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JESUS: WORD AND DEED TOGETHER… FOREVER
“In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone,
not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked
with the other forever”
(John Crossan 1991:xi)
John Dominic Crossan is a leading, progressive, biblical scholar.
Depending on one’s theological persuasion, some would say, ‘the best’!
Others don’t/won’t even mention his name.
(Evangelical N. T. Wright seems to be leading this mob).
In his 500+ page book on the ‘historical’ Jesus, published 25 years ago,
(and usually referred to as ‘big Jesus’, because his second book on Jesus
was a much slimmer publication, known as 'little Jesus') he weaves this story…
“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee. He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession” (Crossan 1991:xi).
I tell this Crossan story because today’s biblical storyteller, a bloke we also call John,
has told his similar sounding, yet different, story:
“He came in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
“He came to what was his own, and his own people
did not accept him. But to all who received him,
who believed in his name, he gave power
to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13, NRSV).
Both stories are interpretations, imaginative reconstructions, of the one we call Yeshua/Jesus and the past.
One is mystic, perhaps even gnostic.
The other, everyday, ordinary - even secular.
While not my favourite, the bloke I will call biblical John, is
an interesting theological storyteller.
It is from biblical John we hear some of the most memorable sayings attributed to, or about, Jesus:
• God so love the world that he gave his only son…
• In my Father’s house there are many mansions…
• I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…
John’s audience seems to be mostly made up of Judeans
influenced by a multicultural lifestyle shaped by Greek thinking.
While his primary purpose in being a storyteller/theologian
is to get this audience to think theologically on various God-events.
Not having the scientific knowledge we have today, it does
make cosmological sense to him and other biblical storytellers
“to talk about God or messengers of God coming to Earth to speak to humans in dreams or special religious experiences. This is the religiously significant universe constructed out of experience and the cultural thought patterns available… two thousand years ago” (Peters 2002:127).
However, unlike in John Crossan’s story, there is little to no ‘historical’ Jesus material in these writings.
Instead, Jesus is nearly always presented as ‘divine’.
Indeed, according to biblical John, Jesus himself
“voices the fully developed Christian conviction about who he is” (Fortna 2002:223).
So that’s the first thing we need to remember when we hear or read biblical John.
It’s the stuff orthodox or ‘correct’ belief,
and the Nicene Creed, are all about.
Jesus being divine!
The second thing we need to remember is, biblical John begins
his reconstructed story of Jesus – or of the ‘Christ of faith’ - within
the matrix of late first-century Judaism.
A culture dominated by the actions and power of the Roman Empire.
• military power: the monopoly or control of force and violence;
• economic power: the monopoly or control of labour and production;
• political power: the monopoly or control of organisation and institution;
• ideological power: the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning (Crossan 2007:12-15).
I must say I like John Crossan as a storyteller.
And having spent six days and 18 lectures/presentations with him
in Melbourne and Sydney (Australia) some time back, I also have great respect
for his intellectual honesty.
Crossan’s Jesus is very much ‘human’. The subtitle of his ‘big Jesus’ book, for instance, is:
The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.
Crossan’s human or ‘historical’ Jesus is also more sage-like than priest-like.
And certainly not theologian-like.
A sage who spent much of his time among
the farms and villages of Lower Galilee.
A sage whose wisdom is embedded
“in his seemingly innocuous observations on the everyday world” (Funk 2002:1).
And whose worldview involved practice and not just theory,
life-style and not just mind-set.
“Not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked with the other forever” (Crossan 1991:xi).
Listening to biblical John’s story through the critical biblical thought
of the scholar called John Dominic Crossan, I want to suggest
we now need to shape a new/different ‘religious’ story.
Yes, different from the one generally available through the Bible and the Creeds, and
which reflects the fact we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age.
The old cosmology of much of the biblical stories, spanning a 1,000 years plus more,
and the traditional hymns and prayers shaped by those stories, and
their sense of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’,
is now found wanting in the main.
Our new religious thinking/story must be credible in the light of scientific understandings.
We need to feel at home in our expansive and changing universe.
And while we are created and nourished by our past, generally speaking,
we actually live in the present, and therefore need to
“come to terms with the major problems we now face if the human race is to survive into the future and flourish in that future” (Kaufman 2006:105).
Today our world community is facing many crises:
• environmental crises of pollution and climate change;
• political crises often formented by terrorist groups;
• economic crises of unemployment and burgeoning national deficits,
• not to mention natural disasters...
On the other hand there are also many positive breakthroughs:
• breakthroughs in medical science and technology;
• breakthroughs in new developments in political systems;
• breakthroughs in exciting new insights as to how to live our lives (Peters 2002:130).
Thus, I am firmly of the belief that the old religious story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus,
as conveyed by biblical John in the Fourth Gospel, has lost its appeal or authority
to shape present-day human lives.
As some religious naturalists have pointed out, regularly, as old myths, religious
and other shared narratives of humankind
"are increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible and morally irrelevant, they become less likely to fulfill their original purpose - to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life” (Rue 1999).
On the other hand, I am also firmly of the belief that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus
of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus
of profound appeal and authority by which we can
measure our humanness and humaneness.
“In this understanding of Jesus,” suggests former Harvard theologian, the late Gordon Kaufman,
“…no supernatural authority or extrahuman power… is invoked to compel our attention… The important point to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the [human] Jesus-model whether as churches and communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take – or fail to take – the steps to carry out that decision… Only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper openness to, as well as accountability for, not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well” (Kaufman 2006:32-34).
I reckon 2017 is going to be a watershed year in the life of progressive religion/Christianity!
Especially in those countries that have elected ‘popularist’ leaders.
So I invite you to continue the 'progressive' journey, courageously.
And I am pleased we have had this opportunity,
so early in 2017, and via a story from both Johns...
to remember that we are on that journey.
For as the Jesus of the so-called ‘heretical’ text, The Gospel of Mary
is reported to have said:
‘The child of true humanity exists within you’.
Hopefully, that is inspiration enough for us
to start asking the big questions again.
Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991/1993.
Fortuna R. T. “The Gospel of John and the historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Holy Bible. NRSV. Nashville. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.
Rue, L. Everybody's Story: Wising up to the epic of evolution. New York. State University of New York Press, 1999.