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The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

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by John Dominic Crossan

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"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 a 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


"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 a 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. What, they really want to know, can this kingdom of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village?"

–– from "The Gospel of Jesus," overture to The Historical Jesus

The Historical Jesus reveals the true Jesus––who he was, what he did, what he said. It opens with "The Gospel of Jesus," Crossan's studied determination of Jesus' actual words and actions stripped of any subsequent additions and placed in a capsule account of his life story. The Jesus who emerges is a savvy and courageous Jewish Mediterranean peasant, a radical social revolutionary, with a rhapsodic vision of economic, political, and religious egalitarianism and a social program for creating it.

The conventional wisdom of critical historical scholarship has long held that too little is known about the historical Jesus to say definitively much more than that he lived and had a tremendous impact on his followers. "There were always historians who said it could not be done because of historical problems," writes Crossan. "There were always theologians who said it should not be done because of theological objections. And there were always scholars who said the former when they meant the latter.'

With this ground–breaking work, John Dominic Crossan emphatically sweeps these notions aside. He demonstrates that Jesus is actually one of the best documented figures in ancient history; the challenge is the complexity of the sources. The vivid portrayal of Jesus that emerges from Crossan's unique methodology combines the complementary disciplines of social anthropology, Greco–Roman history, and the literary analysis of specific pronouncements, anecdotes, confessions and interpretations involving Jesus. All three levels cooperate equally and fully in an effective synthesis that provides the most definitive presentation of the historical Jesus yet attained.

Editorial Reviews

Christian Science Monitor
Lively and idiosyncratic in the great tradition of the historical Jesus genre begun by Schweitzer.
New York Times
[Crossan] argues that Jesus. . .became a wisdom teacher using Zen-like aphorisms and puzzling parables to challenge social conventions.
Marcus Borg
The most important scholarly book about Jesus in decades.
Martin Marty
Adds color to the interpretation of faith.
Harvey Cox
Elegant . . .masterful. There is nothing like [Crossan's book] for thoroughness, readability, fairness, and clarity.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

Then and Now

The voices that speak to us from antiquity are overwhelmingly those of the cultured few, the elites. The modern voices that carry on their tale are overwhelmingly those of white, middleclass, European and North American males. These men can, and do, laud imperialistic, authoritarian slave societies. The scholarship of antiquity is often removed from the real world, hygienically free of value judgements. Of the value judgements, that is, of the voiceless masses, the 95 % who knew how "the other half" lived in antiquity.
    The peasants form no part of the literate world on which most reconstructions of ancient history focus. Indeed, the peasants--the pagani--did not even form part of the lowly Christian (town dweller's) world. They are almost lost to historical view, because of their illiteracy and localism.
Thomas F. Carney (xiv, 231 note 123)

The first century of the common era is obscured from our contemporary view by three giant filters. The past is recorded almost exclusively in the voices of elites and males, in the viewpoints of the wealthy and the powerful, in the visions of the literate and the educated. That already constricted report is available sometimes through the deliberate decision of later dominations but also through the vagaries of chance and luck, fate and accident. Either way, further constrictions. And our present looks back to the past, to that already doubly filtered past, dependent, of course, on where one's present is located, but, let us say in individualistic, democratic, urban, middleclass America,often with ethnocentric presumptions it is not even aware of projecting.

Some demographic statistics from the past may serve, therefore, not as proofs about anything but as warnings about everything. Bruce Malina speaks of classes and masses. "The preindustrial city contained no more than ten percent of the entire population under its direct and immediate control. And of this ten percent that constituted the preindustrial urban population, perhaps less than two percent belonged to the elite or high class" (1981:72). Thomas Carney writes of death and taxes. On death: "We are used to a society in which very few infants are lost at birth or prior to weaning. Death, happily, tends to be remote from our experience, if we are below 30. People do not start dying in any numbers until their late fifties or, generally, their sixties or later. In preindustrial society, however, probably a third of the live births were dead before they reached the age of six. By sixteen something like 60% of these live births would have died, 75% by twenty-six, and 90% by forty-six. Very few--3% maybe--reached their sixties" (88). On taxes: "In general, resources extracted from the tax base were mostly redistributed to the men of the apparatus--who mostly invested their official gains in large estates. Taxation was generally regressive . . . At best they protected the tax base; they rarely developed it--more often, indeed, they eroded it . . . They took a larger share, in fact, than did the elites in more primitive societies before them, or in industrial societies after them" (341).

