Good Friday on NPR: A Great Day to Suggest Gospels are Garbage

March 27th, 2008 8:56 AM

National Public Radio knows how to identify itself as the secular liberal media. On Good Friday, the show Fresh Air with Terry Gross recycled a 2004 interview with retired academic John Dominic Crossan, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, a man who believes the Gospels are largely mythology, someone's ahistorical hopes, and that the resurrection of Jesus never occurred, and that perhaps the body of Jesus was consumed by wild dogs. In this interview, Gross also asked him to comment on (disparage) the movie The Passion of the Christ, which he eagerly did. He suggested too much focus on the passion of Christ is "dangerously close to pathological." (Photo from

Just two weeks ago, we noted Fresh Air gave unbelievers about three times more air time than believers. Here's a sample of the Crossan interview:

GROSS: When you, as someone who studies the historical Jesus, think about the resurrection, do you think about it as metaphor or as actuality?

Prof. CROSSAN: I think of it--I would not make the distinction of metaphor or actuality. I would make the distinction of metaphor or literal because metaphors can be very actual. For example, the metaphor for me is that to claim resurrection for Jesus--and I can leave it completely whether you take it metaphorically or literally--either way, what you are claiming is that something has happened here which is going to change the way the world sees everything. And I think that is right because the claim you're making is that God has reversed the normalcy of civilization. And that's why it's very important for me to insist that Pilate, from his point of view, got it right. He looked at Jesus. He said, `This person resists our law and order, as it were. Not a violent resistor or I'd have rounded up all his followers like I rounded up Barabbas', but, yes, he resists us and, therefore, he must be publicly executed.'

Now, to say that God has reversed that decision puts God on a collision course with the normalcy of civilization. That I believe is actual because I believe in--what happened at the death of Jesus is that we were confronted with a warning that violence is going to destroy us. We got a warning that if you do not resist evil nonviolently, violence will destroy us. I think something did happen because that was a warning and we have not been heeding it for 2,000 years.

GROSS: With the resurrection, do you think that there was some kind of physical transformation that happened to the actual body of Jesus?

Prof. CROSSAN: No, I don't. I am completely convinced that Jesus had told people before his death that the kingdom of God has already arrived and that we have begun to participate with God in what I'm going to call the great clean-up. The fancy word for that is eschatological consummation, the great clean-up of the world, the attempt to make it a just place. I am absolutely certain also--historically, I'm speaking--that people had visions of Jesus after his execution. They had visions--and they are not hallucinations, they are visions. They are apparitions of Jesus. When they put those two things together, they said then, `Jesus has risen as the beginning of the general resurrection.' That's the only thing the word could have meant to them. It's not a personal private privilege for Jesus. He has risen as the head of those who have died before him and as the promise of those who will die after him.

I take that metaphorically. I do not take it actually. I do not think all around Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning there were hundreds of empty tombs, and I don't think the people who believed in the harrowing of hell ever suggested, `Let's go out and check the tombs of the prophets to see if they're gone.' I think they knew quite well what they were saying. They were saying something which they took metaphorically and which we take literally, and I think we've kind of lost the actuality.

GROSS: I know that you've seen Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," and I'm wondering if you could give us your short review of how the Jesus story is told in the movie.

Prof. CROSSAN: Basically, there's a couple of things that any Passion story or any Passion drama does. You take the four Gospels--and there are four of them, by the way--and you reduce them to one. And then you reduce that one Gospel to simply execution and then you reduce that execution to passio, the Latin word for passion, meaning suffering. So everything coalesces on the suffering of Jesus.

Therefore, for example, there is nothing in Mel Gibson's movie--except brief flashbacks, more to increase the poignancy--about the life of Jesus. So by the time you come to the execution--and the resurrection, of course, is even more fleeting in this movie--you have no idea why anyone, anyone at all, would want this person dead, let alone executed publicly. You don't even understand it. Nor do you understand why, for example, it begins with a nighttime arrest of Jesus, accompanied by Judas, who betrays him. Why was that necessary? Couldn't the authorities have grabbed him any time they wanted?

Well, if you've been reading the story from Palm Sunday on--Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, as we would say, of that week--the crowd is all on the side of Jesus. It's said again and again and again in the Gospel, the high priestly authorities are afraid to move because the crowd are on the side of Jesus. And in Mark 14:1 to 2 they give up. They finally say, `Well, we can't do it during the festival. There'll be a riot.' Then comes Judas. And Judas says, `I can arrange it. I can arrange that you'll get him apart from the crowd at night.'

So what is not in this movie at all is that the whole Jewish crowd in Jerusalem is so much on the side of Jesus that it requires this nighttime arrest and an apostolic traitor to get him.

