Interview wth Rachel Kohn
The Spirit of Things
John Dominic Crossan: One of the talks I gave here in the conference at Morpeth, was about the Resurrection. And I really asked a question there that I had learned from listening to a Jewish scholar ask it, which was a terribly simple one when you think of it. What did it mean for Jews in the first century to use the term 'resurrection'? If one Jew said to another 'God has raised Jesus' or anyone else from the dead, what did they mean?
Now usually when we Christians debate about the resurrection, we debate about whether bodies came out of the tomb, we debate about apparitions, we debate about the theology of the resurrection and do we believe it, and how we believe it. And I had never heard anyone really ask that most obvious question until I heard a Jewish scholar, an expert in the New Testament, ask that question.
Rachael Kohn: But isn't this a perilous area since Jews don't accept the divinity of Jesus; they're understanding of resurrection will be profoundly different from the Christian one?
John Dominic Crossan: That's exactly the anomaly, because you could say today, 'Now if you are a pious, believing Jew of course you do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, but you can still ask and you must ask - and in fact we must be able to agree on the answer to this question if we're doing historical scholarship - What did it mean, what did one Jew think they were saying when they said to another 'Jesus is raised from the dead', bracketing for the moment whether they believed it or not. What did the term 'resurrection' simply mean? Did it mean for example a body coming out of the tomb? What did it mean for those first century Jews? That is very, very new and I don't know if it's happening in many places except where you do have Jewish scholars who are now experts in the New Testament, not just in first century Judaism, but in the New Testament.
Rachael Kohn: Can you describe what Jesus might have thought about resurrection?
John Dominic Crossan: I think the negative, if I could start with the negative, is that we today are primarily concerned in highly individualistic terms with Me. I want to know do I survive, am I going to continue, is there life after death for me? The crucial thing for first century Jews was not about Me but about God, whether God was just. And it was raised by the fact that with increasing violence throughout the centuries since the time of Alexander the Great, the Jewish homeland had been awash in blood. The Egyptian, the Greco Egyptians coming through, the Greco Syrians coming through, then the Romans, then the period of Herod; every time you looked, there was revolution because were being killed, it was martyred. And it looked like it was the more just people who were being martyred. Now what they asked themselves was where in all of that was the justice of God. It's a terribly simple question, it wasn't 'Do I live on?' but 'Is God just?' And if God is not just, who cares about anything else, because the world then is utterly meaningless.
So when they said 'resurrection' what they were stating was an act of faith that some day, somehow, and then it gets very vague how and when and all the rest of it, God is going to vindicate those who have suffered in their bodies, been martyred, been marginalised, been destroyed, and somehow it has to have to do with the bodies, it cannot be simply the Greek idea that immortality is the soul, which is very nice, but it's sort of 'for all of us'. So if the torturer and the tortured both have an immortality of the soul, that doesn't say anything about the justice of God. So the problem they're struggling with, now you could say, 'Well the solution they came up with that some day, somehow, there'll be a resurrection of the dead especially', that didn't happen the way they expected, sure. But that's all right, they're asking the right question. Is God just? And especially, how does God handle the sufferings of the innocent?
Rachael Kohn: So is it then a particularly Greek departure to see Jesus' resurrection as unique?
John Dominic Crossan: It would be a particularly wrong departure to think of Jesus' ressurection as unique. In fact I don't even want to use the term 'resurrection' for that. If you had somebody in the first century who wanted to talk of a unique privilege given to Jesus because he was a very holy person, because he was a Messiah, because he was the son of God, but uniquely special to him, the term you would use is exaltation. Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God, maybe like Elijah had been taken up, or Enoch had been taken up, or maybe Moses had been taken up, very, very holy people in the past, in a sort of unique privilege were taken up to dwell with God. It really had no corporate extension and it didn't really touch this question of the justice of God for the persecuted martyrs. So resurrection should be distinguished from exaltation. Exaltation is sort of individual, special, privileged, and resurrection has to do with how the justice of God handles not just Jesus, but everyone who has suffered unjustly and who has died as a martyr, especially the martyrs, they're sort of the core, and you can go out in ripples from martyrs to say, 'Well what about the just who would have been martyred if they had a chance?' as it were. 'What about the just who died peacefully?' and it goes out in ripples from there. But the core of it is, the justice of God.
