with Rachael Kohn
on Sunday 23/04/00
Special: John Dominic Crossan and the Resurrection
The theological meaning of Jesus' resurrection may
owe little to what Jesus himself would have understood by the term. John
Dominic Crossan is a leading Jesus scholar who believes the notion of
God's justice is largely forgotten in the conventional interpretations of the
A full web transcript is now available.
John Dominic Crossan and the Historical Jesus.
Jesus' resurrection is a central tenet of Christianity. But what if Jesus'
understanding of it was different from that of Christianity?
John Dominic Crossan argues that Jesus' understanding of God and
resurrection was Jewish, and therefore different from the way the early
Church conceptualised them.
Crossan is a controversial expert on the historical Jesus, and best-selling
author of The Birth of Christianity and Jesus: A Revolutionary
A full transcript of the program follows.
How do you imagine God? For two millennia Christians have looked to Christ as
the incarnation of God on earth.
Hello, and welcome to a special program on The Spirit of Things, featuring
today's foremost and controversial Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan.
I'm Rachael Kohn.
Rachael Kohn: Even the earliest known records of Jesus, the Gospels,
show some variation in his personality. For example in Mark, he's
primarily a healer, a miracle worker, a hidden Messiah; in Matthew he
comes across as a very public lawgiver.
What was he really like? Did he regard himself as the Messiah, and God's only
In modern literature's most powerful treatment of the figure of Jesus, Nikos
Kazantzakis depicts Jesus as anything but a man certain of his heavenly
Jesus: You think it's a blessing to know what God wants? I'll tell you
what he wants, he wants to push me over. Can't he see what's inside of me?
All my sins?
Man: We all sin.
Jesus: Not my sins. I'm a liar, a hypocrite, I'm afraid of everything, I
don't ever tell the truth, I don't have the courage. When I see a woman, I
blush and look away. I want to, but I don't take her, for God, and that makes
me proud. And then my pride ruins Magdalene. I don't steal, I don't fight, I
don't kill, not because I don't want to but because I'm afraid. I want to
rebel against you, against everything, against God, but I'm afraid.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Rachael Kohn: 'A man afraid of everything' would certainly not
describe the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan. But his Jesus is not far from
controversy either. In his numerous tomes on Jesus, Crossan sets him firmly
in the context of first century Judea: Jesus is a Jew, a peasant, and a
healer, with a social mission to the poor and disenfranchised.
Dom Crossan was in Australia briefly last week, giving a series of lectures
to a joint conference of the Australia and New Zealand Association of
Theological Schools and the Australian and New Zealand Society for
I went out to St John's Centre in Morpeth, New South Wales, to talk to him.
Earlier that morning, Dom Crossan gave his audience an idea of the academic
milieu that shaped the way he has thought about Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan: Since incarnation is about locality, let me say
at least three factors that I see influencing the work that I am doing and
other people like me. One is the situation in a Department of Religious
Studies at a university; not in a divinity school where you might have the
luxury of four other colleagues of the New Testament alone and could talk
serenely to one another forever.
Across the hall from me at de Paul University were two women; one was a black
Muslim woman, who was a Muslim. Next to her was a white woman who was an
expert on the Aztec religion. I don't think she was an Aztec but she was an
expert on the Aztec religion. Now if I were to talk to them about the
historical Jesus, I would be probably met with a great polite interior shrug.
So what? If I wanted to talk to them say about how you might be able to
reconstruct peasant society by anthropology and all the rest of it, then we
were talking to one another. So in one sense that's part of one of the
influences playing on me.
The second one is this: at the moment, at least in North America, certain
scholars who have a sort of a sense of the ethics of public discourse, have
done a sort of an end run around the churches, quite deliberately, straight
to the laity, which is forcing a lot of ministers who would just as soon none
of this stuff came up and they didn't have to think about it, to respond to
their parishioners who ask for example, 'How can a weirdo like Crossan say
what he's saying and claim he's a Christian?' Or, 'Why weren't we ever told
this before?' So no matter what side it comes from, as it comes up from cable
into PBS and finally it looks like ABC, American ABC, (Peter Jennings is
going to do something on the historical Jesus, a 2-hour program) it's coming
into popular consciousness. That's a second factor playing on this.
The third one is, and these are really all from the '90s, the third one is
even more interesting. There are more and more Jewish scholars teaching New
Testament. Not just teaching the history of the first century and 'PS there's
some New Testament stuff in there'. No. A colleague, friend of mine
for example Amy Jill Levine at De Paul University is teaching New Testament.
