Busted: John Dominic Crossan

Why The First Christmas is not like any Nativity story you've ever heard before

BH: So the census is a nifty literary device. What does Luke get out of it?

JDC: Well, apart from showing off a little bit of historical knowledge, which Luke likes to do, it really locates Jesus in the imperial world of his time. It’s like, well, Caesar Augustus is running the world, so before we even get to this story of Jesus, I’m going to mention him. Then when I refer to the titles “Lord,” and “savior” and “bringer of peace,” the audience couldn’t possibly miss my point that Jesus, not Augustus, is the true Son of God. There were easier ways Luke could have gotten Jesus to Bethlehem without going into all that history, and gotten it so wrong.

BH: So Luke’s reference to a census dramatizes that Jesus was born under Roman rule and Roman bureaucracy, the point of which was to optimize Roman taxation.

JDC: Exactly. And I think Luke likes the irony that Jesus, the Messiah, winds up born in Bethlehem, the city of David, specifically because Augustus’ census sends him there.

BH: Matthew and Luke give different genealogies for Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus descends from David through Solomon—a king—and Luke traces Jesus from David through Nathan—a prophet. Why is that significant?

JDC: The difference demonstrates that Matthew and Luke are doing something other than giving historical, genetic information. And the people who put these two stories together in the New Testament were utterly aware of that. As you just said, Matthew and Luke don’t even agree on who Jesus’ grandfather was—they give different names for Joseph’s father. And only in the post-Enlightenment world is this an issue: “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about. These genealogies are filled with ridiculous mistakes.”

The purpose of an ancient genealogy was to establish the person’s pedigree. The genealogies of Jesus are totally artificial and parabolic, just as was Augustus’ claim that he was descended from exiles who fled the Trojan war and settled in Italy to found the Julian line. This claim gives Augustus a 1,000-year-old pedigree. But both Matthew and Luke do him one better. They give Jesus a pedigree that goes back, according to their understanding of time, almost 2,000 years. And Luke traces Jesus back to Adam, who was born of God without a woman, which goes back, say, 4,000 years in their categorization. So to people who believe Augustus is a big deal, that says, “gotcha!”

BH: The issue of divine conception and virgin births throughout antiquity—from the Hebrew Scriptures through Roman history and up to Jesus and Mary—is complicated. But as you and Marcus Borg note, the heart of the matter is the theology and destiny of the child, rather than the biology of the mother.

JDC: In the Jewish tradition, the predestined child was known to be predestined because it was usually born to aged and infertile parents. That’s a very public miracle, if you will, because if two 90-year-olds could produce a child, and at least the doctor and nurses see it happening, then you can’t argue that’s not a miracle. And it’s actually a safer miracle to claim than a virgin birth—for which you can only take the mother’s word. On the other hand, in the Greco-Roman tradition, divine conception is always the result of divine intercourse—either a human male impregnating a goddess, or a god impregnating a human female.

Now, the New Testament refers to a virginal conception—and I use that term very carefully, rather than virgin birth, which we very often use as a shorthand. There’s no reference in the New Testament to a “virgin birth.” That’s a Roman Catholic doctrine, for which the analogy is, as Thomas Aquinas said, “like light coming through glass.” Biologically, that means Jesus was born without breaking the hymen of Mary. Nor does virginal conception have anything to do with immaculate conception, which is a Roman Catholic doctrine saying that Mary was born without original sin. Any time the media equates virginal conception with immaculate conception, they’re making a bad mistake, because it suggests that sex is a stain of some sort.

The New Testament claims that Jesus was not conceived by any form of intercourse, human or divine. And the only way you could read that in the ancient world, where people believed that wonderful things could happen, is, “Wow, this kid is really unique. He’s more special than Augustus, whose mother was impregnated by Apollo!”

BH: Why was virginal conception a bigger deal than divine conception?

JDC: Because you’re dealing with the Jewish God who created the world by command, “Let it be,” and not by getting down there and working. And this is what God did with Mary, who said, “Let it be done unto me according to thy Word.” In a way, virginal conception is a one-upmanship over any divine or predestined child that either the Jewish or Greco-Roman traditions had ever known.

