If you’ve heard any stories about the Norse gods, they almost certainly come from a book called Edda by Snorri Sturluson (you can often get a laugh just by mentioning Snorri’s name–this also works for other medieval Scandinavians such as Ragnar Shaggy-pants and Ivarr the Boneless). Now Snorri didn’t believe in Thor and Loki and the rest, and if he had, we presumably wouldn’t have his book. He explained that originally the Aesir were great men (Odin came from Troy, btw), and after their death people told stories about them and eventually came to regard their tombs as sacred places for prayer and sacrifice. This way of explaining the origins of religion is called euhemerism, and was very popular back in the day.
I mention this because I have tended to view Jesus as, to some extent, a case of euhemerism. That is, his status as the Christ is so overwhelmingly important to Christians that it conditions everything they say about his life. Of course I knew that the early Christians had a charismatic leader who was executed by the Roman authorities (they were big believers in capital punishment as a deterrent to crime), but beyond that I’ve mostly been skeptical of attempts to pick through the writings of later believers and disentangle what Jesus really said and did from what Luke or John made up as a suitable history for their Messiah. It seems that the process of selecting the ‘original’ parts of some text is too often an excuse to choose the parts that you agree with and discard the inconvenient contradictory bits.
A lot of people have probably made just this accusation about John Dominic Crossan, but I must say that I found his Jesus: A Revolutionary Life very interesting and mostly convincing (though the title isn’t as good as his earlier The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant). Crossan believes that, by relying on anthropological and archeological insights as well as textual scholarship, we can reconstruct something of the life of the historical Jesus, and that what we have in the canonical gospels is a toned-down, more middle-class, less Jewish version of a guy who was too radical even for his own apostles. In the process, though I’m pretty sure Crossan considers himself a Christian, he discards a lot of things that many Christians consider essential elements of their faith: virgin birth, Bethlehem, miracles, Passion, resurrection, apocalypse.
Some things that I found interesting:
In the Mediterranean world of the 1st century, carpenters and other artisans did not form part of an emerging middle class between the peasants and their masters; they were, rather, at the bottom of the peasant class, consisting of younger sons or other landless peasants. This reinforces the already strong presumption that Jesus was illiterate, so when Luke has him reading in the synagogue, that is fairly bogus (not to mention that Nazareth didn’t have a synagogue)–it is a setup so Luke can have the local Jews try to kill Jesus.
Crossan believes that essentially everything we read about Jesus’ childhood is made up; that’s not too surprising, but what I didn’t know is that the story in Matthew (Herod killing all the baby boys, etc.) is largely a reworking of the story of Moses as elaborated in Jewish popular tradition (with Herod as Pharaoh).
In Crossan’s view, Jesus was a miraculous healer not because he could cure disease (which he doesn’t believe), but because he broke the taboos ostracized the diseased as unclean: his miracle, originally, was touching the leper. This proved too much for later followers, who had him cure the lepers from a distance and then direct them to the Temple. In a somehwat similar vein, Jesus original instructions that his apostles should not even wear sandals or carry a knapsack is later softened to an instructions to wear only sandals and carry only a knapsack.
Jesus was vehemently anti-family; I already knew this, but Crossan’s take is that his opposition was mainly to the power structure wherein parents controlled their children.
Crossan emphasizes the centrality of open commensality for Jesus, the idea that you are supposed to eat with absolutely anyone. He notes, not too surprisingly, that across cultures, if you know who eats with whom, you pretty much know the structure of society, so that open commensality was a radical attack on people’s values. Crossan views the Eucharist as an attempt to appropriate and domesticate this concept. I admit that, if I were a Christian, the idea of inviting random people in the street to share my dinner would be one of the tougher instructions to follow, since I like to choose my company.
We know from independent sources that Jesus was crucified; everything else in the gospel accounts of the Passion is made up: Jesus was probably not important enough to have an interview with Pilate (whose mildness is totally out of character–the real Pilate was such a bastard that he got fired for excessive brutality, and when the Roman Empire thinks you’re too brutal, that’s saying something). There was no tradition of freeing a prisoner at Passover, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone among Jesus’ followers ever knew what happened to his body (as Crossan says, those who knew didn’t care, and those who cared didn’t know). Part of the horror of crucifixion as a punishment was the denial of burial, and if he was buried, in deference to Jewish belief, it would have been by the authorities. This was too much for some of his followers to take, so they imagined hopeful scenarios in which a wealthy Christian goes to Pilate to ask for the body. The basic point is that Jesus was, in the eyes of the authorities, a nobody, and his followers were nobodies, not the kind of people who could pull extraordinary favors from the Roman Prefect.
Crossan sees the nature miracles (loaves and fishes, walking on water), along with the posthumous apparitions, as signs of the struggle for control and authority over the Jesus brand (my phrase, not his). Each one is intended to show how Jesus favored the Twelve over his other followers, or Peter over the other eleven (or ten after Judas bowed out), or the Beloved Apostle over Peter. The disintegration of Jesus’ radical egalitarianism thus began pretty early.
The ‘poor’ in “Blessed are the poor” (later watered down to “poor in spirit”) was not the word for ordinary humble folk like Jesus’ neighbors in Galilee, but meant destitute. The kingdom of Heaven belonged to the beggars, lepers, outcasts.
So actually I find myself returning to the semi-euhemerist view: this Jesus guy sounds pretty cool, though a bit extreme. But if I were trying to explain Christianity as it exists in our world to an outsider, I’m not sure the life and sayings of the historical Jesus would be at all useful. The Jesus of Ralph Reed and Josef Ratzinger is some other guy, maybe someone from Troy.