Now if I have to sit with her at a seminar and talk about the New Testament,
very interesting things happen. Very interesting things happen of course when
a male and female, a female and a male get together to talk about anything.
When a Jew and a Christian get together, first of all the Christian doesn't
get away with a lot of the - I'm sorry, I was going to say 'crap', so - that
you used to be able to get away with. You don't get away with that sort of
Now there's another side to it which is equally interesting. For example,
next year Amy Jill and I are doing a two-day seminar at a parish in Michigan.
It's a parish. It's a two-day seminar at a parish. We're going to talk about
what I'm going to talk about this morning: the life, the death and the
resurrection of Jesus. It used to be 'Well resurrection, that has to deal
with Christian faith, so we don't need to talk about that'. But the question
that we're going to be asking, and I insist it is equally to be asked from a
Jewish, as a Christian point of view today, is in the first century when a
Jew or a Christian Jew said 'resurrection' or Jesus is raised, what did they
Now bracket for the moment do you believe in it or not. What did they mean?
John Dominic Crossan: The biggest thing at the end of the 20th
century, from the end of the 19th century, is that we're asking a new set of
questions. Namely, what did people in the first century understand when they
told the following story, for example: At the end of the 19th century you
read the story, Jesus walked on the waters, and you might have a big debate.
The pious pastor might say 'Only once in the whole history of the world there
was a person who could walk on water, namely our Jesus.' And the village
atheist came along and said, 'That's rubbish, nobody ever walks on the water,
and we all know that, that's silly.' Now we don't argue like that, we say
when a first century person told that story what did that first century
person want to communicate? And we say it's as dumb to get into that argument
you've just been in as to argue that Aesop was trying to tell us that animals
could speak in Ancient Greece, and then you could argue back that yes, they
could by the power of Zeus. So "what did they want to say?", is the
Now what I notice for example, as a historian reading these stories, is that
when you get to the so-called nature miracles, the walking on the water, or
the miraculous catch of fishes, they're done especially for the insiders, for
the disciples. Usually healings and exorcisms are done for people along the
road, as it were. Jesus doesn't come on the water to save the fishing fleet
from Capernaum, he comes on the water to save the disciples. Now when I read
that story, what it screams at me is it's a parable, dummy, it's a parable,
don't you get it? If the leadership of the church takes off in a boat without
Jesus, it will sink, it will get nowhere.
Rachael Kohn: But you seem to be using different sort of tools than
the historians of the past; you're not seeing these as events so much, as, as
you say, stories, ways of understanding. Is anthropology providing something
of a way into this world, in which one accepts the world view of the people
that one studies, first and foremost?
John Dominic Crossan: It is. You begin really with cross-culture
anthropology, and you try and almost forget what you know about Jesus, and
the whole theological, perfectly valid, 2000 years of theological freight
that is carried by these stories. And there's nothing wrong with that, except
it makes it very hard to ask an historical question without getting negative
answers: 'This didn't happen', 'That didn't happen', 'This didn't happen'.
When you come
in through anthropology and history, you start asking, within its own
framework, within its own time span, what would a person have understood by
these stories? Now for example, we know once again that Jesus told
parables.When he wanted to say something really profound about God, he went
into parable. I don't find it surprising then that when earliest Christianity
wanted to say something profound about Jesus, they went into parable too.
That doesn't mean everything is a parable. When it says Jesus was in Nazareth
I don't think that's a parable, I think Jesus was in Nazareth. When it talks
about Jesus walking on the water, I don't think that's the point at all, I
think the point is that the church without Jesus sinks. And it really
fascinates me that by the middle of the first century, somebody had to tell a
story to warn the leadership of the church not to embark without Jesus
aboard. In other words, they needed to be warned. That's an interesting
Rachael Kohn: Now your own work, the latest one, The Birth of
Christianity is looking specifically at the early period in the 30s and
40s where there are not texts extant, a great deal of imagination has to be
used. Is that why anthropology is particularly helpful there, because you're
drawing on, in some cases, present ontological experiences and drawing or
abstracting from them the kind of experience that you're trying to describe
in that period?
John Dominic Crossan: Yes, there are no documents that anyone has a
copy of that are dated to the 30s and the 40s; like the copies of Paul's
letters are dated to the 50s. So first of all you're not going to find a
text; you may find a source in another text, but that leaves a huge vacuum.
