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.