Department header
Bewildering Stories

John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire

review article by Don Webb

What is a review article?

God & Empire
Author: John Dominic Crossan
Publisher: HarperOne
Date: 1st edition, March 13, 2007
Length: 257 pages, incl. index
ISBN: 0060843233; 978-0060843236
“I’ve heard it said that anyone who specializes in first-century history has an axe to grind. No offense intended, professor, but how do you feel about it?”

The professor answers with a wry smile: “Maybe so. The fact is that anyone who lived in the first century had an axe to grind” (in Taking Notice).

When prospective readers see the subtitle of Professor Crossan’s book — “Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now” — they may well think, “I can see where this is going.” Maybe so. But getting there may give us some insights into history as form as well as content.

God & Empire is no trip to a mountaintop where one might consult an enigmatic guru. On the contrary, the author talks directly to the reader like an earnest but friendly professor engaging students in a graduate seminar. Everything is “on the table,” inviting dialogue. But you don’t have to be a professional student; like all of Crossan’s works, God & Empire can be read like a letter from a friend.

Speaking as a professional student, I admire Professor Crossan’s erudition; his book is worth reading for its extensive and perceptive Scriptural and literary analyses alone. And — as everyone who knows me and this webzine will expect — I have some questions.

Where does the book come from? A “softball” question if there ever was one, or so it might appear.

Now, one may know in advance that John Dominic Crossan is a famous theologian. And we may know that he is a specialist in first-century history, including Greek and Latin literature, the Hebrew scriptures and others of the Near East. His book summarizes part of a long career and attempts to derive an all-encompassing meaning from it. It’s a good place for readers to start; after all, most introductions are written last.

Professor Crossan’s biographical references are unobtrusive but instructive. The author has strong feelings, but the book is only incidentally about him; rather, it calls on the reader to consider the meaning of civilization itself.

Crossan answers Jesus’ question in Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” I must add parenthetically that it’s easy to miss the point of the scene in Matthew 16:13-28. It’s an interpretive dramatization. Peter has an epiphany, and Jesus praises Peter, but not for reciting a canned “right answer.” Rather, Peter has made up his own mind without being told what to say. Eight verses later, in 16:23, Jesus becomes very annoyed with Peter for not respecting Jesus’ right to do the same thing. Now, what did Crossan do?

Between 1945 and 1950, I spent my high school years at St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, Ireland. It was a central boarding school for all those villages and towns in County Donegal too small to have a secondary school of their own. I had a classical education and every day for five years studied Greek and Latin, the original languages of Homer and Cicero (p. 7).

We have to admit: that’s pretty good. Crossan is learning Greek and Latin at an age where other students are still struggling with the complexities of English spelling and punctuation.

Another biographical note occurs later in Chapter 1, under the subtitle “Normalcy and Inevitability”:

I entered an Irish monastery in 1950, straight out of high school at sixteen, because, first, being a missionary monk was the most exciting life I could imagine, and second, it was my considered teenage judgment that God had the greatest game in town (p. 37).

At that point, one might think, “So that’s it: an Irish kid becomes a Catholic priest. End of story.” But the story was only beginning. Crossan came to the U.S. in 1951 (p. 195). You can find elsewhere that he almost inevitably launched into what was to become a distinguished academic career. He eventually left the priesthood and now apparently represents no particular denomination. That trajectory might consititute a radical transformation for some; was it for him? I chalk it up to an intellectual quest.

Professor Crossan shows that quest in action. He takes the reader on virtual “walking tours” to the places that shaped his perception. He shows us the monastery of Skellig Michael, off the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Remote, tiny, and almost inaccessible, it’s ideal to explain the meaning of Jewish and, later, Christian monasticism.

And his tours take us far afield; for example: In Greece, we reconstruct what happened at Antony’s and Cleopatra’s camp at the time of the battle of Actium. At sites in Turkey, we examine inscriptions dating from ancient Anatolia. At the Sea of Galilee, we examine a rediscovered fishing boat from Jesus’ time and consider the significance of its curious construction.

Where is the book going? Let’s return to those high-school Greek and Latin lessons. There, the hammer drops:

No teacher ever mentioned that as we were learning to imitate the syntax of Caesar’s Gallic Wars we were ignoring the slaughter of our Celtic ancestors (p. 7).

I would add: beware of TV and film dramas — especially British and American — that sanitize Romans and their emperors; there’s a little too much justification of empire in them. I have some Celtic ancestors, too, a few of whom were not exactly bargains. But Julius Caesar was a Roman general, a capo di tutti capi, to borrow a modern phrase, and every bit as ruthless.

