The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
Some Shocking Implications of the Recent Work
of John Dominic Crossan and Burton L. Mack
By Robert M. Price
The Quest for the Quest of the Historical Jesus
I believe that Ernest Renan, ex-Catholic priest and author of one of the first attempts at an "historical Jesus" biography, was quite correct when he warned that, to be able to write the history of a religion, one must meet two requirements. First, one must have believed in the religion. Second, one must believe in it no longer. Without the first, one can never gain the proper feel for what motivated the religion's believers, what they cherished. Without the second, one can never attain the necessary perspective to see through the haze of pious propaganda each religion generates for itself. Religions people tend to be interested in facts only insofar as they edify, and this usually means the facts will not remain factual for long. Albert Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, 1906) demonstrated in merciless detail how the already long parade of Jesus books suffered from their authors lacking in one or the other of Renan's two prescriptions, either the sympathy or the critical distance.
He showed how theologians who were intellectually liberal enough to be able to throw off the blinders of traditional dogma were yet so captivated by their own modernistic form of faith that they could not imagine an "historical Jesus" who did not look pretty much like them, parroting enlightened 19th-century ethical monotheism, etc. Their Jesus was uninterested in theological dogma. Rather he promoted "the higher righteousness" and "the infinite value of the individual soul" (as Adolf von Harnack, perhaps the quintessential liberal Jesus historian, put it in What Is Christianity?, 1899). An implacable and acerbic foe of Pharisaic (and, implicitly, Catholic or Protestant) legalism, Jesus pioneered the Social Gospel and exemplified the soul entirely open to God. As Schweitzer pointed out, once Jesus had been reimagined in this way, historical criticism was invariably replaced by novelizing, psychologizing, and rationalizing. That is, the supernatural was explained away, Jesus' inner feelings and struggles were imagined, and the blanks were filled in accordingly.
Like their conservative cousins, the liberal questers were in the final analysis playing a tug-o'-war using Jesus as the rope. It was as in Luke 12:13-14, with one brother appealing to Jesus against the other, "Master, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." But now as then, Jesus will have none of it: "O man, who made me a judge or arbiter over you?" The historical Jesus, Schweitzer showed, turns out to be as alien to our day as he was to his own. He is an embarrassment equally to dogmatic trinitarian and to liberal religionist, a creature of his own age stamped indelibly with the assumptions of that age.
The most important bit of mental furniture marking Jesus as a member of his age, not an anachronistic mutant anticipating ours, was apocalypticism. From the recent studies of Johannes Weiss (Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, 1892, 1900) Schweitzer had become convinced that Jesus announced the imminent coming of the Final Judgment, the Battle of Armageddon, the Great Tribulation. Something like a benign Charles Manson, Schweitzer's Jesus expected to survive the general chaos and emerge victorious to reign over the New Age as Messiah and Son of Man. He exhorted his contemporaries to repent and show God that they were at long last worthy of the advent of the long-awaited Messianic Age. When the end lingered, Jesus went back to the drawing board and decided God must have assigned him to take the general Tribulation of the End Time onto his own shoulders. He must suffer and die for his contemporaries. Then he would rise transfigured as the Son of Man. As a quick glance at the calendar will reveal, Jesus was tragically, yet grandly, mistaken. Nonetheless, as Schweitzer affirmed, Jesus still commands us down the centuries because from him flows a mighty current of spiritual force that summons us to follow him and join him in his task.
What task? Trying to cajole God into hastening his eschatological kingdom? No, living out the redemptive ethics of Jesus' "higher righteousness." Schweitzer never faulted the liberals on their sketch of Jesus' ethics. He thought they were basically right about that; the problem was that they tended to isolate the moral preachments from their theological context in Jesus' message. And while such surgery is quite advisable in delineating Christian discipleship today, it cannot be accepted as a description of how Jesus himself viewed the matter. We need not (indeed cannot) embrace Jesus' erroneous apocalypticism in order to be Christians, but let us not make Jesus into a mere ventriloquist dummy mouthing our views.
In a sense Schweitzer's view was apocalyptic in a second sense. Like that other radical Protestant G.W.F. Hegel, Schweitzer implicitly thought the history of his discipline had reached its end with him. Unless one were to accept his (and Weiss's) estimate of Jesus as a figure of "thoroughgoing eschatology" the only remaining alternative would be the "thoroughgoing skepticism" promoted by another contemporary book, Wilhelm Wrede's The Messianic Secret (1901). Wrede argued that the figure of Jesus has been forever obscured already by the theological artistry of Mark's gospel. We can never know what Jesus was really like. We might also compare Schweitzer's challenge to that of Kant with his moral argument for the existence of God: our inner moral instinct might be a sham, but are we really prepared to live with the implications? Even so Schweitzer: Wrede might be right about an unknowable Jesus, but if you find that unpalatable, then Schweitzer's is the alternative.
Schweitzer's and Weiss's apocalyptic Jesus did make an impact. But The Quest of the Historical Jesus certainly did not close down the scholarly cottage industry of writing lives of Jesus, despite what one usually reads. Various theologians made peace with Schweitzer's conclusions as best they might. The most prominent of them was Rudolf Bultmann, who demythologized Jesus' end-of-the-world preaching into existentialism. In Heideggerian terms, said Bultmann, Jesus can be seen as summoning us to abandon the "inauthentic" self-sufficiency of our lives and to set aside all claims to self-justification (self-authentication) in favor of openness to God's future. But even Bultmann resisted writing a biography of the historical Jesus. What mattered to him in the last analysis was not the historical Jesus but the Christ of the Church's faith. So the historical Jesus had been wrong, but it hardly mattered, any more than what his favorite food might have been.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
But lives of Jesus went on unabated. The difference was they were now written by conservative traditionalists of the "Neo-Orthodox" type, who by no means rejected historical criticism but tried instead to use it in a "safe" manner. They had appreciated the liberal lives of Jesus as little as Schweitzer himself did, but for the opposite reason. They preferred a more traditional Jesus, one more in accord with traditional dogma. And ironically, in Schweitzer they found what they were looking for. Scholars like A.M. Hunter, Vincent Taylor, Oscar Cullmann, T.W. Manson, William Manson, and others, with affiliations with the Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran churches, had had little patience with the likes of Harnack. They wanted a Jesus who was no mere ethicist but had a full-blooded theology. By showing that theology was important to Jesus after all, Schweitzer seemed to these scholar-theologians to have opened up a space for them to smuggle back in their traditionalist dogmas. Some swallowed hard and admitted that Jesus had been in error, but then they hastened to chalk this lapse up to the limitations of the Incarnation (hence the post-Schweitzer popularity of the Kenosis Christology based on Philippians 2: 5-11: Christ temporarily set aside divine prerogatives such as omniscience when he became flesh). Others demythologized Jesus' apocalyptic message (or even imagined that Jesus himself had already obligingly demythologized it for them). Catholic Modernist Alfred Loisy said that Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, but what actually wound up coming was the church. Cullmann, Taylor, et. al., said that what Jesus meant by the coming Kingdom was the church! Cullmann's classic harmonization was that D Day, the decisive turning of the corner, had arrived within Jesus' own generation, though the final "mopping up" till VE Day might well take a couple of thousand years. The Last Days were intended as qualitative, not quantitative, whatever.
