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SUNDAY BRUNCH | In The Spirit

Revisiting Jesus' Times

April 05, 1998|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rare as it is for Passover and Easter to occur on same weekend, as they do this year, starting Friday, it is more unusual that the Jewish and Christian holy days coincide with publication of a book that emphasizes the close connection between the two faiths when Christianity was new.

"The Birth of Christianity" (Harper San Francisco) is historian John Dominic Crossan's reconstruction of what life was like for Jesus and his earliest followers in 1st century Israel. It is a story set in a Jewish farming community during traumatic times.

Crossan draws on archeology and social history to set the scene. Roman imperialists occupied the territory and launched an industrial revolution to modernize what was an agrarian culture. This forced people off their land and into Roman-made cities that swelled to as many as 1,200 residents. Families split apart, and farmers looked for work as artisans in Roman-owned pottery factories or construction businesses.

"What I see is the serious dislocation of peasant life that created an economic boom for the Romans and broken families for the Jews," says Crossan, a prolific writer and a leading voice in the study of the historical Jesus. By playing down family structures and stressing brotherly love, he says, "Jesus picked up some of the pieces of broken families."

In the Gospel accounts of his life, Jesus is called a tecton, Greek for "carpenter." Crossan says that the word "is not a compliment. A tecton is a construction worker, not someone who makes tables and chairs."

The Jewish response to oppression was religious as well as political.

"Just as today, they debated over what to do about the future of the land," Crossan says. "In the 1st century, they argued that they couldn't just let the Romans take it."

Jesus' answer was political and religious too.

"He was saying, 'We can't let this go on. We have to resist, but peacefully.' " Crossan refers to the results as "Christian Judaism" and sees it as one of several options within 1st century Judaism. Others came from the orthodox Pharisees, who clung to their traditions, and the hermit-like Essenes, who withdrew to the desert.

Crossan believes it was Christian Judaism's openness to non-Jews, including Greeks and even Romans, that most Jews found difficult to tolerate. "The way they saw it, 'Those pagans have suppressed our people, burned our homes, raped our women. We can't accept them.' "

For the Romans, Jesus' description of himself as the son of God made him a subversive.

"Augustus Caesar was also called 'Lord' and 'son of God,' " Crossan explains. "When Christians said, 'Jesus is Lord,' they were saying, 'And you are not, Augustus.' "

Within three years of Jesus' death, which Crossan dates at the year 30, his followers had moved to the cities, especially Jerusalem, Antioch and Damascus. "We have to guess they went from rural to urban places because they thought Jesus would return as he had promised, and it would be to Jerusalem."

Three of Crossan's earlier books about the Jesus of history made bestseller lists and encouraged the 64-year-old professor to retire from DePaul University in Chicago to write and lecture full time. While he was working on this book, he served as a consultant for a PBS series, "From Jesus to Christ: The Story of the First Christians," which airs Monday and Tuesday.

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