Friday, August 30, 2013

Crossan Review, Part Three

Chapter Nine

Here is another chapter that starts off decently with Crossan presenting arguments for regarding Luke-Acts as two volumes of one work by one author and for seeing that author as a Gentile God-fearer. (200-204) There is also a surprise in that, for what seems like the only time in the book, Crossan presents a reason for regarding an event as parable rather than history.

An example of one actual argument, concerning Luke 4:16-19: “I think, by the way, that this is parable rather than history, because it is extremely unlikely that Nazareth had wealth enough for both a synagogue building and prophetic scrolls.” (p. 205)

I do not know enough about the history of Nazareth to say much here. But since he does not give details (or references to other sources), some general points should suffice. First, even if we grant the veracity of Crossan’s claim, is there even a necessity of understanding the synagogue as a building and not the assembly of people? Second, Nazareth was surely a small town at this time and would not be wealthy, but, if a synagogue building was actually involved and Nazareth was as poor as Crossan thinks, would such items not be considered “necessary costs?”

Unconvincingly, he argues that Jesus’ story in Nazareth becomes a paradigm for Paul in Acts with phases of synagogue situation (4:16-17; Acts 13:14-16a; 17:1-2a), scriptural fulfillment (4:18-21; Acts 13:16b-41; 17:2b-3), initial acceptance (4:22; Acts 13:42-43; 17:4), eventual rejection (4:23-28; Acts 13:44-49; 17:5a), lethal attack (4:29-30; Acts 13:50-52; 17:5b-9). (206) This attempt to find a pattern looks as if it might be meaningful because of its details. However, these descriptions are so general and what would be expected if someone preached in a synagogue and was subsequently rejected that it is unnecessary to posit any sort of paradigm here.

The rest of the chapter builds on the point that there seems to be a positive disposition toward Rome on the part of the author of Luke-Acts. After all, Pilate could find no reason to fault Jesus and the Roman officials throughout Acts acquit Paul, finding no legal reason to condemn him. These notations could just as well function as a legal apologia (citing precedence) against any claim that the Christians are a dangerous revolutionary movement like Rome has often encountered (and as some may have accused them of being, as in Acts 17:6-7). But Crossan’s conclusion is worth quoting in that it sums up for him the meaning of charting Paul’s journeys and thus the journey of the Spirit’s communication of the gospel.

“Putting those two motifs of journey and spirit together, Luke-Acts records the great journey of God’s Holy Spirit from Galilee to Jerusalem in the first volume and then from Jerusalem to Rome in the second. The ‘good news,’ for the author of Luke-Acts, is that the Holy Spirit has changed headquarters from Jerusalem to Rome. Rome—not Jerusalem—is now the holy city of Christianity. Rome is new Jerusalem.” (216)

Rome did indeed become the new hub of the Church later in history (not least because all roads led to Rome), but Crossan is really over-egging his pudding here. The notion that the Holy Spirit’s “headquarters” have moved is nowhere evident in the text or even the flow of the narrative. Indeed, this notion of the Spirit having headquarters is incompatible with New Testament theology. The second half of this statement is particularly absurd, as if the “good news” of Luke-Acts had anything to do with such a message. After all, the actual contents of the gospel proclamations in Acts strongly indicate otherwise. Rome may have become a replacement for Jerusalem in the sense noted above, but hopefully Crossan is not actually suggesting that Rome is the new Jerusalem, with all of the theological connotations such an idea would have in the first century (Isaiah 2:1-4; 40:9ff.; 49:8ff.; 51-52; 60-62; 66:10ff.; Jeremiah 30:18-22; 31; Tobit 13:15-17; 14:5-7; Revelation 21).

