The Works and Claims of John Dominic Crossan
Last week, I introduced a three-part blog series on John Dominic Crossan, one of my favorite skeptical New Testament scholars. Crossan is delightfully witty, with a tremendous gift for language and communication - even his heterodox arguments about Jesus are couched in beautiful prose. I talked briefly through the life and times of Crossan in my previous post - in this post I'd like to cover his non-traditional (and, quite frankly, anti-Christian) scholarly positions on Jesus of Nazareth. Later this week I will interact with those claims, suggesting corrective responses.
John Dominic Crossan publishes widely, and his scholarly arguments include numerous controversial and heterodox conclusions.
Structuralism / Metaphor:
First, Crossan believes that there is no history beyond language—history is not a concrete reality consisting of actual past events, but rather is constructed through language about past events. In essence, our language about the past creates the past in our understanding. So, too, our words in the present create our present reality—a school of thought known as structuralism. The historical Jesus, then, can only be known through the words about him, particularly the parables contained in the Gospels. Those parables, in turn, are purely metaphorical in nature, intended to engage the listener in the parabolic world through ornament (beauty), illustration, and participation.
Crossan’s structuralism has grave implications for traditional religions, propositional religious truth, and transcendental experience. “If there is only story, then God, or the referent of transcendental experience, is either inside my story and, in that case, at least in the Judaeo-Christian tradition I know best, God is merely an idol I have created; or, God is outside my story, and I have just argued that what is ‘out there’ is completely unknowable. So it would seem that any transcendental experience has been ruled out, if we can only live in story.” Hence, God can only be known within our linguistic constructs, and cannot be said to exist of His own nature—His existence is dependent upon the language and thoughts of human beings.
Crossan argues in favor of religious pluralism, insisting that the major world religions are equally valid responses to divine reality. Crossan holds that religion is like language: human beings are hard-wired for both in the abstract, but each is realized as a concrete particular. Crossan insists that the ‘ultimate reality’ should not be conceived of exclusively in theistic terminology. Thus, Crossan prefers to avoid terminology such as “God” in religious studies, preferring the “common rubric of the Holy.” In Crossan’s estimation, particular religious responses to the Holy are equally valid and effective. The world’s major religions are equally valid responses to the Holy, and use different metaphors to describe and relate to the Holy. As a consequence, Crossan holds that the metaphors and parables used by various religions should be accepted on the same terms. Thus, the narrative of Jesus’ miraculous conception in Matthew and Luke must be treated on a par with the divine conceptions of Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, and the Buddha.
Crossan embraces a naturalistic worldview which he terms “divine consistency.” On the one hand, Crossan affirms the reality of miracles, even stating that Jesus healed people: “The power of healing is a gift of God built permanently into the fabric of the universe.” On the other hand, radically redefines miracles, such that Jesus’ healings were not “interventions in the physical world,” but rather re-orientations of “the social world.” Indeed, Crossan explicitly states that Jesus “did not and could not cure that disease [leprosy] or any other one.” When miracles are understood in their traditional fashion (as suspensions or violations of the natural order by a divine agency, Crossan emphatically rejects their very possibility. For example, Jesus could not have raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), the proclamation of that resuscitation is the reason why “churches are losing credibility.”
The Historical Jesus, Sources & Conclusions:
Crossan spent the better part of two decades studying the Historical Jesus. Academically, he began with an examination of early sources concerning Jesus of Nazareth. In the process, he drew some highly speculative, hotly contested conclusions about the earliest and most reliable documents.
First, the Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the canonical Gospels written (not terribly controversial), but was preceded by an earlier version, Secret Mark, which has homoerotic overtones and was later suppressed by the church. Mark originally writes, not the recollections of Peter as held by church tradition, but explicitly to oppose Petrine authority in Jerusalem.
Second, the canonical Gospels are all written by anonymous authors, none of whom knew or followed Jesus.
Third, the Gospel of Thomas, discovered in Nag Hammadi in the 1940s, predates the canonical tradition, with its earliest version dating to the 50s. Furthermore, Thomas is written by a community of Christians independent of the Jerusalem/canonical tradition, exemplified by a focus on the life and teaching of Jesus and an entire lack of interest in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Fourth, both Matthew and Luke use an independent source, The Sayings Gospel Q, which dates to the 50s and shows (like Thomas) no interest in Jesus’ miracles, death, or resurrection.
