Crossan, the trials of Jesus, and religious violence

copyright HarperCollins 1995

I really had no idea what I was getting into when I grabbed John Dominic Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus? (1995) from the library shelf.  I was looking for help with my recent blogging of the trials of Jesus, and expected some ‘sporting’ push-back from an historian like Crossan, whose minimalist approach to the New Testament writings I find irritating most of the time.  But I had no idea that the book’s subtitle, Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, meant, for Crossan, a magisterial dismissal of the historical reality of my topic!

That much slashing of text (39 verses in Mark and all of the related matter in the other three writers) still seems to me to be a completely strange result for professional and allegedly neutral criticism of the Gospels.

Dr. Crossan makes it plain from the start that he has been mightily moved by the fact that these are precisely the gospel accounts which have catalyzed violence against Jews since medieval times.  But the historian seems motivated by this fact to make an inference backwards into history, by which he ‘divines’ that these texts look not so much like history but more like creative artifacts of the eternal cycle of religious violence.  The account of Jesus’ strength in suffering abuse and incrimination under both Jewish and Roman authorities, he argues, was  likely a fiction  published  as an encouragement to the church of the times, which suffered persecution and abuse by men of these same two nationalities.   Crossan allows that this was an understandable creative accretion to the Gospels during the harsh, early times when the church was comprised of the powerless few.  However, Christians as a group have long since risen from obscurity to play a dominant role in the state, and these fictions now only encourage religious violence, and so ought to be neutralized.  Hmmm.

In Crossan’s view, no actual trial and abuse was  necessary to account for the creation of the story of the trials and abuse.  He suggests that the matter of the Jewish and Roman trials, with their attendant abuse and mockery of Jesus, could conceivably have been inspired by Psalm 2 (I can’t give his argument in full – see p.82ff; p.106).  Further, neither the trials nor the abuse of Jesus by his captors are necessary to explain his crucifixion.  Crossan asserts that formal proceedings against Jesus are unimaginable, and the details which filled the time between arrest and execution are anybody’s guess (anybody not an evangelist).  Here is author Crossan’s own best guess:

“Imagine, for example, that Caiaphas and Pilate had standing agreements and orders concerning Passover whereby any subversive action involving the Temple and its crowds would beget instant punishment with immediate crucifixion as public warning and deterrent.  There would be no need to go very high up the chain of command for a peasant nuisance nobody like Jesus, no need for even a formal interrogation before Caiaphas, let alone a detailed trial before Pilate.  In the case of Jesus, there may well have been Arrest and Execution but no Trial whatsoever in between” (p.117).

I think it would be more to the credit of professor Crossan’s minimalist method if, in taking so much away from the evangelists, he had refrained from filling in the gaps with the spin of his own unrestrained creativity.  In fact Crossan seems to manifest every fault he alleges in the evangelists – all the way from Mark’s ‘special concerns’ (p.17) to John’s ‘extremely creative adaptations’ (p.21).  In my view, the professor himself is working not far from the realm of historical fiction.

Where does this leave me in my recent study and blogging of the trials?  I will continue my series on the confinement and trials of Jesus until I have finished making my point about the value of John’s gospel in sorting out the synoptics.  If nothing else, Crossan reminds me that the trials and abuse are a sensitive topic, controversial, even slightly radioactive.  Terrific.  But I think Crossan’s ornate argument and sweeping dismissal of text is misguided and will do nothing to curtail the madness that is anti-Semitism.  His is an empty gesture, from an ivory tower.  And like most of the professor’s unique brand of minimalist history, it will amount to very little in the deliberations of the next theology.

Luke, John, and the trials of Jesus (Part 3)

Here I want to place Luke and John in closer relation to Mark’s 20 verses on the period between the arrest and the trial before Pilate, and to changes in Mark introduced by the author of Matthew

To me it seems unusual that Mark has recounted everything he has heard about this night as if it happened at a single location.  The confinement of Jesus, the denial of Peter, the first Jewish trial, the spitting, mocking, beating, and taunting, and the second, early morning consultation of the council – everything seems to occur at the same Jerusalem address.  One  reason to doubt the authenticity of this feature in Mark is, as I  suggested in a previous post , the fact that Luke contradicts Mark’s single-location storyline, and is  supported by the author of the gospel of John.

