John Dominic Crossan

John Dominic Crossan

In first-century Roman-occupied Israel, when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t speaking of a place in space and time.

Rather, he was referring to the “ruling style of God,” said John Dominic Crossan, a scholar and author known for his writings on the historical Jesus.

“When Jesus used that term, he’s really asking you to imagine, what would this world be like if God sat on Caesar’s throne?” Crossan said when giving the Walters Garvin Lecture on May 4 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster.

Crossan, who spoke on “Jesus and the Kingdom of God,” also gave additional presentations at the church last Saturday and delivered the sermon at Sunday’s service.

The Irish-born Crossan, a former Roman Catholic priest and emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University, was co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 for scholars interested in historical Jesus research. The group received media attention for its members using colored beads to indicate how likely it was that certain sayings actually came from Jesus.

Subject of controversy

Crossan became widely known for his 1991 book “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant,” a forerunner to several other books on Jesus. Many of his conclusions have been controversial, including his contention that the gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection are metaphors for the new life his followers found in him even after his death.

Crossan also has published books exploring such topics as the birth of Christianity and the life of Paul.

Crossan’s May 4 lecture was part history lesson, setting Jesus’ ministry in the “matrix” of Roman imperial rule in the Jewish homeland.

Despite years of oppression, the Jewish people believed that “someday, in days to come, God is going to clean up the mess of the world,” Crossan said. That eschatological view wasn’t about the world ending, he emphasized, but about the final state of the world when God acts.

Crossan described how Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, built the city of Tiberias, in honor of Emperor Tiberius, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Crossan theorized that the purpose was to commercialize fishing, which in turn made life even more difficult for the peasantry. It was there and then, in the 20s A.D., that the movements of John the Baptist and Jesus gained traction.

Jesus, Crossan said, was a follower of John the Baptist, who was preparing for God’s intervention. But instead, Antipas’ cavalry came, resulting in John’s arrest and execution.

Imagining Jesus

Crossan believes that what happened to John led Jesus to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is already here. He pointed to what critics said of John and Jesus: that John fasted in preparation for what’s to come, while Jesus feasted in celebration of what’s currently at hand.

Crossan imagines Jesus, as he worked to bring about a world of peace and justice, saying something like, “Don’t you see, you have been waiting for God to do it for you, and God has been waiting for you to do it with God.”

When asked during a question-and-answer period about Christianity’s survival into the future, Crossan replied, “I do think that there is something profoundly, transcendentally precious about Christianity worth having.”

He added, “I don’t see the fervor for justice being able to be maintained without a tradition, without knowing that this has been tried and tried … and you’re keeping a flame alive.”

Christianity can be compelling, he said, but “stop peddling transcendental snake oil, that there’s a future heaven and hell out there.”

Describing humanity as a “great evolutionary experiment,” Crossan added, “There’s going to be first heaven and hell, not as locations in the next life, but as options in this life. And at the end, there will be a great final judgment on the human race: Did we or did we not blow it?”