John Dominic Crossan is a member of Jesus Seminar, a prolific writer and an engaging speaker. I see him on almost every interview or PBS special that covers the topic of Jesus. Crossan says he begins his methodology by “trying to imagine as if Jesus had never existed—I begin with the Roman Empire and the Jewish tradition in interaction with it.” (106) He therefore begins by painting a portrait of the Roman Empire and summarizes their “theology” as “peace through violent victory.” (108) He then briefly examines Judaism and summarizes their theology as “peace through nonviolent justice.” (111) Crossan steps back into the Roman context with particular focus on Herod Antipas and asks a very particular question: “Why is Jesus so often found around the Sea of Galilee, the Lake of Tiberias, the harp-shaped Lake Kinneret.” (112) Crossan’s answer begins with an overview of the life of Herod Antipas in a “drama of acute disappointments over six sequential acts.” (113) We discover in the third act that Herod was “founding Tiberias to commercialize the lake and its fishes in the name of Rome’s empire and both John and Jesus clashed with him in the name of Israel’s God. Who owned the lake and how it was to be used was but a microcosm question to the macrocosm question of who owned the earth and how it was to be used. It was not about salted fish and fish sauce in Rome’s world but about equality and justice in God’s world.” (116)
Crossan says that John the Baptist, while he did not advocate a violent revolution, he did see the kingdom of God as involving “divine—even if exclusively divine—violence.” (117) Herod, seeing this, had John executed. Jesus, seeing John executed, “watched, learned and changed his vision of God.” (123) This change represents a paradigm shift within eschatology—from violent to nonviolent. Jesus was, however, “quite wrong and misguided” in thinking the kingdom of God was imminent and “neither special pleading nor semantic evasion can rectify that situation.” (121) Crossan says that “Jesus started accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, he changed from that to a theology of God’s presence.” This should not be confused with the idea of an “already-present kingdom.” “The present kingdom is a collaborative or participatory eschaton, an eschatological dialectic between human and divine worlds.” (125) But this “Great Divine Clean-up” as he calls it could not happen without God and equally could not happen without believers.
Crossan ends with a discussion of Jesus as a healer. He distinguishes between a disease being cured and an illness being healed. He illustrates the distinction from the movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks portrayed a man dying of AIDS. The “disease could not be cured but, his illness was being healed by the support of his partner, his family and his lawyer’s successful suit against his law firm’s illegal discrimination.” (128) He concludes, “The healing of illness by Jesus and his companions must be understood in a framework of a preventive social revolution, in Light’s terms, and in a framework of the kingdom of God’s Great Cosmic Clean-Up of the World, in their own even more radical terms.” (129) For Crossan then, “the first and most important discussion about the historical Jesus should be on his vision of collaborative eschatology—for then and now.” (131) The issue finally comes down to the difference between the eschatological kingdom of God and the imperial Kingdom of Rome or between “Jesus’ nonviolence and Pilate’s violence.” (132) Next time we’ll look at the responses.