The Hysterical Search for the Historical Jesus

(This originally appeared in the November/December 1998 edition of the MCOI Journal)

Search for Jesus meme

We live in an increasingly postmodern age. Our leading universities are the setting for a revolutionary change in the manner in which we view past events. The history of the ancient world and even the history of our own century are being rewritten, “deconstructed,” interpreted in new ways. For example, columnist George Will writes,

“Without an intellectual anchor, cultural institutions are carried along by prevailing winds, which blow from the left. Familiar exhibits of this process are universities, where various subjects are enveloped in fogs of politics and abstractions. The Holocaust is being exploited by academic entrepreneurs and factions with political agendas . . . [it] is being hijacked, turned into an empty flask to be filled up with academic obscurantism and trendy political advocacy masquerading as scholarship.” 1

Liberal professors and scholars are “politicizing” history, rewriting it to reflect their late-20th-century liberal political worldview. Says Will,

“Comparing Nazi misogyny and the exploitation of Jewish women by Jewish men, Ringelheim has stressed the extent to which ‘the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in tragic and involuntary alliance.’”

“So,” remarks Will, tongue-in-cheek, “the Holocaust was a serious episode of sexual harrassment.” 2

History in the Re-making

As important as we feel it is that our university students are taught real history rather than bogus “deconstructions,” we feel that there is a far more dangerous (in a spiritual sense) rewriting of history that’s afoot and gaining momentum in our culture. Christianity and the Jesus of the Bible are being “deconstructed” right before our eyes. One would have to be living in a cave not to have noticed the articles that have appeared in our newspapers, magazines, and on public and cable television these past few years giving us the “real” scoop about Jesus and the Bible.

This historical rewrite is being led by a group calling themselves the Jesus Seminar. Robert Funk, a retired professor from the University of Montana who was joined in 1985 by John Dominic Crossan, started this group. Bishop John Shelby Spong from New Jersey is also a Seminar member. Like those who are reinterpreting the significance of the Holocaust in secular history, these religiously liberal professors and scholars are “politicizing” religious history, rewriting it to reflect their late-20th-century liberal religious-political worldview. According to these scholarly revisionists, the New Testament is really not history but religious myth and faith “stories.”

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar begin from a perspective of denying the literal understanding of the Scriptures, and they seek alternative, metaphorical meanings behind the words and phrases of the gospel writers. The “explanations” they offer are often very far-fetched, and sometimes quite humorous to anyone who knows the Bible well. It is, indeed, a hysterical search for the “historical” Jesus.

In the layman-friendly book by John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus?he tells us that the Jesus Seminar meets twice a year for four days and involves 40-50 scholars.3 He admits they have received a lot of public attention.4 We would agree. In fact, there hasn’t been an Easter in recent memory which hasn’t brought about a number of stories in the major newspapers, radio and television with interviews featuring Dr. Crossan, Bishop Spong and others.

Crossan5 is a very likable scholar, indeed. He is a very grandfatherly individual with an even temper and a wonderful Irish accent. He taught at DePaul University in Chicago from 1969 until 1995, at which time he retired and was made Professor Emeritus. The media in our culture greatly favors the anti-supernatural explanations offered by Crossan and his liberal colleagues and grants Crossan a fawning respect it would never accord to conservative, Bible-believing scholars. Surely, such a learned voice, affiliated with such an august body as the Jesus Seminar, is one that should be listened to, trusted, and quoted often.

Democracy in Action

We must ask, how do the liberal theologians of the Jesus Seminar arrive at their novel conclusions? They discuss the text in question and, as Dr. Crossan writes, “we decide.”6 What do they decide? They decide what words Jesus actually spoke and which are myths, faith fables, and layers on the “Jesus Tradition.” This is done through a very literary, scientific, and irrefutable method. They:

“vote in secret, using colored beads to indicate [their] views about how likely it is that the particular words actually came from the historical Jesus. A red bead means that the saying ‘most likely’ came from Jesus, a pink bead means ‘likely,’ a gray bead means ‘not likely,’ and a black bead means ‘very unlikely.’ ”7

By employing such an up-to-date, sophisticated methodology, is it any wonder they have “voted” that Jesus only spoke about 18% of the words attributed to Him in the New Testament? They do not allow the New Testament text to govern their understanding of who Jesus was and is. Rather, they have a predetermined view of what Jesus was like based on their anti-supernatural and politically liberal bias, and they judge the text by their own preconceptions! Ask yourself, how could they vote on what Jesus did or did not say, unless they had already decided what kind of person He was and what He taught? It is a ridiculously circular process, guaranteed to “find” the Jesus they put there themselves, by ignoring the contrary evidence. It’s like a court trial where the guilt of the defendant has been predetermined, and all the overwhelming evidence suggesting his innocence is summarily removed from the record, based upon presumption of guilt. How fair would that be? We might see a hanging, but justice and truth would not be served.

