Crossan would never say the gospels are “only” parables about Jesus. He would say something like: “The gospels are parables about Jesus and that’s what makes them so shockingly subversive and provocatively challenging for us today. They humble our prejudicial absolutes. They remind us that Jesus can never be fully trapped by our human imagination. Parables about Jesus delicately provoke us into a stunning paradigm-shift by means of a participatory pedagogy and a collaborative eschaton.” (I have mixed and matched phrases from Crossan here to produce this hypothetical “quotation”.)
But he does say that they are parables about Jesus nonetheless.
The Gospels as Parables
Crossan writes for believers who love to listen to well-educated and sophisticated theologians preach sermons that are introduced with rambling stories and then turn to paradoxical and punning turns of phrase (“It is never just about food. It is always about just food.” “Even if ironic, [parables] are always irenic.”) that are served as spiritual wisdom. He uses imperatives to draw readers in to following his line of thought: “Watch now as I turn to . . .” “Think about this . . .” “Look at those words. . . ” “Hear that story against. . .” “Wonder for a moment why . . .”. He strains on every page to make the Bible relevant to the modern Western reader, even if that means leading readers to think of the words and deeds of Jesus through modern ideals and concepts of educational philosophy. Crossan’s Jesus remains the unblemished paragon who lived out his (Crossan’s) highest ideals at all times — “Think, therefore, about this: Does Jesus change his mind or does Matthew change his Jesus?“ (p. 187). Jesus’ God is always Crossan’s nonviolent God who seeks collaborative working relationships with humanity at all times.
For Crossan, the gospels are a particular type of parable. They are “Challenge” parables. He means they challenge their hearers to think and act differently. That sounds to me like a preacher injecting modern meaning and relevance into texts for the benefit of his parishioners who are looking for a reason to keep valuing the Bible. So, even though this “Challenge” theme predominates Crossan’s discussion, I will not make it the heart of my summary and will try to focus on his argument that the Gospels are themselves parables — although part of the reason Crossan sees them as parables is bound up in his interest in the theme of “challenge”.
We normally think of parables as very short stories, but Crossan’s view of parables embraces the Old Testament books of Ruth, Jonah and Job.
The reason these are said to be “challenge parables” is found in the time in which they were written. We read that they belong to the time of the supposed reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah when the Jewish province was under Persian rule. It was a time when the Jewish leaders were apparently feverishly worried about their nation losing its ethnic identity. Laws forbidding mixed marriages were said to be strictly enforced. The law of Deuteronomy forbidding the Ammonite and the Moabite from ever becoming part of “God’s people” in worship or marriage was, well, the law.
The parable of the book of Ruth “challenges” this time of black and white racial certainties with its climactic words spoken by the Moabitess, Ruth, to the Israelite Naomi:
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (1:16)
The point of this book is to declare David’s ancestry. David, the Messianic King, was born with Moabite ancestry. The parable’s point according to Crossan? To throw open the whole question of the validity of the Deuteronomic law and prevailing attitudes.
The Book of Jonah is another story that betrays its fictional nature through a most childish prophet and a most incredible change of heart by the violent Assyrians. The normal images of prophets and Assyrians was quite the antithesis of the way they are sculptured into this story. As with parables generally, audience expectations are reversed. The prevailing ideology is overturned.
The Book of Job is a parable directed against the Deuteronomist notion of God as one who is mechanically bound by his character to bless the righteous and curse the wicked.
Parabolic history: Caesar at the Rubicon
Crossan next explains how “parables”, even parables that look like history, can be written about real historical figures.
He begins with three ancient authors who write “history as history” (not “as parable”) with respect to the famous crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar.
History as history
Julius Caesar wrote of the event in his Commentaries on the Civil War. Caesar records his speech to his army and his concern to ensure they were with him as he prepared to lead them, defiantly, into Italy against the demands of the Senate. Once assured of military support he reports his crossing into Italy without one mentioning the name of that river boundary, the Rubicon. This is a straight, historical narrative in which Caesar explains what was on his mind at the time and the actions he took.
The Roman historian Velleius, writing in the very early years of the first century, writes a brief account of the way the civil war “burst into flame”. Pompey, with the moral authority of the Senate, was opposed by Caesar, with the real power of the armed forces. It began when Caesar crossed the boundary of his own province and marched into Italy at the head of his army, and that boundary was named — the Rubicon.
Cassius Dio, in the early third century, narrated the events again in a matter-of-fact manner. He notes that Caesar’s “overstepping” the boundary was the beginning of the Civil War.
History as parable
Crossan then turns to four more historians who wrote between the times of Velleius and Cassus Dio but who, unlike the three above, turned Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon into “parabolic history or historical parable.” They all mention the Rubicon and introduce words of Caesar that have since become a proverbial cliché.
Lucan, Crossan says, “turns history into a very negative parable” (p. 147). He does this by means of the the gods coming to Caesar in a horrific vision (copied here from The Online Medieval and Classical Library):
Caesar has crossed the Alps, his mighty soul
Great tumults pondering and the coming shock.
Now on the marge of Rubicon, he saw,
In face most sorrowful and ghostly guise,
His trembling country’s image; huge it seemed
Through mists of night obscure; and hoary hair
Streamed from the lofty front with turrets crowned:
Torn were her locks and naked were her arms.
