APRIL 7, 2003
A Jesus Sighting
Martin E. Marty
A policy statement from your Monday morning contributor to Sightings: we are not going to talk about religion-and-the-war every week. There is plenty to talk about, and we won't close our eyes and ears to it. Note: this is not opting out for commercial reasons; we are a freebie. CBS, in The Wall Street Journal (April 3), finds that war coverage has reached "a bit of a saturation point ... the audience is looking for something else." NBC "senses" that "there is a hunger for information about other things as well." OK.
For a sample of other things, how about dipping into The New York Review of Books, regarded by its critics as pervasively secular in outlook (though Sightings sights something of religious relevance in every issue). Certainly, such critics might think that when it does touch religion, it must ask its writers to be as skeptical as possible. Not so. Not so at all. So, one of the "other things" we'll sample this week is E. P. Sanders' review (April 10) of John Dominic Crossan's and Jonathan L. Reed's Excavating Jesus (Harper SanFrancisco).
Sanders, Art and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke and a highly respected scholar, pays respects to the work of the two authors, "Jesus Seminar" veterans, for their work in interpreting archeological remains and ancient texts. They reduce Jesus to someone who "favored free healing and free food" as part of his economic protest against Roman-Herodian commerce. He agrees that there is something to what they find and propose, but is not ready to go with Professor Crossan in seeing Jesus as "a Jewish Cynic" of a Greek philosophical school.
The point of Sanders' critique is to show that thought about "some other things" still goes on: he notes that "The principle difference between the Jesus of Crossan and Reed and the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the role of God." In those gospels, "the main character in Jesus' message is God, on whose behalf he speaks." The kingdom "is near at hand, God will bring it soon, and it will be God -- not his own little group -- who will make the last first and the first last."
Sanders wants to force readers who think Jesus is a good food distributor and economic reformer, a wise Cynic and a critic of Rome, to see that he is not so nice and easily followed or dismissed. There on the secular pages of the Review a secular Jesus shows up but Sanders counters the image: "the main character in Jesus' message is God." Those who choose to follow Jesus or to repudiate him can get their minds cleared from such articulations. So God is one of "the other things" that confronts publics and transcends "God Bless America" and CBS and NBC, and even FOX and CNN. And, of course, there is a war on, too.