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A Christian review and response to John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus

A Review of

John Dominic Crossan’s

The Historical Jesus

By Anthony Horvath


While in Strasbourg attending the Apologetics Academy under Dr. Montgomery we spent a fair bit of time talking about ‘the historical Jesus’ and scholarship on the subject both in the past and in recent times. I decided that further study in that area would be beneficial. For that reason, I chose to review John Dominic Crossan’s 507 page The Historical Jesus. This review will summarize Dr. Crossan’s methodology and his conclusions, present a handful of criticisms that have been made by other scholars, and then conclude with criticism by this writer.


Summary Introduction:

Dr. Crossan makes specific emphasis in the beginning of his book about the need to start with an appropriate methodology. He intends, he explains, to tie his conclusions that methodology. For that reason, first his methodology will be summarized and then his conclusions.

Summary of Crossan’s Methodology:

Dr. Crossan begins his prologue into the question of ‘the Historical Jesus’ by saying, “Historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke” (Crossan xxvii). He reflects on a presidential address by Daniel J. Harrington, of the Catholic Biblical Association, which offers short descriptions on seven different ‘historical’ Jesuses. There is Jesus as a political revolutionary, as a magician, as a Galilean charismatic, as a Galilean rabbit, as a “Hillelite or proto-Pharisee,” as an Essene, and as an Eschatological prophet. Crossan admits, “It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography” (Crossan xxviii).

It is in light of this situation that Crossan decides to adopt a methodology that he hopes will be free from such suspicion. He proposes a methodology that is as objective as can be. He refers to his methodology as a ‘triple triadic’ process.

“The first triad,” he says, “involves the reciprocal interplay of a macrocosmic level using cross-cultural and cross-temporal social anthropology, a mesocosmic level using Hellenistic or Greco-Roman history, and a microcosmic level using the literature of specific sayings and doings, stories, and anecdotes, confessions and interpretations concerning Jesus. All three levels, anthropological, historical, and literary, must cooperate fully and equally for an effective synthesis” (Crossan xxviii). In the first triad of his methodology he aims, then, to balance what can be known of the region during ancient times from literary and anthropological studies as well as historical inquiry. Because of the scarcity of data available for each contention at all three levels, he insists that careful analysis will have to be done for each part of the triad in order to generate a reasonable synthesis.

His second triad “focuses specifically on [the] textual problem derived from the very nature of the Jesus tradition itself” (Crossan xxxi). In other words, the four Gospels pose problems for him if he wants to be objective. In order to resolve this issue in order to use the Gospels and other early documents related to Christianity he aims to deal with the texts on three levels: inventory, stratification, and attestation.

Inventory refers specifically to entering in all texts, both intracanonical and extracanonical, for use in his work. Each of the texts “must be placed in their historical situation and literary relationship not because that eliminates controversy but so that a reader knows where one stands on every issue” (Crossan xxxi).

Stratification involves placing “each source or text in a chronological sequence so that the reader knows what is being dated from, say, 30 to 60, 60 to 80, 80 to 120, and 120 to 150 CE” (Crossan xxxi). He points to his inventory at the back of his book to find his estimated datings for the documents used in his analysis.

Attestation ‘loops back to the inventory’ and places a higher level of credibility to passages from the texts that are referenced in more than one place. He says, “The fundamental word there is independent” (Crossan xxxi). He returns to this problem in his discussion on his third triad.

In the third triad, he aims to establish which documents or passages are to be reliably used. In the first place, he is concerned with the sequence of strata. Those in the first stratum are deemed to be more reliable than those that follow. He notes that “Chronologically close does not, of course, mean historically more accurate” (Crossan xxxii). Nonetheless, he argues, it is a fair method.

In the second place, he is concerned with a hierarchy of attestation. Essentially, having restricted himself to the first or primary stratum, he is now concerned with giving emphasis to texts that are multiply corroborated or attested. He reasons, “Something found in at least two independent sources from the primary stratum cannot have been created by either of them. Something found there but only in single attestation could have been created by that source itself. Plural attestation in the first stratum pushes the trajectory back as far as it can go with at least formal objectivity” (Crossan xxxii-xxxiii).

