John Dominic Crossan – not quite Wright?

I have just begun reading N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2: Jesus and the Victory of God. On page 44 is this beautiful assessment of the work of John Dominic Crossan:

John Dominic Crossan is one of the most brilliant, engaging, learned and quick-witted New Testament scholars alive today. He has been described by one recent friendly critic as a “rather sceptical new Testament professor with the soul of a leprechaun” [fn. van Beck 1994, 97]. He seems incapable, in his recent work at least, of thinking a boring thought or writing a dull paragraph. His major work The Historical Jesus: the Life of the Mediterranean Jewish Peasant is a book to treasure for its learning, its thoroughness, its brilliant handling of multiple and complex issues, its amazing inventiveness, and above all its sheer readability. The book is based on many years of careful and painstaking research, and stands on the shoulders of previous books that won acclaim in their own right. Crossan represents, far more than Burton Mack, the high point of achievement in the new wave of the New Quest.

It is all the more frustrating, therefore, to have to conclude that the book is almost entirely wrong.

It is for passages like this that I find reading Wright such a delight! I have a system of scribbling in my books: asterisks, underlining, double underlining, wiggly lines for ideas I don’t quite agree with, question marks for ones that I need to check up on, crosses for those opinions that are just plain wrong. I also have a system, devised just for Wright’s books, of putting little smiley faces in the colums next to erudite jokes and witty asides. This one scored (for the first time ever in any book I have read) two smiley faces.

He goes on to say that the “whole direction” of Crossan’s work “is entirely different from the present one”. It is perhaps Crossan’s readability that makes his very learned (but wrong) ideas so readily absorbed by the ignorant masses who legitimately and praiseworthily seek to educate themselves by reading the works of such an accomplished scholar. I know that the number of articles entitled “Is Wright Right?” (or some such variation) are legion, but in comparison with Crossan, two things can be said:

1) He is at least if not more readable, and just as incapable of “thinking a boring thought or writing a dull paragraph”.
2) His scholarship is, as he himself intimates, entirely directed toward undoing the damage such scholarship as Crossan’s has done to the orthodox Christian faith.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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5 Responses to John Dominic Crossan – not quite Wright?

  1. Stephen K says:

    David, I haven’t read N T Wright, and your post prompts me to do so. I have read Burton Mack, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier and Raymond Brown (and others). I’m not a professional biblical scholar so I guess I must be one of your ignorant masses. However, though I am not convinced by some of Crossan’s theses – that he was a peasant – and still a little unbelievingly ‘shocked’ by others – like Jesus’ body could have been devoured by dogs – I have to say that it is his work more than any of the others that has made alive and living and meaningful the whole concept of Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” message, and it was reading his works that has led me to an understanding of Jesus that makes most sense of “coalface” Christianity, collegiate and communal Catholicism, and the message of equality, dignity and love. He must be doing something right (no pun intended).

    • Schütz says:

      I haven’t read N T Wright, and your post prompts me to do so. I have read Burton Mack, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier and Raymond Brown (and others).

      I haven’t read John Meier. Wright places him among the “Third Quest” [for the Historical Jesus] scholars (page 84), whereas Mack and Crossan are placed among the “New Quest” scholars as latter day followers of Bultmann. He does indicate him as an example of “those that persist in the pursuit of the old-style [historical] objectivity” on page 55. Other than that, he doesn’t really pass judgement.

      Of Brown, I have very fond memories. I especially treasured his writings on the Virgin Birth and on the NT Priesthood, but I also own both his books on the Passion and on the Birth narratives, and treasure these. Brown in his commentary on John’s Gospel has the best treatment of Jesus’ “brothers” that I know anywhere. Some Catholics don’t like him because of his modernism, but he did help me toward the Catholic Church. Wright has little directly to say in this book about Brown, mostly in footnotes relating to the discussion of the Passion narratives.

      I guess the thing about NT scholarship is the advice “caveat emptor”: where and in which stream of scholarship does your author stand? Understand what his objectives are, and you might have some insight into what his conclusions mean, because historical objectivity is very hard if not impossible to attain, and often the conclusions are just dressed up versions of the unacknowledged agenda with which the scholar began. As Wright writes on page 50,

      “Though he [Crossan] offers them [his chronological strata of sources] as starting points, they are in fact conclusions drawn from his basic thesis about Jesus and early Christianity. They are none the worse for that. They are part of the overall hypothesis which he is advancing, and all hypotheses are, as we have seen, ultimately circular.”

      I’m not a professional biblical scholar so I guess I must be one of your ignorant masses.

      I didn’t mean “ignorant” as a form of abuse or as a superior sneer. We all start off ignorant on just about any course of study, and the study of the New Testament is made more difficult by the fact that most of us think we are actually very familiar with these texts, ie. we do not in fact acknowledge our huge ignorance about these texts. Wright is one scholar who not only acknowledges this ignorance, but in fact says it cannot be otherwise. There is so much that we simply cannot know for certain. Here I really like his saying (somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes’ great principle, but inverted):

      “All things are possible. But not all things are probable.”

