HOW TO READ THE BIBLE AND STILL BE A CHRISTIAN
Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis
through Revelation

John Dominic Crossan

 

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
(Isaiah 2:4 = Micah 4:3)

"Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, "I am a warrior."
(Joel 3:10)

Summary

The subject is the Christian Bible, that is, the Old Testament and the New Testament as a continuous story from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. These are its constitutive questions: What—if any—is the unity of the Christian Bible? What—if any--is its deep structural thrust? What—if any—is the theology of the Christian Bible as a whole?

To begin negatively, that overall theology is emphatically not a change from the God of law, vengeance, and punishment in the Old Testament to the God of grace, love, and forgiveness in the New Testament. That is only persuasive if you have never read the Christian Bible—all the way through to its conclusion in the book of Revelation which is probably the most violent text in the canonical scriptures of all the world’s great religions. Put positively, then, what is the theology of the Christian Bible—of this small library disguised as a book and presented as a story—when viewed in its complete thrust from start to finish?

You can read across that entire Bible—from one end to the other—and draw up two contrasting lists. In one such list, God is a God of violence who expects and commands humans to act violently. In the other, God is a God of non-violence who expects and commands humans to act non-violently.

How are those two visions to be reconciled theologically? Are Christians to imagine a God of both violence and non-violence combined in whatever proportions are dictated by denominational tradition or personal conviction? Since both divine aspects are certainly present throughout the Christian Bible, it would seem wrong to focus on either one alone—for example, on only what is promised by Isaiah and Micah or only what is commanded by Joel in the epigraph above.

Maybe, that combination of violence and non-violence belongs to God alone and humans must leave violence to God? But humans are made in God’s image so divine violence must generate and vindicate human violence. Christians can hardly be the non-violent people of a violent God? What, then, is Christian faith’s answer to that impasse in the Christian Bible’s doubled or even contradictory vision of God?

My answer comes from Christianity’s own claim about the incarnation—namely, that the historical Jesus is the image and revelation of God, that Jesus is our closest vision of God’s divine character, that Jesus is what God looks like in sandals. There is, by the way, only one Jesus—reconstructed by scholars as the “Jesus of History” and accepted by believers as the “Christ of Faith.” It is the same person who was rejected by Pilate as criminal and accepted by Paul as Christ. For Christians, then, those inaugural questions can and must be rephrased: Was—and is-- the Jesus of history, who is also the Christ of faith (for Christians) violent, non-violent, or some mixture of both those aspects?

In other words, is Jesus the norm and criterion of the Christian Bible or is that Bible the norm and criterion of Jesus? Are we called “Christians” or “Biblians”? Did God so love the world that he sent us a Book—or a Person? Are we the People of the Book or the People with the Book but of the Person? Do we say WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) or WDBS (What Does the Bible Say?). Do we not count time “down” to and “up” from that historical Jesus?

 

Abstract

 Eventually, from the turmoil of that terrible first century C.E., from different options, disparate visions, and divergent texts within a common matrix of history and theology, two vital—but separate—religious communities and two vibrant—but separate—scriptural traditions emerged.

Christian Jews proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was Israel’s expected Messiah/ Christ and that Israel’s awaited Kingdom of God was already present on earth. Fulfilled, they asserted, was the prophetic promise that the Gentiles would stream to Jerusalem in a world of justice and peace, a world free of fear and violence, want and war (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:6-9; 25:6-8).

Yes indeed, said non-Christian Jews, the Gentiles have streamed to Jerusalem but only to devastate our Homeland, destroy our City, and demolish our Temple. We do not see what you see and we must therefore go our separate ways. Still, as you convert the Roman empire, be careful who converts whom.

My concern here is with Christianity as one of those two equally valid covenantal communities and especially with the Christian Bible, that small library disguised as a book and presented as a story that starts with Genesis 1:1 and concludes with Revelation 22:21. My attempt is to imagine a Christian theology for that Christian Bible—as a whole.

(I take it for granted, by the way, that we do not accept the libel of the Old Testament’s Bad-Cop God evolving into the New Testament’s Good-Cop God. That is only persuasive for those who have not read the Bible itself and especially the book of Revelation. That last and climactic book is the most relentlessly violent book in all the canonical literature of the world’s great religions.)

