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John Dominic Crossan


A Revolutionary Biography

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

This is mainly an abridged version of the author's earlier book The Historical Jesus, though it also includes some material from The Birth of Christianity, most notably the discussion of the crucifixion. As readers of the earlier books will know, Crossan's view of Christ is a naturalistic one, even though he is a Christian and is professor of biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

Crossan seeks throughout to place Jesus in his historical and sociological context as a first-century Galilean peasant. As in the earlier books, he describes Jesus as a kind of Jewish peasant Cynic. He admits that we cannot know what, if anything, Jesus knew about the Cynics, but he does not see this as important. The similarities are there, he says. Both Jesus and Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism, inaugurated populist movements; both were life-style preachers who put their teachings into practice; both used dress and equipment to symbolize their message dramatically. But there are also differences: Jesus was rural, the Cynics urban; Jesus organized a communal movement, the Cynics followed an individual philosophy; and the Cynic symbolism included a knapsack and staff, whereas Jesus told his followers to carry no knapsack (often translated as "wallet") and no staff.

Crossan dismisses most of the Gospel narrative of the Crucifixion and the events leading up to it as a dramatic fiction. In fact, he suggests, Jesus's first followers knew almost nothing about the details of what happened, and the description was written in order to make the story correspond to prophetic texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. There was no Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus's body was not buried in a tomb; crucified individuals almost never were. Instead, their bodies would be left on the cross or buried in a shallow grave where they would soon be dug up by waiting dogs. This is what would have happened in Jesus's case but "the horror of that brutal truth [was] sublimated by hope and imagination into its opposite."

What, then, of the Resurrection? Crossan sees this as one way of expressing Christian faith, but not the only way. He thinks in terms of an on-going process lasting for years after Jesus's death: the continued experience of the Kingdom of God (a somewhat mysterious concept, which is discussed in the book although I did not form a very clear notion of what Crossan understands by it). Belief in a literal resurrection came partly from Paul, Crossan believes, but it is not normative for Christianity.

Crossan's earlier books were primarily aimed at scholars; this one is intended for non-professional readers, and these will certainly find it more approachable. However, I think the subtitle is rather misleading. It is impossible to write a "biography" of Jesus in the modern sense of the word, and Crossan does not attempt to provide a linear narrative of Jesus's life from birth to death. What we get instead is a series of tableaux or vignettes, in which certain key episodes are analysed in detail. The "revolutionary" claim made in the subtitle is however justified, at least for many Christian readers, who will be likely to find Crossan's views unacceptable; secularists will not be greatly surprised by his conclusions.

%T Jesus
%S A Revolutionary Biography
%A Crossan, John Dominic
%I HarperSanFrancisco
%C Edinburgh
%D 1995
%G ISBN 0-06-061669
%P 209 pp
%K religion, Christianity
%O paperback
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