How, then, is it even possible for us to imagine the face of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant through those triple filters and across the gulf of those millennia? Three major sources help at least somewhat to counter those three filters just mentioned. First, on the macrocosmic level, there are anthropological or sociological studies and models, especially those using trans-temporal and cross-cultural disciplines. Next, on the mesocosmic and more local level, there are archaeological digs and discoveries. Finally, on the microcosmic level, there arc papyrus documents and archives, documentary texts predominantly from Egypt in which ordinary peasants have preserved an individual voice and a personal presence normally denied them by their illiteracy and their poverty.

A Friendly Sea in a Hostile Landscape

Three terse judgments, sharp as Mediterranean shadows. "The Mediterranean," in the words of Jane Schneider, "is something of a paradox: a friendly sea surrounded by a hostile landscape" (3). "All Mediterranean societies," in the words of Julian Pitt-Rivers, "face the sea and their enemies--and customers--on the far side of it" (1977:ix). "A double constraint," in the words of Fernand Braudel, "has always been at the heart of Mediterranean history: poverty and the uncertainty of the morrow" (1.245). But even to speak of the social and cultural anthropology of the Mediterranean basin demands three steps, each controversial in its possibility and fraught with difficulties in its execution.

The first step proposes a valid pan-Mediterranean construct open to anthropological investigation. John Davis limits this Mediterranean unity exclusively to historical contacts. Early in his book The People of the Mediterranean he describes that unity as, "those institutions, customs and practices which result from the conversation and commerce of thousands of years, the creation of very different peoples who have come into contact round the mediterranean shores" (13). That same judgment is reiterated at the book's conclusion: "over the millennia it has proved impossible for mediterranean people to ignore each other. They have conquered, colonised, converted; they have traded, administered, intermarried--the contacts are perpetual and inescapable" (255).

Jeremy Boissevain, in reviewing Davis's book, argues for a more profound unity, that of ecology. "The Mediterranean is more than just a fieldof interaction, commerce, and conquest. In spite of his materialist analysisof honour, Davis, in my view, has missed the most obvious materialistparameters that together give the region its distinctive signature: sea, climate, terrain, and mode of production . . . These materialist parameters,placed in a comparative historical framework, provide a basis on which various differences and similarities characteristic of mediterranean societiesmay be usefully compared . . . Mediterranean men have done a great dealbesides 'converse' and 'exchange' . . . Men and women around the middlesea have also worked hard to solve similar problems of production undercomparable physical conditions" (Boissevain et al. 83).

Meet the Author

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, is widely regarded as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Historical Jesus, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, God and Empire, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, The Greatest Prayer, The Last Week, and The Power of Parable. He lives in Minneola, Florida.

