Notes on a Revolutionary Life: Part 4, Forsaken

This will be my last "note" on John Dominic Crossan's book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. My observations concern the chapter "The Dogs Beneath the Cross" where Crossan deals with the death and burial of Jesus.

This chapter is, perhaps, the most controversial chapter in the book. But I reacted to the chapter in a way that surprised me.

To cut to the chase, Crossan's argument is that after Jesus' arrest the disciples flee and abandon Jesus. The Synoptic gospels seem to support that claim. The implication of this, for Crossan, is that Jesus' disciples would have lost track of the body of Jesus before, during, and after the crucifixion. The gospels seem to support this conclusion. Specifically, and critically, the disciples don't bury Jesus. The reason for this is that the disciples had forsaken Jesus. This means that the body of Jesus, after his death, was likely handled by the Romans.

Because, Crossan asks, why would the Jews, those who wanted Jesus executed, worry about burying the body? So if the disciples didn't bury Jesus (because they were long gone) and if the Jews didn't bury Jesus then that leaves, well, the Romans. And we know from history that the Romans didn't bury the people they crucified. They left the bodies hanging to become food for carrion birds and wild dogs. And if the Romans had consented to bury the body of Jesus to honor the Jewish Sabbath laws, as the gospels suggested they did, the soldiers wouldn't have done a very good job of burying the body. Either way, abandoned on the cross or buried in a shallow grave, the dogs would have gotten to the body. And that, according to Crossan, is what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. The body of Jesus was forsaken by friend and enemy alike, ultimately claimed and consumed by the birds and the dogs. Here is Crossan on this point:

What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christin accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. But what was there at the beginning that necessitated such an intensive volume of apologetic insistence? If the Romans did not observe the Deuteronomic decree, Jesus' dead body would have been left on the cross for the wild beasts. And his followers, who had fled, would know that. If the Romans did observe the decree, the soldiers would have made certain that Jesus was dead and then buried him themselves as a part of their job. In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too.
...
[N]o amount of apologetics can conceal what their intensity only confirms. With regard to the body of Jesus, by Easter Sunday morning, those who cared did know where it was, and those who knew did not care.
The life of Jesus, then, ends with his body being eaten by wild dogs. As Crossan hints at the start of the chapter:
Remember those dogs. And if you seek the heart of darkness, follow the dogs.
Undoubtedly, this is a disturbing way to envision the end of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Particularly if you're a conservative or fundamentalist. But really this is nothing new. From the Enlightenment onward thinkers who respected Jesus of Nazareth enormously have denied the stories of Jesus' burial and resurrection. Thomas Jefferson famously took scissors and paste to the gospels, cutting out all references to the miraculous and supernatural. What Jefferson felt he had created with his scissors was a picture of the true, historical Jesus. The great moral teacher stripped of myth and religious mumbo jumbo. I have, in my office, a copy of The Jefferson Bible. I like to have people pick it up and read the last line of the bible. It reads:
There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
That's the end according to Jefferson. Jesus is buried. End of story. Everything after the burial, Easter Sunday and all that jazz, is just myth and superstition. For Thomas Jefferson the end of the life of Jesus is no different than the end of any human life. You die and are buried and that's the end.

The point is, thinkers, like some of our Founding Fathers, have been rejecting Easter for hundreds of years. So what Crossan is saying isn't radical or new.

Still, Crossan's picture is pretty bleak. Even Thomas Jefferson has Jesus buried in a tomb. Crossan has Jesus eaten by scavenger dogs. It's a dark and unsettling vision.

So let me describe what went on in my heart and mind when Crossan's picture settled over me...

Here's the image that floated in my mind. I saw a rocky, shallow grave. Dogs were digging at it. One of the dogs pulls something from the ground. It's a human arm. The dog pulls it free from the rocks and drags it off a distance. Away from the other dogs it sits to eat the flesh and gnaw at the bone. The arm and bone of Jesus of Nazareth.

And as this very disturbing image floated in my mind, conjured up by Crossan's book, I had the strangest emotional reaction. I was revolted, yes. But something in me said, "Of course. That is how the story is supposed to end."

Now before you totally freak out on me, let me explain. Intellectually, I don't know how you can reconcile Crossan's account with the biblical witness. I'm not suggesting that is possible. Nor am I suggesting that I think Crossan is right. What I'm saying is that the vision of the dogs emotionally resonated with me. Because it seemed like that ending with the dogs was the logical trajectory and endpoint of kenosis, of Jesus' descent to the very bottom of human existence.

Think of all the unnamed and unclaimed bodies that have died throughout human history. The Jew in the gas chamber. Her body incinerated and turned into the smoke above Auschwitz. There was no burial for that woman. No graveside service. No mourners. No memorial.

Think of the homeless person who freezes to death in the city park. He's nameless. No one claims his body at the city morgue. No one notices his passing. At the end, he is forsaken. Alone.

These images represent the low point of human existence. Past the torture or the terror there is a final act of abandonment, a nameless, unnoticed, and unmemorialized death. All those anonymous bodies throughout human history. Who wept for them? Who even noticed they were missing? Truly, they are the "least of these."

So it somehow seemed fitting, somewhere in my heart, that Jesus would be there. Because he's always there. It seemed logical to me that Jesus would, in the end, be found among the nameless ones. That Jesus would descend, scandalously so, to the very bottom. Where the scavenger dogs are found.

Of course, I have no idea how to reconcile this emotional feeling with the biblical witness. All I'm saying is that, yes, Crossan's picture disturbed me. And because it disturbed me it made sense to me. The horror, here, is the theology. Even if I can't make biblical sense of it all.

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2 thoughts on “Notes on a Revolutionary Life: Part 4, Forsaken”

  1. I have the impression that Crossan's own views may have shifted in recent years. the answer to his question is that the Jewish authorities showed great concern in this period to observe the law in the Torah requiring burial before sundown. Josephus mentions it, and we do not have evidence for a widespread Jewish objection to Romans regularly ignoring or flouting that law.

    The work of Raymond Brown, Byron McCane and others seems more on target than Crossan's on this particular point. Mark's Gospel, not read through the lens of improvements to Jesus' burial in later sources, seems to mean that Jesus was buried in "a tomb" (presumably a grave for criminals) without much honor. the references to "anointing beforehand" and an attempt at anointing after the fact also seem to point in this direction. An end that fits with Jesus' dishonorable execution, but also reflects what we know of Jewish concerns about burial.

  2. It is also more than possible that the act by which Jesus was conceived was a Horror... now this is a Living God I can believe in, who is ever present in every circumstance and whose Transforming Love cannot be contained

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