Chapter Ten

This last chapter before the Epilogue is also the weakest link in the second part. Here Crossan shows problems in interpreting John and the relationship of this Gospel to the Synoptics. For example, he thinks that John is an attack parable against “the Jews” (as in, the whole people group)(222) My own summary of John’s use of the term “the Jews” is as follows. Often, the phrase does in fact refer to the religious leaders among the Jews (1:19; 2:18, 20; 3:1; 5:10, 15-16, 18; 7:1, 11, 13; 9:18, 22; 18:12, 14, 31, 36, 38; 19:7, 12, 14, 31, 38; 20:19), usually with a negative connotation because these authority figures inspired fear in others through the abuse of their powers, because they opposed Jesus, and because they refused to realize who he was/is. However, many other times the phrase refers to Jews in general or Jewish customs in a neutral or positive light, the latter usually being the case if there was a custom of which Jesus was the fulfillment (2:6, 13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2, 15; 10:19, 24; 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 55; 12:9; 18:20; 19:20-21, 40, 42). In one case, it is clearly a positive reference to the Jewish people as a whole, their history, and the salvific promises attached to them (4:22). In many other cases, “the Jews” refers to the doubters of Jesus who may not be restricted to the authorities (6:41, 52; 7:35; 8:22, 48, 52, 57; 10:31, 33; 11:8). On a few occasions, John makes positive references to the Jews who believed in Jesus (8:31; 11:45; 12:11). Two other cases may be disputable in meaning and could be either neutral or negative in reference to an ethnic/geographic designation, a group which contrasts with the disciples, or the people in general (11:54; 13:33). [25]

Similarly, he compares Mark 3:22 and John 8:48 since both have similar accusations against Jesus. He thinks the latter is an attack parable (for no apparent reason that the use of “the Jews”), not a challenge (apparently unlike the former). (223) Of course, I doubt such a distinction would matter to the scribes, who are shamed in both cases. If the contrast of challenge and attack is not supposed to be between Mark and John, one would have wonder why these different texts are cited in the first place.

When he comes to the question of the meaning of the term “the Word” in John 1, he states the following:

“It means that God did not come up with a bright new idea called Jesus around 4 BCE. The eternal and generative dream of God was for a world of justice and peace, for an earth unsullied by oppression and injustice, by violence, bloodshed, and war. That hope, vision, dream for the earth was always with God and was God. But, John claims, it became embodied, incarnated, revealed humanly in Jesus: ‘The Word (ho logos) became flesh and lived among us’ (1:14). John’s overture claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the visionary dream of God as embodied humanly in time, place, and sandals.” (225)

This is a rather creative interpretation of “Word” in John 1. The problem is that it is given no backing from how the Jews or even Gentiles of the day used it. Indeed, it cannot be given any such backing.

When Crossan turns again to the relationship between John and the other Gospels, the problems multiply. For example, he compares and contrasts the narrations of the Feeding of the 5,000 in Mark and John. Concerning Mark:

“The point of the miracle parable is, for Jesus, that the food already present—already present and not divinely delivered like, say, the manna from heaven as in Exodus 14—is more than enough for everyone when it passes through his own hands exercising God’s distributive justice for God’s people on God’s earth. The point is also, for Mark, that the Twelve as community leaders have denied their own responsibility for that process. But the story is always and ever about real food as the material basis for life in this world. It is never just about food. It is always about just food.” (p. 227)

That he assumes this story is a parable is a guarantee that he misses the meaning. Just food is an issue that comes up in the New Testament, such as in Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-34 (at least, as an implication); 6:1-7; 1 Corinthians 11:21-22, 33-34; 1 Timothy 5:9-16, but there is no reason to suppose that such is the theme here. When this same story is referenced in 6:51-52; 8:17-21, this notion of distributive justice is nowhere to be found. Similarly, the failure of the disciples brought up in this context and others has nothing to do with such a responsibility, but with a lack of understanding Jesus’ identity.

