One reviewer has remarked that Crossan brings up a lot of great ideas that you don't necessarily agree with and I agree with this. Being of the Jesus Seminar, many of the conclusions that Crossan draws are controversial and may lack familiarity; they are also sometimes quite unconventional and not always completely persuasive. However, Crossan is a brilliant scholar who has studied the Jesus question for decades and it shows. He goes further into the minutia of the study than the majority of his colleagues and for this his work deserves to be admired and studied. He brings an extraordinary wealth of information to the table when he discusses an issue and never fails to advance compelling ideas and conclusions. His methodology is thorough and comprehensive, much more so than many other scholars.
This work, a follow up to The Historical Jesus examines Christian beginnings in an archaeological and anthropological context with a careful discussion of the roles of oral tradition, literary developments, community tradition, and gender roles. A very interesting set of chapters concerns the ability and role of memory in oral tradition. He makes it plainly clear that absent an accurate, recorded history of even the simplest event, the original story cannot but evolve and change as it is re-remembered, re-told, re-imagined. As in other cases, these acknowledgments are extremely helpful but not as persuasive as they might appear to be. In ancient cultures where oral tradition was the only way of transmitting stories among illiterate peasants, memory was emphasized and specific memorization of even long texts and stories occurred regularly. Nevertheless, the result in this case stands: the stories and sayings of Jesus evolved as the first believers re-told, re-imagined, even invented, the stories. This is precisely why so much of the narrative of the gospels lack a corresponding context and seem to hang in the air in a sort of timeless universe.
Crossan also spends a decent amount of time evaluating the texts as we have them, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Didache. He relates a great deal of information regarding the Common Sayings Tradition, that material that the Gospel of Thomas shares with the Q document. This section was extremely interesting. I find the Thomas document intriguing since its seeming independence of Q and the gospels and its archaic, sayings-only format indicate an early date, while it's esoteric Gnostic feel and it's "kingdom of God among you" motif indicate a later date. Although I disagree with Crossan on the apocalypticism of Jesus (I believe Jesus was apocalyptic), I still find his discussions regarding the sayings traditions very interesting and thought provoking.
The juxtaposition of traveling itinerants and their patron householders creates the primary context within which the message of early Christianity is preached. An evolving standard is evident from an evaluation of the earliest saying traditions such as Q and Mark compared to the Didache and other later writings. An idealistic, poverty and dependent faith had to be tempered in order to be workable in a world wherein Jesus had not returned in the time frame expected. Crossan provides an excellent discussion of this process. He also describes the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem and its leader, James, the brother of Jesus. He speculates on the Essene-like nature of the community incorporating ample evidence, but doesn't go further than that evidence warrants. He paints a compelling picture of earliest Christianity. It is vastly different from the one we have inherited.
The final sections are the most intriguing, those that deal with the common meal tradition and the development of the passion/resurrection story itself. The common meal tradition is presented as a vitally important and fundamental aspect of the early history. Sharing meals, providing meals, feasting all are representative symbols of the kingdom of God: the kingdom is bounty, it is full, it is community and participative. And then came the story. Evaluating the early canonical texts and incorporating his extrapolation of The Cross Gospel from the Gospel of Peter, Crossan describes the development of the passion story. Since I haven't read his previous work, I am not in a position to opine about Crossan's early dating of the so-called Cross Gospel, nor its existence; I remain very skeptical. His argument has many valid points and contains persuasive elements. I find myself wanting to know more, and had hoped this book would give me much greater detail in regards to the development of the story, but it fell short of my expectations. After all, the story is what became orthodox Christianity. Crossan's explanation of the role of women in lamentation and the role of men in exegesis and how the interaction of those two elements created the stories that we have is fascinating. It is no wonder the women are so prominent in the resurrection and appearance events if they aren't in later writings.
As I said, Crossan is not always totally convincing. I remain a skeptic on many of his arguments, but am persuaded on others. On the whole, this book is highly engaging, very thoroughly researched and tautly written. It's not an easy book to digest, and is not for the beginner in this subject. Even if I found myself disagreeing with Crossan, I was never unchallenged and always intrigued. This work is highly learned and very stimulating.