Fifth, the Cross Gospel, now embedded within the second-century Gospel of Peter, was written around A.D. 50, and serves as the sole source for the canonical passion-resurrection narratives.
When you combine Crossan’s structuralism, pluralism, and naturalism with his highly unusual assessment of historical Jesus sources, the outcome is predictably unorthodox. Insofar as we can know anything about the historical Jesus, Jesus did not work miracles, but rather counter-culturally embraced the outcast and the sinner; he did not come to be a Savior for the sin of man, but rather a wisdom teacher who spoke in aphorisms and parables; he did not die to atone for wrongdoing, but rather to express divine opposition to violence of all forms; he was not born of a virgin, but rather was presented as the alternative to Roman power and oppression.
The Resurrection & Life After Death:
Crossan’s conclusions regarding the historical Jesus become most pronounced when it comes to His post-mortem fate. He is once asked: “Do I personally believe in an afterlife? No, but to be honest, I do not find it a particularly important question one way or the other.” Crossan emphatically rejects heaven and hell as post-mortem fates, and holds to the absolute extinction of the human person at death. Sadly, when Crossan does acknowledge his presumption of human finitude, he neither explains how he arrived at that position, nor critically examines the perspective. Post-mortem extinction is simply presupposed without comment or defense. That unexamined presupposition has tremendous effects upon Crossan’s scholarly reconstructions.
First, if human existence ceases at death, then the dead are not raised. Crossan states unambiguously, “I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life.” When the Gospel of John portrays Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Crossan simply confesses that “I do not think this event ever did or could happen.”
Second, if there is no life after death and if no one, at any time, in any place raises anyone else from the dead, then the resurrection of Jesus Christ absolutely cannot be a literal bodily resurrection. The orthodox, historical definition of the resurrection of Jesus is simply not in Crossan’s pool of live options if life ceases at death.
Third, because the resurrection cannot be literal, and building upon Crossan’s structuralist understanding of reality, the resurrection becomes for Crossan metaphorical rather than literal, symbolic rather than bodily. More fully, Crossan argues that Jesus’ disciples fled before his crucifixion; afterward, Jesus’ body was unceremoniously tossed into a shallow grave to be eaten by dogs—hence, no empty tomb to be discovered. His disciples had grief hallucinations wherein they saw their beloved rabbi after his death; eventually those visions were presented as resurrection appearances, and were utilized to convey the ongoing meaning and significance of Jesus’ mission and ministry in the community of Christian faith.
If Crossan’s reconstruction of the resurrection as a metaphor is correct, then Christianity as historically conceived is gravely mistaken and in need of serious reformation. Indeed, if we follow the Apostle Paul’s clarion call in 1 Corinthians 15, then historical Christianity has been a tragic waste of time.
Crossan, The Dark Interval, 10.
Crossan, The Dark Interval, 40-41. Emphasis original.
Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary, 101.
Crossan and Watts, Who Is Jesus, 69.
Crossan, Jesus, 82.
Halsted, “The Orthodox Unorthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan,” 514. Emphasis added.
Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 428. Crossan’s dating of Thomas has gotten progressively earlier over the years. In his first mention of Thomas, Crossan suggests a date “from the late 4th or early 5th century.” John Dominic Crossan, Scanning the Sunday Gospel (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966), 139.
Crossan and Watts, Who Is Jesus, 131.
“Sarah [Crossan’s second wife] says she hopes I am wrong about that afterlife stuff. But, be that as it may, my own hope is for a church empowered by divine justice that will take on the systemic normalcy of human violence. A church, in other words, that will oppose rather than join that process. That is more than enough hope for me. The rest, I am afraid, is parable at best and fantasy at worst.” Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary, 202.
Crossan and Watts, Who Is Jesus, 77. The same phrase, without “including Jesus,” appears in Crossan, Jesus, 95. In both contexts, Crossan is describing how the story of Lazarus’ resurrection or resuscitation is not (cannot be) a historical account of a literal event but rather a metaphorical incarnation of “the process of general resurrection,” how “Jesus brought life out of death.”
 Crossan, Jesus, 94. Emphasis original.