This leads to the third part of his third triad, bracketing of singularity. If a source, even a first stratum source, is not attested by at least one other independent source, it will not be permitted to influence his analysis. Aware of how many passages this will eliminate as sources to use to draw his conclusions, he hastens to add, “Let me insist here, again, on the distinction between theory and method. I agree that, in theory, a unit found only in a single source from the third stratum might be just as original as one found in fivefold independent attestation from the first stratum” (Crossan xxxiii). However, in interests of ‘objectivity’ he will decline to make use of such material as a principle of methodology. He acknowledges that this may not help him escape all charges of subjectivity but insists that if anyone wishes to reject his assertions and ‘formal moves,’ they should “replace them with better ones” (Crossan xxxiv).


Summary of Conclusions

His Methodology Applied

        True to his promise, Crossan proceeds to operate according to his methodology. He begins with his anthropological analysis. Pages 3 thru 88 essentially explore the Roman world, of which Palestine was a part of, if not by direct rule, at least sharing in anthropological similarities due to its relation to ‘the Great Sea.’

        This exploration involves looking at Palestine in light of the social strata throughout the region. This means looking at the ‘patron’ society, evaluating the relationships between slaves and patrons and those in between. This means looking at issues of wealth and poverty and that time period’s reaction to them, in particular by examining the traveling ‘prophet’ of the time, the ‘cynic.’ And with the cynic, of course, you must look at the stoic.

        Pages 89 thru 224 are more concerned at looking at the historical data that can inform the question. Josephus receives special attention, but so does Tacitus. He will also turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls for insight into questions like the ‘Sons of Righteousness” or the ‘Son of Man.’ He makes it clear, especially with Josephus, that it won’t do to simply dismiss such works merely because it is argued that they are biased sources. He says “It will not do, therefore, to dismiss Josephus as a Flavian flunky and doubting everything he says, pick and choose what suits one’s own concerns. Neither will it do to dismiss him as a Jewish traitor” (Crossan 96). Instead, he aims to evaluate passages fairly, and while that means sometimes playing a source ‘against themselves,’ you can still derive usable source material for analysis.

        In these two sections, more or less covering the elements of his first triad in his ‘objective’ methodology, he covers a great deal of ground discussing the way various groups within societies at the time in the region behaved in relation to each other. He discusses banditry, magicians, prophets, government, peasants, peasant resistance to oppression, and oppression’s tactics. It is here worth noting that very little, if anything, has been said about Jesus in particular throughout these sections.

        Finally, on page 225 we begin to hear about Jesus. Because of Crossan’s self-limiting in regards to the material that he will allow himself to use, only certain texts really are multiply attested. As a consequence, the bulk of his analysis centers on just one area of Jesus’ teachings, those of the Kingdom. He interprets this material largely in light of what he believes is the distinguishing difference between Jesus and other ‘magicians,’ and that is the principle of ‘Open Commensality.’

        He describes ‘Open Commensality’ in light of the parable of The Feast, which is multiply attested from the Gospel of Thomas and Luke 14 :15-24 (and Matthew 22:1-13, but as he considers Luke and Matthew as derived from a common ‘Q’ this only counts as one source). In his analysis,

“…in itself, to invite the outcasts for a special meal is a less socially radical act than to invite anyone found on the streets. It is that ‘anyone’ that negates the very social function of table, with whom one eats. It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. One could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, ranks, and grades al mixed up together. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision” (Crossan 262).

        He asserts that the accusation that will quickly surface (based on his anthropological and historical discussions earlier) is that “Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discrimination. He has no honor. He has no shame” (Crossan 262).

        He goes on to list seven other sets of texts (which he calls ‘complexes’) around this principle, most of which are only doubly-attested and in about half of these cases the second source is the Gospel of Thomas. This ‘open commensality’ permeates Jesus’ teaching, including the teachings of the Kingdom of God, which he explores after describing ‘open commensality.’

        From here, Crossan expounds on these themes, connecting Jesus to sociological trends such as banditry and magicians, discussing how Jesus’ ministry received the response it did by authorities as being perceived by them to belong in those categories. His chapter “Magic and Meal,” which he thinks to be one of the most important of his chapters in this book, includes an interesting analysis of the attestation involved in a so called ‘Gospel of Miracles.’ He finds that while there are multiply attested miracle accounts, there isn’t enough evidence to warrant the view that there was a ‘Gospel of Miracles’ floating around to serve as source material behind some of the documents in the first stratum. In other words, in so many words, and not explicitly, Crossan asserts the success of Jesus’ ministry, and the persecution that would rain down on him, had more to do with Jesus’ threat to the establishment (‘open commensality’) than with the alleged miracles.

