Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Non-Apocalyptic Jesus and the Kingdom of Nobodies

by Ioanes Rakhmat

In his recen
t essay “A Future for the Christian Faith?” (1999), published in 2000, John Dominic Crossan, referring to his work In Parables (1973), reminds his readers, “You know that almost thirty years I have argued in print that Jesus’ Kingdom of God was eschatological but not apocalyptic.”[1] By eschatological, Crossan means “any vision or program for which this world is so radically unjust that only transcendent remedy is possible.” It is a world-negating vision. It indicates “a radical criticism of culture and civilization and thus a fundamental rejection of this world’s values and expectations.”[2] By apocalyptic, he means “that type of echatology that awaits an imminent divine intervention to eradicate injustice and violence here below and to establish a utopian world of justice and peace on earth.”[3]

Crossan terms the eschatology of Jesus “ethical eschatology” or “ethicism.” The ethical eschatology of Jesus stands in contrast to the apocalyptic eschatology of John the Baptist, Jesus’ mentor, which awaits imminent intervention of God in the world.[4] Jesus broke with John’s apocalyptic vision[5] and developed quite a different message for his own program which emphasized the permanent presence of God for human beings here and now, of a God who challenges the world and shatters its complacency repeatedly.[6] When one adopts apocalyptic eschatology, he or she is waiting for the imminent advent and interventional act of the avenging and violent God here in the world. Apocalypticism “negates the world by announcing that in the future, and usually the imminent future, God will act to restore justice in an unjust world.” In ethical eschatology, God is understood as waiting for us to act here and now. When people adhere to ethical eschatology, they “negate the world by actively protesting and nonviolently resisting a system judged to be evil, unjust, and violent.” In ethicism, as distinct from apocalypticism, God is depicted as a nonviolent God of a nonviolent kingdom, a God of nonviolent resistance to structural as well as individual evil.[7]

The kingdom of God in the teachings and deeds of the non-apocalyptic Jesus is the kingdom that knows no hierarchy and domination of one upon the other. No distinction of rank and status will exist in this kingdom. Jesus heals, and his companions are told to go do the same. Jesus’ companions can do exactly what Jesus himself was doing. The kingdom is not his monopoly; it is for anyone with courage enough to accept it. Jesus announces its presence, its abiding, permanent possibility. He does not initiate its existence. He does not control its access.[8] The unmediated Kingdom was Jesus’ alternative symbolic universe which “negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power” and espoused the “unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another.”[9] Lest he be interpreted and hoped for as simply a new broker of a new God, Jesus “moved on constantly, settling down neither in Nazar­eth nor Capernaum. He was neither broker nor mediator, but, somewhat paradoxi­cally, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself.”[10] In short, God’s kingdom in Jesus’ vision and program is a “companionship of empowerment”, not a realm of domination, nor a kingdom of control and mastery.[11]

Jesus’ companions were increasingly dispossessed peasants forced off their lost farms into survival on the roads of the countryside or in the streets of the cities.[12] Jesus himself was a tektōn, namely, a dispossessed Jewish peasant,[13] a landless laborer, a marginalized peasant.[14] Thus, the kingdom of God is the kingdom for the religiously and economically poor,[15] for the persecuted,[16] for the hungry.[17] God is for the poor, that is, for the destitute, the beggars, the vagrants, the powerless, the hungry and the persecuted, the undesirables, the unholy, because their situation is structurally unjust. The beatitude of Jesus declared blessed not the poor, but the destitute, not poverty but beggary. Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of the unclean, degraded, and expendable classes.[18] The ethical Kingdom of God is the Kingdom for “children,”[19] that is, for “nobodies,” since, Crossan asserts, “to be a child” in the ancient societies of the Mediterranean world, “was to be a nobody.”[20] Jesus and his companions were “nobodies”; his Kingdom movement was therefore a movement of nobodies and nuisances.[21]

Due to his view of Jesus’ social status as a nobody, a nonentity, a nuisance, and his kingdom movement as a movement of nobodies, Crossan has strongly determined his judgment that there is no Jesus’ trial in history. Crossan’s judgment is very clear that “there would be no need to go very high up the chain of command for a peasant nuisance nobody like Jesus, no need for even a formal interrogation before Caiaphas, let alone a detailed trial before Pilate. In the case of Jesus, there may well have been arrest and execution but no trial whatsoever in between.”[22] However, there is another point in Crossan’s assessment of the Jesus’ movement that seems to be contradictory to his judgment that Jesus was a nobody.

