John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus (and the birth of Moses)

Maybe some of you have read John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. (I know that it’s a textbook for at least one of the religion courses at Mizzou.) Even if you haven’t read it, you may have heard of Crossan, who is an influential member (and founder) of the Jesus Seminar. Crossan, in this book and others, presents quite a few challenging claims—challenging, at least, for the average evangelical who considers the Bible to be largely reliable. Since some of you will likely encounter this book in one context or another, I thought it might be helpful to explore some of its more controversial claims.

My methodology is simple: I will read through the book (I haven’t read it before, so we’ll be learning together on this one), making note of and discussing any claim that seems particularly challenging or controversial. First I’ll look at the implications of each claim: I’ll try to figure out what it would mean if it were true. Then I’ll look at Crossan’s argument for each claim.

No questions? Good. Let’s get started.

The first claim I’ll deal with comes not from the story of Jesus, but from the story of Moses. Here’s an extended quotation (from pages 10 & 11), with the key claim in italics:

Matthew, like Luke, is equally interested in connecting Jesus’ birth with the ancient traditions of his people’s sacred writings. But instead of imagining infertile couples and miraculous conceptions, he focuses exclusively on the infancy of Moses. The background story presumes both the basic narrative from Exodus 1–2 and the popular expansions of it current in the first century of the common era. In the biblical version, Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, attempted to exterminate the Israelites resident in his land by commanding, in Exodus 1:22, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.” Moses happens to be born at this time and is saved only because his mother hides him after birth and eventually leaves him in a basket near the riverbank, where he is saved by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Eventually, of course, he will deliver his own people from lethal danger in Egypt and lead them to their Promised Land. Anyone who reads that story can easily see two problems with its narrative coherence. First, why did Moses just happen to be born at that wrong time? Second, why did the Israelites continue having children if their newborn sons were doomed? Both those questions are answered as the Mosaic infancy was retold in expanded popular accounts.

So the claim here is that the story of Moses is not a coherent narrative. The implication of this claim, at least as I see it, is that the story of Moses, as told in Exodus 1–2, is probably not true. In other words, if Crossan is right about the lack of narrative coherence in the story of Moses, then Moses’ birth probably didn’t happen the way Exodus says it did. Hence, anybody who wants to affirm the accuracy of the biblical narrative should take a closer look at Crossan’s claim. Does he give us good reason to think that the story of Moses is not narratively coherent?

In answering this question, we should first ask ourselves what it takes for something to have narrative coherence. To be honest, I’m not sure—perhaps those with more storytelling experience can help me out. But narrative coherence does seem to require, at a minimum, that none of the events recorded contradict each other. So a story in which Moses’ mother left him in a basket near the riverbank and, at the same time, left him on Pharaoh’s doorstep would not be coherent. Nobody can leave somebody in two places at once, so at least part of this story would have to be false.

Anyway, none of the events in Moses’ birth narrative contradict each other, so it’s not incoherent in that way. Instead, Crossan says that there are two questions which the narrative leaves unanswered. The first question is this: why did Moses just happen to be born at the wrong time? But this question isn’t a very good indicator of narrative incoherence, because the same question could be asked no matter when Moses was born. In fact, it could be asked of anyone who has ever been born at any fortunate (or unfortunate) time in history. So this question can’t by itself threaten narrative coherence, unless we’re willing to challenge the birth timing of practically every important historical figure.

What about the second question? In this question, Crossan asks why the Israelites continued having children if they knew that their newborn sons were doomed. At least three answers come to mind.

  1. The Israelites might have felt that they could hide their sons from Pharaoh and his henchmen, and were willing to make the effort to do so. This is supported by the fact that, earlier in Exodus 1, the midwives were reluctant to follow Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Israelites’ infant sons.
  2. Given that the Israelites didn’t exactly have access to modern methods of contraception and sex selection (you know, the centrifuge thing), they most certainly didn’t have foolproof control over whether or not to have children, much less whether or not to have male children.
  3. Moses’ mother might have already been pregnant when Pharaoh decided to exterminate the Israelites’ sons.

I don’t know what the right course of action is when you find out that someone is intent on killing all of your sons; but it seems to me that a reasonable one would be to go ahead and have children, hope that they’re girls, and try to figure something out if they’re not. If Moses’ parents took this strategy (or if Moses’ mother was already pregnant), then it’s fairly easy to explain why he was born despite the threat to his life.

So there are fairly easy ways to answer Crossan’s questions. I’m not suggesting that these easy answers are the right answers, but the fact that answers are so readily available should indicate that unanswered questions, by themselves, aren’t sufficient to undermine the coherency of the birth narrative of Moses. This point seems to hold in general as well: the fact that some narrative raises questions isn’t by itself enough to show that that narrative has coherence problems.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, especially if you think that I’m misconstruing Crossan or reading him uncharitably. In the meantime, stay tuned for the next installment …

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