Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Crossan Review, Part 2

Chapter Four

In this chapter, Crossan attempts to illustrate more biblical challenge parables outside of the ministry of Jesus. He pits biblical traditions against each other by arguing that Ruth, Jonah, and Job are book-length challenge parables that pose challenges to the rest of the Old Testament. As the book is not really about these Old Testament works but uses them as illustrations (example parables, if you will), the length of this portion will be more on par with that of Chapter Two.

Ruth is supposed to be a challenge parable against the biblical tradition represented by Deuteronomy 23:3-4 and Ezra-Nehemiah in which ethnic boundaries are stressed. It is not exactly clear that the former text is exclusive of a Moabite or Ammonite even converting to Judaism (as he says on 72) since resident aliens in general could convert to Judaism (Exodus 12:48-49; Numbers 9:14). Ruth demonstrates how this could work from a woman’s standpoint while a man could undergo circumcision. He points to the latter story as featuring a proscription that is based on ethnicity rather than religion (thus thinking that their option to convert was closed). (73) Since these two kinds of “classification” were usually tied together anyway and since it was regarded as abominable precisely because of the religious entailments (note the example of Solomon and also see Deuteronomy 7:3-4), the attempt to draw a hard line is unconvincing. [15] It is also worth note that if this apparent “challenge parable” was so radical as he thinks, and if parables are fictional stories, as his definition would have it, all the Israelites would have to do is dismiss this story or counter-challenge it and it could fade into obscurity.

Jonah is supposed to be a challenge parable insofar as it undermines expectations about prophets of God while having the people who represented the most hated enemies repent in answer to Jonah’s message. His understanding of beliefs about the prophets is: “An obedient prophet is a redundancy. A disobedient prophet is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a square circle.” (77) Assuming he means what would be considered true prophets (rather than false ones, who were certainly disobedient according to Israel’s Scriptures), two counter-examples come immediately. One is the unnamed prophet in 1 Kings 13 and the other, much more significantly, is Moses, the prophet of prophets.

Job is apparently a three-level challenge against Israel’s covenantal exclusivity/ethnicity (Job is from Uz), Torah in its Deuteronomic formulation, and the character of God (presumably based especially on Deuteronomy 28). (81) I do not wish to attempt an extensive response to such claims here as there are a lot of issues packed in this book and Crossan’s reading of it. But if he reads such texts as Deuteronomy 28 (and much else of Deuteronomy) as an indication that the obedient never suffer except as a consequence of sin, it is curious to note such stories as Abel, the many prophets Jezebel kills, or even non-fatal examples like Moses’ constant pains in leading the Israelites or Jeremiah experiencing persecution in the waning days of Judah. Job is in part responding to such a na├»ve theology, but it is unnecessary to attribute it to biblical theology. 

Chapter Five

This chapter concludes Crossan’s analysis of what he considers challenge parables. Here he continues to cut off his nose to spite his face, claiming that Luke makes an example parable about prayer what Jesus used as a challenge parable (the Pharisee and Tax Collector). (92) Though “example parable” is not even a valid category, there is no reason to think Luke has somehow muted the challenge element in how he presents the parable. It is another single indirect parable that is not ultimately about how to pray (as the frame in v. 9 shows Luke is also aware), but righteousness before God (hence the reference to justification).

There is not much to say about Crossan’s interpretation of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, except that he poses questions about if heaven and hell might be about simple reversals of earthly status. (94) But in raising such questions, Crossan seems to be rather inconsistent here, claiming on the one hand that parables are metaphorical stories and claiming on the other that this story could indeed be a picture of the afterlife. In what sense then is it metaphorical, at least according to Crossan’s framework?

Crossan closes the chapter with two more cases where he thinks a challenge parable is present, but more subtle: Matthew 20:1-16 (the Vineyard Workers) and Matthew 25:14-30//Luke 19:11-27 (the Talents/Pounds). [16] I quote here the summation of the first parable’s interpretation since it in many ways mirrors the second.