We Christians divide our Bible into Old and New Testaments and I accept and use those terms but with ancient rather than modern echoes. Now the old is what is obsolete, outdated, and superseded; the new is what is in, with it, and exciting, Then the old was what was tried and true, the new what was dangerous and suspect. In that world, the New Testament was the Old Testament re-New-ed. Indeed, as an experiment, forget that Old/New distinction and try reading the Christian Bible—Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—straight through from beginning to end as a single story.

Granted all that, my first basic problem with that Christian Bible concerns the character of its covenantal God. I use the word character because I am imagining God as Process rather than Person. (It is, of course, quite natural in ordinary language to personify a Process —as we do, for example, by naming and engendering hurricanes.) From start to finish of the Christian Bible, I find God’s character depicted as one of non-violent distributive justice for all but also as one of violent retributive justice for some.

Compare, for example, these two prophetic messages. On the one hand, “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” (Isaiah 2:4 = Micah 4:3). On the other, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears;  let the weakling say, I am a warrior’”(Joel 3:10).

Is God non-violent and/or violent? Is it honest to accept only one divine aspect and, if so, which one, and why? Or do we imagine a transcendental mixture of both violence and non-violence in proportions dependent on individual taste, denominational theology, ethnic design, or national intention? None of this, by the way, concerns the mysterious inner life of God. Since humanity is the image of God from Genesis 1:26-27 and the heir of God from Roman 8:17, any final divine model has profound implications for our own destined identity as violent or non-violent.

The solution to that bi-polar vision of God is actually very easy and obvious—for Christians—at least in theory, if not in practice. No one—despite all claims to the contrary—has ever seen God. But, for us Christians, the hidden face of God is visible in the historical face of Jesus. I take that response from Christianity’s own claim about the incarnation itself: that Jesus is the lamb of God, the word of God, the son of God; that Jesus is the image and revelation of God; that Jesus is our closest vision of God’s divine character; that Jesus is what God looks like in sandals.

In other words, Jesus is the norm and measure, the standard and criterion of the entire Christian Bible. That is why  we are called “Christ-ians” and not “Bible-ians.” That is why God so loved the world that he sent us a Person—not a Book (John 3:16). That is why we are always and ever the People with the Book rather than the People of the Book? We are the People of the Person. Evangelicals are profoundly correct to ask WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? and not WDBS-What Does the Bible Say? That is why we Christians count time “down” to and “up” from the birth of that historical Jesus.

But how do I know that Jesus himself was non-violent? The clearest answer in the entire New Testament comes from Pontius Pilate who executed Jesus officially, legally, and publicly but never bothered to round up his closest companions. That is how imperial power handled non-violent rebels against Roman law and order; as distinct from violent ones—like Barabbas who “was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7).

For Christians, therefore, the non-violent character of the biblical God is revealed in Jesus as a non-violent revolutionary against imperial injustice, that is, for me, against the normalcy of civilization. But that response only raises an even more intransigent question—one you may have glimpsed in those terms “Jesus” to “Christ” in the preceding paragraphs. Here is that second question. 

When we speak of Jesus as Christ do we intend the historical, the evangelical, or the apocalyptic Jesus as Christ? What do we imagine as our ultimate vision of God’s character: the historical Jesus of non-violence—as, for example, in Pilate’s assessment; the evangelical Jesus of rhetorical violence—as, for example, in Matthew 23; or the apocalyptic Jesus of physical violence—as, for example, in Revelation’s consummation?

In his “first coming” the non-violent Jesus rides on a donkey to “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” (Zechariah 9:9-10 in Matthew 21:5).

In his “second coming” the violent Jesus rides on a “white horse … makes war” and “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:11,15).

We are, it would seem, back where we started with those dueling Old Testament promises from Isaiah/Micah versus Joel on the character of the covenantal God. We have God revealed in a Jesus who is both evangelically non-violent and apocalyptically violent. Has, therefore, Jesus changed his character or Christianity changed its Jesus? What is the solution to this second problem? In answer, I look once more at the entire sweep of the Christian Bible and, once again, at those dual depictions of God’s character as non-violent  and as violent.

