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Searching for the Historical Jesus: Examining the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg

  • Michael E. O'Keeffe (a1)


The movement broadly defined as the “New Quest for the Historical Jesus” represents one of the more important areas where academic scholarship has had a direct bearing on popular religion. Although many forces have been instrumental in this development, perhaps the most important has been the popularizing work of the Jesus Seminar, under the direction of Robert Funk. This essay examines two of the premier scholars associated with the Seminar, namely, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus J. Borg. It examines their methodologies and central christological claims, and gives special consideration to Borg's addition of a “theo-cosmic level” that distinguishes his work from Crossan's.



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1 Ludwig, Robert A., “Reconstructing Jesus for a Dysfunctional Church: Crossan's Christology and Contemporary Spirituality” in Carlson, Jeffrey and Ludwig, Robert A., eds., Jesus and Faith: A Conversation on the Work of John Dominic Crossan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 5770.

2 Although more numerous than these, Borg's, Marcus most important work on the historical Jesus is Jesus: A New Vision. Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994).Crossan's, John Dominic most important texts are The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991) and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994).

3 Crossan, , Jesus, xii.

4 Ibid., xii-xiii.

5 Funk, Robert W., Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 311.

6 Halstead, James, “The Orthodox Unorthodoxy of John Dominic Crossan: An Interview,” Cross Currents (Winter 1995): 511–30.

7 For Crossan, the search for the “historical Jesus” is a search for “what you would have seen and heard if you had been a more or less neutral observer in the early decades of the first century. Clearly, some people ignored him, some worshiped him, and others crucified him. But what if you wanted to move behind the screen of creedal interpretation and, without in any way denying or negating the validity of faith, give an accurate but impartial account of the historical Jesus as distinct from the confessional Christ? That is what the academic or scholarly study of the historical Jesus is about, at least when it is not a disguise for doing theology and calling it history, doing autobiography and calling it biography, doing Christian apologetics and calling it academic scholarship.”1 See Crossan, , Jesus, xi.

8 Crossan, , Jesus, 155, and Crossan, , Historical Jesus, 392–93.

9 See Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), esp. 4748.

10 Crossan is simply not very interested in specific theological questions, that is, questions that involve Jesus' relationship to God or how Jesus' understanding of God may have informed his mission. Theology rarely enters his reconstruction, which of course gives weight to the pessimistic appraisal associated with Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus. Nevertheless, this does not mean that God is “nowhere” to be found in Crossan. For example, in “Responses and Reflections,” in Jesus and Faith, Crossan affirms a “trinitarian experience of God” and the fact that Jesus is “relationally and inter-subjectively divine” (143). However, such affirmations are not explored, and do not function as parameters within which the historical Jesus must be understood. Perhaps a reason for such a lacuna is indicated in this same article, when Crossan makes the following (startling!) claim in response to Ludwig's hope that Crossan will become more theological: “I have never read any of the theologians mentioned by Robert Ludwig—not Rahner, Schillebeeckx, or Küng (I finished by doctorate in 1959!); not any of the South American liberation thinkers; not any of those other contemporary writers whose analyses he summarized for us. I take no particular pride in that accomplishment. I have been for over thirty years so involved in earliest Christianity in its historical, then its literary, and now its social-scientific aspects, that I have had no time to read systematic theology. Nor do I see much possibility for doing so in the near future” (153). In contrast to such theological avoidance, Borg offers a type of “Spirit christology,” even if somewhat undeveloped when we compare his work with the Spirit christologies of G. W. H. Lampe and Piet Schoonenberg.

11 Borg, , Jesus, 25.

12 Smith, Houston, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). In addition to Smith, Borg relies heavily on the works of Rudolf Otto, William James, and Mircea Eliade. For additional references to the Primordial Tradition see Griffin, David Ray and Smith, Houston, eds., Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

13 Borg, Marcus J., Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 130. See also Borg, , Jesus, 3334.

14 Borg, , Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 129.

15 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 42. See also Jesus, 28; “As omnipresent and immanent, God and the world of Spirit are all around us, including within us. Rather than God being somewhere else, we (and everything that is) are in God. We live in Spirit, even though we are typically unaware of this reality.”

