to take on King James. Crossan? Absolutely. And why? Because he is/was a professor of Religious Studies, but he is writing history. That is to say, he’s on my turf; a pro athlete is great at whatever game he or she plays, but that does not mean they can play another game equally well, or even competently. Some pro athletes are also good golfers; most are not. (I am certainly not, but that’s irrelevant.)

One problem with this book, and pretty much every book I’ve ever read on the subject of the Historical Jesus is that these books are not written by historians. They are written by biblical, or religious studies people. They may know their NT textual analyses, but can they play golf? The other problem is that most of these books were written by people who, if not practicing Christians, were raised as such, and they approach the topic of historicity based on study of the Bible, and not study of history. Oh, they’ve read Tacitus and Josephus–at least, I’m sure, the relevant sections–but they’ve never studied Tacitus, or history in general, as an historian would study the text. These two problems–or, perhaps they are really only different facets of the same problem–is that their perspective is off; they never truly engage the topic as historians should. This is why all the books I’ve read by religious studies people sort of blur together. They have all come at the subject with the same approach, and so they, ultimately, make the same case. Oh, they may regard different stories as historical or non-historical for sound and valid and good reasons, but they never get themselves out of that single approach that largely predetermines their outcome: much of the NT is historically accurate.

The key aspect of this approach, this method that is unsound, is that they believe that all of the writers of the NT, and of at least some of they apocryphal texts, are writing to illumine and preserve a single, unitary, and ultimately factual account of the life and death of Jesus. That is, the scholars all assume that, ultimately, all of the evangelists and the authors of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter, are telling exactly the same story. And they never, ever challenge, even in their own minds, this assumption. I would hazard to guess that most–if not quite all–are fundamentally unaware that they are making this assumption. It’s the classic “buried assumption”: something that affects nearly everything, but is never acknowledged because almost no one realizes it’s there. This assumption, I would argue, is the direct result of coming into the topic from a background of biblical or textual or literary analysis, and not from a background in history.

There is a corollary to this assumption: it leads to positing the existence of shadowy texts for which there is not a shred of evidence, and then taking it as a given that these hypothetical texts did, in fact, exist. Of course, Q is the most famous, and the most pernicious, example of this. In Crossan’s book, we come across another, called The Cross Gospel. This is a text of the Passion Narrative that was put to paper in the 50s, or about the time that Q was. This narrative them became the basis for the four canonical gospels and, according to Crossan, the Gospel of Peter. The evidence for these texts is completely literary, and completely dependent on being able to get into the mind of the evangelist whose work is considered. This leads to a lot of, “well Mark really means”, and “Luke would never mess with a masterpiece like the Sermon on the Mount”, and “the Matthew changed Mark because it’s consistent with Matthew’s overall intention”, and other such things. This is what happens, I suspect, when living in a world of textual and literary analysis. I’ve studied enough literature qua literature to know how the process works, even if I was never very good at it.

With those two–or one-point-five–points, perhaps we can encapsulate the whole of Crossan’s case, just as one can deduce Hercules from just his foot*. The fatal flaw in Crossan’s case comes very early in the work, within the first 30 pages, as he’s setting out the evidence. He admits that the Synoptics are all dependent on Mark for their passion narrative. Indeed, he concedes that John’s passion narrative is based, largely, on Mark. As such, Matthew, Luke, & John are dependent sources; they cannot be assessed historically as anything but an appendage to Mark. More or less. That’s a bit strong, but in historical research, and “dependent” has a fairly specific, perhaps technical meaning. The most significant aspect of this is that one cannot take a variation in the dependent source as more historical than what the original source said. This simply means that if Matthew contradicts Mark on a point of fact, we should take Mark’s words as more likely to be accurate. Unless there is strong indication that Matthew also had access to a second source that was not Mark. Hence, Q becomes very, very handy, and the willingness to jettison Q turns into obstinance .

But, Crossan is not content to let John rest there. Noticing how different John’s treatment of the miracles of Jesus are, he goes on to posit that John is independent of Mark on these miracle stories. Since much of my case depends (pun?) on this assumption, or assertion, of Crossan, we need to be very clear on why this is a problem. To be blunt, I do not know, exactly, what Crossan means by “for me, (John) is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus”. As mentioned, for historical studies, “in/dependent” has a fairly specific–almost to the point of technical– meaning. I do not know if Crossan understands and uses the word in this historian’s sense. If he simply means that John has a different take on the miracles and sayings, I don’t have a problem with that–in fact I’d agree with that–but I would not, could not accept the description of this as an “independent” source. From the historian’s perspective, an source that is truly independent is one that has access to knowledge that the first source does not. Given Q, Matthew becomes an independent source for the sayings of Jesus. So the question becomes, is Crossan saying that John had access to a second, now lost, collection of the sayings of Jesus that dated back prior to Mark, and that represented a tradition that was unaware of Mark, and of which Mark was unaware?

