John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus of DePaul University in Chicago and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. He has written 20 books on the historical Jesus in the last 30 years, four of which have become bestsellers. Beliefnet senior producer Deborah Caldwell interviewed Crossan about his recent book, "Excavating Jesus"--and about what he views as parallels between first century Rome and today.

Putting theology aside, why did Jesus emerge as a leader when he did and where he did?

In the 25 years before Jesus--the time of Herod the Great--Romanization, which was that century's form of globalization, was facilitated by urbanization. Rome planted cities, aristocrats lived in the cities, they commercialized the country, and they increased taxes. Herod the Great did that in the south of the country. Through archeological research, you can see the huge commercial port at Caesaria on the coast, huge storehouses, and you also see the greatly expanded Temple esplanade in Jerusalem. That meant business, that meant pilgrims--nice pagan pilgrims who were going to come up to Herod's port and to his temple, because this was the biggest temple in the ancient world.

Commercialization hit the south, but Herod skipped Galilee. And that's evident on the ground. For example, he created temples to Rome and Augustus, sort of the twin deities of that century's new world order. You put one up way up in the north at Caesaria Philipi, you put one in the middle of the country, and you put another one on the coast. So the ground tells you that Romanization hit this country hard a generation before Jesus, but it didn't really hit Galilee.


This is conjecture: Rome turned the country over to Herod and said, "Go conquer it. If you can make it, you're our man, and if you can't, we'll get somebody else." And he really had a rough time in Galilee. It could have been he was avoiding further trouble; it could have been punitive. But he really didn't do anything in Galilee like he did in the south. And he was king of the Jews of the whole country, so Judea and Samaria got Romanized and Galilee didn't. What he did was to work out a way to brilliantly commercialize Jerusalem and have everyone on his side, because he extended the temple, which made him look devout and pious--but what he really built was a huge court for the pagans. And that would make no sense at all unless somebody said to him, "Build it and they will come."

So Jesus comes along a generation after.

Herod dies around the same time Jesus was born, and his son Herod Antipas takes over in Galilee. Which meant that Romanization-commercialization, urbanization-hits Galilee in the generation of Jesus. And about 4 B.C.E., about the same time Jesus is born, Antipas Romanizes the city of Sepphoris. He set out the streets in a nice tidy grid, he put in business-ultimately, he commercializes the countryside. That's because the aristrocrats who lived in the city had to have land since land was capital in the first century. So that would mean pressure on the land, which would mean, for example, peasants going into debt and foreclosures on debts that weren't paid.

Then, in the year 19--well into the generation of Jesus--Herod Antipas built a brand new city on the lake called Tiberius. That means he's commercializing the fish. The fish could be salted or they could be made into fish sauce and lots of other things that could be exported. So if you look at the 20s and you knew nothing about Jesus, you would say, "OK, Romanization has just hit lower Galilee full force and it's focused on the lake."

So if I find two prophets--say, the Kingdom Movement of Jesus and the Baptism Movement of John appearing in the 20s--that is more than coincidence. The social situation of Romanization is being resisted, in the name of God and in the name of the ancient traditions of the peasantry and of the law. Which obviously doesn't mean that every Jew agreed with it. Lots of Jews thought Romanization was the future and the will of God. But that's what you see from the ground, if you knew no more than that there were certain resistance movements in the 20s, and that they weren't violent.

Why was Jesus' movement ultimately the one that gained the most following?

Leaving aside for the moment the personality of the individuals, even the content of their vision and their program-one thing that John did which was really fatal was that he was the baptizer. That is, he was the movement. What he did was to take people out into the desert, cross them into the Promised Land once again, metaphorically or sacramentally, and redo the Exodus, leaving their sins in the river, and emerging into the Promised Land as a purified people ready for God.

That's his program. It's not violent, but Antipas sizes it up perfectly. He doesn't round up all of John's followers because he doesn't think they're violent--but he does execute John, and that means the movement is finished.