Attention to details of location is a characteristic quality of a good eyewitness report.  If we can believe Luke and John, Mark’s sources have missed an important change of scene. For the purpose of retelling the events which he has in hand, Mark has pretty good control of his ‘collapsed’ singularity of location.  However, when the author of Matthew blithely accepts Mark’s single-location story but attempts to flesh it out with additional facts and assumptions, the results are even less acceptable to John and arguably to Luke as well (For signs of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew’s passion, see Michael D. Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm,1989, pp. 6-7, etc.).

The Gospel of Matthew adds to Mark’s opening verses two new things (Mk14:53-4/ Mt 26:57-8).  First, in 26:57, is the  assumption that the location to which Jesus was taken immediately after his arrest was the residence of Caiaphas.  This addition, which seems at least to be a  reasonably well-educated guess,  is not confirmed by Luke and is flatly contradicted by John. Next, in 26:58, is the elimination of Mark’s courtyard fire, and the addition of a specific intent of Peter to ‘see’ the result of the trial.  This could be an attempt to raise Peter’s status as eyewitness, but more to the point, the implied darkness and outerness of Mark’s fire-lit courtyard is gone in Matthew – we now appear to be in an indoor court.  I think it is very interesting that Luke and John, who do not follow Matthew in this matter of identifying the residence with Caiaphas, retain Mark’s outdoor fire.

Too often I think modern critics of the gospels ascribe to the apostles and evangelists unworthy aims and ulterior motives in their writing.

Duccio di Buoninsenga - Jesus before Annas/Peter's first denial

But I find three practical and historical inducements for the author of John to make changes in the recorded history of events immediately following the arrest of Jesus: 

(1)  Correction of the tendency  of Matthew’s  additional matter to alter events remembered differently by his own sources;

(2)  Support for Luke’s tradition of a second location for the Jewish trial over the single-location version of Mark (followed by Matthew);

(3)  Introduction of eyewitness material  which builds on Luke’s two-location story by correcting the location of Peter’s denial – in the courtyard of Annas before Jesus is taken to Caiaphas for the official trial.

Note:  The right of Annas to interview Jesus before trial seems indirectly confirmed by the report of the historian Josephus (Ant.xviii.2.1 f) – that the wealthy former high priest was long a power in Judaism after the Romans arbitrarily removed him as high priest (an office traditionally granted for life).  I think Edersheim has evidence that Annas retained rule over the temple trade in animals and coin (I’ll confirm that).

For a treatment of the problem from a strictly synoptic viewpoint, without the help of the Fourth Gospel, see Matthew D. Larsen’s series on the Jewish trials.

Luke, John, and the trial[s] of Jesus (Part 2)

My aim in this series is simply to demonstrate an example of how the Gospel of John can contribute to the solution of problems of historical detail in cases where the synoptics offer conflicting or confusing reports of events in the life of Jesus – in this case the events occurring after the arrest of Jesus and before he is brought to Pilate.

For analysis of the synoptic side of the problem I am glad to have Matthew D. Larsen’s three recent posts on the Jewish trials only a click away. 

Larsen illustrates the matter and degree of Luke’s divergence from Mark and Matthew in his account of this night’s events, and offers an explanation of this divergence on the basis of the synoptics alone.  For my part, I wish to show that the Fourth Gospel narrative holds a key to a better explanation of Luke’s differences.

Modern criticism has long taken note of the uncanny similarities between Luke and John in some particulars of their accounts following Jesus’ arrest.    The point is not that Luke follows John here (hardly possible), but rather that John, knowing the work of all three predecessors, lends support to Luke’s version by contributing to the story a key fact to which he alleges himself an eyewitness.

I will start with the first two particulars of the Luke-John resemblance and continue with some others in my next post.

1a. In Luke 22:54 Jesus is brought after arrest ‘into the high priest’s house’ (Caiaphas is not named by Luke) with Peter following afar off, but there is no report of an official trial until Jesus is moved to a different location.

1b.  In John’s narrative (Jn18:13), ‘they led him away to Annas first’ (the former high priest), with Peter (and John) following him there.  There is no report of an official trial at this first location (only an interview between Annas and Jesus).  From here Jesus is taken to a different location (to Caiaphas).

