Monday, July 24, 2017

John Dominic Crossan & Post-Modern Structuralism, Part I of II

Jon posted a very thoughtful comment and question in response to my article on John Dominic Crossan.  I'd like to take opportunity to expand on it - to bring his question out, and provide further discussion of Crossan's understanding of language, history, and reality, and to consider the implications of that understanding upon historical Jesus research.

First, Jon's question .

Jon said...
"...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."

Can you provide a quote from Crossan to support this? While I do not have a great familiarity with Crossan or structuralism, what little I have read seems very inconsistent with your argument here. That is, they do not deny that there is a reality and history independent of language, but that our understanding of history and reality are dependent upon and limited to the structure of our language(s).

Very well put, Jon.  I'm thankful for thoughtful readers!
On that blog post, I responded with a brief citation from my dissertation (which can be found here.).  I mentioned that structuralism (like much of postmodernism) is essentially contested: there is wide disagreement among proponents and opponents alike as to what structuralism means and looks like.  Nonetheless, I am confident that I represented Crossan's views fairly.  

Here, I'd like to include a longer section of my dissertation - I think this is a fascinating subject, and I hope these thoughts are instructional and illuminating.  I'll include two sections, in two different posts.  First, this post will outline Crossan's views; tomorrow, I'll post a consideration of how these views impact historical Jesus research and the resurrection particularly.


