The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere.

Crossan’s main argument

Very briefly, I would summarize his main argument in this way: The Bible’s teaching can be understood as combining (and not harmonizing) two distinct views of justice—retributive and distributive. These two views stand in deep tension with one another. The presence of them both leads to the Bible’s internal contradictions between a violent, punitively judgmental God and a merciful, healing God. The Bible itself does not resolve this tension—in fact, the final book of the Bible (Revelation) is perhaps the most retributive book in the entire canon. However, Christians today can and must resolve the tension in their own lives. We may do so, Crossan argues, by centering our reading strategy on the life and teaching of the historical Jesus.

Jesus as he truly was gives us clarity about the way God truly is—characterized by distributive justice and ultimately a healing and not punitive God. Now, this understanding of Jesus requires some careful discernment since the gospel writers at times may smuggle in some retributive thinking into how they tell the story. But for Crossan, the historical Jesus, the Jesus that we may discern behind the gospels, rejected the retributive view of God that is present in much of the Old Testament and certainly was characteristic of many of his contemporaries.

I find this argument helpful. I certainly agree that Jesus provides us with the clarity we need for unshakeable convictions about nonviolence—and the warrant we need to reject the pro-violence materials in the Bible as in any way normative for Christian ethics. However, there are a couple of problems I have with Crossan’s approach that I’d like to reflect on.

First, I think that “restorative” works better than “distributive” as the alternative to “retributive” justice. And, second, I think it is better to read the Bible as having a more coherent, pro-peace message than Crossan does. I am bothered by his dialectal reading, especially by how this reading requires an understanding of the book of Revelation that I believe is unhelpful and inaccurate.

The alternative to “retributive” justice?

I am pretty attracted to Crossan’s analysis about the two kinds of justice, especially his characterization and critique of “retributive justice.” I would tend to read some of the texts he cites with a little more nuance, but I agree that there are two different kinds of voices in the Bible and that we must reject any tendency to let the retributive voice override the peaceable voice.

However, I am uncomfortable with his use of “distributive” as his alternative notion of justice in the Bible. I do agree that the vision for life among the Hebrew people reflected in the teaching of Torah, had at its center a commitment to the appropriate distribution of the materials necessary for a good life to all the people in the community. But underlying this vision was a notion of justice as wholeness, as healthy relationships—what I would call the grounding for “restorative” justice.

So, we do have a sense of “distributive” justice in the biblical ideal. But what about when there is injustice and oppression, when the vulnerable are exploited and left out? Or, when there are other incidents of injustice and brokenness? Crossan suggests, “retributive justice is secondary and derivative” in relation to “distributive” justice and “comes in only when that idea is violated” (pp. 17-18). However, I think what actually happens is that when there is violation, the community faces choices about how to respond—one approach is more punitive and retributive, the other is more reconciliatory and restorative.

The roots to the latter approach, though, are found in the vision for the community. The deepest sense of community is not based on equality and fairness, but on a relational ideal. God’s agenda, according to the Bible, in creating this people is wholeness in relationships between people and other people, people and the natural world, and people and God. The hope when there is brokenness is that these relationships might be restored. Punishment as an end in itself (the motivation with retributive justice) does not lead to restored relationships. Hence, as Crossan rightly states, “there are no divine punishments” (p. 244).

In recent years, “restorative” justice has emerged as a strategy for dealing with brokenness that provides an alternative to retributive dynamics. To some degree, this movement has theological roots based on a reading of the Bible that highlights the notion of justice as being concerned with setting right damaged relationships. To think of the Bible’s core notion of justice as “restorative” rather than “distributive” can help link contemporary concerns with the concerns of the people of the Bible—and ground them in a relational context (as I have written about elsewhere).

Revelation as the culmination of the Bible’s peaceable story

Crossan uses an image of two distinct trains that symbolize the Bible’s two notions of justice. This image requires a dialectal reading of the Bible, where we have these two relatively equal impulses interacting with each other throughout—and never resolved. So in the Old Testament we do have the original vision of distributive justice, but it is joined by the strong sense of punitive, retributive justice that is attributed to God in many places. And both, according to Crossan, are present in the New Testament as well—Jesus embodying one, the book of Revelation the other.

Recognizing that we need some sense of resolution of this dialectic if we are to live lives committed to breaking the spiral of violence, Crossan advocates making central a reconstruction of the actual message of the historical Jesus who guides us on how to read the Bible in a way that helps us find a clarity that will empower peaceable living.