BH: Because it puts the birth of Jesus on par with the creation of the world…

JDC: It really does. So the theology of Jesus’ birth is profound. Now, some would ask, “Do you think people back then took that claim literally?” To which I’d say, I don’t have a clue, because in a pre-Enlightenment world, when it was really believed by everyone that extraordinary things could happen, I think people were able to walk carefully between what you and I want to know is literal or metaphorical, parabolic or historical.

BH: You and Marcus Borg characterize the concern over factuality as distinctly modern. So this literalist insistence that if the Bible isn’t factual, then it isn’t true—the ancients never thought in those terms.

JDC: No, they didn’t. But then some people would say, “You mean they didn’t really know the difference between facts and parables?” Well, of course they did. I doubt that if the ancients read Aesop’s fables, they’d think that animals could literally speak to each other. But if you told them about the smart little mouse that outwitted the big bear—I think they’d understand the message.

BH: Yeah, nowhere in the gospels does anyone stop Jesus mid-parable and question whether a farmer really planted a fig tree that bore no fruit, or what the farmer’s name was, or where he lived.

JDC: I think some people get hung up on questions of factuality because it saves them from addressing the real question, which is “What does the story mean?” Say Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and suddenly everyone in the crowd starts arguing, “Hey, did that really happen?” And someone says, “Sure, I’ve traveled that road lots of times, and it’s really dangerous, and I’ve seen a donkey and an inn down there.” If the argument stays there, it has carefully avoided the part where Jesus says, “OK, now go forth and do likewise.” What does that mean—that if I find my enemy in a ditch, I’m supposed to go and help him?

And as far as factuality is concerned, let’s not forget: Matthew and Luke don’t provide any historical data except for a few obvious facts—that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Herod actually existed. Now, let’s get over that and say, if you have no other data, and you have to make up these stories, why did you make them up this way? And that’s a real question, because if a story is all about data, then it’s just providing facts. But if you’re making the story up, then the issue becomes why—what’s the story’s purpose?

“But the more serious issue is that every Christmas we put up our trees and get out our ornaments and trot out tidings of peace on Earth. Then, after a week or so, we take down our trees and put away our ornaments, and peace on Earth goes back into storage until the following year.”

BH: You distinguish the ancients’ “taken-for-granted literalism” from today’s “conscious literalism.” It’s interesting to think that today’s literalists are really a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, especially when they consider themselves such kindred spirits with Jesus’ actual followers.

JDC: It’s kind of sad. I was arguing with [Bishop N.T.] Wright once, and he said, “You’re just post-Enlightenment.” And I said that it’s really not about being post-Enlightenment, which of course I am. It’s about the fact that I am aware that I am reading pre-Enlightenment people. And when I am reading pre-Enlightenment people, I have to remind myself that they accepted that a child could be born of a god and a human mother. Therefore, when I read a story about such a child, I have to ask, what is the claim being made for this child? What’s his curriculum vitae? What does his resume say? The god Asclepius invented healing—that’s important. Dionysius invented wine. OK, I can see why they both got divinized. Nobody gets divinized for nothing. You could say you don’t think Asclepius was divine, but in the ancient world what you meant by that was that you don’t really think healing is important. Or you could say, I think beer is more important than wine, so I don’t think Dionysius was really divine.

BH: Last year’s film “The Nativity Story” wasn’t a big hit with the critics. One reviewer called it “stillborn,” and another noted that even the nuns at the screening were “shifting uncomfortably in their wimples.” Did you see it?

JDC: I didn’t see it. I mean, I really couldn’t watch it. It would be terribly hard to pull off a film about Jesus’ birth, because what would there be to see? The tendency in Hollywood would be to go with Matthew’s account because at least there you have the slaughter of the innocents, which you might get some mileage out of. But how can you dramatize a parable like that without making an audience giggle?

BH: Or fall asleep. Maybe that’s why Mel Gibson just went straight to the end of the story.

JDC: And it’s not that Gibson just went straight to the end of the story. He went right to the most brutal part of the end of the story. He didn’t even cover the final week in the life of Jesus, which Marcus and I examined in our book, The Last Week. Now, you really could make a great movie based on our book because it raises the whole question of whether the authorities are going to be able to get Jesus away from the crowd. As long as the crowd is Jesus’ protective screen, they can’t get him without causing a riot. Even though we know how it’s going to end, you really could make a story out of it—one that takes Mark’s account seriously. Here, Jesus goes up to the temple to make a double protestation, and he’s protected by his crowd. And the question the authorities ask is, “Can we get him?”

