How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian

Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation

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John Dominic Crossan
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , July
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $15.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780062203618.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

How To Read The Bible and Still Be A Christian grows out of the historical Jesus research for which Crossan is best known but begins with his earliest scholarly work on anti-Semitism in the New Testament, which was prompted by attendance at the Oberammergau Passion Play in 1960. Seeing a drama he knew as text raised new questions for him: “How had the same crowd that filled the huge stage that morning to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday become changed by afternoon to cry for his crucifixion on Good Friday?” (5). Seeing text as drama, he recognized that “something was wrong when acclamation became condemnation without any explanation” (5). That the play he saw “was the same version that Adolf Hitler saw in 1930 and 1934..., both before and after he became chancellor of Germany” (6) provoked an epiphany: one of the paradigmatic forms of violence in the twentieth century is rooted in theology, and uprooting it requires a history “laced with theology” (6). His scholarly research responds to the challenge of the historical Jesus, which leads to a second challenge, the occasion for this book.

Crossan describes the first two chapters as an overture, and, as in music, this overture lays down a theme to be repeated with variations. The theme responds to questions that juxtaposed the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse with the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels, asked of Crossan during talks to church groups after the publication of Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography in 1991. Always attentive to the matrix within which texts are formed, Crossan notes that these questions were informed not only by the biblical Apocalypse but also by popular depictions of apocalypse in the “Left Behind” series (published between 1995 and 2007) and in the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (released in 2005). Both depicted divinely sanctioned retributive violence in which human beings participated. As Crossan turns from Gospel to Apocalypse (16), he is conscious of the two visions evoked in his account of Oberammergau. As much literary theorist as theologian or historian, he is aware that the “Christian Bible” is a literary creation that enfolds both visions.

True to the Thomistic tradition in which he was educated, Crossan turns to Aristotle for guidance in how to read a book; and that leads him to the whole of the Christian Bible as a composition with beginning, middle, and end. The overture attends to meaning in the middle and, in two “probes” (22ff), one centered on Leviticus and the other on Philemon and Colossians, establishes the method of the book. The pattern discerned in those two probes consists of two visions, one centered on nonviolent distributive justice (an assertion of the radicality of God), the other on violent retributive justice (a corresponding subversion intent on returning to “the normalcy of civilization”). Those two visions look like trains running on parallel tracks, but Crossan suggests that they are more like the rhythm of a heartbeat. Assertion and subversion are the heartbeat of the Bible and of the community that forms and is formed by it.

The book is an exploration from Genesis to Revelation, but, because of Crossan’s attention to matrix, it begins before Genesis, with the dawn of civilization at Sumer, and ends after Revelation, with serious questions the Bible poses for people who claim it. Because “civilization’s dawn for Sumer was creation’s date for Israel” (43), reading Genesis means reading Gilgamesh. Approaching Adam and Eve via Gilgamesh and Enkidu leads Crossan to conclude that the issue was not “immortality lost” but the struggle to recognize that “it cannot be had by humans” (53). From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is entangled with “the normalcy of civilization” and its confusion with “the inevitability of human nature,” both of which are entangled with “escalatory violence” (66). Violence and empire are the “nurses of civilization in its infancy” (33); and Genesis 1 is a prologue written by the priestly tradition to announce that this is what the Bible is about (75). With this in mind, reading the Bible as a struggle between God’s dream and civilization’s dream is plausible.

But Crossan is doing something more complicated, and Aristotle again serves as guide. Humans, Aristotle maintained, are political animals, entangled with civilization. If we read the Bible as a struggle between God’s dream and civilization’s dream, we read it in the matrix of civilization. Crossan’s insistence that the crown of Creation in the priestly account is the Sabbath, not human beings created late on a Friday afternoon (which, as he notes [76-77], is not the time when “best work” is typically done), is an important theological insight. The “radicality of God” first appears in God making a garden completed in Sabbath rest.

Crossan’s focus on distributive and retributive justice guides his reading of what Jesus and his disciples regarded as scripture, the Law and the Prophets. He locates Law in a Mesopotamian context that grounded it in a history of blessing as well as a threat of punishment, between history and sanction (99). The Priestly tradition comes down on the side of law rooted in history while the Deuteronomic, Prophetic, and Psalmic traditions, under the influence of the successive empires that dominated the region, shift toward law rooted in sanction and fear. The Wisdom tradition that provides the immediate backdrop to the New Testament is grounded in history that reaches back to the priestly creation account. The eschatological orientation of John the Baptist shifts toward law rooted in the ultimate sanction of apocalyptic eschatology. Crossan understands this in the context of “Israel and the challenge of Rome” (143 ff), which he reads as a history of primarily nonviolent resistance that gave rise to John’s baptism movement (to which Jesus initially belonged) and, later, the Kingdom movement of Jesus, which responds to the execution of John. After John’s execution, Jesus shifts to a present Kingdom in which human beings already have a part: “For Jesus, nonviolent resistance to evil is divine before it is human and should be human because it is divine” (169). The problem posed by Christian scripture is that the nonviolent Jesus became the violent Christ and the violent Son of a violent God (171). Crossan’s reading is a variation on the theme introduced in his overture: “God is revealed in Christ, but Christ is revealed in Jesus” (171). The challenge (185) is to accept the assertion of the nonviolent historical Jesus while rejecting the subversion that changes him into a practitioner of rhetorical and then physical violence.

Crossan’s work is a refreshingly human introduction to a thoroughly human book—the Bible—that challenges readers to encounter the divine in an undeniably human context. He guides us to the heartbeat of a book, a human artifact at the intersection of power and justice, between “the radicality of God” and “the normalcy of civilization” (239), which he ultimately sees as an “iconic vision.” The axis of power reaches from the nonviolence of persuasion to the violence of force, and the axis of justice reaches from  the nonviolence of distributive justice to the violence of retributive justice. What could be more timely than a book at an intersection, where deals with the devil are made? An intersection where power and justice cross between violence and nonviolence is an apt description of the human condition, and this eloquent introduction to a book of books written in medias res, challenging us to encounter the divine in the tension where we live rather than offering a collection of answers from which to pick and choose, is most welcome

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schroeder is an independent scholar and former lecturer at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, is widely regarded as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time. He is the author of several bestselling books, including The Historical JesusHow to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, God and EmpireJesus: A Revolutionary BiographyThe Greatest Prayer, The Last Week, and The Power of Parable. He lives in Minneola, Florida.

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