Adjusting Schweitzer's theory of Jesus having offered himself to bear the brunt of the Tribulation on behalf of his elect, Cullmann and the rest invoked Rudolf Otto's theory that Jesus had combined 2 Isaiah's Suffering Servant role with that of the apocalyptic Son of Man. This let them again redefine away Jesus' apocalyptic message. As in traditional Christian dogma, Jesus was transformed from the Jewish Messiah into the Christian Redeemer. Schweitzer had poked a hole in the dike by challenging the liberal notion that Jesus cared nothing for dogma. Taylor and the others worked at that hole till all the old Christian dogma could come pouring back through it, attributed, as it always had been, to Jesus. That taken care of, the books by Hunter, Manson and the rest tended to make just as much use of the old techniques of gap-filling by novelistic psychologizing and historicizing as the old liberal lives of Jesus did. The psychologizing (for instance, doting on the heroic dedication of Jesus in shouldering the role of the Suffering Servant) served the same function it always had, holding up an example of piety for the reader to emulate. In retrospective, it is astonishing the degree to which, in the name of historical criticism, traditionalist apologetics and homiletics crept back in.
But even Bultmann's disciples (Günther Bornkamm, James M. Robinson, Ernst Käsemann, Ernst Fuchs, Hans Conzelmann, and others) were not able to resist temptation. Though for them Bultmann's existentialist gospel was de rigueur, they began to feel insecure in their preaching of the Heideggerian kerygma if they could not demonstrate that their understanding of the message about Jesus was at least naturally continuous with the faith of Jesus himself. Could it be shown that he himself had had the same sort of radical openness to God's future as Bultmannian Christians now preached in his name? They feared that being as willing as Bultmann had been to consign the historical Jesus to agnostic irrelevance laid them open to charges of Docetism, the belief that Jesus Christ had not really come in the flesh (1 John 4:1), or that if he had, it hardly mattered. So they inaugurated a "New Quest for the Historical Jesus." They knew no full-scale biography was possible, but could one isolate a core of authentic sayings that would provide an insight into the existential self-understanding of Jesus? The post-Bultmannians thought so. Van A. Harvey (The Historian and the Believer, 1966) called their bluff. It seemed a lot of wishful thinking, methodologically unsound. Again, theologians seemed to be fashioning an historical Jesus in their own image.
What is your quest? What's your favorite colour?
It is often said that Schweitzer brought the original quest of the historical Jesus to an end, but as we have seen, that is not so. The same sort of homiletical fluff, albeit with a neo-conservative flavor, continued to be produced; meanwhile, the post-Bultmannian New Quest did represent something of a return to the game by the liberal team, but it soon collapsed. Recently a whole new wave of historical Jesus studies has appeared, and in them one can discern the same two strands. A so-called Third Quest of the historical Jesus has been mounted by a drill team of conservative scholars (forget the "neo-") who are engaged in out-and-out apologetics on behalf of the traditional dogma. These writers include Richard B. Hays, Luke Timothy Johnson, N.T. Wright, E. Earle Ellis, and Ben Witherington III. Taking advantage of the financial and demographic upsurge of conservative evangelical seminaries (and the conservative retrenchment of many mainstream denominations), these apologists realize they are fast becoming the mainstream, that genuine historical criticism has fallen from favor, and that old arguments will gain a favorable hearing they never would have in the days of genuine critical study.
At the same time, a group of more critical, more liberal scholars has renewed the New Quest. That is, they are taking the old liberal approach of narrowing down a reliable database of Jesus' sayings and divining from them what beliefs and attitudes the historical Jesus held. These scholars would include Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Burton L. Mack, Richard A. Horsley and others, all associated at one time or another with the notorious Jesus Seminar. While the Third Questers insist on seeing Jesus as an apocalyptic figure, they are often careful to interpret away the note of imminence attached to the end-time prediction in the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus. For the conservative Third Questers, Schweitzer's "apocalyptic Jesus" has shrunk merely to a Jesus who taught that someday there would be a second coming. By contrast, the "Renewed Questers" (as Funk likes to call them), represent a return to liberal Protestant pre-Schweitzer Jesus research. These scholars question whether the apocalyptic element was a later accretion, added to sayings of Jesus as the war of the Jews with Rome drew closer. Christians had said these things and attributed them to Jesus. In his own generation Jesus was something of a wisdom teacher and possibly even a nonviolent social reformer and founder of Oneida-like communities. This Jesus is a proto-feminist, a kind of first-century E.F. Schumacher or Mohandas Gandhi, and a flouter of Jewish norms, with a great resemblance to the ancient Cynic philosophers.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that the lessons Schweitzer taught have been largely ignored, and that Jesus is again becoming the anachronistic mouthpiece for the cherished views of modern scholars. The resultant Jesus is quite convenient for liberal Protestant activists, and many among the Unitarian Universalist movement find this Jesus attractive as well, an irreverent, largely secular, and socially involved Jesus who can serve quite well as a pitchman for their causes. And as radical as embracing such a Jesus-concept may seem to some, I want to suggest that the UU embrace of the new liberal Jesus represents instead part of the increasing tendency of UUs to gravitate to the mainstream of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. This tendency is observable also in UU approaches to spirituality, liturgical theology and Christian (not just religious) education, all of which can be observed from the required reading list for UU seminarians, including modern Roman Catholic catechism theory. UUs are opting for a liberal Protestant Jesus all the more easily because they are themselves becoming merely one more sect of liberal Protestants.
But there is a more radical approach to the historical Jesus question that is also more consistent with recent generations of religious humanist thinking. This approach is that which seriously considers the possibilities that Jesus never existed as a historical figure (at least not as a single historical individual, though his story may combine elements of real historical figures), that Jesus has retreated so far beyond historical recovery that we must remain agnostic concerning him, and that, far from preaching and enacting a theology of his own atoning death, Jesus may not have died on the cross at all. The irony is that these possibilities, scoffed at nowadays by conservative and liberal alike, both Catholic and Protestant, are implied in the very theories espoused by the liberal Renewed Questers, especially Crossan and Mack, whose work I will briefly survey here. I would suggest that religious humanists are perhaps in a better position than anyone else to recognize the astonishing implications of the most popular current theories of the historical Jesus.
The Cross(an) Gospel
In a series of exhaustively researched and engagingly written books (Four Other Gospels, 1985; The Cross That Spoke, 1988; The Historical Jesus, 1991; Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1994; Who Killed Jesus?, 1995; and Who Is Jesus?, 1996) John Dominic Crossan has certainly won the distinction of being the most prolific of the Renewed Questers. I want to deal briefly with just two of his major claims here. One has to do with the historical Jesus and how Crossan proposes to distil him from the evidence. The other has to do with the nature of the gospel evidence as he understands it.