That is the essence of Q: the author(s) of Q were unaware of Mark, and Mark was unaware of Q. Is Crossan saying that John also had his own source? Reading this from the perspective of an historian, that is what I understand by him saying “John was independent of the Synoptics”. Is that what he means? If so, then the entire case becomes untenable because he provides no evidence that such a source existed, that it was independent of Mark, and that John was the sole evangelist (or epistle writer) aware of this source. Contrariwise, if that is not what Crossan means, then what he’s saying is that John (or someone) made stuff up. In which case, there is no historical validity in taking John as in any way independent of the Synoptics. People have been making stuff up about Ronald Reagan for a couple of decades now; that doesn’t mean that they can be used as historical arguments. Amity Shlaes argues that FDR had a time machine because the policies he implemented were able to cause the Great Depression after he took office in 1933, when, in fact, it started in 1930 (or thereabouts; the point is, it was several years before FDR took office). They’ve made this stuff up; it is not necessary to present an argument against these positions in an argument about history because they are not based on fact. In the same way, I don’t have to account for unicorns in the evolution of the modern horse.

Crossan then compounds this error, and then magnifies it. He freely admits that Gospel Peter (GPtr) is an independent source for the Passion Narrative. He claims that GPtr influenced the Synoptic gospel writers by influencing Mark. What’s more interesting is that he asserts this after admitting that there is no evidence for the GPtr before the end of the Second Century, at least a century after Mark wrote. How is this possible? It’s possible because GPtr retained traces, or even sections of something called the Cross Gospel. Apparently, he realized that the idea of arguing that this independent tradition survived, uninfluenced by the mainstream traditions for 150 (approx) years was a fool’s errand, so he credited it with being incorporated into Mark, and so the other three canonical gospels. I am not sure, exactly, what this encompasses or implies, or what purpose it serves. Yes, it pushes the beginning of the Passion Narrative back into the 50s, but so what? That’s still a generation after Jesus’ death. So late a date is more apt to produce legend than it is to record fact. It’s enough of a time lapse that real memories have been supplemented–or supplanted–by what people want to remember. But it remains that, if it influenced Mark, and so the other gospels, it’s no longer an independent source. Or rather, Mark is no longer independent. The net result is that we still have only one real source for the Passion Narrative, whether it started with Mark, or with GPtr. Crossan is trying to have it both ways, but the math just doesn’t work out. It’s still 1 + 0 = 1, whether the 1 is the Cross Gospel (so-called) or Mark.

Now, of course Mark–probably–had earlier material available to him. It seems like he must have. But we have no evidence that Paul was aware of any such available evidence, that he had any knowledge of a Passion Narrative. As such, there is no reason to believe that such a narrative existed. It’s certainly possible, and maybe there’s a 25% probability that such a story existed, but neither of those are proof. This, of course, is the argument from silence, and that is a dangerous bit of reasoning when applied to the ancient world, when there is so much evidence that is missing because it never existed. But the fact remains that our only written source from the 50s and into the 60s is Paul, and he provides no hints about the causes of Jesus’ death, no explanation of who ordered the execution–because it was no doubt carried out by the Romans–or why this happened.

Crossan is fully convinced that something like the cleansing of the Temple really did happen, and tries to tie Jesus into John’s programme of individual repentance divorced from the Temple structure, which in turn threatened the Temple structure, which is what caused the Jewish authorities to get nervous and connive for Jesus’ execution in the same way that Herod Antipas executed the Baptist. That is one serious causal chain of events. But we have no evidence for any of this. Josephus supposedly talks about Jesus, but he never, ever connects him to John. Really, Josephus short paragraph on Jesus does no more than repeat the gospel story: that the best men of the Jews had Jesus put to death. But this was written in the 9os, long after the orthodox story of the gospels had become The Gospel account. Josephus seems completely unaware of who these “best men” among the Jews were, even though he is well aware of Caiaphas and mentions him in other contexts. It’s this sort of selective use of Josephus that makes me say that biblical scholars, no doubt, have read Tacitus or Josephus, but they’ve never studied it and they may have only read the few paragraphs in question without understanding Josephus as an historian.

What are we left with? A bunch of stories that probably don’t date back before the 60s, if they are that early. There were, without doubt, a number of traditions about Jesus. While discussing Mark, I used the analogy of a weaver, taking many individual threads and weaving them into a whole cloth. Most of these threads were probably oral, stories and traditions. Most likely after that, what was recorded by Mark became dominant, what was not faded into the background and then faded away. In the meantime, other traditions sprang up, ones that resulted in the Sermon on the Mount; the social consciousness of many of these teachings may point to an origin with James the Just and the Jerusalem Assembly, but that is still a suspicion, or a perhaps a working hypothesis. It has not been solidified with a real argument.

