2016-06-30
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.

Why?

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.

The difference with the Jesus movement, leaving out any questions of theology or content, is that Jesus sends people out to do exactly what he is doing. He tells them to heal the sick, share physical and spiritual power, and to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Which means that when Pilate makes exactly the same judgment about Jesus that Antipas made about John--it's not violent, I don't have to round up all the followers, they're not a revolutionary group--it's too late. John had a monopoly, but Jesus had a franchise.

Again, putting aside theology, you're saying that the Jesus movement emerged as an economic protest movement?

The entire logic of the Torah was that the land belongs to God. So if the land belongs to God, you really cannot make the distinction between economic justice or social justice and divine ownership. Very often I'm told by critics that I'm talking about politics and not religion, or economics and not religion, or society and not religion-but that isn't a valid way to understand the first century situation.

We have a separation of church and state, and that's fine--but as soon as we get into a discussion, such as now, about the morality of a war with Iraq, I don't know where politics ends and religion begins. If you go to Jerusalem today, tell me where politics ends and religion begins. Or anywhere in the Muslim world. Questions of ultimate morality, distributive justice, can't really be separated.

I would insist that the question John the Baptist or Jesus faced is the same: Who owns the world? That's the way they would have phrased the question. They would have said God, and they would have said God is just, and they would have said the system isn't. And therefore, the Kingdom of God is on a collision course with the Kingdom of Rome.

Do you see parallels between Jesus' day and today, especially because we are facing so many of the same economic and political issues with globalization?

I am unabashedly ready to make certain parallels. The Roman Empire was not the axis of evil in the Mediterranean--it was simply the cutting-edge of civilization. It was the greatest pre-industrial civilization up to its time and a long time afterward. So the opposition to Rome was not simply because others wanted to run their own countries. It really was a challenge to the norms of civilization, which has always been imperial and global. We've always tried for globalization. Mesopotamia was trying it, Egypt was trying it, Rome was trying it.

The question for me is whether globalization will be just. The challenge Jesus, John or Paul made to Rome was not simply because it was an empire-it's really because it wasn't just, and they believed the Kingdom of God on earth must be just.

Most of the rest of the world today doesn't consider globalization just.

Exactly. And therefore I was saying even before 9/11 that we are Rome. If globalization is not just, they will come at us violently and non-violently. Whether they come violently or non-violently, they will come along the pathways of our globalization.

For example, many of the people who came against Rome had retired from the Legions and knew exactly the way Rome fought. And they used the Roman roads to come against Rome. And those who fought non-violently, such as Paul, used Rome's paved roads, bridges, and sea traffic.

My hope is that it's the non-violent ways that prevail today, as they did in the first century. The Romans were only ready for the violent ones. I don't think it's a settled question whether globalization or Americanization is just or not. It's absolutely true the vast majority of the world considers it unjust, and there are lots of Americans who think that, but there are also a lot of people who think it is just.

That would also be an exact parallel from the first century. Josephus, who was a pious Jewish priest, said clearly that it is the will of God that Rome run the world and that we be a holy theocracy under Rome. There were lots of people who would have said, "Would you prefer barbarism?" and the answer of course is "no." Now, to say that Roman globalization is better than barbarian invasion or civil war is absolutely true. But if somebody is coming from the other side and saying there is something better than Rome.

In today's world, then, what role can Christianity play, since it is so much a part of the West, with its globalization?

We have to make certain that globalization is as just as we can make it. You cannot be just if you're unilateral. I mean, you can be unjust if you're multilateral, but at least you're trying to take everyone's opinions into account and I don't find that weak. I think the more powerful you are, the more you tread lightly.

So what comes next theologically for Christians? Is it the new Third World Christianity?

No, that's totally unrealistic. It could be that there is no future at all. The problems South America and Africa have are so monumental that the religion they will have will be very close to a Prozac-a flight from the world into a quite understandable never-never land.

The responsibility is ours. What I've found hopeful is that I spend a lot of time talking in churches, and it's very often for a whole weekend and a lot of them have done work ahead of time, so they're ready for a serious discussion. The questions I keep asking are: First, what is the character of your God? Because the people who destroyed the World Trade Center did it in the name of God. So it's not enough to talk anymore about whether you believe in God. What's the character of this God? That's not a crack against Islam; the character of our God in the book of Revelation is pretty ghastly, too. The second question is, What is the content of your faith? And the third one is, What's the purpose of the church or synagogue or mosque? What are you organizing for? The answer from Paul is that the Roman Empire is organizing against us. And the final question is, what's the function of your worship? Are you stroking a very powerful being, or is it a participation in the character of that God?

I ask them to think about what is the function of the church. Because we have a huge global organization in place, exactly what we need, if that organization knows what it needs to be doing. If the church is just getting us ready individually for heaven, then I couldn't care less about it.

I'm troubled about something you said a bit ago, that there could be no future for Christianity. Explain what you mean?

Religions can linger on in a coma for centuries rather than just die. My presumption is that Christianity was supposed to transform the world and transform Christians in the process. It's possible you could imagine the function of Christianity is simply to console people for the life they're in, make them feel good and prepare them for individual eternity in heaven. Which a lot of people say it's about-guaranteeing you entry into heaven. If that's what it's about, then I really have nothing to say to it. I would call that transcendental Prozac. If somebody is in terrible pain, dying of cancer, of course you give them narcotics. But you don't live normally that way.

I think Christianity is about what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, which is how Jesus would run the world.

Could there be a new movement arising?

The hopeful thing for me is that I see people all over the country who are ready to discuss these things. These are people within mainline churches who want the church to have a function in the world, to ask the most fundamental question: How does God want the world run? Do you think that force or justice should rule the world?

I think the honest answer in the first century was a no-brainer: force. At least they were honest. I see it exactly the same now with one huge difference-our capacity for violence is exponentially increasing because in the first century you could only kill just so many people and your arm was tired and you dropped the sword. That's no longer true. The race between global violence and global justice is a much more serious thing.

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