      So you have to start somewhere. And the question is: in this maze, who will you choose to be your guide? I fully admit that my opinion on this matter is not an objective one. I have chosen my guide: the Catholic Church and the Sacred Tradition which she has preserved. I am also convinced that solid historical research will bear out Sacred Tradition on all points that can possibly be verified. I am in a slightly different position then to Bishop Wright, who on occasion lifts up his nose at Sacred Tradition, while nevertheless working on many central issues (such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus) to preserve it. But does this mean that I judge historical research theologically? No. I judge it historically, according to the canons of historical study, because I believe that the best historical study will bear out Sacred Tradition and thus that I have nothing to fear from such study.

      So when Crossan proposes some new and inventive theory about Jesus, I ask myself, as Wright proposes, “Is it probable?” This includes, is it the most simple explanation? Is it the explanation which is most coherent with what we can reasonably know? For instance, the best explanation – the simplest and most probable explanation – for the Early Church’s fixed idea that Jesus rose from the dead is that he actually did. Of course, that strains (for some people) the credibility of whether it was actually possible that he did.

      However, though I am not convinced by some of Crossan’s theses – that he was a peasant – and still a little unbelievingly ‘shocked’ by others – like Jesus’ body could have been devoured by dogs –

      I think these are those that Wright would characterise as “inventive”. Unfortunately, they are works of pure imagination. If one opens to pages 48-49 of Jesus and the Victory of God, one can see at a glance these comments of Wright on Crossan’s “inventions”:

      “If he is right…then almost all the research on Jesus undertaken in the last two hundreds and fifty years has been labouring under a great delusion. This is of course quite possible, but is it likely?”

      “It is only fair to say that all but a few within the world of New Testament scholarship would regard this list is extremely shaky, and all except Crossan himself would have at least some quite serious points of disagreement with it.”

      “[This] is a remarkable piece of bravado.”

      “To treat Q as a document at all is controversial. To treat it as a gospel (Crossan insists emphatically on this) is more so; to postulate two or three stages in its development is to build castles in the air; to insist that the document was ‘composed by the fifties, and possibly at Tiberias in Galilee’, is to let imagination run riot.”

      “As for the so-called “Cross Gospel”…its very existence as a separate document has not been accepted yet by any other serious scholar, and its suggested date (‘by the 50s CE’) and provenance (‘possibly at Sepphoris in Galilee’) is purely imaginary. To suggest further that it is ‘the single source of the intracanonical passion narrative’ is one of the most breathtaking moves Crossan makes in an already strikingly original book.”

      You get the idea.

      I have to say that it is his work more than any of the others that has made alive and living and meaningful the whole concept of Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” message,

      Ah, well now here you have something. I must say that the idea that Jesus was putting forward a “brokerless kingdom” does have some appeal, and does make some connection with the social anthropology of the period. Crossan makes a particular point of seeing Jesus as a part of 1st Century Mediterranean culture. The only problem is, as Wright points out, Crossan fails to see Jesus as a part of the specifically 1st Century Jewish culture and thus fails to see that the idea of the “kingdom of God/heaven” has a far reaching and almost universal (within all strands of Judaism of the time) referent. He writes that for Crossan:

      “Jesus thus ‘sets the Kingdom against the Mediterranean’. This is Crossans basic and fundamental vision of what Jesus was about; and it becomes his major criterion for deciding which parts of the tradition are authentic… I am convinced that the social and material dimensions of Jesus’ ministry must be brought to the fore…My anxiety, rather, is this: in grasping the way in which Jesus’ programme cut against the normal social expectations of Mediterranean peasant culture, Crossan, like Mack (though not so blatantly), has radically and consistently underplayed the specifically Jewish dimension both of the culture itself and of Jesus’ agenda for it. …Crossan’s rejection of apocalyptic…shows through in his dismissal of the Jewish hope which, in my reading (and that of several others), Jesus claimed to fulfil.”

      and it was reading his works that has led me to an understanding of Jesus that makes most sense of “coalface” Christianity, collegiate and communal Catholicism, and the message of equality, dignity and love. He must be doing something right (no pun intended).

      It might make some kind of sense, but does it make sense of Christianity as such? Christianity is about the worship of a man who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago as the Son of God incarnate, about believing that he is risen from the dead, about believing that God not only acted in this man, but in a definitive way revealed his true self in him, and about the eternal and future hope that we have for the “New Age” of the Kingdom which is coming and which he specifically will bring. Does Crossan actually “make sense” of this, or of something quite different? In my reading, Crossan’s “conclusions” (which in fact are most likely also his starting points) actually rejects rather than clarifies most of what Catholic Christianity is about.

      It is interesting to note that when Bishop Wright attended the Synod of Bishops on the Word in Rome in 2008, he was the most sought after ecumenical guest by the Catholic bishops participating. Ex-Father Crossan was not invited.

      My money is on Wright. As a starting point, check out some podcasts and other material on this page: The N.T. Wright Page.

  2. matthias says:

    i disagree with Crossan ‘s views on Jesus being a follower of John the Baptist and the other views he holds yet at the same time his attempt to address the Historical Jesus,does ,as Stephen says,draw people to Christ ,and if in that process they come face to face with the Saviour ,Who is more than a landless Jewish peasant,then Crossan’s work would have served a purpose.
    It would be great if someone made more public the writings of Simone Weil ,for she addresses the issues that are at the coalface of people’s lives,esoecially around the human condition.

  3. David Kennedy says:

    David, the thing I liked most about this post is your notation system. I think I’ll start using it too. :-)

  4. Christine says:

    Crossan’s writings, like those of the former Catholic priest Matthew Fox, are very popular among Episcopal and ELCA readers.

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