Notice what I said up there: other traditions sprang up. We–and perhaps Professor Crossan in particular–need to bear constantly in mind that revelation did not end with John’s Apocalypse (which was probably not even the latest of the books of the NT). Revelation continued. We have an array of Gospels and Acts and stories attributed to all sorts of people: Peter, Pilate, and even Judas Iscariot. Elaine Pagels documented this decades ago in her Gnostic Gospels. This was why the Church eventually had to set which works were canonical, and which weren’t. The Gospel of Peter falls into this latter category. In a sense, all of these apocryphal sources present evidence that is “independent” of the canonical scripture, at least by Crossan’s use–or misuse–of the term “independent source”. No doubt you can see where this is going, even if Crossan can’t, or more likely, doesn’t want to see it. Making stuff up doesn’t make it evidence, or a viable source, or anything really useful, except to see the very broad range of interpretations that were attached to Jesus. This failure–perhaps willful–to see much of this as creative writing, couple with the way Crossan manipulates the word “independent”, dooms any argument that he can put forth.

Which takes us back to the first point I made above: that there is an assumption that all writers of Gospels and Acts that deal with Jesus or his close companions, whether they were determined to be canonical or apocryphal, set out to tell exactly the same story has had been told before, but using different evidence. This simply cannot be true. We have already seen the very significant differences between Mark and Matthew, and between the evangelists and Paul. They are telling significantly different stories. The biggest part of this goes back to the question of “Why did anyone after Mark sit down to write a new gospel?” Why indeed? The answer is simple, but, nevertheless, is often overlooked. New authors write new gospels because they believe that they have something new to say. That is, they either have new or different evidence or traditions to draw upon, or they have a different understanding of Jesus or the time after his death. In other words, they are writing to correct some aspect that they feel is missing, incomplete, or just plain wrong. We have to keep going back to the Arthur legend for our analogy: new characters were added as time passed, so that, by the time of Malory, there were dozens of new faces sitting around the Round Table. Even the Greek myths are disconcertingly unstable. The details and they understanding changed. Euripides did not tell the same stories as Hesiod had, half a millennium earlier. The difference is that we understand Arthur and Greek myth as literary creations, but we treat the NT as essentially fixed and singular and unitary. In fact, the variation in Greek myth can disconcert a modern neophyte reader because modern Christian neophyte readers approaches Greek myth as they approach the Bible and NT: as a single, unitary, and fixed account of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Peter is not necessarily, or at all, interested in telling the same story as Mark or Matthew. If he had been, why did he even bother to write at all?

Just to be clear, Crossan believes that GPtr is early and has an elaborate argument for the date. In fact, it is so elaborate that he believes he can date it to a range of less than five years. If this were a proper scholarly paper, I  would set out his case and then demolish it. But this is a blog post. Suffice it to say that he insists that the progression towards anti-Judaism indicates a later date. John is the most anti-Judaic, so his gospel is the latest. In Crossan’s judgement, GPtr is the least anti-Judaic, so it must be the earliest. Q.E.D. Case closed. To put it mildly, this assumed progression is hardly an indicator set in stone. Yes, there does seem to be a progression to John, except that Luke is somehow less anti-Judaic than Matthew. So maybe this doesn’t work like Carbon-14 dating, where the progress is steady and inexorable. Bear in mind that the fragment that we have of GPtr is fairly small, so it’s impossible to assess the overall attitude of the author to Jews. Even if it were possible, there could be a myriad of reasons why someone in the late Second Century chose to depict the villains as the Jewish authorities while exonerating the Jewish people. The most obvious is that the author wanted to explain why there were still Jews. Well, it was all the fault of the rascally high priests and Herod (!) This limits the damage to Jesus’ reputation by keeping the number of doubters as small as possible. It’s pretty simple, after all, since by the end of the Second Century, the Jews were no longer the primary enemy; the Church was more concerned with explaining itself to pagans than it was to Jews. The Jews were no longer much of a threat, so it was easy to pull back on the vitriol against them. Oh, and yes, Herod. In the GPtr, the trial is conducted before Herod, and Herod and the high priests and Pilate and a bunch of Romans all witness the Resurrection. Really, that says all we need to say about the author’s understanding of the situation in the mid-First Century.

And really, from the historical point of view, I believe that nothing written after Luke, or even Matthew, can be expected to contain previously unreleased material. Luke was aware of Paul, which indicates a coalescence of Christian thinking. After that point it’s hard to credit that any Christian anywhere, sixty years after the fact, could have possessed knowledge of things that dated back to Jesus. Indeed, it seem unlikely enough with Matthew. By the time of Luke, the story of Jesus was well-enough known that Josephus takes it as true. So we have entered into the age where the basic story was set, even if it was still possible to tinker around the edges. I suspect that very little of Acts can be taken seriously as history. That it uses the names of actual Roman officials and titles and events does not mean that the rest of it is true. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, which certainly happened; however, the events of the novel are just that: events in a novel. So looking for new historical information–aside from the incidentals that all writing includes–is probably not a terribly wise or effective thing to do.

As an aside, Crossan distinguishes between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and rightly so, I think. Anti-Judaism is more of a conflict with, and denigration of, the religion qua religion. Anti-Semitism blatant racism. So they are not exactly the same thing, but anti-Judaism did eventually lead to full-blown anti-Semitism.

There are a few other useful bits to be gleaned from the book. They will be presented in the appropriate context since this has gone on way too long!

 

* “Ex pede, Herculem“, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_pede_Herculem

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 13, 2016, in Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Q, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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