And then the danger is, you either build theology on that, which is perfectly
all right, but then the counterpoint to that is to attack that theology. So
if you leave that aside what you have to do is read the anthropology. What
happens, for example, in the cities? In the move for example, for some Early
Christians, from the small tiny hamlets ? Within two or three years we find
these Christians are in Antioch and Damascus and Jerusalem. Paul is
persecuting Jewish Christians in Damascus within two or three years of the
death of Jesus. What are they doing there? There is a move to the cities, so
sociology and anthropology helps you to fill out that sort of background.
What were the cities, then, of the Roman Empire like? What was it like to be
the underclass maybe in those cities? So yes, without that I think these are
like ghosts moving around in the mists; we don't see anything, they're just
vague figures. I find anthropology is a marvellous discipline to shock me out
of my own world into another world.
Rachael Kohn: Well another discipline or area of study that has had an
impact in this field of the life of Jesus research is Jewish studies, and I
wondered whether you could comment on the ways in which Jewish scholars now
looking at the New Testament have helped to understand the world in which
John Dominic Crossan: One of the talks I gave here in the conference
at Morpeth, was about the Resurrection. And I really asked a question there
that I had learned from listening to a Jewish scholar ask it, which was a
terribly simple one when you think of it. What did it mean for Jews in the
first century to use the term 'resurrection'? If one Jew said to another 'God
has raised Jesus' or anyone else from the dead, what did they mean?
Now usually when we Christians debate about the resurrection, we debate about
whether bodies came out of the tomb, we debate about apparitions, we debate
about the theology of the resurrection and do we believe it, and how we
believe it. And I had never heard anyone really ask that most obvious
question until I heard a Jewish scholar, an expert in the New Testament, ask
Rachael Kohn: But isn't this a perilous area since Jews don't accept
the divinity of Jesus; they're understanding of resurrection will be
profoundly different from the Christian one?
John Dominic Crossan: That's exactly the anomaly, because you could
say today, 'Now if you are a pious, believing Jew of course you do not
believe Jesus rose from the dead, but you can still ask and you must ask -
and in fact we must be able to agree on the answer to this question if we're
doing historical scholarship - What did it mean, what did one Jew think they
were saying when they said to another 'Jesus is raised from the dead',
bracketing for the moment whether they believed it or not. What did the term
'resurrection' simply mean? Did it mean for example a body coming out of the
tomb? What did it mean for those first century Jews?
That is very, very new and I don't know if it's happening in many places
except where you do have Jewish scholars who are now experts in the New
Testament, not just in first century Judaism, but in the New Testament.
Rachael Kohn: Can you describe what Jesus might have thought about
John Dominic Crossan: I think the negative, if I could start with the
negative, is that we today are primarily concerned in highly individualistic
terms with Me. I want to know do I survive, am I going to continue, is there
life after death for me? The crucial thing for first century Jews was not
about Me but about God, whether God was just. And it was raised by the fact that
with increasing violence throughout the centuries since the time of Alexander
the Great, the Jewish homeland had been awash in blood. The Egyptian, the
Greco Egyptians coming through, the Greco Syrians coming through, then the
Romans, then the period of Herod; every time you looked, there was revolution
because were being killed, it was martyred. And it looked like it was the
more just people who were being martyred. Now what they asked themselves was
where in all of that was the justice of God. It's a terribly simple question,
it wasn't 'Do I live on?' but 'Is God just?' And if God is not just, who
cares about anything else, because the world then is utterly meaningless.
So when they said 'resurrection' what they were stating was an act of faith
that some day, somehow, and then it gets very vague how and when and all the
rest of it, God is going to vindicate those who have suffered in their
bodies, been martyred, been marginalised, been destroyed, and somehow it has
to have to do with the bodies, it cannot be simply the Greek idea that
immortality is the soul, which is very nice, but it's sort of 'for all of
us'. So if the torturer and the tortured both have an immortality of the
soul, that doesn't say anything about the justice of God.
So the problem they're struggling with, now you could say, 'Well the solution
they came up with that some day, somehow, there'll be a resurrection of the
dead especially', that didn't happen the way they expected, sure. But that's
all right, they're asking the right question. Is God just? And especially,
how does God handle the sufferings of the innocent?
Rachael Kohn: So is it then a particularly Greek departure to see
resurrection as unique?