“Next, here is the major difference between Mark and John in this miracle parable. The remainder of John 6 reduces—that verb is carefully chosen—that story to a visual aid for the long discourse that follows it (6:14-59). And that discourse by Jesus refers exclusively to the loaves and not to the fishes.” (p. 228)

Carefully chosen, he says. Crossan should try being more careful. What is more likely is that John is following the theme of Jesus as the Wisdom/Word of God that he established in chapter 1. [26] Jesus not only speaks the Word, he is the Word incarnate. Scholars have often noted that the term, especially from the divine perspective, encompasses both speech and action, word and deed. In other words, Jesus does what he is. The significance of the signs is that they are the physical manifestation of Jesus’ identity who in his very person (by virtue of being the Wisdom/Word Incarnate) brings heaven and earth together. He is the Bread of Life who gives bread, he is the Truth who speaks truth, he is the Light who gives sight to the blind, and he is the Resurrection and the Life who gives life to the dead. [27] This observation means the following statement from Crossan is a false dichotomy: “John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus.” (229)

Crossan also has this rather peculiar idea that John was written not only as an attack parable against the Jews, but as a challenge parable to Mark and the other Synoptics about the resurrection. For some reason, Lazarus in John 11 is actually supposed to be a negative foil for Jesus in John 20. In other words, following the supposed precedent of John 6 downgrading the feeding miracle to a mere “visual aid” to a spiritual truth, Lazarus is the mere visual aid to the spiritual truth of Jesus. (235) Why this interpretation should be accepted over seeing the raising of Lazarus as a climactic sign pointing to Jesus’ own resurrection as well as a demonstration of Jesus’ identity (given the earlier point about Jesus as Word/Wisdom), is unclear. Furthermore, if John similarly challenges the Synoptics on the return of Jesus because of his presence through the Spirit (237, 239), it is curious that there are still pointers in John to Jesus being involved in the final resurrection and final judgment (John 5:25-29; 6:39-40, 44, 54).


Much of the Epilogue is a summary of what has already been said and so nothing new need be said about it here. However, his closing points are worthy of note. Since he has opened up the possibility of telling fictional stories about historical characters (which seems to be what he meant by the misused term “parable”), he has also raised the question of if Jesus is a fictional character as well. He mitigates this possibility by arguing that Jesus did exist as a historical figure (pointing to the evidence of Josephus, Tacitus, and his evaluation of the value of the Gospels). He does think that something is actually at stake in such a debate since what could be lost if Jesus was not historical is, “Nothing more or less than an actual life of nonviolent distributive justice as the revelation of the character of God.” (251) Therein he sees the challenge of Jesus. “If any one human being can do anything in life and death, other human beings can do likewise….The power of Jesus’ historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.” (252)

At best, Crossan’s claim might be true, but ultimately reductionistic. Whether one is Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, there are multiple theological problems to be seen here. I only point to a few of them. One, what ultimately convinces Crossan that Jesus is the revelation of the character of God if the Gospels are not considered to speak truly on the character of Jesus in many (most?) instances? Two, if Crossan understands as implicitly or explicitly claiming to be such a revelation, why should he regard this kind of claim as truthful? Three, while it is clearly true that the life of Jesus is of vital importance (otherwise the traditions about him would not have been passed on), the earliest Christians believed it was so because of how it led into his crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation (which involved assertions of him being Messiah and Lord; these facts clearly demonstrated from the shape the gospel proclamations took). Furthermore, he was not only to be thought of as a revelation of the character of God because of his excellent virtue, but because—as each of the Gospels communicate in their own ways—he was thought of as, somehow, YHWH in the flesh. [28] Take these elements away and you take away the real challenges of Jesus. Four, along this same track, if such is the essence of the challenge of Jesus, why was he ever proclaimed as Lord? Five, if Crossan’s claim of what is at stake is true, the stakes are quite low. Are there not other examples such as the more modern Ghandi or Martin Luther King (to whom he appeals as an analogy) or others whose names are less widely known? Could not even the earliest Church in Acts be appealed to here? What sets Jesus apart? Why would he not be one case among others? Six, on what grounds does Crossan believe that Jesus cooperated fully with God? Additionally, who is this God if not the one revealed in Jesus as the Gospels know him? If there is dilution, where is this God present or not present in the Gospels?