This leads to an analysis of demon possession which is again understood anthropologically. He says, for example, “In discussing Jesus’ exorcisms, therefore, two factors must be kept always in mind. One is the almost schizoid position of a colonial people… [] Another is that colonial exorcisms are at once less and more than revolution; they are, in fact, individuated symbolic revolution” (Crossan 317-318).


More or less, then, Crossan leaves the distinct impression that he feels that Jesus’ life and ministry can be understood without thinking that any of the supernatural elements that appear in the texts might be actually true. One can see that clearly enough by the very title of Crossan’s section that finally speaks to the resurrection: “Resurrection and Authority.”

In other words, he believes that the resurrection accounts have more to do with the disciples creating for themselves the authority to continue preaching Jesus’ ‘open commensality’ message. The clearest expression of this is found on page 404 where he says, “The thesis of this chapter is that the ‘nature’ miracles of Jesus are actually creedal statements about ecclesiastical authority, although they all have as their background Jesus’ resurrectional victory over death, which is, of course, the supreme ‘nature’ miracle.” While this does indeed seem to be the thesis of this particular chapter, it took some ten pages to hear it, and one feels lucky to have it expressed this explicitly.

With all of this material out of the way, we finally hear Crossan’s conclusion about who he thinks the historical Jesus is in the Epilogue with this title: “A Peasant Jewish Cynic” (Crossan 421). Here we find the clearest statements on what Crossan himself thinks his conclusions are. Jesus has been interpreted, he says, not along the lines of ‘elite, literary, and sophisticated philosophical synthesis’ like Philo of Alexandria. “It is, rather, the peasant, oral, and popular philosophical praxis of what might be termed, if adjective and noun are given equal weight, a Jewish Cynicism” (Crossan 421). He opts not to explain further about what a cynic is, pointing the reader to his chapter on that subject.

He also points to the book’s second part, saying that it “suggested a fivefold popular typology against a backdrop of first-century Palestinian peasant turmoil. It ranged from the human violence of the bandit leader, through the human and divine violence of the messianic claimant, to the exclusively divine violence of the millennial prophet, and the nonviolence of the protestor. But it also contained the magician, a type barely discernable behind and despite later rabbinical prophylaxis. Jesus is closest to that fifth type rather than to, say, a millennial or apocalyptic prophet like John the Baptist” (Crossan 421).

It may be worth noting that Crossan implies heavily that Jesus was initially a follower of John the Baptist but when John’s message was falsified by his beheading, Jesus took up the message and tweaked it for new use. (Pages 227 thru 264, chapter titled “John and Jesus.”)

He re-asserts, “The historical Jesus was, then, a peasant Jewish cynic” (Crossan 421).

At this point, he aims to offer some connection between his conclusions about who the historical Jesus was and the extraordinary rise of Christianity. It would be safe to say that it was the message of ‘open commensality’ that Crossan is referring to when he says “It took both the ideological orientation and practical missionary experience of inclusive Judaism as well as the enabling vision and abiding presence of Jesus to create that effect” (Crossan 422). Without either aspect, it is implied, Christianity would not have enjoyed its ‘swift spread.’ What may strike the reader of this paper as another possible reason, that Jesus actually rose from the dead, is never mentioned. Indeed, the word ‘resurrection’ does not occur at all in his concluding statements about who Jesus is, why he was important, or how Christianity spread.


Analysis by other Scholars

Dr. Gary Habermas

Dr. Gary Habermas invests a whole section of his book on the Historical Jesus to an analysis of the arguments of the Jesus Seminar, a most prominent member of which is John Dominic Crossan. It should be noted that this section does not speak specifically to the work under review in this paper but rather to Crossan’s general thought, which of course, is fully represented in Crossan’s The Historical Jesus.

Habermas takes aim at the anti-supernaturalistic bias exhibited by the Jesus Seminar and its members. He says, “Some members of the Jesus Seminar, following other more radical scholars, appear to echo views like those of Bultmann. Regarding Jesus’ miracles, Seminar Co-Founder John Dominc Crossan asserts that Jesus ‘did not and could not cure that disease or any other one…’ He continues later: ‘I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.’” Habermas is quoting Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, page 82.

