Who Killed Jesus? | John Dominic Crossan

The cover of Crossan's Who Killed JesusThis book infuriated me.

I should start by explaining why I read it. Crossan has a deep understanding of the historical circumstances of first century Palestine. Throughout this book there were a number of nuggets drawn from Josephus, Philo, and elsewhere that shed real light on New Testament circumstances.

Now on to the frustration.

Here’s Crossan’s argument in a nutshell: the passion didn’t happen. Theologians mined the Old Testament for ideas following the death of Jesus—a way to intellectually process what happened. They found texts like Psalm 2 and interpreted the significance of Jesus’ death through that lens. Since the common folk couldn’t understand such sophisticated theology, they invented stories that spread to confirm their hermeneutic. The passion is prophecy converted into a narrative fiction.

Crossan arrived at this conclusion through some clever redaction criticism. He finds the earliest stratum of the passion story embedded in the the Gospel of Peter (what he calls the “Cross Narrative”). Other sources include Q, Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John. He determines which story came first and which source is dependent on the others on order to play the differences between the narratives off each other.

Crossan’s next step is reflected in the subtitle. The creators of such a grand fib need to be exposed and held responsible for the role their story played in the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history. At the heart of the Christian faith there’s a lie that has harmed countless Jews.

However explicable its origins, defensible its invectives, and understandable its motives among Christians fighting for survival, [the passion narrative’s] repetition has now become the longest lie, and, for our own integrity, we Christians must at last name it as such. (152)

There are so many ways to respond to this. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Crossan discounts the very idea of predictive prophecy as ancient superstition. Once you take this step, it’s easier to jump to prophecy-turned-story-telling.
  2. Crossan’s redaction criticism (which forms the foundation of his argument) is a castle of cards. He piles hypothesis upon hypothesis upon hypothesis to get to his conclusion. Surely at some point in the process it becomes more rational to take a more literal reading of the gospels. There are simpler ways to explain discrepancies between the accounts.
  3. Crossan takes what historical accounts (besides the gospels) tells him of first century Palestine then assumes that every event must fit that mold. Therefore, nothing unusual can happen. For example, crucified victims were not usually given a decent burial. Therefore, the story of Jesus’ burial must be a fiction. By this logic, nothing unusual can ever happen!
  4. Even if you agree with his argument on the passion being prophecy turned into story, you cannot blame those storytellers for the horrible acts perpetrated against the Jewish people centuries later. This actually shifts blame from those who committed the atrocities to a minuscule minority of persecuted Christians with no hand in the later violence.

I’ll stop my rant. It’s time to put Who Killed Jesus? back up on the shelf.

—John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

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