World-famous Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan, a popular guide in TV documentaries about the ancient world, hopes his newest book will free more people from the trap of trying to believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. As we follow him in this new tour through the Gospels, Crossan promises a bonus: If we free up our expectations about how the Bible teaches God’s truth, we may discover fresh inspiration in these time-worn stories.
In a nutshell, here’s how he takes us down this path: What if the world-famous parables of Jesus—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and all the rest—weren’t the only parables in the New Testament? What if Jesus’s approach to teaching by telling provocative stories became the over-arching style of early Christian teaching? What if the four Gospel writers actually weren’t trying to nail down every single historical detail about Jesus like modern archaeologists in scientific reports? Instead, what if the Gospel writers’ goal was to tell the most important stories about Jesus in the most memorable and thought-provoking way? After all, that’s how Jesus told his parables. What if the Gospel writers were inspired to shape some of the details in their stories about Jesus to make them the most effective parables about Jesus that they could give to future generations?
At this point, some Christians will be upset with Crossan. If so, you are likely to have trouble with his new The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. If you are a Christian who believes the Bible is true in a literal reading, then this kind of analysis is disturbing. But, before you dismiss this book out of hand, consider this: Crossan is regularly invited into mainline congregations almost every weekend throughout the year, where big crowds of people show up to hear him teach and preach about fresh approaches to understanding the Bible. Through public appearances, television and a long string of books, Crossan’s message has reached millions. It’s worth checking out what he’s saying, this year.
NO QUESTION: JESUS WAS REAL
Let me clarify one central point: This new book is not claiming that Jesus is pure fiction. In fact, Crossan clarifies this point himself and adds italics so no one misses the point. He writes: “Did Jesus ever exist as a historical figure in time and place? Is he like Julius Caesar—a factual figure, but enveloped in clouds of parable? Or is he like the Good Samaritan—an entirely fictional character of Christianity’s parabolic imagination? My answer is that Jesus did exist as a historical figure.” Crossan sets that final line in italics to leave no confusion: He’s not trying to deny the truth of Jesus as a real-life figure in history.
WHERE CROSSAN STANDS WITH OTHER EMERGING VOICES
Crossan is not alone in his aggressive questioning of the purpose of Bible stories, right now. Christian Smith, a favorite evangelical scholar who converted to Catholicism, will be visiting the pages of ReadTheSpirit soon to talk about his new book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Smith is Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He’s a highly respected voice as a Christian conservative—yet even Christian Smith is saying: Enough! The American evangelical quest to try to defend the literal, historical truth of every passage of scripture is forcing smart people to turn mental back flips. The truth of the Bible is becoming obscured by debates over details that the original writers never intended as literal.
Of course, Crossan and Smith differ greatly in which details they regard as metaphorical and which are concrete historical details. But, the growing restlessness across American Christianity these days is obvious. In coming weeks, leading historian Diana Butler Bass will visit ReadTheSpirit for an interview about her latest book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. She is warning church leaders that they must take seriously this rising rejection of pat answers from the past.
Are you a fan of popular Bible scholar Bart Ehrman? Of course, like the other writers we’ve mentioned, Crossan and Ehrman disagree on many points. Ehrman, these days, tends to be even more critical of the reliability of the biblical record, for example. But one thing they both affirm: Jesus was a real figure who truly did reshape world history. Later this spring, ReadTheSpirit will welcome Bart Ehrman back into our pages, as well, to talk about his new book that makes this very point: Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.
Bottom line: Crossan is far from alone on this horizon line of contemporary Christian teaching.
WHAT IS CROSSAN SAYING ABOUT GOSPELS AS PARABLES?
What exactly is Crossan saying about the Gospel writers turning details from Jesus’ life into parables about his life? Here’s an example from the book: “I consider it a historical fact that Jesus was executed by Pilate on a Roman cross. But Mark records that Jesus’s death occurred on the day after the Passover meal (Mark 14:12-16), while John records it on the day of the Passover meal (John 18:28). Only one of those is history, the other is parable—and probably both are parable: Last Supper as Passover meal for Mark, and Jesus as Pascal Lamb for John. All history might be able to tell us is that Jesus died sometime in the week-long preparation for Passover.”
Right there, most evangelical Bible readers will part company with Crossan. Arguing that details in the final chapters of the Gospels were revised slightly by the authors to make larger points about Jesus’s life is anathema to more traditional readers of scripture. Yet, Crossan has made an important point here: If details of the crucifixion’s date could be adjusted slightly, as they clearly appear to be in these two Gospels, then why not other details as well?
Still uncomfortable with this line of thinking? Well, consider this: Crossan’s analysis of the Gospel authors’ use of the parable genre forms the second half of this book. Crossan’s analysis of Jesus’s own parables—the ones we all know by heart—fills the first half of the book. Whatever your impression of his overall conclusion, Crossan’s analysis of Jesus’s parables is fresh and thought provoking. I won’t spoil the book by trying to list his examples, but Crossan argues that Jesus was one of the best teachers the world has ever known and had a talent for using various forms of parable. In other words, “parable” isn’t a single type of story. There are several genres of parable, Crossan argues. Three big categories he explores are: Riddle Parables, Example Parables and Challenge Parables.
Even if you reject the second half of Crossan’s book, where he argues that the Gospel writers also felt it was important to write their Good News in parable formats, you still may find yourself inspired by the book’s first half. So, our strong recommendation is: Give this book a chance. You’ll find that, in addition to personal inspiration, The Power of Parable is guaranteed to spark spirited discussion in your Sunday School class, Bible study series, or book discussion group.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.