Is The Life Of A Mediterranean Jewish Peasant Worth Reading?

Picture of The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

After listening to a few youtube videos interviewing John Dominic Crossan and reading The Historical Jesus: Five Views, in which he is a contributor. I felt I needed to read his most comprehensive look at Jesus’ life.

It was a long hard read, and I left less eager than I started.

But before I tell you why, lets me introduce the book.

Overview of The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

The book starts with Overtures and prologue.

So let’s start there.

In the overture, after a quick overview of the life of Jesus, there is a list of “authentic” sayings from Jesus.

This initially surprised me, but later, I discovered that John Dominic Crossan is a founding member of the Jesus Seminar. Who regularly discuss and vote on what they believe to be authentic words and actions of Jesus.

Then it made sense that Crossan would start with what he considered to be actual historical, “factual” sources about Jesus.

This perspective will pop up throughout the book’s 15 chapters, especially the last 5 chapters where Crosson focuses on the life of Jesus. Where actions or saying in the gospel will either be validated or downplayed, being considered a later addition.

Somewhat a scholarly book, in the prologue, Crossan lays out his methodology for recreating the historical life of Jesus along with his sources. How he sifts through the “evidence ” we have about Jesus and determines how to arrange them.

Then the book is laid out in 3 sections.

  • Brokered Empire
  • Embattled Brokerage
  • Brokerless Kingdom

Possibly a better way to frame it, as Crossan has pointed out in interviews. We must understand Jesus threw 3 lenses.

  1. The Roman Empire (Mediterranean)
  2. The Jewish society and Culture in which Jesus lived
  3. Individual life of a peasant in this context, The life of Jesus

These are very broad strokes but are helpful for understanding Crossan’s thoughts and arguments.

Brokered Empire

Chapters 1-4 are largely an anthropology study of the world of the Mediterranean world and, in particular, the Roman Empire.

I found this section to be hard slogging.

Bases lots of his presentations on letters and documents preserved from that time. Along with philosophical thoughts of different groups of the time. The Cynic, in particular, as he will use this lifestyle as a key to understanding the life of Jesus.

I love history and learning about different societies, but I found this section extremely hard to get through. I found myself skimming paragraphs and even entire pages.

Possibly because I am not accustomed to reading scholarly works, or I was too eager to read his thoughts on Jesus that his extensive laying out of the setting was losing me.

Embattled Brokerage

Chapters 5 to 10 continue setting up the context of Jesus’s life. Going through groups of people who Crossan sees as significant in the life of Jesus. Or even more in understanding his life.

  • Aristocrat and Historian
  • Visionary and Teacher
  • Peasant and Protester
  • Magician and Prophet
  • Bandit and Messiah
  • Rebel and Revolutionary

Again, moving from big to little.

With a perspective that Jesus was not unique but shared actions and thoughts of his contemporaries. Plus or minus a few hundred years.

Crossan openly admits as much.

“This book is concerned with Jesus of Nazareth, a peasant who died around 30 C.E., yet I have spent a very large amount of space on what happened long after his death between 66 and 73 C.E.”

Crossan

For example, much of the material of Rebel and Revolutionary is drawn from the build-up and actions leading to the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. After the time of Jesus but shows Jewish thought and sentiment that resulted in this tragic but zealous attempt to regain Judaism. As understood by many of his society.

Not much is time is spent yet on Jesus himself.

But Crossan is setting the table. Serving up reference for later, context to place Jesus. To see beyond the narratives of the gospels to the times and lives of peasants of his time.

I found this section a better read, not exciting yet, but interesting.

Jesus did not live in a vacuum, but like all of us, must be understood within the context of the people around us.

First published in 1992, there has been some development in our understanding of Jewish culture of the first century. Developments that may change some of Crossan’s understanding and caricatures, even of historical figures. But none the less, it is a good idea to place Jesus among his peers.

Brokerless Kingdom

Now for the good part.

Or at least when we finally focus on Jesus.

Chapters 11 – 15 are where Crossan pieces together the life, worldview and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is a lot of sifting here.

Crossan will gather together multiple texts, beyond the 4 gospels of the Bible to support his historical presentation.

Giving less weight to single-attested stories and sayings.

Another unique part of Crossan’s presentation is his high view of the Gospel of Thomas. Which many scholars discount because of its late dating.

Crossan holds to a much earlier dating, thus much closer to the actual life of Jesus. Bringing it into many discussions about what Jesus said.

Like many scholars, he also holds to a Saying Gospel, called Q  (Quelle, German for “source”), crediting many of the shared teachings of Jesus in Matthew and Luke to this reference.

As I said earlier, sifting through the text.

Crossan spends much time, evaluating the historical accuracy of the related text.

“The Bible says It, I believe it, that settles it.”

This is not the mantra of Crossan, as he tries hard to examine and only validated that which has been tested.

To the point where he will reference a story about Jesus to explain a point and then finish by saying despite his use of the text, it does not mean it’s “historical.”

“It is from the second stratum, has only single attestation, and is being used only for general background, not specific foreground. No claims being made about the historical Jesus.”

p.314

Ah, the challenges of the Jesus seminary.

Final Thoughts on The Historical Jesus, The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant

I forget now if it was in the book or in a presentation, but Crossan mention that the authors of the gospel were not trying to write an accurate account of the life of Jesus. But that they were guided by the Spirit and the need of their community to tell stories that would help them. Crafting “Stories” about Jesus as needed for the moment. The point was not if they happened but what did they take from them.

Crossan has spent many years studying and meditating on the life of Jesus, but in the end, it feels like he has created a Jesus for our time.

A Jesus that is not violent but still pushes for social reform and justice.

A Jesus accepting of all people.

A Jesus living a life of love.

A picture of Jesus that we need for our time, maybe even more for the earlier life of Cossan in the revolutionary Irland of his youth. Where years of division and violence needed to be countered to be overcome. But is this truly an accurate view of the life of Jesus?

I don’t know enough to answer that question and will need to do a lot more reading and studying to find out.

But for you, is an oversimplified overview of Crossan’s Jesus sufficient for you to evaluate, or is it worth reading his entire book to understand how he came to his conclusion?

Only you can answer that.

For me, it was a hard read, and I left unsatisfied. Unlike other historical Jesus books, which I have reread. Either to gain new insight or simply for the pleasure of reading.

The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant will most likely gather dust on my shelf. A shorter overview, such as Crossan’s presentation in Historical Jesus: Five Views, or some youtube video interviewing Crossan will suffice.

But I am not you, your call.

Link below to order the book if you want to give it a whirl or jump to youtube first.

Or maybe it would be better to read the shorter version in Historical Jesus: Five Views. Get the jest without the hard slugging.