The 1991 publication of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant represents the fulcrum of Crossan’s scholarship and academic career.  Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Crossan published extensively in literary criticism and biblical hermeneutics, focusing particularly on the interpretation of Jesus’ parables.[1]  In the later 1980s, Crossan’s focus shifted toward historical Jesus research.[2]  He pursued a comprehensive study of extant sources of the Jesus tradition, emphasizing extracanonical documents.[3]  The best-selling Historical Jesus marked the culmination of the previous twenty years of Crossan’s scholarship.  Crossan’s later historical Jesus work does not abandon, repudiate, or transcend his earlier conclusions regarding biblical interpretation and literary criticism; rather, his early hermeneutics informs and directs his later scholarship, which in turn presupposes and builds upon his prior hermeneutical conclusions.[4]
The purpose of the current chapter is to evaluate the mutual interaction between Crossan’s presuppositions, hermeneutics, and historical methodology.  This chapter will begin with a relatively brief sketch of Crossan’s hermeneutics and the interplay of hermeneutics and presuppositions.  The major focus of the chapter, however, will be Crossan’s well-defined methodology for historical Jesus research.  After outlining his triple-triadic methodology, attention will turn to the material investments[5] which Crossan insists all scholars have to make in order to flesh out their methodology and arrive at a reconstruction of the historical Jesus.  Four of Crossan’s material investments will be analyzed—concerning the dating and reconstruction of Q and the Gospel of Thomas; the existence and importance of Secret Mark; the existence and importance of the Cross Gospel; and the date, purpose, and narrative freedom of the author of the Gospel of Mark.  The chapter will conclude by assessing the impact of Crossan’s theological worldview presuppositions upon his material investments and determination of relative plausibilities.  Crossan’s rigorous methodology will be shown to be directed by his theological presuppositions, predetermining a rejection of the historically orthodox understanding of Jesus’ resurrection.  Crossan’s hermeneutical post-structuralism, meanwhile, directs him towards a parabolic or metaphorical understanding of both language and history, strongly influencing his alternative reconstruction of Jesus’ resurrection as a powerful, but unhistorical, metaphorical parable (or parabolic metaphor).
Crossan’s Hermeneutics:
Structuralism and Deconstructionism
In Crossan’s first post-Servite full-length manuscript,[6] he insists that there is no history beyond language.  His interest is in the historical Jesus; but Jesus is recoverable solely through his language, particularly his parables.[7]  The historical Jesus is constructed through recovering his authentic words.  From the beginning of his academic career, Crossan has emphasized recovering, to the greatest extent possible, the words of the historical Jesus, because “one might almost consider the term ‘Jesus’ as a cipher for the reconstructed parabolic complex itself.”[8]  Given the centrality of Jesus’ parables to understanding the historical Jesus, Crossan then emphasizes the need to comprehend the nature of parables themselves.
Jesus’ parables, according to Crossan, are best understood as “poetic metaphor.”[9]  Metaphorical language reveals truths that are “not reducible from a language in cipher to a clear language.”[10]  Parabolic metaphors are not expressible in propositional form; rather, they engage the listener in the parabolic world through ornament (beauty), illustration, and participation.[11]  Crossan further asserts that authentic religious experience is expressible solely through poetic metaphor; thus, Jesus uses his parables to express “what is most important about Jesus: his experience of God.”[12]
Crossan continues to develop his linguistic hermeneutic in The Dark Interval.[13]  Structuralism, according to Crossan, holds that “reality is structure and especially linguistic structure, that reality is the structure of language.”[14]  Crossan rejects historical objectivism, the view that history relates “a world out there objectively present before and apart from any story concerning it,” in favor of the structuralist view that “story create[s] world so that we live as human beings in, and only in, layers upon layers of interwoven story.”[15]  Reality, Crossan says, “is neither in here in the mind nor out there in the world; it is the interplay of both mind and world in language.  Reality is relational and relationship.  Even more simply, reality is language.”[16]  Structuralism is not, however, world-denying, or inherently skeptical.  Crossan does not argue that we cannot come to know reality; rather, he argues, “what we know is reality, is our reality here together and with each other.”[17]
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.[18]
Crossan’s hermeneutic structuralism helps explain his reluctance to respond directly to William Lane Craig’s line of questioning during their 1996 debate.  Craig, a historical realist, asks Crossan, “I would like to know, for you, what about the statement that God exists?  Is that a statement of faith or fact?”[19]  Crossan first responds, “it’s a statement of faith for all those who make it.”[20]  Craig then suggests that Crossan’s structuralism holds that “God’s existence is simply an interpretive construct that a particular human mind—a believer—puts onto the universe.  But in and of itself the universe is without such a being as God.”[21]  Crossan protests that Craig misunderstands his structuralist perspective: “What you’re trying to do is imagine a world without us.  Now unfortunately, I can’t do that. . . . We know God only as God has revealed God to us; that all we could ever know in any religion.”[22]  Reality, including the transcendent God, can only be known within our linguistic constructs—hence, for Crossan, it truly is a “meaningless question” to ask whether God existed “during the Jurassic age, when there were no human beings.”[23]
Structuralism initially suggests an inability to experience transcendence, but Crossan insists that is not the final word.  Human beings cannot directly encounter God due to the limitations imposed by language: “Transcendental experience is found only at the edge of language and the limit of story.”[24]  Jesus’ parables exemplify this “edge of language,” drawing the listener (or reader) into the world of the parable, overturning (or negating) expectations and values, unnerving rather than reassuring.[25]
In Raid on the Articulate,[26] Crossan furthers his foray into structuralism and deconstructionism.[27]  He begins by insisting that in biblical studies, literary criticism is not only an equal partner in research, but even “theorizes a little truculently about the primacy of language over history.”[28]  Language, not history, is the master paradigm.[29]  Crossan continues to insist that Jesus’ parables are the key to understanding his message and meaning, but introduces paradox as a further interpretive key: “Paradox confess[es] our awareness that we are making it all up within the supreme game of language.  Paradox is language laughing at itself.”[30]  Furthermore, paradox expresses the highest level of existence.  Finally, “parable is paradox formed into story.”[31]  Jesus’ parables are examples of paradox formed into story, consistently reversing the expectations of his hearers.[32]
Part of the paradoxical reversal of expectations, according to Crossan, is the inevitable rejection of the notion that “the Holy has a great and secret master plan for the universe in process of gradual but inevitable realization.”[33]  That was the reluctant conclusion, he claims, of twentieth-century existentialism: “I consider existentialist nausea to be the ontological disappointment of one who, having been taught that there is some overarching logical meaning beyond our perception, has come at length to believe there is no such fixed center toward which our searchings strive.”[34]  Instead, “the Holy has no such plan at all and that is what is absolutely incomprehensible to our structuring, planning, ordering human minds.”[35]  The embrace of paradox and structuralism entails accepting the fundamental paradox, namely that “if perception creates reality, then perception (mine, yours, ours together) must also be creating the perceiver (me, you, us together).”[36] 
Crossan’s early work thus focuses on deconstructing the comfortable expectations of North American “classicism and rationalism.”[37]  An Emily Dickinson poem serves as a fitting epigraph for Crossan’s early structuralism as a whole:[38]