John Dominic Crossan: It would be a particularly wrong departure to
think of Jesus' ressurection as unique. In fact I don't even want to use the
term 'resurrection' for that. If you had somebody in the first century who
wanted to talk of a unique privilege given to Jesus because he was a very
person, because he was a Messiah, because he was the son of God, but uniquely
special to him, the term you would use is exaltation. Jesus had been exalted
to the right hand of God, maybe like Elijah had been taken up, or Enoch had
been taken up, or maybe Moses had been taken up, very, very holy people in
the past, in a sort of unique privilege were taken up to dwell with God. It
really had no corporate extension and it didn't really touch this question of
the justice of God for the persecuted martyrs. So resurrection should be
distinguished from exaltation. Exaltation is sort of individual, special,
privileged, and resurrection has to do with how the justice of God handles
not just Jesus, but everyone who has suffered unjustly and who has died as a
martyr, especially the martyrs, they're sort of the core, and you can go out
in ripples from martyrs to say, 'Well what about the just who would have been
martyred if they had a chance?' as it were. 'What about the just who died
peacefully?' and it goes out in ripples from there. But the core of it is,
the justice of God.
Rachael Kohn: And the core of it is too, that Jesus was exalted and
the resurrection, the corporate resurrection is still anticipated. Is that
John Dominic Crossan: Some of the very earliest texts almost in our
creed we talk about 'He descended into hell' and in general we don't have a
clue what on earth that means. And one of my students once said, 'Well he
must have gone down there just to check it out.' Because hell of course, is
of damnation. What you're imaging there is Hades or Shed is the place
underneath the earth where the just and the martyred are waiting for God's
revelation of justice. And what Jesus does is go down in a way to lead them
forth, because if Jesus is resurrected without them, we're not talking
resurrection. So corporate doesn't just mean Jesus now, everyone else
whenever, it means well we have to fix up all the past before we can trust
this God for the future. How should we trust the justice of God for the
future when we have a long history of martyred Jews who have died before
Jesus, who wasn't the first, and he was not going to be the last, and somehow
Jesus must go down into Sheol and lead them forth, liberate them, or else we
can't trust this God any more. And that's a very difficult thing for most
Christians I think, to think of, because it's sublimely mythological.
Rachael Kohn: One of the most central and important beliefs of the
Christian church is in Jesus' bodily resurrection. How do you understand it?
John Dominic Crossan: Negatively and positively once again.
Negatively, just to make it clear, the bodily resurrection of Jesus has
nothing for me to do with what happened to the body of Jesus. Most crucified
criminals in the Roman Empire were either left on the cross as the supreme
conclusion and consummation through this public warning that crucifixion was,
or they were speedily buried in a limed pit as the soldiers got finished with
their day's work and got out of there. And if you've seen the rocks around
Jerusalem it's hard to even imagine where they found somewhere to bury them.
But what bodily resurrection has to do with me is that it is the life of
Jesus in the body.
This life lived for justice, which is perennially, continuously, normative
for Christians of all time. It is the body of Jesus which lived and died for
justice, which is normative for us. Where I see that most clearly is that
when in Christian gospel, Christian art, Christian mysticism, Jesus
reappears, the wounds are always still there, they seem to never heal as it
were, even after 2,000 years, because it's always the crucified Jesus who is
So that if you were a stranger from another land and you saw a picture, say,
of a medieval artist of Jesus appearing to somebody, you'd say, 'Well why has
he got holes in his hands?' and if I were to explain that to you, I'd have to
explain to you everything about Roman crucifixion and then you'd say, 'Well
then he must have been a criminal, right, if he got crucified?' I'd have to
explain to you the whole life of Jesus. So if the wounds are there,
everything is there, and in that sense for me, it is the body of Jesus which
is normative for Christianity, not the ideas of Jesus or the words of Jesus,
but the life of Jesus. And that if you do lead a life for God's justice, you
will probably almost certainly, unfortunately, be executed. Or you would be
marginalised or annihilated, whichever way your society gets rid of people
who threaten it too much. So it's that bodily content I want to keep there,
otherwise Jesus is a philosopher who had beautiful ideas, and we just read
his works, and we don't need the body, and we don't need the life, and we
just have the ideas. And I don't understand Jesus to be about ideas. It's
about incarnating God's justice and a life.
Rachael Kohn: So you see Jesus as very much a social reformer an
egalitarian, a model man, a man of God, who obviously lived within a milieu
which had apocalyptic beliefs. How did he see himself in relation to God's
role in the world?