Rachael Kohn: And the core of it is too, that Jesus was exalted and the resurrection, the corporate resurrection is still anticipated. Is that correct?
John Dominic Crossan: Some of the very earliest texts almost in our creed we talk about 'He descended into hell' and in general we don't have a clue what on earth that means. And one of my students once said, 'Well he must have gone down there just to check it out.' Because hell of course, is the place of damnation. What you're imaging there is Hades or Shed is the place underneath the earth where the just and the martyred are waiting for God's revelation of justice. And what Jesus does is go down in a way to lead them forth, because if Jesus is resurrected without them, we're not talking resurrection. So corporate doesn't just mean Jesus now, everyone else whenever, it means well we have to fix up all the past before we can trust this God for the future. How should we trust the justice of God for the future when we have a long history of martyred Jews who have died before Jesus, who wasn't the first, and he was not going to be the last, and somehow Jesus must go down into Sheol and lead them forth, liberate them, or else we can't trust this God any more. And that's a very difficult thing for most Christians I think, to think of, because it's sublimely mythological.
Rachael Kohn: One of the most central and important beliefs of the Christian church is in Jesus' bodily resurrection. How do you understand it?
John Dominic Crossan: Negatively and positively once again. Negatively, just to make it clear, the bodily resurrection of Jesus has nothing for me to do with what happened to the body of Jesus. Most crucified criminals in the Roman Empire were either left on the cross as the supreme conclusion and consummation through this public warning that crucifixion was, or they were speedily buried in a limed pit as the soldiers got finished with their day's work and got out of there. And if you've seen the rocks around Jerusalem it's hard to even imagine where they found somewhere to bury them. But what bodily resurrection has to do with me is that it is the life of Jesus in the body.
This life lived for justice, which is perennially, continuously, normative for Christians of all time. It is the body of Jesus which lived and died for justice, which is normative for us. Where I see that most clearly is that when in Christian gospel, Christian art, Christian mysticism, Jesus reappears, the wounds are always still there, they seem to never heal as it were, even after 2,000 years, because it's always the crucified Jesus who is bodily normative.
So that if you were a stranger from another land and you saw a picture, say, of a medieval artist of Jesus appearing to somebody, you'd say, 'Well why has he got holes in his hands?' and if I were to explain that to you, I'd have to explain to you everything about Roman crucifixion and then you'd say, 'Well then he must have been a criminal, right, if he got crucified?' I'd have to explain to you the whole life of Jesus. So if the wounds are there, everything is there, and in that sense for me, it is the body of Jesus which is normative for Christianity, not the ideas of Jesus or the words of Jesus, but the life of Jesus. And that if you do lead a life for God's justice, you will probably almost certainly, unfortunately, be executed. Or you would be marginalised or annihilated, whichever way your society gets rid of people who threaten it too much. So it's that bodily content I want to keep there, otherwise Jesus is a philosopher who had beautiful ideas, and we just read his works, and we don't need the body, and we don't need the life, and we just have the ideas. And I don't understand Jesus to be about ideas. It's about incarnating God's justice and a life.
Rachael Kohn: So you see Jesus as very much a social reformer an egalitarian, a model man, a man of God, who obviously lived within a milieu which had apocalyptic beliefs. How did he see himself in relation to God's role in the world?