GROSS: When did Passion plays become popular? When did it become popular to focus stories on the suffering, the crucifixion and suffering, of Christ?

Prof. CROSSAN: The emphasis on the suffering of Christ, almost to the exclusion of everything else, is really very much a medieval idea and may well reflect the experiences of people. If people are suffering--and I mean seriously suffering, say with plague or something like that, or invasion--then to think of the sufferings of Jesus is extremely consoling. And the script that Mel Gibson used from "The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ" according to the meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich is a good example. She had a life of suffering. She had a life of hardship, an Augustinian nun who spent the last 10 years of her life bedridden, in great pain. And no wonder, of course, that she had an almost mystical union with the sufferings of Jesus. Of course, she herself was in intense suffering. So the emphasis on suffering is--how shall I say it?--appropriate, maybe? Maybe even necessary for people in intolerable pain. Outside that, it becomes dangerously close to pathological.

GROSS: What do you mean by pathological?

Prof. CROSSAN: I mean, when you start to focus on suffering and the whole meaning of, say, Jesus' life being reduced--and that verb is carefully chosen--reduced to suffering, it is not the way anyone thought about it in the first century. The Romans did not compute suffering. They didn't say `we have to make this person suffer as much as possible' or they would have kept him in the barracks and tortured him for weeks on end. Their purpose was not suffering, but public warning. So when you bring it all down to suffering, it's very hard to show it without sadism.

GROSS: Now, something that I find a little confusing. When we were talking a little earlier about crucifixion, you were explaining that, for most Roman crucifixions the dead body was left on the cross to be eaten by the birds of prey and by the wild dogs, and part of that was punishment for the family. The family would not be given the remains to be buried. There'd be no tomb, there'd be no remains. But the remains of Jesus is such a fundamental part of the Christ story. Do you think an exception was made for him, that there were remains, that there was a body?

Prof. CROSSAN: It's utterly possible because of the--Philo, for example, does mention the possibility of a body being given back to the family. And in a way, it's not so much a punishment for the family as a punishment for the person because they're being annihilated. And we have the crucified heel bone of somebody who was honorably buried. So it is utterly possible that in exceptional cases, either because you bribed the guards or because you were able to get some influence, it was utterly possible to get the body and give the body normal burial.

Now, the problem is that the Jewish law of Deuteronomy says by nightfall the body must be off the cross. I have no evidence, and I would expect that the Romans did not follow Jewish law because the purpose of crucifixion was to let you die in agony on the cross, and if the person--let's imagine a case in which the person was only crucified by late in the afternoon, they would not be taken down from the cross. So the question is--and this is the question--is the story of Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew, Mark and Luke, or of Joseph of Arimathea in Nicodemus, in John, is that an historical record of what happened, or is that Christians' best hope of what they hope might have happened without knowing what happened to the body of Jesus?

GROSS: So you think that the Gospels might be more about that hope than the reality, more about hope than journalism?

Prof. CROSSAN: Here is the problem. When you look at Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the story of the burial of Jesus, knowing that Mark is the basis for Matthew and Luke and that possibly--this is debated in scholarship--they may be the source for John. You watch the body, body's burial gets steadily better. It's a hasty, hurried burial in Mark. By the time Matthew and Luke read Mark and develop the story, it's burial in a tomb in which nobody else has been laid, and they're explaining to you why Joseph of Arimathea was able to be a counselor for Jesus but not against him on Thursday night as it were. The story is developing. By the time you get to John's account, the burial of Jesus is--I wouldn't even say royal, it's transcendental. There are so much spices used that they would fill almost the entire tomb. It's a magnificent burial. It's the burial of the son of God when you get to John.

You know, what happens is as a historian, when I retroject that trajectory of a burial getting better and better and better and I ask what was there in the beginning, it doesn't look very good. It looks to me like all they might have had at the very beginning is a hope that maybe some pious non-Christian Jew out of respect for the law of Deuteronomy would have buried Jesus' body. But that immediately then raises the issue that we see, `Well, wouldn't he have also buried the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus? Now, wouldn't there be at least three in the tomb and would it be a public tomb for criminals and then how would we know which was Jesus' body?'

And so you can see them, I think, grappling with the difficulties of a story which I don't think is historical. I think it is their fervent hope, their best hope that somebody took care of the body of Jesus. But none of that, by the way, in any way is for or against resurrection because resurrection is a new creation by God.

GROSS: John Dominic Crossan, thank you so much for talking with us.

The Fresh Air site also links to a second interview Gross had with Crossan later in 2004. Atheists and skeptics are welcomed back again and again on NPR.