a brief thought on John Dominic Crossan’s new book on the Bible and God’s violence

a brief thought on John Dominic Crossan’s new book on the Bible and God’s violence April 8, 2015

JDCA few weeks ago I read John Dominic Crossan’s new book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation, and I would have posted something sooner if I weren’t in the middle of end-of-semester crunch time.

Anyway, enough excuses. The book is thoughtful, energetic, and–that overused but appropriate word–provocative.

Crossan begins by observing, “The biblical God is, on the one hand, a God of nonviolent distributive justice and, on the other hand, a God of violent retributive justice.” (p. 18)

By “biblical God” he means both Testaments of the Christian Bible. By “distributive justice” he means nonviolent justice, God as just, righteous, fair, particularly to the poor, needy, orphaned, oppressed, etc., whereas retributive justice is violent (you know the drill: Flood, Canaanite extermination, taking captive foreign women).

So the operative distinction in the Bible is not so much between a bipolar violent and nonviolent God, but between these two types of justice. And the remainder of the book is more or less an argument that distributive justice is primary whereas retributive justice is secondary.

To put that another way, the Bible gives evidence of a struggle between these two types of justice. Distributive justice reflects the “radicality of God” and retributive justice–here is the big punchline of the book in my opinion–reflects “the standard coercive ways that cultures in fact operate . . . which I call the normalcy of civilization.” (p. 24)

To put that yet another way, distributive justice is God’s “yes,” his “affirmation,” his “assertion” for the world. Retributive justice is the “no,” “negation,” or “subversion” of the primary distributive voice as it is co-opted by the retributive normalcy of human civilizations.

As Crossan summarizes on p. 28,

. . . the heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilizations violent retributive justice. And, of course, the most profound annulment is that both assertion and subversion are attributed to the same God or the same Christ (emphasis original).

This is how Crossan explains the diverse portraits of God and Christ in the Bible when it comes to violence: the subversion of the distributively just God of the Bible by retributively violent God of human civilization.

That thesis may not get Crossan many invitations to speak at inerrantist schools or Answers in Genesis, but it makes for a very good read because it makes you think.

I think the following quote from p. 31 summarizes things nicely (emphasis original):

“If the Bible were all good-cop enthusiasm from God, we would have to treat it like textual unreality or utopian fantasy. If it were all about bad-cop vengeance from God, we would not need to justify, say, our last century. But it contains both the assertion of God’s, radical dream for our world and our world’s very successful attempt to replace the divine dream with a human nightmare.

The biblical problem is not, I emphasize, that the recipients of those divine challenges were evil, but that they were normal. The struggle is not between divine good and human evil but between, on the one hand God’s radical dream for an Earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its peoples and, on the other hand, civilization’s normal dream for me keeping mine, getting yours, and having more and more, forever. The tension is not between the Good Book and the bad world that is outside the book. It is between the Good Book and the bad world that are both within the book.”

For roughly half the book, Crossan supports his thesis by looking at large chunks of the Old Testament (creation, Deuteronomistic theology, prophecy, wisdom, psalms) before moving on to Jesus and Paul.

Those familiar with Crossan will likely not be surprised at the following (p. 35, emphasis original):

If, for Christians, the biblical Christ is the criterion of the biblical God, then, for Christians, the historical Jesus is the criterion of the biblical Christ.

In other words, the historical Jesus–the Jesus of academic research (whatever problems there might be in locating him), the Jesus before he was “normalized” by civilization and made to be purveyor of retributive justice (think the book of Revelation or the ending to parables like Matthew 13:36-43)–is the true Jesus that trumps the violent Jesus.

Likewise, Paul’s 7 authentic letters represent the radical Paul, the three disputed letters (2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians) reflect the beginning of a de-radicalizing process,while the 3 pseudo-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are in fully de-radicalized “reactionary” mode to Paul’s radical message.

One example Crossan uses is slavery: The message of Philemon is radically anti-slavery whereas Ephesians 6:5-9 speaks of obeying masters while Titus 2:9-10 speaks of full submission. Crossan sees similar movements concerning the role of women.

