As our group travelled by bus from Rome to Paris for its homeward flight, we stopped at Oberammergau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps to attend its Passion Play, a five-to-six-hour dramatization of Jesus’ final week on earth. It is performed by the villagers every decade on the decade in gratitude for deliverance from bubonic plague in 1634. There was none, of course, in 1940 but it returned in 1950 with both Chancellor Adenauer and General Eisenhower in attendance.
In other words, what we saw in 1960 was the unchanged play that Hitler saw before his election in 1930 and again after it in 1934, for its special 300 th anniversary. But that early September day in 1960 I had not yet read Hitler’s enthusiastic comment that,
That obscene review came in July 1942, about the time the German armies were beginning their fateful push towards Stalingrad. But, if I did not know Hitler’s commentary, I certainly knew the sequence of what happened in Christianity’s “Holy Week” from both monastic liturgy and biblical study.
What I did not expect was that a story I knew so well as written text was so profoundly unconvincing as enacted drama. The play started early in the morning with Palm Sunday and the huge stage was filled with a crowd shouting approval and acclamation for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. But by late afternoon the play had progressed to Good Friday and that same huge crowd was now shouting condemnation and demanding crucifixion. But nothing in the play explained how the crowd had changed its mind so completely.
I wondered, was that infamous scene with the crowd claiming its responsibility for Jesus’ death by shouting, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”- fact or fiction? It did not seem convincing as history. What was the reason for the crowd’s change of attitude from acceptance to rejection? Could this story function more as parable than history?
This insight led to others. If it were parable, that is, a fictional story invented for moral or theological purposes, then there were not only parables by Jesus—like that of the Good Samaritan—but parables about Jesus—like that of the Lethal Crowd in this Passion Play. And, further, there were not only parables of light but parables of darkness. The factual history of Jesus’ crucifixion had become parable—parabolic history or historical parable, if you wish, which I’ll return to in more detail later—and from it, in the terror of time, theological anti-Judaism would spawn racial anti-Semitism.
In June 1967, I returned from a two-year sabbatical at the French School of Archaeology just north of the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem. I left—the technical term is “fled”—just before Old Jerusalem passed from Jordan to Israel in the Six Day War. In the next two years, before I left monastery and priesthood for DePaul University in 1969, I was teaching at two seminaries in the Chicago area. One of my courses was on the parables by Jesus and the other was on the resurrection stories about Jesus.
With these courses I was back to exploring—as at Oberammergau--the interface of parable and history. I had observed that the parabolic stories by Jesus seemed remarkably similar to the resurrection stories about Jesus. Were the latter intended as parables just as much as the former? Had we been reading parable, presuming history, and misunderstanding both at least since literalism deformed both pro-Christian and anti-Christian imagination in response to the Enlightenment? Think, for example, of the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road with its Good Samaritan and the Jerusalem-to-Emmaus road with its Incognito Jesus after the resurrection. Most everyone accepts the former one in Luke 10:30-35 as a fictional story with a theological message but what about the latter one in Luke 24:13-33? Is the latter story fact or fiction, history or parable? Many would say this latter story actually happened, but why when just a few chapters earlier a similar story is considered pure fiction, completely parable? Let’s look at it a little closer.
A first clue that Luke 24:13-33 was meant as a parable and not history is that when Jesus joins the couple on the road, they do not recognize him. He is, as it were, traveling incognito. A second one is that even when he explains in detail how the biblical scriptures pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, they still do not recognize him. But the third and definitive clue to the story’s purpose is in the climax and it demands full quotation:
That is parable, not history. The Christian liturgy involves Scripture and Eucharist—but they are not equal. The Scripture—even interpreted by Jesus himself—will do no more than create “burning hearts,” that is, hearts ready but to do what? The Eucharist invites the stranger in to share one’s meal and find that the stranger is Jesus. You will notice that the key verbs, “took, blessed, broke, gave,” in the Emmaus story’s climax were also used in the Last Supper’s Passover meal before Jesus’ execution (Mark 14:22)
That story is a parable about loving, that is, feeding, the stranger as yourself and finding Jesus still—or only?—fully present in that encounter. That was very clear to me decades ago and I summed up the ancient Christian intention and modern Christian meaning of that parable by saying that “Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.” That is, by the way, an introductory definition of a parable: a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.
All of that preceding section introduces the basic questions of this book. If there was at least one dark parable in the crucifixion details and one bright parable in the resurrection accounts, how many other parables were there as well? Is some, much, or most of that entire last week of Jesus—the Christian Holy Week—parable rather than history, or again, parabolic history or historical parable? You can see already that, while parables by Jesus invented both characters and stories about them—for example, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward—parables about Jesus presumed historical characters—for example, John and Jesus, Annas and Caiaphas, Antipas and Pilate—but invented stories about what they said and did.
Where does factual history end and fictional parable begin? Does that interaction of fact interpreted by fiction, of history interpreted by parable, of human event interpreted by divine vision, extend to the full content of a gospel? Could that be why we have only One Gospel given in multiple versions, in four “according-to”s as they are properly and correctly entitled: The Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John? Those are the generative questions that inspire the sequence of this book.
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