CONCLUSION: Taking A Middle Position Between Crossan And Ehrman On Jesus

Regarding a moral influence interpretation of the cross that exposes/makes conspicuous guilt rather than wipe it clean, we read adapted from Rohr:

  • In the Franciscan view, God did not need to be paid in order to love and forgive God’s own creation. Love cannot be bought by some “necessary sacrifice”; if it could, it would not and could not work its transformative effects. Duns Scotus and his followers were committed to protecting the absolute freedom to love in GodIf forgiveness needs to be bought or paid for, then it is not authentic forgiveness at all. Love and forgiveness must be freely given or they do not accomplish their deeply transformative healing. Self-serving love does not change the heart. It must be free and undeserved love or transformation does not happen. (Think about that and you will know it is true!)
  • The scapegoating ritual described in Leviticus 16 offers a helpful perspective on Jesus’ death. On the “Day of Atonement” the high priest, Aaron, was instructed to symbolically lay all the sins of the people on one unfortunate goat, and the people would then beat the animal until it fled into the desert. It was a vivid symbolic act that helped to unite and free the children of Israel. Instead of owning their faults, this ritual allowed people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.
  • The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) demonstrated that the scapegoat mechanism is foundational for the formation of most social groups and cultures.  We need another group to be against to form our group! For example, many in the United States scapegoat refugees who are seeking asylum, falsely accusing them of being criminals. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives—so much so that we might call it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29).
  • We humans largely hate or blame almost anything else rather than recognize our own weaknesses and negativity. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
  • We hate our own imperfections in other people, and sadly we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God and religion, I am afraid, have been used to justify most of our violence and to hide from the shadow parts of ourselves that we would rather not admit. Yet Jesus revealed the pattern two thousand years ago. “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God,” he said (John 16:2).
  • The Scriptures call such ignorant hatred and killing “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit it—by exposing the lie for all to see. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. Maybe power still does not want us to see this. Much of Christianity shames individuals for private sins while lauding public figures in spite of their pride, greed, gluttony, lying, killing, or narcissism.
  • As John puts it, “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (John 16:8). This is what Jesus exposes and defeats on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 149-151. via https://cac.org/daily-meditations/the-scapegoat-mechanism-2019-02-08/

There is currently some tension in New Testament studies between those who view Jesus as someone who most fundamentally expressed self and societal growth/transformation, and those who see him as an apocalyptic prophet preaching the immanent end of the age, the two views not immediately reconcilable.  By contrast, I think we can bring out the core of both positions and propose a middle ground.

To begin with, Borg comments that “God’s passion is for a world very different from the domination systems, large and small, ancient and modern, systems so common that they can be called the normalcy of civilization.”

Likewise, Sheehan comments that

  • “The presence of God among men which Jesus preached was not something new, not a gift that God had saved up for the end of time. Jesus merely proclaimed what had always been the case. He invited people to awaken to what God had already done from the very beginning of time. The eschaton that Jesus proclaimed was not a new coming of God but a realization on man’s part that ever since creation God had been there among his people.”

If I could sum up what I think the original Christians believed about the life and death of Jesus, it would be I think Crossan’s right that what is at issue is transformation rather than just waiting for God to intervene in history and wipe away the forces of evil such as Caesar.  I argue something similar to Crossan that for the first Christians Jesus was seen as wrongly convicted and killed by the world so that the world could be justly convicted by the law written on their hearts and have the corrupt worldly/fleshly parts of themselves die.

To give the image of slowly transforming the violent world, Crossan points to the parable of the mustard seed, the only parable attested to independently in Mark and the Q source. Crossan comments:

  • The point … is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar[tree] of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses — if you could control it.

(Crossan, The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).

How doess this play out for Jesus and his world? Crossan comments that:

  • John Dominic Crossan: Let me say the crucial one for me — and absolutely the most historical — is that Pilate is the most important witness to Jesus in the entire New Testament. Because the Roman method of dealing with a violent rebellion is to crucify the leader and his followers. For non-violent resistance, the Romans crucified only the leader. Nothing is said about Pilate rounding up and crucifying the apostles. So if I know only one thing, it’s that Jesus was crucified for non-violent resistance to Roman law and order. He is the only founder of a great religion that was actually so executed.
  • Jesus called for nonviolent resistance to Rome and just distribution of land and food. He was crucified because he threatened Roman stability — not as a sacrifice to God for humanity’s sins, Crossan says.