Personally, I wasn’t sure how well this idea works for Paul. But Crossan summary point is still intriguing: the radical Jesus and Paul are the climax of the Christian Bible, it’s “nonviolent center [that] judges the (non)sense of its violent ending.” (p. 35)

Like I said, I can predict that not a few people are going to be sorely displeased with Crossan. He will no doubt be accused of  “picking and choosing” and “arbitrarily” finding the nonviolent God he wants to see. But he nevertheless adds an angle for addressing a perennial problem in the Bible–and that problem is not simply one of a violent God but of a God whose diverse, even contradictory, descriptions continue to elude convenient and conventional explanations.

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  • On a similar point about dialogue between different conceptions of God, Doug Pagitt (in a recent Homebrewed Christianity podcast about his book ‘Flipped’) points out that in the Abraham (not) sacrificing Isaac story, Elohim requires the sacrifice, and Yahweh prevents it.
    Pagitt argues that this reveals the dialogue between the old tradition of a violent God, and the newer corrected revelation of Yahweh.

    Is that a fair interpretation?
    And are there other similar uses of different vocabularies in other Biblical episodes?


    • peteenns

      That is the common source-critical interpretation, where vv. 11-15 are the work of a later redactor who prevents Abraham from slaughtering Isaac and the rest is E. It does make interesting reading, skipping from v. 10 to 15, and the theory explains (in a manner consistent with the theory) the alternation between Elohim and YHWH. I am fairly certain Jon Levenson is not favorable to that analysis, but I can’t recall why.

      • Charlie Johnson

        I find it hard to believe that there was an earlier version of the story in which Abraham goes through with the sacrifice of Isaac. How would the story of Israel’s origins continue after that? Or are we to assume that at some point the Isaac story was just a self-contained block of oral tradition not intimately related to Israel’s genealogy?

    • Now that’s interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Daniel Merriman

    Take away the assertion that anyone can find the historical Jesus (and I’ll be generous and assume that if anyone can it is Crossan) apart from the Christ of faith, and what is left that is anything new or particularly Christian?

    • Andrew Dowling

      I highly recommend “The God of Jesus” by Crossan colleague Stephen J. Patterson . .I think he answers your question quite succinctly.

  • Gary

    I wonder why he put “still” in the title.

    • peteenns

      Probably suggests Christians struggling with the issue of violence to the point where their faith is threatened. He’s trying to help them.

      • Gary

        Then the still is more associated with trying to still be a Theistic Biblicist, not still trying to be a Christian. The question seems more one of center: Theistic Biblicism vs. Following Christ as Way. The problem of the “still” seems more the matter of trying to club to centers together.

  • Lars

    I’m trying to hang with this but it’s not easy. Is another way of putting this the idea that civilizations embrace both distributive and retributive justice, and not always in equal measure and at all times, and as a result, their view of God will reflect their own societal/tribal preferences?

    So in Indiana, for example, you will find a God that is ‘diverse, even contradictory,’ and descriptions of that God ‘continue to elude convenient and conventional explanations.’ In such a vacuum, it’s no wonder we all find the God we want to see. I’m just happy that our own society, for the moment anyway, seems to be trending towards a more distributive normalcy over the protests of the retributists (and the silence of God).

  • Two thoughts on this:

    First, what he says makes sense if we understand the Bible to be the work of many hands, redacted for a purpose but drawn from many sources. Harmonization would have been a challenge and the redactors did a remarkable job given their resources. Still, distinct voices and viewpoints are to be expected.

    Second, more theologically conservative Christians will see this as warmed-over Marcionism. Different, yes, but essentially the same idea. Two gods represented. One wrathful, the other merciful. Only, the dividing line does not run between the Testaments but through the text of the Bible itself.

    • peteenns

      If it runs through the testaments rather than between them, it’s not warmed over Marcionism. It may seem similar to M but it isn’t organically related. Also, Crossan isn’t suggesting different Gods are at work, or than one is “too Jewish.” He’s talking about how God is portrayed.

      • Gary

        Really? I’d think Crossan to be more nuanced than that. I’d think he more humbly admits an ontological blurriness between Gods and their portrayals. I’m not sure he’s working exclusively within the metaphysical presuppositions your wording seems to emphasize. This seems something even broader to be not organically related.

        • peteenns

          Gary, I assume you’re replying to Adam? Or if to me, explain. Not following.