Those twin layers do not simply stream across the Christian Bible from one end to the other like parallel railroad tracks. Rather, they interact like this: again and again an assertion of divine radicality with regard to non-violent distributive justice is both asserted and then subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s zeal for retributive justice. The deep rhythm of the Christian Bible is a struggle between a God making us in God’s non-violent image and our making God in our own violent image. For example:

Radicality of God: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).
Normalcy of Civilization: “All right, but I can still make loans with land as collateral. That is not about buying and selling but about loaning and foreclosing."

Radicality of God: “Yes, but you cannot take interest on loans to your compatriots” (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19; Leviticus 25:36-37).
Normalcy of Civilization: “All right but, granted no interest, I  can still assess penalties for default, and get another’s land that way” (see Isaiah 5:8).
     
Radicality of God: “Still, every Sabbath or Seventh Year all loans must be annulled, all debt-slaves freed, and the land get a rest from exploitation” (Exodus 21:2-11; 23:10- 11; Leviticus 25:2-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-2,7-18).
Normalcy of Civilization: ”Yes, but that Sabbath Year’s repeal of loans only applies to direct person-to-person ones and not to indirect person-to court-to person ones using the legal fiction of the prosbul.

That same process of assertion-and-subversion was also applied to the vision of Jesus and the message of Paul. It is, in fact, the beating heart of the biblical tradition. In other words, the Christian Bible is not the Good Book inside against the Bad World outside, not the radicality of God within against the normalcy of civilization without. Instead, the Christian Bible is an honest record of that very contest of assertion-and-subversion going on within its own pages and by its own pages.

This Christian theology of the historical Jesus intends, quietly, politely, and respectfully, to bury that classical dichotomy of the “Jesus of History versus the Christ of Faith.” No doubt that disjunction has done some service in prying the dead-hand of ecclesiastical control from both historical reconstructions of Jesus and also theological interpretations of Jesus-as-Christ. But it is fundamentally inadequate—not just as theology but as history! Because: you can have Jesus without Christ but you cannot have Christ without Jesus.

Paul and Pilate could have agreed on what Jesus did (history) but not on what Jesus meant (theology). Both could have looked on that same historical crucifixion but would have interpreted it with radically different faiths, one with Messianic/Christian faith, the other with Roman imperial faith. One was committed to Jesus-as-Christ, the other to Jesus-as-Criminal. But neither lacked faith—or a theology of that faith.

In conclusion, then, a Christian theology of the Christian Bible must include both a Christian theology of the covenantal God and—as a revelatory dialectic— a Christian theology of the historical Jesus. For Christians, that historical Jesus proclaimed the challenge of God’s Kingdom on earth not as unilateral divine intervention but as bilateral human-divine collaboration. It is precisely that historical person who is the norm and criterion for the entire Christian Bible and therefore of any Christ it contains.

 

Study Guide

Part 1: Challenge

Chapter 1
Ending: A Hymn to a Savage God?

1.To give focus to the question the book seeks to answer, John Dominic Crossan states, The biblical God is, on one hand, a God of nonviolent distributive justice and, on the other hand, a God of violent retributive justice. How do we reconcile these two visions?” (page 18) What are your hopes as you begin studying this book?
2. How much have you wrestled with this seeming disconnect between divine violence and divine non-violence in the Bible?
3. Have you considered the Bible as whole, as Crossan suggests? What biblical themes seem to go carry through the entire book?

Chapter 2
Centering: The Meaning in the Middle?

2. “The heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurring cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s violent retributive justice”(page 28). What changes in our study of the Bible when we consider the Bible as an interplay between divine and human action?  
3. If a non-Christian person challenged you about the violence of God, would you feel prepared to respond? Is this something you’ve wrestled with before?

 

Part II: Civilization

Chapter 3
Conscience

1. When we begin with the story of Gilgamesh as matrix (page 44ff.), how do we read and understand Genesis 2-3 differently, i.e., correctly, according to Crossan?
2. “Our humanity, Genesis concludes, is not distinguished by being immortal, for that is impossibility, but by being moral—and that is a responsibility” (page 55). Crossan is speaking here about Adam and Eve discovering their conscience when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Were you taught about morality through Bible lessons? How does that influence your reading of Crossan’s book?  
3. Do you think most people would be surprised that the word “sin” does not appear in the creation stories of Genesis (page 57)?  Were you? Why does it matter?

