Review of The Historical Jesus by J. D. Crossan
by Michael Turton (May 29, 2003)
"It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography."-- Crossan, The Historical Jesus, p xxviii
In The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant John Dominic Crossan announced a program of what, in any other scholarly domain, might be regarded as an act of either surpassing arrogance or unexcelled madness: the singlehanded lifting of his field from the 19th century to the 21st. "Methodology in Jesus research at the end of this century is about where methodology in archaeological research was at the end of the last," he says. His book is intended as an attack on the problem of "acute scholarly subjectivity" that infests historical Jesus studies, and ultimately, discredits it.

Crossan approaches the problem of methodology by developing one of his own that is exploits cross-cultural anthropology to establish a framework that serves both in understanding what kind of environment produced Jesus, and in delimiting the boundaries of plausibility for any historical Jesus the methodology constructs. From there he moves to the text itself. This involves a three-step process of inventory (what texts are used), stratification (their temporal context), and attestation (what level of independence do we have for each datum?). This methodology relies on assumptions laid out on page xxxi: namely, that the Jesus tradition:

...contains three major layers: one of retention, recording at least the essential core of words and deeds, events and happenings; another of development, applying such data to new situations, novel problems, and unforeseen circumstances; and a final one of creation, not only composing new sayings and new stories, but, above all, composing larger complexes that changed their contents by that very process (pxxxi).
At first glance this methodology looks tiresomely familiar. After all, it still depends on determining the date of the texts, and relies on multiple attestation. It still treats Jesus as a tale that has grown with the telling. So Crossan has dressed it up with some cultural anthropology. Big deal. Underpinning it still is the historicist assumption that if we can only get at the earliest level of the story, we will find the historical core, the events that actually occurred, the ideas that Jesus actually promulgated. And beneath that, like the thousands of constantly-shifting computer-adjusted jacks that hold up Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay, is the axiom that somewhere down there is a historical core to be had.

Yet, against this, it is crucial to note that Crossan's methodology includes a very interesting step: he has broken the narrative and the sayings down into "complexes." Note that he does not explicitly state that he is performing this act as part of his methodology, nor does he raise any defense of the validity of this approach that dis-integrates complexes from the text in order to re-integrate them into a cultural milieu. He doesn't even present us with any guide to how to form complexes out of the larger story, he just does it. The fact that it is rather widely done in NT studies does not excuse the lack of a justification for its appearance in his methodological approach. We will return to this problem in a moment.

One could of the real war what Barbara Foley has said of the Holocaust -- not that it's "unknowable," but "that its full dimensions are inaccessible to the ideological frameworks that we have inherited from the liberal era." -- Paul M. Fussell, Wartime
For mythicists, such as Loisy, Leidner, Doherty, Wells, and Price, the focus -- regardless of the particular mythicist angle -- is largely on the narrative, reflecting, I believe, an unconscious but nigh-on universal presupposition that history is narrative. Discredit the narrative, the unstated premise runs, and you discredit the history. Crossan, however, poses a conundrum. For there is no question that for Crossan the narrative as such is, by and large, of dubious historicity. Crossan proposes a methodology that treats the whole problem of narrative historicity the way the panzers dismissed the Maginot Line: the narrative as such is not merely ahistorical, it is rendered almost totally irrelevant to the problem of determining who the historical Jesus was. Or so it appears.

Crossan's methodology is thus an answer to the problem of what to do with a narrative that is obviously fictional, at least in part. And the answer is simple: design the methodology so the importance of narrative as such is minimized. Cut it up into "complexes" that can be treated each as a separate historical datum, that instead of speaking to history as a narrative, speaks to cross-cultural anthropology as a sociopolitical datum.

This sets up a "hidden" reply to the mythicists in Crossan, a sort of declaration that no matter how thoroughly the gospel narrative has been discredited -- and I think it has reached the point that it can safely be declared almost entirely ahistorical -- you have not disposed of the historical data. You must confront both the sayings collections in the gospels as historical data and the narrative as sociopolitical data. No mythicist has done that in any kind of systematic way. Indeed, most go the opposite route, dismissing the sayings as inventions of interested communities or imports from earlier times and climes, and focusing on the narrative as historical data. This is, in light of Crossan's methodology, only a step up from puncturing holes in biblical inerrantism. By thus shifting the ground, Crossan apparently renders the mythicists impotent in an entirely different way from writers like Meier or Sanders. Or so it appears.

Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves.
Crossan's prose is one of the great pleasures of interacting with Crossan. So firm in its knowledge, so knowing in its persuasiveness, so persuasive in its certainty, so certain in its moral weight, it presents itself to the reader as a safe harbor in a sea of fraudulent documents, unreliable texts, uncertain dating, and unconvincing methodologies. Early in the book Crossan declares:
I talk of original, developmental, and compositional layers, or of retention, development, and creation, but I reject absolutely any pejorative language for those latter processes. Jesus left behind him thinkers, not memorizers, disciples, not reciters, people, not parrots.
The poetic force of the passage is so powerful one misses that fact that Crossan has failed to present any rational argument as to why we should forego labeling "creativity" what it is: forgery. The reader could be forgiven for thinking that Crossan has not actually conceded that Jesus followers forged and fictioned in his holy name. Since the contrary position is indefensible, Crossan's only move is to refuse to countenance any realistic language on the matter, thus denying the forces of critical thought a toehold by deploying a massive airstrike of moral indignation against the artillery of realistic description.

But where he suppresses the tongue, he also seduces the ear. Listen:

Is the passion narrative from history or from prophecy?...I remind you of the difference between prophecy and history by comparing these twin texts on the passion of Jesus:(p375)
Crossan sternly reminds us, in case our thinking has strayed into territory forbidden to us, and we sit dumbly like Theoden at Orthanc before Saruman and Gandalf, awaiting his judgment.  And what does he remind us with?
(1) For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3).
(2) Our Lord is...truly nailed [to a tree: not in the Greek text] in the flesh for our sakes under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch. (Ignatius of Antioch, To the Smyrnaeans 1:2)(p375, emphasis in original).
Crossan than lays down his definition:
In both cases Jesus died for us, but in the former according to the Scriptures, in the latter according to the decree of Pilate and Antipas.
So deftly is the parallel drawn, so economically does the prose uncoil, so swiftly does the thought strike, that the reader hardly notices that the second quote does not say that at all. Crossan simply declares that it does. And therein lies a major problem.
"At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U.S...."
The most troubling aspects of The Historical Jesus intertwine like snakes in spring mating: the use of declarations as a substitute for argument, the suspension of the methodology where it specifically disallows the conclusions Crossan desires, the failure of Crossan to supply any clear method for determining the independence of attestation in the texts, and the lack of compelling connections between the plausibility of a particular historical Jesus reconstruction and the reality of Crossan's assertions.

Consider the long passage on p. 358 and p. 359 where Crossan considers the problem of "destroy the temple -- raise it three days" predictions.

That is surely a fascinating unit. its importance is signaled by the double "his disciples remembered" after each of its two component parts. That gloss indicates, I presume, some trouble with those twin units, some initial lack of understanding or misunderstanding that had to be explained by later comprehension.
Three paragraphs than follow. Remember, Crossan has presumed that the differing treatments of this problematic saying arise from a misunderstanding of putative original words of Jesus by the community and its authors.
First of all, however, is the fact that "house" appears in all three independent sources, in Gospel of Thomas...Mark 11:17... and John 2:16. In both those later cases it is appended as immediate explanation of the action of Jesus. I conclude, provisionally, that the action was originally -- that is, at least prior to those three sources -- accompanied by some saying about "house."
The problem here should be clear. Are Thomas, Mark, and John independent? Mark and Thomas are almost certainly related somehow, either directly or throw a common source, John and Mark are almost certainly directly related, and some scholars have seen connections between John and Thomas. Second, and much worse, he is now waffling between literary analysis and historical exegesis. To the extent that Crossan's sayings complexes represent sociopolitical attitudes, they cannot represent historical events. If the saying has undergone modification and redaction by the authors, than any context it has is pointless as narrative -- though it might be useful as a sociopolitical datum. In other words, with this interpretation, Crossan wants to maintain that the saying has undergone literary evolution but the context, action+saying, has not. Clearly that is indefensible -- the complexes cannot be literary-cum-sociopolitical data when Crossan wants them to be, and then suddenly revert to narrative history whenever he requires. Worse still, as he points out, only two of the sources -- John and Mark -- retain the action. According to his methodology, two probably dependent sources --which he regards as independent -- would be very weak indeed.

It should be clear, then, why Crossan chose misunderstanding to be the problem he was trying to solve. Almost any other choice would have required him to chose both the saying and its context for literary analysis, threatening the narrative history. By choosing misunderstanding, Crossan limited the problem to the saying itself, retaining the context without judgment so as to preserve historicity. We'll return to misunderstanding in a moment.