John Dominic Crossan: I probably would not make those initial options
disjunctive. Yes, Jesus was a full human being in the full sense of the word,
but in the world in which Jesus lived, every coin of Caesar for example, bore
the words 'Son of God' in Latin. Caesar was in effect, one of the
incarnations of God on earth, and that made a lot of sense to millions of
people. The power of God was clearly operative in Caesar who controlled the
Mediterranean world, had the legions and all the rest of it. Now for somebody
to look at Jesus and say, 'No, I do not find God, the Roman god of power as
it were, incarnate in Caesar, I find the Jewish god of justice incarnate in
Jesus', that is an absolutely possible Jewish act of faith in the first
century, absolutely possible, that somebody could look at Jesus and say,
'This radical critique of Roman normalcy is the way God wants us to live, not
just Jesus to live, but us to live.' Somebody looking at Jesus can say then,
'I see God here.' And they might even get into an argument, 'No, God is in
the temple; this is the house of God', and they could say, 'No, the house of
God has gone over to the Roman side, it's with Caiaphas who collaborates with
Rome, I can no longer find God in the temple. I find God in this life.' That
is an absolutely possible first
Now another Jew could say, 'No, that's rubbish, I find God only in following
the law of my people. I find God only in going down to Qumran and living with
the Essenes. I find God only in rising against the Romans.' But the real
question you're asking is not only first century where do people find God,
and one of the options is in this sort of life that Jesus is living. So on
the one hand he's utterly human, of course, he's not a divine being
masquerading down here as a human being. But it is absolutely possible for
somebody to look at Jesus and say, 'Here is I find God' and in fact Jesus
himself is making some pretty strong statements when he says, 'This is the
kingdom of God and that is not', because you could say, 'Well how do you know
what is the kingdom of God? You're claiming to know the will of God, you're
claiming special divine knowledge then?' I think Jesus would probably answer,
'Well isn't it obvious? We have always believed in a God of justice, we've had
a covenant with a God of justice, you think this is justice?' I don't think
Jesus would say, 'Well I've come down from God to tell you the message.' He
probably would say 'Open your eyes, you think this is just? You think this is
what God wants?' Once again, some people would say, 'Well yes, I have no
problem with this.' Other people would say, 'No, I don't think this is right.
I think you're right, this is not what God wants.' So it is claiming a divine
knowledge, if you will, but in one sense it's no different than the prophet
Amos hundreds of years before saying, 'You think the covenant is just about
worship? The covenant is about justice.' And you say, 'Well how do you know
that?' 'Well, isn't it obvious? And of course the answer is to some people,
it's very obvious, to other people it's not obvious at all.
Rachael Kohn: Now I guess we can say that a lot of Christians
throughout centuries and certainly now, have a strong commitment to justice
and they also believe that Jesus is God, is divine, and did bodily resurrect
in the way in which Christine doctrine spells it out. In your view of Jesus,
which I believe kind of takes him off that pedestal of God, does anything
John Dominic Crossan: What changes for me is first of all the
character of God. And what changes for me not the pedestal. In one sense I
don't take Jesus off the pedestal, but I keep asking what's the content? And
what's crucial for me, you see, is that very often we have an easier
question: 'Does God exist? Yes or No. Is Jesus son of God, yes or no.' The
first century options were different. 'Does God exist as the Jewish God of
Justice or as the Roman God of power?' Is God incarnate in say, a Jesus? Or
incarnate in a Caesar? That's a much rougher disjunction, because there isn't
that possibility agnosticism. Well let's wait and see. And it's not that I
want to really take Jesus off the pedestal, I want to know what he's up there
for. We sometimes have put monsters on pedestals, killers, and years later we
topple them off their pedestal. So before I want to genuflect at that
pedestal, or to genuflect before this God, I want to know the character of
this God. There have been killer Gods and killer sons and killer people of
God. So it's a necessity to ask the question of the character of God, to make
sure what we're worshipping, because we worship some funny stuff, especially
in this century.
Rachael Kohn: Well indeed Jesus can be worshipped in very many ways,
in Killer ways and then ways that lead to justice, so the onus is more on
those who respond to him or interpret him.
John Dominic Crossan: I think it is, and it's very hard however if
somebody says, you know, to love your enemies. You could say, 'Well I'm going
to love them to death.' We've done that sort of stuff so it can be done. But
if you really start with love your enemies, and if you look at the tradition
of the first Christian centuries, nobody ever seems to suggest well if they
come after us to persecute us, is it alright to kill a few? Defensively, of
That seems to be an option absolutely ruled out, beyond even discussion. I
mean you will get a discussion later whether a Christian can be a soldier.
