The Authentic Jesus?

Classes at LSTC (the seminary I attend) begin in earnest on Monday. Because I am in the midst of taking clinical pastoral education this semester, I am only taking one formal course — Systematic Theology II. I have not, as of today, been all that impressed with systematic theology as an endeavor. But I have never been all that impressed with speculative philosophy, particularly the self-important and deliberately opaque language of most philosophers.

At any rate, our first assignment involves reading chapters 1,7,8 and 9 of John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus. This is my reflection or reaction the reading, much longer than the one page, double spaced reflection we are supposed to write. (I don’t know how anyone can adequately reflect on substantive readings in 250 words, but maybe there’s a skill there worth learning…) So, I’ll put initial reactions on the blog, and see what happens.

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It’s difficult to suss what John Dominic Crossan is trying to do in the four chapters of The Historical Jesus assigned as reading this week. Not difficult to figure out the implications of each of the chapters by themselves. But difficult to determine what exactly they mean together.

In the first chapter, Crossan provides an etiology for honor/shame societies, explaining why they come into being.

Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women.” (p.15)

There are parts of this definition that I agree with wholeheartedly, and parts that seem dubious.

I’d never given the idea that honor/shame originated somewhere much of a thought. It had always struck me as an unfortunate residue of familial and tribal life, in which a distinction between an “us” and a “them” was essential to social standing and survival. As a worldview, it seems to make sense that it would arise in the contradiction of competition for resources while having to cooperate in providing marriagable women to those not “us.” Except peasant families are hardly as nuclear as Crossan suggests. In places that are deeply tribal/familial today (places I am familiar with), such as rural and small town Saudi Arabia (which, despite the size of its five or six major urban areas, is a large portion of the country), most marriages are within extended families. In Qassim, the rural heartland of modern Saudi Arabia, fully 70% of all marriages today are between first cousins. I have known members of prominent tribes and clans where male cousins have married sisters, and the kingdom’s ruling family — the Aal Sauds — have intermarried extensively with the Ahl al-Sheikh, the descendants of Ibn Wahhab, cementing the relationship between the religious and political elite and making it difficult at times to tell where one extended family begins and the other ends.

Only in the country’s major cities — Jeddah, Riyadh, Damman — do people have a chance to meet and marry people they aren’t related to (even distantly). And then this happens largely among the emerging bourgeois, a class of well-educated women (better educated than their male counterparts) with professional jobs who have left family and tribe as behind as they can. The rich and the poor, for different reasons, tend to be more tightly bound to social expectations. (I have a similar understanding, but a great deal less experience, of this kind of thing in both Pakistan and Palestine.) In Jesus’ time, think Alexandria.

So, if Crossan’s Mediterranean is anything like modern Muslim tribal life as it straddles both custom and modernity, tradition and empire, I would expect a fair amount of marriage within extended families, and thus not much desire or need to cooperate with any “them.” So, I’m not sure I buy the thesis of this dialectic between competition and cooperation. That honor/shame vests individual and social value in female virginity and virtue (at least of some women) is clear. I’m still not sure I agree with Crossan as to this cause.

I also take issue with Crossan’s limitation of honor/shame culture to pastoralists of the Mediterranean, where pastoralists must compete for scarce resources with agriculture and where their surpluses are extracted for the benefit of city dwellers. If these are objective criteria, one would expect to see honor/shame societies develop just about anywhere such economic/social/political conditions existed, from Songhay to Mohenjo-Daro to the Maya. The matter is not the physical location (how close one is to the Mediterranean) but rather the orientation and sophistication of the economy. He does not explain, for example, the existence of honor/shame among the Scots-Irish, for example, who brought the concept to North America and who have been its most persistent and violent bearers here. Nor does this idea explain the persistence of honor/shame among people who are no longer pastoralists or small farmers. Can honor/shame become an imperial idea? What does honor/shame mean in the first, second and third world? What do the Scots-Irish living in rural, small-town and suburban American have in common with the Pashtu and/or the tribal peoples of the Asir region between Saudi Arabia and Yemen? All are honor/shame to some extent, and there are likely more commonalities if this matter is given thought.

On the matter of peasants, Crossan does better, describing them as people for whom everything

“land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply.” (p.127)

Again, the peasant’s economic life is arranged for the benefit of someone else. In the context of empire, Crossan sees peasants as always dominated and somewhere between injustice and revolt (the spiral of violence, p. 124). However, I have a serious disagreement with Crossan’s quote from Scott — does he really expect the same peasants who are deeply steeped in concepts of honor/shame to truly be “radical” in any sense of the word? Peasants are small-holders; ownership or some kind of socially recognized tenure to land is what distinguishes the peasant from the various forms of sharecropping — peasants do not work on latifundia. They would have the interests of those who want to be landowners or who see themselves as exploited landowners. To put this in modern language, their desire is not revolution to re-arrange society, but merely to get what they believe is their fair share from their own labor without the interference of those who rule. The peasant may understand that the upward transfer of wealth makes elite life possible, but a typical peasant doesn’t want wealth redistributed to others. He or she wants to keep what is theirs.