Then thus, with broken sighs the Vision spake:
“What seek ye, men of Rome? and whither hence
Bear ye my standards? If by right ye come,
My citizens, stay here; these are the bounds;
No further dare.” But Caesar’s hair was stiff
With horror as he gazed, and ghastly dread
Restrained his footsteps on the further bank.
Caesar replies to the god Jupiter and the goddess Roma, blaming Pompey for making him defy the gods and forcing him to cross at the head of his army into Italy. And that border has now become the “swollen stream” of the Rubicon.
Not with offence or hostile arms I come,
Thy Caesar, conqueror by land and sea,
Thy soldier here and wheresoe’er thou wilt:
No other’s; his, his only be the guilt
Whose acts make me thy foe.’ He gives the word
And bids his standards cross the swollen stream.
[B]y that vision Lucan turns history into a very negative parable. Caesar is allowed to justify himself but, afterward, the vision is not recorded as withdrawing its warning, excusing his crossing, or accepting his explanation. (p. 147)
Suetonius, an archivist and secretary to emperors Trajan and Hadrian, no doubt had access to official records. But his history of Julius Caesar‘s crossing the Rubicon was, in Crossan’s words, a “parabolic interpretation” of the event. In contrast to Lucan, however, he was favourable to Caesar’s cause. Lucan’s vision was turned into a positive one; the Rubicon itself was taking on proverbial meaning; and the famous aphorism, “The die is cast”, was introduced:
Then, overtaking his cohorts at the river Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he paused for a while, and realising what a step he was taking, he turned to those about him and said: “Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.”
As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,” said he. (32, 33)
Suetonius changed Caesar’s own history in which he (Caesar) said that he harangued his troops to ensure their support before he crossed the Rubicon. Suetonius turned this around so the speech was delivered after he crossed:
Accordingly, crossing with his army, and welcoming the tribunes of the commons, who had come to him after being driven from Rome, he harangued the soldiers with tears (33)
Plutarch was a moralist so he replaces the supernatural visions found in Lucan’s and Suetonius’s accounts with moral reflections. So when Plutarch’s Caesar stops before crossing the Rubicon he engages in self-reflection:
When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed.
Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change.
For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. (32.5-7)
“The die is cast” is changed to “Let the die be cast” and takes on added meaning:
But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river (32.8)
Plutarch completes his “profoundly ambiguous” story with a disturbing dream he gives Caesar the night before he crossed the Rubicon:
It is said, moreover, that on the night before he crossed the river he had an unnatural dream; he thought, namely, that he was having incestuous intercourse with his own mother. (32.9)
Suetonius had spoken of Caesar having that same dream fifteen years earlier when he was a military treasurer in Spain. In that account the soothsayers assured Caesar that the earth symbolized mother Earth, and that the dream foretold he would one day have all the world in his power. Does Plutarch introduce the dream as a warning against invading Italy or as a positive sign as in Suetonius’s account? Crossan sees “profound ambiguity”.
Appian has the briefest “parabolic” version of the crossing of the Rubicon:
Compared to Lucan’s negative “vision,” Suetonius’s positive “sign,” and Plutarch’s ambiguous “dream,” Appian’s “stop” is a neutral description.
Those last three authors all have “the die is cast” aphorism. Furthermore, Caesar’s comments are very similar in Plutarch — “great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity” — and, reversed, in Appian — “to leave this stream uncrossed will breed manifold distress for me; to cross it, for all mankind.” (pp. 150-151)
Crossan comments on the way these authors change the story in their respective ways:
Only Plutarch, for instance, has Caesar’s incestuous dream before his Rubicon crossing. Divergent sources are interesting, but so also are divergent adaptations of a common source. Both help us separate — if at all possible — history from parable within a historical parable or parabolic history. (p. 151)
Crossan’s point is that
it is equally possible to tell factual-historical stories and fictional-parabolic stories about exactly the same historical incident.
Thus is we only had the first three of the above historians’ accounts — those who wrote “historical history” –
- we would not have the famous line, “The die is cast”, and
- we would have no reference to the name of the river (Rubicon) having any proverbial significance.
For Crossan, it is only “history as parable” that has given us those two memorable and proverbial memes. He warns readers not to think that the parables were restricted to the Rubicon crossing. Julius Caesar has taken his place in history
“as a call to revolution, an instrument of monarchic or dictatorial legitimation, a justification of repression, a precedent for assassination.” (citing Maria Wyke). The entire earthly life, death by assassination, and heavenly ascension of Julius Caesar were rampant with parabolic history and historical parable. So were the earthly life, death by execution, and heavenly ascension of Jesus Christ. (p. 152)
Crossan next comes to his account of the Gospels as parables about Jesus.
This does not mean they are without relevance today. Crossan’s Jesus is always perfect despite the flawed parables told about him and he is still God’s special gift to the world.
Jesus himself told parables, but Crossan assures us that these were always told in an “extremely gentle” way, however provocative (p. 136), and never “aggressively”. Those who wrote parables about Jesus, on the other hand, were not so gentle and often became aggressive in their rhetoric, even attacking and washing their hands of people they do not like (p. 153). Yet through them all Crossan sees a message of “Jesus as the Christian God’s great challenge parable to the world” (p. 137). Crossan at least makes his bias plain.
Part three will conclude with a look at how Crossan explains each of the Gospels as parables.