It is quite revealing that Crossan's major book, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, spends fully its first half filling in the background for Jesus. A more accurate title might have been The Life of Mediterranean Jewish Peasants and the Historical Jesus. The table of contents would seem to suggest that each chapter will study some aspect of the life of Jesus: "Visionary and Teacher," "Peasant and Protestor," "Magician and Prophet," "Bandit and Messiah," "Rebel and Revolutionary." But instead each chapter delineates a category, a social or religious role in which Jesus might be seen. Some recent scholars have indeed chosen to place Jesus in one or another of the categories Crossan defines in these chapters. Some scholars try out the paradigm of peasant revolutionary (violent or nonviolent), others that of an itinerant Cynic sage, still others that of a magician, or a charismatic hasid, etc. Crossan succeeds in rounding up and synthesizing a great deal of this scholarship. But these chapters, strangely, do not actually deal with Jesus. They sketch out the paradigm in each case, providing a great deal of data drawn from ancient historians, modern students of Mediterranean peasant sociology, etc., despite the fact that the chapter titles clearly imply that each of the chapters is viewing Jesus himself from a new angle. Whence the discrepancy? Or, better, how is it that Crossan does not see it as a discrepancy? The answer, I think, is that he has made the supposed "historical Jesus" into a mere function of the categories which have been employed to analyze him.
For many scholars, the diversity of the proposed paradigms for Jesus (revolutionist, reformer, feminist, community activist, magician, Cynic, hasid) provide a menu of alternative ways of looking at the evidence. One tries each on for size and ponders the extent to which each makes more natural sense of the gospel data (sayings, stories, etc.). Indeed, it is not too much to say that contemporary historical Jesus scholarship is faced with an embarrassment of riches, for several of the resultant Jesus sketches seem to make quite a bit of sense. The problem is that it is not quite clear how several of them, much less all, could be true of one man at the same time. Would a priestly messiah have made Cynic quips about how kosher laws are moot since clean and unclean food both come out in the same toilet? Would a prophet have been known as an exorcist?
What is Crossan's solution? He doesn't think he needs to choose. His Jesus is ostensibly a combination of all of them. Since he cannot finally harmonize all the differences, Crossan seems to cheat, reinterpreting one category in light of one of the others which he really seems to prefer after all. For instance, though we wade through a good bit of data on ancient magic which somehow seems to make Jesus ipso facto into a magician, we eventually discover that Crossan's heart is really with the model of Jesus as a radical community organizer. So what of the magic? Morton Smith and others originally hypothesized a Jesus the Magician (1978) to give sufficient weight to all the gospel healing and exorcism tales. But Crossan does not think Jesus ever actually healed anyone. No, what he really did was to welcome people whose diseases rendered them officially "unclean." Jesus' big magic trick was to invite the sick and the stinking to share meals with him. "Meal and Miracle," "Commensality" Crossan dubs it. But Crossan has resorted to the same sort of allegorical rationalizing as the old Rationalists who had Jesus walk on the stepping stones in the Sea of Galilee. His theory here precisely matches that of the much-criticized Barbara Thiering (Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1992) who says that Jesus' "resurrection" of Lazarus really denoted Jesus lifting the ban of excommunication levied on Lazarus by the Qumran bishops. Somehow Crossan can get away with saying it where Thiering can't.
Fascinated by the work of Bruce J. Malina, Halvor Moxnes and others on the possible application of Mediterranean peasant sociology to the gospels, Crossan gives much air play to the notion of patron-client relationships ("brokerage") in ancient society. And if a notion looms large in contemporary academic discussion, it must have loomed large on Jesus' agenda, too. So Crossan characterizes Jesus preaching as that of an "unbrokered kingdom." That is, Jesus proclaimed free access to God without the need of the Temple sacrifice system and the taxation it entailed. (Ironically, and I am hardly the first to point it out, this means Crossan has made Jesus into the broker of this unbrokered kingdom.)
Crossan's Jesus is the word made incarnate, the word of current academic discussion. Jesus is theory in the flesh, a reification of the theories about him. One might apply to the first half of Crossan's The Historical Jesus the title of one of Paulist Press's mini-surveys of current scholarly opinion: What Are They Saying About Jesus? Jesus becomes a function of what they are saying about him.
Why does it not occur to Crossan that we might have to, first, choose one of the many historical Jesus alternatives; second, throw up our hands and confess agnosticism on the whole question; or third, speculate that the gospels have combined traditions of different Jesus figures active during the same general period? I think it is because Crossan, though no longer a Dominican monk, is still a Roman Catholic and for him there must be "one Lord" (Ephesians 4:5)--at least one, no more than one.
is a bunker filled with sand;
he's become a Third World man
Perhaps Crossan's most valuable and painstaking work is contained in his excellent volume In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus. Though this book, too, is too heavily front-loaded with prolegomena, Crossan does finally get down to work separating the wheat from the chaff among the sayings attributed to Jesus, weeding out spurious accretions (whether whole sayings or secondary versions of authentic ones). It is all the more surprising therefore to see to what an extent his exegetical basis for his Jesus' message of "unbrokered commensality," feminism, and Oneida-building in The Historical Jesus turns out to be a house built on sand. Like Richard Horsley, Crossan weaves a tissue of sayings and parables Bultmann wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.
That Jesus was against the patriarchal family is derived from Luke 12:51-53, where we read that Jesus will have set family members against one another, and Mark 3:34-35, where he neglects to enumerate fathers among the family. (Others add Matthew 23: 9, where he exhorts reader to "call no man on earth Father.") The first presupposes a post-Jesus marginalization of an organized Jesus-religion which is so controversial that it splits families, since some members will see it as their duty not to abandon their ancestral faith of Judaism for the new god Jesus. The second surely represents post-Jesus bickering over the status of Jesus' brothers James the Just, Judas Thomas, and Simeon bar-Cleophas. (The third is another bit of Matthean hairsplitting presupposing a still-hot dispute with Rabbinic Judaism, from some 70 years after Jesus at least.)
That Jesus was in favor of across-the-board debt amnesty supposedly follows from the Lord's Prayer. Does Jesus mean you can get God to cancel your monetary debts to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker in the "Forgive us our debts" petition? Not even fundamentalists show themselves so incapable of recognizing a metaphor (and a well-known one at that). Indeed, even if any or all of these sayings should possibly go back to the historical Jesus, we should still have to judge these interpretations as examples of Rorschach blot exegesis.
So much for the Politically Correct Jesus. He has been cobbled together from inauthentic and over-interpreted sayings. What is extraordinarily ironic is that Crossan has in this case done exactly what he shows the early Christian midrashists did in the case of the 80% fictitious Passion Narrative, as we will presently see.