There are also many peasants in the modern world who live in geographic margins. That is, places where the writ of whatever state claims sovereignty over them and the physical space they inhabit doesn’t effectively run. Again, the lands of the Pashtu on both sides of the alleged international frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the mountainous region between Saudi Arabia and Yemen are places where peasants (both rural and small town) have managed to live with minimal interference from the state. Or rather, they are places where the state’s laws and state institutions do not and cannot work very well and the state, in order to function, must become one more tribe among many. Tribal custom trumps law, feud and armed cohort trump police and army, and the border — no matter how policed or how walled up — means little in terms of familial connection and trade (both legal and illegal). Indeed, as is seen in Pakistan right now, the attempt by the state to impose its rules as the state elicit a great deal more resistance (the Pakistani army cannot fight Pashtu militias, and the Saudi army knows better than to fight Asiri tribes). Even with conquest and subjugation and the overt brutality of its rule, I would still expect most Roman governance to understand its limitations and exercise a great deal more indirect control when it could (it was cheaper). In this, peasants have a great deal more room for maneuver than do city dwellers in negotiating how they will deal with rule from the center.

That said, the latter half of the chapter describes the shape of peaceful resistance, repression and revolt typical of so many colonial relationships in the 20th century. (Algeria comes to mind.) All most conquered people ask is for fairness, some respect and the ability to govern themselves according to their own rules. But then, it wouldn’t be empire if the center granted that, would it?

Crossant’s definition of magic is one of several I have come across.

The title magician is not used here as a prejorative word but describes one who can make divine power present directly through personal miracle rather than indirectly through communal ritual. … Magic, like myth, is a word and a process that demands reclamation from the language of sneer and jeer. Magic is used here as a neutral description for an authentic religious phenomenon, and its potential abuse no more destroys its validity than do similar possibilities elsewhere.” (p.138)

(Replace the word “divine” with “daemonic” and you have the definition of magic used by British military historian Gerald Suster in his book Hitler and the Age of Horus, which details the 19th century occult origins of Nazi ideology and religion.) The problem, however, is not that magic and myth aren’t taken seriously enough — it’s that they are taken far too seriously, by both conservative polemicist and critical theorist alike. In naming religious power used by someone outside a sanctioned religious establishment, Crossan is making an interesting point. But he is making far too much of it.

The final chapter deals with what Crossan calls “social violence,” outlaw peasants who exist in the space between the peasant on the periphery and the imperial power of the center. He detects a trajectory in Jewish history (by seeing the career of David as a type) from bandit chief to king, and seems to suggest that many bandits in first century A.D. Palestine potentially saw themselves that way. (The career of Muhammad could also be seen as something of this type, though it would be a stretch, but there is something of this type in the rise to power of the Aal Sauds in Riyadh in the late 18th century and again when Abd al-Aziz built the modern Saudi state.) Most important, I think, for our purposes are his musings on Israelite kingship — elected, non-dynastic, based on personal charisma, more akin to a permanent judge. “Might it not be possible to have and not have a king at the same time, to have all the benefits and none of the liabilities of monarchical leadership?” (p.196-197) Is this Crossan’s hope (it seems to be), or he is merely articulating what he believes to be an Israelite hope? Wherever Crossan is going with this, the answer is clearly “no.” Crossan seems to want the impossible – a “democratic” dictatorship in which all power is vested in a rightly-guided human being but that single human being is perfectly accountable to “the people.” Israelite history, in its struggle with divine kingship and its serious problems, is not all that unique. The Romans had a republican institution analogous to the judge — the dictator, who, with the master of horse, ruled Rome during times of crisis or war. Cincinnatus at his plow, who was called to be dictator for eight or nine days during one of Rome’s interminable wars with Veii (I believe) and who returned to his plow when the war was over. He was a model of Roman civic idealism and patriotism. But over time, this institution became a venue for self-aggrandizement. Caesar did not come out of nowhere to be named “dictator for life” by the Senate. It took Sulla and more than a century of war and imperial expansion to get Rome to the point where a permanent republican dictatorship seemed necessary, inevitable and welcome. Any kind of kingship or kingly power by its nature leads to this kind of self-aggrandizement.

So where is Crossan going with any of this? Not having read the entire book, it is difficult to tell. If he is merely describing the physical, social, political and economic world that encountered and was encountered by Jesus, he only hints at connections. But I suspect — and fear — that something else is at work here. Is he interested in making the Christ event repeatable in our world, by noting its alleged social/political revolutionary character, by placing it among peasants on the periphery of and subjected to empire and among people not part of a recognized religious establishment? Is he trying to say that the kind of redemptive work shown and done by Jesus and intensely experienced by his followers can only really, truly be encountered in peripheries by those living and embedded in peripheries? That somehow the authentic Gospel of Jesus, the life in Christ, was lost or distorted as the Jesus movement encountered (or was encountered) by literate and relatively affluent people? That there is, in fact, an authentic historic Jesus out there who trumps any subsequent or alternative understanding or experience of or encounter with Christ?

If the Jesus event – both cause and outcome – are “repeatable” through human action, what need is there of a divine Christ? What need is there of Christ at all? Indeed, Crossan’s gospel of Jesus (in his introduction) makes what Jesus says, rather than who he is or even what he does, central. “They [the words of Christ] are a score to be played and program to be enacted.” (p.xxvi) A political and social program, no doubt, and very likely a revolutionary one. One that can only be enacted by, and is only authentic among, the “revolutionary peasants” of our era. Would Crossan call revolutionary dictatorship the “kingdom of God?” And what of us who are not, and can never be, revolutionary peasants? Or is being a “revolutionary peasant” not so much an accident of birth but an ideological orientation, and revolution – real revolution – not so much a historical event rooted in time, place and circumstance but (to borrow from Elinor Langer’s memoir of the 1960s) a “moral choice?” What, then, of us who do not and will not choose this “revolution?”

One thought on “The Authentic Jesus?

  1. “So where is Crossan going with any of this?” you ask re Crossan’s Historical Jesus. It may be very helpful to look at his “The Birth of Christianity,” especially chapter 10, “The Problem of Methodology.”


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