For The Someday Book

Book Review: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

Posted on: April 3, 2018

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, A Startling Account of What We Can Know about the Life of Jesus, New York: HarperOne, 1994, 232 pp.

Crossan BiographyAs Holy Week approaches, I want to immerse myself in the story of Jesus, to walk with him and imagine his life and personality. I find myself looking many years for something to read that will further that effort. This book was originally purchased to read on my trip to the Holy Land in 2012, but I never got around to it. Too late for the Holy Land, but right on time for Holy Week six years later–24 years after its publication.

Crossan is a leading member of the Jesus Seminar and historical Jesus movement. This book was a shortened version of his more scholarly work examining what we can actually know and prove from history about Jesus of Nazareth. I suspected that I would discover much of the content of this book had been reshaped and rehashed in later Crossan works about Jesus, including God and Empire. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find much of the material was new to me, and the approach offered me a fresh, updated look at Jesus as I approached my Holy Week services.

Over the years, Crossan, Borg and other Jesus Seminar scholars have softened their approach. Their original attempts to segregate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith drew hard-edged lines, yet in spite of the fact that this book comes from that era, it is clear throughout that Crossan (himself a Catholic priest) is devout in his faith and dedication to Jesus. He seems less interested in destroying a traditional view than in painting a more accurate picture.

The hard scholarly edge remains in his sourcing. Crossan shapes a story of Jesus that relies on the biblical accounts as the least reliable sources, positing only those aspects of Jesus that are attested in non-biblical sources and situating him thickly within the politics and culture of first-century Roman Palestine.  While it is still disconcerting to read from time to time that Crossan believes some of my favorite New Testament narratives are pure fiction (including the Last Supper), I’ve heard those arguments many times now and breeze right past them to the more interesting elements–the consistent elements of Jesus’ identity, ministry and practices that are attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources, and make sense within the sociological and political world he inhabited.

Crossan’s Jesus is a peasant leader from Galilee, whose ministry is for the peasant classes of that region. One of the most interesting chapters is “The Jordan is Not Just Water,” in which he examines the political implications of baptizing people in the Jordan River, symbolic of entry into the Promised Land. He also articulates his well-known connection of Jesus and the Cynics, carefully charting what Jesus borrows and changes from their practices. Crossan affirms some core practices that remain central to both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith: his dedication to a “kingdom of nobodies,” the sharing of radical meals free of social distinction, the breaking of boundaries.

The chapters on the body and the cross spoke to me powerfully during Holy Week. Both spoke to the harshness of life in the Roman colony, with rampant death from disease and violence alongside social death and expulsion based on fear and superstition. Both chapters spoke about human bodies and Jesus’ body–their real pain and suffering, the exposure and mutilation of the cross, and the social alienation of victims of state terrorism by crucifixion, whose bodies usually could not be buried and were left to the dogs. The stories made Jesus seem very small, vulnerable and invisible within his world, like thousands of others—yet thanks to his disciples, his witness was unique enough to have survived.

This was a good refresher for me on the Jesus of history, and offered insights and perspectives that were new to me, even though the book is more than 20 years old.

 

 

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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