Crossan has set out to write a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus. He is himself a committed Christian, but his book may nevertheless shock many conventional Christians. This is because he is prepared to question his material very radically. "Scholars know, even if the laity does not, that the very Greek text of the New Testament on which any modern translation must be based is itself a reconstruction and the result, however executed, of a scholarly vote in a committee of experts." But Crossan insists that carrying out this work is essential for Christians. "If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in."
The book has three main sections. The first, and shortest, looks at the general nature of first-century society in the Roman Empire. The second focuses on Jewish life at that time within the empire, while the third deals with Jesus himself, though without attempting anything approaching a biography. Throughout the book, Crossan casts his net very widely and draws on material from non-Christian literature, history, and archaeology as well as on the canonical gospels. This approach results in a very complex work and it is difficult to know whom it is intended for. Is Crossan writing for his fellow scholars? Probably. Is he writing for readers, whether Christian or not, who are not professional scholars? Perhaps, because his actual writing style is informal; but I doubt if many non-professionals will read it, since there is simply too much information and not enough sense of direction. Arguments and counterarguments weave their way through the text but it is difficult to discern what Crossan himself thinks about it all.
This lack of clarity appears most strongly in connection with what is surely the most important question facing anyone writing about Jesus: what are we to make of the Resurrection? Crossan discusses the texts in great detail, skirting all round the subject but not saying what he thinks actually happened. I suspect that he is being deliberately circumspect here, because in his later book, The Birth of Christianity, he does state rather more explicitly that "Bodily resurrection has nothing to do with a resuscitated body coming out of its tomb."
Perhaps the most startling idea to emerge from Crossan's account is that we should see Jesus as a kind of Jewish Cynic. The Cynics, Crossan tells us, were "hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies". They looked, dressed, and behaved in ways that challenged the establishment, and Jesus and his followers, Crossan believes, did likewise. The Greco-Roman Cynics, however, were principally urban, whereas Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic. This theory may seem farfetched, but Crossan says that Jesus's peasant village was near enough to a Greco-Roman city like Sepphoris to make it likely that he would have encountered Cynicism. This intriguing idea certainly suggests a new way of thinking about Jesus and his place in the society of his time.
If you want to read a scholarly account of the world in which Jesus lived and the kinds of issues that preoccupy New Testament scholars, this book would be a good place to start; it provides ample references to primary sources, which are quoted extensively. It is, however, likely to baffle the casual reader, who will obtain valuable insights in passing but will probably not emerge with a coherent picture of Jesus or his life. (Crossan has now written an abridged, and more accessible, book about his ideas: see Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography).