A Matter of Method: Spending Time with Dom Crossan in Jerusalem

To what extent is Mark, our core story, reflecting the situation related to the devastation of 70 CE and the first Jewish Revolt,  interpreting Jesus as the Christ he came to be? Or alternatively, to what extent is Mark’s story related to the historical Jesus 50 years earlier–and how would one know?

I have known John Dominic Crossan, who is perhaps the most revered scholar of Jesus and early Christianity in my field, for over 30 years now. In the past decade we have spent some quality personal time together and for me our most memorial encounter was in Jerusalem back in June, 2007. Dom and his wife Sarah had come to the Holy Land to do some filming for a Discovery TV Christmas special and I was there with a select group of my students in our first season of excavations at our Mt Zion site, working with Dr. Shimon Gibson. Dom had published an updated edition of his book, co-authored with Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, Gibson was just finishing up his new book, Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence and I had just published The Jesus Dynasty. All three of our books were intensely focused on the material or archaeological evidence related to our textual sources about Jesus. To top things off the controversies on the Talpiot “Jesus Family tomb” were being freshly discussed by our colleagues.That we all were in Jerusalem together just at that time was truly an incredible experience.

Crossan graciously spent the evening with us so that my students, who had been reading his book, The Historical Jesus:The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant could meet him. We gathered on a lovely Saturday evening in the courtyard of the Beit Schmuel guesthouse and spend a couple of stimulating and delightful hours together. Our focus was on Crossan’s approach to the last days of Jesus–namely, his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and the subsequent faith on the part of his followers in his resurrection. It was an amazing evening for all of us, especially the students who had spent the past week digging at Mt Zion very near the sites of the house of Caiaphus and learning firsthand about the various sites connected to Jesus last week in Jerusalem. The next day Dom, Sarah, Shimon and I happily spent the entire day together visiting various sites in Jerusalem with Gibson acting as our guide. Those who know Shimon Gibson would surely agree that when it comes to Jerusalem–ancient or modern, there is no one who knows more–so we were in incredibly good hands!


Crossan with Gibson and our Mt Zion Students at Beit Schmuel

If there is any one thing that Crossan’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian Origins has made clear it is that everything turns on the question of method. In working with our New Testament gospels, as well as other materials such as the reconstructed Q source, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Thomas, one has to formulate a clear understanding of how such materials will be weighed and evaluated and the methods one will use to try and get at what is historical and what is theological, mythological, or parabolic.

To those outside the field of critical biblical studies who read the Bible “literally,” it means what it says and it says what it means. But the historian must properly ask the vital question: Given Mark’s core narrative of Jesus last week in Jerusalem, which sections most likely reflect actual history, and which were created by Mark or his community for theological purposes? Did Jesus ride down the Mt. of Olives on a donkey, was he examined by Pontius Pilate, did Joseph of Arimathea take him corpse and bury it in a nearby tomb, and did women visit that tomb Sunday morning and find it empty?

And when Jesus speaks or teaches to what degree do we have what he actually said and to what degree are we hearing the theological memory of his followers four or five decades after his death who are passing on traditions from Jesus relevant to their own concerns and times?

In other words, to what extent is Mark, our core story, reflecting the situation related to the devastation of 70 CE and the first Jewish Revolt (see Mark 13 sandwiched within the narrative), and interpreting Jesus as the Christ he came to be? Or alternatively, to what extent is Mark’s story related to the historical Jesus and his own situation 40 years earlier–and how would one know?

Further, since Matthew and Luke basically follow Mark’s passion narrative, what about John? Is John an independent source from Mark, or is his heavily theologized narrative of the last days of Jesus essentially Mark written over with his own vision of things?

Crossan is convinced John has no independent story but represents further theological embellishment rather than “history.” It is the “how would one know” that has to do with method. The choices scholars such as Crossan make might seem arbitrary to the casual reader, but as much as anyone in the field Crossan has sought to set forth his method and the assumptions he employs therein, and has challenged colleagues to offer critique and evaluation. And they have surely done that.

In terms of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus as related by Mark, Crossan is very skeptical. He does not think that Jesus knew beforehand that he was to die in Jerusalem and that he purposely offered himself as a sacrifice for sins to fulfill Isaiah “Suffering Servant” image, or that he asked followers to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” at a Last Supper–sacramentally or otherwise. He has no doubt that Jesus was crucified, but he thinks the accounts of the trial before the “whole Sanhedrin,” and the scene before a somewhat sympathetic Pilate are constructed by Mark. He also is doubtful of the Joseph of Arimathea burial story. He would see each of these elements as constructed by Mark and the post-70 CE community to fit their developing view of Jesus as Christ, Lord, and Savior, much in keeping with Paul’s theology. Crossan does not think we can ever know what happened to the body of Jesus, since he understands the entire “empty tomb” narrative to be a late apologetic construction in an effort to push a more “literal” view of the resurrection of Jesus. Here he would go to Paul, where we find the earliest traditions on faith in Jesus as resurrected, but in a “spiritual body” with appearances akin to that Paul claims he had years after Jesus’ death–not a resuscitated corpse walking about but a heavenly vision of power and glory. Here Crossan and I agree–see my recent blog post here.