I would note, as well: Rome evolved in a very violent world. When the Gauls sacked Rome in July 390 BCE, they wrecked the place but were finally deterred mainly by disease and the fortuitous honking of Rome’s sacred geese. The Romans could hardly laugh off the catastrophe. What lesson could they learn but “Never again!” Professor Crossan finds in Roman history something more applicable to our own time:

Moreover, no teacher ever emphasized twin facts that now seem to me the two most important lessons of a classical education. Greece, having invented democratic rule, warns us that we can have a democracy or an empire but not both at the same time — or at least not for long. Rome, having invented republican rule, warns us that we can have a republic or an empire, but not both at the same time — or not for long (p. 7, emphasis his, here and throughout).

Does that warning go double for a democratic republic? (p. 8) If so, what does it mean in the 21st century? Are the lessons from Greece and Rome really a stretch? Even latter-day empires have not been very different from earlier ones; pillage and glory were motives enough to build them. Rome’s was somewhat unusual in having defense as an added incentive, and exceptional engineering made that empire durable.

I have another question. Didn’t the Romans succeed in maintaining security precisely because of their “fed up” attitude? But beware the old princple: “Nothing exceeds like success.” James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire shows the later empire marching backwards into the future with its eyes fixed firmly upon a steadily receding past.

Table of Contents

  1. Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization
  2. God and the Ambiguity of Power
  3. Jesus and the Kingdom of God
  4. Paul and the Justice of Equality
  5. Apocalypse and the Pornography of Violence 
  6. Epilogue

To answer his own questions, Professor Crossan follows the principle of the Renaissance Humanists: ad fontes — “Go to the source.” For Crossan, it’s Jesus: Who was he, and what was he doing? What did it mean in his cultural, political and economic context? Many different sources tell us more than we might expect, even more than we may think we know.

Remember: “Anyone who lived in the first century had an axe to grind.” We have from Antiquity only what the citizens of that era, themselves, thought of it. As a result, historians of today — or of any day — must also be literary critics. Sometimes they have to make do with chronicles or bookkeeping but, more often, they’re immersed in a library of meaning. Long ago, I formulated four basic questions to explain what scholars and even casual readers must consider:

1. What does the text say?
2. How does it say it?
3. What did it mean in its own time?
4. What might it mean today?

For example, let’s read a text that Professor Crossan quotes:

  1. What does the text say? Divine. Son of God. God from God. Lord. Redeemer. Savior.
  2. How does it say it? As slogans. A kind of “bumper sticker,” Div. Fil., was inscribed on Roman coins.
  3. What did it mean in its own time? It’s what the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus said of himself.
  4. What might it mean today? It’s what Christians say of Jesus of Nazareth.

In the first century, what did it mean to apply those terms not to a Roman emperor living in a gilded palace but to a Jewish peasant allegedly born in somebody else’s stable? The Romans — not known for a sense of humor — did not take it as a joke; they called it maiestas, high treason (p. 28).

Augustus established his legitimacy in religion and his empire’s, in war. His victories stifled insurgencies and bought peace for a while. To sum up, Augustus achieved — or sought — “peace through victory” (p. 25). In contrast, Jesus’ program was “peace through justice.” And that justice wasn’t retributive, imposed by force; it was distributive, akin to what we might call “equal justice under law.” And Crossan finds its origins anchored firmly in the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Chapter 2).

How does distributive justice work in real life? For example, did Jesus cure diseases and infirmities with miracles beyond anything known to modern medical science? What would we have seen if we had been there? We are not citizens of that time, and we have to learn the language.

Jesus healed the afflicted by relieving them of unearned guilt for their illness or disability and assuring them that they would be — or ought to be — cared for in a human community that brought the Kingdom of God to earth (p. 119).

Now the reader has to ask: What might that mean today? Obviously, we each have to decide for ourselves. But how? Personal impulse? That’s either anarchy or conformity. What principle can be shared? The Greco-Roman world had a kind of rough general rule: money. You either owned something, such as land or a trade, or someone else owned you. Centuries later, slavery came to be considered immoral. But why? It could have been merely abandoned as impractical.

Bewildering Stories’ own “Stereotypes” guideline for fiction writers gives an example, for starters. Fictional characters, like real people, are identified by who and what they are; they are characterized by what they do and how they do it. In the 20th century, philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre treated the principle as though it were new. Sartre’s task was easy, but Jesus was turning the world of Pontius Pilate upside down.

According to some scholars, such as Albert Schweitzer, Jesus’ work was entirely eschatological, to bring about the “end time” or, as Crossan semi-humorously puts it, “the Great Divine Cleanup.” It’s traditional to say, “Times are bad. What can be done about it?” As far as I can make out, there have been two ways to look at it: either wait patiently for something to happen or, if one is impatient, do something, even if it’s wrong.