“Jesus’s audience would have raised questions not just about the owner’s generosity, but about the system’s perversity. How is it that at high harvest in the vineyards, when, with time pressing, labor should have been at an absolute premium and paying top denarius, there were so many day laborers still looking for work when it was almost sunset? Strange, is it not, how all that turned out for the owner’s and not the workers’ advantage?
The intention and purpose of that challenge parable were to raise the audience’s consciousness about the distinction between personal or individual justice and injustice, on the one hand, and structural or systemic justice and injustice, on the other. If everyone talked only about the owner and not the system, Jesus’s challenge would have failed.” (98)

As above, Crossan seems to forget his definition of parable as metaphorical story. He is taking this story in a rather straightforward manner as actually being about its subject (or a single indirect parable). And of course, this interpretation requires rejecting the beginning of v. 1 as part of the parable, otherwise this interpretation goes out the window. He over-reads details with which Jesus is clearly not interested. Should not the unusualness of these details indicate that something else is happening here? Indeed, if the system’s perversity is at issue, one wonders why the last workers would get wages for a full day of work when the landowner could have paid them much less. Without some indication of irony, he would also have to explain why the master is agathos (“good” or “generous”) in 20:15 especially in light of 19:17.

When we turn to Crossan’s other example, he again inverts how the story is usually understood and argues that the third servant is the sympathetic one while the master is unjust. Apparently, the major basis for this case is built on the master’s mention of gaining interest if the third servant was otherwise not going to put the money to work. (104) After all, every time interest/usury is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is done negatively. But those commands or condemnations concern loaning with interest. Does it not make a difference here that the master points out the servant could have left the money with the bankers so it could accumulate interest? This situation is not addressed in the OT. As such, there is no reason not to prefer the natural reading of the third servant as a negative character and accepting the master’s verdict as such. Other questions can still be raised in this interpretation, but

“Challenge parables are not about replacing certitude with doubt, because certitude and doubt are but opposite ends of the same spectrum. Challenge parables foster not periodic doubting, but permanent questioning. Their hope is—from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—to help us ‘love the questions” and ‘live the questions.’ Their purpose is—from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—to ‘Jolt / Shake and unset your morticed metaphors.’ Their intention is—from the prophet Micah—to make us ‘walk humbly with our God.’” (p. 111)

It is also fair to mention cases where Crossan provides helpful insights. For example, on 111, he points out that there would be interactive audiences and discussions about Jesus’ parables when he told them. In fact, Jesus clearly designed his narrative to provoke interaction. This claim fits with ancient teaching methods, which were highly interactive and aimed towards engaging the minds of the students/audience in working out the logic of what they are being taught.

Chapter Six

In my view, this chapter is overall the best one in the book. For people who have not studied the matter of the kingdom of God in-depth, he provides a good overview. I particularly liked this part:

Eschaton was not, repeat not, about the destruction of the earth, but about the transfiguration of this earth. The direction of eschaton was not from earth to heaven, but rather from heaven to earth. My own translation of that biblical eschatology is: the Great Divine Cleanup of the World.” (119)

As complex as the biblical theology of the kingdom of God is, Crossan has given a fitting crystallization of it. It is important that he outlines such in this book because Jesus spoke in parables in the context of proclaiming the coming of the kingdom and its King. For the first seven pages of this chapter, it looks quite promising as he summarizes the OT and Intertestamental background and development of the concept. But then…

“But with Jesus, as distinct from John, that divine advent will be present rather than imminent, collaborative rather than interventionist, and nonviolent rather than violent.” (120)

There are some differences between John and Jesus to be sure, not least because we know much more about what the latter taught. In fact, one problem with this analysis is its lack of detail in regard to John. There is nothing wrong in essence with saying that John’s eschatology featured imminence, but to say it was interventionist, while at the same time noting that the term “covenant” (a vitally important one for the Jewish context) was always a bilateral term (128), is to sow confusion in what was supposed to be a field of insight. It is clear that John’s ministry was built on the assumption that the kingdom was coming and it required responsive action. Unless Crossan wants to posit that John misunderstood such covenant theology, it makes little sense to affirm both of these claims at once. In the tradition Crossan references, and in which John the Baptist stood, it is ultimately true that the kingdom comes by the work of God’s transcendent action, but repentance and renewed faithfulness to the covenant were seen as essential before the climactic “intervention” and the reasons for why it had not come yet (God was giving people more time to heed his call). While such a message was not collaborationist in exactly the same way as Jesus’ eschatology, there is not as radical a discontinuity here as Crossan supposes. [17] As a further contrast, he claims:

“In our present New Testament, John’s message about the advent of God was turned into one about the advent of Christ. But Christ did not act like an avenging presence, did not look like the wrath to come. Metaphors of cutting down trees and burning chaff with fire did not seem appropriate for him.” (122)