Crossan's treatment of the Passion Narrative may be summarized in its main distinctives as follows. He draws attention to the research of George Nickelsburg (e.g., "The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative," Harvard Theological Review, 1980) indicating that the story of Jesus' sufferings, death, and resurrection embodies a common type of edifying tale relating the vindication of the Suffering Righteous One. Other well-known instances include Daniel, Joseph, Ahiqar, and Tobit, all of whom are falsely accused, then condemned, but finally come out on top. Crossan subdivides the stories of this type according to whether the hero is rescued from the plotters in the nick of time and restored to his former privilege and position, or whether he is martyred but later vindicated by God, e.g., in a heavenly vision. Crossan reasons that the second subtype represents an adjustment of the traditional "nice guys finish first" tale to the bloody realities of Maccabean-era persecutions. And he figures that the story of Jesus is something of a combination of themes from both versions. (I will return to this last observation below, to show where I think Crossan has neglected some important evidence that the gospel story was originally a simple instance of what he calls the "innocence rescued" subtype, not a mixture of the two.)
Once early Christians got the idea to start telling stories of the crucifixion, as opposed to simply proclaiming the bare fact of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23), Crossan thinks they quite naturally adopted the "Suffering Righteous One" plot germ and began to fill in the details. From whence? Crossan shows in great detail how virtually every detail of the Passion Narrative has been derived from Old Testament passages taken out of context by early Christian scribes, on the assumption that the texts in question were secret predictions of the life and death of Jesus. To make the point one need but compare Psalm 22 with Mark 15, the crucifixion account. Nowhere does Psalm 22 represent itself as a prophecy of anything; on the contrary, it is a typical "individual lament" psalm, a prayer for help in a time of desperate need. Nor does Mark 15 anywhere tip off the reader that the events it recounts are supposed to have occurred as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. Instead, Mark 15 silently takes over the skeleton and many of the details of Psalm 22 and historicizes them. And when Matthew feels inclined to add details to Mark's version, where does he get his "information"? Why, from the Wisdom of Solomon and from Zechariah! Crossan estimates that some 80% of the Passion Narrative is such "prophecy historicized" after the fact.
I have just remarked that Matthew used Mark's earlier version when he wrote his own account of the crucifixion. Most scholars would put it this way, but Crossan has a unique suggestion to make at this point, too. In The Cross That Spoke he argues for a prototypical "Cross Gospel" employed independently by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and preserved in its fullest form in the uncanonical Gospel of Peter. The Cross Gospel would have been the most elaborate collection of historicized Passion "prophecies." This ingenious suggestion has not gone without criticism from Crossan's colleagues. It remains quite possible, if difficult to prove. As Crossan himself has pointed out, his fiercest critics (like Raymond Brown) often presuppose a reconstruction of Passion sources much like his even while rejecting his distinctive version.
But Old Testament texts woven together do not constitute the only possible source for elements of the Passion story. Crossan thinks a striking report of Philo in Against Flaccus may preserve the origin of a puzzling detail in the Passion Narrative. In detailing the outrages of the Roman Governor Flaccus, Philo (writing ca. the 40s CE) tells how Flaccus did nothing to prevent an insult to the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I as he was returning from Rome (where Caligula had crowned him King of the Jews) by way of Alexandria. To show their contempt for any supposed Jewish king, local rowdies rounded up a helpless street person, a halfwit named Carabas, and dressed him up as a mock king, with a door mat for a cape, a papyrus dunce cap for a crown, and a reed for a sceptre. When the retinue of Herod Agrippa came into view, the rascals went into action, bowing before the old stumblebum Carabas and hailing him as "Mar!" (as in the early Christian prayer Maranatha), "Lord!" It is impossible not to wonder whether there may be some sort of connection between these events and the Passion of Jesus, where he is paraded like a mock king of the Jews (in the presence of Herod Antipas, according to Luke) and substituted for one Barabbas. Crossan admits that the evolving Passion tradition may have absorbed the Carabas story along the way, applying it to Jesus.
In like manner, Crossan repeats the story of the mad prophet Jesus ben-Ananias, told by Josephus, noting its similarity to the gospel events. Jesus son of Ananias, in the last years before Jerusalem's destruction, made a pest of himself by incessantly crying out "Woe to Jerusalem!" The priests hauled him away to the Roman procurator, urging his execution. The procurator interrogated him and flogged him, but Jesus ben Ananias remained stolidly silent in the face of both. Released, he took up his prophetic lament anew, finally silenced by a Roman catapult shot during the siege he had so long predicted. Crossan flirts with the possibility that this, too, has been absorbed by the gospel tradition.
Now I want to suggest that in all this, Crossan is getting perilously close to peeling back every last skin of the gospel onion and showing, as the old time skeptics used to maintain, there is nothing at the core. First, as to the use of the Suffering Righteous One prototype, Crossan (like Nickelsburg) has shown in effect that the gospel Passion has a literary source, not a historical one. It is the notorious tendency of apologists for the faith to want to have their cake and eat it, too, by claiming that the events may yet be real history, even though their teller may have adopted a literary model for the telling of the tale. On closer inspection, this attempt at salvage is meaningless. Why risk undermining the credibility of history by polishing it up in terms of recognized literary forms? To argue this way at all is to admit that the gospel version does look like its literary prototype, and then Occam's Razor makes it superfluous to seek redundant more-than-explanations for an event already adequately accounted for.
In fact, to chalk up the Passion Narrative to the literary prototype of the Suffering Righteous One is to have gone halfway to the position of those, like Gilbert Murray, Lord Raglan, and others, who dismiss the whole of the Jesus story as legend because of its entire conformity in every detail to the Mythic Hero Archetype. What is left over that might qualify as "secular" fact?
Similarly, we have to wonder how it is possible that if Jesus had been publicly tried and crucified there should have been no historical memory on which to rely when the time came to tell a connected story of his death. Why on earth would you fill in all the blanks (and even Crossan already admits it is some 80% blank!) with biblical prooftexts if anyone remembered the events? It begins to look like there may have been no events to remember or to report!
If we follow the path Crossan has marked out to compare the Passion Narrative with contemporary events from the lives of analogous figures, we again seem to close in on a mirage. For Carabas and Jesus ben-Ananias are only the beginning. Burton Mack and others have pointed out how the Cleansing of the Temple episode, as it stands in the gospels, makes no historical sense. The gospels seem to presuppose a scene in which Jesus bursts into something like a rummage sale in a church basement, kicking over tables of old Monopoly games and stacks of Reader's Digest condensed books, a noisy but minor ruckus from which he might have been able to get away unscathed. But in reality the Court of the Gentiles, where it is said to have happened, took up a full 60 acres! Jesus emptied an area of that size of its vendors, tables and livestock? And we are told he refused to let anyone bring the sacrificial vessels through the area to the altar. This is impossible unless Jesus led a force of armed men, and then we must envision a pitched battle between his forces and those of the Temple guards, not to mention the extra Roman troops stationed right down the street during Passover in case of disturbances like this one! Mack is right: either this is what happened, or nothing happened. Mack thinks Mark invented the story, while S.G.F. Brandon and Robert Eisler took the bull by the horns and cast Jesus as a Zealot-like revolutionary.