2a. In Luke, it is at this (unnamed) high priest’s house that Peter’s denial takes place, and not in a location associated with a trial.

2b. In John it is the walled courtyard (Jn18:16) of the house of the high priest Annas (not any place associated with a trial) that Peter’s denial of Jesus takes place.

The Johannine tradition of Peter’s denial separates it spatially and temporally from the trial before Caiaphas.  If Luke has also heard of this two-location tradition, and judged it closer to the truth, it would explain his stubborn rejection of Mark’s single-location setting for Peter’s denial and the official trials and abuses, etc., of Jesus.

[to be continued]

Part 1 of this series can be found here

Luke, John, and the trial[s] of Jesus

I have been looking on at Matthew D. Larsen’s blog as he analyzes the differences between the synoptic versions of the Jewish trial[s] of Jesus.  Matt has made it pretty clear that Luke differs too much here to call this part of the story a ‘synoptic’ view of events.  I think the synoptics fail here to deliver (as a threesome) a cohesive ‘history’ of events between Jesus’ arrest and his appearance before Pilate.

Mr. Larsen has exercised his critical right to attempt an explanation of why Luke isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Mark and Matthew at this point.  Now I want to suggest that – not in all cases but in this particular case – when the synoptics are in conflict, an examination of the Fourth Gospel is warranted before attempting a solution based upon the synoptics alone.

Recently I was pleased to find a very early modern example of a fruitful resort to the Gospel of John to solve the riddle of Luke’s diversion from Mark and Matthew in the matter of these trials.  F.D.E. Schleiermacher applies the text of John to the problem of this particular synoptic conflict in his lectures of 1832 on the life of Jesus (The Life of Jesus, Eng 1975, p.395-401).  And Schleiermacher was not ignorant of the modern criticism of John’s historicity – neither Strauss nor FC Bauer had yet published, but he knew and rejected Karl Bretschneider’s early (1820) attack on John (Ibid, Introduction, p.xxxi).

John’s account differs significantly from the account in Mark by its rejection of Mark’s report of an immediate appearance before Caiaphas.  And this is a place that Luke differs from Mark as well.  John states that Jesus (with Peter and ‘another disciple’ following) was first taken to the house of Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law to Caiaphas.

Could John be here offering an eyewitness account which enables this synoptic ‘problem’ to be solved?  Schleiermacher thought so (p.398).  Is John’s claim of relation to the high priest (whether by business or marriage) absurd for a son of Zebedee of Capernaum? And is it fair to assume that ‘another disciple’ (18:15) is an authorial reference?  In future posts I want to examine what special characteristic of ‘eyewitness’ accounts scholars have noticed in John.

In my next post I will show how huge this material from John can be for a better understanding of events which transpired between the arrest of Jesus and his appearance before Pilate.  Larsen has done his work by showing how tenuous our ground of resort to the synoptics is (since Luke differs so much from the other two).

John, Luke, and the Jewish trial[s] of Jesus

Matthew D. Larsen is blogging a series “investigating the trial[s] of Jesus (or lack thereof) by means of a synoptic analysis of Luke 22.54–71, Mark 14.53–72, and Matthew 26.57–75.”

From the looks of his stated goals, Larsen’s study will culminate in a summary of the Luke passion “especially in light of its Synoptic parallels.”

I will be suggesting other approaches to one or two of the points which Larsen treats, but I am not seeking any controversy with Matthew.  The appeal for me here is twofold:

(1) the chance to open up a study of Michael D. Goulder’s theory about the sources for the Passion in Luke in conjunction with a current example of high-quality text-critical blogging (without jamming up another writer’s blog with lengthy comments) and

(2) the chance to write out an idea found in my recent study of Schleiermacher’s Life of Jesus about a possible supplementary role here for the Gospel of John.

I have Goulder’s 1989 book, Luke: A New Paradigm, home from the library only today.  Goulder has become a new fascination of mine in conjunction with my study of problems with the Q-based Two-Source theory (challenges to ‘Q’ by Austin Farrer in the 1950s and by Goulder in the 80s and more recently prof. Mark Goodacre at Duke).

 The real question is:  can I keep up with the pace I expect Matthew Larsen to set?