Along with the polarity between the two kinds of justice, Crossan also suggests we recognize a polarity between two kinds of power, what he calls “nonviolent power” and “violent power.” He sees what he calls the “Normalcy of Civilization” as being present when retributive justice and violent power are combined. It’s opposite is the “Radicality of God,” where distributive justice and nonviolent power are combined.

This analysis is helpful (especially if we substitute “restorative” for “distributive” justice. However, I don’t agree with Crossan’s reading of the Bible as leaving us with an unresolved dialectic among these options. I think the Bible actually does give us a more coherent picture on the side of the “Radicality of God” if we read it as a whole. We may do this in part because the New Testament does provide a lens with which we may read the Old Testament in line with nonviolent power and restorative justice. That is, I think Crossan fundamentally misreads Revelation and hence projects his dialectic too deeply into that part of the Bible.

I have argued in my lengthy writings about Revelation that it does present us with a sense of God’s power as nonviolent power and God’s justice as restorative justice. I will sketch very briefly some of my main reasons for saying this.

Revelation begins with a statement that what follows is “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) and makes clear that this is the gospel’s Jesus Christ when it describes him in 1:5 as the “faithful witness” (who lived a life of resistance to the Powers that be that led to his martyrdom), the “first born of the dead” (who had this life vindicated through resurrection), and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (the ultimate “conqueror” whose politics of healing will rule the world).

The key moment in the book comes in chapter 5 when we are told of a great scroll that contains the message of the victory of God. However, initially, no one can be found to open this scroll. Then the one who can open the scroll is found—the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” who turns out to be a Lamb, slain and standing (5:6). This Lamb, the Jesus who Revelation reveals, has already won the victory and is worshiped as worthy. The only victory needed in Revelation is won not through the power of violence but through the power of persevering love, embodied in the faithful witness of Jesus.

The sufficiency of this victory is stated in 12:11 (the “comrades … have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”). Then the victory is envisioned in 19:11-21, where Jesus rides forth victorious, with his rob already “dipped in blood” (the blood of his faithful witness) before his encounter with the Powers of evil, who he simply captures and throws into the lake of fire—no “Battle of Armageddon” needed. The outcome of the conquering efforts of the Lamb is the destruction of the Powers of evil and the healing of the nations and their kings who had formerly aligned themselves with the Powers. And the means of the conquering was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love joined with the self-sacrificial love of his followers.

Though Revelation is often read as portraying God as directly intervening with punitive violence toward rebellious human beings, the actual text presents God as directly active only in the witness of the Lamb and his followers. And the message of the book challenges its readers to join this witness. Jesus’s followers are to be active in the conquering work. But this call to action is not a call to be warriors doing battle in inter-human warfare where they shed the blood of their enemies. Rather, the call to action is a call to follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).

Contra Crossan

This message of Revelation, a message of the transforming power of Jesus’s faithful witness to the ways of persevering love, is about the opposite of how Crossan reads Revelation. Crossan reads the violent imagery in Revelation quite literally and seems to miss entirely the way Revelation’s symbolism works. He writes: “Revelation’s promise of a bloodthirsty God and a blood-drenched Christ represents for me the creation of a second ‘coming’ to negate the first and only ‘coming’ of Christ; the fabrication of violent apocalypse to deny nonviolent incarnation; and the invention of Christ on a warhorse to erase the historical Jesus on a peace donkey. Jesus’s nonviolent resistance to evil is replaced by Christ’s violent slaughter of evildoers” (How to Read the Bible, p. 181).

Crossan needs a retributive Revelation to sustain how he imposes his unresolved dialectic on the Bible. While his method of resolving the dialectic with the scholarly recovery of the historical Jesus as our contemporary ethical norm does indeed lead him to a strong affirmation of the path of nonviolence, I think he greatly weakens the Bible’s own peaceable message.

I think the dialectic between retributive and restorative justice is resolved within the Bible itself. And the way the Bible resolves it helps us to find a powerful peace witness in the final, canonical text read as a whole—not in an extra-biblical scholarly construct. Jesus himself brings together the message of Torah, the prophetic witness to that message, and his own embodied shalom that resisted empire (and the retributive dynamics that slipped into the biblical text) and incarnated in history transformative compassion and healing. And this embodied shalom actually is what is revealed in the book of Revelation—a wonderful coda to the Bible’s coherent message about God’s healing strategy.

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4 thoughts on “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

  1. It seems that your analysis and approach to the book of Revelation is to effectively deny that the major theme and motif of the book is judgement. Sure, the message of the book is a call to faithfulness to the non-violent testimony of the Christ, but it is no less the promise of the vindication of the blood of the martyrs by the judgement upon and fall of the Great City, where the Lord was crucified, and which was the haunt of unclean spirits and in whom was found the blood of the prophets, apostles and saints via a series of plagues.

    The book itself opens by stating clearly that the events being predicted and narrated MUST soon take place, and that the time was near. (1:1-3) If you want to describe the book as canonical, you should accept that describes a judgement to fall upon the Great City in the First Century. The Powers that the book predicts will fall are not Rome, it is the synagogue of Satan, those who say they are Jews but are not.

    The book soon tells us what it is about:
    Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the land will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. (1:7)

    The book is about the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, namely Zechariah 12:10-14, which predicted that the tribes of Israel would mourn for him whom they had pierced.

    Christ promised that this prophecy would be fulfilled immediately after the tribulation, at the desolation of Jerusalem in his generation (Mat 24:29-34). If we regard Matthew as canonical also, and Christ’s words as authoritative, why would we not identify the events of Revelation, and those of the Olivet Discourse as the same complex of events and judgements at the same generation and geographical location?

    Christ said that this complex of events would fulfil prophecy:
    “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.(Luke 21:20-24)

    The judgement of Revelation is the judgement of prophecy fulfillment and of ‘wrath against this people’ i.e. the people of Israel, when they would fall by the edge of the sword in fulfillment of Is. 3:25. This falling by the edge of the sword was NOT metaphorical, it would be a bloodbath (Luke 19:41-44).

    The book of Revelation is about the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, in fulfillment of Daniel 7:13-14, as quoted in Rev. 1:7. This is a judgement coming against the Fourth Kingdom, and against the little horn that is persecuting the saints. Christ quoted the same prophecy and said it would be fulfilled against the Sanhedrin who condemned him, he said that THEY would see him so coming, i.e. it was against THEM (Mat. 26:64).

    Christ said that this coming in judgement he would complete during his generation, before the Apostles had completed the mission to the towns of Israel (Mat 10:23) and before some standing before him had died (Mat 16:27-28), and in his generation (Mat 24:29-34). The target of his judgement coming was the persecuting power: the Sanhedrin who condemned him, and those who would hand them over to be flogged in their synagogues. The little horn was apparently very Jewish.

    Daniel has two parallel prophecies, the statue destroyed by the stone in chapter 2 and the four beasts in chapter 7. So the destruction of the statue by the stone is equal to the destruction of the little horn and the Fourth Beast which is the Fourth Kingdom. Christ identified that Fourth Kingdom to be destroyed as the Jewish leaders of his generation in Mat 21:33-45. In fact Matthew explains that the parables (plural) were about those leaders and their kingdom (Mat. 21:45). Obviously, the parables of Christ were mostly about the judgement. The judgement of Revelation is the same as the judgement we find in the parables of Christ.

    As we go through the rest of the book of Revelation, we see a series of judgements and plagues, resulting in the fall of the prostitute and the Great City Babylon. Babylon falls when judged for her guilt of killing the prophets, the saints and the Apostles. Christ stated that Jerusalem was the city guilty of all that blood in Mat 23:29-39 and that it would be avenged at the desolation of her House. Paul said that the Jews were guilty of killing the prophets and the Christ and persecuting the saints and were being judged for that guilt (1 Thes. 2:14-16).

    The judgement of Jerusalem was a real bloodbath, where about one million people died. The book of Revelation gives us prediction of and commentary upon that terrible event, explaining that in it we see Christ vindicated along with all the martyrs, and we see Christ’s powerful presence, his coming on the clouds. The book repeatedly states that event was soon and near (e.g. 22:7,10,12,20). If the book is canonical, the book was written shortly before that terrible and bloody event. And if the book is canonical, it teaches that God’s judgement and the judgement God handed over to his Son was manifested in that bloodbath.

    A theology that is Christian needs to recognise and incorporate that message and theme and motif into it. If you want a peace theology — good — but you can’t just refuse to see an entire biblical and Christian motif of judgement, catastrophic and cataclysmic and bloody and tragic, constituting the evidence and the revelation of Christ exercising his divinity, his enthronement and the power of his kingdom against his adversaries.

    Unfortunately it seems that you have a method that simply ignores and denies this motif entirely. I see a combination of a) picking up of peaceful suffering of unrighteousness which is surely there but not the only thing that is there and b) ignoring the messages about divine judgement via vengeance, repayment, sword, plagues and fire etc. c) transferring anti-unbelieving-Jews rhetoric and polemic instead against the generic and Roman ‘powers’ and d) failing to see the correct time context of the consummation and the completion of the destruction of the adversary in Christ’s generation as he promised.