But there is a third option. It looks to me like the whole business has been borrowed from the history of Josephus (or at least incorporates the same events) concerning the messianic pretender Simon bar-Giora. The scene is the last weeks before the fall of the city to the Romans. The bandits of Joseph of Giscala have occupied the temple (which has hence become a "den of thieves"). They are implacable enemies of the priests, who are lapdogs of the hated Romans. So the priests strike a devil's bargain with Simon bar-Giora to enter the temple and expel their rival revolutionaries. Simon and his troops make a triumphal entry into the city, hailed as deliverers, and proceed to "cleanse the temple" of the robbers who infest it. But the Roman siege advances, and eventually Simon endeavors to tunnel out to safety. Giving up on the plan, he tunnels up, bursting out of the earth in full regalia before stunned Romans, who then take him to Rome and execute him as King of the Jews. Sound familiar?
Simon bar-Giora was not crucified, but another king was. Plutarch, contemporary with the Gospel of John, tells the life of Cleomenes, the radical king of Sparta who initiated land redistribution and quickly lost his throne. Driven forth, he traveled all over the Mediterranean, fomenting people's revolution. At Alexandria, his enemies closing in, Cleomenes and his followers executed a suicide pact (one of them stabbing another to make sure he was dead). When the authorities discovered the bodies, they crucified that of Cleomenes. Mourners noticed that a snake appeared and coiled itself about the head of the slain king so that vultures might not desecrate the corpse. This and other omens persuaded bystanders that the crucified king must have been a son of the gods, and the site of his cross became thereafter a place of vigil and pilgrimage by the women who cherished his memory. Sound familiar?
Pontius Pilate received word that a great crowd of Samaritans planned to rally on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, the site of the old Samaritan temple, to greet the Taheb, the Samaritan Prophet like Moses who should appear to reveal the location of the lost temple vessels. Pilate sent troops to disperse the unarmed crowd, massacring most of them, whereupon the Samaritan elders complained to Rome, resulting in Pilate's final recall to Rome to face the music. Sound familiar?
Josephus also tells us of a resistance fighter named Niger who had to hide to escape the Romans on the battlefield. He took refuge in a cave for three days, during which both friends and foes, after searching for him, abandoned him for dead--until he appeared suddenly to his despairing disciples alive again! Sound familiar?
Joachim Jeremias, Gerd Theissen, and others have long noticed the strange fact that the unnamed Egyptian Prophet (a messiah out of Egypt like unto Jeroboam) and Theudas (both recounted by Josephus and both explicitly mentioned by Luke in Acts 5:36 and 21:38) saw themselves in the role of Joshua redivivus. The Egyptian proposed to collapse the walls of Jerusalem as Joshua did those of Jericho, while Theudas said he would divide the Jordan as Joshua did. "Jesus" is Joshua, too. Can it be there was a whole class of "Joshua Messiahs," Jesus Christs?
Should any of these parallels and their possible assimilation into the gospels surprise us when all along we should have seen the implications of the warnings in the Synoptic apocalypse (Mark 13:6, 21-22; Matthew 24-:4-5, 23-27; Luke 21:8) not to confuse the messianic prophets and pretenders before the fall of Jerusalem with Jesus himself? Apocalypses always urge their readers not to do what they are in fact known to be doing. Now I think we can see what they had in mind. So if we open the door open a good bit wider than Crossan did, we have a striking parallel to what he himself shows with regard to the Old Testament proof-texts generating most of the Passion Narrative, only in this case we can peg most of the rest of it as the result of analogous borrowings from contemporary history.
When Crossan makes all four canonical gospels (plus Peter) depend on a single original Passion story, the Cross Gospel, one wonders whether he realizes the implication here either. Again, if the epoch-making death of a historical Jesus had really been a public event of note, even among the small circle of early Christians, how is it possible that all known accounts of it should derive from a single story? The case is not much different if we make all the gospel crucifixion accounts stem from Mark's, as most German scholars think (while most British scholars think John and Luke had separate Passion stories which they used independently of Mark's or substituted for it). But if they are all subsequent versions of one story, either Mark or the Cross Gospel, we are mighty close to the suggestion of Bruno Bauer (a contemporary of F.C. Baur) that the whole Jesus story was the creation of Mark, and that others borrowed and embellished it.
I said there was more to be said concerning Crossan's distinction between the "innocence rescued" tale and the related "martyrdom vindicated" type. Here it is. Crossan theorized that the first type mutated into the second when harsh events made it clear that sometimes God just did not manage to rescue the innocent sufferer on this side of the grave. And, understandably, Crossan sees the second type as more applicable to the story of Jesus. Actually, he posits a mixture of the two types to account for the Passion Narrative. But I wonder if, again, he has faced up to the implications of his theory. For I think there is ample evidence that underlying the present canonical forms of all four gospels there is a version of Jesus' Passion which conforms perfectly to the original "innocence rescued" type.
Let us be clear on one point: the rescue of the innocent one in this life is really integral to the genre, because the righteous sufferer is not just innocent, he is a wise man as well, in every case cited. And, over-optimistic or not, the whole point is, as often stated in the Book of Proverbs, that the wise always wins in the end. The wise may receive threats and scoffing, but it is his wisdom that triumphs in the end. Wisdom always turns out to have been the best policy. Otherwise we should sacrifice the central point of wisdom teaching: that it is the sure-fire way of living successfully in this world. When one shifts to the idea of vindicated martyrdom, i.e., in the invisible next world, one is dealing in an entirely different commodity, an apocalyptic mutation of wisdom, the wisdom of God which appears to be foolishness to men. Absolutely crucial to the wisdom stories Nickelsburg discusses is the old idea that the wise man will not in the end be abandoned to the evil, because righteousness consists in what is wise, shrewd, prudent, while wickedness is essentially foolishness, short-sightedness, the failure to foresee final outcomes. The whole point is that whereas an apocalyptic promise of postmortem vindication requires faith in the unseen, the prudent counsel that the wise must ultimately win after many attempts by the foolish, takes no faith, only insight such as these stories seek to provide: "There! You see what happens if you are wise?"
All four gospels betray evidence of their dependence on a prior "innocence rescued" version in which Jesus did not die but rather escaped death at the last minute. This may be because there was an original Cross Gospel which read this way, or because whatever other common sources the gospels used had first told it this way. Let us review several details of the Passion Narrative with this possibility in mind, and we will see what new sense they make of the text.
First, Jesus prays in Gethsemane that the Socratic cup of martyrdom may pass him by, though if God remains implacable, Jesus, humble servant that he is, is quite willing to carry the cross (or to let the cross carry him). We ought to be able to discern here the anticipation that Jesus' humble willingness would be rewarded after all. He would get his wish precisely because he hadn't insisted on it. Again, when Jesus' tormentors goad him, "Let this Christ, this king of Israel come down from the cross--then we'd believe!," we ought to be sensitive enough to detect the irony: he will! That is, he will come down from the cross alive, though they will not know it! And he does when he is knocked out by the application of whatever was in that sponge the guards gave him to drink. Note that when Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate to request custody of the corpse, the procurator marvels that Jesus can already be dead, when crucifixion was designed to take days to kill the poor wretches. Now surely this detail, the premature death of Jesus, is one shoe dropped, and we are to wait for the other to fall. As long as we read the story as issuing in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we never hear the other shoe drop. But originally we would have. Jesus would have appeared, not restored to life, but still alive (as he actually does in Luke--see below).