Christ’s presence may not have been seen as such in an immediate way, but divine judgment was certainly part of his message and the indications are that this judgment would be based on how people responded to Jesus, if they would turn and repent, recognizing him for who he is, or remain in their unrecognized sin. Apart from the obvious Olivet Discourse (Mark 13//Matthew 24//Luke 21), one can also see this strand in Matthew 8:11-12//Luke 13:28-29; Matthew 10:15//Luke 10:12; Matthew 10:34-39//Luke 12:49-53; Matthew 11:20-24//Luke 10:13-15; Matthew 12:39-42//Luke 11:29-32; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; Matthew 22:1-14//Luke 14:15-24; Matthew 23:35//Luke 11:51; Matthew 23:37-39//Luke 13:34-35; Matthew 25; Mark 8:38//Luke 9:26; Luke 12:42-46; 13:1-9; 16:31; 17:26-27, 32; 19:11-27; 23:28-31; John 5:19-47; 6:25-58; 8:12-58; 9:35-41; 10:22-39 (though not said by Jesus, also note John 3:31-36). [18] It seems that Jesus and the Gospel authors wish us to glimpse this judgment in terms akin to what Simeon proclaimed: “This child is destined for he falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

Instead, Crossan claims that John’s prophetic vision was wrong: “John died in lonely isolation at Machaerus, the southernmost fortress in Antipas’s territories. And God did nothing to stop it. That was something—for Jesus—to think about.” (123) As Crossan would have it, Jesus’ ministry was different from John’s because he observed that John was wrong in his prophecy. (also 125) Once again, Crossan is creating more unnecessary conflict, as should be clear from the shape Jesus’ ministry actually took.

“Jesus proclaimed, on the contrary, that God’s transformative advent was present, was already here and now on earth. God’s kingdom was imminent, in the future, for John, but already present for Jesus.” (p. 125)

Along that same line, Crossan notes that the kingdom was present for Jesus while it was in the future for John. (125) This observation is certainly half correct. The presence of the kingdom is noted in Matthew 4:17//Mark 1:14b-15; Matthew 9:15-16//Mark 2:19-20//Luke 5:34-35; Matthew 10:7//Luke 10:9; Matthew 11:12-13; Matthew 12:28//Luke 11:20; 13:16-17//Luke 10:23b-24; Luke 16:16; Luke 17:20-21. However, this fact is only half the picture. There are other passages indicating the futurity of the kingdom in Matthew 5:3-10; Matthew 6:10//Luke 11:2; Matthew 8:11-12//Luke 13:28-29; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; Matthew 16:28//Mark 9:1//Luke 9:27; Matthew 19:28//Luke 22:30; Matthew 19:29-30//Mark 10:29-31//Luke 18:29-30; Matthew 26:29//Mark 14:25//Luke 22:16-18 ; Luke 6:21-23; 9:27; 10:9, 11; 13:6-9, 28-29; 14:14-15; 17:24-37; 21:31-32 (among others). He further argues that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God was collaborative:

 “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it….The Great Divine Cleanup will not happen without God, but neither will it happen without us. It is about a divine-and-human collaboration and not about a divine-only intervention.” (127)

Oddly, there are no citations here, not even an explication of a passage. Still, some notion of collaborative eschatology does seem to be a genuine biblical insight (Jesus’ ethical teachings are founded upon his message of the coming of the kingdom). But that biblical notion is not his. It is participation in the work that is God’s. God establishes the kingdom, it is not a human venture. Jesus’ proclamation is not so much “nothing has happened because you have not done anything,” but “the train is coming, get on board.”

Another problematic contrast is between John’s message of divine violence and Jesus’ program of nonviolence. (129-131) This contrast faces the problem of denying all of Jesus’ declarations of judgment, and that quite divinely violent (see above). The same God he proclaimed as showing love to his enemies was the one he proclaimed would eventually judge them guilty if they remained enemies and put them outside of the kingdom.

In yet another exercise of nose-cutting, Crossan argues that many of the early Christians mitigated the challenge of Jesus’ kingdom by insisting that this period of human-divine collaboration would be short, that they “certainly agreed that it would all be over soon.” (132) There is no need here to dive into the old debate about the apparent “delay of the parousia” and the question of if Jesus/the Early Church was wrong about such an expectation. (132) I would simply recommend Ben Witherington’s volume Jesus, Paul and the End of the World for a more sober analysis. [19]

Crossan then closes this chapter and this part of the book with a consideration of why Jesus used challenge parables. According to him, the challenge parable was Jesus’ typical mode of speech and was so because it fit his message of the kingdom as involving collaboration and nonviolence. (133-136) On the former point, challenge parables invite collaboration because they draw the audience members into their own education. On the latter point, challenge parables are gently subversive, disarming, and inviting. We will return to this latter point later as its full significance comes into play.