But nowhere in the first century does anyone ever discuss seriously even
defensively , and I think when Christians start using that 'Do unto others as
you would have them do unto you', they're really taking that even
defensively, since you don't want to be killed, you cannot even kill in self
defence. So I think that's part of this message, and its profound depths, and
I don't think that's negotiable.
Now when you get something like the Apocalypse of John, when this avenging
God is going to have blood to the bridle bits for 200 miles, I think that's
venous, I don't think that's justice, I don't think that's Jesus, and I don't
think it's the God of Jesus. That's the killer God, and the trouble with the
killer God is that it justifies us doing the same, and in fact it invites us
maybe to start with a bit. We might jump start the Apocalypse, because if God
is going to kill then I really don't see the reason why carefully and
selectively of course, we mightn't be able to do it too. It's a final
solution to the problem of evil, kill the evildoer.
Rachael Kohn: John Dominic Crossan, author of The Birth of
Christianity and Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography is our special
guest on The Spirit of Things.
It's clear that for Dom Crossan, Jesus is not waiting for a great apocalypse
of God to set the world straight, but is taking upon himself the role of
reformer, passionately committed to social justice. According to his God, one
doesn't kill the evil doer, but saves her from a swift and deadly punishment.
This is a scene from The Last Temptation of Christ, after which you'll
hear Dom Crossan spelling out to his audience one of the key aspects of
Jesus' ministry: healing and eating with the poor and the destitute.
Man: Get out of the way! Get out of there! Get out of the way! This is
your business, do you want to get hurt?
Man: Don't you hear what he said, idiot, move!
Jesus: No, I don't want this.
Man: Listen to him, he doesn't want this. Well, we want it.
Man: We don't have to tell you why?
Man: It's bad enough we live in a whorehouse, but she's a Jew, she works on
Sabbath, she goes with Romans on the Sabbath, she broke Moses' law, she dies.
Jesus: Who has never sinned, who? Which one of you people has never sinned?
Whoever that is, come up here and throw these.
Man: I have nothing to hide.
Jeus: Good. Take this, it's bigger. Be careful Zebede, there is a God. He's
seen you cheat your workers, he's seen you with that widow, what's her name?
Jesus: Judith. Aren't you afraid God will paralyse you if you lift that
That your arm will wither, that you'll lose all strength?
John Dominic Crossan: When I was studying all this anthropology stuff
over here and trying also to decide what was the earliest texts from the
Jesus tradition, I began to get all sorts of stuff about eating coming up.
And to be honest with you, I didn't have a clue what to do with it in the
beginning. Because being a fairly well fed westerner all my life, food was
never really high on my consciousness, it was always there, you just took it
for granted. So it was really the anthropology that helped me understand why
maybe food was important. So I began to focus on the text where Jesus tells
his companions, I am not saying his disciples, I am using an equal term, his
companions, to go out and do the same thing that he was doing, to go do it, 'Go
out and heal those with whom you eat, and eat with those whom you heal, and
announce that the Kingdom of God has come among you.' Now notice, by the way,
there is nothing here about handouts at the door. This is not a kingdom of
beggars, there is something else going on here. So this was something which
jumped out at me, it didn't quite fit, it wasn't just a saying of Jesus', it
was a saying about doing, it cut across this distinction of the words of
Jesus, the deeds of Jesus. This was 'go do it' stuff. So let me look at that
text for a moment, and the heart of it is that dyad of eating and healing.
Now, remember my whole context. The context is the commercialisation of Lower
Galilee under Herod Antipas. What did that do? From anthropology and history
the suggestion was that it tore the fabric of peasant society apart, tore
apart the safety nets that protected the kinship, security of the small
villages. Therefore it affected families, therefore what it was doing is
(this is a terrible word I learned from the anthropologist) it expanded the
expendables. It expanded the expendables. The expendables are that 5% in
normal times of cheap labour that's always there because they're desperate,
expanded them maybe from 5% to up to 15%. An example would be when Jesus
tells a story of the owner who goes in at vineyard time at the harvesting
time in the vineyard, and he can go in to the marketplace at what, 6 o'clock,
9 o'clock, 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock and 5 o'clock and still find labourers there
waiting. Just what the owner wants. Cheap labour, available even at 5 o'clock
so he can sort of inch away through the day, not spend an extra cent, cheap
labour. Lots of expendables. So that's the general background.