While this anti-supernaturalism forms an important part of Crossan’s analytic pre-suppositions, it is not something that Crossan mentions in his discussion of his methodology.

Later, Habermas cites from Crossan’s The Historical Jesus itself, pointing out that from an evidential point of view, the methodologies employed do not keep Crossan and the other members of the Jesus Seminar from concluding that Jesus really did die on the cross. The evidence for the miracles, including the resurrection, are at least as good as these, but are denied. Crossan even goes so far as to suggest that Jesus’ burial is wrapped in ambiguity, but again, the evidence for this is at least as good as the crucifixion (Habermas page 126, citing in particular Crossan’s The Historical Jesus at pages 391-394).

Habermas offers a nine fold critique of this position from the evidence. He points out that 1. All four Gospels agree on the basic burial scenario. 2. No early documents dispute those reports. 3. Crossan expects us to believe that the people who took special effort to kill Jesus would take no interest in Jesus’ burial. 4. Crossan expects us to believe that the soldiers would have forgotten where the body had been buried, only days earlier. 5. The Jewish polemic against the Christian message admitted Jesus’ burial and the empty tomb. 6. Very early, first stratum evidence points to an empty tomb. If the story was a late invention, 7. Why would women be used as the initial witnesses as that would embarrass the story? 8. Jesus’ burial is supported by other first stratum material, like 1 Corinthians 15, and finally, 9. the apostles’ early preaching occurred right in Jerusalem, the scene of Jesus’ death, and with Jesus’ killers still present to refute the claims (Habermas ???).

Habermas targets in particular Crossan’s analysis about ‘nature miracles’ and the association of the resurrection with apostolic authority. Habermas sums up Crossan’s argument (as I did earlier in the paper) and then offers 3 separate criticisms.

1. Most importantly, says Habermas, Crossan really “has not established his socio-political scheme as a central theme in the early church. Interpreting references in light of a secondary construction is far from proving it to be the original intent of the authors” (Habermas 131).

2. Even granting Crossan’s theme ‘of power, authority, and leadership’ as being important, “his de-emphasis of the facticity of Jesus’ resurrection simply does not follow.” I noted in my summary that in Crossan’s discussion of the rise of Christianity the word ‘resurrection’ was not even used. Habermas continues, “Without this event, what is the basis of the claim to authority on behalf of the other two leaders specified by Crossan, namely Peter and James?” (Habermas 132)

3. Habermas points out that the resurrection was the central theme behind the entire Christian message, including even questions of church authority. “In other words, the resurrection is absolutely central to the New Testament as a whole. It is related to far more than just socio-political factors in the early church, but this does not justify making any one of these other themes the chief focus, either” (Habermas 133). Habermas points out that even a summary listing of passages pointing to the centrality of the resurrection would take a separate chapter.

4. and 5. Habermas takes Crossan to task for not even attempting to deal with this data in the first place. Crossan passes over the resurrection accounts indicating that there probably were ‘trances and visions” but that even if there were, these are common in every religion. Here Habermas cites writings of Crossan’s that are not the one under review in this paper.

If a summary could be made of Habermas’s objections to Crossan’s treatment of the historical Jesus, it would be simply that Crossan doesn’t even bother to consider a possible Jesus as portrayed by the church since its inception, one that performed real miracles, drove out real demons, really died, and really rose, even if the evidence is as strong for these things as for others that Crossan does treat.


Dr. William Craig

The following reference also does not speak explicitly to Crossan’s The Historical Jesus but is a criticism of the Jesus Seminar, an organization that Crossan is an integral part of. Thus, the criticisms made by Dr. Craig in this article can be extended to Crossan’s book. The reference is an article called “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar.”

Craig takes many of the same views as Habermas but is more explicit in this article about his criticism of the methodology and presuppositions employed by the Jesus Seminar rather than specific areas of contention. Like Habermas, Craig leads off on the anti-supernaturalism of the Jesus Seminar: “Now this presupposition constitutes an absolute watershed for the study of the gospels. If you presuppose naturalism, then things like the incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, and his resurrection go out the window before you even sit down at the table to look at the evidence. As supernatural events, they cannot be historical” (Craig 1998). In short, a historical inquiry into who Jesus was that begins by tossing out the most remarkable material is bound to be skewed in obvious directions.