Crossan asserts that Jesus was the Temple’s functional opponent, alternative and substitute;[23] and the Kingdom movement he initiated was “clearly a deliberate challenge to the Kingdom of Caesar”[24] as well as to the Jewish Temple state. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, according to Crossan, the egalitarianism in spiritual and economic realm he preached in Galilee exploded in indignation at the Temple as the seat and symbol of all that was nonegalitarian, patronal, and even oppressive on both the religious and the political level. His demonstration in the Temple actualized what he had already said in his teachings, effected in his healings, and realized in his mission of open commensality.[25] Furthermore, Crossan asserts that “Jesus was not a victim but a martyr. Pilate got it right: he was subversive, he was dangerous―but he was far more subversive and far more dangerous than Pilate imagined.”[26] He then concludes that martyrdom is the final act of ethical eschatology, the ultimate and public act of nonviolent resistance to violent authority.[27] With this, Crossan seems to have boxed himself into a corner, for, if Jesus was so subversive and dangerous, and his movement was a serious, deliberate challenge to both the Kingdom of Caesar and the Jewish Temple state, one wonders, why Crossan does not proceed to the logical consequence of this argument that it was no surprise that Jesus was finally arrested and then tried by the Jewish authorities and the Roman prefect on the charge of sedition, that is, of arousing people to rebel against the Jewish Temple state and Roman Empire. Found guilty of this charge, he was executed by crucifixion.


[1] Crossan, “A Future for the Christian Faith?” in The Once and Future Jesus (the collection of keynote addresses delivered in the Jesus Seminar’s celebration at Santa Rosa, CA, October 1999; Polebridge Press: Santa Rosa, CA, 2000) 118 [109-129]; Crossan in Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus. A Debate (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press, 2001) 119; Birth of Christianity, 257-58.

The non-apocalyptic view of Jesus is characteristic of the Jesus Seminar’s point of view. At least three other scholars in the Jesus Seminar guild can be mentioned as entertaining the non-apocalyptic view about Jesus: Marcus Borg (Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship [Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994] 74-84; see also in Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus. A Debate, 31-48, 114-119, 131-137, 152-157); Stephen J. Patterson (“The End of Apocalypse: Rethinking the Eschatological Jesus” in Theology Today 52/1 [1995] 29-48; idem, The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning [Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998] 163-84; see also in Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus. A Debate, 69-82, 123-127, 142-146, 160-163) and Robert J. Miller, “Is the Apocalyptic Jesus History?” in the Jesus Seminar’s publication, The Once and Future Faith (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press, 2001) 101-134.

In response to, a.o., Dale C. Allison’s work Jesus of Nazareth (see also Allison’s position in Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus. A Debate, 17-29, 83-105, 109-114, 147-152) the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar (in the Spring meeting of March 3, 2000, in Santa Rosa, California), voting on the “red”, reaffirmed and “agreed strongly” that the “imminent eschatological expectation misrepresents what Jesus was all about.” See The Fourth R 13/3 (2000) 3-5; cf. W. Barnes Tatum’s book review in The Fourth R 14/1 (2001) 8-10; cf. also The Five Gospels, 4. Allison himself maintains that the elimination of apocalyptic eschatology from the earliest tradition is utterly implausible (Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, 65). In keeping with Allison’s view, see Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus. Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford, 1999); idem, The New Testament. A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 20043 [2000]) 250-274. Another recent book on the apocalyptic Jesus is that of Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (New York: Vintage Books, 2000 [1999]) (p. 97: “Moving backward along a trajectory from later text to earlier text to, finally, Jesus himself, we might hypothesize a gradient of increasing apocalyptic intensity.” P. 197: “Jesus shared with John the same urgent message to prepare for God’s fast-approaching Kingdom.”).

[2] Jesus, 52.

[3] “A Future for the Christian Faith?”, 118 (emphasis removed). In Historical Jesus (p. 285), Crossan understands “apocalyptic” “not in the sense of a destroyed earth and evacuation heavenward for the elect, but rather of something like a heaven on earth.”

[4] In a debate concerning the apocalyptic or non-apocalyptic Jesus, Crossan suggested six distinctions within apocalyptic eschatology (that is, destructive or transformative apocalypse, material or social apocalypse, primary or secondary apocalypse, negative or positive apocalypse, passive or active apocalypse, instantive or durative apocalypse), and claimed that “[A]n ‘apocalyptic’ Jesus... where the emphasis is on transformative, social, secondary, positive, active, and durative apocalyptic rather than on destructive, material, primary, negative, passive, and instantive apocalyptic, is so close to what I termed ethical eschatology or the radicality of divine ethics.” See Robert J. Miller, ed., The Apocalyptic Jesus. A Debate, 69 [48-69]; see also Crossan’s articles: “A Future for the Christian Faith,” 109-129; “Eschatology, Apocalypticism, and the Historical Jesus” in Marvin Meyer and Charles Hughes, eds., Jesus Then and Now: Images of Jesus in History and Christology (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 91-112.

[5] The texts that indicate the break between Jesus and John the Baptist which occurred after the death of the latter, are Gospel of Thomas 78:1-3, Q Gospel in Luke 7:24b-27 (= Matthew 11:7b-10); Gospel of Thomas 46:1-2, Q Gospel in Luke 7:28 (=Matthew 11:11); Gospel of Thomas 113:1-4 = 3:1-3 = 51:1-2 = 18:1-3; Q Gospel in Luke 17:23-24 (= Matthew 24:26-27); Mark 13:21-13 (= Matthew 24:23-25); Luke 17:20-21; Mark 2:18-20, Q Gospel in Luke 7:33-34 (= Matthew 11:18-19). See Historical Jesus, 236-238, 259, 260; Jesus, 46-48; Birth of Christianity, 305-316.