The interlude concerns the possibility lure of parabolic history with a case-study of Caesar at the Rubicon (recall Crossan’s proposal that the Gospels are parabolic history/history-as-parable/megaparables). For the reader’s interest he points to apparent examples of history as parable in Lucan’s epic poem Civil War 1.212-235; Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars 31-32 under Julius Caesar’s section; Plutarch’s Life of Caesar 32.5-9; Appian’s Roman History 2.35. His summary observation of them is that, “They give us factual characters in fictional—or at least fictionalized—stories.” (151)

The mix of parables and history that Crossan tries to demonstrate here is, to say the least, confusing. It is clear that he is arguing for a mix of fact and fiction in some sources about Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. (also 152) But why, in asserting the latter feature, does he reach for the category of parable? It seems that he is using the term “parable” where he is properly discussing “historiography,” “significance,” “interpretation,” or even “fictionalization.” The looseness with which he uses the language of parable is unhelpful. That these authors understand Caesar’s crossing in different ways, attach different significance to it, and even associate different events with it, does not properly seem to belong in the realm of parable so much as with the aforementioned categories. The accuracy of this assessment is borne out in asking if this analysis of “parabolic history” adds anything that is not attainable apart from it.

Part Two

It is in this latter portion of the book that Crossan unfolds his proposal that the Gospels are megaparables about Jesus spawned from parables by Jesus. (153) What are Crossan’s arguments for seeing the Gospels as megaparables? To help the reader follow the logic, allow me to reproduce them:

No, I did not forget to fill that empty space, Crossan did. One of the major proposals of this book is presented without argument. In other words, if one is not already inclined to agree with Crossan, no reason is given here to do so. There is not even a footnote/endnote redirecting the reader to one of his more extensive books where such an argument might be laid out. I understand this is a popular work and not a scholarly treatise so I am not expecting an all-out technical analysis. But it would be nice to have at least a summary with some accompanying references elsewhere. Consider another popular-level work by a scholar: N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. In that book there are dozens of references to Wright’s other works (not to mention the references to the works of others), summaries of his arguments made elsewhere , and interactions with positions other than his own. [20] All of that is more than can be said for this work as a whole, but especially this second part.

As it is, the reader is left with several important questions for Crossan. Why should the Gospels be read as megaparables instead of, say, bioi? In what way is that label preferable even to similar fiction labels (with which apparently Crossan would be more inclined to agree)?[21] What illumination is provided by this perspective that is not given by others?[22] How does one tell the difference between parable and history? He makes this distinction several times throughout the book, but almost never gives a reason (not bad reasons, no reasons) for the determination that something is “parable, not history.” Given that such un-argued assertions form the foundations of the last four chapters prior to the Epilogue, my analyses of these chapter are comparatively briefer (for the most part), noting only some interpretive errors and confused claims.

Chapter Seven

For Crossan, the “parable” of Mark is a challenge focused inward against other branches of Christianity. Namely:

“In his gospel, Mark claims that false prophecy led Jerusalem’s Christian Jews astray by promising them that the (second) coming of the Messiah would save them from that same Roman destruction. And, says Mark—with parabolic hindsight and fictional creativity—Jesus had warned against that very delusion…
Furthermore, Mark lays full responsibility for that mistaken conflation of the coming of Christ with the coming of Rome on the shoulders of the Twelve, that is, on their misunderstanding of Jesus and on the forty-year tradition that had derived from their incomprehension. He is not, in other words, talking about the Twelve in the 30s with Jesus, but the tradition of the Twelve after Jesus—the tradition that was operative from the late 30s to the 70s, when Mark was writing.” (pp. 173-174)

This kind of assertion from Crossan is both bold and bald. It is based only on the negative portrayal of the Twelve in Mark, especially in their obtuseness towards the meaning of Jesus’ life. He further thinks that Mark is criticizing the Twelve for failing to follow the vision and model of Jesus’ leadership. (174-175) However, the reader is left completely in the dark on how to move from Mark’s overall negative portrayal of the Twelve in Mark during Jesus’ ministry to this Gospel being a highly critical statement against what happened because of the Twelve after Jesus. There could be any number of reasons for Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as such and it is unnecessary to review these options because Crossan has not made his case for why his option should be preferred.