We can make sense of the cry of dereliction from the cross if we realize that Mark did not intend to show Jesus despairing of God. The clue is that, as anyone can see, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is the beginning of Psalm 22, and that this Psalm, after all its lamenting, ends on a note of hope for final deliverance, even when it seems impossible, at the last moment. Surely Mark or his source (perhaps the Cross Gospel) was winking to the reader that this prayer would be answered--even on the cross itself death might be averted, and was averted.
Why does Matthew bother to inform us that Joseph was a wealthy man and that he buried Jesus in his own tomb? Not because he was trying to fashion a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:9, "They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death," because Matthew pointedly makes Joseph anything but a wicked man; he is a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57)! No, we must seek the key in the narrative logic of the Hellenistic novels popular from the seventh century BCE through the early centuries CE, in which we have several cases of the heroine falling into a cataleptic coma and being prematurely entombed. As she is invariably an aristocrat (as in Dallas or Dynasty today), it is an opulent tomb. Grave robbers see the tomb has been sealed and decide to break in and loot the rich funerary tokens. Just as they are breaking through, the heroine sits up alive. The robbers have unwittingly saved her life, and all because she was buried in a rich tomb! So with Jesus--he was set free by tomb-looters who did not find the silver and gold promised by the facade of Joseph's stately tomb, but a man stirring out of a coma. Presumably they fled in superstitious terror, as some characters still do in the gospels as we read them (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:4).
It is also worth noting that the very same novels (Chariton's Chaireas and Callirhoe, Xenophon's Ephesian Tale, Achilles Tatius' Ethiopian Story, etc.) often included a scene in which the hero, pursuing the kidnapped heroine, runs afoul of a evil king or governor and is sentenced to the cross or even actually crucified, only he always gets a last minute reprieve or somehow survives being crucified!
Some readers may object that John's gospel has Jesus stabbed in the ribcage while crucified (19:34) and then later has Thomas probe the spear wound to demonstrate that Jesus was truly dead and equally truly restored to life (20:27). But the "protesting too much" vehemence of this narrative (especially 19:35) makes it obvious that John was trying to rebut a rival version of the story in which it was not so clear Jesus had really died (instead, perhaps, he had revived from his coma and gone among the Diaspora to teach the Greeks, John 7:35). Thus John furnishes us with the exception that proves the rule.
Luke's reunion scene after the cross and burial is strikingly reminiscent of that in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana in which the sage rejoins his mourning disciples after the latter have given him up for dead, knowing he was to stand trial before the evil emperor Domitian. Little known to them, Apollonius escaped death, vanishing into thin air from the imperial throne room and teleporting across the Mediterranean into the midst of his disciples. At first they think they are seeing his ghost, that Apollonius has died but returned from the dead (i.e., appeared as a ghost) to bid them farewell. But Apollonius extends his hands and bids them touch him to convince themselves that he is still alive, by divine providence, and not raised from the dead as a ghost!
The Lukan scene is practically identical. He shows him the corporeality of his hands and feet (nothing is said of showing them Johannine wounds). Later Apollonius ascends bodily into heaven. Luke's account parallels the same features: Jesus miraculously reappears to his huddled disciples to reveal himself alive, still alive despite his miraculous mode of reappearing among them, and then later he ascends into heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). Granted, Luke has added dialogues to these inherited scenes which do assume Jesus died and rose from the dead. My point is that he has by no means erased the manifest signs of an underlying original version in which Jesus only seemed to expire on the cross and returned still alive to his followers.
Crossan is right: eventually the "innocence rescued" tale was combined with the "martyrdom vindicated" form, but it is not as if the gospel writers appropriated an already conflated prototype, as Crossan supposes. On the contrary, they themselves combined a story of the innocent Jesus rescued from death with later doctrines whereby Jesus must have actually died and risen miraculously from the dead. The gospel story-tellers themselves mutated the one genre into the other in Jesus' case when they had to harmonize two popular versions: Jesus' survival of the cross and Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
The Lost Gospel
If the implications unleashed by John Dominic Crossan tend to erode the story of the historical Jesus to a far greater extent than he or his many readers seem to realize, may we at least draw a boundary around the teaching of Jesus? After all, the New Questers were pretty much content to settle upon a small set of authentic sayings that might afford an insight into the mind of the historical Jesus, no matter what he may or may not have done. Burton Mack is quite willing to dissolve most of the gospel narrative into fiction (see his A Myth of Innocence, 1988). But he, too, thinks we can keep back a good supply of representative sayings that will characterize for us a historical Jesus and his teaching. This he finds preserved in the Q Document, or as he likes to call it, the Lost Gospel or the Book of Q (The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, 1993). "Q" is a German abbreviation denoting the Quelle or source of sayings that Matthew and Luke used in common that they did not derive from Mark.
Scholars have always felt that with Q they were especially close to the historical Jesus. In the heyday of the Two-document hypothesis (that Matthew and Luke had both separately incorporated both Mark's gospel and Q into their own) Mark shared the honors with Q. Scholars tended to grant Mark priority as being more likely historical than Matthew or Luke. And one can at least show that at several points Mark's theological conceptions are earlier and less sophisticated (or less extravagant) than those of Matthew and Luke, because the changes the two later gospels made to their source Mark are easily seen. But then Wrede (Schweitzer's "thoroughgoing skeptic") showed how Mark was far from a scissors and paste compiler (much less a reporter). Wrede discerned a complex pattern of theological rewriting already evident in Mark. In fact, compared with Mark, the later writers who used him seem less sophisticated on some points, such as Mark's elaborate "messianic secret" theme which they appear not to have picked up on.
This left Q as the best candidate for a pre-gospel look at the historical Jesus. Mack certainly thinks so. Indeed, he believes that the historical Jesus revealed by the Q gospel is so different from the Jesus of Christian dogma as to necessitate the root-and-branch rejection of the latter as debunked by the former. Of course, that is nothing new; it was pretty much the same way the original liberal Protestant Questers viewed the matter. What is new, however, is the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the careful work of Mack, John Kloppenborg, Leif Vaage, and others on the "stratigraphy" of Q. For it turns out that Q is not simply a pristine, untracked snow-field either. Like Mark, the Q source seems to have undergone theological retooling. But Mack and his fellow Q-questers are reasonably confident they can peel back the subsequent layers and reach back to the original sayings collection they call Q1.
With Gerald F. Downing (Cynics and Christian Origins, 1992) and others, Mack sees Q as essentially a collection of sayings and anecdotes reflecting the ancient popular philosophy of Cynicism, founded by Antisthenes of Athens and Diogenes of Sinope in the generation after Socrates. Cynics were irreverent radicals who moved from place to place without family, home, or possessions, preaching, often with sarcastic invective, their message of the excellence of living in accordance with nature's plan. One need fear no thief if one has no property. One need not bother with jealousy or with domestic drudgery if one has no marriage. Government, private property, even clothing, and especially money, are all artificial conventions concocted by people too clever for their own good. God's will for the creation is revealed clearly enough for all to see in the freedom of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field who have no jobs or kings or worries. Nothing unnatural can be good, and nothing natural can be bad. Cynics blessed those who cursed them and loved their persecutors. Some were ascetics, others were libertines, heedless of the condemnations of the bourgeois. They preached the government of Zeus (= the Kingdom of God), living in accord with nature by simple common sense. They urged their hearers to let goods and kindred go, and wander through the wide world. They lived by begging and of course encouraged generosity.