Next, Craig invests some time tackling the Jesus Seminar’s use of the apocryphal materials, such as the Gospel of Thomas. At issue, in particular, is the primacy that is given to these documents. Crossan makes wide use of such documents as one of his sources to be used for independent attestation, which Craig notes. Craig invests time on the question of whether or not such documents should be thought of as primary, but offers this overall objection:

“One of the strangest aspects of Crossan’s reasoning is that he seems to have completely forgotten about the Apostle Paul. Even if Crossan were right about the Gospel of Peter’s being primary, its testimony would still be independently confirmed by the writings of Paul, who refers to Jesus’ burial and even lists the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Thus, even if the account of the resurrection in the Gospel of Peter were foundational to the four gospels, there’s no historical reason to deny the resurrection” (Craig 1998).

Craig’s third argument speaks to his perception that the Jesus Seminar strives to construct a politically correct religion. This may or may not be true of Crossan, but as this particular section of Craig’s essay references instead Marcus Borg almost exclusively it is perhaps best not to import that into this review. Similarly, the section on the pretensions of the Jesus Seminar doesn’t apply to this particular book, so it shall be set aside.

In summary of Craig’s views, an objective approach to the quest for the historical Jesus would not presume that the supernatural elements were mythological or fabricated. Such a viewpoint leads Crossan and others to give heavier emphasis on certain Gnostic documents that de-emphasize the miraculous- but this is against the evidence.

Scholars Less Critical

It stands to reason that other members of the Jesus Seminar would be supportive of the book and approve of its conclusions. For example, Marcus Borg says in the front, “Brilliant, the most important book about Jesus in decades.”

Martin Marty offers a longer statement in the front of Crossan’s book, concluding with “What [Crossan is] doing adds color to the interpretation of the faith rather than being a displacement of it.”

Dr. Marty’s statement will be one that will be returned to in my own analysis, which follows.



It is possible to find good things to say about Crossan’s The Historical Jesus. Unfortunately, the negative things will vastly out-weigh the positive things. A relatively brief survey of some of these positive elements won’t hurt.

In the first place, it can be said that it is certainly a good idea to try to employ a methodology that aims to be objective. The general honesty in explaining that methodology is one that is appreciated, as not all writers are as honest.

In the second place, Crossan’s work serves as a serious challenge to those skeptics and modern day cynics that would attempt to make the argument that Jesus did not even exist. By arguing only from multiply attested independent sources under the argument that “Something found in at least two independent sources from the primary stratum cannot have been created by either of them” and then concluding with a catalog of 29 multiply attested ‘complexes,’ 36 triple independently attested ‘complexes,’ and 66 double independently attested ‘complexes’ for a sum total of 131 sets of passages from the first stratum alone that speak at least to Jesus historicity. Naturally, if one is skeptical of some of the attestations that come from some of the Gnostic writings that number falls, but it does not fall so far that it is still not striking. The evidence for Jesus existence is quite good.

It should be added that the cataloging of these ‘complexes’ is one of the most valuable aspects of the book, because each of the ‘stratums’ are given with a list of the ‘complexes’ and these are all categorized by how well attested they are, and which documents contribute to that attestation. That could come in handy to be used against Crossan himself.

In the last place, Crossan does raise some interesting points about some passages. His discussion on the Daniel references to the ‘Son of Man,’ though not anything I would agree with in the main, was informative. Possibly his discussion about the real nature of ‘faith like a mustard seed,’ drawing as he does from Pliny, could provide a new look at an old parable. There are bits like this scattered throughout the book.

However, these positive points are not enough to save the book or the positions taken within it.

A word, first, about the honesty in expressing one’s methodology. I offered the modifier ‘general’ because, as Habermas and Craig point out, Crossan is proceeding from a distinctly anti-supernaturalistic bias. However, this is not something that Crossan ever directly speaks to. He certainly does not reference it in his section introducing his methodology. He politely asks the readers, if they reject his methodology or his conclusions derived from it, to suggest a new one. I shall take him up on this offer and suggest that a truly objective approach won’t flatly dismiss the historical evidences for the supernatural a priori. It may end up that the historical evidences are very weak. Nonetheless, for a person like Jesus where the texts are all bound up in the miraculous, it is hard to imagine a truly objective treatment that does not deal with them. This failure to admit from the outset that this naturalistic bias is at the bottom of one’s methodology is one of the most damaging things that I can note since obviously the rest of the book rises and falls on that methodology.

