Engaging Crossan's Ideas:
To finish off this mini-series on the lovable Irish scholar, John Dominic Crossan, today we will interact with his scholarly arguments and conclusions (outlined in Monday's blog post).
Structuralism / Metaphor:
Crossan’s embrace of structuralism (the belief that language constructs reality) is self-referentially absurd. As many philosophers have noted, if structuralism were accurate, it would mean that we could cure HIV by simply ceasing to talk about it—no language of HIV = no infected patients = no further deaths from AIDS. Indeed, we could also conveniently do away with unpleasant historical realities like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Black Plague, American slavery, and the Holocaust. As nearly everyone is aware, there is a real physical world beyond us, that exists and has objective properties that hold regardless of my particular beliefs. Words may have significant power and influence, but they do not change historical reality—they might alter the way people understand history, but that is not the same thing as constructing reality.
Given Crossan’s belief that there is no life after death, no salvation, and no resurrection, the extent to which religions are ‘equally valid and effective’ is limited to personal self-transformation. That is, on the one hand, a triviality; on the other hand, it is not how religions understand themselves. Rather, the world’s great religious traditions (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) articulate unique and exclusive truth-claims about reality, human nature, the human predicament, and the solution to our problems. Like other pluralists, Crossan can only insist that religions are fundamentally equal by rejecting the way that most religious believers understand their faith—he redefines the unique religions out of existence (a recurring theme in Crossan’s scholarship). Furthermore, Crossan’s underlying claim that religious traditions contain a response to the same divine reality is refuted by the mutually contradictory claims they actually make: e.g., divine reality is an impersonal all-pervasive force in Hinduism, but a transcendent personal being in Christianity.
Crossan’s ‘divine consistency’ is intentionally deceptive, and masks an unbiblical naturalism. He tries to maintain a Christian stance by affirming divine activity and Jesus’ miracles, yet defines both out of existence—God only works through the fabric of the natural (never via direct intervention), and Jesus only ‘healed social illness’ by accepting the outcast, but never ‘cured physical disease’ because that is impossible.
Crossan’s naturalism trivializes the ministry of Jesus, and renders the rise of early Christianity astoundingly incomprehensible. Table fellowship with lepers and prostitutes would have been insufficient either to get Jesus killed or to mobilize an enduring movement. Furthermore, given excellent work by biblical scholars and contemporary researchers, it is more reasonable to believe that Jesus did in fact cure physical disease in the first century and that, furthermore, God continues to do the same around the world today.
Historical Jesus, Sources & Conclusions:
Crossan’s unorthodox conclusions concerning the Jesus of history are dependent upon his unsustainable assertions regarding historical Jesus sources. Without those source-claims, Crossan’s reconstructed Jesus (including his view of the resurrection) is a house of cards. But those source-claims are tendentious, specious, and widely-rejected by scholars across the theological spectrum, including many highly skeptical scholars.
First, it is broadly conceded that Secret Mark is a non-existent source, a forgery foisted upon academia by Morton Smith.
Second, Crossan’s contentions regarding The Gospel of Thomas are circular and false. Crossan first argues that Thomas is independent of the canonical Gospels in its entirety. He then acknowledges elements of Thomas which are also present in the canonical Gospels (e.g., the sower of seeds, in Thomas 9). Finally, he argues that, because Thomas is independent of the canonical Gospels, those elements must therefore be placed in the earliest stratum of the Thomas tradition in order to deny potential dependence of Thomas upon the Synoptic tradition. One assumption (independence) produces a conclusion (an early date) which then supports the original assumption. Furthermore, there are good textual and historical reasons for dating Thomas to the late 2nd century, rather than the mid-1st century. Perrin persuasively argues that Thomas is dependent upon Tatian’s Diatessaron, while the early church fathers show no awareness.
Third, scholars have conclusively demonstrated that Crossan’s hypothesized Cross Gospel is without textual or testimonial foundation.
The Resurrection & Life After Death:
Crossan gives no logical or evidential support for his presupposed worldview belief that human life ceases at death. His rejection of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is driven exclusively by that unexamined worldview presupposition. There is, however, good reason to believe that death is not the end of us—evidence from near-death experiences (NDEs) is strong and persuasive. Furthermore, Crossan’s reconstruction of Jesus’ resurrection as a metaphor or symbol does tremendous violation to the biblical texts and the historical church. Crossan is unable to account for the conversion of Paul the violent opponent or James the skeptical relative; nor can he account for Jesus’ appearances to groups of disciples (grief hallucinations are private events, not shared experiences). If one is not committed to Crossan’s structuralism, naturalism, and post-mortem extinction, there will be literally no reason to take his stance on Jesus’ post-mortem fate seriously.
John Dominic Crossan is one of the most witty, kind, and gentle biblical scholars one could hope to meet. His unorthodox conclusions do not undo his intelligence or sincerity. However, an examination of Crossan’s scholarship demonstrates that all of his conclusions are built upon tendentious and unsupported worldview presuppositions.
The most cogent critique of religious pluralism is to be found in the work of Harold Netland, particularly his Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001).
See, e.g., Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999); Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel and Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008); and Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
 See, e.g., F. Neirynck, “The Apocryphal Gospels and the Gospel of Mark,” in The New Testament in Early Christianity, ed. Jean-Marie Sevrin (Leuven-Louvain: Leuven University Press, 1989), 133; idem., “The Historical Jesus: Reflections on an Inventory,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 70 (1994): 233; Hans-Martin Schenke, “The Mystery of the Gospel of Mark,” The Second Century 4 (1984): 71; Raymond E. Brown, “The Gospel of Peter and Canonical Gospel Priority” New Testament Studies 33 (1987): 321-43. Surveying the academic landscape, Gerald O’Collins and Daniel Kendall conclude, “Apart from one or two sympathetic reactions, scholars generally have remained quite unconvinced by Crossan’s 1988 lengthy and tortuous attempt to rehabilitate the Gospel of Peter and claim that its core (his ‘Cross Gospel’) served as the sole source for Mark’s story of the passion and resurrection.” See O’Collins and Kendall, “Did Joseph of Arimathea Exist?” Biblica 75 (1994): 237-38.
For Smith’s claims, see Morton Smith, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); and idem, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973). For the lengthiest refutation of Smith’s claims, see Stephen C. Carlson, The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005).
For a fuller treatment, consult Craig A. Evans, Robert L. Webb and Richard A. Wiebe, Nag Hammadi Texts and the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1993); Perrin, Thomas and Tatian; and Raymond E. Brown, “The Gospel of Thomas and St. John’s Gospel,” New Testament Studies 9 (1962-1963): 155-77.
See, e.g., Tawa J. Anderson, “The Myth of the Metaphorical Resurrection” (Ph.D. dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2011); Raymond Brown, “The Gospel of Peter and Canonical Gospel Priority,” 333.
See, e.g., Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998).