Mack and his colleagues have shown that beneath the present text of the reconstructed Q can be discerned an original collection divided into seven thematic sections, none of which include anything about the authority of Jesus or threats of eschatological judgment to come. Subsequent layers of Q include predictions of the coming of the apocalyptic Son of Man, but no Q sayings refer to the earthly Jesus as the Son of Man or Messiah. No Q saying from any stratum ever mentions Jesus' death, much less his resurrection. So Q would seem to have been only subsequently Christianized, and never nearly so thoroughly as Mark.
Mack reasonably asks why the compilers of Q would have left out all mention of the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus had they believed in these things. And we must assume they recorded what they believed to be of importance about Jesus. We have no evidence of the Q community believing anything they did not record, obviously. There is simply no grounds to assume that all early Jesus-followers believed the same things. Just the opposite: the minimally Christological Q counts as strong evidence that at least this quarter of early Christianity (if that is even the proper word for the Q community) had no particular doctrine about Jesus or Christ at all. Q (especially Q1) implies a radically multiform early Christianity.
Mack's estimate of the (non-)theological proclivities of Q might be said to receive a kind of corroboration from a neglected source: the Islamic Agrapha, or Sufi Sayings of Jesus. There are scores of aphorisms and apophthegms attributed to Jesus among the writings of the Sufi ascetics. Here is a community of wandering ascetics taking Jesus as their example and attributing their sayings to him. In this Q-like material, Jesus is frequently called "O Spirit of God," which denotes not the divine nature of Jesus (impossible in Islam), but rather his unworldliness and itinerant asceticism (as Mary Douglas's anthropological-sociological analysis of "spirit" language would also confirm). What else may the Sufis have believed about Jesus that these sayings happen not to record? Lucky for us, we know: as Muslims, they certainly lacked any and all belief in Jesus' death or resurrection.
The Big Bang versus the Big Mack
Mack bids us dare to part with the traditional model of Christian origins, shared by Bultmann and other supposed radicals, which has it that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and that three days later the disciples experienced visions of the Risen Christ. Perhaps the resurrection was an hallucination; no matter. it was the "Big Bang" from which all the diverse forms of Christianity (Gnostic, Catholic, Ebionite-Jewish, etc.) emerged by hook or by crook. All forms of Christianity would have represented various ways of interpreting this "Christ event." So say most scholars, whether conservative or liberal. But not Mack. He suggests instead that what we have all been doing is gullibly adopting the foundation myth of one of the many kinds of early Christianity. Since there is no reason to believe the Q community (or that which produced the similar Gospel of Thomas) had the slightest interest in or knowledge of a Passion and resurrection, why should we assume that the Q document or the Q community stems from such an ostensible resurrection? No, Mack says, it is time to recognize that the Resurrection was one of many origin-myths cherished by but one of a wide diversity of Jesus movements and Christ cults all over Palestine and Syria.
In A Myth of Innocence as well as in Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth (1995), Mack sets forth a typology of the various Jesus movements and Christ cults to which we owe various segments and strata of the New Testament writings. He ultimately seems to leave open the question whether these very different Christianities stem from a common origin point in the historical Jesus. If they did, we might call this common genesis a "Little Bang," since it would be the man Jesus himself, not the theological supernova of the resurrection, that would be the primordial singularity. But it seems hard to imagine that Mack would be willing, in effect, just to push the traditional single-origin concept back a few steps. Though he hesitates to say so, he seems to be implying a multiple origin theory. Christianity grew from several roots, not one. To borrow the conceptuality of Helmut Koester and James M. Robinson in Trajectories Through Early Christianity (1971), if we plot the trajectories of Christian evolution through the New Testament documents as Mack does, we will come up with multiple Christianities all the way back, the gradual federation and assimilation of disparate Christ mystery cults and Jesus movements which at first had nothing to do with each other.
We would, in other words, have a situation exactly analogous to that of the ancient Israelite tribal league (or amphictyony). It has been clear for some time that Israel initially formed as a confederation of separate tribes, many of them named for their traditional totems or gods (Zebulon, Asher, Gad), others for their homeland (Ephraim = the people on Mt. Ephrath; Benjamin = sons of the South, as in Yemen) or occupation (Issachar = burden-bearers). Like 6- or 12- tribe leagues all over the ancient Mediterranean, these tribes adopted a common god (Yahve) in addition to "state and local" deities, and each tribe took its turn taking care of the central shrine (Gilgal, Shechem, Shiloh at different times) for one (or two) months a year. Once the 12 tribes of Israel had come together, they sealed their bond by positing a mythical eponymous ancestor, Israel/Jacob, whose twelve sons were imagined as the progenitors of each tribe. Each tribal patriarch was accorded the name of one of the tribes, even though some were not even personal names.
Implicit in Mack's alternative to the Big Bang model of Christian origins would seem to be what we must call the Big Mack model: an assembling of various ingredients to make one big, oozing melange of Christianity.
And Jesus would be the analogue, in the Big Mack model, to the eponymous-mythical patriarch Israel/Jacob. And in case you hadn't noticed, such a Jesus figurehead would fit perfectly with the composite figure of the gospels who seems to be an amalgam of ill-fitting pieces from Old Testament prooftexts and borrowings from contemporary messiahs and prophets. His patchwork character derives from the conflationary nature of the movement for which he serves as eponymous figurehead.
Who is this broken man?
Whether Mack himself sees things as I have just outlined them is immaterial. The inferences seem to me to be natural, perhaps even inevitable. But let me hasten to point out that a multiple-root origin theory for Christianity would not automatically mean there had been no original historical Jesus. Indeed, Mack certainly holds for, so to speak, at least one historical Jesus, the sage whose sayings have been collected for our edification in Q1. But, again, as with Crossan, I wonder if Mack's work does not set loose implications that he himself does not yet appreciate. Let me outline three factors that would imply that Q1, far from allowing us access for the first time to the historical Jesus, is instead inconsistent with a historical Jesus.
First, do we receive from the Q1 sayings and anecdotes a striking and consistent picture of a historical individual? Mack thinks we do. There is a sly sense of humor coupled with common sense and prophetic anger. There is a definite outlook on life. And thus, one might think, a definite personality, a real character! But no. The problem is that once we discern the pronounced Cynic character of the sayings (and I defy anyone to read the comparative material Downing and Mack provide, truckloads of it in Downing's collection Christ and the Cynics, 1988, and deny the strong and distinctive Cynic coloring of the Q1 material), we have an alternate explanation for the salty, striking, and controversial "personality" of the material. It conveys not the personality of an individual but that of a movement, the sharp and humorous Cynic outlook on life. What we detect so strongly in the texts is their Cynicism. The fact that so many Q1 sayings so strongly parallel so many Cynic maxims and anecdotes proves the point for the simple reason that the Cynic materials used for comparison stem from many different Cynic philosophers over several centuries!