Chapter 4
Violence

1. “The normalcy of human civilization is not the inevitability of human nature (page 66). In other words, we were not created to be ruled by sin, even though we so often choose to live in ways that are the opposite of God’s vision. Why is this Crossan’s mantra for the book? How would we live differently if we agreed with this statement?
2. One of the subtitles in Chapter 4 is “Sin Crouches but You Will Rule over It.” (page 62) Crossan notes that God does not say we could, might, should, or must rule over sin, but that we will rule over it. In your faith formation, did you learn about sin as an internal, irresistible force or as “an external feline crouching to attack you”? (page 63)  How does this notion of sin tie in with Crossan’s main points?

 

Part III: Covenant

Chapter 5
Creation and Covenant

 
2. On page 86, Crossan defines covenant in this way: “Covenant in the biblical tradition is, therefore, a religo-political, religio-social, and religio-economic commitment between God and the world as macrocosm or God and Israel as an experimental microcosm.” How did Crossan use the Hittite treaties as metaphor, model, and matrix for his definition of covenant? What does it teach us about the relationship between divinity and humanity? (pages 84-86)   
3. “Violence in the world begets violence against the world”(page 87). For example, we use the story of Noah’s flood to show how God responded to the world’s violence with a violent act. How does Crossan show us that this is not the end of God’s story?
4. What are you learning about the way the Bible came together from different traditions and sources?
5. The Sabbath day placed distributive justice—where all God’s people get a fair share of all God’s earth—as the rhythm of time and the metronome of history. (page 78) Do you think if our society still practiced Sabbath that we would also remain more closely tied to God’s vision of distributive justice? What would this mean for our relationships with our neighbors?

Chapter 6
Blessing and Curse

1. Crossan prepares us for Chapter 6 by previewing an upcoming shift in Biblical theology. “The covenantal pendulum swings powerfully from the Priestly to the Deuteronomic tradition…” (page 88) Do you typically think of pendulum swings when it comes to the Bible? How does Crossan help us see that blessing and curse were each emphasized during various stages of biblical thought?    
2. “To put it another way, this book’s God of distributive justice is dominated by its God of retributive justice (page 90). In other words, the book of Deuteronomy contains more curses than blessings. How would you explain the reason for this to a confirmation student?
3. Crossan advises: “Read the Bible carefully, recognize radicality’s assertion, expect normalcy’s subversion, and respect the honesty of a story that tells the truth” (page 98). How has this book helped you read the Bible in a fresh way? What have you discovered?

 

Chapter 7
Prophecy and Prayer

1. Crossan begins Chapter 7 by explaining prophetic identity as a movement from divine covenant to divine council to divine complaint. How do the prophetic books of the Bible exemplify Crossan’s main point of the book, that God’s original peaceful vision becomes desecrated by human intervention?
2. “The powers that be do not even understand the accusation, do not recognize the problem, do not acknowledge their responsibility. They say, as it were: ‘We are about power. Who brought up this justice thing?” (page 116.) What is the point Crossan is trying to make by distinguishing between power and justice? How is the power versus justice debate particularly contemporary?
3. What does Crossan mean when he says that the prophetic and psalmic traditions are extremely ambiguous on the character of God?
4. “We Christians must read both traditions [priestly and Deuteronomic], accept and follow their divine assertion, understand and not follow their human subversion, and appreciate the biblical honesty that retained that full dialectic of yes-and-no, expansion-and-contraction, vision and negation” (page 118). How do you imagine your Bible reading in the future will be influenced by what you’ve learned about various Biblical traditions in Crossan’s book?   How do you understand “biblical honesty”?

Chapter 8
Wisdom and Kingdom

1. What ancient and Biblical history does Crossan assume we know? Have you been taught this before? What new historical information have you learned from Crossan?
2. Crossan poses a “delicate question,” “Does the Wisdom tradition have the same passion for distributive justice as does the Prophetic tradition, or is it a passion for distributive charity?”  (page 125) Why should we keep this question in mind as we make choices about our church’s ministries, for example whether to open a food bank and/or advocate for the root causes of poverty?
3. “It is surely long overdue for us to rethink both the theory of divine punishment and the resultant practice of pleading for forgiveness and crying out for mercy throughout the Christian tradition” (page127).  How radical does this statement sound to you? What does Crossan propose Christians should be doing rather than focusing on divine punishment and begging for mercy? Is this the way you think about God?   
4. What have you learned so far on this journey through the Bible with Crossan? What strategies have you found for deciphering How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian?