Now Jesus tells people first of all to go out and go do what he's doing. I
want to stop there for a second. It's very easy to imagine Jesus setting up
at Nazareth which is I'm quite certain what the family would have wanted him
to do. We have here a powerful healer, just what we want. Settle down at
Nazareth and the family will broker you to the countryside. It will be good
for us, it will be good for the town, the village, the hamlet, it will be
good all round. Settle down. Peter probably wanted the same thing at
Capernaum, settle down. You notice that story in Mark's gospel where Jesus is
a highly successful healer and Peter of course wants him to settle down.
Jesus keeps moving around. Jesus keeps moving. The movement itself is a
symbolic statement of the non-hierarchical, non-localisation of place. To
keep moving is to deny the hierarchy of place, which is to deny the hierarchy
all the way down the line. He doesn't settle down and tell people 'Go out and
bring people to me. I am the kingdom, I have the kingdom, I am the monopoly.'
You want the kingdom, you take it to people. So that's the first thing.
The second thing is this dyad of eating and healing. And I'm going to put
that in terms of another diad, the poor and the destitute. The poor are
probably the ordinary peasants, they would probably call themselves poor,
that is, they're living at subsistence level, most of their surplus being
taken by taxes and everything else. They are the poor, and they might well be
proud of themselves. 'We are the hardworking poor, not them idle rich.'
But the destitute, everyone knew exactly what they were, destitute meant the
beggars. And Jesus is always talking about the destitute. Every time in your
New Testament you find the word 'poor', cross it out and put in the word
'destitute'. The Greek have two very simple words 'penes' which means 'poor',
'penury' in English; and 'tokas', 'tokas' means 'destitute', and they knew
very clearly the difference because the difference between somebody who still
has the family farm and is making it just from year to year and somebody who
has lost the family farm, or been pushed off it.
So Jesus tells these people to go out and interact at the lowest two levels
of peasant society as it has been ripped apart. The line between the poor and
the destitute. Now when I find Jesus talking about the destitute, I'm not
hearing it all some sort of a general de-localised, generic interest in
beggars. And it's almost condescending to Judaism to hint that they'd needed
a Jesus to tell them about compassion. We're not talking about compassion at
all, we're talking about this fall-off, if you will, of the poor into the
destitute, and trying to bring back together from its lowest levels upwards,
this peasant society which has been ripped apart from commercialisation. To
put together facing one another, maybe at an open door, as it were, the poor
and the destitute; the itinerants and the householders; those who need
healing, and those who need eating. And notice in all of this the focus on
the body. Eating and healing. It's not 'go out and give them a sermon', it's
not 'go out and tell them about heaven after they die', it's 'go out and
talking about bringing together eating and healing, taking back control of
our own bodies.'
Rachael Kohn: I guess finally, I mean one could say that you're
reading Jesus in a very selective way, in a way that he comes up smelling
like roses. Do you ever have twinges of conscience that perhaps your Jesus is
too culturally comfortable for you?
John Dominic Crossan: I don't really have twinges of conscience as
long as this is held. Jesus was executed. That's one of the things I'm surest
about. He wasn't just lynched by an angry mob. Official Roman authority, and
I don't think Pilate was a monster, he was a second-class governor, and he
wasn't a very nice person, but even to waste a squad on an execution, on the
public execution which was crucifixion, meant that the governor had made a
decision what this man is doing is not only dangerous, but it is publicly
dangerous. It's necessary to make a public exhibition of this, as distinct
from simply slitting his throat and throwing him over the wall of a prison.
Jesus was executed by normal Roman authority. Now that's where I start. So
either I then conclude that the Romans were a particularly cruel people, of
course, who just killed just about anyone, or Pilate was a complete idiot. Or
I presume that Pilate got it right, that what Jesus was doing was subversive
to the normalcy of the Roman Empire.
Now I don't think the Roman Empire was particularly cruel or anything else,
if anything it was too multicultural, that was its weakness. So Jesus today
that I have to imagine, is a Jesus who would be in the normalcy of our world,
executed maybe, but we don't execute people, I'm talking now from the point
of view of the States, we tend to assassinate people like that, or if we
don't we simply marginalise them. Oprah would have all those who think they
are Messiah on her show, and we'd have six people who all claimed to be the
Messiah, and we'd have got rid of Jesus and laughed him out of town. So as
long as the Jesus that I'm hearing is there, I don't find him very
This is a Jesus who is criticising the systemic evil of normal life, not the
systemic evil of the peculiarly "atrociously evil Roman Empire which
thank God, nobody has ever been like in the whole history of the world".