My own approach, method, and conclusions are quite different from that of Crossan on many of these issues as readers of The Jesus Dynasty know. I do consider John an independent source from Mark, though I think the author of John knows Mark’s gospel and writes his own account aware thereof. I have offered my own analysis in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, and in various posts on this blog, see here and here. But by and large I accept the basic narrative framework of Mark as historical, i.e., Jesus rode into the city and allowed himself to be proclaimed king, he taught in the Temple all week and confronted the religious authorities, he ate a last supper in the lower city, was arrested in Gethsemane, betrayed by Judas, tried at the house of Caiaphus, taken before Pilate, crucified, and buried by Joseph of Arimathea. None of these events themselves do I have reason to doubt, though I do accept fully that Mark’s theological thread of interpretation runs through them all, and when we encounter Christological interpretation closer to Paul than to what we know of the teachings of Jesus, I agree with Crossan that we are dealing with theology not history.

One element I try to include in my book is the question of how these narrative frames fit within what we can reconstruct of Herodian Jerusalem today. In other words, how do the texts read “on the ground”? Shimon Gibson has devoted years to this subject and though we disagree on some of the “locations” or settings for a few of the events (he thinks the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is likely the place of crucifixion, I put it on the Mt of Olives, see my arguments here), I have learned much from him. Gibson and I took Crossan and his wife Sarah around the Old City to highlight this “on the ground” side of the Markan story. We looked at the rock hewn tombs (now empty!) in Akeldama, the site of Pilate’s judgment seat along the Western Wall of the Old City, outside Herod’s Palace area (see here), and of course, the Talpiot tomb, as a potential place of “secondary burial” for Jesus and his family.


Crossan and Gibson Standing in Front of Priestly Tomb in Akeldama

My impression was that being “at the scene” in these ways, including passing by the newly discovered Pool of Siloam mentioned only in John, did give Professor Crossan some new perspectives to think about as he continues to read his texts and refine his methods. It seems to me that the “realistic” narratives that Mark and John offer, that conform so closely to what we can see today, go a long way toward supporting an approach of “eyewitness” testimony along the lines that Richard Bauckham has been developing. In other words, Mark and John have received much of their narrative framework and teaching materials from traditions and communities who lived in the place where it all happened. This would be particularly true for the “last days of Jesus,” when we get to Jerusalem, and perhaps less true for the Galilean materials. My own approach is a strange mixture in that I doubt the theological overlay but tend to trust the essential narrative framework, and ironically, I find time and time again the narrative framework helps one to peel back the later theology.


Gibson showing Dom and Sarah the original 1st century steps that led up to Pilate’s Judgment Seat at the Western Wall of the Old City


At the “garden tomb” in east Talpiot with Gibson,Dom, and Sarah Crossan

As for the Talpiot tomb, I think Dom Crossan remains curious and open, wanting to know more. He does not find the idea that Jesus would have been given such an honorable burial by devoted followers to be far fetched, and I think I was able to convince him that this idea comes from Matthew, who makes the tomb “belong” to Joseph the “rich man,” where one finds the theological overlay regarding Jesus’ burial, not in the burial itself, which would be expected. More recently we have had a chance to discuss the new findings, both the “Jonah” icon and the “lifting up” inscription, on the ossuaries in the nearby Patio tomb, see The Jesus Discovery. Sarah, Dom’s wife, seems to be quite convinced on her own that Talpiot has a high likelihood of being the “real thing.” I look forward to discussing with her some of her reasoning in this regard and how she and her husband might differ on the subject. After all, a way to a man’s heart is surely not his stomach–but his wife! Back in 2007 Crossan did issue a formal quote on the subject of the Talpiot tomb in which he said it was “The final nail in the coffin of biblical literalism?” His main concern, as I understand it, is not so much whether the tomb might correspond to what we might imagine a Jesus family tomb to be like or contain, but whether the Talpiot Jesus tomb was disturbed in antiquity, which appears to be the case–thus complicating and potentially contaminating our evidence.

I have always found Dom Crossan to be one of the most gracious scholars in our field, despite his heatedly controversial stands. He treats his opponents with respect and it becomes obvious in any conversation with him that his views of Jesus, his teachings, his death, and his “parabolic” resurrection, are life and breath to him, not detached academic excercises. How and why Jesus lived and died deeply matters to him. His parting word to my students, when we showed him a 1st century Roman crucifixion nail, was that he would not care a whit if the bones of Jesus were found, in the Talpiot tomb or otherwise, but he would care very much if there was evidence Jesus was never really crucified and died comfortable and happy in old age–with Mark’s entire story being fiction. This reminded me of a story Norman Perrin told us at the University of Chicago back in 1972. He was pressed by conservative students who objected to the way he insisted, much like Crossan, that much of the Markan narrative was constructed and not historical. They asked him, given his minimal view of the historical Jesus, what was the bottom line with him. In other words, if so much of the passion narrative is constructed, what is the historical core, without which we would have nothing. He replied, “If it could be shown that rather than forgiving his enemies, Jesus was dragged to the cross, kicking and screaming and cursing his enemies, then everything would change.”