Saturday, 22 October 2011

More Lives of Jesus 4: Crossan and Reed

So, after John Carroll's existential midrash on the life of Jesus, we return to a more typical type of contemporary midrash, the historical reconstruction.  Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L Reed represents a detailed forensic examination of historical evidence in the tradition of the Jesus Seminar, of which Crossan was co-chair for a decade.  Crossan is perhaps the more famous of this pair of authors, known for his New Testament scholarship and his reconstructions of Jesus' life and the first century church.  Reed, while lower profile, appears to be just as distinguished in academic terms and specialises in Palestinian archaeology. Within the dual focus of their sub-title, the division of labour seems clear - Reed deals with stones, Crossan with texts.

It is the combination of the two which provides the power and fascination of this book.  The archaeology of first century Palestine can't tell us much in particular about Jesus, but it can give us a vivid picture of his place and times.  The key is to dig to the right level and distinguish the buildings and other material remains of the first century.  By analogy, the authors use the same process for the texts.  These have at least four layers - the original words and deeds of Jesus; the oral accounts and memories which circulated amongst his first followers; the first written records of these, in the gospel of Mark, the presumed "Q" gospel which provided extra material for Matthew and Luke, the writings of Paul, and later but independent non-canonical writings such as the gospels of Peter and Thomas and the Didache; and as a fouth layer the additions and editorial glosses of the later Biblical writers themselves. 

The authors use these layers to perform a kind of triangulation.  If something appears (perhaps in different form but with the same content) in more than one of the third layer sources (say, in both Mark's gospel and Thomas's) then it probably comes from a source that precedes them.  If it only appears in one, it is more likely to be a later addition.  The authors acknowledge that this is a controversial procedure and take a reasonably humble approach to it, but the items they identify are those most widely agreed to originate with Jesus himself or his immediate followers.  This is then placed in the historical context revealed by archaeology and the early historians, particularly Josephus and to a lesser extent Philo.

What emerges is this.  The core of Jesus' message, the Kingdom of God, was an act of non-violent but far from passive resistance against the Kingdom of Rome.  Against the heirarchy of the Roman empire, symbolised by its palaces and fortresses in which the subjects came to the Emperor (or his representatives) and bowed before him, Jesus opposed a centreless regime in which he travelled to the people, lived with them and served them where they were.  Against the merchantile empire of Rome which concentrated wealth in the cities and in the hands of the few, Jesus opposed a communal life in which possessions were shared and justice and equality reigned.  Against the Roman claim to ownership of the land Jesus opposed God's covenantal ownership in which the people of Israel were stewards.  Jesus chose neither the path of violent resistance of the Zealots, nor the withdrawal of the Essenes, but lived out his message with his followers right under the eyes of the Roman and Jewish authorities.

This mode of resistence meant that he, like his predecessor John the Baptist, was openly challenging the Roman system and its Jewish collaborators, and was destined ultimately for punishment - especially when he went to Jerusalem and directly challenged them through the cleansing of the Temple.  This is also why only he was executed at the time - if he had led a violent resistence, his followers would also have been slaughtered, but for a non-violent protest it was enough to execute the leader and hope the followers would then disperse.  Of course they didn't, and many were executed in later years in a further attempt to stamp out the movement.

Which of course brings us to the resurrection, and what to me is Crossan and Reed's most interesting chapter in this fascinating and vivid book.  They accept for the sake of argument that the resurrection occurred and ask instead the historical question - what did it mean?  In its first century Jewish context, they are clear that there were a number of things it didn't mean.  It didn't mean resuscitation, for instance, a nearly dead person returning to life.  Nor did it mean an "apparition" - a ghost or spirit talking with his followers from the land of the dead - or exaltation, the spirit of the person being caught up to be with God.  All these things were well understood in the ancient world and are different to what was said about Jesus.

The resurrection, in their view, is intimately linked with his earthly program - his role as an eschatological or apocalyptic prophet.  The just, holy kingdom promised by the prophets involved the resurrection of the martyrs, those who had died in earlier times as a result of their faithfulness to God.  Jesus' resurrection was the herald, the beginning, of this more general resurrection of God's servants, which would surely follow.  It was in expectation of this completed resurrection that the disciples, under the leadership of Peter and of Jesus' brother James, gathered in Jerusalem to wait.  It was also in expectation of this that Paul and his companions travelled throughout the empire, announcing the coming of this Kingdom to Jew and pagan alike.

In the process, they present us with a first century take on that most common piece of modern apologetics, the fearlessness of the disciples and rapid growth of the Church as evidence for the resurrection.  In our post-Enlightenment world view, they say, "impossibility battles with uniqueness" - the miracles and resurrection appear improbable, but Christians argue that they are one-off, unique events attested to by their followers' passion.  In the first century this argument would have been totally irrelevant.  The miracles and resurrection would be seen as neither impossible, nor as unique.  No-one would have had any trouble believing them and most ancient religions involved similar claims.  Instead, the arguments of the early Christians centred around the question of superiority.  For believers, the clincher was not the truth of the events, but the superiority of the message they conveyed - the reality of the liberation and justice that flowed from the Kingdom of God, enacted in their own believing communities.  Those who remained inconvinced remained so primarily because they could not see the value of this message, not because they disputed its truth.

Hence the midrash.  As for them, the authors are implying, so for us.  By building the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of Jesus' grave, with the magnificent architecture of a Roman palace, Constantine transformed Christianity from a radical challenge to the Kingdom of Rome into a mirror of it.  No longer did the Christian church go out among the people and create a kingdom of justice and shared wealth.  Now people came to the palatial church, built with the wealth of Constantine's merchantile empire, and paid homage there to the twin powers of Church and State.  It made the church safe, not to mention rich and powerful, but what became of Jesus' message?

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