Jesus without the Supernatural

The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan

The Last Week, by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, is based on the Gospel of Mark. The authors, a couple of Jesus-Seminar scholars, assume that many things Christians accept as core doctrines, didn’t happen, or only happened in ways that can be explained without any miraculous intervention by God. The appearances of the resurrected Jesus are assumed to be visionary experiences of the apostles. The conflicting details reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are made clear enough that intellectually honest Christians have to deal with them.

Borg and Crossan describe Jesus as an activist preacher who non-violently challenges both Roman imperialism and the religious authorities among his own people who collaborate with the Romans to keep Jews in subjugation. The Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem is explained as a parody of the kind of procession that would have been occurring during Passover by Roman soldiers and governors in a show of force. Amid the Passover throng, Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey, while the Romans process on horseback in a militaristic display. Borg and Crossan describe Palm Sunday as a staged political demonstration, and on this they seem pretty accurate. Jesus primarily gained a following in rural areas. When he goes to Jerusalem in Mark’s gospel, it is clear that he expects to die in an inevitable confrontation. The Palm Sunday procession is described as a planned event, non-violent, but meant to attract attention.

Most of the confrontation in Mark’s gospel is between Jesus and religious leaders who are doing fine under Roman occupation. The Romans needed local collaborators who understood the people. The Pharisees and Sadducees were upper class Jews who could be accommodated to extract taxes and keep order. In exchange they were treated well enough by the Romans and could benefit financially from their already privileged status among the people. The incident in the temple, in this reading, is another demonstration. Jesus condemns the money changes not for doing their jobs but because of the injustice they represent. A succession of verbal exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders expose various injustices and hypocrisy.

Jesus very evidently opposes injustice that is always endemic in human society but especially injustice that is legitimated by religion. This historically has been the norm whether in ancient Egypt, pagan Rome, or by implication in the Holy Roman Empire of the Christian era. Borg and Crossan rehearse the indictment of American imperialism that has been fashionable since the 1960s. They seem obtuse to progress that Christian cultures have made against historical injustices, though they do allow that Jesus improved the status of women. They note the occasion when Rome crucified 2000 Jews to make an example for other potential zealots without any apparent awareness that atrocities like this only happen now in places like North Korea or under oppressive regimes explicitly in rejection of human rights as they have been understood in Western civilization.

The thesis of Borg’s and Crossan’s book is that Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, both present and yet to come. Their own convictions lie with a political brand of Christianity in which adherents follow Jesus in non-violent social activism against injustice even when this course includes self abnegation or martyrdom. Martin Luther King and Gandhi both are exemplary in this regard and both acknowledged their debt to the Christian gospel. That Borg and Crossan neglect the progress that Christians have made in the West by their activism over centuries seems too characteristic of left-wing ideology. They quote Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, who characterizes Jesus as a “wine guzzling socialist”.

The lefty ideology is not so odious in this book to make it annoying to read. The authors exegesis is useful in understanding why Jesus became such an inflammatory presence that he was indicted and turned over to the Romans to be crucified. The question we are left to ponder is just how much difference any of this makes. Injustice is still rampant in every society and subculture. It seems that progress is something like the response attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when asked what we have: “A republic, if you can keep it.” That we have this progress in the West and don’t have it where Western culture is absent or repudiated is something worth discussing.

Beyond this, Jesus, in the gospels, confronts suffering and death in his miraculous healings and reported resurrections, his own and that of Lazarus. Progress notwithstanding, the quest to eradicate injustice is doomed ultimately by inevitable suffering and death. The Kingdom of God as understood in Christian theology has more pervasively been about liberty to the oppressed under an everlasting jurisdiction.

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