How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian by John Dominic Crossan

An excerpt from John Dominic Crossan’s latest book.

[Excerpted from How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian by John Dominic Crossan, published March 2015 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Book Publishers, hardcover, RRP $26.99.]

Be sure to check out Joseph Kelly’s interview of Crossan about this book.

John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, HarperOne, 2015, 272pp., $26.99
John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, HarperOne, 2015, 272pp., $26.99

As we have already seen, even a superficial reading of the Christian Bible reveals God and Christ to be both violent and nonviolent in a somewhat bipolar if not schizophrenic fashion. It is as if the Biblical Express Train runs on twin parallel but very dissimilar rails.

But as seen in the two exploratory probes, I propose that a deeper and more thoughtful study of the Chris tian Bible demands a different metaphor. There is, on that deeper level, a fascinating and interactive pattern between those parallel train tracks. There is a recurrent rhythm between the biblical vision of God’s nonviolent distributive justice and God’s violent retributive justice. The more accurate metaphor is not the Biblical Express Train but the Biblical Heartbeat.

Throughout the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, every radical challenge from the biblical God is both asserted and then subverted by its receiving communities— be they earliest Israelites or latest Chris tians. That pattern of assertion- and- subversion, that rhythm of expansion- and- contraction, is like the systole- and diastole cycle of the human heart.

In other words, the heartbeat of the Chris tian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ.

Think of this example. In the Bible, prophets are those who speak for God. On one hand, the prophets Isaiah and Micah agree on this as God’s vision: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, / and their spears into pruning hooks; / nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4 = Mic. 4:3). On the other hand, the prophet Joel suggests the opposite vision: “Beat your plowshares into swords, / and your pruning hooks into spears; / let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior’ ” (3:10). Is this simply an example of assertion- and- subversion between prophets, or between God’s radicality and civilization’s normalcy?

That proposal might also answer how, as noted in Chapter 1, Jesus the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount preferred loving enemies and praying for persecutors while Jesus the Christ of the book of Revelation preferred killing enemies and slaughtering persecutors. It is not that Jesus the Christ changed his mind, but that in standard biblical assertion- and- subversion strategy, Chris tian ity changed its Jesus.

This means, however, that the revelation of the radicality of God speaks through the historical Jesus in the former preference (loving enemies), since scholars agree that these core sayings collected in the Gospels are among the earliest collections of his sayings and are probably the most closely tied to the historical figure; but the normalcy of civilization (killing enemies) speaks through the apocalyptic Jesus, a Jesus envisioned many decades after the Chris tian community had become more established.

Or, think of this similar dichotomy: In the late 330s BCE, Alexander the Great lunged down the Levantine coast of the eastern Mediterranean and, after savage sieges, rode through the shattered gates of Tyre and Gaza on his famous warhorse, the battle charger Bucephalus. In direct and deliberate contrast, this is how the prophet Zechariah described the Messiah entering the gates of Jerusalem:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war- horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (9:9–10)

You will notice the explicit contrast between the peace donkey and the warhorse. Furthermore, the Messiah’s donkey is described very carefully as a full- bred donkey and not that half- horse, half donkey known as a mule, making it clear that the animal he was riding was nothing like a (war)horse.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem during that Palm Sunday demonstration in fulfillment of Zechariah, Mark simply mentions the single peace donkey. (Imagine Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey from Bethany in the east and Pilate coming in on a warhorse from Caesarea in the west.) Matthew, however, intensifies the demonstration— and the lampoon— by having Jesus ride a nursing female donkey, a jenny, with her little colt trotting along beside her: “Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’ . . . they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” (21:1–2, 7).

That is the assertion of the historical Jesus on the biblical peace donkey. But we have already seen its subversion in the book of Revelation. Remember Christ as the rider on the white horse from Chapter 1 and recall that great feast he prepared for the vultures from the bodies of those “killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (19:21). In summary:

Radicality of God: Historical Jesus on the (Matt. 21:1–11) nonviolent peace donkey

Normalcy of Civilization: Apocalyptic Christ on the (Rev. 19:11–21)
violent warhorse

This biblical patterning of yes- and- no justifies my choice of the nonviolent Jesus of the Incarnation over the violent Jesus of the Apocalypse as the true Jesus. Put simply, the nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

The interest and value, the honesty and integrity, of the Christian Bible resides triumphantly in the dialectic of yes and no, assertion and subversion. This dialectic means that both Judaism and Christianity took the radical challenges of God seriously. (If, for example, we Americans took our vision of liberty and justice for all under God seriously, imagine the qualifications and reservations that would surround our Pledge of Allegiance.)

If the Bible were all good- cop enthusiasm from God, we would have to treat it like textual unreality or utopian fantasy. If it were all about bad-cop vengeance from God, we would not need to justify, say, our last century. But it contains both the assertion of God’s radical dream for our world and our world’s very successful attempt to replace the divine dream with a human nightmare.

The biblical problem is not, I emphasize, that the recipients of those divine challenges were evil, but that they were normal. The struggle is not between divine good and human evil but between, on one hand, God’s radical dream for an Earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its peoples and, on the other hand, civilization’s normal dream for me keeping mine, getting yours, and having more and more, forever. The tension is not between the Good Book and the bad world that is outside the book. It is between the Good Book and the bad world that are both within the book.