There is of course an edge of ethical challenge to Jesus from his teachings and his enactment of those teachings and the New Testament clearly recognizes such as there are prominent themes of imitatio Christi and even what might be called participatio Christi throughout. [29] But these ethical challenges are undergirded by stronger claims than Crossan is willing to make.

[1] In a similar vein, he says metaphors are the “tectonic plates” of language. (8)

[2] On transphysicality, see N. T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 477-478, 604-607.

[3] Ibid., 658.

[4] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic,
2012), 40-81 provides a helpful survey of scholarship cutting against this separation in one way or another.

[5] Madeleine Boucher, The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study, Catholic Biblical Quarterly
Monograph Series 6 (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1977), 20-21.

[6] Blomberg, 64-65, 190-191.

[7] Ibid., 45-46. Also see Boucher, 60, 83. The message and the problem of blindness/deafness/hard-heartedness is seen in the OT, where their opposites are faith and repentance (Deuteronomy 29:2-4; Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 2:4-5, 7; 3:7).

[8] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 159.

[9] Ibid., 160-161. Also see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 236.

[10] Snodgrass, 160.

[11] Ibid., 162-163. Also Boucher, 24: “It is now possible to address the crucial question to which much of the research on parables is directed: why is it that the parables were understood as mysterious in this ancient Jewish and Christian literature? The answer is that it is precisely because they employ the tropical mode of meaning.”

[12] Snodgrass, 351.

[13] Ibid., 352.

[14] Note that Snodgrass also adds the Parable of the Unjust Steward to this category.

[15] One could also consider the case of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute held in honor among the Jews.

[16] As similar as these stories are, there are enough differences between them that they may be two different parables rather than iterations of one. Snodgrass, 531 notes parables with similar themes in Matthew 24:45-51; Mark 13:34-36; Matthew 21:33-45//Mark 12:1-12//Luke 20:9-18.

[17] For more on covenant and eschatological redemption in Jewish theology of the time, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 268-279.

[18] For more on Jesus’ prophetic message of judgment and vindication, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 8.

[19] Ben Witherington III, Jesus, Paul and the End of the World: A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992). Also see N. T. Wright’s summary in New Testament, 459-464.

[20] One could say that a fairer comparison is Wright’s New Testament for Everyone commentary series, where Wright does not tend to cite sources. Still, he does interact with other viewpoints there.

[21] In his Epilogue, he of course avers that the Gospels contain, one might say, a kernel of the historical Jesus which is surrounded by a husk of fiction. Though why he could not have said that earlier and instead resort to using the unhelpful label of “megaparables”, is unclear.

[22] It is unclear how the notion that the Gospels are parables affects Crossan’s own analysis. Crossan’s summaries of the Gospels are in some ways unusual, but even these unusual qualities are not clearly traceable to understanding the Gospels as parables specifically.

[23] For more on the role of symbols in the controversies of Jesus, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 9.

[24] See JP’s intro to the issues at with links to articles elsewhere.

[25] For another summary, see On the alleged issue of anti-Semitism in early Christian writings in general, see the essays in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

[27] George R. Beasley-Murray, John, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 36, eds. David A.
Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 10; Fred W. Burnett,“Wisdom,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 876-877; Andreas J. Kรถstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 51; Herman C. Waetjen, “Logos Pros Ton Theon and the Objectification of Truth in the Prologue of
the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63.2 (April 2001): 278.

[28] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, ch. 13. Also see his The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), ch. 5.

[29] For some good resources on such themes, I recommend Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFranscisco, 1996); Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003); and Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image (2 vols.) The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (2 Vols.) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009, 2010).

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