Tools and Searchlights

Crossan tells us there are a number of tools available to scholars in their work, and he admits that the tool one uses will determine what sort of Jesus is “found.”

“Clearly, everything depends upon the methods used to uncover the facts about Jesus.”8

Dr. Crossan refers to the three tools he uses in order to “deconstruct” Jesus as “searchlights.” The first of the three is “cross-cultural study.” With this “tool,” Crossan attempts to understand the social setting in which Jesus lived by comparing it with other Mediterranean cultures of the time.

“What can scholars tell me about societies that, like the one in which Jesus lived, have elites and peasants, colonial subjects and imperial rulers? To take an example: If I am tempted to picture Jesus as a literate, middle class carpenter, cross cultural study reminds me that no middle class existed in ancient societies and that the peasant class from which he came is largely illiterate. So I am kept from imagining a Jesus who could not possibly have existed at his time and in his situation.”9

Crossan asserts that Jesus and most of His followers were illiterate, and that the disciples who wrote the gospels were far better educated than Jesus possibly could have been. These writers supposedly took it upon themselves to “fix” this problem by elaborating on what Jesus said and did, even though the writers of the New Testament explicitly deny doing this. John says,

 “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true(John 21:24, NIV).

Of course, in our postmodern world, we could argue about the meanings of John’s words. For example, the truth of John’s statement might depend on what our definition of “is” is. Does the statement mean that the testimony is true for all time and under all circumstances? Or is the testimony true only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, during March, April and May, and only in a leap year? We insist that John means his testimony IS true in the generally accepted sense of the word. Webster defines “is” as “third-person singular, present indicative of ‘be.’ ” John’s testimony be true, it is not some made-up story. That’s the sense here.

Yet, we are asked to believe Crossan,rather than the eyewitnesses of the events, without any proof whatsoever that the gospel writers fudged their report in any detail. Crossan’s cross-cultural suppositions are not convincing. It was common practice for young men in Israel to be taught to read the scrolls, memorize Jewish history, and participate in discussions with the men in the synagogue. Luke reports that Jesus read from the scrolls in the temple (Luke 4:16), and we will believe Luke until proof is forthcoming that he lied about this. Nevertheless, the issue of Jesus’ literacy is a moot point to a person who believes the biblical text. In the Bible, Jesus is presented as being God incarnate, a unique person who has the very mind of God. A secular education will neither make nor break such a person.

Deconstructing a Deconstruction

Let’s turn the tables on Crossan. He says it is impossible to imagine an illiterate Jesus saying and doing the things that Jesus is portrayed as saying and doing in the New Testament. How possible is it to imagine an illiterate peasant doing and saying the things that Crossan asserts that He did? Crossan’s Jesus is a political-social revolutionary. Historically, social revolutions such as Crossan envisions are fomented by the university-educated elites of society such as Karl Marx and Vladamir Lenin, and their ideas make their way down to the peasantry and working class, as well as to successive generations of student radicals. Crossan has Jesus going about announcing a divine social revolution,10 speaking out against colonial imperialism,11 domestic violence, and systemic abuse of power.12 His “illiterate” Jesus fully understands the nuances and recognizes the injustices of the political and economic structure,13 and he exposes the evils of institutionalized racism and sexism.14 Crossan can imagine this Jesus, but not the Jesus of the Bible??? This highly imaginative picture of Jesus as a “power-to-the-people antiestablishment radical” would indeed be hysterical if it were not deceiving so many people.

Searchlight #2

The second “searchlight” Crossan utilizes is “historical study.” He looks at the dealings between the Jews and the Greco-Romans. How did the two groups get along? We must agree that historical study is a very valuable tool. Conservative biblical scholars use the historical, grammatical method of study to place texts into their proper context. The difference is that they look at the historical setting as a whole, whereas Dr. Crossan limits his “study” to the political atmosphere. A plain reading of the biblical text gives no indication that Jesus was the least bit interested in politics other than to teach obedience to the laws of the land. But, unfortunately, an apolitical Jesus is not the kind of Jesus that Crossan wants to “imagine.” In order to “imagine” the type of Jesus he wants, he dismisses truly relevant historical information concerning the miraculous events of Jesus’ ministry, and he reimagines Jesus only as a fully human, political revolutionary. Crossan mentions the first century historian Josephus’ words about Jesus, that He “was a wise man ‘who wrought surprising feats,’ ”15 but, amazingly, Crossan does not allow those words to suggest to him that perhaps Jesus truly did perform supernatural miracles.

