Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Was Jesus a Parable? A Review of John Dominic Crossan's New Book

John Dominic Crossan's latest book is a reminder of why I like him so much.

More than any other individual scholar, Dr. Crossan has enabled me to remain in the Christian tradition and to discover a credible Jesus within it.

Does that mean that beyond a doubt his reconstruction of the historical Jesus is "the guy?" No. It could be that the historical Jesus was a deluded apocalyptic fanatic. It could be that the historical Jesus never existed. It could be that the historical Jesus resembled one of or a combination of any variety of portraits that have been painted.

Who knows? That is the point. Nobody knows. I tend to think that Jesus the prophet of distributive justice through non-violence was not only credible then but credible now.   His vision inspired action then and it inspires action now.  His movement was hopeful then. It is hopeful today. That is the Jesus I can preach.  I find it reasonable that a Jesus that can preach in the present also was credible in his own time as someone to follow.

You will find that Jesus in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus by John Dominic Crossan.

His book consists of two parts with an interlude.  In chapters one through six, he discusses the parables that Jesus told.   He describes three types of parables, riddle, example, and challenge.   Dr. Crossan demonstrates that the parables of Jesus were shaped by the gospel writers. 

A riddle is a puzzle to figure out such as when Mark has Jesus tell the parable of the seed that fell into the various types of ground.  The riddle is that each type of ground represents a type of person.   If you have insider information, you will get the riddle.    That is not the way Jesus told the parable.  That is how Mark mis-understood the parables of Jesus.

An example is a parable that teaches behavior such as the way Luke has Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan ("go and do likewise").   An example parable is like a visual aid.  The real point is the exhortation, be good, pray often, don't give up trying, etc.   That is not the way Jesus told the parable.  That is how Luke mis-understood the parables of Jesus.

The preferred type of parable told by Jesus is the challenge parable.  An example of this parable is found in  the stories of Ruth, Jonah, and Job in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Challenge parables are not attacks.   They are not examples or riddles.  They challenge by surprise.

For instance, in the time of Ezra/Nehemiah when Israel was forming itself after the exile, the men were to divorce foreign women (such as Moabite women).   In that context arises the nice story of faithful and courageous Ruth, who by the way, we learn in the last few verses, is the ancestor of David.   What would have happened if Boaz had not married a foreign woman?  No David.

A challenge parable doesn't insist.  It is subtle and therefore, powerful. 
They want to seduce you into thought rather than beat you into silence and batter you into subjection.  p. 137
The "Good Samaritan" is a challenge parable as opposed to Luke's bracketing of it as an example parable.  A "good" Samaritan is an oxymoron.   Pick a category of a person you truly despise as a lifelong or generation after generation enemy and tell a story of that person being good, in fact, better than your own kind.  And do it subtly so that people are forced to think before simply reacting or feeling browbeaten.   That is the artistry of Jesus who both in content and form articulated his kingdom vision.
My answer is that the challenge parables are a profoundly appropriate rhetoric--even, indeed, an absolutely necessary one--for the two aspects of Jesus's vision of that kingdom, namely, its collaborative and nonviolent characteristics.  p. 133
Dr. Crossan sees Jesus announcing that God's kingdom is not a future, supernatural, violent event that God will bring.  Instead it is among you if you will take up the challenge:
Jesus is not just announcing to his audience that God's kingdom is now present.  He is announcing that is only present if and when it is accepted, entered into, and taken upon oneself.  p. 134
Jesus told parables.  He told fictional stories about fictional characters.  We have these stories as they have been collected and retold by the authors of the gospels.  The gospels are parables as well.  They are fictional stories about an historical figure, Jesus.   In the interlude, Dr. Crossan recounts Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.  Is that parable or history?   It is parable, but parable about an historical event.  
The entire earthly life, death by assassination, and heavenly ascension of Julius Caesar were rampant with parabolic history and historical parable.  So were the earthly life, death by execution, and heavenly ascension of Jesus Christ.   p. 152
In Part 2, chapters seven through ten, Dr. Crossan discusses each of the four gospels as megaparables about Jesus.  As opposed to myth, he prefers the term parable.  But what kind of parables are they?   Are they challenge parables in the way that Jesus told challenge parables?  Sometimes.  They are also attack parables.  Such as when Jesus rants and raves about the hypocrites who are all going to hell.  Probably not Jesus.  More likely the gospel writer using Jesus as a mouthpiece to take on his/her own enemies.   At times the gospel writers are consistent with the vision of Jesus and at times not.  Each has a story to tell and a challenge to offer.