 

Part IV: Community

Chapter 9
Israel and the Challenge of Rome

1. What did you learn about nonviolent resistance in this chapter?
2. How does Crossan explain the messianic matrix in which both John and Jesus lived and died?  (page 151-155) Why is it important?
3. How does the Golden Age of Israel compare to the Golden Age of Rome?
4. “By now you can probably guess my questions. (page 155) What would we guess Crossan’s questions to be? How have the same questions been asked and answered throughout the book?

 

Chapter 10
Jesus and the Radicality of God

1. As previewed in the last chapter, answer the question that Crossan presents: “How precisely was the ruling style of God different from that of Rome; how exactly were God’s justice and peace different from those of Rome?” (page 155)
3. “The old paradigm imagined an imminent divine intervention; the new one envisioned a present divine and human collaboration” (page 166). Or, as Archbishop Tutu said, “God, without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot.” As you consider the ways you live out your faith, how much do you think is up to you and how much is up to God? Have you noticed that way you live out your faith is different from the way others do so?
4. “For Christians, God is revealed in Christ, but Christ is revealed in Jesus” (page 171). What do you think Crossan means by this statement? How do you understand and live it out?

 

Chapter 11
Christ and the Normalcy of Civilization

2. Where do you see escalatory violence (173) happening around us? Why does it matter to get this Biblical question about God’s violence sorted out?
3. Throughout the book, as he walks us through the Bible, Crossan reminds us of the main question. On page 185 he gives the answer—“For those who have eyes to see—is within the Christian Bible itself: if the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, than the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ. Do you have eyes to see this answer? What parts of the book will you reread to better understand?
4. “Did Jesus change his mind, or did the Gospels change their Jesus?” (page 178 ) How does Crossan answer this question in comparing four examples from Mark’s gospel and the Q Gospel (pages 175-178)? If the Gospel writers can change their Jesus, how do we know what to believe about Jesus?  

Chapter 12
Rome and the Challenge of Caesar

1. What did you learn about Roman history in this chapter? Why does learning the history of Rome help us better understand the biblical landscape?
2. “Throughout this book we have seen again and again how the matrix of time, place and situation slowly but surely subverts assertions of divine radicality back into claims of human normalcy (page 200). Think of a few examples of how our world normalizes God’s radical message. Who are some people you know who are actually living out God’s radical message of non-violence?
3. “Beneath the seismic conflict of Christian Judaism and Roman imperialism was the grinding collision of history’s two great tectonic plates: the normalcy of civilization’s program of peace through victory against the radicality of God’s program of peace through justice” (page 201). Had you read history in this way before? How does it change how you understand what was happening in these stories?

 

Chapter 13
Paul and the Radicality of Christ

2. What did you learn about Bible history and context through reading Crossan’s book? Have you ever read through the Bible following one thread before? What new Biblical perspective did you gain by doing so?  

4. Crossan previews the final chapter of the book by implying that Paul’s theology was subverted, just as Jesus’s was. (216) What do you imagine to be the consequent sufferings mentioned on 217 and how were they life changing for Christians?

 

Chapter 14
Paul and the Normalcy of Empire

1. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling not because God will punish you if you fail, but because Rome will punish you if you succeed” (page 219). What does Crossan mean by this? How does this statement match or not match your theology? Take a few minutes to discuss or write your thoughts.
2. After working your way through this book, do you feel better prepared to respond to a question about the violence of God in the Bible?
3. What would you like to say to your teacher, John Dominic Crossan, after traveling through the Bible with him on this quest to resolve the violent and non-violent God question?
4. To whom would you recommend or not recommend this book? Why or why not?

 

         

 


Copyright © 2006-09 John Dominic Crossan.................................                         Home | Resume | Books | Lectures | Pilgrimages | Memories | Site Map