Crossan cites as an example a relative of Jesus’, John the Baptist. He was both patient and active. His message was that the Kingdom of God would replace the Roman government Real Soon Now. A charismatic preacher, he exercised a kind of personal monopoly and drew people to him. Meanwhile, the Romans’ stooge, the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, annoyed by John’s criticism and popularity, considered him a pest. He put an end to John and, thereby, his movement.

Jesus could hardly miss the obvious: saying what everybody already knew — that the Romans and their local governors were illegitimate and misbehaving — would bring only violent retribution. Crossan concludes that Jesus turned the Kingdom of God into a franchise: “Jesus was promulgating not just a vision or a theory but a praxis and a communal program.” And Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him; he went to them (p. 118).

Now, what did Jesus’ “franchising” the Kingdom of God mean in terms of an apocalyptic end time or “Divine Cleanup”? I’ll try to boil it down to an exchange between three points of view, all as current now as they were then:

  1. God is going to come down from Heaven and smite the Romans — or whomever — and bring pie from the sky. (Eschatology)
  2. Let’s take up arms and smite the Romans — or whomever — ourselves, maybe force God’s hand, so to speak. (Apocalyptic eschatology)
  3. You #1’s, don’t wait for God to do it, because God is waiting for you. And you #2’s, haven’t you hotheads learned anything about violence from current events, let alone history? How are you any different from the Romans or whomever? Don’t wait for the Kingdom of God or try to impose it by force; learn it, love it, live it.

A relevant footnote: Jesus was not the first to preach or practice nonviolent resistance. Josephus’ Jewish War cites a precedent: Judas of Gamala had led such a movement in Galilee (pp. 88-94). Apparently, no Roman legions ever marched against the resisters, and Josephus’ text suggests he admired their courage in enduring persecution.

Crossan takes direct aim at apocalyptic eschatologists. “Since the Age of Enlightenment has been replaced by the Age of Entertainment, the future clash [will] not be between science and religion but between both of them and fantasy” (p. 197). In other words, popular fantasy creates a fake reality and, in some quarters, suicidal delusion (pp. 199-201).

An example Crossan considers dangerous, because it influences U.S. foreign policy: Rapture theology has a bizarre, complex and violent agenda culminating in a literal, world-ending Armageddon (Chapter 5, esp. pp. 199-201). The “Rapture” exists in word and concept nowhere in the bible (p. 203), and its idea of a Second Coming distorts the original meaning of a welcome by “meeting an arriving person and returning with him whence he came. That would be simple nonsense” (p. 205).

Granted that the Rapture is a theological fraud, I would ask, nonetheless, whether it might make sense to people who are waiting to be carted off either to jail or to a better world, whichever. In any case, Karen Armstrong agrees in her Battle for God; she characterizes these modernistic fundamentalists as worshiping “a sectarian demon who would fulfill revenge fantasies and a morbid, nihilistic death wish.”

An apocalypse has already occurred; Holy Week was a set of world-changing events. And yet it’s hard to tell exactly what happened at the time; the accounts have been clouded by the interpretation of subsequent conflicts. Crossan’s deconstruction reveals the enactment of two biblical prophecies (pp. 131-134):

It is crucially important, especially in the light of ancient and enduring Christian anti-Judaism, to be quite clear that [Jesus’] double demonstration was not against Judaism as such, not against Jerusalem as such, not against the Temple as such, and not against the high priesthood as such. It was a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control. It was, at least for Christian followers of Jesus, then or now, a permanently valid protest demonstration against any capital city’s collusion between conservative religion and imperial violence at any time and in any place (p. 132).

My question: Is that all it was? A political demonstration? Empires come and go; the Kingdom of God is permanent. But let’s follow Professor Crossan’s line of thinking. Can the Kingdom of God be an empire? No. Can it collaborate with one? No. And yet a question remains: What can you do with an evil empire, especially when it’s a foreign invader? Ask it politely to go away? Even ignoring it constitutes confrontation. Crossan reconstructs the events as follows:

  1. Jesus enacts the Messiah scenario in Zechariah 9:9-10, and it is planned in advance, cf. Mark 11:1-6.
  2. The so-called Cleansing of the Temple is actually a symbolic destruction of the Temple. It enacts the prophecy in Jeremiah 7 and 26.
  3. The religious authorities debate publicly with Jesus in an attempt to undermine his popular support (Mark 11 and 12).
  4. The authorities conclude that Jesus cannot be arrested publicly without provoking a riot that even the Romans can’t control (Mark 14:1-2).
  5. Judas Iscariot tells the authorities he can lead them to where Jesus can be arrested secretly, at night.
  6. Pilate offers the traditional release of a prisoner at Passover. Shall it be the insurgent and killer Barabbas or Jesus, “the King of the Jews”? The “crowd” wants Barabbas. But is it the same “crowd” that welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday?