16 Borg, , Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 132.

17 Ibid., 132; and Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 33.

18 Borg, , Jesus, 3738, note 33.

19 Ibid., 27; and Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 33, 43.

20 Borg, , Jesus, 5051.

21 Borg, , Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, 133. See also Borg, , Jesus, 4145. It is important to note that, for Borg, not only is Jesus' baptismal experience historical, but also other paranormal experiences, such as his visions of the heavens, his temptations by Satan, and his “out of body experiences.” In stark contrast to Crossan, and without much justification other than such events happen cross-culturally and cross-temporally, Borg feels that the details regarding Jesus' intimacy with God are historical.

22 Borg, , Jesus, 47. In contrast to Crossan, Borg feels that Jesus' experience of the Spirit gives historical foundation to the later Christian claim that he was the Christ, the anointed Son of God.

23 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 15, 3132.

24 Borg, , Jesus: A New Vision, 60: “Mediators between the two worlds of the primordial tradition often become ‘people of power,’ or miracle-workers, especially healers. To be sure, not all do. In the history of Israel and other cultures, some were primarily mediators of the divine will as prophets and law-givers, or of ‘supernatural’ knowledge as diviners or clairvoyants. Others were charismatic military leaders, ‘spirit warriors.’ But some became channels through which healing power flowed from the world of Spirit into the visible world. Such figures of power (‘men of deeds,’ as they were called in Judaism) were known in first-century Palestine, both in her ancient traditions (notably Elijah) and in charismatic contemporaries with Jesus such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle Drawer. Jesus was one of these ‘men of deeds.’ Indeed, to his contemporaries, it was the most remarkable thing about him.”

The emphasis here is clearly on the fact that Jesus is not unique, for he is like other “Spirit persons” who acted in similar ways, both personally and communally. See especially Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 29, 37. The following is from p. 37: “Imaging Jesus as a particular instance of a type of religious personality known cross-culturally undermines a widespread Christian belief that Jesus is unique, which most commonly is linked to the notion that Christianity is exclusively true and that Jesus is ‘the only way.’ The image I have sketched viewed Jesus differently: rather than being the exclusive revelation of God, he is one of many mediators of the sacred. Yet even as this view subtracts from the uniqueness of Jesus and the Christian tradition, it also in my judgment adds to the credibility of both.”

25 Borg, , Jesus, 61.

26 Ibid., 62-63.

27 Ibid.,, 67.

28 Ibid., 63-71. The following is taken from p. 71: “[Jesus] was, in terms of cultural and historical impact, the most extraordinary figure in [the charismatic stream of Judaism]. Not only did he come out of such a stream, but others followed in his wake. According to the gospels, he commissioned his twelve disciples to be charismatic healers. His two most important first-century followers, Peter and Paul, were also charismatic holy men. Further removed in time, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), often considered the most ’Christlike’ of subsequent Christians, was a mystic, visionary, and healer. Though foreign to our experience and way of thinking in the modern world, the world of spirits and God was, for Jesus and his predecessors and followers in the Jewish-Christian tradition, very real—not simply as an element of belief, but of experience.” In respect to how we should evaluate the miraculous, Borg provides few clues. For example, he never examines if there are any limits to what a Spirit person can do, or what if anything separates Jesus from other miracle workers such as Peter, Paul, and St. Francis.

29 The connection between Jesus' charismatic experience and his role as sage, revitalization movement founder, and prophet is well summarized in Jesus: A New Vision, 116, 142.

30 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 102-9.

31 Borg, , Jesus, 102. See also Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 48: “Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us—the mother who gives birth to us. As a mother loves the children of her womb and feels for the children of her womb, so God loves us and feels for us, for all of her children.”

32 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 56.

33 Ibid. and Borg, , Jesus, 102. Like Crossan, Borg feels that Jesus' open table fellowship, not the “Last Supper,” is the legitimate precursor to the eucharist and what Christians should be about when they profess to “remember me” in the eucharist.