Second, the very nature of Q1 (or Q period, for that matter) as a sayings collection would imply that the name to which the maxims are attributed is a fictive figurehead, like King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes (to say nothing of the Odes of Solomon, the Psalms of Solomon, the Song of Solomon, the Testament of Solomon, or the Key of Solomon!). The Wisdom of Jesus ben-Sira is only an apparent exception, since while the whole collection may well come from the pen of Jesus (another one!) son of Sirach, we must imagine him as a collector of traditional wisdom, i.e., of the venerable sayings of other, anonymous sages before him.
Think of the rabbis whose sayings are preserved in the Pirke Aboth. Most of these great figures are credited with one or two memorable sayings apiece. The blithe complacence with which Christian scholars have credited Jesus with such a huge store of wise sayings only reveals anew the implicit theological bias of supposedly critical scholars. They have just assumed that Jesus was Wisdom incarnate, and that therefore an infinite number wise and pithy sayings might be attributed to him, while only one or two came from mere mortals like the Rabbis or the Greek philosophers.
Parenthetically, Gerd Theissen (in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, 1983), remarks that while we do observe many similar miracle stories told of other thaumaturges such as Chanina ben-Dosa, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Apollonius, etc., we see nothing like the huge flood of miracles ascribed by Christians to Jesus (not that he is suggesting many or most of them are historically authentic). But in fact we do see such a flood of miracle healings attributed to an ancient competitor of Jesus, Asclepios, son of Apollo, and patron of numerous healing spas around the Mediterranean. The parallel is significant because the great number of Asclepios stories stem from the great number of Asclepios franchises, each of them generating advertising propaganda in the form of testimonials of satisfied customers. By analogy, the great volume of healing and other miracle stories about Jesus stems not from recollections of an historical individual but rather from multiple centers of evangelistic and healing propaganda in the name of the healing god Jesus.
The same goes for the remarkable volume of wise sayings attributed to Jesus: the name denotes the figurehead for the particular wisdom tradition ("Poor Richard's Almanac"), not that of a historical individual. Another analogy would be all the 613 laws "of Moses" in the Hebrew Scripture. Does any historian think Moses wrote all or even most of them? It is a good question whether he wrote a single one.
Third, there is the problem of whether Cynicism was a known commodity in the Palestine of the first half of the first century CE (the usual era assigned to the historical Jesus). There seems to be no decisive evidence either way. Downing is content to argue, not unreasonably, that since we do know Cynicism was widespread in the general time period and in the general area (e.g., Meleager the Cynic, active in nearby but thoroughly Gentile Gadara, died 50 BCE) the burden of proof is on the one who would exempt Galilee from being afloat on the winds of doctrine sweeping the Hellenistic world. And besides, reasons Downing, the sayings themselves constitute the strongest possible evidence that Cynicism had penetrated Palestine, since there is just no minimizing the Cynic character of them.
But E.P. Sanders ("Jesus in Historical Context," Theology Today, October 1993) and Richard Horsley (Galilee: History, Politics, People, 1995) are pretty confident they can shoulder the burden of proof Downing assigns them. Sanders makes a good case that in the first half of the first century CE, Palestine, including Galilee, was thoroughly resistant to Hellenization, outside of the several new cities Herod the Great had built and settled with Gentiles. One might sum up the gist of Sanders's argument by pointing out that if Meleager's presence in Gadara is normative for Galilee in Jesus' day, then pig-herding might as well have been, too (Mark 5:11 ff.). But it wasn't. It is a difficult issue, one not to be resolved here. But suppose Sanders is right, that Galilee in Jesus' day was not where one might run into Cynics and Cynic philosophy. What does one do with Downing's evidence of the Cynic coloring of the gospel sayings? They do not suddenly start sounding less Cynic, more apocalyptic or rabbinical. Have we reached an impasse?
Not at all. The answer is clear, though some will not like the sound of it: the sayings of Q1 are Cynic all right; they just don't come from Jesus. If we must locate Cynicism elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, and if Q1 bears ample marks of Cynic origin, then Q1 must come from somewhere else in the Mediterranean world. Why not view it as a collection of originally anonymous Cynic sayings only later attributed to Jesus, just as the Cynic Epistles contain numerous Cynic teachings only subsequently given the names of famous Cynics including Crates, Socrates, and Diogenes?
As Abraham Malherbe has demonstrated (Paul and the Popular Philosophers, 1989), the Pauline Epistles give ample evidence of Christian interaction with Cynic, Stoic, and Epicurean competitors. Thus why not assume that Q1 comes from the same areas? All we need to suppose is what we know from other sources anyway, that some Cynics were attracted, for reasons of their own, to the Christian movement. In his ruthless lampoon of Proteus Peregrinus, Lucian of Samosata (ca. 150 CE) tells us that Proteus, a Cynic, had also joined the Christian community in Palestine and at length rose to such prominence in it that he became revered almost as a second founder of the Christian movement, held in reverence only below "the crucified sophist" himself. Lucian goes on to say that Proteus had written books which became accepted as Christian scripture. The only scholarly attempt to make sense of this last note that I know of was the theory of Daniel Völter that Proteus was the pseudonymous author of the Ignatian Epistles. At any rate, Lucian's report attests the plausibility of supposing that Cynics could become Christians and contribute to Christian literature writings still manifestly Cynic in content.
Someone might object, pointing to the Jewish terms and concerns presupposed in various Q sayings. But all we need to assume is that Cynicism came into Hellenistic Christianity by way of the God-fearers attached to the margin of Hellenistic Jewish synagogues. Philo was, after all, deeply influenced by Platonism and Stoicism. Jewish elements in Q1 hardly demand that the sayings in question originated with Jesus.
So it seems quite likely that not even the Q source, not even Q1, goes back to Jesus. If it does not, what have we left? If there was ever a historical Jesus of Nazareth, questing for him would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We can no more be sure there was a historical Jesus than we can be sure a historical Moses stands behind the stories and sayings attributed to him.
Silence in Heaven
We end with a nearly absolute skepticism or agnosticism about the historical Jesus. And the irony is that it is the research, the methods, and the implications of the most up-to-date mainstream New Testament scholarship, thought by most to make a genuine historical Jesus available to us for the first time, which lead us, when taken to their logical conclusions, to that skepticism. The work of John Dominic Crossan and Burton L. Mack tends to repristinate some of the most radical critical positions long ago dismissed by mainstream scholars, namely that there was no historical Jesus, or that the New Testament Jesus is a composite figure based on various biblical and historical prototypes, or that in an earlier gospel version Jesus escaped death on the cross.
http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/essays/incredible_shrinking_son_of_man.html | furrgATmail.montclair.edu | updated 25 Mar 04