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
the ‘Golden Fleece.’
Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
In The Dark Interval, Crossan sums up the emphatic closure pronounced by Dickinson’s ending: “In that ‘sham’ one hears the chilling slam as the door closes on the classical vision of a fixed center out there somewhere. . . . with the loss of credibility in a fixed reality independent of us, there soon followed the loss of faith in a God whose chief role was to guarantee that reality’s validity.”[40]  Language, not God, constructs and structures reality; even the transcendent can only be experienced on the outer boundaries of linguistic experience.  The core of language is paradoxical parable: Crossan “rejects the quest for order and purpose in interpretation and prefers instead to stand ‘on the brink of Nonsense and Absurdity and not be dizzy.’”[41] 
In Cliffs of Fall,[42] Crossan suggests three elements universally present in Jesus’ parables, “narrativity, metaphoricity, [and] paradoxicality.”[43]  Parabolic narrative is essentially short, and unavoidably metaphorical.[44]  Crossan makes it clear that “he understands all language as metaphorical.”[45]  He insists upon “the unavailability of this language-other-than-metaphorical, this non-figurative, non-metaphorical, literal, and proper language.”[46]  Accepting the linguistic theses of Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida, Crossan identifies metaphorical and literal poles of language.  Against Ricoeur, however, Crossan insists that literal language does not eventually give rise to metaphorical language; rather, it is the other way around.  Language is inherently metaphorical, and only becomes structured, ordered, or literal over time.[47]  Thus, while there is a paradoxical polyvalency (multiplicity of meaning) within all language, this is not so much indicative of Ricoeur’s “surplus of meaning,” but rather of Derrida’s “void of meaning.”[48]  Parable succeeds as the pre-eminent linguistic device due to its inherent tendency to paradox, metaphor, and polyvalence: “It is precisely the absence of a fixed, literal, univocal, or univalent language that releases the inevitability and universality of metaphor itself.  And this absence is the foundation and horizon of all language and of all thought.”[49]
To summarize, Crossan embraces structuralism, asserting that language constructs reality.  There is no fixed, objective referent to which language (story) points; rather, the referent itself is created by the structure of language.  Language is inherently metaphorical, with literal meaning attached afterward in humanity’s search for order and structure.  Paradox and polyvalency is inherent to the human condition, given the lack of divine purpose and governance.  Crossan then identifies parables as short narratives filled with paradoxical and metaphorical language, ideally suited to reversing and overturning the expectations and comfort of listeners, and drawing them into the experience of transcendence on the boundaries of language.  Jesus’ parables, announcing the advent of the kingdom of God, are thus world-reversing (not world-negating), paradoxical, metaphorical challenges.