That naturalistic bias almost certainly molded some aspects of the methodology itself. In his first triad Crossan aims to bring to bear sociological and anthropological studies that will help illuminate who the historical Jesus really was. Why are such studies necessary, exactly? In large part they are necessary because what has to be accounted for when generating a valid portrayal of the historical Jesus is the massive support that Jesus appears to have received. Jesus amassed a following and a reputation. After his death, scores upon scores of people submitted themselves to the authority of the apostles (I am here retaining Crossan’s notion that the ‘resurrection’ was an ecclesiastical ploy) and many of these people, along with the apostles, would be slaughtered for the name of Christ. Surely this requires an explanation that can be traced back to the historical Jesus but if one has decided not to admit the possibility of the miraculous- which seems to form a large part of the textual record- then where else is there to look at? One must look somewhere! Crossan’s solution is to look to the anthropological studies, and things of that sort.

There is no reason why anthropological studies and similar explorations of the life and times of the Mediterranean should not be admitted into a consideration of the historical Jesus. If, however, the solution to Jesus’ appeal is restricted to such areas a priori, there is a clear problem. It is no wonder, then, that Crossan spends pages 3 thru 226 talking about anything but the historical Jesus. Indeed, the word ‘Jesus’ hardly ever appears, and instead we learn about all sorts of interesting things like cynics and stoics and bandits and magicians and things of this sort. I confess to being a bit steamed, really, that I invested 225 pages of reading in a book on the historical Jesus and didn’t hear a peep about Jesus the whole time.

One could almost understand the emphasis on these studies if pages 226 thru 426 were going to make explicit use of the studies, but the truth is that in reality they did not. There were occasional allusions every fifteen to twenty pages or so, and that was about it. The conclusion at this point is already foregone- Jesus is no more than a really successful traveling cynic of some kind who happened to have a unique and compelling message. He doesn’t even have to say it. 200 pages of discourse on such issues makes it clear what he is going to conclude, even if you have to wait until page 421 to actually hear it.

This, then, is the weakness in the whole affair. Crossan is driven to such studies in order to explain why Jesus was remarkable but when it comes to actually demonstrating the links he alleges between Jesus and these peasant-type cynics, there is little he can say. He is forced to more or less proceed in his evaluation of what the texts actually say and where possible- and it is rarely possible- tie back to his other material.

I think I would feel far less cheated if he had condensed his 226 pages of anthropological studies into about 20. The mere fact that he is driven to such material because of his anti-supernaturalistic bias doesn’t mean that there is anything necessarily to be demonstrated from these studies. No one would challenge those studies, not even in this context. What would be challenged, specifically, is whether or not they really help define and describe who the historical Jesus is. Thus, he could have laid out a series of insights and propositions derived from the first triad of his methodology and then invested 200 pages into demonstrating the link between them and Jesus. Then, the last 200 pages could have been devoted to more fruitful things than what we actually received. And if the reader of this paper of mine thinks that I have droned on quite long enough, imagine how I felt reading page after page about social hierarchies and peasant rebellions. And if the reader of this paper is expecting me to draw this to a high conclusion, imagine how I felt emerging from his sociological analysis with a hardly peep about it in the 200 pages that followed it.

That makes this a good time to return to Martin Marty’s comment, which was: “What [Crossan is] doing adds color to the interpretation of the faith rather than being a displacement of it.”

Does, it really? Exactly what interpretation are we thinking about here? There is a sense in which Crossan’s work certainly is not a displacement of the faith. Crossan’s work, beginning, as it does, with an unspoken assumption that there is no substance at all to the faith, can’t possibly displace it. Only a work which aims to address the merits of the faith on its own terms could succeed in displacing it, and then only if it showed that faith to rest on shaky foundations. This work offers no such threat and as such I, as a Christian, do not feel threatened in the slightest. But does it ‘add color to the interpretation of the faith’?

I will have to part company with Dr. Marty on that contention. While it is conceivably helpful to understand some of the broader social dimensions that helped fuel Jesus’ huge popularity, I do not think that an inquiry into those issues that ignores in principle even the possibility that Jesus was exactly who he said he was adds any color worth retaining. Certainly, one could get these other social elements without Crossan.

