“The Jesus of History” and “The Christ of Faith” No More
On April 8, the College of St. Scholastica hosted Dr. John Dominic Crossan for this year’s Francis X. Shea Memorial Lecture. Yes, it was part of the book tour for his newest book, “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian.” But for those of us who never get through all the good books out there waiting to be read, it was a wonderful opportunity for an overview of this work dealing with violence in the Bible.
Crossan’s thesis begins with understanding the matrix of the Bible and the matrix of Jesus. Scholarly historical research and interpretation leads us to a Jesus who intentionally chose nonviolence as the way of the “kingdom of God,” in stark contrast to the violence of the Roman empire that brought a false peace and prosperity (pax Romana). The violence in scripture must also be understood in its historical context (some of what appears violent to us was actually a massive step forward in its time), but even more, it must be judged by the teaching and life of Jesus – by God’s chosen way of nonviolence.
The choice for the first followers was clear: One either accepted the ways of imperial power or one chose the Way of nonviolence, even if it meant suffering and death, as one’s way of being in and shaping the world. Crossan maintains that the choice is just as clear today, and even more urgent in a world of weapons of mass destruction and of climate change (violence against creation). Will we follow Jesus, or follow the way of worldly power?
Now, Crossan first gained wider acclaim for his work with the Jesus Seminar in the 1980’s and 90’s. The Jesus Seminar included scores of Biblical scholars seeking to use the best historical methods to determine which words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were most likely original, and which were probably written by the authors (or their sources) later – sometimes in keeping with Jesus’ teachings, sometimes widely divergent as the authors presented their own take on Jesus. The Seminar was one project of many since the nineteenth century utilizing scholarly methodology to move back in time, past “the Christ of faith” that is taught through religion, to “the Jesus of history,” recognizable apart from any faith convictions and interpretations.
The distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” has been a helpful one for many who struggle with Christian faith. Whether one is a “believer” or a “nonbeliever,” one can deal with the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth separate from the question of religious faith in that person.
But in the Q&A following the lecture, Crossan made the statement that the division between “Jesus” and “Christ” is no longer relevant. In fact, he was almost impatient with the idea of expending energy on this “trope.” An astounding statement, as it has always conservative theologians, not progressive ones, and certainly not historians, who wanted to dispense with the “Jesus” / “Christ” difference. Crossan’s reason, however, is simple.
Human violence has reached the point that we could in fact destroy human life as we know it, and irrevocably change the planet. Our economic and political systems are inherently violent, no matter the language with which we cloak them. We have a choice to make. Either we choose to continue down the path we follow now, or we follow the nonviolent alternative way of Jesus. The question is not one of theological assent; it is one of ethics, values, and behaviors, arising from one’s ultimate allegiance.
Crossan’s reframing of what is means to follow Jesus reminds me of the central early confession of faith, the one that I still find the only confession necessary: Jesus is Lord. Or as Crossan might say, Jesus is the norm and the criterion. Whatever else we believe flows from that recognition as we attempt to unpack all it means. But “Jesus is Lord” already defines how we live. If we are Jesus-followers, then we live the Jesus way – the way of nonviolence that the historical Jesus of Nazareth lived, with all the mercy, grace, justice and self-sacrifice that define it.
Perhaps this is the hallmark of progressive Christian faith: that it’s about following and living more than about theologies and answers. The point is to commit, daily; to live a bold, generous, self-sacrificing life that seeks a better way for all; to engage instead of holding back until we figure it all out.
“Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Let’s commit to following Jesus, together; maybe we’ll figure some of the rest out as we go.