It is incumbent upon Crossan, I would think, to apply his “historical study” “searchlight” to his own version of events. He claims that the disciples of Jesus continued His mission after His death. Surely we should be able to find some historical verification of the first-century socialist revolution initiated by the radical of Nazareth! Was His failure and theirs so complete that every scrap of evidence was eradicated?

Searchlight #3

Crossan’s third “searchlight” is so-called “textual study.”16 This is, according to him, the most difficult task.

“I have to distinguish between three levels of literary tradition. At the first level the tradition retains sayings and happenings that go back to the historical Jesus. At the second level those retained materials are developed — for example, by weaving stories around originally isolated sayings. The third level involves creating totally new stories and sayings which are then put in the mouth of Jesus.”17

We can appreciate Crossan’s arduous work here: it is always a difficult task to draw imaginary distinctions and make your conclusions appear reasonable to those who may not share your prejudice. Is there any real evidence that Crossan’s distinctions are based in reality? We all know that “tools” are only as good as the craftsman who employs them. Searchlights have their limitations. The most powerful beam on earth will do nothing to illuminate the path of a blind man. In fact, I think it is safe to say that the odds of Crossan finding the real Jesus using his “searchlights” is about the same as Janet Reno finding evidence of campaign finance abuse!

According to Crossan, the entire truth of the Christian faith has been misunderstood by the vast majority of its adherents. The Bible does not really teach what it has been understood to teach for the last 1900+ years. Jesus may have said that the poor will inherit the earth, but the disciples made up all that miraculous “Son of God” stuff. Jesus was only “resurrected” in the sense that his followers “experienced Jesus as continuing with them after he died,”18 not that His body actually and factually came out of that tomb. When Crossan’s Jesus performed allegorical “exorcisms,” He was “engaging in symbolic revolution against the occupying power.”19

These conclusions come from no textual study at all, but are the result of Crossan’s fanciful application of his 20th-century liberal worldview to the texts in question. Anyone could take the teachings of Jesus, and twist them to support their own political worldview! In fact, it could be fun! Jesus said in Matthew 12:43-45, NIV:

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”

What does this text mean? Well, isn’t it obvious that Jesus was speaking allegorically here against leftist, social experimentation? He was clearly warning us of the inevitably negative outcome of humanistic, utopian “solutions” to poverty, wage disparity, etc. He was illustrating for us the irony that every social problem (evil spirit) seemingly “fixed” by liberal activism will be soon replaced by seven worse problems (spirits more wicked), leaving society worse off than it was before the “cure.” Now some may object that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus meant this, but hey . . . text, schmext!!! The foregoing interpretation of Jesus’ words is ridiculous, of course, but no more ridiculous than Crossan’s rendering of the gospel texts which he interprets for us, reflecting his political/naturalistic bias.

The issue comes down to this: we must choose whether to believe Crossan or the writers of the gospels themselves. Crossan says,

 “The Hebrew prophets did not predict the event’s of Jesus’ last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies . . .”20

But Peter said,

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:16, 20, NIV).

And Luke, although not an eyewitness to the events in question, assured us he had “carefully investigated everything”so that we could be certain of the veracity of his account (Luke 1:1-4).

Meanwhile, disputing the disciple’s words without wishing to disparage them personally, Crossan generously assures us that we need not be judgmental toward the disciples who have misled us all these centuries by “[elaborating] upon actual events or even [creating] stories and sayings about Jesus from scratch.” We need to understand that the disciples didn’t “lie;” it’s just

“that sense of continued presence gave the transmitters of the Jesus tradition a creative freedom . . . they were unembarrassed to restate the words and deeds of Jesus in ways that met the particular needs of their own times and communities.”21

It is not the disciples, but Crossan who is “unembarrassed to restate the words and deeds of Jesus” in ways that he feels will meet the needs of his own time and community. The “Jesus story” is a classic, all right, but desperately in need of an “update,” and Crossan considers himself just the man for the job.