[6] In Parables, 26.

[7] Birth of Christianity, 279, 283-284, 287, 317-344.

[8] Birth of Christianity, 333, 336.

[9] Historical Jesus, 422.

[10] Historical Jesus, 422, cf. 346.

[11] Birth of Christianity, 336-337.

[12] Birth of Christianity, 336.

[13] Here I deliberately do not mention Crossan’s Jesus as a peasant Jewish Cynic, but rather only as a Jewish peasant (minus the word “Cynic”). In response to his critics, Crossan recently has conceded that “If cynicism had never existed, nothing would change in my reconstruction of Jesus as a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. I use the doctrine of Cynicism comparatively but do not need it constitutively. I have never considered a Cynic Jesus as some sort of replacement for a Jewish Jesus; indeed, I find that idea little short of absurd. My reply to the Cynic hypothesis was and is: if you want to imagine a Cynic Jesus, go ahead, but you better imagine a Jewish peasant Cynic” (Birth of Christianity, 334).

It must be noted however that, in comparison to his earlier treatment in Historical Jesus (1991) of the historical Jesus in which Jesus’ cynicism was put on the overriding center (see pp. 72-90; 303-353, esp. pp. 338-44; 421f.), here in Birth of Christianity (1998; see especially pp. 280-81, 333-35, 412-13), as well as in Jesus (1994; see pp. 102-22, 197f.), the very Jewishness of Jesus comes to a prominent place and the fundamental differences between Jesus’ movement and the Cynic preachers are significantly stressed. I note several changes in Crossan’s Christology. For instance, first, in Historical Jesus we find the following assertions: “The historical Jesus was, then, a peasant Jewish Cynic. His peasant village was close enough to a Greco-Roman city like Sepphoris that sight and knowledge of Cynicism are neither inexplicable nor unlikely” (p. 421); “Jesus ... is establishing... a Jewish and rural Cynicism rather than Greco-Roman and urban Cynicism” (p. 340). Second, in Jesus, Crossan admits that “We have, in the final analysis, no way of knowing for sure what Jesus knew about Cynicism, or whether he knew about it at all. That, however, is not really the point. Maybe he had never even heard of the Cynics and was just reinventing the Cynic wheel all by himself.... Maybe Jesus is what peasant Jewish Cynicism looked like.” (p. 122; emphasis added). And finally, in Birth of Christianity (cf. Historical Jesus, p.338f.): “It is especially in the symbolic catecheses of their [that is, Jesus’ and the Cynic’s] dress codes that comparison is most instructive. I find this very illuminating, even if Jesus knew nothing whatsoever about Cynicism.” (p. 334f.; emphasis added).

[14] Birth of Christianity, 350, 352. Employing Gerhard Lenski’s typology of human societies which divides agrarian societies into upper and lower strata (see Lenski’s work, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification [New York: McGraw-Hill. 1966]), Crossan places Jesus in the social stratum of Peasant Artisan class. Peasants are exploited and oppressed farmers, and, by definition, illiterate; they live at subsistence level in the ecology and sociology of urban-rural interchange where the cities exploit the countrysides of the peasants (Birth of Christianity, 155, 158, 216-18, 223, 234-35). Peasant artisans were lower, not higher, than peasant farmers in social class, but higher than the “Uncleaned and Degraded Class” (e.g., porters, miners, and prostitutes, namely those who “had only their bodies and animal energies to sell and who were forced to accept occupations which quickly destroyed them­”) and the lowest “Expendable Class” (which comprised “a variety of types, ranging from petty criminals and outlaws to beggars and underemployed itinerant workers, and numbered all those forced to live solely by their wits or by charity.”) (Ibid., pp. 155). See also Crossan, Historical Jesus, 125-28; idem, Jesus, 25.

[15] Gospel of Thomas 54; Q Gospel in Luke 6:20 = Matthew 5:3.

[16] Gospel of Thomas 68 = 69:1; Q Gospel in Luke 6:22-23 = Matthew 5:11-12.

[17] Gospel of Thomas 69:2; Q Gospel in Luke 6:21a = Matthew 5:6.

[18] Birth of Christianity, 318-322; Historical Jesus, 270-282.

[19] Gospel of Thomas, 22:1-2; Mark 10:13-16 = Matthew 19:13-15 = Luke 18:15-17; Matthew 18:3; John 3:1-5, 9-10.

[20] Historical Jesus, 269.

[21] Jesus, 54ff.

[22]Who Killed Jesus?, 117; Jesus, 152.

[23] Historical Jesus, 303-53, esp. 332ff., 355, 360.

[24] “A Future for the Christian Faith”, 127.

[25] Historical Jesus, 360; Jesus, 133-36; Who Killed Jesus?, 65. Open commensality, that is, eating together without using table (because table was considered as a miniature map of society’s vertical discriminations and lateral separation) was the heart of Jesus’ original Kingdom movement; it was his strategy for building or rebuilding peasant community on principles radically opposed to those of honor and shame, patronage and clientage (Historical Jesus, 341, 344; Jesus, 66-70).

[26] Birth of Christianity, 285.

[27] Birth of Christianity, 289.