          • Gary

            I think more both you and Adam. When I read Crossan (and a number of others) when they refer to “God” I don’t necessarily assume they’re referring to an ontologically distinct being outside the conception and “portrayals” of it.

        • What I understand of his view from this review is minimal. Clearly I’ll need to add the book to my queue. In any case, I remain impressed, as always, with the amount of harmonization the redactors managed to accomplish. Neither a cacophony nor a symphony, but a durable text to unify a nation in and out of exile.

      • My point on Marcionism related more to conservative evangelical perception. Additonally, I should perhaps have said modified or pseudo-Marcionism. I also didn’t say anything about one being ‘too Jewish,’ and while I assume that is a reference to Marcion, I want to make it clear that wasn’t my thought.

      • “He’s talking about how God is portrayed”

        Is there ever any possibility of clarity on what portrayal is, then, more accurate than the rest — and I know Crossan points to Jesus (the historical man), but even that is blurry.

        Sure, it’s probably impossible to draw a clear, definite line, but at what point does talk about God turn into nonsense due to elusiveness?

        • Andrew Dowling

          We (human beings) need to make the choice about what portrayal reflects God. The Bible won’t do that for us, although I’d strongly argue, if Jesus’s ministry is the center of one’s faith, the nonviolent distributive justice vision is much more on point.

  • I love a good book that shakes up existing categories, whether I end up agreeing with it or not. Thank God for theologians who are still thinking, theorizing, and exploring new hypotheses.

    Does Crossan deal with the apocalyptism of the Gospels? Jesus is not portrayed as a purveyor of divine wrath, but he certainly seems to be a prophet warning to flee from the wrath to come.

  • All in all I thought it was a pretty good book — I appreciate how Crossan alerts us to the tension in the text between the “radicality of God” and the “normalcy of civization.” Nevertheless as a pastor I probably won’t recommend it to the average layperson. Not that it’s difficult reading, it’s just that in the end it may not be that helpful. (I’ve enthusiastically recommended “The Bible Tells Me So” and Derek Flood’s “Disarming Scripture” to my congregation.) My only real criticism of the book was how Crossan dismisses Revelation as a capitulation to the normalcy of civilization. I read Revelation as a daring and radical critique of the normalcy of civilization; i.e. the Roman Empire.

    • peteenns

      I also read Revelation as counter-Empire (Rome), though the blood for 200 miles as high as a horse’s bridal (ch. 14) makes me wonder whether this is God’s way of handling things (even accepting the rhetoric of apocalyptic lit.).

      • Lars

        Pete, you forgot the smiley face! Or were you serious about “God’s way” of handling unbelievers in general? I really wish He hadn’t made that promise to Noah way back when because a flood would be much more humane way to handle things (assuming the handling is required to be dramatic and showy).

  • Thank you! I look forward to reading this book. While I disagree with Crossan on much, he is a fantastic scholar, and I always come away from his writing challenged to think.

  • James

    Yes, we can discern an awesome “radicality” (mainly grace incarnate) in many portrayals of God including his “dream for our world.” But the “radical dream” is woven nearly seamlessly with “the normalcy of civilization” that often tends toward “a human nightmare.” We need to view the whole from great heights without losing touch with (and the smell of) the soil beneath our feet. Let’s call Crossan’s work an intriguing study in divine-human authorship.

  • newenglandsun

    My issue is with Crossan’s usage of human terms to describe God’s justice such as distributive justice and retributive justice. Aslan is not a tame lion and when we pigeon-hole God into human categories we make him into a tame lion. I prefer St. Isaac of Nineveh on this issue:

    “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change [re: the state after death, as St. Isaac mentions below].” (Homily 51)

    Recent edit: “restorative” should have been “retributive”. This may have been misleading.

    • peteenns

      Uh…the Bible uses human words to describe God’s justice. In Hebrew and Greek no less.

      • newenglandsun

        CCC, Part 1, Section 1
        “IV. How Can We Speak about God?
        39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.
        40 Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.
        41 All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. the manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures” perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”.
        42 God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, imagebound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God –“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”– with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
        43 Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity. Likewise, we must recall that “between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude”; and that “concerning God, we cannot grasp what he is, but only what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.””

