“Remember matrix,” John Dominic Crossan told an audience of more than two hundred people at the Washington Island Forum that ended Friday. Matrix, he said, is the key to the consequence and punishment traditions in the Hebrew Bible. Matrix was one thread that went through three and a half days of lecture and discussion; another was distributive justice. The forum’s attendees comprised about ninety percent clergy representing many Christian denominations, and some laypeople including me. Crossan is professor emeritus in Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
We were given a boatload of big words during the week. Matrix, distributive justice, Deuteronomic, eschatology, and more. Matrix, the first, was defined as common sense of time and space, or what everyone else knows. He said that to know the matrix is to know what is going on throughout the Bible. Once one knows the matrix, questions become possible. The matrix he presented included tradition, vision, time and place. He began with Adam and Eve and went through eight great traditions that are likely to be more familiar to clergy than to ordinary people like me.
Crossan talked about Adam and Eve, with the question of deciding to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and pointed out another tradition, the Mesopotamian story, which gave the first couple the choice of eating from the tree of immortality and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He said that people see the Adam and Eve story as about original sin and sex. Then he pointed out that many people stop with the first couple and sex rather than talk about Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Cain and Abel gave us the beginning of escalatory violence, which continues in history to today. Cain and Abel were the farmer and the herder. It was the beginning of civilization, which he said wasn’t always very good.
Sabbath was shown as the crown of creation. Human beings are the result of creation, not the crown. Crossan said that females and males were created in the image of God to run the world for God as agents or stewards, with no hint about covenant, sanction, punishments and rewards. This began the consequence tradition. The Sabbath God in Torah is about distributive justice. Distributive justice is primary. Sabbath is the metronome of time; even the land and wild animals rest. Sabbath sets up the rhythm of distributive, not punitive, justice.
Non-violent resistance was another theme of the talks. Crossan talked about covenantal law with rewards and punishments as a deuteronomic idea that comes up in the Bible in many circumstances. Israel was situated between two superpowers who fought wars.
And so the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible continued. God was the householder of the world house, with everyone getting a fair share, and their rights to enough were taken for granted. The radicality of God was contrasted with civilization, with God’s radicality affirmed and subverted repeatedly through time.
Crossan talked about prophetic and psalm traditions, which he said are repeatedly about distributive justice and group identity; Sabbath means everyone gets a fair share. Amos is about divine distributive justice; Amos said you will be destroyed if you don’t do distributive justice.
People made a mess of things, and the idea of atonement came up. Crossan talked about sacrificial atonement, to be good for fixing up your mess. He said that the idea of substitutionary sacrificial atonement is not in the New Testament. He favored participatory sacrificial atonement. Sacrifice means to make sacred. With elaboration that I am not including, he said that Jesus is about sacrificial atonement but not substitution. Without the matrix the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense.
He pointed out that in baptism the person is dying to Roman values and born into the Christian world, dying with Christ. Grace, he said, is the free download of God’s character. He mentioned the kingdom of God as being among the people in the present, and it was to be realized through non-violent resistance.
We heard about the Book of Daniel, which switches into the eschatological tradition. Eschatology refers to the end or the last things, not the end of the world. Daniel has three empires with exponential increases in weaponry; the fifth kingdom/empire is the Kingdom of God. Rome called itself the fifth kingdom. Rome and the God kingdom were in an eschatological collision course. Rome vs the Kingdom of God was peace through victory vs peace through justice. The Kingdom of God was human-like, not beast-like. It was not armed revolt.
In the last talk Crossan talked about Jesus. He said that resurrection is all of humanity, a rising. Jesus in the Easter vision never rises alone (in art). The original vision of Easter is that the people who have been raised should be leading risen lives. The descent of Jesus into hell in the western tradition is going in the wrong direction; victory is raising up. Escalatory violence is our sin. The crucified one liberates us from death, not hell. Crossan said that there are two visions of Jesus, riding triumphantly on a donkey, and in Revelation riding on a war horse. He said that Jesus on a war horse is a failure of the Incarnation, getting there riding through blood. The Gospel Jesus is not the apocalyptic Jesus.
Crossan’s final message is if we separate justice and love, it goes wrong. Don’t separate them. Justice is the flesh of love and love is the spirit of justice.
The forum was held at Washington Island, Wisconsin, June 26-30, 2017, and was sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches and Christian Century magazine. The talks were based on Crossan’s recent book, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian.