Who Killed Jesus?:
Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus

John Dominic Crossan

HarperCollins 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
Who Killed Jesus? is a study of the gospel accounts of the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It is both a popularisation of Crossan's earlier work The Cross That Spoke and a response to Raymond Brown's The Death of the Messiah. As motivation, Crossan argues that the anti-Jewish core of the passion narrative and its use in subsequent history make careful study of its historicity more than just an academic exercise. (He doesn't mention that the faith of many conservative Christians depends on the historicity of the passion narrative — but then perhaps he doesn't expect them to be reading his book.)

Crossan begins by briefly describing the sources involved and his understanding of their relationship to one another. He also explains the key issues where he differs from Brown and the central points of his reconstruction: the gospel narratives are largely "prophecy historicized" rather than "history remembered"; they have only one independent source; and that source is a Cross Gospel used by Mark (and the other canonical gospels, who also used Mark) and still discernible in the Gospel of Peter. Methodologically Crossan calls for "consistently contextual" interpretation rather than "fundamental" or "selectively contextual" interpretation. In a massively condensed version of his earlier work The Historical Jesus, Crossan describes the "the scene of the crime" and the background of Jesus' teachings. He then goes through the different versions of the passion narrative in detail — arrest, trial, abuse, execution, burial, and resurrection (which Brown does not tackle).

The gist of his reconstruction is as follows: Jesus was seized and executed as a result of overt action against the Temple. His betrayal by Judas and the flight of his followers are probably historical, but there was no trial before Pilate or Herod and none of Jesus' followers witnessed his death; his body was most likely eaten by the dogs and crows. In an attempt to come to terms with this, a "passion prophecy" was constructed from scriptural models: the story of the trial was derived from Psalm 2; the details of Jesus' abuse from prophecies in Isaiah and Zechariah and a scapegoat ritual; the (hopeful) idea of his burial by enemies from Deuteronomy 21:22-23; and the resurrection from stories of "innocence vindicated".

This passion prophecy was the basis for a more accessible narrative and it is this that survives, modified to varying degrees, in the gospel accounts we have. Burial by enemies turned into progressively fancier accounts of burial by friends; concerns of the early Christian communities (in particular questions of authority) were written backwards into different burial and resurrection accounts. Most notably, early anti-Jewish sentiment produced the "innocent blood" story and the stress on Jewish guilt and Roman innocence. (Crossan calls this "the longest lie" and argues that, however understandable its original construction, subsequent history makes its renunciation by Christians essential: it is not enough to do as Brown does and describe these components of the passion narrative as "not implausible", "not unlikely", and "not totally lacking in verisimilitude".)

Crossan's reconstruction is complex (some will say contrived) and the extent to which this is offset by its explanatory power is debatable. The real question, however, is its relative plausibility compared to alternatives. Conservative Christians who are prepared to face historical reconstruction and to question the core of their belief will find in Who Killed Jesus? a succinct and direct presentation of an alternative to a literalist reading of the gospels. Crossan's conclusions about the anti-Semitic components of the Christian gospels will be important to some. Such high stakes may not be involved for others, but the role of the passion narrative in Western art and history should make its historical foundations of more than passing interest even to non-Christians and Christians whose faith is independent of particular historical events.

May 1996

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- books by John Dominic Crossan
- books about Christianity + Christian history
%T Who Killed Jesus?
%S Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus
%A Crossan, John Dominic
%I HarperCollins
%D 1995
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0060616717
%P xii,238pp