        I’m not Catholic but I find the Catechism very helpful at times. Especially on this issue. What I take issue with is grasping these human terms used to describe God and assuming these are literal descriptions rather than humans wrestling to describe something transcendent that is ultimately beyond human description. Philosophers of religion and students of mystical theology call it “apophatic theology”. Hope that clarifies what I meant.

    • “My issue is with Crossan’s usage of human terms to describe God’s justice such as distributive justice and restorative justice.”

      There’s something vaguely gnostic to Crossan’s description as well, the good ‘Distributive’ God who conforms to Crossan’s leftist ideology and the bad ‘Retributive’ God who can’t be pushed into Crossan’s politicized worldview no matter how hard he tries.

      It’s all extremely tendentious but, then again, it is Crossan.

      • newenglandsun

        Did I write “restorative”? Diet SNAPPLE! I meant to write retributive…shoot.

        Any way, I hesitate to declare this idea of Crossan’s Gnostic for two primary reasons:
        1. Most of our sources for what Gnostics believe come from the attacks of church fathers and may or may not accurately represent the Gnostics (we have no way of knowing for certain). Gnosticism seems to be more of an intellectual movement in its basic forms as opposed to a “Old Testament bad god” vs. “New Testament good god” and is probably far more nuanced than this simple assertion.
        2. Crossan isn’t necessarily playing the classic Manichean card here asserting that the OT God is evil and the NT God is good though I can see why some commenters here have thought that.
        3. I’m failing to see an inherently “politicized” view that Crossan is deriving at here. I think that might be reading too much into Crossan. I want to just stay focused on Crossan’s overall position here rather than just throw blanket statements at him.

  • EqualTime

    Occam’s Razor might be applied to suggest that the violence and peace contained within the Old and New Testaments might more simply be explained by the evolution of human compassion from the days of “eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek”.

  • Appleby

    Doesn’t Crosson believe Jesus, if he even existed, died on the cross and was “most likely eaten by scavengers”, and not put in a tomb?

    So, he says he is a Christian but doesn’t believe in the resurrection, the nature miracles, or even if Jesus actually lived.


    • Andrew Dowling

      Not relevant to this discussion, although Crossan has never doubted whether Jesus existed and he affirms the Resurrection although not a literal bodily one. I suggest you read his work rather than relying on the critiques of others with an agenda.

      • newenglandsun

        I don’t think that Appleby is accusing Crossan about having doubts about the resurrection. And I think by resurrection he is meaning a literal, bodily resurrection as has been traditionally believed and defended by the historic Church.

    • newenglandsun

      Heresy is not a rejection of truth. It is an overemphasis on a certain aspect of truth. As such, someone who is techincally a heretic, schismatic, etc., is not necessarily void of all aspects of truth. Humans, being created in the image of God, naturally reflect truth even if they attempt to suppress it.

  • Eric Schramm

    Read the article several times.
    Still don’t understand it.
    Could someone summarize in English? Is this about the difference between the loving, forgiving aspects of God and his punishing ones? If so, doesn’t this just boil down to “God is a well-rounded individual. Part retribution, part forgiving, whenever it’s best”?

    • I’ll not try a “translation” but my sense is that Crossan refers to how biblical writers variously represented God, relatively balancing the “side” of God which lures toward love and fairness with the “side” which seeks to bring justice by punishing wrong-doers (actually a more human than divine trait… we have trouble not letting our emotions carry us away and then project that onto God).

  • Without Malice

    Trying to choose between the God of the OT and the God of the new is like choosing between having cancer or smallpox. I an do without either. But if I really, really had to choose I’d choose the God of the OT. At least you knew where you stood with him while the teachings of the NT are so vague and contradictory that men have been butchering one another over them for 2,000 years. Not only that but you have to swallow the illogical proposition that a flesh and blood man walking around the dusty hills of Judea, talking In riddles so men can’t understand and be saved – or so he said, cursing fig trees, doing magic tricks, pissing on the ground and taking a dump behind a tree is actually the God that created the universe. Sorry, can’t buy that, too many passages in the good book about how one’s supposed to worship the creator, not some flesh and blood creature.

  • Great stuff! Both by Crossan and by you in summary. Sounds like I MUST get the book. Have liked others of his such as “God and Empire”.

    How he seems to explain the seeming contradictions in God’s nature is the most reasonable and sensible-sounding I’ve heard yet. Thanks for the review!