By Jeff Walton (@JeffreyHWalton)
Just in time for Easter, Virginia Episcopalians hosted a Jesus Seminar radical who denies that Jesus was uniquely divine or physically rose from the dead.
Instead, the historic person of Jesus was a non-violent revolutionary who was distinct only for the time and place in which he lived, according to an author and former Roman Catholic priest who recently lectured, preached, and led a dialog with clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia hosted by Bishop Shannon Johnston.
In appearances timed for Lent at Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring, Virginia March 10-11, former Jesus Seminar president John Dominic Crossan spoke on “The Last Week of Jesus” in which he argued against orthodox teachings about the Resurrection, the afterlife, and the nature of the Kingdom of God.
Crossan’s unorthodox views on the Resurrection are already well-established in his writings and the Jesus Seminar, a once prominent body of liberal scholars who used to gain headlines by disputing the Gospels’ historicity. But the hosting, promotion and what amounted to an effective endorsement of his teachings – with a glowing introduction by Holy Cross Rector Wes Smedley – reveal an Episcopal diocese that is drifting ever further from orthodoxy. Crossan’s appearance was promoted by the Episcopal Diocese and other Episcopal congregations in Northern Virginia, including the “renewing” congregations of The Falls Church (Episcopal) and Epiphany Episcopal Church.
“The most important thing for me is to ask the right questions,” Crossan shared in a sanctuary filled at near-capacity. Centering his Sunday evening talk on differences in iconography between Eastern and Western portrayals of the Resurrection, Crossan displayed Western church images of an individually Resurrected of Christ alongside an entire crowd being liberated from Hades in the East.
The differences, Crossan asserted, raised “huge” doctrinal problems about baptism and “the East, I think, has a better sense that doctrine doesn’t capture God – the best we can do is get glimpses, and sometimes wrong glimpses.”
Arguing that the first century idea of Resurrection was significantly different than now, Crossan charged that scripture up to the book of Daniel took for granted that there was no afterlife. Claiming that afterlife was dismissed as a “typical pagan impertinence” by Jews familiar with the concept from surrounding cultures, the idea of an afterlife, Crossan asserted, was folded into Jewish belief during religious persecutions perpetrated by Syrians.
“Where is the justice of God when looking at the bodies of martyrs?” Crossan asked. The answer of some Jews was that there must be a great public vindication of the martyrs when God “cleans up the mess of the world.” Crossan jokingly referred to this eschatology as “Extreme Makeover: Cosmic Edition.”
Crossan stated that he would not attempt to dissuade a person from belief in the afterlife. But “if you’ve spent your whole life with Christ, why should it [afterlife] matter?” The retired professor from Chicago’s DePaul University recounted a conversation in which Sojourners President Jim Wallis defended the physical resurrection of Christ by explaining “no one dies for a metaphor,” and Crossan retorted “that’s the only thing they die for.”
The past Jesus Seminar president also repudiated the Kingdom of God as an eternal rule at a moment of time, instead proposing that it was a “process” and dismissing writings credited to the Apostle Paul about the idea of Christ coming soon, appraising that the writer “isn’t Paul.”
“Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was already here, insofar as you enter into it,” Crossan said. “Jesus probably didn’t self-proclaim that he was the messiah.”
Asked what difference there was between Jesus and Ghandi, Crossan was succinct.
“The difference is two things: time and place,” Crossan answered. “There are windows of opportunity within which certain things can happen. Jesus could have done everything that happened to Jesus – including resurrection taken as literally as you want – and this could have all died out in the villages of Galilee in the 66-74 war.”
Adding that “Rose Parks didn’t do anything other civil rights figures couldn’t have done,” the DePaul University Religious Studies professor recalled Jesus similarly, as part of a river pushing against a logjam, with it breaking through due to several variables at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
“But the river didn’t arrive at that moment,” Crossan asserted. “What happened was a breakthrough, and the breakthrough has a lot to do with time and place. Jesus is not really dropped down from heaven and happens to land in Galilee when he could have landed in Galway [Ireland] and been much different.”
Crossan announced that Jesus’ ministry 30 years prior would have lasted “10 minutes” under Herod the Great, and “five minutes” at the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
“Don’t think that just because it happened that it had to happen,” Crossan advised.