So Jesus was part of a non-violent resistance movement, not that he was a traditional messiah trying to raise up an army to defeat Rome. On the other hand, contra Crossan, Ehrman and Allison proposes an apocalyptic model where God was going to intervene in history soon and set up the kingdom of God on earth with Jesus as its ruler. Ehrman comments that:

  • Ehrman: Jesus did think of himself as the messiah.  But not in the sense that later Christians said.   For Jews of his day, and Jesus himself, the messiah was to be the king of the coming kingdom.  Jesus understood the coming kingdom in completely apocalyptic terms.  That is the key.  He did not think that the nation of Israel would rouse a military opposition to the Romans and drive them out of the Promised Land.  God himself was going to bring destruction on his enemies by sending the Son of Man from heaven (a cosmic savior; Jesus did not think that he himself was this one).   The Son of Man would establish God’s kingdom on earth.  And he would appoint Jesus to be its ruler.  Jesus was the messiah of the coming kingdom.

I think this is right in the sense there will be judgment, and judgment against the nations hostile to israel as per Joel 3, but simple retribution flies in the face of the mandate to love enemy and those who persecute you, so the plan seems to be to reconcile with enemies as per the image of the transformed Roman soldier proclaiming Jesus the true son of God (contra Caesar) and innocent. So with both Crossan and Ehrman, we have interpretations that Jesus was not someone trying to raise up an army to overthrow Rome. While we have two very different models with Crossan and Ehrman, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think the early Christians probably thought God was going to intervene in history to judge the world, but I think that for this judgment to be fair a process had to unfold slowly to give people an honest opportunity for transformation/repentance, and hence a chance to be judged fairly. In other words, basically what my position is that there are 2 main interpretive frameworks in historical Jesus studies.  One is to see Jesus primarily as an apocalyptic prophet preaching the imminent end of the age (Ehrman, Allison, etc).  The other is Jesus as prophet of personal and societal transformation (Borg, Sheehan, Crossan, etc).  It’s not immediately evident how to reconcile these 2 views because if Jesus thought the end of the age was imminent, why would he care, for instance, for a slow grass roots movement to transform society like with Crossan’s reading of the mustard seed parable.  I think both angles are strongly present in the text, and so I try to resolve the differences by proposing a coming judgment after the societal and personal transformative catalyst of Jesus, making a fair judgment possible. The penal substitution interpretation of the cross fails miserably here because if the apocalypse is imminent and all that is required is faith that Christ’s death payed your sin debt, the emphasis on personal and societal growth and transformation is completely out of place. In this project I’ve tried to show the Moral Influence interpretation of the cross makes much more sense of the evidence. Mythicism also fails because it needs a paying sin debt model.

I’ll leave the last word to Crossan and Borg about the Cross:

  • This [penal substitution] common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says. Of course, sacrificial imagery is used there, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. They also see it as the domination system’s “no” to Jesus (and God), as the defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation [dying and rising], and as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us. . . .
  • Though Mark provides the earliest story of Good Friday . . . Mark’s narrative combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. . . .
  • Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits.” The Greek word translated “bandits” is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s point of view. Their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome. . . .
  • [When Jesus died,] “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). As with the darkness from noon to 3 PM, this event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered. . . .
  • To say. . . that the curtain was torn in two has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a judgment upon the temple and the temple authorities . . . who colluded with imperial Rome to condemn Jesus to death. On the other hand, . . . [it] is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark’s presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.
  • Then Mark narrates a second event contemporaneous with Jesus’s death. The imperial centurion in command of the soldiers who had crucified Jesus exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:30). . . .
  • That this exclamation comes from a centurion is very significant. According to Roman imperial theology, the emperor was “Son of God”—the revelation of God’s power and will for the earth. According to the same theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who had brought peace on earth. But now a representative of Rome affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God. Thus the emperor is not.
  • (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 2008), 139, 141, 147, 150-151. via https://cac.org/daily-meditations/layered-meanings-2019-04-18/)

I recently finished up this series of posts on this on our The Secular Frontier blog, the gathering post for this series being here: https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2022/05/i-get-interviewed-on-freethinker-podcast-about-mythicism-atonement-and-gnosticism/ .