BH: For years, Paul Verhoeven, who directed films like “Robo Cop,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Showgirls,” was a member of the Jesus Seminar, and he was researching a film he wanted to make about the historical Jesus. Have you heard anything more about that project?

JDC: Verhoeven and I haven’t been in touch for a while, and I don’t know anything more about the film, or whether he’s even still working on it. I understand he just made another movie in Holland that’s set during the war, so he may even be living back in the Netherlands now. I don’t know.

BH: When I asked you about Verhoeven’s Jesus film last year, you mentioned you were surprised to finally learn the direction he wanted to take it.

JDC: Yeah. Basically his whole idea was that Jesus had his conflict at the temple early in his ministry, not at the end, and for the rest of the story he’s running from the authorities, like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.

BH: So he envisioned a thriller, an action film.

JDC: I think so—a pursuit movie in which Jesus is the odd man out. Verhoeven once told me that Jesus preached “Blessed are the poor” because he himself was poor, and he was poor because he was on the run. But I suggested to him that a great movie could be made by simply using the Rashomon effect with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, collapsing their four visions and having them interplay with each other. And Verhoeven wrote back saying that, yeah, that’d be very interesting.

BH: By “Rashomon,” you mean the 1950s Kurosawa film?

JDC: Yes. In the film, Kurosawa tells the story about a Japanese samurai and his wife who travel through a forest, where he gets killed and she gets raped. And it’s told in flashbacks from the points of view of four witnesses: the wife; a bandit; the dead samurai, who tells his side through a medium; and a peasant who was hiding in a bush. The film is so subtly done that at first you think the four versions form a single, coherent story, but eventually you realize you’re getting four different interwoven accounts.

BH: Did the similarities between this film and the four gospels strike you immediately?

JDC: No. I first saw the film at an art house when I was a student in Dublin in 1958, and it was only years and years later that I saw the connection.

BH: Do you plan to attend mass this Christmas?

JDC: My wife and I will spend Christmas with her grandchildren this year, and Aubrey, who’s now 11, asked me if we’d go to mass with her this Christmas and I said, “Of course.” Whatever 11-year-old grandchildren ask for, they get.

BH: What does the Christmas story mean for you today?

JDC: Lately, both liberals and conservatives have been saying that America is the new Roman Empire. Liberals have been saying it as a gibe, and conservatives have been proclaiming it quite proudly. This underlines for me the permanent challenge of Christmas, and makes it particularly acute at the moment. If you are a Christian, and the old Roman Empire crucified your Lord, well, what does it feel like to live in the new Roman Empire? And what can you do about it?

When I wrote about the Roman Empire when I first began my work, I was not drawing parallels at all to the American Empire. It was only in the 1990s that I began to wonder if perhaps globalization might be a sophisticated, postmodern form of Roman imperialization. And then I was appalled when people like pundit Charles Krauthammer came out of the closest gloating, “We’re an Empire!” I thought, “OK, it’s not just a liberal gibe. It’s a destiny.”

Then two things occurred to me. First, I don’t think we’re as good as the Roman Empire. By that I don’t mean we’re more brutal, but rather that we’re not as dedicated and efficient as the Roman Empire was. Our best and our brightest from Harvard and Yale are not lining up to go serve in our colonies. Who wants to serve in Afghanistan? It’s relatively easy to conquer an empire; the hard part is to run one. You can’t run an empire without the will to do it right.

But the more serious issue is that every Christmas we put up our trees and get out our ornaments and trot out tidings of peace on Earth. Then, after a week or so, we take down our trees and put away our ornaments, and peace on Earth goes back into storage until the following year. And it seems that the escalatory violence that is such a part of our normalcy is endangering the human species and our world more and more. So what appeared in the sky above Bethlehem that first Christmas 2,000 years ago was an early, distant warning that said, you can never achieve peace on Earth through victory—only through justice. For me, that’s the enduring message of the Christmas story.