    It would be good to see you attempting to engage with this material, Ted.

  2. Perhaps it might help to list the occurrences of the avenging, repayment etc. in Revelation.

    They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

    for his judgements are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.

    Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.

    “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.

    The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.

    And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.

    And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgements.

    And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgements!”

    Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters,

    For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.

    They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgement has come.

    Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgement for you against her!

    Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.

    And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.

    If we put these passages together we have a coherent and repetitive picture:
    1. There is a specific time of judgement, an hour
    2. There is a specific target of the judgement: those who dwell on the land, the kings of the land, the beast, the false prophet, the dragon, the prostitute, the Great City, Babylon, the place where the Lord was crucified.
    3. There is a specific guilt and sin she is judged for: shedding the blood of God’s servants / the prophets
    4. The judgement is the avenging of the blood of the servants of God and the prophets and Apostles, and the repayment of this bloodguilt, full strength, double measure, with sevenfold judgement, reward according to works etc.
    5. The judgement results in the destruction of Babylon, the Great City, the dragon, false prophet etc.

    Necessarily, correct identification of the specific target and hour of judgement helps us understand the application. Both Old and New Testaments identify the target: Last Days Israel, at the desolation of Jerusalem. And the time of the judgement: the First Century generation. The nature of this judgement is bloody and literal.

  3. Years ago, frustrated and inspired by the confines of the Biblical creation stories and the widely variant interpretations of them held by local church members, I set out to write my own Creation Story. You have not heard of it and likely never will, so yes, in effect I decided my personal integrity in the form of my personal affirmation of faith was of far greater significance and service to me and Others, especially those closest to me, than any public notoriety. Through the years this personal process has continued to serve me well with the flexibility and integrity that only a very much alive, versatile and personal affirmation of faith can continue offer. I too have encouraged Others to take the time to write and share their own Creation stories and their own visions of their own encounters with Christ. And what Christ is this? Indeed! Similarly, I have written my own Second Coming from my personal perspective as a visionary who encounters Christ, usually from quite a distance but occasionally, now, then and again in personal dialogue. I do not go to the Bible looking for God but rather I seek to meet with the living. I have on numerous occasions tossed out the Bible only to pick it up again to find page after page has been reduced to something much less than Holy scripture for me. I appreciate your struggle with Revelations as I too have been attracted to the book, and especially to the two Lampstands who stand on either side of the River of Life. Here, near the end of my affair with the Bible, I see again the image of the Elohim who co=created in the space of loving relation relation the Male and the Female, the Husband and the Wife in their image and after their likeness.Then, no sooner did I find a comforting place to sit and spend a spell but the vision of these two empowered prophets inflicting plagues at will wearied me. Yes, I could turn the vision on itself and note that the option of sharing blessings rather than plagues was viable, still the crippled vision was needlessly tarnished for me in the process so… I tossed the book one last time and wrote another, a living edition carried close to the heart to be enriched by and shared with those I love.

  4. Hi Ted, thanks for this thoughtful and helpful analysis. I have started reading Crossan’s book, but haven’t finished it yet. (In fact I have put it aside temporarily to read something else more urgent.)

    For what it’s worth, I agree with you about the approach of Boyd and others, who have a lot of worthwhile things to say, but because of their commitment to a “high” view of scripture seem to be too strong in reading our ideas back into writings that don’t contain them so clearly. I also agree with you that Crossan goes perhaps too far the other way in presenting two parallel views. Finally, I agree with you that pacifism should be the default attitude of followers of Jesus.

    Where I think I feel differently to you, and to both Boyd and Crossan, is in the attempt to define God’s attitude more closely than we humans actually have the ability to do, and to make black and white what is generally more grey. So I think pacifism is generally right, but there may occasionally be times when we should not be pacific. Restorative justice is God’s way, but there may be elements of what we would see as a more judgmental approach – though if we truly understood God, we might see it is a deeper approach where the forms of justice somehow come together or are both transcended.

    After all, the world is a tough place, and although most of the evil is caused by humans, God still created a world with those possibilities. So he is a tougher God than we sometimes care to face up to, and our theology should incorporate this into how we understand a loving God.

    In the end, the Bible is, I think, somewhere in between Boyd’s and Crossan’s views, as I think you agree. It is a conversation at times, as Peter Enns says, and it shows how God’s people were gradually moved from Canaanite paganism through the teachings of the prophets to the revelation in Jesus, as CS Lewis outlined. And on some matters, the Holy Spirit has still more to reveal.

    So your review has been very helpful thanks, and I have bookmarked it for further consideration when I get back to finishing Crossan’s book.

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