This leads to my next salvo against Crossan’s methodology. I have more or less shown why I think his first ‘triad’ is flawed. This criticism applies equally to his second and third triads. Crossan asserts that he is aiming for objectivity and it is for this reason that he will only use multiply attested primary stratum material. But does this really constitute an objective approach? We have addressed the problem of having a latent anti-supernaturalistic bias, but what about the a priori rejection of the mass of material that is being left out?

And, for that matter, is it really reasonable and objective to give documents that have been classified as spurious for more than a thousand years the same sort of credibility as the canonical material, or even Q? It would seem to me that the judgment of the early Christians and the continuing affirmation of that judgment should at least place the singly attested elements of the Gospels on the par of the spurious Gnostic documents. It would be as though we had to construct our history of the Holocaust by admitting the writings of the Holocaust deniers, which are categorically rejected by nearly everyone, and then eliminate as data any accounts by witnesses that could not be directly attested by someone else. Sure, perhaps the fact that there were furnaces at one concentration camp was multiply attested, but what about this account of that guard, or that account of this event? Shall all these be dismissed but the Holocaust deniers’ data gets near full entry, at least on the matters that it too is multiply attested to? Would this be an objective historical undertaking?


Surely in this scenario it would be recognized immediately that it is entirely possible that some independent but unverifiable accounts may be fabrications, but if they have been generally validated somehow they are at least worthy of consideration into a historical judgment that aims to be comprehensive and determinative. The front of Crossan’s book asserts that the book is to be “The first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said.” But we would not use Crossan’s methodology to determine the historicity of other persons or events in history. We certainly could not and would not go so far as to classify it as a ‘comprehensive determination.’

It may be objected that bringing to bear the judgment of the church is to introduce a group of people who are themselves hopelessly biased so that all hopes of objectivity are lost. However, Crossan indicated that he was able to use Josephus, even ‘against himself,’ in order to arrive at judgments he thought were worthy. Just as some explanation for why Jesus would become so popular and inspire a following immediately following his death that dwarfed his following before his death is required, so too is an explanation for why certain documents and not others quickly gained favor among these followers. This question is not addressed at all, though we could imagine Crossan devoting another 200 pages of anthropological study on the question if he had. But if he had addressed it, he would probably have been able to apply the same discerning eye as he had with Josephus.

This would no doubt have opened up a great deal more of the texts for consideration. True, it still does not overcome the anti-supernatural unspoken bias, and perhaps it never could, but I suspect that this in itself would help introduce a level of objectivity that does not exist in this particular book.


It is probably clear that I respond to Crossan’s book as a Christian but it should be noted that this does not mean that my objection to his anti-supernaturalism, which is one of the most foundational objections, means that I take the view that one should assume that supernatural accounts are true by presupposition. I take the view that if one is attempting to come to conclusions about the nature of reality one does not make any assumptions at all, except the assumptions related to our reliance of evidence. Documentary evidence is still evidence, and in this case is positive evidence of the existence of the supernatural. It is unreasonable, therefore, to dismiss this evidence as though it were already known that it were false.

Beyond this, it can be said that Crossan’s desire to be objective are admirable but that his criteria are subjectively discerned and have the result of necessarily generating an incomplete portrayal of who the historical Jesus is. The parameters of such a portrayal are obvious and predictable given the assumptions, unspoken and spoken, that went into the process. It is on the question of assumptions that those like Habermas and Craig focus on when speaking to Crossan and which lumps him into the approaches of the Jesus Seminar at large.

I cannot recommend the book. Not on style, nor on substance. It is too long and unwieldy and the items that make it worthy can certainly be found in other places in more condensed fashion. Its more lasting value is the appendices in the back that have cataloged the views of one prominent Jesus Seminarian on the attestation and stratum of various documents related to Historical Jesus research.



Crossan, John Dominc. 1992. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish

Peasant. HarperSanFrancisco.

Craig, William Lane. 1998. Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Presumptions of the Jesus Seminar. On-Line. Updated 8 November 2005. Available from the Internet, http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover1.html, accessed 3 March 2007.

Habermas, Gary R. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ.

Missouri: College Press Publishing Company.


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