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Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is deep reading, but it is not light reading, especially if you are not well versed in the Bible and its characters and mythology. I am familiar with Bible study, and, in that light, this book propelled me into a new kind of study, viewing Jesus' words in the historical context in which they may have been written down. I appreciated its scientific, historical, archaeological and literary bases; I pick it up night after night to ponder something new. Jesus' teachings have taken on a more personal, in-the-moment, slant since reading this. I look forward to more of John's books and collaborations.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you do not have an open mind, do not read this book. The aspect it is written in is looking at Jesus separate from his divinity so that one can understand the social and cultural and political ramifications of his actions. Having seen Crossan speak on 'Mysteries of the Bible', i am not so sure that Crossan is disputing miracles or Jesus' divinity, but merely taking looks at the events of his life from many different perspectives to satisfy different curiosities. The bibliography and footnotes are exhaustive and it is evident that a great deal of work had to be done for this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus, a peasant Jewish Cynic in the words of the author. The historical Jesus' work was the combination of free healing and common eating - a religious and economic egalitarianism that conflicted with the hierarchial and patronial standard in that period. If you want to learn about theological study this is the right book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book puts Jesus in a more holistic context of the politics and social controversies of the day. Perhaps one day Crossan might complete a work that integrates alternative ways of interpreting scripture and perhaps the messages Jesus brought. Jesus is said to have died for all our sins and there is a timeless component to this: He died for our sins past,present & FUTURE. What if sin equates with the creation of negative karma and Jesus absorbed the collective negative karma of humanity. By curtailing future sins, we may be stemming future karma and a resultant penalty Jesus pays. This hypothesis implies the conduct of right action found in the noble eightfold path in dharmic concepts. It also suggests that the penalty Jesus pays is not fixed and is somewhat within our control to reduce. It might also suggest that the culmination of judgement might be indicative of exceeding maximum karmic liability upon a single individual undeservedly,causing judgement day. This book details how Jesus came as an ordinary man for the time period. When Jesus returns perhaps He will return as an ordinary man of the century and decade chosen. Will the world recognize Him? And perhaps the transfiguration is a message that there is a continuity between Moses-Elijah-Jesus where the Law is not static but dynamic, much like our own laws which begin rudimentary and vague and are refined and clarified in the judicial process.Moses may represent the beginning, Elijah evolution of the beginning to present and Jesus the future of the Law, each representing a stage in its development and clarification as times change and concepts and collective advancement change also.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Highly comprehensive account of the broad social,political, and practical circumstances of Jesus' life and times by regular consultant to Disney TV series 'Mysteries of the Bible' on A&E.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book to learn about Jesus Christ. However, I found-out midway through the book that Crossan doubts that Jesus Christ lived at all! For a REAL glimpse at who Christ was, read To Know Chirst Jesus, by Frank Sheed.`
Guest More than 1 year ago
I¿m not a card shark, so I¿m going to tip my hand. I am both a Christian and a scientist. I want you to know at the outset that as brilliant as this man is, and as logical as his method seems, he nevertheless fails to deliver the Goods. Make no mistake, J.D. Crossan is a creative genius. His brilliance is seen in the scholarly and systematic manner in which he brings together various threads of anthropological and historical data. His work evinces a comprehensive familiarity with the literature. For those of us not versed in ¿stratigraphy¿ and the finer art of reading between the lines of a historical document, he weaves a compelling story. Crossan describes his method as ¿scientific history.¿ Using the word `scientific¿ implies that he is willing to adapt his paradigm if the evidence directs. In the final analysis, Crossan uses his method in the service of his own worldview. Crossan preserves his presuppositions through his analysis of the facts instead of allowing the latter to transform the former. This is not `scientific¿ in the true sense. In this review, I will focus on his method, because it is easy to end up at his final destination unless you can see how and where he might have gone wrong. Crossan¿s methodology - Crossan says that his method analyzes the problem on three levels anthropological, historical and literary. That is true. Further, he insists that these ¿cooperate fully and equally to achieve an effective synthesis, thus demanding equal sophistication on all three levels at the same time.¿ He says, ¿the discipline of this book is to work primarily with plurally attested complexes from the primary stratus of the Jesus tradition.¿ The scope of his program clearly has scholarly merit, and sets him apart from his peers in historical Jesus research. But I think there are some areas where his execution of the program falls short of the promise. (1) He treats all prospective ¿gospels¿ on an equal basis, apparently disregarding traditional canonical lines of demarcation. His primary concern is establishing a probable genetic lineage of Jesus¿ sayings. Crossan appears to believe that God doesn¿t have an interest or a direct hand in the way we get scripture. This may make sense for naturalists or deists even, but not for theists. (2) He uses an analytical concept called the ¿complex¿ for analyzing and organizing ancient texts into their basic units of meaning. The difficulty is that isolation of these complexes is an intensively hermeneutical process with huge potential for disagreement. Are these complexes based on events, or on themes? And, to what extent do these ¿complexes¿ conflate similar but distinct accounts? (3) Crossan uses the familiar phenomenon of geologic stratification as a metaphor to explain his approach to establishing chronological layers within the literature. He presumes Scripture is naturally generated and so looks to establish pathways to explain how the text came to be transmitted. But if we expand on that metaphor, how does one interpret a petrified tree that passes through all of the strata? It forces one to reassess his assumptions. Specifically, what happens to our stratigraphic continuum when there is clear evidence that early documents depend on supposedly later documents? Such anomalies could leave Crossan standing in mid-air. (4) Central to Crossan¿s method is his assessment of attestation. This is his metric for credibility. But Crossan admits that determination of the degree of attestation is in many cases a scholarly best guess. In this, Crossan appears not to allow himself to be guided or influenced by any theological notion that certain New Testament writers are inspired. He employs an editorial process he calls ¿bracketing singularities.¿ In this, accounts of Jesus¿ sayings and actions lacking in plural atte
Guest More than 1 year ago
The authors start with the preconception that miracles are impossible, and their rejection of the truths of Jesus Christ are a foregone conclusion. The book tells us much more about the rationalistic prejudices of the author than it does about the life and times of Jesus Christ. A waste of time to read.