The other noteworthy feature of this chapter, not least because it has an impact on the rest of the book, is Crossan’s attempted explanation to distinguish what he calls challenge parables from attack parables. As a spoiler alert, he regards all of the Gospels, except for Mark, as attack parables (or megaparables). The only real grounds of distinction he provides here is this:

“One of the aspects I watch for in making that distinction is whether the story calls names, doubts honesty, impugns integrity, or even negates and dismisses what it challenges.” (175)

Along this same line, as I noted earlier, he thinks challenge parables are “gently subversive” while, to summarize what he has said above, attack parables are “rhetorical violence.” This distinction is apparently meaningful to Crossan, but to me it seems on par with the distinction between six and a half-dozen. Or is there a significant difference between burning (or otherwise defacing) a national flag and insulting the president/prime minister that would make the former a challenge and the latter an attack (and thus, apparently, more objectionable)? In fact, in a collectivist, honor-shame culture it might arguably be the opposite. Consider some of the areas covered by Crossan’s category of “challenge parable”:

·         Undercutting purity symbols that defined Israel
·         Presenting a positive figure out of one of the Jews’ most bitter enemies
·         Presenting the tax collector as a holy figure over and against a Pharisee
·         Identifying such pseudo-holy figures with the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 whose fortune is reversed with Lazarus
·         Challenging the systemic injustices carried out by the most powerful, who would similarly have an ostensibly higher “honor rating”

If, for the sake of the argument, we grant Crossan’s interpretation of Ruth, Jonah, and Job, here are some similar areas:

·         Undercutting the ethnic/familial/religious boundaries that aid defining the covenant people
·         Defying beliefs and expectations about prophets of God and having the people who represented the epitome of unrighteousness looking more honorable
·         Challenging beliefs about the very character of God

In other words, the challenge parables defy the symbols, stories, practices, and beliefs that were part of the identity of Israel. But at least they do not call anyone names, right? At this juncture it becomes clear that the distinction is not exactly meaningful. With the ubiquitous challenge-riposte background (on which JP has often commented), such sayings would be regarded as honor challenges undermining communal identity just as calling names, doubting honesty, impugning integrity, and being dismissive would be regarded. It may well be that “challenge parables” would have caused more offense and been more powerful and far reaching than the “attack parables.” After all, to issue an honor challenge to an individual is one thing, to issue a challenge to a group as a whole is a more powerful challenge, but to undermine what defines the identity of that group could be more powerful and far reaching still. Indeed, is it possible that nothing is more dismissive and negating than undermining the elements that undergird the identity of a community? Such challenges may threaten more upheaval in the community and thus could be considered more of a threat. But even if Crossan’s categories are not backwards, the insulting character of each is, at best, equivocal in extent and strength. [23]

Crossan never classifies Jesus’ actions in the Temple complex under his over-extended rubric, but that incident well illustrates how meaningless this distinction really is. Jesus’ symbolic enactment of the destruction of the Temple meant he was defacing one of the central symbols of Judaism because it was supposed to represent the presence of YHWH on earth. To challenge such a central symbol would be seen as an attack on the identity of the ones who thought of it as such. But unless Crossan wishes to deny the historicity of an encounter mentioned in all of the Gospels—I honestly do not know what his view is here—he would seem to be committed to making an authentic action by Jesus into a challenge parable instead of an attack parable.

Chapter Eight

Now we turn to his chapter on Matthew, which he regards as an attack megaparable. But here he makes the picture more complicated. As he would have it, Matthew 5 rules out anger, insult, and name-calling, yet in the rest of Matthew Jesus says some quite severe things about his opponents. Crossan explains this discrepancy as Matthew using Jesus as a mouthpiece. (184, 195)

If Matthew changes Jesus and does so demonstrably, why did Matthew include the apparently contradictory teaching in Matthew 5 in the first place? Did he not realize it contradicted much of the other sayings of Jesus? Would his portrayal of Jesus, by this argument, not have been better off without including the tradition at all? It seems that Crossan is grasping at straws to say, on the one hand, that Matthew preserved an authentic sample of the historical Jesus in spite of himself and, on the other hand, that these polemical words were Matthew’s invention. Of course, one could just as well claim that Matthew fabricated it all. If Matthew apparently did not realize one aspect of this portrayal contradicted another aspect, what then would keep him from inventing both by the logic of Crossan’s analysis? What is much more likely is that Crossan misunderstood Matthew 5 in the first place, rendering his claims unnecessary. [24]

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