The next paragraph:

Second, that double "his disciples remembered" in John 2:17, 22 draws attention to the fact that his account has both an action accompanied by a "house" saying to be explained by later remembrance in 2:14-17 and, separately, another saying to be explained also by later remembrance in 2:18-22....[goes on to explain differing treatments by Mark and John]
and then proposes a solution:
Behind all that development, I propose the following trajectory. The earliest recoverable stratum involved an action symbolically destroying the Temple, as in Mark 11:15-16 and John 2:14-16a, and a saying announcing what was happening, "I will destroy this house utterly beyond repair," as in Gospel of Thomas 71. Thereafter, the tradition tended to separate action and saying along separate lines of interpretation. That original saying was replaced by positive by divergent biblical references, attached to and explaining the action. And the original but now separated saying itself was recast to apply either to parousia, as rejected by Mark, or to resurrection, as accepted by John, in whom both streams are present.
Having presented the development of the saying, he then offers his conclusion:
I conclude, therefore, that an action and equal saying involving the Temple's symbolic desruction goes back to the historical Jesus himself but that any biblical references or applications to the Temple's actual destruction, the resurrection, or the parousia are later explanations of an action considered enigmatic to begin with and rendered even more so by the Temple's actual destruction in 70 CE.
Remember, Crossan began with the idea that the saying had been misunderstood. He then gives a history of what happened to the saying, in his view, and concludes that the changes are due to it being an enigmatic saying to begin with. After a whirlwind tour of three gospels in Crossan's lucid, liquid prose, studded with strong, convincing sentences cascading forth one after another like railway track laid with mad speed in a Roadrunner cartoon, the reader could perhaps be forgiven for not noticing that Crossan never demonstrated the saying was enigmatic anywhere in the discussion. He simply bypasses the whole problem. Nor does he supply any methodological principle or concept of preservation that would compel his conclusion about the split between action and saying. Indeed, looking at Thomas 71, it is easy to see the terse "I will [destroy this] house beyond repair" as an attempt to clean up the verse by removing its embarrassing reference to raising it up again in three days, a later, not earlier, evolutionary development. It is also noteworthy that many scholars take the commonsense view that the entire saying was invented after the destruction of the Temple. All of this simply goes by the board.

On page 310 Crossan once again suspends his methodology at will. He writes about miracles:

We have no textual gospel of miracles similar to that textual Gospel of sayings. Furthermore, while we have as high as sixfold independent attestation in the primary stratum of sayings, we never get higher than twofold for that of the miracles. And the closest we get to a triple attestation is in the second stratum (appendix 6). One might almost conclude that miracles come into the tradition later rather than earlier, as creative confirmation rather than as original data. I think, however, that such a conclusion would be completely wrong. The better explanation is just the opposite. Miracles were, at a very early stage, being washed out of the tradition and, when retained, were being very carefully interpreted.
In other words, even where methodological concerns compel certain conclusions, we are free to disregard them if we don't like the conclusions or where somebody else has another methodology. Note too the ambiguity: does tradition refer to some putative oral matrix, or does it refer to the later literature? It would be hard to imagine that the miracles were pared down and controlled in the oral versions! When he wants to, Crossan can deploy ambiguity as deftly as clarity.

Here we also encounter that constant tension in The Historical Jesus between complexes as sociopolitical data and complexes as narrative history. Crossan rejects the Passion Narrative as narrative history because it is built up out of OT proof-texts. However, as many scholars have noted, so are the miracle stories. Crossan wants them to go back to a tradition of Jesus-as-healer stories. Yet Randel Helms observes in Gospel Fictions (1988) that the healing stories are also drawn from OT tradition as well and appear to be inventions of the Gospel writers. Crossan apparently wants his sociopolitical complexes to do double duty as historical narrative, which requires that he ignore a methodological stance he adheres to in other situations.

In tackling this complex, Crossan flop-flips between these two positions. On one hand he reads the story about the Temple as sociopolitical data, symbolically -- Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple in symbolic terms, and then later it was physcially destroyed, and the two stories merged.

But at the same time Crossan won't give up the narrative history. He just can't let it go. On the very next page, like a killer performing mouth-to-mouth on his victim, he then goes on to try to revive the narrative by speculating that Jesus made this speech (or some other egalitarian speech) in the Temple during festival and that is what got him arrested. This preserves the sequence of Temple-Disturbance-Arrest in the gospels, which he has just discredited by treating it as a mix-up between the  symbolic and the real.