That would be comfortable. Even an apocalyptic Jesus that says some day in
the future God is going to do something, I can be quite comfortable with
that. This is a Jesus that says 'You take a good look at normalcy, it's
violent, and if you take a good look at the normal violence of life, the
normal violence of life, God's on the other side.' I don't feel particularly
comfortable with that, I really don't. I would much prefer a Jesus who said,
'You have to give one-tenth of everything you have to the poor', that's
compassion. That I can do. Systemic justice is far trickier stuff, because
it's bigger than we are. Injustice on an individual level you can say, 'Well
I try not to be unjust', and that's very good. But systemic injustice is what
we usually think of as normalcy. Most decent Romans, and I mean decent
Romans, would have looked around their empire and said, 'It's the best thing
that's come down the pipe for a long time, it's really pretty decent. Look at
the booming economy. We have peace, we got rid of the pirates, we got the
roads safe from brigands. This is a really nice place to be.' And Jesus said
it's not the Kingdom of God. Oops. It isn't? For millions of people, it was.
So I find that highly subversive, I don't find the Jesus that I'm thinking of
comfortable, and I can be absolutely comfortable with an apocalyptic Jesus
because he was simply wrong. As long as he's wrong I don't worry about him,
and basically everyone else who was announcing in the year 2000 at midnight,
the end of the world is coming, I expect them to be wrong. Now if they're
right of course, I'll be very uncomfortable that night. But as long as
everyone for 2000 years has been wrong about the apocalypse, I can be quite
comfortable with it. It's space fiction.
Rachael Kohn: Dominic Crossan it's been great talking to you. Thank
you forbeing on The Spirit of Things.
John Dominic Crossan: Thank you very much Rachael, my pleasure.
Rachael Kohn: John Dominic Crossan, Emeritus Professor of DePaul
University in the United States, is the author of The Birth of
Christianity published by Harper Collins in Australia. And he's author of
several other works on Jesus, including Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography.
The Spirit of Things is produced by me and Geoff Wood, with Technical
Production by John Diamond.
So long from me, Rachael Kohn.
Forwarded by Fr. Claude Mostowik, MSC
MSC Justice Office
to end ‘sin of racism’
By ROBERT J. McCLORY
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
“Racism thrives,” declared the six Illinois Catholic bishops in the first
pastoral letter ever issued by the state’s hierarchy. They urged Catholics to unite
in pledging, “We will not live with the sin of racism any longer.”
But the brief, 1,400-word statement was immediately criticized by some black
Catholics as flimsy and lacking in substance. “This document has as much meat
as a slab of ribs eaten by 100 hungry people,” said Ralph Shaw, a Chicago
permanent deacon and co-publisher of Deliverance, a newsletter on
African-American Catholic issues.
The bishops’ letter, titled “Moving Beyond Racism: Learning to see with the
eyes of Christ,” (signed by the 14 Illinois bishops including the state’s eight
auxiliary bishops) cited the dragging death of an African-American in Texas and
the sexual assault on a Haitian prisoner by Brooklyn police as examples of
extreme racism. It also noted more subtle forms of racist action: realtors who
steer clients along racial lines, police “who routinely profile black drivers”
for checks, “parents who drive by excellent schools with substantial black
enrollment” to register their children at all-white facilities.
At a news conference at a Chicago west side Catholic parish, Cardinal
Francis George said the letter has been in preparation since 1994, but he
noted, “The bishops are sometimes slow to get their act together.” His words
were well chosen, since the letter was presented on April 3, the eve of the
32nd anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The remedies proposed in the letter were modest: People should “pray for an
end to racism,” get to know people of another race, refuse to use biased
language, teach toleration to children, elect public officials who work for
racial justice, avoid investment in companies that support racist policies and
“ask media people to publicize good people and actions in every racial group.”
Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, an African-American and the vice president
of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR the
recommendations were simple and the document “purposely brief” so it could get
“to the heart” of people in the pew. “The average person won’t read a long
letter,” he explained. “We want people to read this one.”
Said Shaw, who facilitated a retreat for Chicago’s black deacons last year,
“We’ve been through all this for years, and there’s nothing here in this
letter. Racism is more than just another problem, and it takes more than a
feather to put a dent in steel.”
Another Chicago activist, Sheila Bourelly, said what’s needed is a plan of
action on racism at the archdiocesan level. “We don’t see any changes
downtown,” she said. “If all your advisers are white, nothing important is
going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago archdiocese announced that a Black Catholic
Convocation of leaders, more than a year in planning, would be held next Nov. 3
and 4 at Chicago’s Loyola University. The city will also host the next National
Black Catholic Congress in 2002.
National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000