John Dominic Crossan: I probably would not make those initial options disjunctive. Yes, Jesus was a full human being in the full sense of the word, but in the world in which Jesus lived, every coin of Caesar for example, bore the words 'Son of God' in Latin. Caesar was in effect, one of the incarnations of God on earth, and that made a lot of sense to millions of people. The power of God was clearly operative in Caesar who controlled the Mediterranean world, had the legions and all the rest of it. Now for somebody to look at Jesus and say, 'No, I do not find God, the Roman god of power as it were, incarnate in Caesar, I find the Jewish god of justice incarnate in Jesus', that is an absolutely possible Jewish act of faith in the first century, absolutely possible, that somebody could look at Jesus and say, 'This radical critique of Roman normalcy is the way God wants us to live, not just Jesus to live, but us to live.' Somebody looking at Jesus can say then, 'I see God here.' And they might even get into an argument, 'No, God is in the temple; this is the house of God', and they could say, 'No, the house of God has gone over to the Roman side, it's with Caiaphas who collaborates with Rome, I can no longer find God in the temple. I find God in this life.' That is an absolutely possible first
Now another Jew could say, 'No, that's rubbish, I find God only in following the law of my people. I find God only in going down to Qumran and living with the Essenes. I find God only in rising against the Romans.' But the real question you're asking is not only first century where do people find God, and one of the options is in this sort of life that Jesus is living. So on the one hand he's utterly human, of course, he's not a divine being masquerading down here as a human being. But it is absolutely possible for somebody to look at Jesus and say, 'Here is I find God' and in fact Jesus himself is making some pretty strong statements when he says, 'This is the kingdom of God and that is not', because you could say, 'Well how do you know what is the kingdom of God? You're claiming to know the will of God, you're claiming special divine knowledge then?' I think Jesus would probably answer, 'Well isn't it obvious? We have always believed in a God of justice, we've had a covenant with a God of justice, you think this is justice?' I don't think Jesus would say, 'Well I've come down from God to tell you the message.' He probably would say 'Open your eyes, you think this is just? You think this is what God wants?' Once again, some people would say, 'Well yes, I have no problem with this.' Other people would say, 'No, I don't think this is right. I think you're right, this is not what God wants.' So it is claiming a divine knowledge, if you will, but in one sense it's no different than the prophet Amos hundreds of years before saying, 'You think the covenant is just about worship? The covenant is about justice.' And you say, 'Well how do you know that?' 'Well, isn't it obvious? And of course the answer is to some people, it's very obvious, to other people it's not obvious at all.
Rachael Kohn: Now I guess we can say that a lot of Christians throughout centuries and certainly now, have a strong commitment to justice and they also believe that Jesus is God, is divine, and did bodily resurrect in the way in which Christine doctrine spells it out. In your view of Jesus, which I believe kind of takes him off that pedestal of God, does anything really change?
John Dominic Crossan: What changes for me is first of all the character of God. And what changes for me not the pedestal. In one sense I don't take Jesus off the pedestal, but I keep asking what's the content? And what's crucial for me, you see, is that very often we have an easier question: 'Does God exist? Yes or No. Is Jesus son of God, yes or no.' The first century options were different. 'Does God exist as the Jewish God of Justice or as the Roman God of power?' Is God incarnate in say, a Jesus? Or is incarnate in a Caesar? That's a much rougher disjunction, because there isn't that possibility agnosticism. Well let's wait and see. And it's not that I want to really take Jesus off the pedestal, I want to know what he's up there for. We sometimes have put monsters on pedestals, killers, and years later we topple them off their pedestal. So before I want to genuflect at that pedestal, or to genuflect before this God, I want to know the character of this God. There have been killer Gods and killer sons and killer people of God. So it's a necessity to ask the question of the character of God, to make sure what we're worshipping, because we worship some funny stuff, especially in this century.
Rachael Kohn: Well indeed Jesus can be worshipped in very many ways, in Killer ways and then ways that lead to justice, so the onus is more on those who respond to him or interpret him.
John Dominic Crossan: I think it is, and it's very hard however if somebody says, you know, to love your enemies. You could say, 'Well I'm going to love them to death.' We've done that sort of stuff so it can be done. But if you really start with love your enemies, and if you look at the tradition of the first Christian centuries, nobody ever seems to suggest well if they come after us to persecute us, is it alright to kill a few? Defensively, of course.
That seems to be an option absolutely ruled out, beyond even discussion. I mean you will get a discussion later whether a Christian can be a soldier. But nowhere in the first century does anyone ever discuss seriously even defensively , and I think when Christians start using that 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you', they're really taking that even defensively, since you don't want to be killed, you cannot even kill in self defence. So I think that's part of this message, and its profound depths, and I don't think that's negotiable.
Now when you get something like the Apocalypse of John, when this avenging God is going to have blood to the bridle bits for 200 miles, I think that's venous, I don't think that's justice, I don't think that's Jesus, and I don't think it's the God of Jesus. That's the killer God, and the trouble with the killer God is that it justifies us doing the same, and in fact it invites us maybe to start with a bit. We might jump start the Apocalypse, because if God is going to kill then I really don't see the reason why carefully and selectively of course, we mightn't be able to do it too. It's a final solution to the problem of evil, kill the evildoer.