For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California. That is, according to the present theory. I don't mean to suggest that California was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces we call California nothing whatever was there. -- John McPhee, Assembling California
Central to Crossan's methodology are questions of stratigraphy, yet the whole issue is dealt with in a single paragraph in the introduction. In an appendix Crossan parcels out the NT literature to various chronological strata. This appears, on the surface, to be a rational move. The question of how dates are arrived at is really almost secondary; as Crossan notes in The Birth of Christianity, since there's no escape from making decisions about dates. Setting the question of chronology aside for the nonce, how is it possible to assign "strata" to documents that have been redacted and edited for decades over the course of early Christian history? The gospels do not exist as rough slabs in a chronological matrix, but are more like intrusive features in the province of NT literature, vast dikes of accretion and redaction, borrowing and recasting that slash across two centuries, as incestuously familiar with each other as the in-clique at a school dance. This familiarity, in my view, is fatal to Crossan's idea of multiple attestation: it just doesn't exist.
"Greek?" said Michelson, "is he Greek, then?"
"Oh, don't you know? chuckled Britt, "Listen. There was once a part of Greek thinkers -- this was around the time of Aristotle -- who sat up all night having a furious argument about the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. Unable to agree, they went out and collared a passer-by -- an Arab. He listened attentively to all their arguments, and then without saying a word, he walked away. He returned in a few moments, however, and told them the correct answer. 'How did you decide?' they cried. 'Whose was the better argument, the sounder logic?' 'Logic be damned,' he says, 'I've just been round the back to the stable and counted 'em.'" -- Ian Williamson, Chemical Plant
In The Birth of Christianity Crossan asks of Meier's famous criteria: "First, how are those five criteria theoretically based?" (p144). One could as well ask the same question of Crossan's methodology. What "theory" links cross-cultural anthropology and the Gospels? What theory links plausible constructions of Jesus to the reality of his existence? None of this is underpinned by theory, but by a not-very-well explicated mixture of common sense, accepted techniques of literary and NT analysis, and other empirical methods. In short, Crossan's methodology has no more theoretical underpinning than Meier's. Perhaps the whole issue of theory should be suspended until someone develops a methodology that actually works. We can worry about theory when we have a success to validate it.

Does Crossan offer us this success? No. A working assumption of his, denied in the introduction but common throughout the text, is apparently that the earliest stratum contains items that are somehow connected to the historical Jesus, but the topology of connection varies with each complex of sayings. In most cases he simply declares, like Emperor Norton, what the situation should be after examination of the verses in question. The reader's critical thinking apparatus is treated like Austria confronting Hitler; it is simply adumbrated and obliterated by Crossan's confident certitude.

This certitude is, I think, the result of Crossan's methodology. It forces him to make a twofold move, from the wider issues of Palestinian and Mediterranean culture to the nails-and-wood and bread-and-fish of the early Christian movement, and from historical possibility to historical probability. In performing this double dance, from macro to micro, and from plausibility to actuality, stumbling is almost inevitable, for the macro-micro relationship is one of the thorniest and most contested in the social sciences. The Historical Jesus, already hefty at more than 500 pages, is probably too short to even touch on the problem. Yet there it is: Crossan's methodology nowhere proffers a way to look at specific complexes and extract the Jesus of history, to bridge that macro-micro, plausibility-actuality gap. That is why, too often, he is forced to slip in phrases like "I presume..." and "It is not impossible that..." or "but the original saying, as in the Sayings Gospel Q version, goes back to Jesus" which simply register an interesting but methodologically sterile opinion. It is all he can offer.

Crossan shuttles between literary analysis being mined for sociopolitical data, and historical analysis being mined to build narrative history. But his methodology trips him up on this point: to read each and every word as charged with sociopolitical significance is to deny the narrative any possibility of historicity; it treats each item in the gospels as though one were analyzing each shot of a film, all carefully controlled by the director. In other words, Crossan's methodology not only explicity denies the historicity of the narrative, it implicity affirms that the gospels in every aspect are theopolitical constructions. If they were not, his methodological approach would fail. If they were not, the complexes would track actual history and could not be analyzed as complexes spun into narrative for theological and political purposes. In other words, what emerges instead is not a trajectory of history, but a cat's cradle composed of strands of theological politicking. The alert reader will note that for his security of fact he's forced to travel outside the NT and visit Josephus and Tacitus. The moral: there's no secure history anywhere in the NT. It's turtles all the way down.

Ultimately, because Crossan's methodology is driven by a combination of ambiguous empirical factors, unsupported methodological assumptions and, above all, his brilliantly expressed opinion, its resolution is too low to bring the historical Jesus into focus. Indeed, it is hard to determine whether Crossan has Jesus under his microscope, or whether, like the hapless Thurber in his humorous recollections of college biology, he has simply drawn the reflection of his own eye. The fact is that there is nothing in the Christian traditions about Jesus that is not amenable to explanation as post hoc invention by furiously scribbling theological writers involved in internal political struggles and external conversion processes. Except, perhaps the "brute fact of Crucifixion." Just whose crucifixion, of course, remains the question that no methodology has yet approached.