34 Borg, , Jesus, 125.

35 Ibid., 130-31.

36 Ibid., 125.

37 Ibid., 139.

38 Ibid., 198-99.

39 Ibid., 152.

40 Crossan, , Historical Jesus, 421.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., 340-41.

43 Crossan, , Jesus, 4849: “John's vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had originally accepted and even defended in the crisis of John's death, was no longer deemed adequate. It is not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now. By the time Jesus emerged from John's shadow with his own program, they were quite different from John's, but it may well have been John's own execution that led Jesus to understand a God who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration.”

44 Ibid., 55-56.

45 Crossan, , “Responses and Reflections,” 154. See also Crossan, , Historical Jesus, 304. In the former Crossan rejects the claim that Jesus had a “preferential option for the poor.” He had a “preferential option for justice.”

46 Crossan's choice of the term “open commensality” is meant to emphasize the social implications of Jesus' action. See his “The Historical Jesus in Earliest Christianity” in Jesus and Faith: A Conversation on the Work of John Dominic Crossan, 1. Crossan also makes an important distinction between being open to the poor and being open to the “destitute.” The following is taken from Crossan, , Jesus, 6162: “The former describes the status of a peasant family making a bare subsistence living from year to year; the latter indicates the status of such a family pushed, by disease or debt, draught or death, off the land and into destitution and begging. … The poor man has to work hard but has always enough to survive, while the beggar has nothing at all. Jesus, in other words, did not declare blessed the poor, a class that included, for all practical purposes, the entire peasantry; rather, he declared blessed the destitute, for example, the beggars.”

47 Crossan, , Jesus, 71.

48 Hence the emphasis on the Kingdom as a unwanted weed in a field that attracts all the wrong kind of “birds.” See ibid., 63-65.

49 Ibid., 82.

50 Crossan's understanding of a magician is reflected in the following, taken from Historical Jesus, 305: “… magic is to religion as banditry is to politics. As banditry challenges the ultimate legitimacy of political power, so magic challenges that of spiritual power. Magic and religion can be mutually distinguished by political and prescriptive definitions, but not by substantive, descriptive, or neutral descriptions. Religion is official and approved magic; magic is unofficial and unapproved religion. More simply: ‘we’ practice religion, ‘they’ practice magic.”

51 Crossan, , Jesus, 82.

52 Crossan, , Historical Jesus, 346.

53 Ibid., 200.

54 Ibid., xxvi.

55 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 3637.

56 Ibid., 17, 137.

57 In Jesus: A New Vision, 190-91, Borg rejects the claim that Jesus “is God,” although he can be understood as the “epiphany” or disclosure of God: “[Jesus] was an ‘image’ of God, an ‘icon’ of God, revealing and mediating the divine reality. What he was like therefore discloses what God is like.”

58 Borg, , Meeting Jesus Again, 97, 110–11, and 109, which has the following: “For early Christianity, Jesus was the Son of the Father and the incarnation of Sophia, the child of the intimate Abba, and the child of Sophia. … The multiplicity of images for speaking of Jesus' relationship to God (as logos, Sophia, Son—to name but a few) should make it clear that none of them is to be taken literally. They are metaphorical.”

59 Borg, , Jesus, 201–2, note 9: “I am not arguing that historical knowledge about Jesus is essential for the life of Christian discipleship. Ever since the death of Jesus, discipleship has been a response to the living Christ and not to the historical Jesus. It is the living Christ who is still known as lord, still issues the call to ‘follow me,’ and still stands in the relation of master and disciples with his followers. Moreover, centuries of Christians have lived lives of discipleship without knowledge of the historical Jesus; prior to the modern period, no distinction had yet been made between the Christ of the gospels and Jesus as a figure of history. Clearly, historical knowledge about Jesus is no more necessary for the life of discipleship than it is for Christian life. Nevertheless, what Jesus was like is not irrelevant to discipleship. Indeed, we may suppose that for the earliest Christians in the first decades after Easter, the still-vivid historical memory of what he was like must have shaped their understanding of what it meant to ‘follow him.’ My claim is simply that an image of the historical Jesus illuminates the path of discipleship.


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