Outline the different views that David Crossan and William Lane Craig hold regarding the person or identity of Jesus and the historical reliability of the New Testament. Which do you find more convincing: the position advanced by Crossan, or the arguments of Craig? (Or neither? Or aspects of both?)

The quest for a ‘historical Jesus’ has become a fundamental fact finding mission for the Christian faith. As the faith continues to expand and move forward in time, it is paramount that Christianity adapts itself to the modern believer – one who has to come to terms with their own faith and learns to be tolerant of others, as globalisation brings together people with an array of religious beliefs. David Crossan suggests that this is possible if we separate Jesus Christ – Lord and Savoir according to the Bible from Jesus Christ the man – according to history. According to Crossan, the separation will prove that Biblical teaching should not be taken as fact. Rather, Biblical scripture, especially the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – or the life and times of Jesus) should be taken as metaphorical guidelines that help create a certain path fashioned around one’s own relationship to the world and faith in a higher being (Jesus Christ).

John Dominic Crossan outlines two presuppositions that he believes to be relevant evidence as to why there is a difference between ‘historical Jesus’ and the Biblical Jesus. First, he proposes that, ‘the Gospel of Mark was used by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It was one of their major sources.’ [1] According to him, this is important and acts as evidence to his second presupposition, ‘in the data of the New Testament Gospels covering Jesus’ words and deeds, there are three successive layers.’ Crossan suggests with this presupposition that the Gospels have been influenced by an original layer that goes back to Jesus, a traditional and creative adaption of the sayings and works of Jesus and contributions from the authors themselves. Crossan has also made two observations, (1) our historical account of what happened in the first quarter of the first century in Palestine has to be ‘compatible’ with ‘the pagan point of view’ and (2) proper application of the distinction between literal language and metaphorical or symbolic language is crucial to the correct understanding of scripture.  This has lead to the two claims that underline his contention: (a) ‘The historical Jesus remains crucial for Christianity because we must in each generation redo our historical and theological work’[2] and (b) ‘Our insistence that our faith is a fact and others’ faith is a lie is a cancer that eats at the heart of Christianity.’[3]

William Lane Craig, in opposition, suggests that Crossan’s claims can easily be dismissed if we take the Bible to be a factual account of the life of Jesus. He outlines four facts that he sees as evidence for an accurate account of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (or arguably the moment Christianity as we know it, took shape). They are: (a) ‘after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his personal tomb’[4], (b) ‘on the Sunday following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers’[5], (c) ‘on multiple occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead’[6] and (d) ‘the original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having reason not to.’[7]

However, analysing Craig’s argument, we can easily see why these facts should not be taken as an accurate account of what occurred. His first fact, ‘Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his personal tomb’ aims to justify the death of Jesus as true through the assumption that Joseph of Arimathea was a Jew and someone who did not have direct contact with Jesus and therefore less likely to lie about his burial occurring. However, Craig’s reasoning behind this fact raises a major question in critic: Why would the body of Jesus’ be released by the same people that called for his persecution when many of them (Priests and Elders, i.e. respected members of society that provided guidance according their own beliefs) called for him to be crucified in order to satisfy their own self-interest?  Although it says that Pontius Pilate was responsible for handing the body over to Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew 27:4 states, ‘when Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ This suggests that those who wished to persecute Jesus were more likely to have fed his body to animals or disposed of it in a manner that reiterated to others that he was a common man and also to deterred others from acting the same way. It is unlikely that they would have allowed the body to go with Joseph of Arimathea even if they weren’t aware of what he was going to do with it since he was not apart of the council that initially called for the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also questionable as to why Jesus’ family and friends would allow his body to be taken by someone who they seemingly did not know (he is only mentioned during accounts of the crucifixion but nowhere else). Craig’s Second argument, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers’[8] works both in favour and in disfavour to his overall argument. While it is true that the early Church could have changed the account to make it seem more believable, it remains that women discovered the body of Christ. Furthermore, his claim, ‘women’s testimony was regarded worthless’[9], fuels the argument that the entire story could be lie or a subtle indicator that the story is factious (inclusion of women could be an attempt at humour since women weren’t taken as solemn members of society). His next argument, ‘on multiple occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead’[10], also subtly suggests that the story should not be taken for fact. For one, many of the people that saw him were some of his closest followers including his twelve disciples who were in mourning and may have felt guilty for not doing enough to help their leader therefore concocting a story about seeing him or even having hallucinations stemmed from this guilt (surely if one or two of them claimed to have seen him, others would have followed in suite from either not wanting to be left out or agreeing to majority rule).

