John Dominic Crossan and the Historical Jesus

As part of some research I am doing into the historical Jesus, I just finished reading John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.  Crossan was a part of the controversial Jesus Seminar of a few years ago that voted on the words of Jesus in the Gospels and determined which were authentic.

There were some things about this book that I did like.  I enjoyed Crossan’s overview of Mediterranean life in the first century.  He has a great grasp of the issues and literature from that time period, especially from a Greco-Roman perspective.  I also liked his use of Josephus to try and reconstruct what was happening.  I particularly found helpful his comparison of Josephus’ two works: Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War.  These two books deal with some of the same events but there is some variation in the details.  This helps to put into perspective some of the variations that we find in the accounts found in the Gospels.  If the same author could have some variation in two of his books, how much more appropriate is it that there would be some variation among four different authors?  We need to look at the Gospels not through 21st century western eyes but through first century Jewish eyes.  From that perspective the Gospels fit well into the historical standards of their time period.

Having said that, I do not want to suggest that Crossan portrays an orthodox view of Jesus.  Aside from any difference in beliefs, I thought there were some problems with his methodology.  Crossan only accepted sayings as authentic if they were found in multiple sources.  Even then, Matthew and Luke were not considered two sources as they both relied on the sayings Gospel known as Q.  I am not convinced that a singly attested saying should be considered inauthentic.  I also have a problem with the way Crossan uses his sources.  Most scholars would say Mark is the oldest Gospel, followed by Q (material that Matthew and Luke have in common but absent from Mark), Matthew, Luke and then John.  Crossan includes as being earlier than Mark such texts as Gospel of Thomas (at least the earliest traditions in it), Egerton Gospel, Gospel of the Hebrews, Cross Gospel (cross traditions found in the Gospel of Peter), Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Secret Gospel of Mark.  The problem with this is that some of these texts have no extant fragments, they are all considered much later by most scholars and the Secret Gospel of Mark is considered a hoax by many scholars.  But because Crossan uses these texts in this way, it is no wonder that he ends up with a Jesus significantly different from the biblical picture.

Crossan presents a Jesus that many Christians would be uncomfortable with but his book, The Historical Jesus, is something that scholars interested in this subject must face.  He presents an abundance of sources and traditions that are helpful in understanding this important time period.  Still, his conclusions must be tested against what we find in a fair reading of the Bible and the general consensus that we find in biblical scholarship.

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3 thoughts on “John Dominic Crossan and the Historical Jesus”

  1. Dear Mr. Bedard,
    Great post. I completely agree with your evenhanded assessment of Crossan’s book. Parts were rather well-argued and convincing, others much more tenuous. Plus, fifteen years on, it seems as though (at least to those of us outside the academic fray) the scales are currently tipping in favor of looking for Jewish cultural connections with Christ and the early church over those of Hellenic (and Cynic) culture. For example, the new debate and controversy concerning the “Gabriel’s Revelation” tablet and messianic cults. Is this a correct assertion?
    Furthermore, concerning Crossan, I was rather puzzled by his (seemingly arbitrary) dismissal of most of the canonical Gospels in favor of what I believed were disclaimed texts, simply because of the repetition of motifs (what Crossan terms “attestation”). (Keep in mind I am by no means an expert in New Testament studies, just a dilettante, and new to most of the material.) Is this “attestation” methodology his alone, or more pervasive in Biblical studies? I’d love to hear your general take on the early sources, or perhaps to receive a suggestion for further reading.
    On the same subject, have you read “Is the New Testament Reliable?: A Look at the Historical Evidence” by Paul Barnett? The contrast in argumentation style and results between Crossan and Barnett are intriguing, both for their combined fleshing out of our picture of the historical Christ, as well as the resultant case-study in just how differently the same evidence can be read by two intellects.
    Best,
    Kimberlee

  2. Thanks for your comment. You are right there has been a shift in focus toward the Jewish context of Jesus’ life. E.P. Sanders was important in this trend and it is major part of what is called the third quest for the historical Jesus. What is good about Crossan’s book is that it is a warning to not go too far in a strictly Jewish (or at least Hebrew) context. It is not as clear cut as saying people were either Hellenistic or Jewish. All Jews were Hellenistic to a certain extent (remember even the word “synagogue” is Greek), the question is where on the spectrum of Greek-Hebrew people were. We see some evidence of this in Acts where we find both Hebrew and Greek speaking Jews in Palestine.

    As for the attestation method, that is pretty common, but not Crossan’s way. Crossan uses texts that are generally considered late as if they were more valuable than the canonical Gospels. I would recommend Darrell Bock’s Missing Gospels for the similarities and differences between the canonical and non-canonical Gospels. The way most would use the attestation method, they would look for multiple appearances of sayings or themes in Mark, Q (what is common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark), M (special Matthew material), L (special Luke material) and Paul. It is a useful method but like all methods, it has his limitations.

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