The Search for the Historical Huckleberry

Just for fun, let’s put Crossan’s method to work on Mark Twain’s book, Huckleberry Finn. If we merely read the book at face value, we will easily understand that it is the story of a boy that floats down the Mississippi River on a raft with a runaway slave named Jim. But once Crossan illumines Twain’s book with his postmodernist “searchlights,” HuckleberryFinn becomes the tale of a Japanese automaker who goes on an African Safari. Which story line would you think the author intended? The one that comes by a plain reading, or the convoluted, deconstructed one that comes out of an overactive imagination? If you believe the “Safari tale,” it certainly wouldn’t be Mark Twain’s fault, but your own, for putting some other person’s interpretation above the book itself. We might shorten it up a bit and call it a “fari tale.” “Fari tales” are for children . . . adults should just read the book for themselves.

Of Material Importance

In Dr. Crossan’s book, we find an attitude which places personal opinion above serious research and study based on known bibliographic tests and principles. Dr. Crossan regards all the available written material from the first and second century, whether of Christian or Gnostic origin, to be equally valid. And so we see that Crossan ignores such “incidentals”as authenticity, time of writing, authoritativeness, etc. This would be like attempting to take a trip from Chicago to Paris, IL, and in an attempt to find the “real” route to my destination,I obtained every available map with the name “Paris” on it. I then put them all together regardless of authenticity (maybe a child drew it), originating country (France or USA) and purpose (airline map vs. road map), and planned my route by flipping a coin for each leg of my journey. It may be an interesting trip, but I likely will never get to my destination.

He writes,

“In order to paint a picture of the real Jesus, I pay most attention to the earliest layers of tradition-materials dating between the years 30 and 60 of the first century . . .”22

If that really were true, his primary material would be the gospels as they are written. In order for his method to work, he must assume that the gospels were written after 70 AD, but his assumption is in grave error.

The Book of Acts closes with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in his first imprisonment. Why is that important? This would mean that Acts had to be written before Paul was released from this particular imprisonment, before Paul traveled on his next missionary journey, and before he was re-arrested under Nero’s persecution and beheaded. Therefore, it is most likely that the book of Acts, authored by Luke, was written about 61 AD. Why is this important? Because Acts was the second book which Luke wrote. The first was the gospel of Luke, which Luke asserts is a faithful account of the life of Jesus. Luke certainly wrote his first book before his second, which would date Luke at 60 AD. Most scholars, even liberal ones, agree that Mark was the earliest of the gospels, written sometime in the 50’s or earlier.

Furthermore, based on recent textual discovery, a good case can be made that Mark was written even earlier than has been assumed and that most, if not all, of the New Testament was written prior to 70 AD. A discovery of a fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll in cave seven was dated at 45 AD prior to figuring out what was written on it. There were about 20 letters that the researchers could not match up with any of the Hebrew Scriptures or other writings of antiquity. As it turned out, they were looking in the wrong material. This fragment was a copy of a section of the gospel of Mark. If it is a copy, the original had to have been written earlier and had time to circulate and be copied. The gospel of Mark, then, was most likely written about 40 AD.

So, if Dr. Crossan truly favored material written between 30-60 AD, this would be the material of choice. There simply is not enough time for myth and layers of tradition to have developed. But, instead, he “chooses” (elects, votes, prefers) to create “his Jesus” out of the Gnostic (secret knowledge) writings of the second century, while discounting the truly historical accounts of the life of Jesus found in the gospels.

Who is Crossan’s Jesus?

Crossan’s Jesus is just a man. He was not born of a virgin. He fulfilled none of the Old Testament prophecies. He performed no “miracles” and, certainly, never raised anyone from the dead. His ministry was announcing a “divine social revolution,”23 promoting gender and class equality, which threatened the oppressors of Rome and the patriarchal social hierarchy. That was why he was put to death. He “died for me” only in the sense that Martin Luther King died for African-Americans, or Ghandi died for Hindu “untouchables.”24 Jesus’ message is the “empowerment and liberation” of the oppressed classes of society.25 In short, Crossan’s Jesus turns out to believe and teach very much like a 20th-century liberal Protestant!!! Well, SURPRISE, SURPRISE, as Gomer Pyle might say. Crossan didn’t need a “searchlight” to find the real Jesus! All he needed was a mirror!