Mark's parable is a challenge to the leadership of the Jesus movement who chose the wrong path as seen in the choice of Barabbas over Jesus.  This is parable not history.  History was the choice of violent resistance to Rome by the Jews in 66-70 CE.  That is when Mark is written.  Mark creates the parable of Jesus trial, death, and resurrection as a challenge to leadership to stay in Galilee and choose the non-violent resistance of Jesus as opposed to the violent resistance of Barabbas.

Matthew's parable is an attack parable.  He creates a fantastic portrait of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and then turns him into a raving psychotic in chapter 23.   This attack has unfortunate consequences throughout the centuries against Jews and all others who are "to be cast into outer darkness."

What about Luke-Acts?  Dr. Crossan calls it "an attack on Judaism but also a challenge to Rome."  p. 218   Christianity will have a Roman future.  Luke-Acts paved the way for the eventual marriage of church and empire.  The challenge to Rome was not distributive justice as Jesus preached, but charity. 

John's parable is an attack on Judaism and also Christianity.  It also (like all the gospels) challenge the Roman Empire.  John more than Luke-Acts wants to transform Rome's violence rather than accommodate it.
This book is packed with interesting insights into the gospels and how they shaped the historical Jesus.  It provides a plausible account of a person whose vision and style of articulating that vision created a movement that endured beyond his violent death.  Dr. Crossan's Jesus is a real person even as he has been made into a parable by the gospel writers.  In the epilogue, Dr. Crossan takes on the question of whether or not Jesus existed at all by appealing to external and internal evidence.  
Externally, therefore, two historians at the turn of the first to second century explain "Christ" as the founder of a movement that was not stopped by his execution, but spread in time and place--whether as "an unbroken love" with Josephus or as a "pernicious superstition" with Tacitus.  That is the external proof of the factuality of Jesus, but, for me at least, the internal one is even more decisive.  p. 249
The internal evidence for Dr. Crossan is that Jesus himself morphed from a challenge parable to an attack parable.  The attack escalates from riding a donkey into Jerusalem to riding a war horse in Revelation.
The nonviolent incarnate Jesus has become the violent apocalyptic Jesus.  p. 250
How is that again?
Here is the point:  If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite?  In other words, I find it much more likely that Jesus was an actual historical figure whose radical insistence on nonviolent distributive justice was both accepted and negated by the tradition it engendered.  I conclude that Jesus was an actual, factual, historical figure and not a metaphorical, symbolic, or parabolic invention by his first-century Jewish contemporaries.  p. 251
Dr. Crossan asks one more question.  Would it matter for the Christian faith if Jesus was a fictional character from top to bottom?   Dr. Crossan offers this interesting answer.  If Jesus were real, it means his vision could be enacted:
If it were done, it could be done again--and by others.  That, of course, is the challenge of Jesus as an actual, factual, historical figure.  If any one human being can do anything in life and death, other human beings can do likewise....The power of Jesus's historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.  And if one, why not others?  If some, why not all?  "Ashes denote," wrote Emily Dickinson, "that fire was."  And if fire ever was, fire can be again.  p. 252
I might quibble over this last paragraph.  I think there have been people throughout history who have followed this vision of Jesus in some form or another however imperfectly.   In fact, I think there are people today who do so.  Some may even be reading the words of this blog.   They may or may not do so because Jesus actually existed.  They might have been inspired by the mythos or parable of Jesus, or they may have lived it because they think it is a good way to live.  

I like Crossan's Jesus (with a little mix of Funk, the Five Gospels, Horsley, Herzog, and Wink).  But if he fades into fiction and leaves nothing but a smile, I will have to manage somehow.  And I will.  Until then, this Jesus preaches.  

Bob Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar used to say:   
“Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”
I am pretty sure that goes back to the Historical Funk.  That is good advice.   It is true that Crossan's "peacenik" Jesus is more congenial to me than  Ehrman's "looney" Jesus or Price's "nobody's home" Jesus. 

Does the criterion of congeniality alone make Crossan's Jesus less credible?

Not really.  One could equally redact the Historical Funk to say:
"Beware of finding a Jesus entirely despicable to you."
The Historical Funk was speaking with the assumption that scholars actually liked Jesus.  That assumption no longer holds.  There are scholars whose theology or a-theology would benefit by finding a Jesus who either doesn't exist or is someone few would care to admire let alone follow.   A more reprehensible or non-existent Jesus is not necessarily more historical.     

I think the Jesus of distributive justice reflects a long-standing tradition within human history and literature including the Bible.   I think it is credible that an individual captured that vision and hope and inspired others to do the same.   

1 comment:

  1. John, I want to read this. His earlier book on parables was super.
    You just have to get Paul Verhoeven on your program. Do it. A Jesus who changed his mind, who ran from the law, as confused and conflicted as you or me.