Crossan demonstrates that the gospel accounts ranging in historical order from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John become increasingly confused (pp. 137-8). His conclusion:

The most important interpreter of Jesus in the entire New Testament is Pilate. He clearly recognizes the difference between Barabbas and Jesus. Barabbas is a violent revolutionary who “was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). Pilate arrested Barabbas along with those of his followers he could capture. But Jesus is a nonviolent revolutionary, so Pilate has made no attempt to round up his companions. Both Barabbas and Jesus oppose Roman injustice in the Jewish homeland, but Pilate knows exactly and correctly how to calibrate their divergent oppositions. (pp. 4-5)

Two thoughts about that. First, Pilate’s job was to suppress violence with violence of his own. Barabbas and his comrades were violent; Jesus and his group were not. Case closed, as far as Pilate was concerned. What to conclude but that there was no anti-Jesus “crowd” on Good Friday. Apparently, a delegation came to say, in effect, “If you take Jesus off our hands, we’ll take Barabbas off yours.” Pilate agreed to the deal. The rest is embellishment due to socio-political tensions after the fact.

A second thought: Why does Pilate rate as “most important”? It’s unimaginable that Pilate could understand — even if he cared to know — what Jesus was doing. And Pilate could execute whomever he pleased although, for the record, an excuse might come in handy. Jesus could tell Pilate that his kingdom was not of “this world,” i.e. not of the same order as Rome’s. But it didn’t matter to Pilate; the word “kingdom” could hardly be more politically incorrect. Again, case closed.

At this point, today’s readers may have a thought and questions of their own: Why borrow trouble? Why speak of the “Kingdom of God” — or “Kingdom of Heaven,” same thing — in the first place? Why not simply appeal to civil or human rights, or human decency? Those questions reveal cultural preconceptions whose weakness is revealed by counter-questions:

For good or ill, martyrdom confers authority. What, then, is the meaning of the Crucifixion? Does it atone for humanity’s sins? Professor Crossan issues a warning: sacrifice in the sense of giving one’s life to save others is the ultimate meaning of heroism, but Jesus’ heroism is forward-looking, made for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Crossan has only contempt for the theology of “substitutionary atonement,” where Jesus suffered an agonizing death supposedly to atone for others’ sins. Crossan calls it a “crime against divinity” (p. 140). Indeed, the notion of a blanket pardon for all sins past and future is not only self-serving, it is sheer moral nihilism.

“Fear not” is practically a litany in the Synoptic Gospels. It means “Take courage,” which can be a very tall order as Jesus’ own example shows. It does not mean there is nothing to fear. Professor Crossan warns very sternly against predators who feed on fear, especially “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (cf. Matthew 7:15). The biblical injunction is to confront them with courage.

What happened next is as important as what went before. Chapter 4 carries the epigraph: “Equality is the mother of justice. Justice is the offspring of equality.” — Philo of Alexandria, ca. 30 BCE. If Paul proclaimed Jesus’ divine distributive justice, why does Crossan have to ask sardonically, “Was he then as he is now an appealing or appalling apostle?” (p. 143). He cites the cover story of Newsweek magazine, May 6, 2002, which paints Paul as appalling: “pro-slavery, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic.” To sum up Crossan’s argument: Paul was nothing of the sort.

Rather, we see first-century axes being ground right, left and center. Paul takes up exactly half of the New Testament. But of the 13 letters attributed to Paul, scholarship now largely agrees that only seven are certainly his. Of the remaining six, three are probably not his, and three are certainly not his (p. 145). “Once, after a lecture, when I was autographing In Search of Paul, the purchaser asked me to write, ‘All we are asking is give Paul a chance.’ Exactly” (p. 146).

Three Pauls emerge from all this axe-grinding: the radical, the liberal and the conservative. The “liberal” and “conservative” reflect what writers or copyists wanted Paul to be and say in light of social and political tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. We have to ask: What radical will espouse reactionary views, or vice-versa? In Paul’s authentic letters, he preaches radical equality in the Kingdom of God. It’s absurd — let alone unfair — to say he renounces it in letters someone else wrote.

Paul’s audience may be surprising. He surprised even his fellow Jewish Christians in Jerusalem by talking to the gentiles. And we find out exactly who the gentiles were. “Israel was not worried about the Irish or the Japanese. ‘The Gentiles’ meant the great empires” (p. 82).