The ‘guilt hypothesis’ can be further backed up by Matthew 28:19-20, ‘therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ The disciples could have agreed on a collective resolution to spread the word of their leader stemmed from guilt. Furthermore, the claim that Jesus appeared to others is only documented in the Bible. Certainly, it would have been more widely documented if it had occurred since it is impossible for man to rise from the dead – especially after three days. Craig’s last claim, the original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having reason not to’ can again be linked to the guilt hypothesis provided above. It was possibly hallucinations stemmed from guilt or even a necessary addition to make their teachings seem more plausible. What sets the story of Jesus’ death apart from any other martyr is that he was resurrected. Perhaps this addition was vital to attracting followers since many would have come from pagan backgrounds and found the supernatural elements of his death to be both fascinating and appealing.

Deconstructing Craig’s arguments, it is clear to see literal interpretations of the Gospels provide an uneasy basis on which Christianity has grown. To take everything accredited to Jesus as absolute and literal has created (and will continue to create) fundamental problems in society, justified through beliefs in a man who may or may have not said what is written. Given the time period the Gospels were written in, it is [valid] to question if he ‘in fact [issued] all the statements attributed to him, or [if] some [were] added by his followers and attributed to him, just as both Gentile and Jewish writers attributed material to prominent teachers.’[11] It is also vital to note that ‘Jesus [himself] would have used forms familiar to his audiences, such as parables and appeals to legal tradition or practice’[12] and that ‘it is equally possible that his followers, themselves stepped in these accounts conformed their understanding of Jesus according to these narrative models.’ [13]

The premise of Crossan’s belief in Christianity is another important point as to why there needs to be a distinction between the historical and spiritual Jesus.

Crossan states that he finds ‘God in Jesus’ and this to him, is what it ‘means to be a Christian’. Furthermore, Bible scholars have argued (on the cause of Christ’s death), ‘if people concentrate on that part of the event alone they are missing the most important part, which is the spiritual suffering.’[14] According to these scholars, ‘the major trauma for the son of God is spiritual trauma, the loneliness feeling the rejection of God and the shame of the world that came upon him at that point.’[15] In this sense, Christianity is less about what Jesus said and did but rather about a faith strong enough to help overcome personal struggles and setbacks. I would argue that it is important to distinguish between Jesus the man and Jesus the divine only because I do not believe that Christianity is so much about getting the law right as it is about faith. The Bible demonstrates this on many occasions including the death of Christ. Although Jesus led an evangelical life, the penultimate moment (that of his death) saw him recede from society and rely on his faith to get him through his tribulations.

Rather than taking the Gospels as a literal interpretation of how Christ lead his life, Christians should use the texts as a platform for understanding what’s possible through faith. For me, the resurrection of Jesus is not so much a supernatural occurrence as it a metaphor for the renewal that spiritual faith can bring to one’s life and the different type of life it can lead to.

Bibliography

Amy-Jill Levine, D. C. (2006). The Historical Jesus in Context. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press .

BBC NEWS. (2005, June 9). Was Jesus killed by a blood clot? . United Kingdom.

Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, ed. Paul Copan (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), pp. 9-73.

THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2010 by Biblica, Inc.™ Available online at http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/.


[1] Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, ed. Paul Copan (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p34.
[2] Ibid. p39.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. 26.
[5] Ibid.27.
[6] Ibid.28.
[7] Ibid.29.
[8] Above n 4.
[9] Above n 5.
[10] Above n 6.
[11] Amy-Jill Levine, D. C. (2006). The Historical Jesus in Context. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, p.17.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] BBC NEWS. (2005, June 9). Was Jesus killed by a blood clot? . United Kingdom.
[15] Ibid.
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