[1]For example, John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973); idem, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Niles, IL: Argus, 1975); idem, Raid on the Articulate: Comic Eschatology in Jesus and Borges (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); idem, Finding Is the First Act: Trove Folktales and Jesus’ Treasure Parable (Missoula: Scholars, 1979); idem, Cliffs of Fall: Paradox and Polyvalence in the Parables of Jesus (New York: Seabury, 1980); idem, A Fragile Craft: The Work of Amos Niven Wilder (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981); and idem, In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983). Numerous articles from the same time frame also focus on the literary nature of the Gospels—e.g., idem, “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen,” Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (1971): 451-65; idem, “Parable and Example in the Teaching of Jesus,” New Testament Studies 18 (1971-72): 285-307; idem, “Parable as Religious and Poetic Experience,” Journal of Religion 53 (1973): 330-58; idem, “The Servant Parables of Jesus,” Semeia 1 (1974): 17-62; idem, “The Good Samaritan: Towards a Generic Definition of Parable,” Semeia 2 (1974): 82-112; idem, “A Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration,” Semeia 9 (1977): 105-47; idem, “Paradox Gives Rise to Metaphor: Paul Ricoeur's Hermeneutics and the Parables of Jesus,” Biblical Research 24-25 (1979-1980): 20-37; and idem, “A Structuralist Analysis of John 6,” in Orientation by Disorientation: Studies in Literary Criticism and Biblical Literary Criticism Presented in Honor of William A. Beardslee, ed. Richard A. Spencer  (Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1980), 235-49.
[2]His constant interest and engagement in historical Jesus research is indicated by the subtitle of In Parables. Thus, Crossan’s transition does represent an abrupt shift, but rather a change in focus.
[3]John Dominic Crossan, Four Other Gospels: Shadows on the Contours of Canon (Minneapolis: Winston, 1985); idem, Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); and especially idem, The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
[4]Crossan’s interpreters have differed, however. Robert Stewart concurs with my assessment, finding continuity between the early and later Crossan in his doctoral dissertation. Robert Byron Stewart, “The Impact of Contemporary Hermeneutics on Historical Jesus Research: An Analysis of John Dominic Crossan and Nicholas Thomas Wright” (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2000). Stewart’s dissertation was later published in book form—Robert B. Stewart, The Quest of the Hermeneutical Jesus: The Impact of Hermeneutics on the Jesus Research of John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008). Donald Denton, on the other hand, identifies a break in Crossan’s scholarship, with his later historical Jesus research moving away from the structuralist conclusions of his earlier hermeneutical work. See Donald L. Denton, Jr., Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies: An Examination of the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer (London: T & T Clark International, 2004). Denton is right to identify 1991 as the transitional point in Crossan’s scholarship, but my contention is that Crossan transitions through, not away from, his hermeneutics and literary criticism.
[5]Material investments are scholarly judgments that must be made at every step of methodological application. Thus, for example, in the identification of sources for the Jesus tradition, material investments (scholarly judgments) must be made regarding the dating and independence of both canonical and extracanonical sources.
[6]John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
[7]“The term ‘historical Jesus’ really means the language of Jesus and most especially the parables themselves.” Crossan, In Parables, vii.
[8]Ibid., vii.
[9]Ibid., 9.
[10]Ibid., 10.
[11]“The value of metaphor [is] in explaining to a student something which is new to one’s experience. . . . The thesis is that metaphor can also articulate a referent so new or so alien to consciousness that this referent can only be grasped within the metaphor itself. The metaphor here contains a new possibility of world and of language so that any information one might obtain from it can only be received after one has participated through the metaphor in its new and alien referential world.” Ibid., 11-12.
[12]Ibid., 22. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the specific language of religion, that which is closest to its heart, is the language of poetic metaphor in all its varied extension.” Ibid., 18.
[13]John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Niles, IL: Argus, 1975).
[14]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 10.
[15]Ibid., 9.
[16]Ibid., 37. Emphasis original. Denton summarizes Crossan’s structuralist literary theory, “He states plainly that reality is exhausted by the structure of language and story.  Story creates world, rather than telling of a world that exists apart from story. Structure, specifically linguistic structure, constitutes reality.” Denton, Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies, 25.
[17]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 40. Emphasis original.
[18]Ibid., 40-41. Emphasis original.
[19]Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 49.