A whole alphabet of empires — Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, whoever — had all been trampling for centuries around and over Israel to get at each other. The action ranged from mighty battles to a case that historian Eric H. Cline calls “the longest drive-by shooting in history” (Cline, p. 35). The Hittites’ thousand-mile raid on Babylon was, at least, the first of its kind. The Roman empire was the latest in a long list.

Paul was not out to convert the Roman empire, though that is, in effect, what happened. Nor was he trying to convert his fellow Jews or even devout pagans. Rather, he was talking to “God-worshipers” — monotheists — who weren’t Jews but who might attend synagogues, which often served as community centers. “[Paul] understood faith and unfaith, but he would never have understood semi-faith” (p. 157). Paul offered Christianity as a home to those who were neither Jewish nor pagan.

Where do we go from here? “More generally and widely, what is God’s final solution to the problem of evil?” (ibid.). War or peace? That is the question. Or is it? We might say that Tolstoy got it right in his title War and Peace, and Crossan argues in effect that the bible is the primordial “war and peace.” And by that he means the entire bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It’s important to heed a word of caution in that regard:

[Neither] solution is found exclusively in the Old Testament and/or Jewish tradition while another is found exclusively in the New Testament and/or Christian tradition. It is [...] simply biblical and historical accuracy to insist that both solutions run side by side, and often in the same books, from one end of the biblical tradition to the other. They are asserted relentlessly as the twin tracks of the Divine Express, and they are utterly persuasive to those who have never imagined a Divine Monorail (p. 83).

Anyone who has seen a lot of old western, “cowboy” films knows of a familiar trope: ranchers versus farmers. That tension dates from Cain (a farmer) and Abel (a herdsman), cf. Genesis 4:2. The story was adapted “from much earlier Mesopotamian [...] meditations on the Neolithic Revolution itself” (p. 59). Crossan finds a precedent in the Sumerian story of Dumuzi (the shepherd) and Enkimdu (the farmer) who, unlike Cain and Abel, reach a peaceful accommodation. In Genesis 4:15, God issues a warning: violence begets endless vendettas. Crossan draws his own conclusion: “the farmer kills the herder, he builds a city, and human violence escalates exponentially” (p. 61).

And there we see a permanent leitmotif in God & Empire: civilization got off on the wrong foot. At this point, I think it may be a little too easy to misread Crossan. He is not calling for a return to the Stone Age; he’s saying that civilization itself — from the first towns to the largest empires — is inherently violent. And it is torn on one hand by imperialists whose motto is “peace through victory” and, on the other, by nihilists whose motto is “peace by death.” His solution is “post-civilization” whose motto is “peace by justice.” It seems to be the only way to avert the destruction of the world itself (p. 240).

“There is no story so truly Bewildering as reality” — a BwS motto. Now, why might that be? The reason is simple: true stories may have a beginning, but they have no conclusion. Science resolves mysteries only to reveal others; human stories do the same. The story of Moses ends but does not conclude at Mt. Nebo; the story of Jesus ends but does not conclude at the Cross. The stories of human individuals end, but do they ever really conclude? The story of humanity is a story because of its built-in tension between good and evil or, if you will, comedy and tragedy. However it ends, it will still have far-reaching effects.

I can’t help thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract (1761) opens with: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” He was talking about 18th-century “civilization” from the ground up, from his own experience. And his idea of a “golden age” was not primitivism, either, Voltaire’s superficial snarks notwithstanding. In his best-selling novel, The New Heloise, Rousseau depicts an idyllic scene: an isolated Alpine society shaped by democracy and radical equality.

Another famous work of Rousseau’s, the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), rejoins Crossan’s in one major respect: if humanity has made any moral advances, technology and civilization — from the first villages to the “global village” — has not caused them, it has only allowed virtues and vices to spread more rapidly.

A “Divine Monorail” sounds like a very smooth ride. And yet James J. O’Donnell is right: “As often, when we speak about the divine, it’s really all about us” (Pagans, p. 49). And I have often noticed with amusement that post- or anti-religious rationalists — especially members of the Atheist Church — deny original sin only to find they have to reinvent it.

Professor Crossan and Jean-Jacques Rousseau travel very different paths, and I expect their ideals would lead to different forms of “post-civilization.” Whichever; now that the “Age of Entertainment” threatens to be extinguished by the whims of latter-day emperors, savagery, and environmental or nuclear Armageddon, it’s easy to understand the crowd on Palm Sunday; they had a vision of a more perfect world.

Copyright © 2018 by Don Webb

Cassandra's Voices

Home Page