The WHY

Why did Crossan feel the need to make up his own Jesus? Very simple — he didn’t like the politically incorrect, intolerant (any Jesus going around saying that He is the only way to God is just begging to be reimagined!), hell-fire spouting, judgmental Jesus he found on the pages of Scripture! He prefers the mythical Jesus of the Gnostics, because their theology is preferable to him. Gushes Crossan,

“The Q community (the early Gnostics) regarded Jesus as the Wisdom of God. Their theology would be: the world’s powers destroyed Jesus, but he has returned to God, and he is with us despite his death, as God’s Wisdom. They could speak of the meaning of Jesus’ death without any sacrificial metaphors at all . . . My problem is this: language of blood sacrifice was appropriate to people used to the sacrifices that were part of ancient temple worship, but is totally alien to our world . . . Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrificed his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imaginations at more earthly levels as well.”26

Then Crossan gets to the heart of the matter:

“I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”27

It all comes down to personal preference. That’s the beauty of the create-a-Jesus plan. Go through the scriptures, take what you like, leave what you don’t like! It’s so simple. That way, we can express our faith the way we want to! Truth is whatever we WANT it to be! That’s a fool’s paradise, my friends. The truth is the truth, whether we like it or not. Our faith may turn out to be warm and fuzzy, but alas, it won’t be TRUE. And the faith that such people create will not save them for eternity.

Dr. Crossan’s searchlights and imaginings have caused him and those who read and follow his and the Jesus Seminar’s teachings to reach false conclusions. They have shown themselves to be myth-taken in their hysterical search for a mythical Jesus of their own imaginations. Jesus said,

“Unless you believe that I AM, you shall die in your sins.”28

In claiming to be the “I AM,” Jesus is identifying Himself as YHWH, the LORD of the Old Testament; to blatantly reject His claim for ideological reasons is to reject the forgiveness that Jesus freely offers to helpless sinners. What a tragedy!

There is nothing wrong with speaking out against racism, oppression, material greed, etc. In fact, it is right and proper to do so. But religious liberals have made social action their gospel and have left the true gospel far behind. So far behind that liberals like Crossan state that Jesus’ death was not necessary for us, and His resurrection didn’t happen!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle where I sit, I fear we are in danger of making social reaction our gospel. We’re circling the wagons, and keeping our love largely within the circle. Let’s not do that! Again, it is right, proper, and our Christian duty to speak out against the moral wrongs in our culture. It is right and proper to argue in the public arena against gay marriage, abortion, and all sinful practices.

But, we must not forget our most important duty and calling: to reach out in love to those who are violating God’s standards, and tell them that they are in great danger, and need to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Every day — homosexuals and “straight” libertines, racists of every color, abortionists and abortion clinic bombers, animal-rights activists and research scientists, poor young sinners and rich old sinners, left- and right-wing “conspirators,” radical feminists and male chauvinists, environmental activists and industrial polluters, conservatives and liberals, the unrighteous and the self-righteous, and the good, the bad, and the ugly — all are dying without Jesus. No Jesus, no forgiveness of personal sins . . . dark desolation and regret forever. Jesus still is the friend of sinners, so we should make it our business to introduce Him to them! Friends, we need to be bringing the gospel of peace to the lost. That is our calling.

  1. Academics diluting and distorting Holocaust, syndicated columnist George Will, June 18,1998
  2. Academics diluting and distorting Holocaust, syndicated columnist George Will, June 18,1998.
  3. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), xv.
  4. John Dominic Crossan, Who is

    Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), xv.

  5. Crossan doesn’t fit neatly into the category of “postmodernist,” but then, few people do. Postmodernism is still a fledgling movement that only recently began coalescing around a few central doctrines. Even settling on one basic definition of what postmodernism “is” can cause arguments among postmodernists. On the other hand, Crossan’s approach to the life of Jesus is compatible with various postmodernist approaches. Many practitioners of “deconstruction,” after all, focus on exposing hidden political agendas lurking in both the text and its readers. And the postmodern emphasis on multiple, equally valid “perspectives” on the text has created an atmosphere congenial to the Jesus Seminar.
  6. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), xv.
  7. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), xv.
  8. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 5
  9. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 6
  10. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 55
  11. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 65
  12. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 59-61
  13. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 65
  14. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 64
  15. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 155
  16. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 7
  17. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 7
  18. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 8
  19. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 92-93
  20. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 136
  21. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 8
  22. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 8
  23. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 55
  24. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 144
  25. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 27
  26. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 145
  27. John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 145-46
  28. John 8:24, NASB

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