[20]Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up, 49.
[21]Ibid., 50.
[22]Ibid., 50-51.
[23]Crossan’s answer (“meaningless question”) to Craig’s question; ibid., 51. In his most recent work, Crossan insists that: “Theists may insist that ‘God exists,’ and atheists may counter that ‘God does not exist,’ but, although the verb ‘exist’ can be used literally of creatures (with or without the negative), it can be used only metaphorically of the Creator. The cloud of unknowing is pierced only by the gleam of metaphor.” John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 35.
[24]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 46. Emphasis original. Stewart elaborates in a vivid illustration, “Crossan appeals to the early Wittgenstein and argues that the relationship of language to transcendence is similar to that of a raft (language) adrift on the sea (reality) seeking the keeper of the lighthouse (God?) on the solid shore.” Crossan proceeds to deconstruct the dry land and even the sea, leaving only the raft. “The result is that there is only language.” Stewart, The Quest of the Hermeneutical Jesus, 29.
[25]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 55-56.
[26]John Dominic Crossan, Raid on the Articulate: Comic Eschatology in Jesus and Borges (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).
[27]For example, Crossan emphasizes the pre-eminence of play within human imagination and reality. “I have accepted play, well known to us in the microcosm of game and sport, as a supreme paradigm for reality. Reality is the interplay of worlds created by human imagination.” Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 28. Furthermore, “I am presuming in all this that it is the playful human mind which establishes and imposes structure. I do not think of structure as already existent in ‘reality-out-there’ and discovered or acknowledged by our obedient minds. What is there before or without our structured play strikes me as being both unknowable and unspeakable.” Ibid., 34.
[28]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, xiii.
[29]Ibid., xiv. In a 1977 article, Crossan proposes that contemporary biblical criticism needs to acknowledge that “structural analysis is logically prior to historical analysis.” Crossan, “Perspectives and Methods in Contemporary Biblical Criticism,” Biblical Research 22 (1977): 45.
[30]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 93.
[31]Ibid., 93.
[32]Crossan’s identification of paradox within Jesus’ parables is prefigured in his earlier work. In In Parables, Crossan identifies three categories within Jesus’ parables—parables of advent, which stress the kingdom as the gift of God; parables of reversal, in which the recipient’s world is overturned; and parables of action, where hearers are empowered to live out the kingdom of God. See Crossan, In Parables, 36. Parables of advent are the subject of chapter 2 (37-51), chapter 3 treats parables of reversal (52-76), and chapter 4 covers parables of action (77-117). The Parable of the Good Samaritan is Crossan’s favorite example of a parable of reversal—“When good (clerics) and bad (Samaritan) become, respectively, bad and good, a world is being challenged and we are faced with polar reversal.” Ibid., 63. “The literal point confronted the hearers with the necessity of saying the impossible and having their world turned upside down and radically questioned in its presuppositions. The metaphorical point is that just so does the Kingdom of God break abruptly into human consciousness and demand the overturn of prior values, closed options, set judgments, and established conclusions.” Ibid., 64.
[33]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 44.
[34]Crossan, “Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration,” 111.
[35]Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 44.
[36]Crossan, “Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration,” 110.
[37]Ibid., 111.
[38]The poem first appears in Crossan’s 1975 The Dark Interval, 42-43, and serves as the epigraph for his 1979 Finding is the First Act.
[39]Citation from Dickinson’s Poems of Emily Dickinson, vol. 2, No. 870, 647-58.
[40]Crossan, The Dark Interval, 43.
[41]Stewart, Quest for the Hermeneutical Jesus, 33, quoting Crossan, Raid on the Articulate, 33.
[42]John Dominic Crossan, Cliffs of Fall: Paradox and Polyvalence in the Parables of Jesus (New York: Seabury, 1980).
[43]Crossan, Cliffs of Fall, 2. Later, Crossan changes his designations somewhat, identifying brevity, narrativity, and metaphoricity as the core elements of parable. See Crossan, “Parable as History and Literature,” Listening 19 (1984): 6.
[44]Crossan, Cliffs of Fall, 2, 6.
[45]Stewart, Quest for the Hermeneutical Jesus, 33.
[46]Crossan, Cliffs of Fall, 6.
[47]Stewart, Quest for the Hermeneutical Jesus, 33.
[48]Crossan, Cliffs of Fall, 9-10.
[49]Ibid. Denton comments, “The absence of a fixed, literal, univocal, referential language leads to the inevitability of metaphor. Since there is no absolutely literal language against which metaphor may be identified, all language is metaphorical. This carries the implication of the polyvalence of language. The absence of a fixed univocal language also means that there is a void of meaning, an essential absence, at the core of metaphor.” Denton, Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies, 37. Emphasis original.

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